The Cordillera Real, Bolivia

(by Alan Pope, from IMC Newsletter Autumn 1999)
Climbing 6000-metre peaks around La Paz.

In 1999, I wanted to visit some area outside the Alps and try to climb a 6,000 metre peak, while I still considered I might be able. The Andes seemed the obvious choice as I did not want to be away for any longer than three weeks. At the end of June this year I went with three other wrinklies (Paul, Richard and Dawn) from England with O.T.T expeditions to Bolivia on their Bolivian Alpinist trip. The programme was to climb three 6,000 metre peaks (Huayana Potosi 6,088m, Illimani 6,450m and Ancohuma 6,427m) in as many weeks, I thought this was far too ambitious as it meant we had to be acclimatised to summit on the first peak seven days after arriving in La Paz.

Thirty-two hours after leaving my home the Cordillera Real lay below as the plane descended to land at breakneck speed due to the thin atmosphere. La Paz is at an altitude of just 3,800 metres, and an ideal place to start our acclimatisation. La Paz is an interesting city of over one million inhabitants, situated in a crater. Illimani dominates the city. The streets are full of colourful traders (all female) dressed in traditional costume which includes a small bowler hat. The men dress in old designer track-suits. The pollution, caused by the location, old cars and very colourful ancient diesel buses, was dreadful.

Our guides Damian and Martin from Argentina were there to meet us. We stayed in complete splendour in The El Rey Palace Hotel. It feels very odd to have the door opened for you and the lift called when dressed in old climbing gear. After a very easy-going day we set off into the mountains. After three hours driving we arrived at the small village of Plaza de Mulas. Here we met our two cooks Felix and Demession and 3 llama herders. All our baggage was placed on 19 llamas and 1 donkey. From here we walked to camp by Laguna Chiar Khota at 4,600m. This is a beautiful location surrounded by thirteen 5,000m peaks, the most beautiful of which is Condoriri. Because it was winter, darkness fell at 1900 hours when it became very cold (the temperature falling below -10 centigrade). So a good sleeping bag is required and more importantly, a pee bottle, or some other arrangement if you are female. Take a few bottles if you are on diamox. This was borne out by Richard with disastrous results. Richard and Dawn both took Diamox, starting a week before we travelled, drinking large quantities of water as required. Even so, they both suffered from bad head aches and being sick. A chap on the plane home said he would not have got up Sagama, the highest mountain in Bolivia, if he had not taken Diamox. I guess all this proves nothing.

The next few days were spent trekking over high passes with wonderful views especially the west face of Huayana Potosi, until we arrived at the Refuge Zongo to climb Huayana Potosi by the east face. We camped on top of the moraine. The next day we gave up just below the final ridge, as my 3 companions were suffering from bad headaches, and myself short of breath. I believe we would have succeeded if we had spent an extra day moving to a higher camp on Campamento Argentino at 5,450m, two hours above our camp.

The scenery of the first week was rugged with no vegetation. After a rest day in La Paz we now set off on a magnificent four hour drive though a fine canyon to Una to climb the highest peak in the Cordillera Real – Illimani.

We walked with mules through the village of Pinaya, a village occupied for over 1,000 years by people who were supported by farming small fields. The changed vegetation is the result of this area’s proximity to the Amazon basin. Beside all the homesteads stand tall Eucalyptus trees. These trees are to be seen all over South America having been introduced only 100 years ago. Children gathered along the road to see the visitors and, unfortunately, to beg. From our base camp the next day we set up a camp at ‘the Condors’ Nest’ at 5,450m.

The following day, for some unknown reason, we rose late and proceeded to climb the normal route which was very iced, resulting in our proceeding rather slowly. Altitude once again took its toll, with Richard returning with Damien,. We went on and at about 6,100m, time was running out as we had to return to our high camp to meet the porters to return to base camp. So once again we gave up and returned to La Paz. We spent a rest day in La Paz, hiring a taxi to bring up to Copacabana on Lake Titicaca. The road to the lake is across the Altiplana with magnificent views of the whole Cordillera Real. It was in a town on the plains of the Altiplano that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid met their end. My eyes were continuously drawn to Ancohuma, which looked a beautiful isolated peak.

At the fine cathedral in Copacabana an old priest was blessing all the cars. His complexion told me he arrived from Ireland some forty years ago. Unfortunately every time I approached him I was liberally showered with holy water, causing me to retreat.

On return to La Paz our guide told us he had decided to return to the camp at Laguna Chiar Khota. I was very disappointed having spent the day gazing up at Ancohuma, but was consoled with the promise to climb Condoriri instead.

After an uneventful return to our base camp, the next day we climbed two new routes on Piramide Blanca 5,230m which we graded D and D- mainly on 60 to 70 degrees perfect snow and ice.

At 7am on our rest day we were awakened by an Australian chap returning looking for help to rescue his friend who was hit by a stone fall on Condoriri. We rigged up a make-shift stretcher with ski poles and rope and carried him down to the road head, taking four hours where we met a Land Rover. He was a young university student from England who was hit on the head (no helmet) and was suffering from amnesia. It was difficult to keep him from falling asleep. We heard later that he had an emergency operation in La Paz, but was recovering well. Rescue facilities are virtually non-existent in Bolivia.

Damien decided against tackling Condoriri so at 5am the next morning we set off for Pequeño Alpamayo 5,370m. This peak is hidden from view until you reach the summit of Tarija from where Perqueño Alpamayo is viewed as a wonderful snow pyramid with a dramatic snow ridge. From the summit, Ancohuma smiled at me through a break in the clouds. It was a lot more difficult to climb down the ridge, but we were back in camp at 3pm leaving me with some hours trying to photograph viscachas, a cat-sized rodent with a bushy, squirrel-like tail.

After a feed and piss-up in La Paz, I was now ready to tackle 32 hours of travel, dozing and dreaming. The big plusses of Bolivia are the ease of access from La Paz, the very settled weather and the fantastic snow and ice conditions. The area being very underdeveloped means that it is a relatively cheap and not overrun by other climbing parties.

I have at last climbed outside the Alps and discovered there are a lot of other 6,000m peaks to try and climb.