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Bolivian Peaks - 2015

And so the Bolivian adventure begins! I felt the mixed feelings in my stomach of apprehension and excitement as I set off at midday on the underground to Heathrow for my flight to Miami. As I stared out over the ocean I felt myself reflecting that one day I’ll be rowing across the Atlantic rather than flying over it. I’ve taken Paulo Coelho’s “Like the Flowing River” with me and opened it to “How to Climb Mountains” – must be a good sign! He finishes with “Be an example to others. Tell everyone that it’s possible, and then others will find the courage to climb their own mountains”.

Arrived in Miami around 7pm (midnight UK time) and it was an absolute pain getting through passport control (nothing to do with the random array of stamps in my passport I’m sure!). Finally got on the next plane and promptly fell asleep before arriving at 6am to La Paz. A driver was waiting to take me to the hotel and I met a couple of the other guys on the expedition. At over 4,000m elevation the city was the highest I’d ever been to and felt thankful I hadn’t yet experienced any effects of altitude. After briefly unpacking and napping, we spent the afternoon wandering some local markets to aid acclimatisation. Met the two other guys on the trip in the afternoon, friends from Scotland, and we set about getting to all know each other over some local red wine and dinner (llama!) in a nearby restaurant. All looking forward to what lies ahead over the next two weeks...

We departed the hotel at 10am for the long drive to Copacabana, the main Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. Decided to leave my mobile phone at the hotel for the duration of the trip – sometimes I find it best to get away from city life and ‘just be’ without any distractions. The road was very scenic, through small shanty towns on the outskirts of the city, then through a winding dirt path in the hills around Lake Titicaca. The lake shone bright blue in the midday sun and we finally reached a small port of Tiquina with a boat to take us across to the Copacabana peninsular. We spent the afternoon relaxing and exploring the town. It was surprisingly bright and busy, with plenty of craft shops and backpacker bars / hostels as well as a good selection of restaurants and cafes, some with rooftop views over the lake.

The next morning we had breakfast at 7.30am then met our guide Ivan who was to take us around Isla del Sol for the day. Isla del Sol ("Island of the Sun") is the largest island on Lake Titicaca, and an ancient holy site of the Inca. We got a boat from the harbour in Copacabana to the island, first stopping at the southern part (Yumani) after 1.5rhs and then onto the northern part (Challapampa) about 30 minutes later. Ivan told us that it is the largest lake in South America by volume of water, with a maximum length of 118 miles and a maximum width of 50 miles. The average depth is 351 feet, although some parts of the lake are over 900 feet deep!

At Challapampa we walked for 45minutes along stunning coastal views (and some donkeys and llamas!) to the Inca sites. Ivan explained the significance of the island in Andean culture, as this is where Inca legend says that Viracocha, the bearded god who created the universe, emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun. We saw the Rock of the Puma, or Titi Kharka, after which the lake is named and all made a wish by piling rocks. A short distance from the rock was the Inca Table, which was used for both animal and human sacrifices. Ivan explained that now Llama foetuses and candy were brunt and buried as an offering to the gods (and these could be bought in the markets in La Paz!). A little further on we went to a labyrinth where the Incas used to live, with winding corridors to confuse evil spirits. We explored the ruins then carried on along the path to the south of the island.

We had a trout lunch overlooking the lake then back on the boat to the mainland. As it was one of the team’s birthdays we celebrated in the evening with Pisco sours on a rooftop terrace then a pasta dinner with some local red wine. Shared mountaineering and expedition stories and an early night back at the hostel ready for our first day in the Condoriri mountains tomorrow.

Had breakfast on the rooftop of the hotel in Copacabana, with stunning views of the Lake. Our driver, Roberto, came to pick us up at 9am to take us to the next stage of our trip – in the Condoriri area of the Cordillera Real. At around 1.30pm we met our Bolivian guides, Rolando and Eulogio, and our cook, Ana, in a little town near the Condoriri and shared a beef stew lunch. Our heavy kit bags were loaded onto mules as we trekked on with day sacks to the campsite. The base camp was only 1hr20 away and by a beautiful lake called Laguna Chiar Khota (Black Lake) surrounded by elegant snow-capped peaks (13 over 5,000m) at 4,630m. It was busy by the lake with other groups, so we planted our camp a little further up. We set up our 3-man (/woman) tents but just as we finished, a spring popped up at the back of our tent! Luckily it didn’t take too long to move it over by a few feet to avoid the stream. Spent the evening playing cards and drinking cocoa tea with the others. Amazingly Ana prepared hamburgers and chips for dinner (still not sure how she manages such a feast in her little tent!). I’m luckily not feeling any effects still of altitude apart from a bit of a blocked and bloody nose, and not being able to eat soup (although I think the latter might be partly psychological after getting ill on noodle soup on the Inca trail 10 years ago). A couple of the team have very bad headaches and loss of appetite. Went to sleep around 10pm in our tents, cosy in my thermals and down sleeping bag, not to mention the heat of two large Scottish men next to me! Looking forward to our first peak tomorrow.

Up at 7.40 after an ok night’s sleep – kept waking up sporadically and had a bit of a headache. Thankfully felt better after breakfast.We packed up our rucksacks and set off shortly after 9am for our first Bolivian peak, Pico Austria at 5100m. It’s a trekking peak so I just had approach boots on rather than needing crampons etc. Still, at that altitude it was tough enough and traversing up the scree was hard going in the heat (note don’t wear sallopettes next time!). We reached the peak 4 hours later after a leisurely pace, and took in the beautiful view over the lake and surrounding peaks. The descent was much easier – great fun sliding down the scree and then a short trek back to camp within 1.5 hrs. Rolando checked our gear in the afternoon ready for the attempt on Pyramid Blanca tomorrow; making sure our crampons fitted and we had the right kit needed for the ascent.

Awoke at 5am for breakfast then set off along a rocky path towards the glacier at 6.30am. A couple of the team were still suffering altitude sickness and after 30 minutes one unfortunately had to turn back. We put our crampons, harness and ropes on at the base of the glacier and started to ascend in two teams of three. Although we started with headtorches it soon became light and it was eerily beautiful with the sun rising above and eventually spreading across the white peaks. It was fun getting back into crampons and I love the sound and feel of the crunch of ice between my points again! A few hours later we reached the base of the final peak and had to scramble up the last few metres followed by a steep plod to the summit. The hardest yet most interesting 50m of the day! At 12.30 we reached the top at 5230m and had a well-deserved rest and packed lunch. I had started to feel quite weak after around 5000m which was likely due to the altitude and lack of time we’d had to acclimatise. Glad to have summited which should help with acclimatisation on the next few peaks. We walked back down over the glacier which felt never ending as my energy started to fade further. Finally we reached base camp around 3pm and had a siesta, which seemed to do the trick (or maybe the copious amounts of sweet cocoa tea!). Chicken and quinoa for dinner – so not just for London yuppies but actually a traditional Bolivian dish.

Lie in the next day and an enforced ‘rest day’ from Rolando to prepare for Pequeno Alpamayo the following day. But of course in the mountain (and, as we were learning, with Rolando) there is no such thing as a true rest day. Instead we went for an easy trek up the nearby Pico Mirador at 4,900m. We departed at 9.30am and enjoyed a leisurely walk up in the sun. The last stretch however became more difficult (and a lot more fun!) as we scrambled up to the summit. Reached the top at 1pm and enjoyed our packed lunches and then a long walk along the ridge top. We seemed to slide most of the way down along scree (not sure how much longer my approach shoes will last in this stuff!) and back to the base camp within only an hour, all feeling jubilant after a good hike. Next highlight of the day was being taught yahtze by the Scots and winning a couple of games! Great fun and very addictive. For dinner we had fresh trout caught in the lake with Amazonian sweet potato, which was delicious. We are all settling into camping/mountain life now and I’m so happy and thankful to be surrounded by such beautiful scenery, fresh air, simple living and good company. Going to be tough going back to the city!

An American group has pitched up next to us – 10 guys and their two American guides. They are friendly and appear to be on the same itinerary as us. Rolando puts them down though for wanting to set up fixed lines on the mountain, calling it too risk adverse. He was qualified under the French system, arguably the best in the world, and I feel in safe hands.

Due to illnesses in the camp another rest day in camp followed and we started the ‘holiday’ with pancakes for breakfast (Ana fast becoming my new favourite person). The day was spent airing the tents and our clothes and cleaning ourselves as best we could – wet wipes are a lifesaver on the mountains! I can’t wash my hair however so it’s always put in a plait under my beanie for the duration of such trips, not that anyone really cares how greasy your hair looks but really to stop it itching and getting dirtier. I’m regretting bringing only two pairs of hiking socks – both of which are sweaty and dusty already, but at least I can air them out today and should be dry and fresh(er) for the next climb. Looking after feet is a priority and I’m annoyed that I have a big blister on my left toe and grazes round my shins from doing my new boots up too tight. Luckily salvageable! Did some sketching of the surrounding mountains in the afternoon, some more yahtze (Ana brought us popcorn as a snack, legend!), and an early dinner to prepare us for the next day.

At 3.15am I awoke, excited to get going on Pequeno Alpamayo. Breakfast of coconut cake and cocoa tea (yum) to fuel us for the hike. Two of the team have come down with severe stomach bugs so couldn’t join us, but the rest of us trekked through the moraine to the glacier for 45mins then I roped up with Rolando and one of the others. The hard ice crunched under our crampons and as I looked around I spotted a number of other group’s headtorches blinking as they made their way slowly up the glacier. At the top of the glacier (around 3 hours later) we went up a steep traverse to the minor summit of Tarija. Rolando had decided to take a ‘short cut’ around the side which had resulted in us front pointing and gripping ice axes to get to the top! At the top though we got the most awesome view of Pequeno Alpamayo, its ridges and its perfect summit pyramid. The next section was a climb down rocks to meet the main West-Southwest ridge.

The ridges looked steep from afar but weren’t too bad once on them (plus we got a bit of a kick by bypassing the Americans on their fixed lines!). Around an hour later we were on the summit at 5337m and gave Rolando a big hug! It was 10.30 so almost 6 hours of climbing but well worth it. The view from the top was breath-taking and we sat on a ledge just down from the summit and enjoyed our lunches and took in the surroundings. Rolando named peaks and pointed out the clouds over the Amazonian basin. We set off back down, and the rock scramble that had been fun going down was much harder work going back up – especially in crampons at 5000m! We carried on at a good pace though across the glacier and were back at the bottom by 1.15pm and in camp around 45 mins later. I was struggling in the heat by this point and glad to be back, as well as elated to have made the journey. Rested for the afternoon with the others followed by dinner. Back to La Paz tomorrow for the next phase...

Packed up camp and walked for an hour through the hills, past lakes and over flowing streams and waterfalls, until we reached the clearing we had first arrived in almost a week earlier. Our van (and Roberto!) was loaded up with our kit and we drove back to La Paz for a well earned shower, feed and rest. Washing my hair again felt like such a luxury - as did having a whole hotel room to myself!

The next morning we got on the bus at 9am after a hearty buffet breakfast (pancakes mmm) to drive the two hours to the base of Huayna Potosi. We were greeted in the base hut by an eldery Bolivian woman who was obviously the 'boss' of the huts (!) and offered us a delicious lunch of chicken and rice before we set off up the mountain. The walk was straightforward, up a rocky path for a couple of hours to the second hut at 5270m

We were pleasantly surprised to see the American group when we reached the hut, and passed the afternoon chatting to them and playing yahtze with my team. The hut was cosy - with a small kitchen space, a dining area with two long tables and benches, and a dormitory room with around 30 bunks and mattresses for the climbers to sleep. We had an early start ahead of us so got dinner around 6pm (spag bol) then clambered into our bunks and sleeping bags. Difficult to sleep, not only with the constant moving around of other people during the night, but excitement for the climb ahead. Bring it on!

Woke at 1.15am for breakfast at 1.30am - chocolate cake and cocoa tea. Grabbed my clothes hanging at the end of my bunk then put on my boots and harness. Bit of a disaster as my headtorch wouldn't turn on, but luckily had some spare batteries and got it working again. I wasn't going to bother bringing my big down jacket and mitts in my rucksack but as we set off up the glacier around 2.20am I was glad I did as it was absolutely freezing. I ended up wearing my thermoball jacket, my Rab neutrino, and my Rab neutrino endurance as well as my mitts, thermals and sallopettes! Brrrrr.

I was roped up with Rolando and two of the guys whilst the others set off ahead with Eulogio. However about an hour later we bumped into the other team - one of them wasn't well and had to head back to the hut with Eulogio whist the other was roped up with us. We also saw a couple of other groups turning back as we headed up the glacier. The next few hours were a long plod in the cold and dark, broken up by a fun ice climb of a few metres. The sun was rising as we tackled the next stretch and the view was stunning over the surrounding peaks, with a orange glow spreading over the snow. Over a couple of steep snow peaks, and then we reached the base of the final summit slope. We took a break at this point to take off some layers and have some chocolate and bloc shots to get some extra energy before tackling the last stretch. Just at that point Eulogio appeared (having gone down to the hut and back) and roped up with two of the team, whilst Rolando stayed with me and one other.

The last slope was very steep and it was slow going getting up it - traversing all the way left and then right to the summit. The American group was just ahead of us and shouted encouragement as they passed us on the way back down. We finally reached the top just after 9am (over 6 hours later!) exhausted but elated! The view was spectacular so the six of us spent some time taking it all in and taking some photos. I feel very proud to have perservered to the top and finally broken the 6,000m mark :)

The route back to the hut took only 2.5 hours but it was a loooong plod and the sun was in full force. I felt my face burning and legs fading as we reached the hut and was very thankful to pull off my big boots and relax on the rocks when we arrived! After rehydrating and having a light lunch, we packed up the rest of our kit and headed down the final rocky stretch to the base camp. Pretty exhausted by this point so it was great to see our van waiting for us at the bottom to take us back to the hotel. We celebrated back at the hotel restaurant with some local red wine, cerviche and steak along with lots of mountain stories and tales of snowy adventures!

The next morning we all had a well-deserved lie in then spent the afternoon exploring La Paz, starting with a trip on the cable car up to Mirador at the top of the city. The view over the city was amazing, including back out to Huayna Potosi and Illimani (at 6438m). Its such a sprawling city amid the mountains and most of the buildings look half finished, especially at the outskirts. However its much cleaner than other South American cities and houses are interspersed with plazas and sports pitches which adds a splash of greenery to an otherwise red-brick and dusty city. Not much at the top (someone has missed a trick not building a panoramic restaurant here!) so we headed back down into the city and got a bus (mainly held together by sellotape) to San Francisco - heart of the backpacker district. The guys arranged a trip mountain biking the 'Death Road' whilst I shopped for a throw and some Bolivian jewellery. We had pizzas and beers for lunch in a little cafe then wandered back to the hotel passing through the old part of town, past the law courts and presidential palace. Dinner at Mungos bar round the corner, where the American guides later joined us to celebrate the end of my trip with Pisco Sours, negronis and dancing until 4am to Latino pop music.

The guides entertained us with stories of their mountain trips, although was sad to hear about their experiences on Everest the preceding season during the earthquake. It reminded me how fragile life can be on the mountains and how we can never underestimate the power of nature. These guys have chosen a different lifestyle from the people I know back in London - a more difficult one at times (long stints from home as well as the obvious dangers) but I can't help but feel there are such huge rewards as well - constantly being out there challenging your mind, spirit, and body and experiencing such natural beauty.

A 7.40am flight back to Miami and then onto London. What a trip! I feel very blessed to have summited five peaks in two weeks, including the incredible Pequeno Alpamayo and Huayna Potosi as well as met such friendly and inspirational people along the way. Despite going back to city life I hope I don't forget the lessons the mountains have taught me.

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