South America holds one of the worlds greatest mountain ranges – The Andes. I stood on the banks of Lake Titicaca and stared toward the Condoriri Real. Within days I was standing at over 21,000ft on the summit of Illimani. It was one of the greatest moments of my life…
Bolivia is the least visited of the Andean countries. Only in the last few years have mountaineers and travelers begun to explore the wonders of the country. The Aymara people of the High Altiplano (High Plains) are among some of the world’s most interesting mountain cultures. They live a very traditional life. Reed boats are still constructed on Lake Titicaca as they have been for centuries, and the Llama is still the main form of mountain transport. The Andes offer almost unlimited amounts of altitude mountaineering with challenging routes available everywhere. I find South America such an incredible place to visit because of its fantastic history and ancient cultures. It is because of these values that I decided to climb in Bolivia.
Sitting at 11,972ft (3650m) above sea level La Paz is one of the world’s highest cities. It was founded by the Spanish on October 20th, 1548 under the name of La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de La Paz (The City of Our Lady of Peace). Shortly after it’s founding, La Paz was moved to its present location, in the valley of the Chuquiago Marka, and more recently has spilled out onto the High Altiplano. The main street named after Bolivia’s national hero, Simon Bolivar is dominated by modern tower blocks overlooking more colonial buildings. It houses the affluent traders and businessmen. The suburbs are a sprawling mass of narrow streets and basic brick houses showing the poverty which still exists here. We spent three days in La Paz to begin acclimatising before heading for Lake Titicaca.
We all need oxygen to live. At sea level the air we breathe has around 21% oxygen content. The higher we climb the less oxygen there is. At extreme altitudes there can be as little as 7% oxygen in the atmosphere. If certain rules are not followed then Altitude Mountain Sickness can occur. Headaches, dry throats, dizziness and nausea are all common symptoms. A speedy ascent can be made up to 10,000ft, where after a slow and steady approach must be taken. The recommended height gain per day after wards is 1000ft. Because La Paz sits at nearly 12,000ft the first week was extremely difficult. Walking up stairs or carrying rucksacks was almost impossible for the first few days. Slowly I acclimatised and after a week felt able to do most things that I had done at sea level.
Sitting at 12,506ft (3812m) above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable lake in the world. With an average of 35 miles wide and 110 miles long it borders both Peru and Bolivia. In the traditional Aymara language Titicaca means “Grey Puma”. The lake is famous for its traditional Totora reed boats. Intricately woven from local reeds these vessels have sailed on the lake for centuries. Thor Heyerdahl came here in 1949 to design his rafts for a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to prove that people could have sailed around the world long before anyone thought it possible. Surrounding the lake are the snow-capped mountains of the Andes, many unclimbed or inaccessible. El Condoriri in the Cordillera Real was our objective.
Under the shadow of “the Wings of the Condor” was to be base camp for a week as the group attempted our first climbs into high altitude. We were now at 15,000ft and the air was thin. I had breathed heavily at every step over the three-day acclimatisation walk into camp, but now my body had begun to adapt. The camp is overlooked by a series of peaks named the head, left wing and right wing of the Condor. The Condor holds a mystical place in South American culture. It is seen as a symbol of good fortune to many who live in the mountains. A large glacier pours from these mountains giving La Paz much of its drinking water. The camp was dotted with multi-coloured tents from many other expeditions. This is a popular place for climbing in Bolivia as it offers a great range of different climbs from glacier walking to technical ice climbing in one valley.
We left camp at 5.30am and set off for the first peak – Little Illusion. The air was bitterly cold in the morning darkness, and it was not until I crunched across the glacier that I felt the warmth of the morning sun. We had to cross the lower section of the glacier before the sun warmed it too much, making it dangerous to cross. For the next six hours the group dodged crevasses and metal hard ice before all making it to the summit at 17,720ft (5250m). It had been a desperately hard climb with over 2,500ft of ascent in the day. Around us stretched miles of jagged black Andean mountains bordered by the Amazon rainforest, it was an incredible sight. Across the valley I could see the knife like ridge approach to Little Alpamayo, the next mountain.
With Little Illusion summated we felt confident for an attempt to climb Little Alpamayo. At over 17,000ft (5180m) high it is hardly “little”. On the summit we would be 3.2 vertical miles above sea level, quite a daunting prospect. Once gain the climb started early to get us all over the glacier safely. After a difficult climb up the ice we were confronted with a 150ft abseil down an exposed rock face before the summit ridge could be assaulted. With falls of up to 3000ft possible the ridge was an exhilarating climb. Breathing heavily all the time I stood on the summit after 9 hours of solid climbing, but it was worth it. The views stretched for more than 50 miles over the mountains and rainforest. In the southeast I could see the towering rock and ice of Huyana Potosi. The last few days, though hard had been in preparation to attempt this mighty mountain.
Twenty miles NW of La Paz stands the lonely 19,968ft (6,088m) giant Huyana Potosi. Although a popular mountain with many climbers, it still provides a tremendous mountaineering challenge. The climb took two days, with a mountain camp at 17,000ft. The early morning summit attempt allowed breathtaking views over an illuminated La Paz, and later over to Illimani, our final destination. The summit was a towering ice pinnacle overlooking a 3,000ft drop. It was an incredible place to be. It was here though that I first saw another side to mountaineering. One of the high camps was littered with waste from previous expeditions. It will take centuries to decompose or be swept down the massive glaciers. In this fragile world we need to take care of our environment, not destroy it. There and then I made a pact with myself too not only take all my rubbish away, but to leave my camp tidier than I found it.
Climbing Illimani was one of the hardest days of my life and also one of my happiest. Ascending from the high camp to the summit expended almost all my physical energy. I had climbed over 3000ft to summit the peak and stood at 21,120ft (6,439m) or 4 vertical miles above sea level. La Paz looked almost tiny on the plains below and I could see over 100 miles around me. This was one of the happiest moments of my life. The descent was treacherous as the ice and snow had been warmed by the sun and had turned into a sticky mush which fills your crampons with ice. This can easily turn a small slip into a major fall. I descended over 7000ft to camp and had been on my feet for over 16 hours before I was safely in my tent. Although I ached all over I was happy at my achievement of being able to climb into the Andean Altitude.
Bolivia has to be one of the most interesting and enjoyable countries I have ever visited. Its culture leaves strong memories in my heart and its heights still take my breath away. La Paz offers both traditional and modern lifestyles and has an incredible history. The Aymara people have held onto their own values and cultures for thousands of years. We can learn so much from them about how to live with nature and each other. I made some wonderful friends on the trip from not only the UK, but also America, New Zealand and Spain. A passion for mountaineering had been awoken from deep within my soul. There is something about high altitude which holds onto your heart forever and always calls you back into the high mountains.
Awe inspiring Nigel; Sitting on Top of The World! Not many can truly say they’ve done that!