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  BOLIVIA WINTER CLIMBING IN 2002


Since moving back to the states in March 2002 I had not taken any time off, so in June I decided to take most of the month off and spend it winter climbing in Bolivia, South America. On June 7th I took a three-hour flight from Washington, D.C. to Miami, Florida, and then another six hours of flight time into 8 June found yours truly in the La Paz/El Alto, Bolivian airport at 6 a.m.  (The airport is around 12,000 feet in elevation, so the runway is long and planes cannot be fully loaded when they take-off.)  Since most of the passengers continue on to Santa Cruz, Bolivia, it was easy to go through passport control quickly to get an entry visa on the spot, and to collect my two large climbing bags.  David, the climbing leader, met us at the airport and we took a taxi ride ($3 US dollars for a 45-60 minute drive) through El Alto (where the airport is actually located) down into the large capital city of La Paz.  (By “us” I mean another member of the expedition, Cindy, was also on this flight from Miami.)

La Paz is quite a picturesque place, since the city is located within a volcanic bowl, which you can see from El Alto.  After a quick shower and breakfast Cindy and I used the day for seeing the local cathedrals and shops until noon, had a two-dollar meal, took a quick nap, and continued our views of the city into the chilly evening.  It was good to relax, not worry about being late for the expedition, not worry about losing luggage, and also to take the time needed to get use to the altitude.  Since the remaining team of five Americans (Jeff, Judith, Curtis, Steve, and Sal) arrived on 9 June we used that as a “rest day”, and merely looked around town and enjoyed the surroundings again, although enjoying the sights was tough to do because of the economic situation and the campaigning for President going on.  Some people talked about 70 percent unemployment, and the streets were full of locals trying to sell almost anything.  It’s a cleaner place than Kathmandu, Nepal, but surprising the economy looks even worse than that of Nepal.  The electioneering and campaigning meant there were many banners around along with parades and meetings in the streets for the political parties.

This trip, unlike most expeditions where you are gone into the hinterland for sometimes weeks and months on end, consisted of some small trips away from town, and we then returned to La Paz and the Ritz Apart Hotel each time.  Talk about being spoiled!  It was great to get out and about among the mountains to explore and climb, and then be able each time to return to the hotel to get clean and then start another climb.  I won’t even mention about cheating sometimes and using email at the Hotels business center to keep up with friends back home and in Australia.

The next day we all took a three-hour bus ride back up to El Alto before continuing on to their historical site of “Tiwanaku”.  The buildings that encompass this site are believed to pre-date the Inca Empire, which the populace is very proud of.  Only some of the buildings and there surroundings have been excavated, and they lead one to believe that the complex still to be unearthed is very large and extensive.  (A La Paz TV crew was also on site filming a commercial with a scantly glad young lady as the main feature among the ruins!)  We took a good look around the ruins, and saw what many believe to be Sun worshipping gates and statues.  It’s amazing that through hundreds of years these monuments survived and have just now been recovered, and that they are in such good shape (you can still see the original markings and writings on them, although minus the original gold plating).

            To really get use to the altitude we also used even the next day to sightsee again, and this was to the famous high altitude (12,500 feet) waters of Lake Titicaca.   It’s an amazing sight, especially at this altitude, to see these pristine waters that seem to go on forever.  We got there early enough in the day to take an hours boat ride out to an island called “Isla Surique”, which is known for its famous papyrus boat builders, and explore the tiny town there and to take a hike up into the local hills.  It was good to be outside and hiking, and the weather was perfect to see the local area and the waters of the lake down below us.  All too soon we had to descend to catch the boat back to the mainland, and this time the waves made for a choppy ride back.  We then had a nice meal, once our stomachs had calmed down, before heading back once again in the nice bus to the hotel in La Paz.  We then used that evening to pack for our first trip up into the mountains for some trekking and climbing.

            June 12th found us up early and on the road after breakfast back up to the city of El Alto, which was on our way to the mountains.  We stopped to buy some bread and other provisions there before continuing on for a couple of hours on a good road before turning off onto a gravel road towards Tuni (14,590 feet).  After only about 45 minutes we reached Tuni, unpacked the provisions, camping, and climbing gear, and had the locals put these on their burros and llamas for transportation up to what would be our base camp at the “Black Lake” of Lake Tuni Condori (4600 m/ 15,100 ft).  (Some maps also mark this lake as “Laguna Chiar Khota”.)

            The hike turned out to be quite pretty up into and among the mountains, and we had a pleasant lunch of sandwiches and fruit alongside a reservoir before continuing up for a couple of hours to the lake.  Only a few groups were camped alongside the upper part of the lake, and our local guide “Eduardo” picked a good spot for our base camp tent and our personal tents.  The weather was quickly turning foul and we all changed into warmer layers of clothing before putting up the tents, and then helping prepare supper with David and our local guide.  Once the burros and llama’s were unloaded they quickly took off downhill, along with their burro drivers.  Some groups also used llamas for smaller loads, and it was interesting to see the locals load the packs on these animals.  (They penned the llama’s in by placing a rope about neck high to the llama’s, constricted the rope into a tighter circle, and thus had all the animals penned in for subsequent loading.  Some tried to crane their necks lower to get away from the rope, but were quickly caught by the locals.)  The funny thing about this night was that the rice was left way-too-long to cook, and thus turned out to be more of a wet mash than being rice.  I think I passed on eating the rice that night! 

            It was also good that we reached base camp that day, since during the night it snowed about three inches in depth, which would have made hiking up into base camp that day rather harder. 

Overall the base camp was situated in an ideal location, since it was near water for cooking and drinking (thus no snow/ice melting for meals), and only a 45-60 minute trek up among the ponds and rocks before hitting the glacier and the climbing to the mountains.  That way you could hike to the glacier in your comfy trekking boots and then change into your less comfortable climbing boots once you hit the snow and ice of the glacier.  (i.e. The climbing boots are made for colder weather with insulation, along with being stiffer for ice and rock climbing, and thus are not all that comfortable for hiking on fairly gentle terrain.)

            We spent this next day getting the camp all aligned and organized for our stay, along with a short hike to the glacier to checkout our gear and techniques.  It was good to get our climbing clothing and gear on for the first time this trip, and to get comfortable once more with climbing on snow and ice.  We even took a little stroll up the glacier to around 16,500 feet to get some acclimatization time in at a higher altitude, which felt good, along with rappelling and plunge stepping back down the glacier.  The rest of the day we relaxed, which then culminated in a far better dinner meal of fettuccini, thus making up for the less than excellent rice meal of the night before.  (You can tell I was getting a little spoiled on this trip with the meals that were available.  Although good meals are eaten in Nepal and Tibet when I visit and climb there, the monotony of cabbage, rice, and potatoes for 6-8 weeks tends to make me yearn for better fare once I return to civilization.)

            June 14th found us out and about early for a breakfast of tea and cereal before starting the hike up to the glacier at 6 a.m. in the dark, which was broken by our use of headlamps to see the way forward.  An hour later is was dawn and we quickly changed into our climbing gear to start our time on the glacier.  (We all usually took a little “potty” break here before getting into our climbing harnesses for the glacier travel.)  Sal’s knee was not behaving this morning, so he headed back to camp for the morning.  We started at a rather slow pace, which made me a wee bit chilly this morning, since the Sun had yet to fully rise above the mountains and we were in the winter season!  With my luck it was a little cloudy too, which made for a cool morning over all.  Once up towards the main ridge, which took about an hour, we branched off to the right and took a break underneath a nice and steep incline.  Here we took some refreshment and snacks, and some changed into even warmer clothing, before getting up this nice incline and over to the main rocky summit area of Ilusion (5330 m/ 17,487 ft). 

            Once underneath the rocky section we cautiously put on our climbing helmets, since there was a group above us, and began a tiny traverse up onto the main rocks of the final section of this climb.  This was an interesting little area, and we all took our time getting up this part with our clumsy high-altitude climbing boots, and with a sturdy belay from our partner above us, before reaching the summit ridge.  The snow was rather “mushy” here and we took our time getting up it before reaching the very top of Ilusion!  It was good to be at the summit, even if clouds obscured all of the sights below us, and we all took our share of photo’s, and congratulations from each other.  Then it was time to descend and we took our time down this soft snow, before then rappelling down the rock to the base of the summit cone.  Some rappelled better than others, and I was able to get some good photo’s from their descent!

            Once out of rock fall danger we took off our helmets and began a nice descent back to the main ridge, and then down the slopes to the central part of the glacier.  The rest of the descent was in slushy snow, which made plunge stepping downhill a needed art form to get down to the bottom edge of the glacier in good time.  We quickly made it back to the start of the where we had changed into our climbing gear, and we then quickly reversed those roles and were then hiking back down to base camp.  Its always easier going downhill when hiking, and before long we were back in camp taking off our climbing clothing and refreshing ourselves with drinks and snacks.  It was good to back into our regular outdoor clothing, and refreshed with a little “wash up” down near the lake.

            Dinner turned out quite nice with some soup and then pasta, while everyone recounted their climbing exploits of that day.  There was also an amble supply of “after eight” mints, which I quickly took a liking to!

            June 15th found us enjoying the pleasures of base camp and recovering from the climb of the day before, and getting ready for the climb the next day.  We ate a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and cereal once the Sun was up and it was nice and warm, even though it was cloudy again on this day.  Other teams were leaving, and none seemed to be arriving, so it was making for a quiet base camp area.  Once we were all cleaned up from breakfast most of us took a hike up to the grassy ridge above us, which gave us some time for a relaxing sort of acclimatization, and an opportunity to see the wildlife and the surrounding mountains.  Steve and I had a good time hiking around, and saw lots of llamas around the camp, before we descended back to camp and a fine snack of sandwiches and hot chocolate.  Cindy and I also used this time to air out our tent while also organizing our packs for the trip up the mountain the next day.  Then most of us had an early night back into our warm tents and even warmer sleeping bags.

            The next day found us eating breakfast at 3 a.m., on the trail to the glacier at 4 a.m., and changing into our climbing gear in the dark at the glaciers edge at 5 a.m.  It was an unusually “warm” morning, and we all seemed to have a hard time adjusting to what clothes to wear in the changing conditions of the day, since it certainly seemed to get colder at dawn, and my toes certainly felt that colder change once we were climbing on the glacier. 

            This time instead of turning right up near the saddle of the mountains to get to Ilusion (after two little breaks to get a drink and snack), we stayed going straight ahead up to the main saddle between Huallomen and Tarija.  Once there we took a break in the saddle area we took a right towards Tarija and the little snow covered knobs, which protected this area.  Once there we met up with another group, which did not like the look of the snow, weather, or the mountain ahead of us.  Once there Jude and Cindy descended to base camp with this other group while one of their number continued up with us.

            Shortly we came to a “nice” (not!) and scree type descent to a snowy notch area, with the scree and loose rock being not easy to descend on.  When we make it down to the snowy area we came under a rocky area, and this gave us time to look ahead at the route, and also enable us to cache our packs among these rocks.  Thus we would climb above unencumbered by our packs.  Then it was up and over a small rocky and snowy “airy” area (lots of drop off on both sides) before starting on the main difficulties of this route.  This difficulty mainly entailed two nice high angled snow and ice slopes before one reached the summit.  We all made sure of our ropes and belays before David led us carefully up these slopes to the top of Pequeno Alpamayo (5370 m/ 17,618 ft).  It was a good test of our abilities, and we all trusted the snow anchors that David had placed for our ascent and descent.  It was nice that all of us could take some fairly nice pictures from the summit, although it was turning out to be a cloudy day again.

            After a short celebration we all began the descent in good order, and before long were down the main two slopes, across the airy section, and then back below the rocks to our packs.  The packs contained our refreshments and snacks, and partook of them before roping up for the ascent of the very broken rocky and scree area and back up to the tops of the snowy knobs near the saddle.  Most of us tried to take some good pictures of the mountains then, but alas the clouds seemed to defeat our attempts.  Then it was back to plunge stepping through soft and mushy snow to the saddle and straight back down to the glaciers edge.  Fortunately we all got down in good order and before long were changing out of our climbing gear, and Steve and I were on our way back to base camp.  Once there we enjoyed some sandwiches, drinks, and a nice rest.  How nice to get back to the grassy camp, get a stool, change our clothing, wash-up a bit, and just relax!

            I guess the real celebration for this day was the outstanding roasted lake trout meal we had that evening, courtesy of a few dollars to our hosts from the lake guardian and his family.  It was quite a repast, topped off with some local beers brought in by burro.  I think we all went to bed this evening much too full!

            June 17th found us packing up all our gear and provisions for the burros, and we had with us another member that was not feeling well from another team.  After being packed-up we started an enjoyable trip down past the lake, down around the dry higher reservoir, and then down around another reservoir (where we had lunch on the way up), before meeting a large group that was on their way up the trail.  Before we knew it we were down to the village of Tuni and relaxing, having some drinks and snacks, and even celebrating our success with some local cold beer.  The bus back to La Paz was waiting for us, and once we all arrived and then packed the bus with our gear we were off to the city.

            On our way up this side road that was not paved we met some people who were working on the road and we waved as we had ascended the road.  Then on the way down these same workers, with their families, blocked the road with boulders so travelers would pay a “tax” to use the road.  Our driver and guide spent some time talking and arguing with them before our way was cleared and down the local road we went.  (All they had wanted was about one US dollar for our passing through on “their” road.)  By 3 p.m. we were back to the hotel, getting clean, checking on email in the business center, and getting a pre-dinner meal of some fast food (burger, fries, and coke) at a mini-Dinner around the corner of the hotel. It goes without saying that the real meals in the evening do not start until late, so we had supper at a “Italian” restaurant later that night.  (Since my Mother is reading this I will not mention our later evening saunter to a local bar.)  There I learned that Jeff, Jude, and Curtis would leave for back home the next two days, and so would Steve and Sal.  It was tough to lose these friends for the rest of the trip, and thus only David, Cindy, and I would continue on the climbing.

            The following day was one of relaxation and shopping in the city, although I had not slept well that night.  I should have opened up the windows to the room, but instead I had left it stay stuffy and way too warm.  Perhaps this was in relation to sleeping in a cold tent for the nights preceding the return back to the hotel.  We did do some of our laundry that had a well-placed launderette on the main floor, and that was good for making the next part of the trip possible in clean clothes!  The shopping was interesting, and you could find just about anything for sale in the markets up near the famous cathedral.  (No street in La Paz is flat, and the higher you climb in the shopping district the lower the prices are!)  Before the late evening meal we spent some time packing for the continuation of the climbing trip the next day.   

            Then on June 19th found us relaxing in the morning with a good breakfast at the hotel, and a little shopping at a nearby grocery (filled with food), before heading off in a Landcruiser for some more fun in the mountains.  Unfortunately all of us were squeezed into the one vehicle, especially when our local “guides” packed into it.  So once we stopped to the local store/warehouse and picked up the base camp gear there were six of us in the truck, with all the gear on top or in the back of our transportation.  Fortunately it did not break down during the drive up to El Alto, and our stop there for further provisions.

            After the stop at El Alto we started out on a good gravel road up into the mountains behind the city, and slowly made our way up to a large abandoned mine and it’s nearby graveyard.  Except for the cemetery it was a picturesque and warm spot before we continued upward and into the clouds to the road head for the next bit of climbing.  This area was marked by a small hut (“refugio”), where most people put in their tents for a base camp.  A large Yank/American group that was staying there several days used up all the camping space, so the three of us and our guides/helpers put our tents up on a side road or spur to the building near a dog pen.  After that we put up our base camp tent and proceeded to eat some snacks before dinner.  Unfortunately we had not brought all the correct parts for the large camp stove, so the locals at the hut lent us their backup stove for the night.  (We did not want to use our climbing stove and fuel for the meals at base camp.)   It took a while to find the “toilet” hole down across from the road, but after that was located and used we bedded down for the dreary and foggy evening.

Part Two

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