Cordillera Occidental – The Volcano

After the Illimani near disaster, I started heavily rethinking my idea to attempt a summit of Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia. Well, truth be told, I had started rethinking it the week before on Huayna Potosí when all the guides were talking about how miserable the conditions were. Not because of snow, but because of wind and sand. Sajama is a giant, stand-alone volcano. At this time of year, the snow has melted heavily, exposing all the sand below. And with no other peaks to provide some shelter, wind conditions were just rotten. No one was summiting because of all the endless sand whipping in their faces.

And let’s be clear, I’m on vacation here. I’m willing to work hard and be uncomfortable to accomplish cool things. However, I already racked up one failure for the trip and I didn’t want to slog through miserable conditions only to fail a second time. So I opted for the nice and easy Acotango Volcano that has a summit at19,860 feet but is essentially just a hike. It’s near Sajama National Park, so the rest of the trip I had planned would be the same, but I was basically guaranteed to bag another peak.

The first day entailed a pleasant drive out there with a lunch stop in Tolar at a little resort hotel that played 1950s US pop rock music the whole time. Later, when we turned off route 1 onto route 4 heading southwest, the terrain got interesting. I’m 100 percent convinced there are lots of slot canyons on the way between this junction and Sajama National Park. The area is a like a mini San Rafael Swell and I could see cuts into the ground beneath the brushy surface. Unfortunately, all the land is privately held by ranchers. But if some enterprising tourist company were to go exploring, I bet they could find some epic adventures to develop and market.

There were also some interesting old Inca burial towers, in various states of ruin with some of them still quite whole…and filled with bones. They are called the Chullpas Huanuni Cachu, and you can pull over anywhere along the highway and go explore them. Then, as you get closer to the park, there are rock cities to explore – areas with massive boulders that appear to have dropped down from the sky because there certainly aren’t any nearby mountains they could have rolled off. Overall, a fairly interesting four-hour drive.

When we arrived in Sajama village (sitting at 13,900 feet), we checked into our guest house, which was on the side of town with a wonderfully unobscured view of the majestic Nevado Sajama itself. After a brief rest, I went roaming around with my trekking guide Pepe (who I also hiked Pico Austria with) to the little church (which was apparently restored with the help of an American parish) and we did a little warm-up hike with 1,000 feet gain to a lookout point. Despite a large number of hostels and guest houses, there wasn’t much open in town, only one little store on the otherwise shut-down town square. Also, quite notably, I think Sajama may be the only town in all Bolivia that doesn’t have stray dogs. Roaming dogs are ubiquitous in Bolivia, so this lack of them was really surprising.

The food at the guest house was delicious…but unfortunately it was around this time that I realized the fresh pressed green juice I’d had the day before had done me real dirty. Rookie mistake, you say, right? I would have sworn it was okay. The juice shop was super clean and right next to all the major museums in La Paz. But alas, my body decided to go into revolt. And as I said, there were no open shops in Sajama – certainly no pharmacy.

So after dinner, I went right to my room, which fortunately had an en suite bathroom. Had this been another camping situation, I would have been in dire straights. I let loose and then hopped right into bed, reading for a while and then managing four solid hours of sleep until my bodily distress woke me up at midnight. And I didn’t sleep a wink from then until the 3AM wake up call. My heart started doing that weird palpitating thing from my Cotopaxi adventure again, which was super annoying since this was the lowest base camp I’d stayed at yet. But it kept me up until I finally dragged myself out of bed and got ready for breakfast at 3:30AM. I had some of the yogurt on offer, hoping the good bacteria you always hear about in yogurt would counteract some of the explosions occurring inside my bowels.

A man with a 4×4 truck was waiting to drive us to the trailhead at 4AM. After yet another trip to the bathroom, a number of prayers to Pachamama, and throwing two Wag Bags and whole lot of wet wipes in my day pack, I hopped in and off we went on the hour and ten minute drive to the trailhead. I would literally shit myself before missing out on my final summit.

When we started hiking at 5:15, there was already a sliver of sunlight on the horizon, so we didn’t need to use our headlamps for too long. We started at 17,650 feet and the snow didn’t start until after 19,200 feet (at least this time of year), so really, if you want to do a high peak without all the to-do of something like Huayna Potosí, this is the one. It’s basically the same height, but less gain and Huayna Potosí is nearly all glacier and way more technical. The beginning of this trail is a very manageable grade until around 18,500 ft and then there is a very steep incline. The incline is sand, so for every step up, you slide back a little bit, but with baby steps and zigzagging, it’s not that bad.

When you reach the ridgeline, you’re actually standing half in Chile and half in Bolivia. From what I’ve read, the Chilean side has buried landmines, so it’s not really hike-able. But we could see a volcano on their side smoking, which was cool.

After traversing a short way along the ridgeline, we reached the glacier. We put on our crampons and harnesses, but I actually didn’t rope in. I had done four summits with these guys at this point, and since Acotango isn’t technical, Pepe gave me the choice of whether I wanted to be roped in. I opted for not. I felt confident and wanted to try it on my own.

We went over a small section of penitentes, but unlike the ones on Illimani, these were tightly packed and much shorter, so we walked on top of them. That was a bit challenging because you have to find the ones that are wide enough to step on, and occasionally one would crumble beneath my weight, but it wasn’t especially dangerous.

Then we had three short, steep uphill sections to reach the summit, each somewhere around 180 feet vertical gain with a slight plateau in between. Though the incline was intense, the snow was smooth and easy to traverse. I took some breaks to catch my breath but managed to go upward fairly steadily.

The summit was all ours, but we didn’t stay too long because, despite the full sun, it was windy and cold. Going up, I thought I might want to rope in on the descent just because of how steep it was, but I decided to go it myself again. I moved slowly and had my hiking pole for support and I did just fine. I was glad to have the opportunity to be independent on this hike. When we reached the bottom of the glacier and started to take our crampons off, a party of five had just roped up and was started the upward summit push. They probably thought we were irresponsible with me not being roped to my guide. Or maybe they thought I was pro!

After the glacier part, the path down so dusty and desolate that I felt like I was on some distant planet in Star Wars, on a trek to meet some guru. It was very unlike any of the other hikes I’d done in Bolivia. On the steep parts, we were able to come down in a controlled slide because of the sand. Unlike scree, which just makes me fall on my ass, in sand you can dig your heels in and drop six to eight extra inches for every step you take, so it’s fast. But man, every single article of my clothing was covered in dust when I finished, and my eyes were red too.

When we reached the trailhead, the driver told us that the other party had only started twenty minutes after us, but at that point, based on their pace, they were at least two hours behind us. Both he and Pepe said how strong and fast I was. We had finished about an hour before he expected us to because we summited an hour faster than the group Pepe had taken a few days before. This makes me feel great! I had consistently gotten this feedback from the Bolivian Mountaineering team about our hikes – that I’m very strong and fast. I’m proud of myself, but it’s not really about how I perform relative to other people. It’s about knowing that if I’m better than average at these peaks, I can do more. I’m definitely capable of it. I just need to keep improving my training plan, keep dialing in my food intake habits, and maybe not have the liquid shits.

On the drive back to Sajama, we encountered a terrible accident and because the village is so small and everyone knows everyone, half the townspeople were milling around the side of the road. Our driver pulled over too to get out and talk to people. A motorcycle was down and several large blankets were covering what were obviously bodies. We would find out later it was a husband and wife who were run over by a semi-truck on its way to the Chilean border. The driver had been detained, but no other information (such as who was at fault) was available. What an absolutely horrific way to die. I know I’ve joked a lot about Coca-Cola consumption in Bolivia, but it appears to be the drink of choice at events like this too. I saw at least four two-liters of Coca-Cola being passed around among the thirty or so people that had gathered. Little cultural habits like that are always interesting to me. Eventually, our driver got back in the truck and we gave the medical examiner a ride back into the village. I suppose all the other people stayed there until someone came to collect the bodies of their neighbors.

After lunch and a nap, the last part of the trip was going to the hot springs. There are several in the area, and we got lucky because no one was at the one we chose. The temperature was perfect – exactly right so that you could sit in it for a long time without overheating. And off in the field, with Sajama rising in the background, a herd of vicuñas grazed. Such a picturesque ending to my adventures.

So that’s it for my Bolivian summits. I mean, I still have plenty left – Condoriri, Peqeño Alpamayo, Parinacota, Pomerape, Chachacomani, Ancohuma, and, of course, Sajama. If I come back, I would try to come a few weeks earlier. I don’t think I want to attempt these in deep winter when there’s tons of snow, but it would be better not the straddle the line of foul spring weather so closely like I did this year. But also, there are so many summits in Peru and Chile and other places I haven’t yet gone…

2 thoughts on “Cordillera Occidental – The Volcano

  1. First of all, I didn’t know Chile had landmines! Second of all, bravo for summit on the the tail of gastric distress – yikes! The husband and I could barely paddle our kayak after our encounter with noxious food in Laos. Definitely couldn’t have hiked a hill, much less a Bolivian peak. And those hot springs look right up my alley.


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