A bit like the ‘drinking-hangover conundrum’ (i.e. one leads to the other but we never learn from the experience and repeat the cycle over-and-over, at least in the case of most people I know), having climbed Huyana Potosi I decided that it would be prudent to do some trekking and more climbing.
I booked a five day trek-climb combo with Climbing South America (http://www.climbingsouthamerica.com), run by the very affable and very experienced climbing specialist, Jeff, an Australian whose been living in Bolivia for the last 15 years.
The final destination was to be the beautiful 4600m Condoriri Basecamp and a night time ascent of Pequena Alpamayo. At 5370m, Pequena Alpamayo is a bit lower than Huyana Potosi, but I’d been told it was a ‘spectacular’ and ‘dramatic’ climb which offered great views of the surrounding Cordillera Real.
The trek started at the beautiful Laguna Quta Quita, about a four hour drive from La Paz up a long glacial valley dotted with farms and the occasional village. Our first night’s campsite couldn’t have been more picturesque, set against the mountains and the aquamarine blue of the lake.
We’d be camping in fairly remote areas, so we had to carry everything we needed with us, food, cooking equipment, climbing equipment, tents, etc. Luckily, Jeff had booked some local donkeys and their owners to do all the heavy lifting – just as well as the total weight of our gear came to more than 150kgs. I wasn’t volunteering to carry it.
After a freezing cold night (ice on the inside of my tent), we had a late start before trekking over a mountain pass towards Laguna Ajwani and our second campsite. En route we were treated to beautiful views of far off Lake Titicaca and the flat, seemingly endless Altiplano stretching all the way to the Chilean border.
Five hours of walking later, we arrived at Laguna Ajwani to discover the local, Quechua-speaking community, had constructed a hostal near the lake. The hostal had twelve double en suite bedrooms, a large communal area and a shared kitchen. Sadly, there was no furniture (beds, mattresses, chairs, tables), no running water, no heating and, despite there being lightbulbs in each light fitting, no electricity. Turns out the government had given the building materials for free, but that’s where the assistance ended. No water or electricity, no marketing and ultimately no tourists using it…a real shame for both tourists and the local community.
Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, we asked the community representative if we could stay in the hostal, and, for the princely sum of $2, we slept on the floor in the communal area. Not exactly luxury, but not a tent. Although none of the bathrooms inside the hostal worked, the community had constructed an outside toilet; cold but certainly not up there with the toilet on Huyana Potosi.
After an early breakfast and packing the donkeys with the gear we were off for a long day that would see us cross three mountain passes, descending into three valleys before finally reaching Condoriri Basecamp in preparation for the climb of Pequena Alpamayo. The route was…beautiful.
After several hours of walking we reached the magnificent Condoriri Basecamp, situated next to another lake at the foot of the Condoriri Massive, a collection of thirteen different peaks, including the Cabeza de Condor (because it looks like a Condor spreading its wings) and Pequena Alpmayo.
After a well earned rest, we pitched the tents and had some food before getting an early night in preparation for a 3am start for our ascent of Pequena Alpamayo. The route would take us up the valley (approximately an hour of walking), before reaching the base of a huge glacier where we’d stop to put on crampons, harnesses and ropes, before climbing the glacier for another 2 – 3 hours.
The glacier climb was steep and seemingly endless; as I was beginning to give up hope we finally reached the ‘top’ of the glacier and a natural dip in the mountains, just as the sun was rising. If there was ever a sunrise to make you forget the burning muscles in your legs, the burning of your lungs and the lack of feeling in your toes, this was that sunrise. Truly magnificent…
Although we’d been going for over three hours, our ordeal had only just begun as sunrise revealed what was left to climb. I realised that I’d been a bit preemptive in thinking that things couldn’t get more terrifying than the ascent of Huyana Potosi. The route up Pequena Alpamayo really was going to be scary.
First we had to climb Mount Tarija, itself 5100m, before descending again and starting the final, death-defying climb to the summit of Pequena Alpamayo.
Seen from a distance, Pequena Alpamayo looks very dramatic, but when you start the climb to the summit the true nature of the mountain becomes clear. Anyone who suffers from a fear of heights, may want to look away now.
It was at this point that I was beginning to doubt my sanity, the climb up and down this wall of ice was a combination of terror induced adrenaline and sheer bloody-mindedness. I was also beginning to wish I’d taken out proper mountaineering insurance.
Thanks to Jeff’s skill and encouragement, I finally made it to the top, where we were presented with winter-wonderland views over the surrounding mountains. I’d have jumped with joy if I’d had the energy.
The journey back down the mountain was exhausting, but the views of the glacier and of the surrounding mountains compensated. Back at basecamp I treated myself to a couple of (very) cold beers and a large bar of chocolate, before catching up on some much needed sleep. After another early night we set off trekking down the valley to reach the dirt track and our transport back to the Altiplano.