Bolivian Climber Day One

The Bolivian Climber trip is run by a few of the big climbing operatives, most notably Jagged Globe and IMG. I chose to go with the former and my trip took place from 1st to the 22nd August 2015. The context here overall is that up until the turn of this year I was (perhaps over ambitiously) harbouring designs on the Seven Summits. However, my attempt on my third mountain, Aconcagua, ended up in me descending due to AMS.

Having wondered what to do next, I came upon this trip, which if successful would get me to 6,500m or so, higher than I had ever been before. If I failed, then I would know that physiologically I was not meant to be up that high. The trip consists of four mountains altogether. Pico Austria at 5,350m as an acclimatisation summit, and then the more technical ascents of Pequena Alpameyo (5,370m), Huana Potosi (6,088m), and finally Illimani (6,438m). All mountains are situated in the Cordillera Real range of the Andes, all within Bolivia.

Day one (and two in fact) was one long long haul to get to Bolivia itself, a distance of some 7,500 miles from London where my flying journey began. I would fly American Airlines to Miami, and then after a four hour layover from Miami to La Paz, the highest capital city in the world. The first flight was 9 hours and the latter 6 and a half.

First view of Illimani flying into La Paz

First view of Illimani flying into La Paz

The arrival at La Paz airport was at 7am local time, and by the time we got to the hotel I had been travelling for nearly 28 hours all told.

The airport at La Paz is actually well above the city, itself at 3,650m, or 12,000ft. The airport sits on the Altiplano, a high plateau at 4,100m (13,500ft). Getting off the plane at this altitude without acclimatisation was something else, the air so noticably thinner that just walking a few steps was a chore. Following a fairly painless customs and passport check, we stopped for some photographs straight out of the airport itself, looking down from El Alto into La Paz itself.

First view down into La Paz itself from El Alto, at 4,100m

First view down into La Paz itself from El Alto, at 4,100m

Following a steep journey into town we checked into our hotel, the Ritz Aparthotel in downtown La Paz. The hotel was really nice, much nicer than I had expected. The standard room rates here were about $150 a night, which must be a king’s ransom in Bolivia. Having been allocated our rooms, some of us went for a quick explore round town, stopping for a quick beer along the way (it would have been rude not to, even if I didn’t feel exactly 100%!).

The streets of La Pax, near the church of San Sebastian

The streets of La Pax, near the church of San Sebastian

Another typical (if quieter) La Paz street scene. The lady wears the bowler hat if she is married.

Another typical (if quieter) La Paz street scene. The lady wears the bowler hat if she is married.

Another typical downtown city scene. Pacēna is the local beer, meaning "of La Paz".

Another typical downtown city scene. Paceña is the local beer, meaning “of La Paz”.

In the afternoon we got to meet our Jagged Globe guide, Olan Parkinson. Olan had just returned from another identical trip, and gave us a bit of information about what to expect etc. I then put my head down for about two hours as I was absolutely wiped out. About three hours sleep in the last 24 hours had seen to that.

In the evening Olan took us with two of the local guides to a local restaurant. It was clearly quite smart by La Paz standards, and the food was as nice as it was unexpected. I stayed safe and went for pasta instead of venturing for local Bolivian fare. I figured I’d see enough of that on the mountains themselves, and clearly Llama was very much the most popular dish.

So by now I’d got to meet all of the group. John, Alessandro, and Laura I’d met before on the pre-expedition weekend in Snowdonia some 6 weeks previously. All of the others were new faces, Gavin, (my roommate), another John, Jim, Lesley, and Patrick and Lotte from Norway who were the only ones who came together.

Bed came early that first night, even if sleep didn’t. I always tend to struggle the first night at altitude and this was no exception. I was awake probably very hour on and off. Hopefully the acclimatisation schedule that was planned over the next few days (it would be another three days before we’d head up into the mountains) would make things better.

So game on, as it were. Tomorrow was another day in La Paz to get used to the thin air, and it would be a great and eye opening adventure.


So here we go again then. It’s time for an update on proceedings, and I have decided, after much deliberation, to head to Bolivia this summer. Why? Well you might well reasonably ask that question, and even if you don’t, then for posterity, here goes:

I had decided a couple of years ago, probably much against the laws of physics, or at least my own physiology, to try to do the Seven Summits. Kilimanjaro was fine. But having had ‘a bout’ of AMS (the onset of HACE, in fact) on Elbrus, and then having had (albeit milder) AMS on Aconcagua which prevented me summiting, I have had to reconsider my endeavours therefore, and try to be realistic.

At best, I will spend a lot of money on the likes of Vinson and Karstenz Pyramid (both cost around $30,000 each) and may not summit either, and then don’t even know if I will be able to (regardless) get high enough on Aconcagua to succeed. Then there is Denali, a mountain which although “only” 6,000m, thwarts even hardened Everest veterans if the weather isn’t right. Oh yes, and whilst we are on that, Mount Everest – who am I trying to kid? Really?

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t given up, even despite the above analysis. I love the very thought of it. It’s inspirational, aspirational, and more exciting than anything I can think of. If anybody asks me if there is one place I’d like to go to on planet earth it is the summit of Mount Everest. That’ll probably never change, but I won’t get stupid, or obsessive, or both about it, promise.

I also don’t want to just give up on being ‘in the mountains’, as they are just a part of me. From being up on the Langdales in the Lake District, or Ben Nevis, or in the Alps on some random peak, I get a kick, of just being up there on top.

So anyway, after I got back from ‘not’ summiting Aconcagua this January, I deliberated for a little while about what I would do next. I was asked many times before I had even left Argentina if I was going to try it again. “I don’t know” was the best I could come up with, and I will still give that answer now, even if this is only some eight weeks later.

About two weeks after being back, I was up in Scotland to meet with (most of) the folks with whom I had been to Elbrus to last summer. We had a great weekend, and despite not being able to get near the summit of Ben Nevis due to very deep snow and high winds, three of us went up Aonach Mor the next day, with near perfect weather and a beautiful summit experience. Just being there made me feel so alive, so inspired, and so happy. I knew at that point that I had to do ‘something’ this summer, even if it wasn’t necessarily either Denali or some other Seven Summit related attempt.

On top of Aonach Mor, Ben Nevis in the background, January 2015.

On top of Aonach Mor, Ben Nevis in the background, January 2015.

En route to the summit of Aonach Mor. Fabulous, isn't it?

En route to the summit of Aonach Mor. Fabulous, isn’t it?

Looking down towards Fort William.

Looking down towards Fort William.


Over the last few weeks therefore, I’ve been trying to decide what to do, and the answer in the end was sort of prompted for me by one of the guides from IMG, with whom I’d been to Aconcagua with. He emailed me and asked if I’d like to join an IMG trip to Bolivia, where he was headed. He said it should be fine for me, whilst not being ‘quite’ as high as Aconcagua, it offered three mountains. They got progressively higher, and so offered good acclimatisation opportunities, and topped out at a mountain called Illimani (which I’d never even heard of before) at 6,462m.

Having looked at the itinerary I thought it looked great, and decided it was a definite possibility. In the end the dates for the IMG trip didn’t work out for me, and so I looked at Jagged Globe instead, who I knew also ran a Bolivia trip. At the same time as the Bolivia trip though, was an expedition to Peak Lenin in Kyrgyzstan. Peak Lenin is a bit of a beast (alright it is a monster, at 7,134m (23,405 feet) but that didn’t stop me wanting to try it! A week or so later, and after some ‘sensible’ conversations with Adele Pennington (thanks Adele :)), who has guided the Bolivian climber trip multiple times before, I was recalibrated – Bolivia it was!

Here is an excerpt from the Jagged Globe website about the Bolivian trip:

Straddling the Andes, Bolivia is an unspoilt and little visited country. Having landed on the Altiplano at 4,200 metres, you descend almost 1,000 metres from the airport to La Paz, where you relax for two nights. You then go back to the Altiplano to explore the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca, spending a few days visiting sites of the Tiahuanaco, pre-Inca, civilisation. Then, ready to face the mountains, you enter a beautiful high mountain cirque at Condoriri. From here, you climb Pico Austria (5,100m) and Pequeño Alpamayo (5,337m), and do some glacier practice. Pequeño Alpamayo is a stunning climb along a well-defined ridge (50° in parts). Next you head for the bigger objectives of Huayna Potosi (6,094m) and Illimani (6,462m). Both mountains provide excellent glacier and snow climbs, with some easy ridge scrambling to get to the high camp on Illimani. The summit ridge on Huayna Potosi is not steep but it is exposed, whilst Illimani provides a very big summit day with a difficult section, which can involve 55° ice climbing at an altitude of nearly 6,000m.

So I signed up, just like that 🙂

Here are a couple of pictures that I have found so far of the climbs I will face:

Alpameyo has a pretty steep summit ridge....

Alpameyo has a pretty steep summit ridge….

...and Huayana Potosi looks like it has a bit of an "airy" summit :O

…and Huayna Potosi looks like it has a bit of an “airy” summit :O

I’ll post more in due course of what I face this summer (August), but I am learning that it will be a pretty technical climb in places, with some ice climbing and fairly technical rock and ice thrown in in places.

So to finish for now, I just did a quick search on the net for some good climbing/mountain quotes, not to help me, but to illustrate to some people who ask why it is what I do. It’s always hard to describe somehow, as frankly if you don’t get it, then you probably never will. These three are good starters though and are as follows:

Every mountain top is within reach if you just keep climbing.” – Barry Finlay, ‘Kilimanjaro and Beyond’ (good book title by the way :))

“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hilary

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Meantime I have a few more low lying activities set up to get me in the best shape I can be. Tough Mudder, lots of running, cycling, and two goes at the Fan Dance for starters. More on those very soon!!