One of the biggest reasons Blake and I chose to come to Peru and Bolivia for our trip was the awesome variety of trekking available in the Andes. We wanted to spend our nights in a tent enjoying some very wild places. As such, we wanted our final trek to be amazing, little traveled, and challenging. Our original plan had us heading to the far north of Bolivia to the remote Apolobomba trek, through wildcat gold mining and medicine man territory. However, in talking with tour agencies (we would need a guide, as the region is remote and has few clear trails) we realized that the cost of transportation and a guide would be difficult for us to arrange.
Our view of Condoriri as our cab drove away
To save our time and spend it outside rather than in a bus we chose a trek in the Cordillera Real, just a n hour or two outside La Paz. During our morning talking to tour operator after tour pirate one agency, Adolfo Andino, suggested that we take the Condoriri trek solo and follow it up with a climb up Huayna Potosi. We had read about Huayna Potosi, considered by many one of theist accessible 6000m plus mountains in the world. Although not technical, (I have no ice or rock climbing skills to brag on. We are walkers.) the mountain is a very challenging trek up a steep glaciated peak. Blake's eyes lit up at this suggestion, and I remained in deep doubt whether I wanted to challenge myself with what was sure to be a very difficult, cold, and potentially scary peak.So Blake got me drunk. ;)
Actually, that is not fair. As a reward for doing El Choro we had planned on lunch at Gustu. We posted about our awesome lunch there. Following our morning of trek-fact-finding we decided to use our lunch to make a final decision about our final big trek if the trip. One of the first things we ordered at Gustu were our lovely cocktails, the perhaps fifth drinks we have had on our whole trip. My cocktail must have gone straight to my head in an empty stomach at 11000 ft (remember how high La Paz's altitude is?) because before I knew it Blake had talked me into "ending our trip on a real high point" and being "the best adventure buddies ever". I agreed to the trek and the peak, we made the call to reserve our spot at the agency, and we were committed. Although I will admit that the day after we put down the deposit I immediately began to have regrets and doubts, (oh $&?! what did I just sign up for!), my stubborn nature was never going to let me back down.
Our agency was Adolfo Andino. I'm going to preface the rest of this post by saying ultimately we were not happy with the agency. If you are reading this considering your own trek go with someone else (Travel Treks seemed like a good choice).
The deal was this. For $1,000 bolivianos each the agency would arrange transport to the beginning of the Condoriri trail and meet is at the Huayna Potosi trailhead after four days. We would use our map and trekking skills to get ourselves solo across four 5,000m passes and through the wilds. At 2pm. On the 28th a guide would be waiting for us at the refugio with all our gear, ready to teach us how to us crampons and ice axes to negotiate a glacier. We'd climb on the 29th and summit on the 30th.
We showed up ready to go at 8:45 AM on the 25th and plunged into a chaotic office where Adolfo the owner was struggling to manage several groups heading off in different directions. Despite telling us that on the day we embarked he'd sit down and draw/explain the Condoriri trek, Adolfo barely seemed to remember the details of our agreement. (Strike one against Adolfo). Despite this we found all the gear in right sizes (plastic boots, gaiters, crampons, snow pants, snow jacket, balaclava, waterproof gloves) and were ready to go. The taxi finally got going around 11:30 and we arrived at our destination at 1:30.
Day One: Tuni - Jori Khota
Condoriri is a mountain which Bolivians feel resembles a condor. The central peak is the condor's head and the two smaller peaks which flank the summit are the wings. It's a high craggy lovely mountain. However, our taxi driver dropped us basically in the middle of nowhere, gestured to the hill on our left, and said "the trail is somewhere up there. Climb to the top of the hill and you should see it". It took me 4-5 repeats of this to understand/believe him, as he was missing many teeth and had a huge bolus of coca leaves in his mouth slurring his speech. The taxi drove off, we looked at each other, and started up hill.
The driver was right. At the top of the 4700m "hill" we found a small footpath leading in what felt to be the right direction. We wound over and around the high hills and soon found ourselves traversing a large ridge. The wind was unbelievably strong, gusting at perhaps 60 or 70 miles per hour. I had to lean in to stay upright. Blake had laundry tied to the outside of his pack and watched in dismay as one of his three pairs of boxers got ripped off the pack and flew away. I guess he left a bit of himself in the wilds that day.
We came over our second big hill and were rewarded with the sight of Condoriri's left flank rising above the lake at Jori Khota. The water of the lake was crystal clear. We set up camp on the left hand side of the lake on some of the only flat ground to be found in the valley. A lone woman manned an outpost (perhaps it was her home) and collected 10 bolivianos as a camping fee/community support fee. It seemed so little to pay to have the beautiful campsite all to ourselves and so small a contribution to improve the community school.
We settled in for a chilly evening cozy inside our tent.
Day Two: Jori Khota - 3rd 5000m Pass (unnamed)
We woke early bit waited for the sun to warm the valley before breaking camp. Our campsite was very high - perhaps 4600 or maybe 4800 meters. Our altimeter watch is not very accurate. Our first goal for the day was to hike around the lake, up a massive ridge, over the pass at 5300 (5400?) meters.
Hiking up we skirted the lake on a steep skree slope. Unlike Peru, Bolivia does not have much in the way of high altitude plant life. It's a stark grey snowy kind of beauty. The slope would have made my Mama Llama nervous as it was very steep no matter which direction you looked, and the trail was a scant 6-9 inches wide. Once around the lake we were into the glacial moraines at the base of condor or peak. The trail would through big boulder fields and we would have lost the trail but for the cairns marking the way. The most exciting bit required us to do a bit of light rock climbing, clearing the way for our final push. Up and up we went, slow and sure and strong. I won't say the pass was easy, but we sure didn't struggle. At the top we admired but decided not to climb 5600m Pico Austria, leaving that to small tourist groups with their guides.
We descended down more steep slopes into another lake filled valley. What looked like a straightforward decent was complicated by icy, snow filled scree falls. I nearly ended myself falling in one if these gullies, saved by self-arresting on my belly and a well placed clump of tundra. I have never been as frightened as I was working my way sideways on my belly out of that steep ice and onto solid ground. Glad to still we with y'all people. Sorry to scare you Mom and Dad.
We made the bottom of the valley and lakeshore early in the afternoon around 2:30. For us, this is just too early to make camp for three reasons. One, it is cold in them there hills, and windy to boot. Early camp means shivering as our bodies cool after exercise. Two, there is not much to do at camp. We read books aloud to each other and listen to an Audiobook (An Indecent Obsession by Colleen McCoughlah and Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman) but those are limited resources. Five or six hours of that and we'd soon have nothing to do. Third, at 2:30 we are still full of pep and have loads of daylight left. We looked up at our next pass, consulted with the few guides around about flat spots and water, and decided to head up. Again, no trail. The hill was made of hillocks of grass which reminded is of stairs.
This pass, although not as steep, felt harder. My legs were tired, and Blake, used to Colorado camping, insisted we carry a full load of water up. Water is so heavy! We made it over the pass and camped a few ridges below the pass, very high, with a few llamas for company. The flat site and tranquility should have made for good sleeping but altitude is a funny thing. This night we were surely higher than 4800m. At that altitude your brain does not want to turn off. We lay awake and aware despite our tires bodies, and listened to the end of our audiobook at 2am. The night was long.
Day Three: Un-names pass to Maria Lloco
Although we we were determined to break camp early (aided on our decision by the long restless night) it was cold in the morning. It is so hard to get out of a lovely warm down bag and accept numb fingers first thing I the morning! We had double coffee (so lux!) and watched the sun rise over Huayna Potosi. Our high elevation meant the sun came a bit earlier than it would have had we been deeper in a valley. We hit the road around 8:30.
Initially the trail was very clear. It led down the pass into one of the marshy valleys Blake and I have come to know well. The marshes are home to hillocks of tundra which sit like islands above many small streams and boggy low lying areas. They are best negotiated dining the early morning when they have ices over and are relatively firm. Woe to the afternoon traveler in a bog. We both sunk our boots up to the ankle more than once crossing a valley! Also whoa to the trekker who puts a bare hand, leg, or tries to sit on this tundra. The tundra might as well be made of needles. Whatever body part you put onto this devil grass with pressure will come up covered on pinpricks sever enough to draw blood.
From the valley floor the trail disappeared and diverged into a thousand llama trails. Confronted with either a high steep route up and over a mountain flank or a long winding route around the flank, for once we chose the long and winding road. This led us through some beautiful views, and we saw a (huge) fox. Around the flank we found our next high pass and enjoyed a nice trail up very steep skree with a few rare and blessed switchbacks. The top of this pass was awesome because we had views for La Paz to Lake Titicaca. I actually turned to Blake and was like "what could that huge lake BE?". The worlds highest navigable lake, duh. After the pass our decent led down precarious snowfields into a valley studded with lakes, mines, and across the valley a nice road.
It was at this point our map failed us. Theoretically we should have come out near the road and been able to judge our location by triangulating road, lakes, and surrounding peaks. However there is a new road and the miners gave dammed the river and created new lakes. That valley DID NOT look like our map. We were grateful for our topography skills, as the peaks were our best guide. Keeping Huayna on our left we headed up the valley through a weirdly deserted but clearly inhabited landscape. Many adobe houses, mines, half-finished houses, and crumbling abandoned houses dotted the landscape but no people or animals (not even llamas!) were to be seen. This meant no one to consult on directions, so we just kept on heading up valley, towards Huayna, and towards what we believed to be our final 5000m pass.
We found a lovely flat spot located just below the flanks of Maria Lloco, reliably sure we'd made our goal and then some for the night. This was confirmed while Blake pumped water and I relaxed in the tent as an old man rose up on a cross country motorcycle to collect camping fees. He seemed surprised we seemed psyched to have a campsite away from his house and bummed we did not want an arriero to carry our gear the next day. He gave us directions for the following day and collected a very reasonable 15 boliviano fee per person, dedicated to improving the community. We had a VERY cold night once the sun went down, measuring 22 degrees inside the tent and much colder outside. In the morning as we hiked the water we had attached to the outside of the pack froze as we walked along. Brrr.
Day Four: Maria Lloco to Huayna Potosi Refugio
In spite if the icy cold Blake and I woke early and broke camp in the dark. We had a date to keep with our guide at the Refugio, where to our knowledge we were expected at approximately 1230 for lunch followed by ice climbing practice at 2pm. To get there we had a 5200m pass to cross and a mountain to flank, so we got ourselves in gear and headed off. We were so cold heading out, in full down jackets, gloves, and hats. As soon as the hit us 30 minutes into hiking we started sweating. There must have been an immediate 20 degree difference! We she's layers and kept heading up.
This pass had no real trail, so we traversed back and forth and hopes there were not too many false summits. We passes old iron mines and curious llamas until we got to the wind swept top of the pass. One of my least favorite parts of the hike came on the decent here as the trail was frequently covered in 1-2 feet if ice encrusted snow, requiring me to gingerly break trail. Given my earlier fall and the exposure on the ridge I was freaked out about snow slides and rock fall, and breaking solid footholds in the snow is tiring work. We made it down to a road, and then we took a wrong turn.
The man at Maria Lloco told us to bear left all day in flanking Pico Milani, starting at the road. "The trial is clear from all the mules" he said. We followed that trail, not the road, as it curves into the valley and led down. At the head of the valley the trail disappeared, leaving us in a hiking wasteland of moraines and boggy marshland spotted with small llama trails. We were left with no choice but to cross country work, struggling through rapidly melting bogs and steep rough rocky moraines. All the whole we were aware of our deadline and rushed as quickly as we could.
Our stroke of luck hit (finally!) just as we hit the edge of Pico Milani's flake. I'll be honest that neither Blake nor I was feeling our hike at this point. We were tired from the pass, the snow breaking, and the bush whacking. We came up over a moraine a lo! there was a clear mule, not llama, trail leading I the direction we wanted to go. This was about noon, so even though we knew we'd be late to the Refugio it would not be by more than about an hour. We would still get to eat lunch! The last three kilometers to the Refugio led up yet another moraine (into every hike a little moraine must fall), with a road on the opposite side doing brisk traffic in vans dropping off tourists who had not decided to walk to the Refugio.
At 1:00pm we proudly and tiredly rolled into the Refugio, a series of small huts designed to be a staging area for the many tourist agencies arranging climbs of Huayna Potosi. I asked after Adolfo Andino and out came the same toothless coca chewing man who had driven out original taxi. I said "we're here in time for practice from Maria Lloco!", proudly, only for him to say "practice? You aren't supposed to be here for two more days". !?!?!??!
Strike two Adolfo Andino. We pulled out our very clear receipt and showed it to the guides. Their faces got dark, but they invited us into our hut to find beds and prepare our lunch. They went off to work things out. Mod-lunch Roque (soon to be our guide) said "hurry! Lunch later, we will find gear now!l. We tried on the damp gear of a departing French group (who for the record also reported that Adolfo Andino had messed up their gear/trip), found most of the things we needed, and were told that we would in fact climb on schedule. I would practice on the glacier while wearing my trekking boots rather than the specialized plastic boots but other than that we had all necessary borrowed gear and our own properly sized gear would come up with an extra guide the next day.
phew. Sort of. Remember, that meant climbing a 6,088m mountain!
Anne Eden, Sent from my iPhone
Blake's Take on Climbing Huayna Potosi
To say that climbing Huayna Potosi was one of the most challenging and psychologically intimidating prospects that I have ever done would not be an understatement. It was the toughest hike I've ever done. I know that Annie would say the same. From the moment we agreed to tackle the mountain we were both filled with a sense of anticipation and no small part of dread. However anyone who knows Annie knows that once she makes up her mind to do something she WILL do it and I by and large am more or less the same . We looked forward to the mountain with grim determination.
That's Huayna Potosi in the distance, looming ever larger. Our goal lies on the far side of the mountain.
Our hike towards the mountain was tough as well: starting in the middle of nowhere, crossing 4 5000 meter passes, using our navigational skills to hike cross-country with only a hastily sketched trail to follow. And through it all was Huayna Poyosi, steadily looming larger and larger on the horizon. The 4th day of our trans- cordillera real trek was particularly challenging as we lost the trail and spent an extra hour transversing a steep ridge and picking our way across a marshy meadow before finding our way again. By give time we reached the base camp, neither one of us was in the best of spirits. A quick lunch soon set us to rights, but then we had to deal with some logistic issues with our tour agency. Essentially Adolfo had forgotten or mixed up the dates of our arrival and our climbing gear was not at the Refugio, which meant that Annie and I would have to practice with ill fitting gear borrowed and cobbled together from other groups. Hence our 80's -tastic yellow and red snowgear. Worse yet was our lack of properly fitting plastic boots - mine were too big and Annie was forced to practice walking in crampons strapped to her regular shoes. We were not impressed with Adolfo Andino at this point. However, our glacier walking practice proved unremarkable (our guide Roque later confided that it was more a chance for him to gauge our ability level than anything else) and we spent a short time practicing duck-stepping and crab walking sideways before attempting a very brief ice climb-a exciting twenty foot regalito (gift) courtesy of our guide. We retired to the Refugio and spent the evening drinking tea and playing cards with many other climbers.
The next day started leisurely as we waited for our proper gear to arrive. It finally appeared and by 12:30 we were packed and ready to make the short ascent from base camp to high camp at 5130 meters.
It was only a short hike of 4 kilometers or so and we made good time heading up. At this point Annie and I were so well acclimated that the altitude was no problem. At high camp we found adjacent bunks and settled in for more tea and countless more rounds of cards with our fellow climbers. Annie and I felt like we were back in college as we played games with names like "Presidents and A$$holes", "Spoons", and "Sh*thead". After an uneventful afternoon and a lackluster dinner, everyone settled in early (6pm) as we would start climbing in the wee small hours of the night (wake at 12am, walk at 1am). Even though we were well acclimated, sleeping at close to 17000 feet (5130m) proved practically impossible. Everyone tossed and turned unable to sleep due to the altitude (not to mention the great quantities of tea we had drank). Annie and I probably got an hours worth of fitful rest. At midnight it was game time.
The lights came on and the bunkhouse was a hive of activity as we all pulled on our many layers of snow gear and struggled with harnesses and awkward plastic snow boots. We had time for a few cups of coffee and then we were out the door. Annie and I had the privilege of being the first team to hit the glacier. Our guide was actually a great guy and thoughtfully gave us time to proceed at a "Tranquilo" pace which necessitated an early start time. We walked a few hundred meters across rocks to the glacier proper and struggled into our crampons in the dark.
Hiking in the dark was like something out of a dream. My whole world was reduced to the pool of light from my headlamp, the trail immediately under my feet, the rope securing us together and Annie's steady stride ahead of me. You could just barely make out the massive bulk of the mountain above us-dark against the stars and the city glow from distant La Paz. We hiked up and up for hours, occasionally stepping or hopping across deep crevasses which glittered in the light of our headlamps. Far below us we could see many other groups; the glow from their headlamps spread out like a string of lights on the mountain. We hiked slow and steady and were sometimes passed by groups whose guides were less "tranquilo" than our own. Still, we made good time.
As dawn slowly broke in the east we made it to our final push: a steep 55 degree slope of ice which had us kicking our crampons into the ice with each step and relying heavily on the business end of our ice axes (crampons are awesome BTW) and then we walked crossed a ridge towards the summit that was maybe 5 feet wide with a wall of snow and ice to our right and a lllooonnnggg drop to our left. It was excileratjng and scary. I muttered 'holy sh*t' to myself about every 5 steps. Finally, we made the summit and enjoyed the views and the incredible rush and satisfaction at the feat we haas accomplished. We could only enjoy it for a few minutes as the summit was only a few square meters and we were among a dozen or is climbers drinking in the view with more straggling up. Needless to say it was crowded. With reluctance we left the top and faced the even more daunting challenge of down climbing the very same slopes we had just struggled up. With our hearts in our throats we managed to scramble down safely and then we made our descent back to high camp and eventually all the way back to base camp. On the way down we realized just how steep sections of our hike had been. The darkness of our ascent had hidden the true magnitude of our mornings effort and jumping glacial crevasses was even more daunting in the light of day. We made fairly quick profess and even earned the grudging respect of our guide as he admitted we had done much better than he had expected. We were down from the mountain before noon, tired, famished, and immensely proud of our accomplishment and of each other.
This ridge was the last hurdle between us and the summit. It was scary coming up and really scary going down.
On the summit with our guide, Roque
Dawn on the summit of Huayna Potosi, 6088 meters
In the dark this first ascent didn't seem that steep.