My plan after Ecuador was to pick a new mountain destination that would provide two opportunities to climb above 20,000 ft. For a few reasons, Bolivia was a great choice with several potential mountain options that would meet the elevation goal. In addition, a friend of the family who recently graduated from my alma mater was teaching at an international school in La Paz, the capital of Bolivia. Choosing the country of Bolivia to climb would afford the opportunity to reconnect with Bekah and check in on her.
On April 5, 2012, I departed Denver for Houston and then caught a red-eye flight to La Paz. La Paz is a fascinating city in that it is built on a high plateau with a huge gorge or valley through the center of the city. One can be at 13,000 ft and at 9,000 ft and still be in the same city. La Paz is one of the highest large metropolitan cities in the world. Once I arrived into La Paz, I secured my Bolivian Visa with crisp American currency for nearly $140, made my way through customs and immigration and was picked up by Marco Soria the owner of Bolivian Journeys. I instantly liked him and had a good feeling about the adventure that awaited me. He dropped me off at the hotel before 8:00 AM and encouraged me to get some rest as the next morning we would start our journey to face the first challenge – Pequeno Alpamayo. It is perhaps worth nothing that there is another more significant challenging mountain in Peru also called Alpamayo. Definitely not the same mountain!
After picking me up at the hotel at 8:00 AM Marco introduced me to my guide “Luis”. He could speak about 20 words of English and I could speak about 20 words of Spanish. Nonetheless, the good vibe that I sensed the day before only became stronger. Luis seemed genuinely friendly and he seemed truly interested in getting to know me through broken English. I felt the same way and we clicked instantly.
We traveled to Tuni where donkeys were awaiting and would carry the bulk of our gear. Luis and I only needed to carry a daypack with only essential gear that we thought we needed on our way up to the base camp of Pequeno Alpamayo. From Tuni, we had a pretty leisurely hike that took us through several beautiful valleys where the surrounding Cordillera Real mountain range started to come into full view. These mountains were spectacular in their ruggedness and contrast. I must have taken 200 pictures to capture the detail of the peaks. Base camp was a lonely outpost occupied by no one. It was going to be inhabited only by the two of us and the hundreds of mice that I’m sure called this place home. The good news was that if it snowed or rain, at least we would have a roof over our head.
Our plan was to stay the night and acclimatize to 4,650 m/15,252 ft before making a push for the summit the next day. We arrived at base camp around 1:00 PM and had a quick bite to eat. I decided to head up the trail until I found the base of the glacier just to get as much vertical feet under my belt. Climb high and sleep low had always worked in the past so I figured if I could get up to 16,000 ft and then slowly make my way down, it could only help with acclimatization. When I arrived back at base camp a few hours later, Luis offered me some coco tea from a plastic bag of crushed leaves. These leaves were the same as what drug traffickers used to produce a more refined product otherwise known as cocaine. I found out that many of the guides chew on coco much the same way that chewing tobacco is popular in the US. Both are nasty habits and create addictions. I declined the raw green coco leaves but did partake of the packaged coco tea as noted in the picture below. This was supposed to help with acclimatization but I didn’t really note any effect one way or another to my breathing on that day and throughout the trip.
The next morning was Easter and as we woke at 1:00 AM, I was feeling pretty good. I asked Luis to boil me some water for my instant Starbucks coffee and a couple of packages of instant oatmeal. By 1:45, we were underway with the prerequisite gear, backpack and layers of clothing. After hiking for about 30-45 minutes we were at the base of the glacier that I had visited the day before. We stopped to strap on our crampons, rope up and wield our ice axes. As we stepped on the glacier, we were greeted by a 30-degree slope, which only increased in steepness as we made our way to the summit. In the early hours of that Easter morning, it would occasionally lightly snow. Luis pushed me with a very steady pace without any breaks as we made our way up this huge glacier. He didn’t seem to be too concerned about any crevasses and we made a beeline path to the top of Tarija, which was the peak that anchored the traverse to Pequeno Alpamayo.
When compared to other Andes peaks, Pequeno Alpamayo doesn’t even begin to rank in the top one hundred in elevation, but it is has one of the most impressive pyramidal summits that I have ever seen. One climbs a broad glacier to a col and then a steep down traverse before rising sharply along a ridge arriving at the base of the summit. From there it is about 300 m/1000 vertical ft at 50-55 degrees to the summit. Once on the summit there is enough room for 4-6 people max and their gear.
Descending down the traverse required me to cautiously consider every foot placement. Even though we were short roped together, it was so steep on either side that one misstep would send both of us tumbling without a reasonable chance to self-arrest. So we took our time and intentionally planted each step and each ice axe placement securely. As it turned out, the down traverse took only about 30 minutes before we started to ascend to the ridge leading to the summit.
Luis was so impressive as he scampered ahead of me 200 feet at a time and anchored the rope as I made my way up. I wish I could say I was as fast as him but the incline was so steep and the effort was so strenuous that I was able to climb 30-40 feet at a time before taking a quick 30-second break. Leaning forward, plunging my Ice axe into the side of the mountain, and making sure the front points of my crampons were impaled in the glacier, I felt like I was almost parallel to the mountain.
After what seemed like hours I knew I was nearing the top as I could see the sun coming up from behind the summit and the silhouette of Pequeno Alpamayo became more and more obvious. Finally at the summit, the sun has just risen over the Amazonian basin and I could see for a few hundred miles in every direction. Looking down on the Amazon jungle that morning with clouds at least 5000 feet below me was a view that I will never forget. That Easter morning with the temperature hovering in the high teens and no wind, and with the sun’s early rays rising, I thought of the words of a song often repeated in my church on Easter morning – He Is Risen. I will never hear those words again without thinking of Pequeno Alpamayo.
We took 15-20 minutes to enjoy the view, take in an energy bar or two and drain a nalgene. What a glorious morning with the two of us at the top of this beautiful mountain. Finally, after the endorphin surge of reaching the top, the usual reality of knowing the climb is not done until one is down. Our descent down the glacier required less than two hours and probably would have been even less if my hat hadn’t blown off and aimlessly skipped down the steep glacier in the opposite direction where we needed to go. Fortunately, we had the time to pursue it and once I was able to retrieve it we were back at the base of the glacier in no time. From there we proceeded back to the same base camp mid-morning. The remainder of the day, we just took it easy, took in lunch and dinner and rested. My guide kept trying to get me to try the raw unprocessed coco leaves but I politely declined. The following morning the donkeys returned. We loaded up and walked out of the valley and awaited our 4X4 ride to the next mountain – Huayna Potosi.
Huayna Potosi was initially hard for me to say but I finally understood that the “H” is silent and it is pronounced “WANNA POTE IT SEE”. Having now been to over 17,000 ft only the day before, I was no longer concerned about acclimatization and felt that physically I was going to be just fine. We added a porter to the team and the three of us made our way from the trailhead up to high camp at just over 17,000 ft. The porters job was to help get our gear to high camp where he stayed when we made our summit attempt the next morning.
Arriving at noon, we had the remainder of the day to take it easy, rest and talk to the other climbers in the high camp bunkhouse. There was a team from Austria who were intending on climbing to the top and skiing down the summit as well as teams from Israel, Canada, USA [our two man team] and team from Argentina. One of the great things about mountaineering is one undoubtedly meets other like-minded individuals from around the world. I found the interaction that day to be really enjoyable especially with the Austrians who picked a big mountain each year and travelled together as a team to summit and ski huge peaks.
Somehow that afternoon I managed to get 3-4 hours of good sleep and I felt well rested when the bunkhouse came alive at midnight. All five teams were awake and going through their individual routines. For me it was the usual process of getting some hot water for my Starbucks instant coffee and a couple of packets of instant oatmeal. The one thing that you couldn’t do is go back to sleep. Mountaineers who are up early preparing their gear and saddling up are so LOUD.
One by one the teams departed high camp with Luis the last team to leave. I really didn’t mind being last. As the oldest guy at high camp, I witnessed the energy and athleticism of my younger sojourners and didn’t feel like I needed to compete in some race. Just getting to the summit would enough for me. Huayna Potosi is recorded to be within 32 feet of 20,000 ft and this would be the first time I would be this close to that elevation and goal.
We stepped out into the cold night air and it was snowing at a good rate. The temperature was hovering between 5-10 degrees. In the distance perhaps 400-500 yards away, I could make out the headlamps of one of the other teams as they made their way up a 50 degree glacier. Right away, my breathing became pretty labored which was great because I stayed warm throughout the ascent. It wasn’t long before Luis had me going once again at a pretty good rate of climb. We passed the Argentine team as they took a break. We kept going. Somewhere between passing the Argentine team and the Austrian team, I decided to nick name Luis “Speedy Gonzalez”. His response was to call me “Superman”. We continue to climb without taking a break. Finally after about 2.5 hours we caught up with the Canadian team and took our first break. But after just five minutes I was ready to get going again. It had stopped snowing but it was bitterly cold in the stiff breeze and even though it was a physically demanding effort to climb, I did not want to stand still and lose body heat. So Speedy took off with me on a short rope and an occasional yank to keep me on my toes and to push [or pull] me on.
We pushed and finally caught up with team of young climbers from Israel. They were a great group of five individuals full of optimism and drive that were laboring hard to the summit. Moving past our new found friends, we came to section on the mountain that required a traverse move around a huge ice covered boulder and as we took a 2-3 minute breather there, I asked Luis how much more time until the summit. I figured we had another 2+ hours because at the onset he told me he thought it could be a 7-hour effort. We had been underway for 4.5 hours so I just did the math based on that. To my total surprise he said he thought we would summit in 20 minutes. Instantly I was energized knowing that reaching summit was so close. I don’t know about most climbers but there always seems to be a tipping point for me on big mountains where I gain energy instead of losing it – especially near the summit.
The final ridge to the top was similar to the traverse on Pequeno Alpamayo; a narrow ridge requiring very careful foot placement. The ridge was less than 24 inches wide with 55-60-degree slopes on both sides that dropped down 2000 feet on either side. Luis told me through hand motions that if he slipped down one side, I was to jump down to the opposite side to counterbalance his fall and likewise he would do the same if I slipped and fell. Even though we were roped up, there was virtually no way that a self-arrest was going to work in time on such a steep slope. I definitely took my time and I remember repeatedly telling myself – think about where you are putting your feet.
It was still dark with an overcast sky when we arrived at the summit. In the distance we could see La Paz shining in the predawn hour. The summit offered more space to enjoy a view than Pequeno Alpamayo but not by much. We snapped a few photos and watched the team from Israel and Canada make there way up the traverse ridge. It was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to be staying on the summit very long because there wasn’t going to be enough room. When those two teams made it to the top both had GPS devices that recorded the altitude at 20,035 ft. I am not sure if snow buildup over the years added to the elevation but both of their Garmin devices recorded the same altitude. I had read trip reports about Huayna Potosi that other climbers had recorded elevation at over 20,000 ft and so for the first time; I realized I had achieved the goal for 2012.
I felt really great at the top realizing I had successfully and safely climbed to over 20,000 feet. In the process, we were the last to leave base camp but the first to summit that morning. The extra surge of success came from knowing that I was the oldest guy on the mountain that morning. Luis offered me a swig of coke that he had brought to the top. It tasted so good and after finally breaking off chunks of a frozen Snickers bar without breaking my teeth and after draining a liter of water, we were on our way down. It took us five hours to summit and two hours to descend to base camp.
Once at base camp, I was still on a personal high from the accomplishment of the day. We packed up our remaining gear and started our 1-2 hour trek down a rocky and slippery route the trailhead. At base camp it was snowing again but after dropping down a 1000 feet of elevation the snow changed over to ice and eventually to rain and we were in a cold downpour. At the trailhead, we once again boarded the 4X4 jeep. Three hours later we were back in La Paz where I stayed in a hotel room took a hot shower and rested the remainder of the day. This was downright civilized mountaineering.
With a good nights rest and a hot hotel meal under my belt, I was ready for the final leg of the trip –Nevado Illimani. This gigantic mountain at 6,439 m/ 21,120 ft is easily visible from La Paz and dominates the distant skyline on a clear day. It looked so close to the city but as we headed towards the mountain, it became apparent that the trailhead was actually 2-3 hours away by car and another 1 hour hike to base camp. So after bumpy and grinding roads with hairpin turn and an occasional river crossing, we arrived a small mountain outpost village. From there we would once again load up a donkey with our tents, food, and other supplies and make our way up to our base camp at just over 15,000 ft.
The base camp was nothing more than an open field in a valley surrounded my multiple mini-streams that were 1-2 ft wide where sheep and goat herders watched over their livestock as they grazed on the alpine grasses. We saw hundreds of goats and sheep, a few herders and no one else as we set up our tents and the cook tent. A few minutes after the last tent pole was staked the skies opened up and the rain started to fall. It rained for 15 hours straight without pause and during the night the downpour made me wonder if we were in danger by the flooding streams around us. The ground was saturated when we woke up but the tents were dry. It occurred to me that if it was raining at base camp, it must have been snowing at higher elevations. From time to time the ceiling would lift momentarily and we could see the higher terrain leading to the top of Illimani. There was zero doubt in my mind the upper portions of the mountain had many feet of snow piling up. It looked as if white cotton candy was piling up. All of this snow also meant one thing for the steep slopes of Illimani – avalanche danger.
After breakfast we collected our gear and saddled up once again for a push to the high camp called the Condor’s Nest. The scheduled called for us to have a couple of porters with us but when they came to base camp, Luis conversed with them in Spanish and each of them took turns explaining something and then pointing to different areas of the mountain. Finally Luis spoke to me and said “avalanche danger” and “maybe not a good idea” but then he concluded by saying “you are the boss”. I suggested that we make our way up to the Condor’s Nest and decide if it would be safe to proceed based on what we could see. He agreed but recommended the porters not go. So, we basically packed up enough gear to complete a reconnaissance climb up to the Condor’s Nest.
It didn’t take too long to understand why Luis was pensive at Base Camp as we encountered snow on the trail right away. As we climbed higher the snowfall amount only grew along with the rate of incline. Near the Condor’s Nest at 17,880 ft, it became pretty obvious that I was not going to summit Illimani on this trip. Above high camp we would need to thread our way through a series of crevasses on 40-degree slopes. The avalanche risk was simply too high and so we turned around and headed back to Base Camp.
A few days later, I was back in La Paz with ample time to meet with my friend Bekah. We had a great visit together, enjoyed a Bolivian meal and said our goodbyes. The next day, Marco of Bolivian Journeys picked me up at my hotel and we made our way to the airport feeling good about my efforts and the experience gained. Bolivia presents greater mountaineering challenges and I had just sampled a few of the better-known peaks. I highly recommend Bolivian Journeys for their guide services. Perhaps someday I will return to complete the unfinished business on Illimani and to venture into the interior to scale Sajama at over 22,000 ft.