Cordillera Real – The Failed Expedition

Having come just shy of 20,000 ft the previous weekend, I planned to surpass that magic number the following weekend with Illimani, the mystical guardian of La Paz, at 21,122 feet. Base camp is a mere 50 miles outside La Paz, but due to the road conditions, it takes about 3.5 hours to get there. No, that is not a typo. That is truly how bad the roads are in Bolivia.

And while one Bolivian road officially carries the moniker Death Road (more on that in a later post), really, all mountain roads in Bolivia are death roads. I’m used to driving some gnarly roads in Colorado: I drove my cut rate SUV over the Alpine loop five times and I’ve driven Imogene Pass twice. But after several hours of being on the road in the video below, even I had sweaty palms and white knuckles.

We took a scenic lunch stop with some tasty roadside food we had picked up in La Paz and then eventually reached Pinaya, where you register to hike Illimani. My guide, José, seemed to know everyone in the village, which is great. Personal connections are important to keep these excursions running smoothly, especially to make sure we have porters. He speaks Aymara, which is key to building those connections since it is the primary language of people in this village. Bolivia is a linguistically rich country, and Aymara is common around La Paz.

There was a small festival going on when we arrived in Pinaya – a celebration of the roof going on the new community center. Bolivians love to have parties, and apparently this is a common one. They celebrate when the roof goes on – at which point it doesn’t have much else besides walls – and then again when the building is actually finished. So everyone in town was out socializing.

Now, I’m not one for taking pictures with random people; I find it odd and demeaning. Local people aren’t zoo animals, and I tend to cringe when I see photos like the one I’ve posted below with these two girls. But context is everything and in this case, these girls ran up to me and asked to take a photo. And as another reminder of how times have changed since I started traveling in 2000, of course they had a smart phone of their own and WiFi way out there and had me immediately send the photos to them, which is great! I love that photo taking like this is no longer one sided. Maybe I was the zoo animal to them, but I didn’t mind because they were really sweet.

Up until two years ago, Pinaya was the final stop for the van. From here, you’d have to load your gear onto donkeys and continue the last six miles or so to base camp on foot. But then they built a road and so we were able to drive up to base camp.

I thought base camp would be a hut. Nope! Just a wide open field, two composting toilets, and a bunch of horses and llamas. Fine by me – I love camping. José and I were the only ones there, and despite the ominous sky in the photo below, it was pretty warm at 2pm. We were at just under 15,000 ft and I roamed around the hills in a light long sleeve shirt and my light-weight puffy, no hat or gloves. It got chilly in the evening, but I slept really well in my new sleeping bag. Super comfortable, in fact, and I really didn’t want to get up in the morning because it was so nice to be nestled into.

But I did eventually get up and we had breakfast while we waited for the porters to arrive. When mountaineering guides first started taking people up Illimani, they had a difficult time finding local people from Pinaya who wanted to be be porters. Not because the work was too hard or dangerous, but because of superstitions about climbing the mountain. Most people believed it would bring back luck on their families. But a few enterprising individuals decided they wanted the money, and after a while, when no harm came to those folks, more and more people signed up.

Our porters to high camp were a man and a woman, who came with her eight year old child. They had no gloves, no socks, no coats, and the woman wasn’t even using a backpack but rather a blanket slung crosswise over her back with items stuffed into it, in the traditional style. I was in shock. But…who am I to say what works and what doesn’t? These people have been doing this for years and even in those flimsy sandals they are far faster and more agile and capable than I will ever be. It’s really amazing.

The first half of the trail to high camp is a normal, manageable grade. There’s a convenient lunch stop where we all ate a bit…and of course, José had his two-liter of Coca-Cola that he shared with the porters. I’m so entertained by how much sugar all the guides eat and drink, but hey, it works for them.

It began to hail as we ate, and unfortunately, after the lunch spot, the trail gets super steep and sketchy and has a lot of scrambling with steep drop-offs on either side. Illimani is largely composed of a rock similar to granite, which means it became very slippery. At this point, I was grateful for my horrible experience with the hail on Longs Peak back in August because it gave me a little more confidence on this trek, which wasn’t quite as dangerous. The Illimani high camp trek has way more handholds and footholds than do the large flat slabs coming down from Longs summit. But again, those porters had no warm weather gear and the flimsiest of flimsy shoes. How they manage is a mystery to me.

Eventually we reached Nido de Cóndores (Condor Nest) high camp and the precipitation stopped long enough for us to set up our tents and get cozy. This is when I almost passed out – several times. High camp was at 17,900 feet and when you’re setting up a tent, you stand up and squat down a lot to tie down flaps and put in stakes. I have low blood pressure anyway and often lose vision standing up just from lying down on a couch at sea level. So at that altitude, the first time I stood up from clipping in the rain fly to the poles, I immediately lost all my vision and had to sit down. This happened a few times until I realized what was happening and figured out I had to stand up really slowly and squat down, rather than bending down and letting my head drop below my heart.

A few hours later, we were joined by two other parties – two Bolivians without a guide and a Frenchman with a guide – who must have come directly from La Paz and skipped base camp. This is an option, but spending a night at base camp was the right choice for me.

We woke up at midnight for our summit attempt. The Bolivians were already on their way. It was snowing lightly but it wasn’t super windy. The first 300 feet vertical gain is mostly rock, and then we reached the glacier. This part of the glacier (around 600 feet vertical gain) is unbelievably steep, but the snow is smooth, which means you can mitigate the steepness by taking baby steps and zigzagging. So, totally manageable but the steepness made me really hungry. We did have breakfast before starting out, but I had to stop and get some more food into my system when we reached the top of this segment. Also by the top of this first climb, the snow and wind had gotten a little stronger.

Then we reached the only section of the hike with a reasonable grade. However, this area was covered in penitentes. If you’ve never heard of these, they are blades of hardened snow and ice found in Andes peaks. We had to pick our way around and up and over them, which meant even though this section should have been relative easy, it was tough. Remember that I was picking up a lot of extra weight every time I picked up my legs to go over one of these things – I had snow pants and mountaineering boots and crampons on. My hunger intensified. Also, to me, there was no discernable trail. I don’t know how the Bolivians were doing this without a guide, and indeed, they were having some trouble because we caught up to them before the next big climb.

At this next big incline, starting around 19,300 feet, things started to go downhill for me fast. Now we were faced with another horribly steep climb, but this one was not smooth – it was also covered in penitentes. This meant that baby steps were impossible. I had to scramble and boost myself up and over these chunks of ice and find my footing and hoist myself and all my extra gear weight up and over. The wind had also picked up and snow was whipping into my face.

On some hikes like this, there comes a point when you know for certain you will make it. Unfortunately, on others, there comes a point when you know you won’t make it. You’re moving too slowly, getting too cold, you’re too tired and hungry, and you just have too far to go. I found that point. Also, José was concerned about the storm intensifying and the possibility of lightning. And on top of all that, we still had the Escalera al Cielo (stairway to heaven) section ahead of us, at which point the trail would get even steeper, as if that was possible. I knew I couldn’t make it. At 19,700 feet, I called it quits. I really wanted to just try to get to 20,000 feet, and 300 feet is so small in most circumstances, but I was beyond spent. I was stopping after every three steps or so and getting really cold and my hunger was out of control. It was time to call it.

Back down to high camp we went. Because there was no discernable trail, I actually went behind José for much of the path down. This is generally a no-no on the descent because if you slip and fall, the guide needs to be behind you to pull you to safety. However, I couldn’t see where to go and with all the penitentes, if I fell, I wasn’t going anywhere anyway. We did, of course, switch so that I was in front when we got to the smooth part of the glacier, which we were able to walk straight down instead of zigzagging.

But that last 300 vertical foot descent on rock to high camp was horrific. It was so slick with the fresh snow that I was terrified traversing it, even still being roped in. I have never moved so slowly in my life, and was immensely relieved when we arrived back at the snowy Nido de Cóndores.

Exhausted and a tad stressed, I crawled into my tent for a nap. José stayed up to monitor conditions. He was hoping that with daybreak, the storm might relent and we’d have a break going down to base camp. There were a few gaps in the weather – enough that he saw the Frenchman and his guide turn around well before the summit and start heading back to camp as well – but ultimately it got worse. José woke me up after about an hour and a half and said we’d better just make our move down. Being on that ridgeline if lightning came could be catastrophic.

We packed up our things and left them in a pile for the porters, who weren’t due for a while yet. Once again, I was really concerned about them. While I was roped up again on the first third of the way back to base camp, terrified of the drop-offs on either side, taking baby steps, and making liberal use of my ass as a fifth support, we passed one of the porters who had decided to get a head start on the day. Despite the snow, the only change to his clothes was that he swapped out his sandals for sneakers. Later, when we saw the female porter Theodora (she didn’t bring her kid this time), she had only added a pair of sweatpants beneath her skirt. How were they going to pick their way down these slick rocks with our heavy gear on their backs? And they were still walking up into the worsening storm.

Shortly before José and I reached the van, thunder started. I really didn’t like the idea of all those people still up there. Yet I had no reason to worry. The porters are seriously super human and so much more capable of handling that kind of hike in those conditions and with that burden than I am with just my day pack and my fancy clothes. Based on where we crossed paths with them on our way down and how treacherous the path was, José estimated we might be waiting about two hours for them. Nope. Forty-five minutes later, there they were, totally unscathed, unfrozen, and unfazed. Unreal.

We gave the porters a ride back into town, and as we left Pinaya, José gave our leftover expedition food to a woman and child working in a field, which was great. I was happy to see a good relationship between the Bolivian Mountaineering staff and the communities they work in.

A few hours away from base camp, we got a clear look back at Illimani. It was remarkable to be then sitting in a beautiful and sunny day, but aware of what was beneath those lenticular clouds surrounding the peak. Storms are the risk of attempting this climb in early spring, but when you’re on a schedule, you have to give it a shot when you can. A few days later, Illimani was clear as could be but a few days after that, the cloud cover was three times as big and extended much further down. I shuddered to think what it was like if anyone was up there.

So, Illimani remains the mysterious guardian to me, an unconquered giant. Sometimes the mountain wins, but being out there and gaining experience in adverse conditions is still always a win for me.

7 thoughts on “Cordillera Real – The Failed Expedition

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