Published: August 26th 2012August 25th 2012
The mountaineering expedition was the first thing we booked for our trip, almost 6 months before heading off. It has been James’ dream for quite some time to be in high mountains and climb ‘some big snowy peaks’. With us not being able to journey down to Patagonia (due to their very frosty weather this time of year, oh well, next time!), James was particularly excited about seizing the opportunity to hike some of the high mountains in Bolivia. And especially since the mountains were fairly accessible (max 2 hours from La Paz), and ‘good enough’ for beginners, it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Honestly, my enthusiasm was not on the same level, but I had accepted it and thought of it as a challenge I was willing to pursue. I had also kind of pushed it out of my mind and would only really start thinking about it once on the mountain!
The peaks have been hovering over the horizon since Copacabana, as they could be seen from Lake Titicaca, and have been on James’ mind even before that, so it was with great anticipation and a little anxiety that we headed off early last Tuesday
morning towards the first of our trio of attempted peaks - Pequeño Alpamayo.
We got dropped at a village with our guide Eloy, ordered some trusty donkeys to cart our gear and headed up on a lovely 3hr hike to base camp. Camp was situated next to a crispy blue laguna and had gorgeous views of the Condoriri Mountains, of which Pequeño Alpamaya was tucked into.
After a 5pm dinner we headed off to ‘bed’ in our little North Face tent, for a 1am wake up call to start the summit hike. I don’t think we have ever set our alarms for that early in the morning! Or, to think of it, even gone to bed that early!
Half way through the night I started feeling sick and nausea (my absolute worst!) was setting in rapidly. By the time we had to get up I was working on less than half cylinders and James had to get our gear together (crampons, ice axes, stash of chocolates etc etc) and pack the bags, in the -10°C temperatures. I had presumed it was anxiety, as I was supposedly acclimatized already, so we really didn’t think it was the altitude
at that point.
We started the hike up but within an hour, I was taking very frequent rest stops and had deteriorated substantially enough for Eloy to turn around and express is experienced opinion that I was not well enough to continue for another 5 hours up to the peak, and it was sure to get much worse. I was super bleak, and particularly sad that I was hindering James’ attempt at the summit. This was also supposedly the easiest of the peaks to climb, so failing this one was not a good sign. We turned around, headed back down the way we had come and crawled back into our tent for me to sleep it off.
The next day I was still not well but we took it easy and chilled by the tent, enjoying our surroundings. We hiked back to the village, where we spent the night.
The next morning we were transported to Huayna Potosi base camp (4800m) via an old mining road that was very scenic, passing along the very impressive steep West Face of Huayna Potosi (HP). Thank goodness I was feeling a whole lot better thanks to the rest and drop
in altitude. HP is a very popular peak and extremely busy with expedition groups. We booked into a refuge (simple mountain hut) at base camp and relaxed for the rest of the day, reading and drinking hot chocolate.
During the night a storm raged outside, making us extremely grateful that we weren’t attempting the summit that night. In the morning we awoke to a fresh sprinkling of snow. Typical Saffas - we got all excited, much to the amusement of the locals and European travelers!
We then moved up to high camp (5100m) with the help of a porter. The hike was steep but luckily only two hours. The refuge at high camp can only be described as chaos. We arrived and had to wait for everyone who attempted the summit the night before to arrive back and then move out. The storm had been brutal up there; apparently only 10 out of 40 left the refuge to attempt the peak and only 4 made it.
After some reading in the sun we moved into the refuge, and slept the rest of the afternoon. Our dinner that night was a scrumptious bowl of smash and one fried
vienna sausage – food for champions! Or, for someone about to attempt a 6 hour ascent of a 6000m high peak. Carbo loading!
We were awoken at 1am and after a quick chat with James, I decided that I wouldn’t attempt the peak. Even though I was feeling strong and well enough, I didn’t want to jeopardize James’ chances of reaching the summit. Also, I was feeling pretty toasty and comfortable in my warm sleeping bag! Only crazy people venture out in freezing temperatures at 1am!
James’ account of his hike:
The alarm went off at 1am and I was about to roll over and go back to sleep, really not in the mood to brave any storms, but noticed it was strangely quiet and that the wind had died down. Eloy said conditions were good and we should give it a go. We had a small breakfast and some coca tea while we got ready and then headed out of the refuge at 2am. We put our crampons on and roped up and headed up the 1st
section of the glacier. I was shocked at how small my world had become. My head torch only illuminated
a few meters in front of me. We slowly trudged up the glacier, the silence only broken by the crunching of snow under our crampons. I was feeling good but an hour into the hike, the lack of oxygen started to take its toll. It got to the point, when no matter how slow I walked, after every 10 steps I had to stop and catch my breath. We couldn’t rest for too long as it was about -20°C degrees, and we quickly felt the cold. I had a few moments where I was ready to throw the towel in but Eloy managed to convince me each time to push on for another hour and eventually after, what felt like days, the eastern sky began to brighten and the sun rose over the Amazon basin. It was amazing how the sunrise lifts the spirits and just being able to see your surroundings and the path in front of you, gives you that much needed boost to get to the top. We got the base of the summit ridge, which was the only technical climbing on the route, and promptly told Eloy that there was no ways I was traversing the
super sharp ridge of ice and rock, and I was quite happy with how far I had come. He laughed at me and said we had not come that far up the mountain to turn around, just 20 minutes from the summit!
He pushed me and with a few scary moments on the ridge’s edge and looking down the 1100m West Face we finally reached the top! I would like to say that I had some inspirational epiphany on life, but honestly I was so exhausted, I collapsed into the snow straight on my back. I lay there for a few minutes, catching my breath and staring up at the sky. We were truly lucky to have perfect conditions – a cloudless, windless morning.
I eventually regained my wits and finally took in my surroundings. The views were out of this world. To the North West – Lake Titicaca, to the East – the Amazon basin – 5700m below me, to the West – La Paz and the Altiplano and the Cordillera Real mountain chain stretching North and South.
I finally felt what it was like to stand on a big snowy peak after all the books
I’ve read and pictures I’ve seen growing up.
The descent down was fairly quick (2 hours down as opposed to 5 hours up!), and it was amazing to see the path we had traversed up and how close we were to crevasses and even an avalanche debris field.
After a short 40min rest, we packed up our gear and were ushered out by the new group moving in.
We had a day’s rest in La Paz, where a hot shower and clean clothes was a welcome reprieve from the cold and dusty mountains.
Illimani Peak was next on the agenda and we were collected early Monday morning for the 2 hour drive to the highest mountain in the Cordillera Real. Illimani is the 6400m high, snow capped mountain that looms over Lap Paz, and can be seen from every angle in the city. The drive took us through some spectacular scenery and on some scary Bolivian roads! We arrived at a village at the foot of the mountain where once again donkeys were rounded up and loaded with all our necessary gear. The hike in was a slow 2 hour ramble over local farm land, dotted
with rustic simple households as well as a few llamas and alpacas.
Base camp was fairly quiet compared to HP, and we chilled for the rest of the afternoon to regain our strength for the following days hike up to high camp, Nest of the Condors at 5500m.
Unfortunately this mountain was not to be conquered by us. James woke up the next morning fairly sick, with flu and a chest infection, and could absolutely not attempt the 5 hour hike up to high camp or the summit after that. It was somewhat disappointing, but we made the most of the situation and enjoyed our extra relaxing day at the foot of the massive mountain. When in the mountains, you really can never predict what is going to happen!
In celebration of a successful (safe!) expedition, Eloy suggested we buy a sheep from the family who had lent us their donkeys and were going to porter our gear up to high camp, and enjoy a feast with them.
Obviously, we didn’t end up needing the porters but we still had a lunch time feast the next day after descending base camp. The feast entailed a couple
of chunks of roasted mutton and a whole mound of boiled Andean potatoes, eaten right next to the main road! We can now say that this was the first time we had bought a sheep for a feast!
Overall, we enjoyed our time in the mountains. It was by no means easy, but worth the effort and discomfort. It truly is a memorable moment waking up to a sunrise over the Andes Mountains.
And to repeat a quote we read in Huayna Potosi’s refuge:
“We don’t conquer mountains, they let us sneak up them when their backs are turned”
Next we treating ourselves to a week in the Amazon!
There are more photos below