Peak(s):  Huayna Potosi - 19974
Chacaltaya - 17700
Date Posted:  07/05/2018
Modified:  07/10/2018
Date Climbed:   06/24/2018
Author:  Col_Forbin
 Shit Gets Real in the Cordillera Real   

I am writing this trip report to reflect on my recent journey to South America and hope it will provide useful information for those looking to try their hand at a 6,000 meter peak.

Context:

I have wanted to make the trip to Bolivia to climb Huayna Potosi (19,974 feet / 6,088 meters) for a couple of years. Trying to get my main climbing partners to commit to such a trip unfortunately turned out to be much more difficult than I expected. I had the goal of making it to Bolivia in summer of 2017, but was unable to make it happen.

Flash forward to January 2018, and the year was off to a very difficult start for me. After dealing with a family medical issue and yet another failed relationship, I found my mental and physical health was on a major decline. Living a life that was becoming more filled with regret was taking its toll. I was falling further out of shape, and was spending basically no time in the mountains… a place that brings perspective and solace to so many of us who are captivated by their enigmatic presence.

I decided that it was finally time to pull the trigger on my flight to La Paz on April 7th, just two months and some change before my departure date.

“Personal torment has inspired great climbs and great creations. Outsiders may view torment as a negative state of mind or bad attitude. But confusion, questioning, and doubt often act as fountains of creativity, producing grand works of art and action.” Mark Twight - Extreme Alpinism

Jeff Lowe's "Metanoia" embodies this quote.

Confusion, Questions, and Doubt:

I knew that I needed to get my shit together big time. I immediately got in touch with Eduardo Mamani Quispe from Bolivian Mountains Guides, per multiple recommendations. We set up the dates for my climb of Huayna Potosi - June 22nd through June 24th. The initial down payment of 200 USD was made via Western Union, and I was locked in.

Knowing that I was about to be attempting a peak far beyond anything I had done in terms of altitude and technical difficulty was definitely a lot to think about, and was certainly a source of doubt. I consider myself a *fairly* competent/experienced mountaineer, having been climbing the high peaks of Colorado since I was young, and I truly believed Huayna Potosi was a realistic objective. For taking me into the mountains at a young age, and instilling a passion for the alpine, is something that I will be eternally grateful to my father for. All this aside, I knew that attempting Huayna Potosi was going to be far more challenging than anything I had experienced in the Rocky Mountains.

Focus:

It was time to get back into shape, with only two months to train. I re-joined a local climbing gym, and was getting cardio in almost every day. Running miles around the lake in City Park while jamming out to Phish was definitely starting to improve my mental health. I saw my mileages increase, my pace quicken, and my waist line begin to decrease in size.

This was certainly not the best spring season for snow climbing in Colorado, as we all know. Most ranges were at least one month off in terms of snowpack, conditions, etc. However, I was able to make the most of this spring in order to train for Potosi. Every climber knows the best way to train for a climb is to climb. I reconnected with my main climbing partner, Peter, and we began getting out as much as possible. We made the most out of late April, through early June with ascents of the following peaks in chronological order.

-Mt Guyot - Southeast Ridge

-Mt. Edwards - Goatfinger Couloir

-Horseshoe Mountain - Boudoir Couloir

-Mt. Hope - Hopeful Couloir

-Cathedral Peak - South Couloir/Ridge

-Torrey’s Peak - Dead Dog Couloir

-The Citadel - Snoopy’s Backside Couloir

-North Star Mountain - Unnamed, random couloir on North Face

-Mt. Democrat - North Face

-Mt. Evans - Sunrise Couloir

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Summit Ridge of Guyot


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Summit of Cathedral Peak


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Sunrise Couloir on Evans

Many of these routes are moderate, and ones that I had completed before, but getting as much time in at altitude as possible was the main goal. I found Cathedral Peak to be a fun challenge, strengthening my mental game in the process. I cannot express enough thanks to Peter for being such an amazing partner, sharing and achieving mutual goals, while having an absolute blast in the high country.

The days leading up to my departure were quite intense. Stressing out about the fact that I had completely spaced getting my vaccinations. Will this impact my ability to get my Visa? Was I fit enough? Es mi experiencia con Espanol suficiente para Bolivia? Making the trip solo certainly added to the excitement. I spent a lot of time on Mt. Evans during the days leading up to the trip, sleeping on the summit in my car, trying to help aid the acclimatization process. Thanks again to kushrocks for his TR, which I found invaluable. His trip report can be found below.

Part 1: http://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=12285&parmuser=kushrocks&cpgm=tripuser

Part 2: https://www.14ers.com/php14ers/tripreport.php?trip=12286&parmuser=kushrocks&cpgm=tripuser

The Experience:

My itinerary for Bolivia was short, but was set up quite well for my solo budget, it is listed below.

Tuesday, June 19th - Fly out of Denver

Wednesday, June 20th - Arrive in La Paz, check into Hotel Sagarnaga, rest

Thursday, June 21th - Acclimatization hike of Mt. Chacaltaya (17,700 feet / 6,088 meters)

Friday, June 22nd - Huayna Potosi Base Camp, more acclimatization on Zongo glacier

Saturday, June 23rd - Hike to High Camp - Rest

Sunday, June 24th - Summit Day - Return to Base camp - La Paz

Monday, June 25th - Free Day in La Paz (tourist time)

Tuesday, June 26th - More tourist time in La Paz

Wednesday, June 27th - Long journey back to Denver

Tuesday, June 19th

Holy shit, the time has come. Let’s do this! My friend dropped me off at the airport. I had one carry-on bag, and one extremely heavy checked bag with all of my climbing gear. The flight consisted of a short layover in Miami, followed by a red-eye flight to La Paz.

Wednesday, June 20th

I landed at El Alto airport at 5 am. Luckily I had zero issues obtaining my Visa without vaccinations, the price was 160 USD. Heads up! If you bring cash to Bolivia make sure the bills are 100% crisp and the edges are not frayed. If the bills aren't totally pristine, they will not be accepted. I did not have an issue with this, just something to know. Don't forget to call you bank/cc number to post a travel alert!

The cab driver that Hotel Sagarnaga arranged for my pickup was waiting outside the gate with a sign for my name. As we walked my luggage out to his vehicle, I was immediately greeted by commanding views of Huayna Potosi, the southern Cordillera Real, and Illimani. Adrenaline kicked in and everything became super real. I arrived at Hotel Sagarnaga and checked into my room. Despite my excitement I was able to get a few hours of sleep to ease the jet lag.

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Huayna Potosi (left) and Mt. Chacaltaya (right) as seen from La Paz

After waking up, I started getting myself familiar with the neighborhood of La Paz I was staying in. I highly recommend staying at Hotel Sagarnaga, and calle Sagarnaga is full of interesting shops, vendors, and restaurants. One particular bar offered free shots from 2-10 pm. Hotel Sagarnaga is located in the heart of downtown, and for my stay, was quite affordable at about 217 USD for 8 nights. The hot showers and clean rooms were quite nice. I realized that I needed a plug adapter, but was easily able to find one from one of the many vendors/markets downtown, specifically Mercado Lanza for this purchase.

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Downtown La Paz


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Illimani as seen from La Paz

I was able to get in touch with Eduardo via email, and began to look forward to my acclimatization hike of Mt. Chacaltaya the following morning.

Thursday, June 21st

Eduardo arrived at my hotel at 8 am sharp. We exchanged greetings, and were off to El Alto to pick up Felix, our cook the weekend. I ask Eduardo if my Lowa Cevedale boots would suffice for Huayna Potosi, and he answered yes. It was nice to know that I wouldn’t need to lug my plastic Koflach Double Boots around.

As we made our way out of the city, I was astounded by the views of Illimani and Huayna Potosi. We pulled over to take some pictures, I pulled out my GPS, and was almost shocked to see that we are already at 15,000 feet. The drive to Chacaltaya was quite scenic. Apparently, the area had received a meter of snow the week prior to my visit. As we approached the mountain, the fields that surrounded us had literally hundreds of snowmen made by the locals. It was quite an interesting experience.


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Huayna Potosi as seen from approach to Chacaltaya

We began our drive up Mt. Chacaltaya, but were soon stopped by snowdrifts. I grabbed my mochilla and began the hike up the road. Within a few hundred yards and gaining some elevation, I immediately noticed the thin air, lack of oxygen, and found myself short of breath. Noticing this, I slowed my pace and watched my breathing patterns. Before I knew it, I had reached the upper basin of Chacaltaya, north of the summit, and was astounded by the views of Huayna Potosi. I pulled out my GPS and realized that I was at about 17,000 feet, and the summit was not far.


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Huayna Potosi as seen from Chacaltaya

After more hiking, I reached the old hut for the Chacaltaya ski area and began my ascent up the summit ridge. This went quickly, and below the summit I shared a brief conversation with an Italian who was acclimatizing for an attempt of Sajama. Minutes later, I had the summit to myself. It was a new personal altitude record for me, 17,700 feet / 5435 meters. Needless to say, I was loving life. Soaking in views of the Cordillera Real, Huayna Potosi, the altiplano, and La Paz/El Alto was thrilling to say the least.


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Out of commission ski hut - high on Chacaltaya


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Summit Ridge of Chacaltaya


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Huayna Potosi as seen from summit of Chacaltaya

As I began my descent, Eduardo came racing up the mountain, and tagged one of Chacaltaya’s subsidiary summits. He then flew down the mountain to catch up with me back at the car. I could tell that my time at altitude, and training in Colorado was paying off. My GPS calculated the route at about 4 miles RT and 1,600 feet of vert from where we parked. It was the perfect way to help my body acclimatize, and a must do for anyone planning a trip to climb near La Paz. The fact that the road was blocked by snowdrifts ended up being a blessing, adding to the mileage and increasing my acclimatization time.

The locals were all over the mountain by this point, having snowball fights, sledding, and building even more snowmen. Coming from Colorado, it was unique experience to witness for late June, to say the least. We made our way back to La Paz, and Eduardo dropped me off at my hotel. Eduardo and I agreed on a 10 am pick up time for the following morning. I spent the rest of the day watching what I ate, and continued to drink only bottled water to avoid becoming ill. My thoughts became consumed with Huayna Potosi, despite the fact that my day on Chacaltaya had already made the trip worth it. I organized my gear and turned in for the night.

Friday, June 22nd

After a somewhat sleepless night, I woke up and did a last minute check of my things. I decided to leave the microspikes behind, a decision that I somewhat regretted later.

As I was waiting outside the hotel, it was Felix this time who greeted me, and we threw my gear in Eduardo’s car. We made our way back up to El Alto, where we were joined by another young man named Francisco. Francisco was 23, a very nice kid, and he ended up being my guide for the weekend, which I did not yet know. When I found out that Francisco was going to be my guide instead of Eduardo, whom I specifically requested, I was definitely a bit frustrated. Perhaps Eduardo either forgot that detail over the last couple of months, or he couldn’t bring himself to drag yet another client up the standard route of Huayna Potosi. I don’t know.


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Huayna Potosi as seen from approach to basecamp


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Another shot of the peak while approaching base camp

We reached base camp where I met some young lads from Europe. They were attempting the climb in 2 days instead of 3, one of whom had zero previous mountaineering experience. This is my one qualm about climbing in Bolivia/Huayna Potosi, the local guides are willing to lug just about anyone and everyone up these mountains. I saw many people that weekend who had absolutely no business being on that mountain. In hindsight, the fact that I had never climbed anything glaciated until Huayna Potosi reminds me that I should have more experience in that regard.

After I wished the European guys good luck, they departed for high camp. Meanwhile, Francisco, myself, and another guided group packed up our gear and headed to the glacier. As we approached the glacier, I was inspired by more spectacular views of the mountain, with the French Route looming directly above the Zongo glacier. After setting a top rope anchor, and getting some laps in on the ice, we made our way back to base camp.


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Huayna Potosi as seen from just above base camp


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Having fun on Zongo Glacier

At base camp, I ended up becoming quite close with an engaged couple from Australia, Alex and Nitya. Out of all of the climbers in the hut, we seemed to share the greatest passion for mountaineering. Discussing classic stories, famous alpinists, travels, and after a fair bit of shit talk, I felt extremely grateful to know that we would be making our climb and summit attempts during the same timeline. That evening at base camp was wonderful; I shared stories and laughs with people from all over the world. Francisco pulled up Meru on his phone and we gushed about the film.

After drinking copious amounts of tea to stay hydrated, we called it a night at 8 pm. We joked that if you weren’t about to piss the bed, you weren’t hydrated enough. I had to relieve myself at least three times throughout the night, and probably slept a only couple hours that evening. I believe it was due to my racing thoughts, excitement, and the altitude probably had something to do with it I’m sure as well. The plan was to sleep most of the following day at high camp to make up for my lack of sleep, but I had no idea about what was yet to come.

Saturday, June 23rd

With a casual wake up at 9 am, Felix cooked us yet another delicious meal, and we began prepping our packs for the ascent to high camp. It was Felix’s birthday, and he was cheerful the entire weekend. I made sure to tip him after the weekend was over.

Alex and Nitya’s guide had a family issue that he had to deal with back in the city, so they teamed up with Francisco and me for the ascent to high camp. We started later than other groups, but quickly overtook them with our quick pace. It was evident that we were feeling strong and confident. Alex and Nitya had spent 2 days in base camp which had obviously aided their acclimatization as well.

Numerous groups were making their way off the mountain as we ascended to high camp. The European boys barely made it to high camp due to altitude sickness. It was obvious that taking three days for the climb instead of two was the right call. Only a handful of groups I spoke to had made the summit that day.

Then, we overheard rumblings of an accident high on the mountain.

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Upper reaches of Huayna Potosi as seen from high camp

That morning, a German woman from an unroped and unguided group of three, fell near the summit and suffered a broken leg and a head injury. Alex, Nitya, and I were obviously quite alarmed and asked if there was any sort of rescue being set up. There wasn’t. It was hard to believe at first, but now I understand why the locals were unwilling to help. She was unguided, thus she was on her own.

We couldn’t just sit at high camp and let a woman potentially die overnight. It turned out that both Alex and Nitya were both doctors, which obviously turned out to be extremely beneficial. Alex, with his sharp Spanish was able to learn that for the price of about 1,000 USD, the local guides would band together and head up the mountain to rescue the German woman. I said I was happy to pitch in whatever amount was needed, but Alex and Nitya ended up fronting the bill. They are truly amazing people. We talked about how if it were any one of us up there, we would hope someone would do the same for us.

Francisco and some other guides took off up the mountain, along with Alex, being a doctor. Saturday was an extremely long and emotionally draining day. Taking a nap to make up for my lack of sleep was out of the question. Nitya and I sat on some rocks by the refugio and watched the upper part of the mountain for the entire day. At points we heard a local casually joke about how it would be easier to get her body down if she was dead. That was disturbing to say the least.

When we enter the mountains, we take a certain amount of responsibility for ourselves. At first, it was hard to understand why the guides were reluctant to take action. But now, I understand. They risked their own lives to rescue this woman, when their main job/responsibility was to get their paying clients up the mountain. If a client were injured, obviously they would organize a rescue because their name would be at stake. If you climb unguided in Bolivia, expect to be on your own if something happens. The Andes are some serious mountains, and after some time of reflecting, I understand where the locals were coming from.

Over the course of the day, more parties arrived to high camp and began filling in the various refugios. My emotions and feelings were all over the place. Feeling hopeless that I couldn’t help. Feeling frustrated because of concerns that my guide might be too exhausted to attempt the summit the following day. Feeling selfish for the fact that at times I was more concerned with my own summit bid than the well being of another human being. Feeling frustrated yet again by the lack of experience I witnessed by guided clients as they slowly made their way into high camp. Feeling nervous and rattled by the way the rescue was being handled. All the while, Nitya and I kept looking up the mountain, hoping to see the rescue party making their way down.


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Rescue in progress


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Dusk on nearby Tiquimani (5,500 meters) as seen from high camp

Near dusk, the rescue team with the German woman made it to high camp. They brought her into our refugio, and she was in rough shape. Concussion, bashed face, missing teeth, shock, hypothermia, all in addition to the broken leg. Seeing her partners and the shape they were in rattled me as well. I could tell that these were some competent mountaineers, who were obviously quite shaken. They were unroped, and one member simply took one wrong step.

Alex was pretty tired from being at such a high altitude all day, and told Nitya that he wasn’t going to be attempting the summit in the morning. She stated that she wouldn’t be going without him. They exchanged numbers with the German party about repayment, and decided that they were done with the mountain all together. They packed up their gear, and we exchanged contact information before they departed. I was majorly bummed that they were leaving. The vibe on the mountain had changed 180 degrees from that morning and the previous night. I felt foolish to have been so naive to almost forget how often accidents like this happen.

Francisco told me to get some rest because soon, we needed to get up at midnight for our summit bid. I retired to my bunk around 9 pm, and was stuck there facing my own thoughts. I almost wanted to give up my summit bid, but I knew that I couldn’t let the accident prevent me from achieving my goal. I remembered Cecilie Skog’s quote about losing her husband on K2. The quote is basically about how if you see someone die in a car accident, do you stop driving? No. You keep driving. Quotes from famous mountaineers played through my head a lot the next 12 hours. I was able to maybe catch one hour of sleep before my alarm went off at midnight.

June 24th, Summit Day

My alarm sounded and I slowly began layering up. Felix was already up, making sure that we had plenty of hot beverages with our midnight breakfast. "Come estas migo?" Felix asked. "Yo tengo miedo," I replied. "Es ok hombre, no hay problemas con la montana hoy." His presence and words were calming. The bond you forge with other people in the mountains is something that I find very sacred, even down to my brief relationship with Felix, whom I did not do any actually climbing with.

We set off at approximately 1:30 am and slowly made our way up the track. We slowly passed other groups. I found that my toes were getting a bit cold, so I made sure to constantly keep wiggling them. My Lowa Cevedales performed better than expected, but for my next 6,000 meter peak, I plan to purchase some boots that are a bit warmer.

As we made our way further up the mountain, the terrain became more complex. Sections involved 50-55 degree traverses over large crevasses, and we carefully made our way between extremely large crevasses that seemed to want to swallow you whole. This entailed the majority of the difficulties before the summit block. Conrad Anker’s words of “It’s not that bad” kept playing in my head. In reality it really wasn't. The majority of the standard route is low angle and straight forward.

We would periodically take hydration breaks, but I preferred to keep moving to stay warm. Due to the fact that it was currently winter in the southern hemisphere, the sunrise wouldn’t take place until at least 6:30. I had never longed for the sun to rise so much in my life. I just wanted to know where we exactly we were on the mountain. I tried to block that out and just focus on the steps in front of me.

Before I knew it, were were switchbacking up a steep and sustained slope with quite a lot of exposure thanks to the cliffs below. This is where the accident took place the previous day. Because the sun wasn’t up, I couldn’t tell if this steep ascent was just to reach the beginning of summit ridge. I voiced my fears and frustrations to Francisco, who told me to just calm down and focus on the movements. The moments when you totally let go and become totally immersed in the act of climbing, I think are some of the most profound moments in climbing. It’s almost out of body. Pushing yourself beyond your comfort zone, but blocking out the fear and anxiety.

Predawn started to hit, and just 50 yards so away, the cumbre appeared. I was blown away. “Esa la cumbre, Francisco!?” I asked. Indeed it was. We were the second or third party to reach the summit, arriving at about 6:30 am. We all let primal screams and watched the sun begin to rise over the amazon river basin. This was an experience that will stay with me forever. We took a few pictures, and I told Francisco that I want to start descending and get to a less exposed area before taking a real break.

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Summit


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Francisco and I after our successful summit bid

As the sun rose, I could see the route we took up, which was different from the sharp summit ridge that I had expected us to take. This explained my confusion about where the we were on the mountain earlier that morning. I took a short video, and another picture with Francisco before taking off my puffy. We then made a quick descent to high camp, then down to Base camp.

Looking at the terrain that we had climbed in the dark reminded me just how much Francisco, Alex, and the other guides put their lives on the line to rescue the German climber. Emotions once again were running high, elation, disbelief of my success...the whole gamut. I struggled to hold back tears, and I told myself I wouldn’t cry until I was back in my hotel. I succeeded in that, and called my family from my hotel room and let out one of the biggest emotional releases of my life. Between the altitude, sleep deprivation , the accident/rescue, and my physical exertion, it was one hell of an emotional release. I’m getting choked up as I write this, just speaking to how meaningful and powerful the experience of climbing Huayna Potosi was to me.

Looking Forward

My trip to Bolivia and experience on Huayna Potosi was life-changing. Sorry, but not sorry for the cliche statement. Over the last few months my love for the mountains has increased even more. I have learned so much about what I am actually capable of, and have learned to love myself more in the process.

I’m already looking forward to the next journey. I am definitely going to finally make the trip to Orizaba this December, something that I have put off for too many years. I don’t want to lose this momentum that I have gained. Bolivia, or some other 6,000 meter peaks in South America are definitely on the list for next summer. After that, Denali? Logan? I have already began to research 7,000 meter peaks for a few years down the road, which has been quite intriguing and exciting. Being 28, I really do believe that this will be the start of a new chapter in my life. Less shows/Phish tour life. Instead, more profound experiences in the mountains.

In the week that I have been back, I have been up to the Rocky Mountains a couple of times. Peter and I took our good friend up her first Class 3 - the East Ridge of Mt. Bierstadt, which was a route that exceeded my expectations. I thought the mountains would seem small when I came back, but boy was I wrong. We are so blessed to have one of the best training grounds in the world for high altitude mountaineering. I look forward to getting out as much as possible before going back to work in the fall.

I hope this trip report proved to be insightful and useful. If anyone has any questions of their own about making the trek to Bolivia, i’d be more than happy to be of use. If you have been thinking of doing a trip like this, but have been putting it off, just do it. You won’t regret it, and these experiences are what living is all about.

Thanks for reading.

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Thumbs up!

Some extremely beneficial links can be found below regarding beta, and the like for climbing in Bolivia and other Andean objectives:

http://www.boliviaclimbinginfo.org

http://www.andeshandbook.org/montanas_y_rutas?route_type=2

http://www.alpineinstitute.com/programs/expeditions/south-america/

http://www.bolivianmountainguides.com/

http://www.climbingsouthamerica.com/




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions
Matt

Colonel Forbin's Ascent
07/05/2018 21:53
Or, The Man Who Stepped (Out of) Yesterday.
What a great story!
Thanks for sharing what looks to be a transformative effort.


Col_Forbin

Thanks
07/06/2018 12:12
Thanks for the kind words, Matt. I feel the feeling I forgot!


desertdog

Love Bolivia
07/08/2018 06:20
I climbed Huayna a couple summers ago. Our original goal was Sajama but the conditions sucked so we bailed. Bolivia is an interesting experience and Iâd love to go back to try for Sajama again. Thanks for the report!


bradybunch

Awesome TR
07/17/2019 11:09
Very nice writing style and beautiful photos. Came to this from the link in your more recent post.


ltlFish99
Bolivia
07/17/2019 23:59
Thanks, great report, and the links at the end as this info will be very helpful when I return.

I'm trying to decide on Chimborazo or Alpamayo.
A friend asked: why not both?
I did not have a good answer, so maybe both it will be.



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