Sajama National Park

Cancelling the climb of Vulcan Sajama meant we had a day to explore the surrounding area. At first it looks uniformly barren, with some small, tough plants that sustain a surprisingly large llama population, which in turn supports a much smaller human population, and has done so for millennia.

The reality is a bit different, and the region is dotted with hot springs, ancient burial sites, small adobe churches and high altitude lakes with abundant bird life, including flamingoes. A stark, beautiful landscape that constantly surprises.

It’s a wonderfully beautiful landscape, one that is a photographer’s dreamscape. Welcome to the Sajama National Park…

Adobe church on the outskirts of a small village in the middle of the altiplano, Bolivia

Adobe church on the outskirts of a small village in the middle of the altiplano, Bolivia

High altitude lake with a small population of flamingoes, Bolivia

High altitude lake with a small population of flamingoes, Bolivia

Chullpas, Incan burial sites, that have survived thanks to the low rainfall in the region, Bolivia

Chullpas, Incan burial sites, that have survived thanks to the low rainfall in the region, Bolivia

More chullpas, restored to their original colours, Bloivia

More chullpas, restored to their original colours, Bloivia

Salt marsh and mountains, Altiplano, Bolivia

Salt marsh and mountains, Altiplano, Bolivia

Flamingo lake, Altiplano Bolivia

Flamingo lake, Altiplano Bolivia

Flamingoes take flight, Altiplano, Bolivia

Flamingoes take flight, Altiplano, Bolivia

The view from a pre-Hispanic fort on a small hilltop, Altiplano, Bolivia

The view from a pre-Hispanic fort on a small hilltop, Altiplano, Bolivia

Road to somewhere? Altiplano, Bolivia

Road to somewhere? Altiplano, Bolivia

Abandoned village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Abandoned village, Altiplano, Bolivia

We even managed to enter Chile illegally, Altiplano, Bolivia

We even managed to enter Chile illegally, Altiplano, Bolivia

Adobe church with Vulcan Sajama, Altiplano, Bolivia

Adobe church with Vulcan Sajama, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

Graveyard in Sajama village, Altiplano, Bolivia

The final frontier: climbing Vulcan Parinacota (6330m)

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.

Sajama village with Vulcan Sajama as a backdrop, Bolivia

Sajama village with Vulcan Sajama as a backdrop, Bolivia

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’.

The near perfect cone-shaped Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

The near perfect cone-shaped Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

'The Twins', Parinacota and Pomerape, Bolivia

‘The Twins’, Parinacota and Pomerape, Bolivia

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.

On the walk to high camp the high winds were evident on the top of Parinacota - blowing snow and ice clouds around, Bolivia

On the walk to high camp the high winds were evident on the top of Parinacota – blowing snow and ice clouds around, Bolivia

The calm before the storm - relaxing at Parinacota high camp (5100m), Bolivia

The calm before the storm – relaxing at Parinacota high camp (5100m), Bolivia

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.

Sunset with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset with Vulcan Sajama, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

Sunset over Sajama National Park, Bolivia

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.

Sunrise over Sajama from around 6000m on Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

Sunrise over Sajama from around 6000m on Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

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 field of smallish 'penitants', nasty, horrible 'penitants', on the lower slopes of Parinacota, Bolivia

A field of smallish ‘penitants’, nasty, horrible ‘penitants’, on the lower slopes of Parinacota, Bolivia

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.

Trekking the Cordillera Real and climbing Pequena Alpamayo (5370m)

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.

Laguna Quta Quita nestles amongst the Cordillera Real

Laguna Quta Quita nestles amongst the Cordillera Real

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.

My tent at the first campsite

My tent at the first campsite

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.

Mountain valley with llama

Mountain valley with llama

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.

Laguna Ajwani

Laguna Ajwani

The dysfunctional community hostal at Laguna Ajwani

The dysfunctional community hostal at Laguna Ajwani

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.

World's second coldest toilet?

World’s second coldest toilet?

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.

Early morning over the Cordillera Real

Early morning over the Cordillera Real

If you look closely, you can see our route down the side of the mountain

If you look closely, you can see our route down the side of the mountain

One of several high altitude lakes on the route

One of several high altitude lakes on the route

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.

The Condoriri Basecamp sits on the far side of the lake

The Condoriri Basecamp sits on the far side of the lake

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…

A sunrise to end all sunrises halfway up Pequena Alpamayo

A sunrise to end all sunrises halfway up Pequena Alpamayo

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.

The route to the top of Mount Tarija - straight up

The route to the top of Mount Tarija – straight up

The summit of Pequena Alpamayo from Mount Tarija

The summit of Pequena Alpamayo from Mount Tarija

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.

Jeff leading the way up a near vertical wall of ice and snow

Jeff leading the way up a near vertical wall of ice and snow

Yes, that really is the edge of the mountain - 1000m vertical drop off the right-hand side

Yes, that really is the edge of the mountain – 1000m vertical drop off the right-hand side

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.

The only way is up, unfortunately

The only way is up, unfortunately

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.

I hope the relief at still being alive is evident

I hope the relief at still being alive is evident

The view over the Cordillera Real

The view over the Cordillera Real

The view back to basecamp and down the valley

The view back to basecamp and down the valley

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.

Back up the mountain another group starts to descend

Back up the mountain another group starts to descend

The view back up the glacier with Pequena Alpamayo peaking up to the right

The view back up the glacier with Pequena Alpamayo peaking up to the right

Home sweet home, Cordillera Real, Bolivia

Home sweet home, Cordillera Real, Bolivia

The night sky...you don't get this in London

The night sky…you don’t get this in London

Climbing Huyana Potosi (6088m)

6088m Huyana Potosi looks innocent enough from a distance

Although Huyana Potosi is 6088 meters high (that’s more than 6 kilometres straight up into the atmosphere), it is considered to be an easy 6000m mountain for novice climbers. So, without realising what I was letting myself in for, I joined five other intrepid novices and headed to the 4750m basecamp of the Huyana Potosi Agency, run by the genial but slightly bonkers Dr. Hugo Berrios – a mountain legend in these parts.

After lunch we headed out to the ‘old’ glacier for an afternoon of ice walking and climbing to prepare us for our attempt on Huyana Potosi; returning for an early night in preparation for going up to the refugio at the high camp, located 5100m up Huyana Potosi.

The climb to the high camp looks a lot easier than it actually was

The refugio was pretty basic, but dramatically located overlooking the valley below, and also featured what must count as one of the coldest toilets on planet earth.

Home for the night at 5100m

World’s coldest toilet?

Our group consisted of three Brits, a Brazilian, an American and a Spaniard, plus three Bolivian mountain guides (three groups of three), and as we went to bed in the freezing cold refugio we were in high spirits. We would have to set off for the top of Huyana Potosi at 1.30am, so we were early to bed, although I don’t think many people got much sleep.

The first signs of ‘trouble’ came at 9.30pm when I braved the freezing cold to go to the toilet, only to be confronted by a snowstorm. Not unusual, but not very welcome all the same. By the time we set off at 1.30am there was about 6 – 8 inches of snow on the ground, which not only covered over the trail to the summit, but also made walking much more difficult and energy sapping.

There is something weird about walking up a mountain in the dark. You have no idea of the landscape you are walking through and you can’t see where you are going – which, given how far we had to walk and how steep some of sections were, was probably for the best. The altitude was difficult to deal with and we needed fairly regular breaks.

Catching our breath on Huyana Potosi

The smile is entirely false

The climb to the base of the summit took approximately 5 hours, and we were pretty tired by the time we reached the final, dramatic climb to the summit. This started with our guide giving us the warning that this section was “very, very dangerous”. Now you tell us!

Then we were off, climbing up a narrow ice ‘bridge’ at an angle of about 50 degrees with nothing but 1000m drops on either side. At the top of the ice bridge was a narrow ledge of ice and fresh snow which stretched for about 200 meters to the top of the mountain – at some points the ledge was no more than 4 – 6 inches wide, with nothing but vertical drops either side. My ice boots were at least 4 inches wide, leaving little room for error.

It was terrifying, but we edged along the ledge putting our faith in our crampons and ice axes, and trying (in my case) to think of what would drive a nominally sane human being to be edging along an ice ledge at 6000m at 6am with certain death just one slip away. In part this question was answered when we reached the top just as the sun was rising, but the adrenalin was pumping so hard around my brain that it was pretty difficult to grasp the beauty of our surroundings for a few minutes.

The sun rises through the cloud and snow on the summit of Huyana Potosi

Once the sun was up, the true beauty of where we were became apparent…and, despite the fact that we were balanced precariously on a lump of ice and snow 6088m in the sky, it really was amazing. To the bottom left of the photo below is the narrow ice ledge that we had just walked up, and which we’d have to go back down again.

Sunrise reveals the majesty of the Cordillera Real

Another group arrives at the top

Tired, terrified but triumphant…the summit of Huyana Potosi

Don’t look down! Life at the edge on the summit of Huyana Potosi

After catching our breath for a few minutes on the summit, we started our descent of the ice ledge, which was even more terrifying than the ascent, and then the three hour trek back down the mountain to the high camp. With the sun rising in the sky, we could finally see what we had walked up to reach the summit, and it revealed an amazing landscape of ice and snow.

Descent of Huyana Potosi

Gazing over the Cordillera real

Ice formations

It was a long way down

Views of the Cordillera Real

More snow and ice

At last, sight of the basecamp

Andean Adventure: Return to La Paz

The story so far: 42-year old male currently domiciled in Sucre, Bolivia, decides that it would be fun to climb some mountains and trek through the beautiful valleys and over the mountain passes of the Cordillera Real.

In what scientists may one day identify as a moment of mid-life crisis, this proves to be at best foolhardy, and at times terrifying and very, very cold. For three weeks, said 42-year old male departs the warm and pleasant climate of Sucre and heads for the mountains and a life under tent canvass…leaving him at times wondering if buying a sports car or dating an 18-year old with the IQ of a lemon wouldn’t be a more sensible mid-life crisis to be having.

He even buys a mid-life crisis mountain hat…

On the slopes before Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

On the slopes before Vulcan Parinacota, Bolivia

Lovely…

…after three weeks in the mountains I returned to La Paz and civilisation, desiring nothing more than a shower (preferably hot), a cold beer and the world’s most enormous steak.

As ambitions go, these seemed manageable, but this is Bolivia where “everything is possible, nothing is certain”. As we approached La Paz word reached us that the city was currently being engulfed by riots, there were blockades and there was rumour of the army being deployed to the streets.

I asked the driver why the army was being deployed. The answer, “It is the police who are rioting.” Of course they are, why wouldn’t the police be rioting?

Turns out that police demands for higher wages (and their general animosity towards the government) had tipped over into a strike and eventually riots, all gleefully reported in the media…

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

The police had attacked one of their own buildings in La Paz, smashed computers, burned files and other paperwork, started a bonfire with office furniture and fired their guns in the air. If you’re going to have a riot, you may as well have the professionals do it, so much more effective than just a few hoodies from the local estate smashing up a Boots on the high street.

Yet this is the same police force that likes to portray itself as a cuddly dog. Only a few blocks from the scene of the riots, this painting adorns the wall of a police compound…oh, the irony.

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Trouble in paradise, La Paz, Bolivia

Mercifully, the police had limited their riot to a reasonably small area of the city, and I was able to reach my hotel, get a hot shower…you cannot imagine the simple pleasure of a hot shower under such circumstances…and a cold beer. All in time to watch England go out of Euro 2012 with a whimper.

More on what I’ve been doing for the last three weeks to come…

Trekking the Cordillera de los Frailles

The Cordillera de los Frailles, the mountain range that forms Sucre’s backdrop, is also home to the predominately Quechua-speaking Jalq’a people who have inhabited the hidden valleys amongst the serrated mountain peaks for millennia.

These are poor communities, with few facilities, although Bolivia’s push to connect all it’s villages with running water and electricity has brought huge benefits to many communities.

Traditionally, the Jalq’a are farmers, cultivating potatoes, wheat and corn, as well as farming goats and sheep. But today, they are best know for their beautiful and elaborate weavings of mythical, demon-like figures solely in black and red wool – black for evil and red for good. A weaving no bigger than a double-page newspaper spread can take three or four months to complete.

A traditional Jalq’a weaving complete with Llamas and mythical creatures

Having met the ‘owner’, an Australian called Randall, I went on a four day trek in the Cordillera de los Frailles with Condor Trekkers. A not-for-profit organisation that works with the Jalq’a communities, providing funds for schools in the region’s villages, and staying in community ‘hostals’ where all the money goes back to the community. You can visit their website here: www.condortrekkers.org/

So, feeling very socially conscious, you load up your backpack with everything you need for four days in the mountains, and, at the un-Godly hour of 5am, you join your fellow trekkers, two fellow Brits and a guy from France living (idyllically) in the Caribbean, and your Quechua-speaking guide, David, and head for the hills.

The early start soon fades as the views, and the altitude, leaving you gasping.

Once on the trail outside the village of Chataquila the views are spectacular

In the early morning sun the colours of the mountains and valleys really shine

Our first day’s route took us to two sets of pre-Hispanic, some say pre-Inca, cave paintings at Pumamachay and Incamachay, travelling through yet more beautiful scenery en route.

Close to Incamachay

The cave paintings themselves are very powerful in their simplicity, perhaps because of their simplicity. This painting depicts a woman giving birth, complete with hair pulling anguish.

Descending into the valley floor and heading towards Chaunaca village the landscape begins to change, with more fields of crops and animals evident, although very few people were to be seen other than a few people glimpsed from afar working in the fields.

Crossing a bridge

A woman weaving in the village

After a refreshing night sleeping on a school floor – one of the schools Condor Trekkers supports, but a floor all the same – we headed off towards the magical and bizarre Maragua Crater at the centre of which is a beautiful village surrounded by corn and wheat fields. Our route followed the river through a beautiful valley.

Couldn’t help thinking of all those people commuting to work in London as we walked along the river

The valley floor was followed by a steep climb through dramatic scenery…

A farmer tends his crops at 3500 meters against a dramatic background

…before descending again to the Maragua Crater.

Houses nestle amongst the crops in Maragua Crater

Maragua’s beautiful geography, and it’s signature circular hills, is the result of tectonic plate upheaval and erosion from water. The village is famed for its weaving and a huge indigenous festival every January.

The graceful arches of the Serranias de Maragua

Sunflowers in Maragua

After a night in a hostal – and a bed – run by the Maragua community, we headed off up and over the crater rim with the village of Potolo as our final destination. Passing through yet more dramatic landscapes, we broke for lunch at the site of 350 million-year-old dinosaur footprints.

More scenery, not much drama

These belong to an Abelisaurus, a Latin American relative of T.Rex and Latin America’s fiercest predator

This probably belonged to a Diplodocus or similar large and veggie cousin

Another three hours walking with the Cordillera as a backdrop finally brought us to Potolo and journey’s end – a wonderful experience and a thousand memories, most particular of which must be finding a Tienda with a fridge and cold beer.

Flowers and the Cordillera

Friday night in downtown Potolo, a metropolis compared with villages we’d passed through on previous days