Having been to South America on a number of previous occasions to climb big mountains, I wanted to return to take on a new challenge with climbing friend Craig Watson and to help him get his first 20,000-foot mountain under his belt. We discussed our options and decided on Bolivia. In a previous trip to Bolivia I found the culture and the country to be a very pleasant visit and the Bolivian Andes spectacular in their rugged beauty and spender. Furthermore, I had worked with Marco Soria owner of Bolivian Journeys three years earlier and he was fabulous to work with and always have the logistics dialed in. So, knowing that we could count on him and having so many mountains to choose from, we opted to return to Bolivia to tackle Parincota and Sajama.
As we started the planning process our primary goal was Nevado Sajama, the highest mountain in Bolivia at 21,450 feet. Craig and I figured that we would get our acclimation done and stretch ourselves physically on Parincota as a warm up to Sajama. From trip reports, Parincota was characterized as a fairly pedestrian stroll up the side of a volcano. In the southern hemisphere, late April would be the equivalent of early fall meaning that snow levels would be minimal and the route well marked. Somewhere in our thinking and preparation we overlooked a few things that would ultimate cause us to truly find our limits.
Departing Denver on April 24th, we flew to Miami and then a midnight flight to La Paz touching down a 5:30 AM. We managed out way through the dysfunctional immigration and customs in La Paz by paying for our visa at the airport with Bolivian currency instead of American dollars, which was a real change from three years prior. Instead of paying $100 USD, we each only had to pay about $30, but the process was slightly bizarre, as we had to leave the immigration area to find a currency exchange vendor [outside of the official customs and immigration area] and return back to the immigration desk to secure our visa. We picked up our backpacks and gear and proceeded to meet Marco in the visitor’s waiting area and then off to a hotel in La Paz. A few hours later, Craig realized that someone at the airport had stolen his helmet. Unfortunately it was not a first good impression of Bolivia for Craig but fortunately he seemed to move past it quickly and Marco assured him that he could borrow one of his.
Throughout Saturday we relaxed with short naps, repacking our gear, and a short walk through a farmers market [all uphill in La Paz] For dinner we found a quaint family owned restaurant featuring a grill in the window that those walking by could see what was being cooked. After hand motions and pointing at various menu options, we settled down to a huge steak and potatoes that cost about $10 each. It was a very satisfying meal before getting a good nights rest.
On Sunday morning, Marco and his guide Luis picked us up at our hotel and we started our 4-5 journey to Sajama National Park which is south west of La Paz and close the Bolivia Chile border. When we were approximately 15 miles from the park, the weather started to change with overcast skies and precipitation in the form of both rain and snow. In the distance we could see Sajama, which looked particularly angry but even more ominous was the amount of snow on the steep flanks [45-50 degrees] of this extinct volcano. As we studied the mountain, we could see the spindrift coming off the summit due to high winds. In our comfortable land cruiser, we were oblivious the difficult weather conditions but that was to change.
We made our way through the valley that separated Sajama and Parincota until we found the single road that would lead us right to the base camp of Parincota. Once we drove off of pavement onto dirt and gravel roads, we travelled approximately 75 minutes, gaining altitude until Marco proclaimed “this is Base Camp”.
Base camp is a desolate location with volcanic sand and huge volcanic rocks that were placed there hundreds of years ago. At just under 16,850 feet, the base camp was a desert without any vegetation. Upon our arrival, it immediately started snowing but true to form, Marco and his team setup our tent and then set up the cook tent before erecting his tent. Craig and I moved our gear into the tent and crawled into our sleeping bags and attempted to get warmed up knowing that dinner would be ready in about an hour and that our start in the morning was going to be pretty early and we would need all of the rest possible.
Straddling the border between Sajama National Park in Bolivia and Lauca National Park in Chile, Parincota is one of two photogenic volcano “twins”, known as Los Cerros de Payachata. Parincota is the 2nd highest mountain in Bolivia and the 9th highest in Chile. Although Parincota has not been active in its recent history, it is still considered potentially active, rather than dormant. The last eruption was approximately 500-600 years ago. With slopes inclined at a consistent 35-40 degrees, Parincota’s flanks offer routes on rock, snow and ice, which require crampons and an ice axe.
At the top of Parincota is a near symmetrical perfect cone that is 2300 feet wide and 800 ft. deep One unpredictable feature of Parincota is the snow formation known as penitentes, thin, icy spires that can grow several meters tall and can make progress difficult, or even impossible by blocking the usual climbing routes. Fortunately, we did not see a single one of these obstacles. The other second unpredictable feature is the amount of snow that a climber might find on the flanks of Parincota. In late April of 2015, Parincota had an unusual amount of fresh snow with 2-3 feet of fresh powder from base camp to the summit.
After a fantastic dinner of fresh trout, rice and assorted vegetables Marco informed us that we would be getting an early start at 1:00 AM. That meant about 4 hours sleep before grabbing something hot to drink, saddling up with gear and making our way up the snow covered route in the early morning hours. Right on cue we woke after probably only 30 minutes of true rest and anxiously started to prepare for the great adventure ahead. At that point everything checked out for both Craig and me. Our energy was good. We felt confident. No head aches. No nausea. Certainly we could feel the altitude but nothing unusual. It was a bit cold outside and the snow continued to fall but overall, conditions were very typically for nearly 17,000 feet at 1:00 AM in the morning. After a quick breakfast we started our way of the route and within 5 minutes I could feel that something was different. Craig was a true stud and showed no signs of difficulty as he strutted straight up the route without any hesitation or difficulty.
Virtually every mountain I do whether in Colorado or in some mountain range around the world, the first 15 minutes always features a reckoning between lungs, pace and heart rate. I always start off too fast which causes me to struggle getting my second breath which in turns accelerates my heart rate. Parincota was no different but I sensed right away that I might struggle more on this day. After 30 minutes I was still not synchronized. After one hour, I really questioned if I could make it through the day. Craig encouraged me to suck it up and showed no sign of fatigue. The depth of snow increased to 2 feet. After 2 hours, I had really slowed down and taken many more breaks than usual. After 3 hours, the sun came out and we could see much better our goal for the day.
After 4 hours, it started to heat up with the glare off of the snow and the air temperatures increasing. The snow depth increased to 3 feet. Still I could not get my breathing and heart rate synchronized. We kept pushing on. After 5 hours we neared 19,500 feet and I started to feel better. Craig on the other hand started to experience fatigue. Finally we were within 100 feet of the summit in 3 feet of powder and what should have taken a few minutes seemed to take 15 minutes. We reached the summit with the ambient air temp at nearly 45 degrees. The sun was shining brightly and while we were elated to be at the summit, we were exhausted but elated to celebrate Craig’s first 20,000 ft summit.
We took video and pictures posing with one another and with the American flag. I recorded a small video clip for my friend Alisa Harwood whose husband had unexpectedly died due to a severe asthmatic attack. We rested for nearly 35 minutes watching light clouds rush by and observing snow squalls in the distance. I started to randomly cough unable to get the irritant out of my lungs. The coughing persisted as we roped up and started to make our way down flank of this huge volcano. Occasionally we would pass by a vent where hot gases would escape and melt snow. It was only then that you could see the jagged volcanic rock that lay under the surface of the snow. I made sure never to step close to the vents for fear of collapsing the surrounding area and not knowing the consequence if I did.
Throughout the descent both Craig and I slowed down. At times it would snow and we would encounter a cross between snow and hail. Those ice pellets beat down on us for 5-10 minutes at time, would let up and then resume again. Meanwhile the daytime temperature had softened the snow and it was not unusual to post hole to our hips in deep snow. This of course only added to our exhaustion. Finally at 4:00 PM in the afternoon we arrived at base camp.
The plan was to stay the night but I just didn’t feel well. My breathing was labored and I could feel my heart pounding at a furious rate. After sitting on a rock in base camp for five minutes there was no change in my condition. In the back of my mind I started questioning if I was suffering from the onset of pulmonary edema.
I have never suffered with altitude sickness before. From time to time I might get a small headache but that never materialized into a full-blown migraine. Five years ago I had an upset stomach in Nepal but I was convinced that this was more about claustrophobia in the tiny teahouse rooms without windows. I had become dehydrated on a few occasions, which left me dizzy, and without strength but had no adverse impact on my breathing.
I checked my pulse and oxygen saturation levels and found that my blood oxy sat was reasonable but my heart rate was blasting away at 135 beats per minute standing still. I could hear fluid in my lungs as I coughed and with each cough my lungs would rattle more and more.
I told Marco that I didn’t feel well and that I thought we should descend to a lower elevation. He didn’t contest the request and within minutes we started to pack and quickly headed down to Sajama village. After a few hours we arrived and were able to rest on comfortable beds. At dinner I was panting like a dog in between bites. This persisted all night long and into the next day. Each time I checked my pulse rate it was between 120-130. After staying in Sajama village overnight, we visited the local hot springs and then drove back to La Paz. We made the decision not to pursue Sajama in my current condition. In addition, Marco advised against the climb due to steep snow and high winds. It just didn’t make sense to risk it and with the wind and snow on Sajama, it would have been an extraordinary difficult climb. It wasn’t until 3-4 days later that the fluid in my lungs started to dissipate and the cough went away.
In retrospect, I found my physical limits for how fast my body could acclimatize and without a doubt, I made took a too aggressive approach. Leaving my home on Friday with its altitude at 6750 and being at nearly 17,000 feet on Sunday afternoon with a summit climb to 20,840 feet on Monday was definitely pushing it too much. Lessons learned for the next great adventure.