Mountaineering in the Bolivian Andes

Apart from a mountaineering trip to New Zealand, the Bolivian Andes in South America was the first major climbing trip we did together, sparking a desire to explore and climb in all corners of the world. It also piqued our appreciation of the culture, the people, the food, and the uniqueness of the countries in which we traveled to pursue our climbing dreams, making a climbing objective not only about the climb, but also about discovering the place and the culture. In June and July 2001, we climbed in three different mountain regions in Bolivia, and made a side trip to Peru to see some sights. Sandwiched between the low lying Amazon Basin and the Altiplano, the Bolivian Andes contain some mighty mountains. Flying into La Paz and spending a few days getting food and fuel was a great way to start acclimatising as La Paz is the world’s highest capital city at 3632m. La Paz is also a fascinating place to explore, especially the witchcraft markets with their dried llama fetuses, talismans and charms. 

Tash coming across the traverse of sugary, loose snow on Atoroma

Our first foray into the Bolivian Andes saw dropped off by local bus in the middle of nowhere (much to the dismay of some local women on the bus), to a smaller, less-frequented range called Cordillera Quimsa Cruz, and set up camp in a lovely grassy alpine meadow with llamas and a curious pony. We first climbed an un-named peak at just over 5500m, up an icy ridge capped with somewhat loose rocky blocks. We were thwarted getting to the highest point which was tantalisingly close but was across a vertical, rocky gap of loose blocks. However the view was breathtaking over the other side where the steep, narrow range dropped dramatically down into the cloud covered Yungas and beyond to the Amazon Basin, a big contrast as we had approached the mountains from the dry, flat Alti-plano on the south.

The highest peak in this range, Atoroma at 5565m, had only only two established routes, and when we approached the base on the day of our attempt, we decided to do a new route on the southwest face which Tash has spied earlier, and was further left of an existing route. After crossing a berschrund, the climbing was not too difficult, but the snow was very loose and sugary and we could only get protection in the icy sections and the occasional protruding rock, so we had some pretty big run-outs. We were excited to reach the summit, with that impressive rocky drop over the other side, as this was our first new route in the mountains. There was a second summit across a col, but we couldn't tell which was higher, so we went across to that summit too, just for good measure. We descended by the easier southeast ridge route.

After a side trip to Peru to do the "must-do's" including Machupicchu, we climbed in the Condoriri region of the main mountain range, the Cordillera Real. After a jeep ride, then hiring a muleteer and her mule for our extra gear, we hiked into base camp, situated at the edge of the Chiar Khota lake at about 4600m. We thought we’d get straight into tackling our main objective there, Cabeza de Condor (5648m), and after a restless sleep knowing we’d have to get up early, we were on our way at 2am by torch and moonlight. The surrounding mountains looked spectacular lit up by the moon, and the sun came up just in time to warm our cold fingers and toes before we started the climbing proper. We reached summit at noon and in such magnificent weather we could see Lake Titicaca and Bolivia's highest peak, Sajama, in the distance. From the Condoriri base camp we also climbed 'Pequeno Alpamayo' (5370m) by the normal route which is a very photogenic ridge, and also traverses another peak Tarija (5060m) - where we had Cabeza de Condor to ourselves, there were other parties on this easier, classic climb, and we also climbed 'Piramide Blanca' (5230m) which, after a mind-numbing snow plod, a fun short, steep rock climb added a bit more interest to the summit.

The highest peak in the Cordilera Real, Illimani (6462m) dominates the view from La Paz, and as we were well acclimatised, was our last objective. After restocking in La Paz, we caught a local bus to the town of Cohoni from where we found a guy with a couple of mules to help carry gear up to a spot called Puente Roto. We were under the impression that we could find porters here to help with the carry to high camp, but there was no-one except a Brazilian climber and his porter. Luckily the climber helped us out got his porter to return the following day with a couple of extra guys to carry for us.

The next day when the porters returned we all headed up together, but upon reaching the snow and ice, we discovered that the porters had only two pairs of crampons between three! Finally they worked something out and we got all our gear up to the high camp 'Nido de Condores' at about 5500m. Illimani is more like a massif than a mountain, with three summits, the north, central and south which is the highest. We wanted to traverse all summits, but we discovered that the fuel canister we bought in La Paz did not last as long as it should have - either we bought a half used one, or the altitude meant we went through it quicker. With not enough fuel for the traverse, we had to change our plans to just climb the normal route on the south peak - the weather was also a bit dodgy with hogsback clouds over Illimani.

 Tash descending Illimani, glad to be out of the winds up high

Tash descending Illimani, glad to be out of the winds up high

The normal route is quite straight forward, but it was very cold and got windier the higher we went, until our feet and hands were numb and we decided we should turn around and see if the weather improved. The next day we woke very early - there was no wind and the weather looked fine in the dark with stars above. We left camp at 3am, however as it got lighter we could see the hogsback sitting over the summit, and similar to the previous day, it got windier the higher we went. However we kept going past our high point as we weren't as cold as before. When we rounded onto the final easy-angled section to the summit, the wind was ferocious and we could barely stand up or walk - we started to get very cold with ice forming on us. We knew the summit was like a football field and you just walk along it to the highest point, so the sake of our own safety, and the fact we’d see nothing from the summit, we figured “near enough is good enough”. As it turned out Gemma ended up frost-nip on the tip of her nose.

Although this trip was more about getting into the mountains and climbing established routes, our modest new route on Atoroma fuelled our ambitions to seek out new lines on awe-inspiring peaks.

Atoroma with routes marked

Climbs

Cabeza de Condor (5648m), southwest ridge, grade III/AD+ 55º, 400m
Pequeño Alpamayo (5370m), west-southwest ridge, grade III-/AD 5.3
Pirámide Blanca (5230m), normal route, grade I/PD 40º 400m
Illimani (6462m), Pico Sur normal route, grade II/PD 50º, 1000m

New Route

Atoroma (5565m), route on southwest face, grade II+/AD 60º, 450m