An experience of a lifetime in Bolivia (Review)

When you land in a country whose airport is at 4000m and whose landscapes are among the most dramatic in the world, you can’t help but be struck breathless…breathless in Bolivia!

Bolivia, who the heck knows where Bolivia is? And what’s in Bolivia other than llamas and iguanas? That was my initial reaction when my friend Rich called from Germany and told me that that’s where we were going for our month-long climbing trip. My biological clock had been ticking for some time for me to give birth to one of those life-altering big trips into the wild world yonder; but Bolivia?! Having been there two years before, Rich reassured me that it was the place to be for unbounded adventure in spectacular locations while still enjoying great food and even better wine and beer. So together with Birgit and Fred, Rich’s German climbing buddies, we each packed ice-climbing gear, gore-tex clothing and spare undies and boarded our separate planes. We met in Miami for the final leg of the trip to La Paz.

Bowler Hats and Brain Busters

We landed in La Paz, a city with just a tiny wealthy center but endless sprawling markets covering most of the downtown area where you’re guaranteed to pick up a bargain – and some coca leaves to help with acclimatizing to the altitude. You see at 4000m La Paz is only 800m lower than the highest mountain in Europe and the rarified air means that from the moment you land you are a full blown asthmatic, gasping for every breath of air. Improper acclimatization can result in anything from nausea and vomiting to pulmonary or cerebral odema so it’s wise to take it easy for a few days to adapt to the altitude. We didn’t, and I paid the price with mountain sickness rendering me incapable of walking more than 10 paces a day for the first week I was there!

High mountains surround La Paz. Apart from relieving the drudgery of the city, they are a brilliant playground for adventure addicts. On our second day we trekked out to the foothills around the city and completed some excellent training rock climbs in brilliant sunshine. Day three had us bundled into a jeep for a drive out to the mula station from where we loaded our mountain and camping gear onto the flea-ridden beasts of burden for a four hour trek up the foothills of the Condoriri, at 5648m a mere taster of bigger things to come. We camped at 4600m by a melt water lake in the lap of the range. While my alpinist friends took it in turns to conquer the 5000m peaks around, I nursed my blinding headaches and insufficient lungs, wondering why such a wonderful landscape should hurt so bad. At least I had company – the llamas and vicunas hung around our campsite chewing the course grass, while gazing quizzically at my pathetic, panting body. Rich would leave every morning at 02.00 and return victorious by early afternoon having dragged one or other of our teammates up the glaciers in the distance.

Bugibba in Bolivia

Our descent from Condoriri was the medicine I needed to cure my altitude sickness. Returning to a mere 4000m gave my spleen time to produce the red-blood cells I needed to stay alive, and our next excursion to Copacabana (no not the Cuban one in the song) meant we could spend a couple of days canoeing along lake Titicaca, a Mediterranean sized body of water at 3800m! We discovered beaches that looked like they’d never been trodden on and explored the ancient center of worship of the Incas, Isla del Sol. Sleeping out under the stars with no tent in a place without the glow of urban lights means that you can see every star as though it were shining just for you. The sky in the southern hemisphere is populated by different stars than in the north and the Bolivian Chardonnay we drank that night had me making many new celestial friends in the heavens above us.

Copacabana is populated more by displaced westerners trying to discover themselves by smoking cheap weed and selling trinkets on the roadside than by locals. But it is a subdued town and as the few locals walk by you, their heads down, quietly going about their business, you get a distinct feeling of expectation, almost as if they are defeated Inca warriors awaiting the return of their Montesuma to throw off their yolk and poverty and rise again into the great nation they once were…

Each morning I would trek to the summit of one of the 4000 m mountains around the lake before breakfast – I had to prepare for the ominous rumblings about sky scraping altitudes from the restless Rich. You see Rich had been here before and he had an unrequited goal. He had attempted Jankho Uma, the third highest in Bolivia, at 6427m a mountain of Himalayan proportions, but had had to turn back at 6300m, with the summit in sight, due to frostbite and winds that threatened to tear him from the summit ridge. This time it was personal!

Mountaineering Marathon

We bussed it to Sorata next, an old trading town nestled in the lap of the highest range in western Bolivia but also overlooking the deepest jungle. Our hostal was the old trade exchange building, built in typical colonial style and still reeking of the semi-grandiose history of centuries past. In this building fortunes were made and lost, gold and silver panned and dug out of the surrounding rivers and mountains were traded for rubber harvested from the jungles further down the valley. Today the mines are worked out and rubber is produced from synthetics so the town must rely on visiting tourists to keep it alive.

Access to Sorata is via a 5 hr bus ride along a dirt road cut into the hillsides of the typical Andean landscapes. The drop on the left side of the narrow road is precipitous and there are no crash barriers. One mistake and the bus and contents take a bungee jump without the rope, yet the drivers casually fling their massive VW buses round hairpin bends like kids at the bumping cars!

After sampling the fruity wines produced from grapes grown on the surrounding slopes, we booked our mula man, packed only what we needed for a week on the mountainside, and headed up the foothills – this was gonna be the big one. A day’s trek through fields clinging precipitously to the steep banks of ancient river valleys brought us to the campsite by a stream of melt water coming off the glaciers perched above us. We climbed from 2700m to 4700m that day. The mountains above were deceptively beautiful, their tantalizing ice-cream summits framed by crisp blue skies inviting us into their welcoming arms. Nothing we could see from the campsite could have hinted at the hardships we would have to endure before getting anywhere near those distant summits.

The mulas couldn’t go any higher because the terrain above consisted of moraines, entire hillsides formed of the stones dragged by glaciers from the summits of their mountain then discharged at the point where the glacier melts into bubbling streams. From here on it was either carry it up yourself, or leave it behind. Packing for high summits is serious business. At altitude, you are breathless all the time. The amount of oxygen in the air drops exponentially as you go higher, so your lungs’ suffering rises exponentially. And even when you’re acclimatized, as we all were by then, the oxygen deficit is still acute. Another thing to consider is the weather up there. If the sun shines it’s warm but if a cloud moves in temperatures plummet below zero in seconds and you have to be prepared.

So for the high camp at 5500m you can’t afford to take anything extra and you can’t afford to leave anything essential behind. We left with about 15 kg each in our bags. Rich encouragingly stated that the higher camp was “just there, just round that bluff” – and boy was that ever a bluff. We laboured all day, slipping and sliding, panting and cursing. I literally could not take another step when I crawled over the last rise and saw the campsite. I must have panted there for a half hour before finding the last ounces of energy to drag myself to the supper that the others had already got brewing on the stove.

The most amazing thing about the mountains is that after squeezing every scrap of willpower from us the day before, we awoke with renewed energy and drive the next day. Perhaps it’s the majestic, inspiring scenery, or the crisp, fresh air that does it, but we got up ready to make it to the high camp at 6000m. It took another half day to get up the 500 vertical metres to the glacier. Despite having to jump from boulder to boulder, climbing inexorably upwards, stopping every few paces to claw what oxygen we could out of the rarified air, we arrived at the glacier bubbling with enthusiasm, at the prospect of sleeping on the ice, getting up at 01.30 in minus 250 temperatures to head up the ice fields and ice cliffs above before the summit ridge. We must have really been suffering altitude madness, never mind sickness!

We got up as planned. Putting on our five layers of high-altitude clothing left us drained and breathless. We brewed a few pots of tea and a powdered breakfast before setting off in pitch darkness, roped together in case one of us fell into a crevasse, ice crunching under our crampons, emergency food and drink in our backpacks. As we walked, head down, my fingers and toes began to freeze despite my body being warm from the exertion. My mind began to rebel against the strain of keeping the pace at that altitude. I began to hallucinate and thought I might have to back off. Encouragement from the others saw me through and I soldiered on.

We got to the ice cliffs as the sun began to rise and toiled up these with ice axes and crampons front-pointing in vertical ice. Once over these we were on the summit ridge and all that remained was a mind numbing slog to the top. Giddyness and exhaustion beyond my experience clawed at my willpower but we all looked to Rich’s boundless energy to lead us to the top. Only as we fell together on the summit dome and the breathtaking vistas of the Cordillera Real fell away in every direction did we realise what we had just achieved. We were higher than anything in sight, we were at the summit of the third highest mountain in Bolivia.

Our toils were not over. Exhausted as we were, we set off on our descent. The sun hit us as we down climbed the ice cliffs and from freezing a few minutes earlier we were suddenly irradiated with merciless burning sunrays. I clawed at my clothing in a panic as I instantly overheated. Further down Birgit probably saved my life. She found me sitting on my rucksack, my head bare and burning in the sun, totally dehydrated, just staring into space. I knew I had to pull my cap out of my rucksack and drink from my water bottle but for a full 15mins I just sat there trying to focus my addled brain. The rest of the way down the glacier felt like I was a cowboy abandoned in the desert in one of those spaghetti westerns, rather than a mountaineer at the top of the world.

Rain Forests and Raging Torrents

The descent to our camp at 4600m was incredibly completed that day, late in the night. We had had enough of living rough so we staggered over moraines and boulders until we got to the relative comfort of the main camp. From there it was a run down to Sorata the next day and a quick bus ride back to La Paz. We were fast running out of time but were not going to leave without sampling some of the other breathtaking adventures Bolivia had to offer.

We got hooked up with Explore Bolivia, a brilliant organizer of crazy adventures in the outback of Boli. We were taken up to 4700m in a bus, then given a mountain bike and released down a death-defying road for a full day of navigating “the world’s most dangerous road”. The road is a narrow pass down the side of a mountain with precipitous drops on one side and massive trucks pushing you towards the drop on the other side. We rode through rainforests, waterfalls, mud tracks and desert-like passes. Then after sleeping in a ranch hidden in the forest we took the challenge of whitewater rafting down the torrents of the Coroico River.

Much like a scene from Apocalypse Now, the rain forest was complete with Tarzan creepers dangling from the trees, clouds clinging to the steep forested riverbanks and a constant warm rain. We navigated 4 and 5 grade sections of the river and stopped on the way to swim in a secret waterfall belonging to the owner of Explore Bolivia.

Return to Madness

It’s all very well getting away from work for a month but the things you need to do don’t just disappear. My soldiers in Malta, Theresa and Nicky, gallantly kept the show going at MEDIA CONSULTA in my absence. Via e-mail they kept me informed of all the tragedies happening and how they managed to handle them without me. The temptation to stay lost in the jungle was strong but I had to face reality at some point, and to this day I have still not been able to make it up to the ladies for having abandoned them so utterly. In every respect, it was a trip that left me breathless in Bolivia! – Experience the Adventure!

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Written by: M. Ellis