Crested Butte Mountain Guides has recently returned from our annual mountaineering expedition to the high peaks of the Cordillera Real in the Bolivian Andes. Expanding on our shorter 8-day trip in 2012, our 2013 Bolivia Mountaineering Expedition stayed for 14-days and attempted to climb 5 different mountains above 17,000′ in two different parts of the Cordillera Real outside of the Bolivian city of La Paz.
This year, I was joined by three folks hailing from Colorado, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia on another epic journey of climbing big mountains in an exotic location, and experiencing the culturally rich and colorful countryside and people of Bolivia. Holding onto the strongest contingency of indigenous and native culture of all the South American mountainous countries, a journey to Bolivia truly is a step back in time.
Our climbing expedition this year started off with a few days recuperating from the long flights from the US and Canada and by simply acclimating to the 13,000′ altitude of the city of La Paz. We spent a few days exploring the labyrinth of cobblestone city streets, checking out the many street markets and stalls that sell everything from the biggest and brightest organic vegetables one has ever seen to, copious hardware and building supplies, to the witches markets where dried llama fetuses on a stick seem to be a popular and desired item.
We explored the ornate and decorative cemetery district; visited the many squares and courtyards populated by multi-generational families out enjoying the sunshine and warm weather despite being in the heart of calendar winter at such a high altitude; and explored the dichotomy of the bustling new age business district juxtaposed against the ancient and more chaotic and traditional street markets just mere blocks away. All the while huffing and puffing our way up and down the steep streets of this geographically and culturally unique city.
Following a few days of ‘city living’ we took a short 4WD Jeep ride to the remnants of what was once the world’s highest ski resort, Chacaltaya (17,780′); now defunct where the skiable glacier has disappeared due to global warming. However, it allowed us to put our hiking boots on, and enjoy some of the crisp and thin high mountain air and get our lungs and legs primed for the bigger glaciated peaks awaiting us for the rest of our trip.
From here it was off to the Condorirri Range, a small sub range of the Cordillera Real, where we would attempt 3 different mountains between 16-18,500′ over the course of 5 days. After an easy Jeep ride, we loaded up our caravan of 8 donkeys, met our assistant guide, Hugo Ayaviri (IFMGA) and cook Veronica, and headed up in an impressive snowstorm, to base camp at 15,300′ Laguna Chiar Khota (Black Lake). Situated on the shores of this beautiful alpine lake, and a short stroll from the toe of multiple glaciers, this is truly an alpine climbing and mountaineering paradise, with a dozen glaciated mountains ranging from walk-ups to technical testpieces, all a days climb from camp.
Recent prolonged and heavy snows just prior to our arrival in the Condorirri, coupled with the difficulties of acclimatization from some of the group hailing from sea level altitudes prior to the trip, made this first set of climbing objectives quite difficult and challenging. However, we spent 5-days here in this alpine paradise, and were able to attempt three different main summits in the time frame, and get our technical glacier travel and climbing skills dialed out as well.
Heavy fresh snow, difficult trail breaking, and fresh avalanche danger turned us around just shy of the summit on our first objective; Ala Derecha (17,985′/5482m), but we still managed to get above 17,500′ which would ultimately help with our acclimatization.
Next up, Pequeno Alpamayo (17,610′/5370m), which proved to be a beautiful climb on an even more beautiful day, with a final and aesthetic 1000′/310M steep, snow and ice arete, requiring belayed two-ice tool style climbing, with big exposure in an incredible setting. Watching the sunrise while high on the glacier and being bathed in the pink light of morning alpenglow made for a truly surreal climbing experience, and being the first group to ‘open’ the climbing route to the summit in over a week due to the recent snows, gave the summit an extra special sweet taste for us as well.
Lastly, we re-traced our steps on the last morning before having to depart back to La Paz, by summiting the relatively non-technical peak Tarija (16,601′/5060m) and getting one last sunrise and summit experience in this beautiful alpine environment before having to head back to the wonderous, and at times overwhelming, busyness of the city streets of La Paz.
So, after a memorable 5 day stretch of climbing/mountaineering in the Condorirri Range, in which we experienced snowstorms, wind storms, and lots of sun and blue skies, we headed down and out.
Along the way we experienced many breathtaking sunrises from high on the sides of glaciated peaks; stood on the tops of a few 16,000′+ mountains; ate some wonderful food prepared by our excellent and always cheerful Bolivian cook, Veronica; made new friends and shared stories with our Bolivian assitant guide, Hugo.
Sadly though the time came to re-pack the donkeys and head back to the city to rest and re-group before the big objective of Huayna Potosi (19,985′/6088M).
The second go around in La Paz was fairly un-eventful as we rested, some of us fought off some illness, and we waited out some bad weather before heading to Zonga Pass and an attempt on our final two mountains of the trip. So, after a few days in the city we were back in the Jeep bouncing across the alti-plano and bound for the mountains again.
Arriving at the Zonga Pass refugio, mere steps from the road, on a late and stormy morning, we met our Bolivian assitant guide, Agustine Allana (IFMGA) and immediately packed up and headed off to summit the nearby Charquini (17,690′/5392m).
Climbing through some of the worst weather thus far on the trip, where at times on the glacier visibility was barely 50′, we crested the top of the glacier to clearing weather, and split into two teams, each summiting one of the many rocky spires accessible from the top of the mellow glacier.
From here, it was a fast down-climb racing impending darkness to the hut, where we rested and re-packed to meet our group of porters the next morning for our climb up to the high camp refugio on Huayna Potosi (19,985′/6088m) our final and biggest mountaineering objective of the trip.
Huyana Potosi is an aesthetic, beautiful, but imposing looking mountain; steep and rugged looking on all sides with no seemingly ‘easy’ route up it. It also has to be one of the most easily accessed 6000m peaks in the world, being located just a 2 hour Jeep ride from the streets of downtown La Paz.
From our refugio at Zonga Pass it was a very relaxed pace of a day approaching the refugio known as Campo Roca Alto at 17,100′, in as little as 3 hours. Once here, we rested, hydrated, ate, rested some more, hydrated some more, took in the surrounding views and mentally prepped for our 1:00 am alpine start for the summit.
Surprisingly warm and calm for the beginning hours of the climb up the glacier in darkness, it wasn’t until the 19,000′ mark was broken did the weather begin to become noticeably cold and windy enough to be uncomfortable. A strenuous and difficult climb due to the high altitude nature of it, we were only able to successfully summit Huayna Potosi (19,985′/6088m) with a third of the team, but everyone did make it above 19,300′, personal high points for 100% of the group in the end.
Then after watching sunrise from the rarified summit air we slowly descended back to high camp for a quick re-fueling and then continued on for another 2,000′ down to our waiting Jeep and a brief ride back to the city streets and cafes of La Paz.
Thanks to Nick, April, & Brenda for providing me with another memorable and adventure filled experience of mountaineering in the Bolivian Andes. And thanks to Jose, Hugo, Agustine, Veronica, & Jorge for all the logistical help, support, local expertise, safe transport, and wonderful food along the way !
Looking forward to going back in 2014 already !
-Jayson Simons-Jones (Guide)