Learning from experience not being a strong point, after the climb of Pequena Alpamayo, Jeff and I headed off to the Sajama National Park, home to Vulcans Parinacota (6330m) and Sajama (6549m).
The latter is the highest point in Bolivia, and the original plan was to climb Parinacota and then Sajama over a six-day period. Joining me for this delight was a French guy called Jan and a second mountain guide, Pedro. As it transpired, things weren’t to go to plan.
Except when we were sleeping in the tents at the various base camps and high camps, Sajama village was to be our base for the trip. Situated in the west of Bolivia only a few kilometres from the Chilean border, Sajama National Park is a dramatic landscape that frequently resembles the moon and is seemingly populated mainly by llamas, vicuña and alpaca. Beautiful, but when the sun goes down fearfully cold.
While Vulcan Sajama is a big lump of a mountain, Parinacota is a picture perfect cone-shaped volcano that features in every child’s picture book of volcanoes. Parinacota is one of two volcanoes next to each other that were important in Incan mythology and religion, and are still known as ‘The Twins’.
After a night in the village, we headed to Parinacota high camp, which sits on the saddle between the two volcanoes at approximately 5100m. Unfortunately, the weather had taken a turn for the worse, and a low pressure system in the Pacific was creating strong winds that were sweeping across the ocean and Chile to where we were attempting to climb – winds over 100km/h at ground level.
Regardless, we started the walk to high camp (5100m), but after half an hour Jan was forced to turn back suffering from the altitude. He and Jeff returned to the village, while Pedro and I continued up to high camp. As we pitched the tents in strong winds I couldn’t help wishing I was going back to the village and a proper bed situated between actual walls.
While the winds grew stronger as the sun started to descend, the unusual weather conditions had scattered a lot of cloud across the sky, creating one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve ever seen…even now the photos don’t seem real.
So, after a stunning sunset, some food and honey-laced tea against the freezing weather conditions, we retired to our tents to endure a night of high winds in preparation for a 2.00am start up the mountain. I wasn’t looking forward to the climb, it would be a vertical ascent of over 1200m and I hadn’t slept all night due to the wind and the cold; as we set off towards the bottom of the ice fields the wind was getting stronger.
After fours hours of walking I was feeling almost incapable of climbing another step. We’d been walking through fields of ‘penitants’, spikes of ice anywhere between 6 – 18 inches in height created by the winds. Penitants make walking on the ice pretty hard going and they suck the life out of your legs; getting a constant stride pattern is impossible and it just drains you of the will to live, especially when the hill is at a rakish 35 – 45 degree angle.
When we were about 300m below the summit the sun started to come up, and I was ecstatic to have a five minute break to watch it illuminate Vulcan Sajama and the valley below.
We set off again for the summit, but by now the wind was so strong I was getting blown about, and at one point I was almost blown off my feet. With little other than a drop of 2000m down ice fields below me I was getting worried. Plus I could no longer feel my feet. When we were about 100m below the summit we started getting blasted by ice and snow being whipped off the mountain by high winds – not a good sign when your on the high street, high on a mountain it spells trouble.
At this point, Pedro suggested we (by which he meant I) might want to head back down as the wind conditions were getting dangerous. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was music of a particularly sweet kind to my ears. Although we were only a short way off the summit, I could barely put one leg in front of the other and, with the wind really battering us, down was the sane option.
The walk down was exhausting – more fields of penitants and more high winds. After a mere three agonising hours of constant descent we were off the ice and onto rock again. Another hour and we were back in the high camp where I collapsed in a heap inside the tent. Pedro, experienced mountain guide that he is, looked as if he’d just been out for a brisk walk around the park; he made some tea laced with more honey – which may have saved my life.
A few hours walk back down to the trail head and we were in the 4×4 headed back to the village and a rest day. After a large dinner and a family-sized bar of chocolate, I slept for 12 hours solid. Waking up the next day, I was still exhausted and the weather conditions had deteriorated further, winds stronger than before. I’d developed a chesty cough – known locally as the ‘cumbre cough’ – which was the final nail in the coffin of climbing Sajama.