After climbing all the Colorado 14ers, El Pico De Orizaba in Mexico, and Mt Rainier in Washington, I had planned on Denali in Alaska, next. Unfortunately my schedule would not allow for 3 weeks off from work and family. I knew I wanted my next peak to be 20kft or higher so the search began. It would have to be able to be done for under $4k and be done in 10 days or so. After much research, the Andes mountains in Bolivia seemed to be
exactly what I was looking for. Illimani peak was over 20Kft., semi technical,
but still within my comfort level and one of the most beautiful mountains in
South America. Pequeno Alpamayo 17,618 could be done as an acclimitazion
climb but certainly was not a gimmy.
So now all I needed was a partner to join me for the trip. Ryan Kushner 14er handle
Kushrocks had contacted me on 14ers.com after seeing my Spantiks boots for
sale. It turns out he had an interest in a 20kft peak also. It didn't take long
before we were planning the trip. Trying to figure out how to get from 5280 ft to 21,200 ft. within our 10 day trip was the challenge. 21kft is about the same elevation as camp 2 on Mt Everest and most teams take 2 to 3 weeks to get that high.
Our plan to pull it off consisted of several months of V02 max cardio
training and spending several sleepless nights at 14kft. on Mt Evans days
prior to our departure. Mt Evans is one of the few 14ers in Co that you can actually drive up and allowed for easy quick access to 14kft after work. I was really concerned
before we left how I would do in Bolivia since I was having trouble sleeping
and was getting headaches on Mt Evans.
Initially we wanted to go unguided mainly an ego thing and to save money but
after much research the logistics would have been too much for us to tackle
with such a short period of time, not to mention the headaches involved of
getting food, tents, stoves, porters and transportation. In addition, we
would have probably not saved any money going unguided. In the end we were
really happy we went guided and found one of, if not the best climbers in
South America, 50 year old Eduardo Mamani with Bolivian Mountain Guides
http://www.bolivianmountainguides.com/meet-the-staff.php. Yes that is not a
typo, I said the best climber in South America. When he picked us up at the
airport, I said to myself you have got to be kidding, this is our guide? He
was about 5' 2", 140lbs and did not look to be in very good shape. However, it
didn't take long for him to gain our respect. If you YouTube Pequeno
Alpamayo you can watch him in action climbing straight up the face from the
glacier in 10 minutes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zs-zILN7bwY. He once
climbed Aconcagua from basecamp twice in one day 13 hours a record that
still stands and he said he was not trying to set a record, but just there to have fun. That's over 18k vertical feet in 13 hours. Incredible!!! On both our climbs Ryan and I went
through 3 liters of water while Eduardo drank only a half a 20 oz. Pepsi. He
knew exactly what the weather was going to do just by observing the moon and
was right on everytime in his weather predictions. I am convinced he is not human and have story after story about this guy. If he had the means to climb mountains like K2 and
other 8000 meter peaks I have a feeling we would be reading books about him.
More on Eduardo later. Here is how our trip played out:
Day 1 June 29th 2012
Since there are no direct flights to La Paz, Bolivia getting there was
tricky. We left DIA at 7am and after several connecting flights made it to
La Paz, Bolivia at 3 am the next day.
Day 2 June 30th
On our first day in La Paz, we were just trying to get acquainted with the
city. We walked around the area where our hostel was and could feel the
altitude effects while walking up stairs and hills. The elevation of our
hostel was 12'500 ft. La Paz sits in a bowl surrounded by a plateau at 13k
ft. called El Alto where most of the city's growth has taken place over the
past 20 years. It was hard for me to imagine people living at 13k ft. but
they live normal everyday lives. We became obsessed with this oximeter I
purchased at REI prior to the trip which checks your oxygen saturation. Our
scores were about 81-85 unpon arrival in La Paz and by our last day they
were in the 90's in La Paz, proving the more time you spend up high the body
City Of La Paz
We arranged for a ride up to Chacaltaya, what used to be the highest ski
resort in the world until the glacier melted out 10 years ago and it had to
be closed. The parking lot sits at 17kft. We knew this would be a great
way to speed up the acclimation process. As soon as we got out of the car
we could feel the shortness of breath. Hiking the 700 ft. to the top of the
mountain from the parking lot was hard work. My concern about how I would
perform at 21Kft was haunting me. It was still early in the trip though and
we were building red blood cells every minute we spent up high. We took
advantage of the day by doing a 3 mile easy traverse hike to neighboring
peaks. Our stats for the day was 3 miles 1200 ft. elevation gain, an easy day
normally but when we got the hotel that night we were beat! That night
we arranged gear in preparation to go to base camp of Pequeno Alpamayo the
Pointing to Illimani from Chacaltaya
The view on the drive to the basin was decent, but not great. It wasn't until
we drove closer to the Condoriri area that the true beauty of the area
revealed itself. We parked at 14k ft. at a farm and unloaded gear. Eduardo
knows all the locals, and the family that lived there had a huge lunch ready
for us to eat before me made the hike to the 15k ft. basecamp.
Mules carried most of the heavy gear while we filled our backpacks with the
light stuff like sleeping bags and down coats. Hmmmmm, I could get used to
this! The walk to basecamp was one of the prettiest scenes we would see the
entire trip. We enjoyed waterfalls surrounded by glaciated peaks and blue
alpine lakes as we made our way to camp. Both Ryan and I felt much better
than we did the day before and were already seeming to breathe easier.
Huayana Potosi on the drive in
Condoriri another peak on the wishlist
After setting up the tents we had dinner in our cooking tent. Andres was
our cook for the entire trip and always made sure we were fed well so we
would be strong for our climbs. After dinner Ryan and I hiked up to 16'000
ft. to test the climb high-sleep low strategy, and to enjoy the views at
sunset. We called it a night early in anticipation for a 2 am wake up call.
At 2am we had breakfast and were moving by 3am for the summit of Pequeno
Waiting for dinner
Andres our camp cook
Looking at the beginning of tomorrow's route up Pequeno Alpamayo
After dinner sunset hike to 16k
Day 5 Pequeno Alpamayo
We moved under the light of a full moon. We didn't even need
our headlamps. The surrounding glaciers glowed as we made our way up higher.
Once we reached the glacier we would climb we put on the crampons but did
not rope up. Eduardo said it was not necessary until higher up. We made it
to about 17k ft. as the sun rose over the Andes Mountains. The views were
breathtaking and I couldn't help but think how hard it was going to be to
get motivated to climb in Colorado after this.
Ryan crossing a narrow ridge
After crossing a narrow exposed ridge we were at the top of Tarija, a sub
peak of Pequeno Alpamayo. From there we roped up and made our way down 200
feet of class 4 rock with crampons on. It made for a challenging downclimb. I would
compare it to the top section of Wetterhorn Peak in the San Juan's, to give
you an idea of the terrain.
Starting down the class 4 section
No fall zone
Once you pass this section then it's time for
the fun snow/ice climbing to begin. There are two pitches
of about 50/60 degree hard snow, which was more ice than snow. A slip here would be hard to self-arrest, so it did require our undivided attention.
Two other climbers coming down as we are going up
Having fun now!
Our breathing was heavy but after a few swings of the axes we took our final steps to the
cumbre, or summit at 7:30 am. The weather was perfect on top! We had some
snacks and took some photos of the awesome views of the Andes as far as the
eye could see. I thought to myself I will be back for more!
After a few photos we retraced our steps and Ryan and I both faced in to down climb the
steep sections while Eduardo belayed us. We made our way back over the rock
section then back down the glacier to camp where lunch awaited. I love this
guided stuff!!! Usually after a hard day I'm way too tired to cook for
myself and having Andres there with food always ready played a huge roll in
our success. That night we slept really well at 15Kft, much better than we did back home on Mt Evans. Our confidence skyrocketed!!!
Day 6 We packed up, hiked out, then drove back to La Paz, for the night. We enjoyed our rest brief rest day and called it a night early. We made the most of our half rest day knowing it would be our last taste of civilization for the next 4 days. My only complaint was the food in La Paz, it was pretty flavorless. Unfortunately Andres was only there to cook while we
were in the mountains. I can't complain about his food, it was great!
Day 7 We left at 9am for our main objective of the trip, Illimani! Today we
would be going up 2000 ft to basecamp at 14,500 ft. We had dreamed about
this for months. Illimani is the 2nd highest mountain in Bolivia towering
above everything around it. From the city it looks like it's about 10 miles
away but the winding dirt road actually takes 3 hours to drive from La Paz.
The mountain was hidden from us for most of the ride and both Ryan and I kept
looking out the window at every turn to see if we would get a good glimpse
of what awaited us. It wasn't until we made our way up and over one of the
final passes of the road that we got to see Illimani in all her glory. Wow what a big mountain!
I was filled with butterflies and nervous energy. Yes, this is it, time to see if we are up to the challenge! We arrived a short time later in a small village at the base of Illimani called Pinaya, elevation 12,500 ft. It's a really cool farm community with lots of llamas, pigs, horses, and other types of farm animals. The trail starts through the village and weaves in and around some houses where little kids come out of their houses with their hands extended
asking for candy when they see climbers passing buy. It's a tradition so you
better have a bag of candy ready as you pass by. Luckily Ryan was prepared
with a bag of Starburst as he knew about this prior to leaving Denver. The look
on these kids' eyes when they got candy was one of the best feelings ever
because you could tell they genuinely appreciated it.
I couldn't help but think what my daughters were up to back home when this girl came looking for candy.
Ryan became very popular with the local kids
We made our way to camp in the heat of the day. It was very hot and no shade anywhere. Hard to believe that night it would snow on us. Once we arrived at basecamp and set
up tents, we ate dinner and went to bed so we could wake up early to head to
high camp at 17,500 ft.
Illimani basecamp colors
I had my Mp3 player playing at a low volume which I
discovered helped me to sleep and not get homesick. I heard Ryan yell from
his tent "Dude, did you just take a picture"? "I said no", and looked out from the
tent. We were engulfed in a cloud. It was so dark out we couldn't see our
hands in front of our faces. A minute later we saw a flash, not a camera flash,
but a lightning flash. Soon after that it was snowing. It snowed
about an inch overnight and made for some great morning photos.
Day 8 Everything had been going perfect to this point in the trip when we
had our first "WTF" moment. We got up at 8am and were pumped up ready to go
to high camp. We waited for Eduardo who was supposed to be there and waited and
waited. He didn't show and we heard Andres talking to some of the porters in
a language other than Spanish so I didn't understand what was being said. I
could tell by their expression that it was not good. I asked Andres "where
is Eduardo"? He would not answer me. Finally, after insisting to know what the
hell was going on he told me Eduardo went back to La Paz. He was in Pinaya
this morning at 5am but went back to La Paz when he heard Ryan and I wanted
to go down because of the new snow. I told Andres, "That's crazy and we were
going up no matter what". If we had to carry all our own gear with no porters,
so be it. He called Eduardo who was now back in La Paz, and told him that we
insisted on going up. Eduardo told Andres, "ok I'll be there." Apparently there
was a big miscommunication who's fault it was was debatable. There
was snow on the ground and the porters had all gone home so we were stuck
going up the 3000+ ft. with 45lbs packs which didn't include the ice axes,
crampons, mountaineering boots, rope, and cooking equipment. All that stayed
at basecamp as we were told, there would be 1 or 2 porters later in the day to help Eduardo make a carry to high camp. So we took off up the slopes with only our personal gear.
We went slow and were feeling ok even with the heavy packs. We made it to
high camp, about 5 minutes below the Condors Nest which is the normal high
camp, but it was all snowed in so we used the alternative camp which offers better
wind protection. This camp spot, which sits on a narrow ridge is is a lot more exposed and only has room for 2 tents. This is not a place you want to sleep walk. It was mid-day, we had lunch and enjoyed the views of the summit which looked so close yet still 3200 ft. higher.
Views on the way to high camp
Ryan and Andres working up the nasty scree to high camp
We were told by the locals this bird represented good luck for a summit. I disagreed we make our own luck!
La Cordillera De Los Andes! A lifetime of exploring!
We were 2/3rds of the way there from reaching our goal. It was
getting dark and still no Eduardo. I started getting nervous that he wasn't
going to show. It got dark and still no Eduardo and at this point I'm pissed
off. Even if we wanted to go up alone we didn't have our boots, axes, or
crampons. I asked Andres, "Is he going to show?" Andres said "Yes he will be
here." I gave up hope at about 11 p.m. and told Ryan, "He is not going to show."
We both laid in the tent quiet for about an hour in disappointment when I
heard Andres say, "I need your headlamp I see Eduardo below." Yup sure enough,
he was about 3000 ft below the ridge, you could barely see his headlamp
shining. Andres said, "I'm going to help him, you guys just get some rest and
be ready to go at 3am." We went to sleep still not very confident he would
be able to get up 3000 ft. in time with all the gear. At 2am we were awoken
by Andres and Eduardo for breakfast. It turned out they had made 2 carry's from
basecamp in the middle of the night to pull off this summit attempt. That's
6000 ft. of elevation gain in the middle of the night and still 3200 to go! We
knew Eduardo was strong, but how could he do two carry's in the middle of the
night and still lead us the summit? I didn't question it, I was just happy to be
going for it! We had a small breakfast, geared up, and were off. This is it!
Let's get it! Crampons went on right away, and the snow was rock hard as we passed numerous skinny ridges not quite knife edges but enough to get your
attention. It was much colder than Pequeno Alpamayo, and this had more of a big
mountain feel to it. We weaved in and out of crevasses, and up steep slopes, then
it flattened out for a while were we had to break trail in a foot of new
snow. Eduardo called the snow "mierda", or "shit". We got off route because of all the new snow, and Eduardo who has climbed the mountain hundreds of times
looked puzzled for a minute as he examined what way would be best. I put
full trust in his route-finding skills and thought how in trouble we would
have been in if we had we gone up alone not knowing the route.
Eduardo breaking trail
We were about 19k ft now and I was beginning to feel the altitude, especially on the parts we had to post hole and break trail. I took GU after GU to keep my body fueled. As
we got higher I was counting steps, 10 steps....rest, 10 seconds.....repeat. I
was the middle man on the rope team and looked back at Ryan to see if he was
struggling also, and he was. I noticed Eduardo also slowing down quite a bit.
I didn't know if the 2 sleepless nights, and 2 carrys he did to highcamp in
the middle of the night were going to wear him down to the point he would
say, "Let's turn around." He kept going though and I kept following his steps. I tried
to take my mind elsewhere and just keep moving. The final 50 degree slope on
hard packed snow/ice to gain the summit ridge at 20k ft seemed to never end.
Finally, we got there and the winds kicked up. All exposed skin needed to be covered to prevent frostbite. Baby step after baby step we made it closer to the summit taking breaks every 10 steps. Ryan saw me pretty exhausted at this point and told me a dirty joke and got me to laugh for the first time all day. Up until that point I hadn't said more than 10
words the entire climb. It lifted my spirits and we pushed on. We were all
hurting at this point even Superman Eduardo. At last I saw a stick in the
snow representing the summit. For the first time all day I knew we were
going to make it!!! Five minutes later we were there! I had a headache and
went to my knees to thank God for giving me the strength to get there and
for the amazing feeling of accomplishment. I had flashbacks of all the hours of
running and sleeping on top Mt Evans and knew it was all for this moment!
The clouds were thousands of feet below us. It was an amazing feeling but I
was so exhausted I couldn't celebrate much. Ryan asked for a picture and I
just ignored him because it was too cold (-20 degrees farenheit) to get my
camera out. I had another GU and felt a little better.
Not a staged Tebow pose this was taken by Ryan as I gave thanks
After 15 minutes we started back down. I was able to breath better and felt better every 1000 ft we descended. We carefully tested each step downward to prevent a fall. I'm
pretty good at self arresting in Colorado but this snow was different. An
uncontrolled glissade pulling the team with me toward a crevasse and testing
Eduardo's guide skills was not something I wanted to chance. Eventually we
made it back to high camp safely.
Making our way down it warmed up
We refueled and rested for about an hour, then we started down to basecamp and it was starting to warm up and get easier to breathe. About 1000 feet from basecamp I felt strong again and my spirits rose when I saw green grass and running water and felt the warm sun.
I turned on my music and the emotions hit me like a ton of bricks. Tears
filled my eyes and I let the others go on ahead so I could soak it all in.
At times I'd stop and look back up toward the summit and say to myself "Wow we
did it!" Eventually, I caught back up with Ryan and could tell he was
feeling the same euphoria and as we walked back into basecamp a few loud Woo
Hoo's could be heard and high fives!!! I asked Eduardo what peak was more
difficult Aconcagua or Illimani and he said "Illimani was much more difficult"
making his heroics even more impressive that night. What he did was climb
9000 ft in bad snow conditions on 2 sleepless nights in order to meet his
commitment to Ryan and myself. What a sacrifice. I felt so bad at being mad
at him and knew the miscommunication was not his fault. I respected his
heart for doing what he did so we could summit. I gave him my brand new
crampons to replace his generic 20 year old ones as a sign of my
appreciation. That night we recovered at basecamp and got another round of
snow. At this point it didn't matter if the sky fell, we had already
tasted victory! There were other teams going up, but Eduardo said they
wouldn't make it which we later found out that they didn't. Conditions had gotten
worse and we felt lucky we threaded the needle and made it on a cold and
windy but clear day.
Day 9 We hiked out of Basecamp drove back to La Paz and celebrated with beer
Day 10 Fly home
What's next? Well the high lasted for about 48 hours before I started
thinking with a little more acclimatization time and maybe some supplemental
oxygen I could do an entry level 8000 meter peak like Cho Oyo(6th highest in
the world). There are a few other mountains that spark my interest like Denali, Mt Cook, Spantik. I will let life's circumstances guide my next steps and see what happens next.
If anyone has any questions on these mountains feel free to PM me.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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