My friend Craig and I decided to head to Bolivia to climb some mountains in the Andes for a few weeks in June of 2010. Our objectives were Pequeno Alpamayo (17,618 feet), Huayna Potosi (19,974 feet), Illimani (21,125 feet), and Sajama (21,463 feet).
Travel Days: June 3 - 4
There is one flight that goes from the United State to Bolivia, and it goes through Miami. Unfortunately on the day we were travelling there were severe thunderstorms in Florida and all Miami flights were cancelled, so I ended up staying the night in Orlando while Craig spent the night at the bars in Chicago. The next day we both got to Miami and were put on a flight to Lima Peru, where we made a connecting flight to La Paz late that night, arriving in Bolivia 18 hours after our intended time. The good news was I was put up in first class on the long flight to Peru; the bad news was our bags weren’t in La Paz when we arrived. We had lost a day of acclimating, but since we live in Colorado we decided to maintain our original schedule and just skip a day of acclimating.
Day 1: June 5
Travelling for 40 hours the last 2 days made us tired, so we slept in late. When we got up we decided to explore La Paz a bit. All the clichés written about this city apply; the city will “literally take your breath away”, because the airport is at about 13,300 feet and downtown where our hotel was is about 12,000 feet. The city has some nice neighborhoods at lower elevations (10-12k feet), but up in El Alto where the airport is it feels like a third world country.
In La Paz there are woman selling fruit, fish, llama fetuses, and everything else on the streets, which generally impedes pedestrian progress. Apparently if you bury a llama fetus under your new house before you move in, it’s good luck, which makes sense when you think about it.
Remnants of Bolivia’s tumultuous political past are evident throughout the city. Bolivia must be one of the most politically unstable countries in history, having 165 regime changes since gaining independence 1825. Che Guevara waged a revolutionary war in Bolivia in the 1960s before he was captured and killed, but his memory lives on in Bolivia.
You can tell a lot about a nation by its art, and after touring some museums later in the trip on a rest day, it is apparent that if political strife is one constant theme, the mystical Illimani standing guard over La Paz is the other. Bolivians greatly admire and respect Illimani.
Our hotel, Hotel Naira, was very accommodating. It had a delicious all you can eat breakfast, a central location, and a nice view from the balcony of the streets and central cathedral.
After walking around La Paz for a bit, we met Jaun from the Alberth Bolivia Tour Agency (www.hikingbolivia.com). I had been in discussions with Jaun over email for a couple of months, and his services and prices seemed to be what we were looking for. In South America the price for a guide is very little when added on to the costs of transportation, mules, porters, food, a cook, etc. I really enjoy the company of climbing the mountains with a local, and find local guides quite useful when you’re walking up an unknown glacier at 3am in the dark. None of the guides/cooks/porters spoke a word of English, but we viewed this as a positive since we were trying to improve our Spanish. It was impossible for them to pronounce our names (Colin=Carlos and Craig=Gregory to them), so I became "el gringo grande" and Craig "el hombre mas machismo" for the duration of the trip. Also, the guides weren’t certified, but we didn’t mind since we have plenty of experience climbing and none of the terrain would be harder than what we have climbed unguided numerous times in Colorado and elsewhere. That afternoon we decided we should try to acclimate since we were going to sleep at 15,000 feet the next night at Pequeno Alpamayo base camp. We did an urban hike up the streets of La Paz.
Day 2: June 6, La Paz to Pequeno Alpamayo Base Camp
We got up early and took a taxi to the airport to see if our bags had arrived, and surprisingly they were there. I put the odds at less than 50% that we would ever see them again due to us being placed on a different (South American) airline in Lima and stopping at about 5 layovers en route from Denver to La Paz, but American Airlines came through. Back in La Paz we quickly organized some gear and left with our guide Illacio and made the relatively short drive (1.5 hours) to the town of Tuni at the base of the Cordillera Real. In Tuni we hired some burros to carry our gear to Pequeno Alpamayo base camp (15,100 feet).
Pequeno Alpamayo is a popular mountain to climb in Bolivia because of its ease of access and relatively short height (17,618 feet). It is named after its more famous and higher brother in Peru (Alpamayo). Pequeno Alpamayo sits in the Condoriri cirque, where there are numerous mountains to climb. I don’t think we did this place justice by staying just one night and climbing just one mountain.
There were llamas everywhere on the trail to base camp.
Once we set up base camp we had our first meal in the mountains, which consisted of excellent soup and pasta with llama meat, which was quite good. After dinner I introduced Illacio to Scotch.
Day 3: June 7, Pequeno Alpamayo Summit
Craig and I both slept surprisingly well that first night at 15,000 feet. We got up at 1am and got dressed and had some breakfast before we hit the trail at 2am. On the trail Illacio asked us if we knew how to use crampons and an ice axe; generally asking us if we knew anything of climbing mountains. I wonder what he would have done if we hadn’t. After an hour or so we reached the glacier, roped up, and made the long slog up the icy glacier in the dark. It had been a long time since I had seen the Southern Cross while climbing a South American mountain in the night, and I was happy to be doing it again.
Around sunrise we made it to the summit of Tarija, which is the first step of climbing Pequeno Alpamayo. This is where the climb starts to get interesting. First one must down climb a couple hundred feet of loose class 3 or 4 rock, and then gain the snow ridge and climb the aesthetic line to the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo.
It gets fairly steep on the ridge, approaching what felt like 60-65 degrees. Normally this is just an easy, albeit steep snow climb, but it was more ice than snow while we were there, making it a bit more difficult. We were roped together and Illacio started up the steep section of the ridge. I didn’t know if there was a way to stop a fall via self arrest on this steep of a slope in icy conditions. I told him we needed to place some ice screws, or else there was no point in us roping up together. He agreed and we continued on.
Craig and I each had one mountaineering axe and one technical axe, and this was sufficient, although every other climber we saw had two technical tools. After a few more pitches of easy snow/ice climbing we made the summit. Again we both felt surprisingly well, the altitude not bothering us at all.
On the down climb I did not want to rely on the one ice screw Illacio placed for protection, so I was careful not to fall.
Back on the glacier we saw how big some of the crevasses were that went unnoticed on the way up in the dark.
After packing up camp we came across a woman that invited us to her hut for a meal of freshly caught trout from the high lake near base camp. I’m not a fan of fish, but figured this is an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. The beer with trout hit the spot after climbing Pequeno Alpamayo.
This is the mountain hut where we had fresh trout for lunch.
On the hike out this llama followed me down the trail a ways.
Day 4 and 5, June 8-9, Huayna Potosi
Another acclimating climb we did was Huayna Potosi in the Cordillera Real, reported to be the “easiest 6,000m peak in the world”. At 19,974 feet, Potosi would put us in good position for the main objectives of the trip, Illimani and Sajama. It was pretty easy physically, but I thought the last part before the summit was technically much harder than anything on Chimborazo in Ecuador.
We left La Paz with Illacio and our cook/porter Sexto and made the one hour drive to Zongo pass. Sexto was an extremely friendly man that went out of his way to help with anything he could; always with a smile on his face. The meals he cooked were quite impressive given the difficulties of cooking at high altitudes with limited resources. At the pass we had lunch, and then hiked up to the refuge just below the glacier at 16,700 feet.
It was a shit show at the refuge. We met people from all over the world who were lured either by Lonely Planet or adventure shops in La Paz to attempt Huayna Potosi. I admired their adventurous spirit, because this was the first time climbing a mountain for everyone we met at the refuge except for one French couple attempting the French route. To their credit the majority of them got to the summit the next day. We spent the afternoon chatting with the odd characters and taking pictures of the surrounding terrain.
After dinner we went to bed and I started getting an altitude headache. I didn’t sleep much that night, mostly due to the altitude, but also due to the loud Englishmen that were making strange noises all night. We get up an hour after all the other groups had left and made our way out of the refuge towards the glacier. I was still feeling like crap, but figured I would go on until it got worse. I didn’t feel like climbing Huayna Potosi that day, but figured if all these tourists who had never climbed a mountain before climbed it and I wimped out, that would make me a sorry excuse for a mountaineer. I slogged up the easy glacier, using trekking poles instead of an ice axe because it was such a mellow slope. I sucked down GU and cytomax every half hour in an attempt the keep the AMS at bay. We passed all the groups that had left before us. Strangely enough, the higher I got, the better I felt. At sunrise we found ourselves just below the summit, facing the hardest section of the route. This part consists of a hundred foot slope of 45-50 degree mixed rock/snow leading to an exposed ridge which takes you to the summit. We quickly climbed this section and enjoyed the summit views.
After a few minutes on the summit we headed down hoping to avoid a traffic jam on the ridge.
Unfortunately we ran into several groups heading up the ridge while we were heading down.
I waited in one spot for more than 5 minutes while a Frenchman lay down from exhaustion.
The hike down the glacier was uneventful. We explored some large crevasses and enjoyed the scenery.
Back at Zongo pass we drank beers and relaxed with our support team. Illacio had taken to my Scotch.
Day 6: June 10, Rest Day in La Paz
The previous night we celebrated after climbing Huayna Potosi because we figured it was a minor accomplishment to climb two peaks given such little time we had to acclimate. It was one of those late nights unique to South America where we eventually found ourselves at an after hours discotheque with people we don’t know how we met. I was up by 1pm the next day while I don’t think Craig bothered to get out of bed for more than a few hours at dinner time. I explored the art museum near the American Airlines office on the main road through town. I highly recommend it. It was different from other art museums I have been to, because just about every piece in it was for sale. I purchased a few small paintings. This is a good place to go if you like to buy original art but don’t want to pay the exorbitant prices in the US.
Day 7: June 11, Illimani Day 1
Illimani has been a mountain I have wanted to climb for quite some time now. I don’t really know why, but ever since I read about it and saw pictures in a book it struck me as a mountain that I would like to visit. At 21,125 feet, it is the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real, and the second highest in all of Bolivia. Most people believe it is one of the most beautiful mountains in South America.
The standard route that we were to attempt isn’t terribly difficult (rated PD/AD on the French system), but caution must be taken because there have been several accidents on Illimani. I was a bit unnerved when I was casually surfing the US Department of State Bolivia website and it specifically warned about Illimani, stating that 4 Americans had died while climbing Illimani since 2002. This seems like a high percentage, because based on the number of Americans I met in Bolivia, I can’t imagine more than a handful attempt Illimani each year. I think a lot of accidents happen down in South America when little local guides try to stop big gringo falls in marginal conditions. Physics wins out in these situations. For the two biggest mountains in Bolivia, Illacio’s older brother Tao would accommodate us as the guide. Tao seemed a bit more experienced and capable as a guide than his younger brother, although Illacio's joking personality was unforgettable.
We left La Paz for the town of Estancia Una at the base of Illimani early in the morning so we would have enough time to hike to base camp that afternoon. Although Illimani is only 50 or 60 miles from La Paz, it takes almost 4 hours to drive there because the roads are so rough. At Estancia Una, we met the rest of our Illimani team.
Our mule drivers/porters were a couple of local women who lived in the village. Accompanying them were some younger kids and a dog. We would use mules to get to the base camp of Illimani, and porters to get to high camp.
In Bolivia the women carry the babies on their backs using colorful blankets.
We started hiking up the valley. The Andean countryside was incredibly scenic in this area.
Unfortunately for me I felt extremely tired and weak this day. I was stopping every hundred yards to rest. Some giardia had set in. This was the worst day of the trip for me physically, but the scenery made up for it. We arrived at base camp (~15,000 feet) and I collapsed.
Sexto made me some medicina natural (a plant from the Lake Titicaca region made into tea), and an Italian nurse who was with the only other group at base camp gave me some pills, which turned out to be nothing but Imodium. This did not help. I went to bed exhausted and wasn’t sleeping well, feeling flu like symptoms. In the middle of the night Craig suggested we take some Diamox. This was a great decision, because after that I slept soundly, and woke up the next day feeling refreshed.
Day 8: June 12, Illimani Day 2
After some more of Sexto’s medicina natural and a great breakfast, we packed up base camp and headed for high camp. The women not only carried the heaviest loads, but arrived at high camp first and set up our tents. Talk about being put to shame. We tried to tip everyone that helped us, and when we tipped a porter the equivalent of $3, they were ecstatic and overly thankful.
The trail to high camp is pretty loose and crappy; not that much fun to hike on. Towards the top there are sections of somewhat exposed easy class 3 terrain. We made it up to high camp in a couple of hours, and met an American and a Canadian who would also climb Illimani the next day. One of them gave me a tinidazole pill, which in addition to Sexto’s medicina natural made me feel much better. High camp is pretty high, 17,800 feet to be exact; and pretty exposed as well. You only want to go to the bathroom on one side, the other is too steep. I don’t think I’ve ever camped in such a place.
The view of Illimani’s central peaks was probably the best view of the trip.
This picture shows the route to the highest summit; basically following the ridge above high camp.
Day 9: June 13, Illimani Day 3
We woke up very early, and were out of the tent putting on crampons at about 1:30am. Immediately above camp, the terrain gets your attention. It is very easy climbing, but just the same crevasses and cliffs lurk on each side of the ridge. After the initial steep section right above camp, the route mellowed out for a while. I found a safe spot and had a cachi, which was uncomfortable to say the least due to the cold and having to untie from the rope, take off my harness, and then remove 4 layers of clothing, and then repeat in reverse. We slowly slogged up the easiest part of the route, and came to the steepest section, a 500 foot 50 degree headwall at about 20,000 feet. It was mostly snow and made for easy climbing. Tao was much more conservative than his brother and wanted to belay this entire section. Craig and I are comfortable climbing this sort of terrain in Colorado un-roped, but we didn’t protest too much because we were making decent time and figured it couldn’t hurt. It took us 4 pitches to climb this section. My feet became very cold during the belays, even though I had switched to my plastic boots for Illimani. It was just before sunrise and just sitting there on the side of the mountain while belaying is an easy way to get cold. After reviewing the pictures of Illimani the next day Craig asks me why I’m such a goofy bastard. This picture is an example of why he asks such things.
After we cleared the steep section, I started slowing down a bit more, still feeling a bit lethargic from the giardia. Craig and Tao were going strong and patiently accommodated my slower pace. At 5:30am I heard the daily Miami-La Paz overhead, and the sunrise came shortly after that.
After some more easy terrain we found ourselves on the summit ridge, which wasn’t anywhere near as exposed as I’ve heard it was.
After a hundred yards on the flat ridge, we were on the summit.
As expected the views were great. I was extremely content to be on the summit of such a great mountain. We took some pictures and relaxed until we got too cold, and then headed down. We quickly down climbed the easy ground and came to the steep section, where we placed pickets for the entire descent, which made for slow going.
Some of the terrain on the down climb. Notice the route through the snow in the top left corner.
We made it back to high camp 8 hours after leaving it earlier that morning. A group of 5 Peruvians came off the route shortly after we did; they had done the Illimani traverse. This was quite an accomplishment, something that has only been done a couple of times. When I was flying out of La Paz a week later, the plane flew right next to Illimani. The mountain looks a bit smaller and easier from above.
After packing up high camp we descended 3,400 feet to base camp where we ate lunch. We then headed down to Estancia Una, where our hired car was waiting to take us back to La Paz.
On the drive back there was a party as we were passing through one of the remote villages. The progression stopped traffic as they danced by. I’m not sure what the occasion was; maybe it was just Sunday, a good day to be alive, and a good day to celebrate.
Back in La Paz we went to our hotel and went to bed. We didn’t even get dinner we were so tired. The next day we watched the world cup at the only English pub in Bolivia, and mocked the barkeepers over the US-England 1-1 tie from earlier in the weekend. They were so confident a week ago that the yanks couldn’t hang with them. A tie was a win for us and a loss for them.
During the rest day we seriously considered abandoning climbing Sajama for something less exerting (tour the largest salt flat in the world, see Lake Titicaca, etc.), but figured we had an entire week, were fully acclimated, and knew we’d just get into trouble sitting around, so we went for Sajama the next day.
Day 11, June 15: Sajama Day 1
Sajama is the highest mountain in Bolivia at 21,463 feet. It is a dormant volcano situated near the border of Chile.
On a clear day one can see the Pacific Ocean from the summit of Sajama. All the land to the west of Sajama used to be Bolivian territory, but it was lost to Chile during the War of the Pacific in 1883, making Bolivia a land locked nation. Bolivia used to be a much larger country, but it seems like all of its neighbors have taken land from it at some point or another. There is a major road that goes from La Paz to Arica, Chile on the Pacific Ocean. The town of Sajama is less than 10 miles off this road, and this was our destination.
We left La Paz pretty early in the morning and made the 5 hour drive to Sajama. At first the terrain was endless altiplano (high plane), which we were very accustomed to seeing, but then the land changed as we entered the Atacama desert. It reminded me of Utah.
We arrived in Sajama, which is a very small town with one or two restaurant/hotels. The church in Sajama must be hundreds of years old.
Craig noticed a baby llama on a stoop near the church.
After we paid the Sajama gringo park entrance fee, we made our way to the trailhead where we would meet the burro driver. We received the gringo fee quite a few times in Bolivia, but at most it was 10 Bs (about $1.50) so we never complained much.
Neither of us were that motivated to climb Sajama, so we put 20 beers and a bottle of Scotch on the back of a burro and headed up to base camp to do some drinking. After all, this trip was a bachelor party of sorts. Tao and Sexto liked this style of climbing very much.
Day 12, June 16: Sajama Day 2
After killing most of the booze at base camp with our Bolivian friends the night before, we made our way up to Sajama high camp. The scenery of the area made me feel as if I were in a Dali painting with Pink Floyd playing in the background.
Now it was Craig’s turn to feel like crap. He was moving as slow as I was that first day on Illimani. He had stomach, back, and hip problems. The hike up to Sajama high camp was one of the worst slogs I’ve done. At least the views made up for it. Like Illimani high camp, Sajama’s high camp is very exposed.
Unlike Illimani high camp, there is always wind on Sajama. At one point the wind blew down both the group cooking tent and Tao’s tent, and luckily Craig was able to hold on to our tent to make sure it didn’t blow away to Chile. That evening the sunset over Cerros de Payachata (The Twins) caught my eye.
Day 13, June 17: Sajama Day 3
Craig still wasn't feeling well, and by the time it came to get up and climb Sajama in the middle of the night, Craig said the hell with it and stayed in his sleeping bag. I didn’t blame him. The wind was brutal, and we had both agreed that we had already climbed our main objective, Illimani. I was half tempted to join him, but figured I was feeling incredibly good after sleeping at 18,000 feet, so I’d give it a go. Tao and I left camp around 2:30am and slogged up some more steep loose trail before we roped up on the glacier. The first part of Sajama is the hardest. There is a traverse along a somewhat exposed ridge, and then 2 pitches of 50 degree ice must be climbed. We made good time through this section and found ourselves on the expansive broad slopes of the upper volcano. We worked our way through knee high penitents and then switched back up the gentle 35 degree snow slopes to the summit. I was feeling extremely strong, and didn’t stop but for a quick GU every hour. Tao was feeling a bit like crap, so we stopped for more breaks when I noticed him swaying a bit as we climbed. We made it to the summit in about 4 hours from high camp. I was pretty satisfied with climbing 3,500 feet in 4 hours at that elevation. Unfortunately we were so fast we were on the summit well before sunrise. It was extremely cold and windy at the summit in the dark, and I’m happy I had my down puffy coat and warm mittens. We didn’t stay up there for more than a minute or two. At first light on the descent Tao snapped a picture of me.
The views started to open up as the sun rose.
Looking down the penitents towards the technical section.
The down climb was uneventful, and back at high camp we quickly packed up and headed for base camp, the trailhead, and ultimately La Paz later that night.
Day 14-16, June 18-20: La Paz Area
We had big plans to see some sites during our remaining days in La Paz, but ended up mostly staying around town. We purchased a bus ticket to Lake Titicaca one day, but Craig’s birthday celebration with our English friends the night before made getting up the next day to catch the bus impossible. Craig flew home a day earlier than me, so on the last day I hired a taxi for the afternoon and toured the world’s former highest ski resort (there is no snow there now), and Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan civilization centered about 40 miles from La Paz. The cab driver Edgar was especially friendly, and I enjoyed talking with him all afternoon in my rudimentary Spanish.
Bolivia was an enjoyable country to visit, and I highly recommend it to anyone seeking an adventure. There isn’t much in the way of infrastructure, and the poverty can be depressing at times, but the people are extremely friendly, and the scenery is unlike anything else in the world. Our trip was limited to the high Andes; I can only imagine what the other parts of the country have to offer, with the Amazon jungles to the east and the vast deserts to the south. The local beer Pacena was a pretty good Pilsener, by far the best Bolivia has to offer. I can’t say I think most of the local tour agencies have the same professional standards as US/European guides do, but hiring Alberth Bolivia was a good choice for us. I recommend them for competent, reliable, and honest services while in Bolivia. The trip was smooth, the food/tea was good and always flowing, and the complete Spanish emersion greatly improved my language skills. I hope to return to Bolivia someday to explore more of this interesting country.