After an excellent and successful trip to Ecuador in January 2019, I wanted to add Bolivia to my climbing resume and to once again see how the American guide service, Mountain Madness, performed. We had planned to climb three popular peaks: Pequeno Alpamayo (17,749 ft / 5,410 m.), Huayna Potosi (19,974-feet/6,088-meter) and Illimani (21,122 ft / 6438 m).
I found Bolivia to be filled with a rich history, friendly people, great scenery, challenging climbs with convenient access and quite affordable but while climbing in Bolivia was a pleasant, rewarding experience, I probably wouldn;t climb there again.
So why did I want to climb these peaks? I’ve never climbed these peaks but they are perfect for some of my Summit Coach clients looking to build their skills at modest altitudes so I wanted to climb them myself. Also, after an excellent experience in Ecuador several months earlier with Mountain Madness, I wanted to try them again in Bolivia. (They were excellent) Finally, I continue to struggle to get my pre-incident fitness level of early 2017 back so once again, I wanted to try out my fitness above 18,000 feet.
These three peaks are quite popular for a guided trip and many independent climbers. Since Illimani is so visible towering above La Paz, it is extremely popular with the locals as is Huayna Potosi which is so close to La Paz that climbers can take a taxi to the huts. Even with its rich minerals and oil, Bolivia is a poor country with abject poverty very visible. It is still considered a developing country with the wealth gap, government corruption, petty crime and the need to only drink bottled water. All that said, I felt very safe there but being "strteet smart" is always good.
A large part of Bolivia is taken up by the Amazon Rain Forest. So the country has quite the eco-diversity.
Almost all the major guides across the world offer packaged climbs of the Bolivian peaks. The pricing is similar ranging from $3,500 to $4,500 for two or three peaks. Most use local guides but some have their foreign national as the lead guide – unnecessary use of clients money in my view as many of the certified local Bolivian guides, and Ecuadorian, are outstanding both in soft and technical skills. See this site for a list of guides.
Almost all companies follow a similar pattern of a few days being a tourist, then a few days of acclimatizing on the local 14,000-foot peaks, often including a trip to Lake Titicaca, before starting the climbs usually ending with Illimani. As usual, if you have the skills, experience and risk tolerance, you can try to climb these independently.
The acclimatization schedule was well planned and allowed for ample time to adjust before attempting these high peaks.
We had two Ecuadorian guides, Gaspar Navarrete and Paul Guerra and no America leaders. The team consisted of all Americans, not my ideal choice as I like a more international flavor. There were four in their 30s, a family with parents both over 50 and their son in his 20s and myself who turned 63 during the trip. We used the hotel, Ritz Apart, as our home base in La Paz. There was quite a lot of driving back and forth on the unbelievably congested Bolivian roads.
The pre-trip communication with MM was excellent. They provide all the information you needed from gear list to route details and local contacts well before I left the States. I flew from Denver to Panama City to Lima to La Paz. The return trip was frought with problems as United canceled their flight from Lima to Houston due to mechanical issues so it took me over 48 hours to get back home on a variety of airlines.
The Schedule, Being a Tourist (and acclimatizing)
Our Mountain Madness team of eight with two guides spent the first week in Bolivia touring the city of La Paz and acclimitizing around Lake Titicaca.
I arrived early, as in 1:30 am Thursday morning, to El Alto at the world's highest commercial airport at 13,175'/4061m and was promptly met by the Mountain Madness team and liaison. We made our way to our great hotel in La Paz where began adjusting to the altitude of 11,607'/3550m.
On Sunday, July 14 along with Mountain Madness guides Gaspar Navarrete, and Paul Guerra we took a walking tour of the city with a local cultural guide, Rosa Maria, who also went with us to Lake Titicaca. She was outstanding!
We visited the market and the Witches Market where you can buy all things dealing with spells including potions, dried frogs, medicinal plants like retama and armadillos used in Bolivian rituals. The most striking, and disturbing in my opinion, are the dried llama fetuses. They are taken when llama is killed for food and was unknown to be pregnant. The fetuses are buried under the foundations of many Bolivian houses as a sacred offering to the goddess Pachamama. Something a bit less dramatic was the market. Similar to most market around the world like in Ecuador, Moshi or Namache Bazzar, it is a feast for the eye with all sorts of native fruit, vegetables, clothing, hand-woven accessories and more. Of course, its often the people that make the experience. See my dispatches for many pictures.
Before moving to the lakeside city of Copacabana on Lake Titicaca we took hikes up to 13,200'/4023m for acclimatization and took in some extraordinary views of the area. In spite of the touristy aspect to these days, we were acclimatizing as La Paz and Lake Titicaca are around 12,000 feet in elevation. On the way out of La Paz we had a nice view of Illimani at 21,122 ft / 6,438 m the highest mountain in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real east of La Paz.
Lake Titicaca borders Bolivia and Peru. It's acknowledged as the world's highest, largest lake and often called the "highest navigable lake" It sits at 3,812 m (12,507 ft). There is a tremendous amount history associated with the lake pre-dating the Incas. According to Wikipedia, in 2000, a team of international archaeologists found the ruins of an underwater temple, thought to be between 1,000 and 1,500 years old, perhaps built by the Tiwanaku people. The ruins have been measured to be 200 by 50 m (660 by 160 ft). Our local cultural guide, Rosa Maria, was a wealth of knowledge and talked in detail about the Tiwanaku people, their traditions today and the impact of the lake on Bolivian and Peruvian culture.
Copacabana is a popular tourist destination with families boating and swimming on the beaches. By the way, the lake trout was amazing, more like salmon!
The first night, to continue our acclimatization, we took a short hike to the top of Cerro Calvario Hill, 13,215' to watch the sun set. This is a sacred hill with the summit lined with small monuments representing the 14 Stations of the Cross. Pilgrims visit the stations for prayer and penance and many tourists climb the hill for its fine views.
Isla del Sol We spent two nights at Copacabana, hiking, including an acclimatization hike to 13,300’ on the Isla del Sol that started and ended with an hour boat ride from Copacabana to the island. Once again, the sights were impressive as we walked about six miles that day. Finally, after six days in Bolivia, we were ready to attempt our first, Pequeno Alpamayo
Pequeno Alpamayo (17,749 feet / 5,410 meters)
As with all these climbs, we started at a fairly high elevation. We drove to what seemed like a random spot on a dirt road to camp at 15,000 feet for one night. The next day we hiked to the end of the road and then began entering more rugged terrain steadily gaining altitude until we reached an awesome campsite with outstanding views of the Cordillera.
A base camp of sorts was established along with a cook's tent for our two Bolivian cooks, who were outstanding, and a dining tent where we had our meals. We spent the next day on an acclimatization hike to 17,500'. It was an easy walk-up but a strong electrical storm came into the area about the time we reached the summit forcing a rapid retreat. That night the rain turned to snow but the thunder and lightning continued.
When we woke the next morning, a foot of fresh snow had arrived. This created all sorts of concern about avalanche danger on Pequeno Alpamayo so we changed plans to summit the 17,400' Tarija Peak instead. This involved a steady glacier climb from about an hour outside of base camp to the summit. We left camp at 3 am and returned by 11, so overall a short day. We hiked back to the road that afternoon for another long and slow congested drive to La Paz.
Huayna Potosi (19,974-feet / 6,088-meters)
The weather forecast called for more heavy snow on Huayna so we took the planned "weather" day in La Paz before driving to the lower huts on Huayna. From there we hiked to the upper huts with porters carrying our gear. The winds were extremely strong and many teams that day had turned back due to frostbite and deep snow. We new our summit chance was small at best.
As I made the hike to the upper hut, I felt slow and fatigued. I had a fitfully night of sporadic sleep from 7 pm to 1 am and awake not feeling strong and full of doubts. I roped up with Paul and we left the hit at 2 am. I knew after a few steps I wouldn't summit as I struggled to breathe and was stopping often to catch my breath. I was filled both with content and disappointment and I knew if I couldn't summit Huayna, then Illimani was probably gone as well.
The five Millennials made steady progress but turned back before summiting due to the high winds, over 50 mph. We were all back in the hut by 7 am. We packed up and hiked back tot he road to catch the bus back to La Paz - another slow drive complicated by heavy traffic - and it was Sunday afternoon.
I made this update on social media about the experience:
After a difficult night, actually the last 3, I was wide awake at 2:00 am for our climb of Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi (19974'/6088m). The weather has continued to be unusually bad for the "dry season”, mid winter below the equator. I laid in my sleeping bag listening to my teammates getting ready - putting on layers, drinking tea, eating a light breakfast. We all stopped as winds, well over 50 mph, buffeted the small wooden hut at 17,000 feet. The sound was foretelling. As I pondered my declining health, I reviewed in my mind over 35 major climbs during the last 25 years of my life. Never once had I not at least tried. Never once had I simply said, “no way” and went back to sleep. And today was not going be the first.
Small rope team by rope team left the hut in full layers, most with mittens and goggles. Each headlamp exposed the spindrift the high winds threw high into the air. The good news was after three days of heavy snow, the sky was now perfectly clear. A necessary but not sufficient condition for a nice night of mountain climbing.
Paul and I left the hut and steadily made our way higher. I intuitively knew something was not right with my body. I quickly exhausted my bag of tricks to get into a rhythm, calm my mind, be in control with short simple steps but a steady stream of oxygen was as elusive as a moment of calm wind as we reached 17,500 feet.
I told Paul I was struggling. He already knew. He was in the bunk next to me in the hut and told me later that he had listened to me fighting hard just to breath throughout the short night - and I was perfectly still.
The other members of our team had passed me by. This was an impressive troop of 30 somethings who were focused, smart and strong. The strongest pair, with their guide, got within 2 hours of the summit. An impressive feat with the big winds and wind chills well below 0F. The others turned back midway though their climb along with almost everyone else on Huayna this early morning.
As for me, yes, I turned back as well. Early, perhaps a bit too early, but I knew what my body was telling me. As I turned to face downhill ready to descend, I paused for over a minute to take in the lights of La Paz, looking for the Southern Cross, and just being quiet, being grateful that I even had this opportunity to make a choice of whether to leave the hut or not.
When I got back to La Paz, at the insentience of Paul and Gaspar, our Mountain Madness guides, I went to a doctor and sure enough I have a throat infection and am now on antibiotics. The theory is my immune system was down a bit (normal on these expedition climbs) and I was exposed to some Bolivian bugs that I had no defense for. In any event, no more climbing this trip.
But I’m content. You see, sometimes the greatest accomplishment is the simple satisfaction of knowing you took the chance, you simply tried. After all, if you don't go, you will never know.
Illimani (21,122 ft / 6438 meters)
At the suggestion of Gaspar, I went to a doctor around the corner from the hotel. Along with Paul, we walked right in and the Doctor met us and took us to an exam room. After a brief exam, he declared I had a serious throat infection and he strongly suggested three days of rest and no more climbing. And with that my Bolivian trip was over.
I changed my flights to return home the next morning instead of spending five more days in La Paz, a city I didn't care for too much and also seemed to impact me similar to having a severe allergy My nose was constantly running, and burning eyes. I was pleased to learn that a couple of days after I left the Millennials summited Illimani!
Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani Resources
I'm climbing Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani in January 2019 with Mountain Madness