The big trip.

Note: click images to see a larger version in a new window

This has been a hard trip report to start. It covers 16 days, with many sights, insights, and general adventures. So perhaps a little history would be a starting place.

Michael and I have done a ton of climbs together since I first met him in February 2008 on Johnstone Peak. We always had lots to talk about, including our dream lists of climbs. Michael had climbed in Peru, and we both felt the draw of really big peaks. Finally, we committed to doing something big together, and after much discussion narrowed it down to the Andes of Bolivia, specifically the Cordillera Real.

We needed a few more souls to create a private trip so the invites went out. We ended up being accompanied by my brother Tom, my daughter Mariel, and Mariel's fiancee Jason. As the trip wore on and Michael was inundated with Platt stories and history, we joked that we were going to make him an honorary Platt.

This trip report tells the whole story of our trip to Bolivia, or at least the parts that are noteworthy. If you only want to read about the peaks, click on their names above.

Our first day was travel. The five of us did not share the same itinerary, but it was pretty much the same drill: catch an early flight out of Boise, get to Miami late in the day, catch an overnight flight to La Paz, and arrive at some sort of ungodly hour, bleary-eyed and tired.

For Mariel, Jason, and I, the ungodly arrival time was just before 3am La Paz time. La Paz is on 'east-coast time', so it was really about midnight in Boise. 18 hours. I think it was a different day....

Marco, owner of Bolivian Journeys, met us at the airport. We walked out to his car, where I started to get to know Bolivia as I watched a stray dog devouring some trash nearby. With a numb brain, I checked into my room at Hotel Osira and went to sleep.


Just a few hours later, the marching bands began to warm up in the square out the hotel window. OK, OK.

Not long after, Tom and Michael arrived and it was time to go see La Paz. I felt a little crappy, but I was tired. And we were at 12,000'. That was the lowest we'd be for 16 days.

South Fork of the Salmon River

Looking out the window of the hotel room, you could see Illimani (21,125')

South Fork of the Salmon River

Then we toured La Paz on a double-decker bus.

Yes, some Bolivian women still wear traditional dress, including the impossibly-perched bowler hat. We learned that the average annual income is between $1500 and $2000, the average family has 5 kids, that there is free health care after 65, and that the average life expectancy is just over 60.

We also learned that Bolivia is the poorest country in South America, and with the highest percentage of indigenous peoples. When we left the city, we found that people did not speak Spanish, but Amara.

Miners Peak close-up


La Paz is a colorful place, so we took lots of pictures.

Miners Peak close-up

The traffic was phenomenal. There are almost no street signs, few traffic signals, very tight streets with pedestrians and street vendors, but the chaos was sort of fun. Zoom in to see what an intersection looks like.

Most all of the cars are "taxis" carrying people (or in the foreground, buses), because most of the folks in this part of town can't afford a car of their own. But you can go a really long way on 2 or 3 Bolivianos, and it takes 7 Bolivianos to make a dollar.

La Paz sits in a bowl (below). At the rim of the bowl is another town, El Alto. El Alto is the poor part of the city, being much colder and at over 13,000. The bottom of the bowl is the wealthier part of town. Our hotel was located approximately midway between the two. Way over on the right you can see the lines of one of the new gondolas.

Ponderosa forest
Here's one shot of El Alto, looking a little industrial. Upper ridge and lookout

On our second day in Bolivia, we visited Tiwanaku. This was the center of the pre-Inca culture of South America. We visited a museum (no photos allowed) and an eroded pyramid or temple, which was mostly a big pile of dirt, so not very photogenic. Apparently the Spanish stole all the stones to build churches. The area in the photograph was buried, so undisturbed. Much of this excavation occurred in the early '30s.

I found it all very interesting and plan to read more as time allows.

We all thought we were getting altitude headaches, but when we noticed that the cleaner air up high made us feel better, we finally figured out that it was from the pollution and diesel fumes.

Upper ridge and lookout

Our next day was a climbing day. We were headed for Chacaltaya, which at one point was the highest ski area in the world. Now, with the disappearance of the glacier, it's simply an abandoned ski lodge and an obsolete station for examining cosmic rays.

But first, we had to go through El Alto again, something we repeated almost daily. Mostly it wasn't this grim; the real hassle was that the open markets made for major congestion and reeally slow going. But there were sights...

Approaching the cornice

As we got out of town, we could see our destination: the high point right of center.

So here's the old ski lodge. We were told to be back in an hour. Summit ridge
We bypassed the trail to the true summit, going instead of the false summit. From there, it was a short walk to the true summit. Summit ridge
Here's the cosmic ray laboratory. It was also a glacier study station. Here's some history of the station. Summit ridge

And here's our group on top. The big peak in the background is Huayna Potosi, which will be discussed shortly. Note that this was an altitude PR for both Tom and Jason.

Meanwhile, it was back into the van, down the death road, and back through El Alto again.

Summit ridge

And after that, we had to wade through the crowds filling the square in front of our hotel. It might have been tough to stay together in this madhouse, but the gringos sort of stood out.

That evening we had a very nice dinner at Sol y Luna in La Paz. Dinners for five with drinks and tip was about $40. Then back to our rooms to pack- the next morning we were leaving for five days of camping and climbing.

Summit ridge

So this morning we were on our way to climb Pequeno Alpamayo. After driving once again through El Alto, we were on our way to Laguna Char Khota (a lovely lake sitting at about 15,500') in the Condoriri group. We admired the dry ruggedness of the landscape. Like when people eat odd things and say it tastes like chicken, our standard comment for the landscape was "Looks like Utah."

But first we would have lunch and hand our big bags to the burro drivers.

Summit ridge
It's a couple miles from the car to our campsite. We walked with day packs. The building is some sort of bunkhouse and allows an attendant to be on site to collect a few Bolivianos for camping in the National Park. Summit ridge

I think they are burros. They are not very big. If you click on the picture, you can see that the burro drivers aren't too big, either.

Sometime in the night, Jason came down with the turistas. In a tent at 15,500', this is not a fun time. However, a PR is a PR, and he got to claim bonus points for both volume and distance.

Summit ridge

Meanwhile, we were up at 2am and walking at 3am. Not a lot of pictures. But as the sun came up, we had climbed Tarija, done the rocky downclimb in our crampons, and were preparing to head up Pequeno Alpamayo. Sorry for the blurry photo, but there wasn't yet enough light.

In the foreground are Mariel and Tomas, our 'guide' (more of a cook). A little ahead are Elois (guide), Michael, and Tom. Part way up the middle steep is another pair.

Mariel told me Tomas was looking a little wobbly. Not confidence inspiring. Then on the tippy top of the little point just above Michael and Tom, she tripped. Tomas didn't look capable of catching her, and her Dad was below her, so not offering much of a belay. She decided that it wasn't a good day to die, and so she and Tomas turned around.

Summit ridge
If you click on the picture, you'll see Mariel and Tomas, and also the area that Mariel did NOT want to speed-descend. Summit ridge
Meanwhile, I solo'd over to the boys and tied into their rope for the steep upper sections. This was new stuff for Michael and Tom: blue ice and front pointing. We were at a slight disadvantage because we were using glacier axes, which pretty much bounced off the ice. Summit ridge
I was happy to have Elois place an occasional ice screw and belay us, but we were not always able to get comfortable prior to stopping. As a consequence, my calves and quads were sizzling when we got on top. They refused to cooperate, so I shot the summit shot from a seated position. Summit ridge
Then it was back down Pequeno Alpamayo and back up Tarija. And again with rock climbing in crampons. Summit ridge

And then 2500' of glacier to descend.

When we got back to camp, Jason was feeling better. We had something to eat and then took naps- it was only about noon.

That afternoon, the weather moved in.

Summit ridge

And by the time we had broken camp the following morning, there was about an inch of snow on the ground. This is August?

We walked out, had lunch, and headed to the refugio at the base of Huayna Potosi.

Summit ridge
On the way to the trailhead, the storm was still working. It is such a beautiful mountain. Summit ridge

At the refuge, my guts were rumbling. I couldn't eat or drink. The turistas were going to teach me another name: the trots. I had to trot out to the banos many times through the night.

Summit ridge

The next morning, hoping to mimic Jason's rapid recovery, I joined the gang for the slog to the upper refuge at about 17,300'. This is more than just a hike- at one point, there are ropes fixed to anchors. On the other hand, our 'porters' were women wearing traditional Amara garb and running shoes.

However, I was absolutely miserable. So bad, in fact, that on the last bit I let Tom carry my pack for me.

Summit ridge

I was very glad to see the upper refuge. Although the wind was rattling all those sheet goods like someone shaking a paper bag, it was fairly comfortable inside, except for the beds.

The little pile of rocks on the extreme left is the banos here- squat and aim for the bucket. I got pretty familiar with the drill. Practise, practise. I set a new PR for high-altitude turistas, beating Jason by almost 2000'.

Summit ridge

Elois said that if I turned around, my whole rope would have to turn around. So the gang left without me at about 1am. Each time I went to the banos I got to check on them. I could see their headlights for a while, then they disappeared but the moon came out. It was still a little windy, but a gorgeous night.

Meanwhile, I had given my camera to Tom and he shot the following pictures of the climb.

When they got to the summit, it was just getting light and the clouds were slowly lifting. Click to see the upper ridge in the mist. That's Mariel in the red helmet.

Summit ridge
There are three upper refugios, so lots of climbers were in position for today's summit. Consequently, groups had to pause to let others pass. Summit ridge
Looking down the glacier. Summit ridge
Traversing under a rock rib. Summit ridge
This is a short technical section that gets you onto the summit ridge. On descent you can either climb it, hand-over-hand the knotted rope, or rappel.
Summit ridge
Then it's back to the refuge. That's Jason, Mariel, and Tomas. Above them, a group is returning to the upper refuge. Everyone made the summit but me. Summit ridge
When everyone was back to the refuge, we had a little lunch and then did the tedious hike out to the car, followed by another trip through El Alto. Summit ridge
But before we leave, here's a shot of Huayna Potosi from Chacaltaya. So gorgeous. Summit ridge

The following day was a 'rest' day. It wasn't all that restful, because we spent 14 hours visiting Lake Titicaca (elevation 12,507'), 10 of those in a bus (and no banos....). But it was very pretty and our guide, Marisol, made it very interesting as she answered our many questions about Bolivia and its customs.

Our bus ride terminated at Copacabana, a true tourist town. Here we saw the influence of western tourists for the first time. No Americans, but plenty of Europeans lounging around.

Summit ridge

We were here to see the church (no photos) and then to tour the Isla del Sol, where Incan royalty vacationed and the less fortunate were there for human sacrifice.

You get to the island on a boat; a heavily-loaded boat. There were probably over 60 people on this thing. It didn't seem all that bad until we figured out that the max speed was going to be 4 or 5 mph. And it was cold. I wore the decrepit lifejacket more for warmth than any safety it might have provided (if it had had any buckles on its straps).

Summit ridge


Eventually we got to the island.

These steps are Incan. They lead to a permanent spring on the hillside, which allows the trees. Lots of tourists here.

Summit ridge
We did not have time to hike to the end of the island where the sacrifices had been made. But we did get to visit this building, sort of a 'hotel' for Incan royalty. Apparently they were not as tall as gringos. Summit ridge

The next morning we packed up and headed for Sajama National Park, where Parinacota, our final peak, is located.

Parinacota is the 8th tallest stratovolcano in the world at 20,804'. It's on the left, with Pomerape on the right.

Summit ridge

The next morning we rolled out at about 1am across the moonscape. It's not steep, but the volcanic dust is soft like sand, so 4WD is required.

No pictures in the dark, but we were moving fast and I was still not feeling well. So Mariel and I turned around just under 19k and left the boys to do their thing. This is just after that. Note the heavy clothes and mittens- it was very cold.

Summit ridge
As the sun started coming up, they hit the snow. But this snow has formed penitentes, so it's no easier to walk then the moon dust and scree. Summit ridge
The snow only lasted a few hundred feet, then they were back on the scree. But with the sun now up, it was warming slightly. Summit ridge
Parinacota is a relatively young volcano and only dormant. The crater is about 750' deep. Summit ridge

Pomerape, the twin, is older and now extinct.

They lucked out and there was no wind on top. This is how you dress in the middle of August.

Summit ridge

Sajama is the tallest peak in Bolivia, but Michael had decided to avoid it due to length (3-day climb) and a reputation for fierce weather.

The picture here is of interest because our lodging was at the base of the mountain, and Mariel and I had made the entire 8-mile trek while the boys were climbing. 8 miles all above 14,000'.

Summit ridge

After our climb, we made another trip through El Alto. This time, our guides stopped about a mile short and kicked us out. La Paz has a every-other day rule for licence plates to cut down on traffic. So this was a day when Elois could not drive downtown. We had to grab a cab. Weird and somewhat disconcerting, because we never heard about these things BEFORE they occurred. Always with the surprises.

When we were once again back in our hotel room, we had a free day before we were to catch our departure planes. So we wandered round, shopped, and ate. There were some more exciting possibilities, but I think we were all simply worn out. It had been a great trip: new cultures, beautiful new peaks, PRs for altitude, and a lot of camaraderie.

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