Cordillera Real – The Warm Up Peaks

If you’ve been following this blog this summer, you know that all the summits I bagged, all the hiking I did, and all gym time and running was aimed at one goal – Bolivian summits. And so, a mere one day after I switched from sea level in Washington DC to a city that sits just under 12,000 feet, I went for some acclimation “hikes”.

Charquini (17,639 feet)

Stats: 4.69 miles, 2,931 feet gain, starting elevation 15,462 feet, completed in 5 hours 21 minutes

This is a solid class two hike. The first 1.2 miles is mostly flat, with some downhill. It follows an aqueduct, which (fun fact!) the grandfather of my guide helped build. It channels snowmelt into a hydroelectric station, which my guide’s grandmother worked at. It will come as no surprise then that my guide – Pedro from Bolivian Mountaineering – was born in the area. The mountaineering company is also a family affair with one of Pedro’s uncles (who sadly died of Covid-19 in 2020) founding the company and several relatives working there today as guides.

But back to the start of the hike. This flatness of this initial segment helps you get acclimated to hiking at this altitude, but it is the only section of the hike with huge exposure. Somehow, I didn’t even notice the huge dropoffs on the relatively narrow trail in the morning, but I was acutely aware of them coming back when I was dog tired. Also, if you hike in the deep winter, there is a chance this trail will be icy, but there is a cable for you to hang on to the whole way if need it. I, luckily, had an absolutely beautiful early spring day.

Then, you have some uphill and scree. While not super steep, the altitude makes it difficult. But the nice thing about a private guide is the pace is totally up to you. We gained about 600 feet in half a mile to the base of the glacier. José, who was the driver for the day and is also a trekking (but not mountaineering) guide, hiked with us to this point and then hung out and waited for us to hike the glacier, summit, and come back. Honestly, I can’t imagine just chilling at 16,800 feet for two hours. Although, that said, I was actually hiking in a tank top until that point because the sun was hot and there was almost no wind. He had on jeans and a huge puffy, so I guess he was just fine.

The glacier portion is around .3 miles. It’s not super technical and only steep in a few spots, so I wasn’t roped into my guide. This made me slightly nervous at first, but then I appreciated it because it allowed me to build up my confidence with some independence, while Pedro was still there to blaze the trail and give me some recommendations on my glacier hiking form. We stepped over a few small crevasses (and jumped over one), which was also a bit scary at first. But according to Pedro, crevasses in Bolivian glaciers are not covered in snow (so you can easily spot them) and they are v-shaped (not a-shaped), so if you do fall, the chance of dying is extremely low and your guide should be able to get you out.

After the glacier, we ditched our crampons and went for the summit push. This was steep and slow going – a mix of rock, scree, and dirt. We left our poles before the final bit and scrambled to the top, which we had all to ourselves. We were the only ones on Charquini that day. Quite special!

Despite the short distance and relatively modest gain, this hike knocked me out. Hiking at that altitude is extremely taxing. It’s also a little frustrating to descend 1,500 feet from the summit and think that you should be able to pick up speed, but then realize you can’t because you’re still over 16,000 feet and moving fast is exhausting. I got back home and zombied out on the couch for the rest of the day. But this was a great hike to start with!

Also, this was my first hike in my new La Sportiva mountaineering boots and I love them! They are comfortable, well-fitting, and streamlined, and my toes didn’t hurt at all on the downhill. Hiking in something with a heel took some getting used to as my heel would hit a rock or dirt on the downhill before I expected it to, but overall, two thumbs up for these boots.

Pico Austria (17,528 feet)

Stats: 5.33 miles, 2,790 feet gain, starting elevation 14,852 feet, completed in 4 hours 13 minutes

If you know me, one peak on my first weekend wasn’t enough, so I rallied Sunday and got out for a second one. This one, though, was truly just a hike, though again at ridiculous altitude. Pedro actually arranged my whole itinerary for me. I just gave him my dates and what I wanted to do and told him what my experience was and he put it together. And it looked perfect to me!

Today was just me and José, and we started out early. When we got to this popular trailhead, there were only two other vehicles there. A Columbian couple started about ten minutes before us but we quickly overtook them.

Like Charquini, this trail was mostly flat again at the beginning for about 1.5 miles with a few small uphill bits. Then we arrived at a lake where there’s a base camp you can stay at for some trout fishing. That’s where the first major uphill segment was, then a small plateau, another shorter uphill segment, and another brief plateau. And then…the slog. An 800 foot gain up a rocky corridor to the saddle. I tried my best to take small steps and find a pace I could sustain, but I did have to stop to catch my breath a few times and let my heartbeat slow down.

At the top of this corridor is the saddle between Pico Austria and Condoriri. There’s a magnificent view of this peak and its glacier. Condoriri itself had massive cracks running across the snowfield and an avalanche looked imminent, so you can imagine that I was horrified when José pointed out four trekkers moving across the glacier. Being out there seemed really unwise.

At the saddle, we had about 700 feet to go. I should have been able to do it in one push, but my legs felt like lead. I had to stop halfway up and eat a little something. But I finally made it and found a trio of Frenchmen at the top. When they left, we had the summit to ourselves, and it was actually sunny and warm. We had sandwiches and I felt great. No slight nausea or headache like the day before. I’m always amazed at how little I understand about the climate in different areas. How can it be so warm and utterly snowless at 17,500 feet in the first days of spring? Much lower Colorado peaks at this time of year are unpassable. But wait…this post isn’t finished.

After about 15 minutes, we began our descent. Throughout the hike up, I’d noted a few steep scree spots that I was worried about, thinking they would be awful on the way down. Turns out, they really weren’t bad at all, even in my regular Merrell hiking boots. I’m not sure if I’m getting better at managing scree but I was glad I could move at a decent pace on the way down, though not as fast as I would have liked since even on downhill my heart really gets pumping at that elevation.

On the way down, we ran into a lot of groups heading up. They must have had a much later start than we did. We also ran into another guide with a young American brother and sister who were on a month-long trip together through South America. They had been unable to summit but they still made it pretty high. The five of us descended together and it was nice to have some compatriots to chat with in English, though I always prefer my tours to be in Spanish so I can practice.

Well, about halfway down, it started to snow. Little snowballs plopping down here and there at first, then heavier and heavier. By the time we reached the car, it was snowing hard, and looking back up at the summit, I saw it was enveloped in nasty, dark clouds. People up there were having a much different experience than I did. I actually wonder how many of those other groups really summited because it looked extremely unpleasant. José said that there can be afternoon electric storms, just like in Colorado, so again, I think I made the right choice of companies to mountaineer with. I had another wonderful day, but had we left one hour later, it wouldn’t have been so good.

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