Pequeyno Alpamayo to the Amazon Jungle - Bolivia
Having returned from South America, I know I should be grateful to be home safe. I should be happy that we accomplished every goal our expedition set out to do and be glad to have a job to come back to. Instead, I am filled with a sense of loss. I stood on the summit of an Andean mountain and survived the great Amazon jungle. This beautiful country is now but a memory and a few photographs. I am left with an insatiable desire to continue the adventure. When I arrived home, I went through a reverse culture shock. Even though I only spent three short weeks in the Andes - Amazon region, I have a greater sense of appreciation for the things that I have always had.
Serenity and I left for Bolivia two days before the team to get a jump-start on our acclimatization. We arrived in La Paz, the capital city of Bolivia, and had a joyful reunion with our good friend Sergio Ballivian, owner of Explore Bolivia. In the days following, Sergio would handle all of our logistical problems and provide us with the most reliable transportation found in this ever-changing country. Our difficulties began right away. Our Caribou duffel bags and Osprey backpacks never made it to La Paz from Miami. We found it a day later in the hands of customs and cost us a $30 finders fee / bribe to get them back. We spent that first night in downtown La Paz at 12,500 feet (according to my Avocet altimeter). To acclimate ourselves to this altitude we had to stay active so we huffed and puffed up stairs instead of taking elevators. Two weeks prior to leaving the US, we had taken 64 milligrams of a medication called Diamox which maintains a balance within the body as carbon dioxide is lost at high altitudes from breathing deeper and faster. The idea was to take it in a low enough dose so that our bodies could build up a tolerance to its dehydrating effect and be left with only the benefit. We continued to take it while in Bolivia. This low dose approach to Diamox use, worked well for us.
Rock Climbing The Devils Molar
On day three, Serenity and I headed to The Devil’s Molar, a volcanic plug just outside of La Paz. We were up before dawn and were on our way as the sun came up. Forty minutes later, our driver pulled over and broke open the map. We knew were in trouble when Roxanne, our driver, leaned back and, in broken English, asked if we knew the way. All we knew was that it was a dirt road that went up! After asking several locals, we finally found it. The jeep slowly gained altitude as we were jostled around inside. A quarter of the way up, we met a man walking back to his village. Serenity and I pushed over in the back as he slid in next to us. It turned out that his village was at the base of The Devil’s Molar so we bargained to use his donkeys to help carry our seventy pounds of gear. An hour later, we arrived at the bottom and, other than a few villagers hiking up the fourth class rocky lower slopes, we were alone with our potential routes. To our left was the North Face of the Devil’s Molar, with a 1000-foot difficult, A4 – A5 aid climb of loose, crumbly rock. The discontinuous cracks stopped just short of the summit. After studying it for some time, we realized that, somehow, time had grown short and we would be unable to climb that route. Switching gears, we climbed the easy 4th class rocky slopes to the base of the four pinnacles. Two of these were extremely loose and crumbly and the other two were only slightly better. We donned our Yates harnesses, grabbed our rack of Wired Bliss cams and Sterling Ropes and were soon on the standard climbing route, Loose Fillings. It followed an obvious path up the right pinnacle on a slightly run out 5.5. We were able to place several cams along the way, but I think it was more psychological than anything else was. Halfway up, Serenity encountered atrocious rope drag. She set an anchor in a small corner and belayed me up. She reorganized the rack and continued up to the summit. The view was truly amazing.
The entire Cordillera Real Range sprawled out before us with all the giants visible; Illimani, Huayna Potosi, Murrata
. We lingered to watch the setting sun dip behind these silent sentinels. As dusk settled in, the twinkling lights of La Paz outlined the valley below. We set our ¾ inch static rope as a fixed line on the main face for filming. Later, Mike Daly would climb a 5.8 crack called Rotten Cavity, on this face using only a self-belay device. We then rappelled down off of two good existing bolts and set up our base camp on the small platform beneath the towers. We bivied to the sounds of farm animals and homemade Andean flutes echoing up the walls of the Molar from the village 1000 feet below.
The rooster below woke us up the next morning. After downing the ritualistic morning coffee, Serenity set her sights on a new route up the West Face. The first pitch followed an 80-foot chimney (good protection) and went free at 5.6. At the belay, we ate breakfast on a comfortable slab and watched the rest of our team approach up the dusty trail. Mike Daly led the team up to our base camp. He wasted no time in getting on our rope. The second pitch went straight up the face as a free solo around 5.7 – 5.8X difficulty. The rock was extremely loose and would not accept gear. Several times Serene wanted to back down and I had to ask her, “Is it just fear holding you back or the difficulty?” The grade was well within her ability, but the location tested her mental will. With thoughts of the nearest hospital being in La Paz, Serenity took a deep breath and started up. Many of the holds came out as she climbed, so the going was slow. “Rock!” became a familiar sound from above. To everyone’s relief she topped out on the summit. This was a gutsy lead. Mike and I followed and soon we were all straddling the small summit. To our left, our friends waited just two pitches below. To our right was a dizzying drop of 1000 feet to the base of the North Face and 3000 feet to the valley floor. The route is named Chic’s Rule. Still straddling the summit, we wrapped the rope around it to attempt a rappel. None of us trusted the pinnacle completely, so we ended up down climbing and only using the rope for assistance. Even though the rock is loose in many places, the real world class significance is the location. Climbing on the four pinnacles of the Devils Molar gives you something interesting to do while you are waiting for your body to acclimatize for a climb up one of Bolivia’s 20,000-foot mountains. The Molar has lots of new route potential and an amazing summit view.
Paddling Lake Titicaca to acclimitize for the Cordillerra Real & climb of Pequeyno Alpamayo!
The team was still feeling the effects of altitude when they met the porters before sunrise and headed out towards the transportation pick up point. Before we got to the arid wastelands of the altiplano, we had to cross the city of La Paz during one of its many rush hours. The entire road system appeared to be just one lane. It is not clearly marked in most places. People cross the street with total disregard for the few traffic lights that there are. I can only imagine that it would be similar to New York City traffic if someone spiked the water supply with acid. Amazingly, there are few accidents here. It is because people expect to get run over, so they are very careful. We continued our journey across the altiplano (high desert) of Bolivia. The desert was dry and hot and in true desert crossing fashion, we ran out of water. Dust laden and parched, we caught our first glimpse of Lago (Lake) Titicaca, the world’s highest navigable lake. It is so massive, it has its own tides and reminded us of the Great Lakes. The lake has a reputation for having extremely cold, black waters that appear bottomless. The water, appearing black only from a distance, was actually a clear blue. We donned our MTI uniforms; consisting of neoprene suits and Premier paddling jackets & pants.
A crowd gathered around as we assembled our kayaks. Team members, Mike Lawley and Angie Wyatt, in a double kayak, held the computer and digital camera in a waterproof bag. Mike often paddled alone, which wasn’t easy at this altitude, while Angie filmed. Serenity and I shared a kayak as well, and really got into a good stride. Mike Daly had a single kayak and, as always, was a natural. Mike raced ahead and then came back to paddle circles around us. Other than minor headaches, the whole team felt healthy. There appeared to be more oxygen on the lake than in La Paz, even though we were at 13,000 feet. After hours of paddling we became exhausted. Our first stop was a small beach with several shallow caves. We bivied there and conducted a few interviews for the documentary. After more paddling we finally reached the distant shores of Copacobana. Dozens of local children, fascinated with our high tech kayaks, greeted us but there was no time to rest. To help us with our acclimatization, we climbed a small mountain, on the edge of town that had the Stations of the Cross embedded in its hillside. It is said that several religions, working in harmony together, use this site for worship. I lit two candles, placing them in the sacrificial alters: one for my father who passed away many years ago, leaving me with my love for travel and sense of adventure, the other for all the mountaineers who have perished high on the slopes of the objective of their passion.
Our Journey to Basecamp
We left Copacobana and continued to cross the altiplano. We arrived in the village of Tuni, located at the base of the Cordillera Real, late in the afternoon. We met our porters and loaded up the mules for the trek to base camp. We trekked for hours, only to arrive in the dark. Too late, we realized that all of our headlamps were buried deep in our backpacks. A small boy saw our struggles and offered to help. I said politely, “No thank-you. We are all set.” But he just giggled as if to say, “No you’re not.” Over the next few days we employed him for his multitude of uses. In the end we gave him an Expedition Outreach T-shirt and made him an honorary member of the team. In the morning we saw the mountains looming over us. Now at 15,000 feet, we had some resting to do. Base camp sat on the edge of Lago Chirakota, a small icy, trout filled lake, and was complete with primitive bathroom facilities. While waiting for our bodies to adjust to the new altitude, we climbed near vertical glaciers on adjacent peaks and taught our extreme reporter everything she would need to know to summit Pequeno Alpamayo as this was her first mountain climb. At basecamp, several other teams were planning their climbs. A French team pitched their tents close to ours and made lots of noise all night long. A British team came in the next day and when asked what their objective was, they stated, “To drink all the whiskey we got and then climb everything.” They were seen packing up and heading back to the city the next day, a bit more subdued than the day before. An Argentinean team really did climb everything. The Scottish team was the friendliest. Our new friend, DI, assured us that if we were to ever make it to Scotland, the rock climbing would not disappoint us.
After some debating over our plans, we set off under a moonless sky to climb Pequeno Alpamayo.
Three in the morning was just too early to clean the dishes and get the stove going so I lied to myself saying that a few sticks of our delicious OsTrim ostrich jerky and some GU would be all the nourishment I needed to get through the entire day. The approach, an endless moraine of crumbly rock, was the most difficult portion of the entire climb. There were two ways to reach the glacier and the high road was definitely the best. Once on the ice, my enthusiasm was reborn. We tied into our Sterling 7.6mm rope and climbed a zig zagging path, avoiding the larger crevasses. We traveled quickly and were soon high on the glacier’s shoulder with a view of the other side of the range. Our mountain, hidden at basecamp by other peaks, finally came into view. The steep slopes were beautiful with one long, sharp ridge that flowed directly from a rocky outcropping called El Diente (The Tooth) up to the summit. We climbed up the steep snow leading up the backside of El Diente. Cresting the top, we looked down 100 feet of crumbly fourth-class rock that met the summit ridge. Teetering on crampons, we negotiated our way down and stepped out onto a true knife’s edge ridge, 8 inches wide. I was half way across the ridge when I heard a shot for me to stop. Angie’s crampon had come undone and was hanging over the ridge by a small strap. I was staring at a 4000-foot vertical drop on either side of my toes. I carefully placed my ice axe in a self-arrest mode as I expected to get pulled down the face any minute while Mike Daly inched his way up behind Angie to re fix her strap. Slowly, we made our way up, topping out at our pre-planned turn around time. The summit was small and the exposure was exhilarating. As large gray clouds formed over the Amazon basin, the icy winds swept them up the mountain. Soon we would be engulfed. After taking a few photos, we began the descent. We rappelled off a bollard for the first few pitches and down climbed the rest.
Still wearing my super light Climb High aluminum crampons, I led The Tooth, crumbly fourth and easy fifth class rock climbing, in four pitches and brought the rest of the team up. Angie really pushed herself on this climb. We arrived back in base camp late and made dinner before retiring. Rising early the next morning, we packed up and headed back to Tuni to await our transportation. We were to be picked up at noon, but on Bolivian time that can really mean just about anytime and we lied in the sun, baking with the piles of donkey dung for hours. This was the first time that I got to just do nothing and I actually appreciated the rest.
Down into the Amazon Jungle, Oxygen, at last!
Soon after, we began the last leg of our journey into the Amazon Jungle. Once again, the team had to split up due to a missed flight. Christine, Mike Lawley and I headed out first for Trinidad, while Mike Daly and Angie waited for a later flight. As our tiny plane touched down in Trinidad, I was reminded of a tropical paradise. All of a sudden, I wanted a Margarita served at a poolside. We caught a cab into town instead and made arrangements for a boat to take us up the Mamore River to a ranch where we were to be reunited with the rest of our team. The boat, really just an oversized canoe with a tarp over head, took us past crocodiles, vultures and eagles. We watched pink dolphins surface close to our boats, feeding on fish. Every so often a small fish would jump into our boat in hopes of evading the dolphins. We called them suicide fish. We reached shore as night fell. We took only what we needed from the boat and headed inland through the dark canopy of the Bolivian Amazon, passing several small settlements that haven’t changed in two hundred years. Arriving at a second river, which resembled a narrow swamp, we jumped into a dug out canoe to continue our journey to the ranch. We watched with apprehension as water splashed in over the sides and leaked in through cracks at the bottom. Serenity sat clutching her camera equipment closer. The owner of the boat rowed continuously for forty minutes, never slowing down once. The ranch still lay another half mile into the jungle. Swatting at insects and stepping over animal skeletons, we finally arrived. We were quickly ushered into the screened in house and were immediately made to feel at home. While waiting for Mike and Angie, we were introduced to the ranch’s odd pets. “Nocty” was some sort of small nocturnal creature and was content just being hugged. “Quatty” looked like a cross between a raccoon and an anteater and smelled like a skunk. The walls were lined with crocodile skins and jaguar fur, which had been killed in order to protect their cattle. We shared cold beer with our new friends and soon the team was reunited. Dinner that night was a cow that had been slaughtered earlier in our honor. We slept in hammocks and ate again like royalty in the morning. As payment for their hospitality, we helped the ranchers round up some 600 head of cattle. Only fifteen needed to be sent to market, but each cow had to be looked at and evaluated. This was my first time on a horse.
Playing Cowboys in the great Savannah of the Amazon Jungle
Four-foot tall storks kept us company as we rode out across the Savannah to a large clearing. Three Bolivian cowboys and us began the arduous job of rounding up the herd. An expert in riding horses now (or so I thought), I cut my horse left and right, chasing down straying cattle. We arrived back at the ranch several hours later and the selection process began. The thin and bony cattle were injected with antibiotics while the healthier ones were separated into two groups: one to go to market and the other to stay for breeding. Our horses, hot from the day’s work, splashed and played at the edge of a swamp. Watching them, we noticed crocodiles sunning themselves on the other side. We inched our way towards them for photographs and soon realized that these ancient lizards were in front of us and behind us. My heart pounded in my chest. But as soon as they saw us, they slipped quickly and quietly into the murky water.
First Wakeboard Descent of the Mamore River
We said our good byes to the ranchers, journeyed back to the boat and continued up the Mamore River. We pitched our Epco Design jungle tents on a remote beach and watched the most amazing sunset I have ever seen. In the morning, we shuffled our way into the river, avoiding the stingrays, and bathed. After a hearty breakfast, we bargained with a passing fisherman to rent his boat to wakeboard. I slipped in my Blind Side D Two wakeboard and with a loud groan of the Toyota engine strapped to the small rowboat I was up. I thought I would try my hand at catching some air by jumping the wake but only succeeded in a face plant. Remembering all the crocodiles on the shore from the day before, I realized just how extreme this was. “They’re probably lurking right beneath me”, I thought to myself. “Where is that boat?” Just then, as if in response to my fear, several pink dolphins surfaced within twenty feet of me. I think these dolphins kept me safe by scaring the crocs away.
Setting up a Medical Relief Shelter
We left the Mamore River and headed up the Ibare River to our crew’s village. During our exploration of this river, we came upon a small settlement. We stopped to rest and saw many small graves. A few years ago an epidemic of cholera had broken out and had killed many children. We continued upriver to the village. That night part of the team went to photograph crocodiles while Serenity and I enjoyed the Amazonian night sky. In the morning, we followed a fisherman to a lagoon to fish for piranha. Several hours later we had two piranhas, several catfish and a variety of other fish. All was given to the village as payment for our stay. Later, as Serenity was taking the team’s blood pressure, a young woman approached. She asked if Serenity could care for her daughter. The girl had been getting migraine headaches over the last couple of weeks and they were getting worse. Soon, half the village was lined up outside the hut to be seen. Serenity dispensed aspirin and antibiotics from our Adventure Medical Expedition Kit. She also massaged Icy Hot into sore backs and shoulders. She wrapped fractures and listened to an assortment of problems. Some of these people had heart problems and needed to be seen by a doctor. But the nearest doctor was miles away. Even if they could get there, they couldn’t afford it. So they relied heavily on the kindness of travelers. The next day we set off back to Trinidad. So ended our Andes - Amazon traverse. The next few days were spent returning home. We left Bolivia but left a part of ourselves each step of the way. Some people travel to far off lands seeking adventure while some just dream. Others don’t even think about it and live their one life at home. For me, adventure allows me to live many lives. As I sit here at my computer I hear the echo’s of children’s voices coming up the walls of the Devils Molar; Viva Bolivia, Bolivia Forever!