Bolivia has been on my mind for at least a decade. Not sure where the fascination all started but I suspect it was in Sra. Casas high school Spanish class. I remember being assigned to read "The Motorcycle Diaries," a book by Ernesto Guevara, and being absolutely blown away. Without revealing the whole story, Ernesto and his friend decide to ride an old motorcycle from Argentina north through South America. Being both medical students they stop along the way and work at different organizations. Part of their journey takes them through Bolivia. Ernesto was so affected by the abject poverty and suffering of the people, but also the kindness and strength of human endurance. Unfortunately, Bolivia is the poorest and most under developed country in South America due to the Spanish subjugation of the local indigenous population, rich natural resources, and lack of access to any major water way. Something in that struggle resonated with me at an early age. Being raised on and around the reservation there was always a commonality between the conquerers and the conquered.
Fast forward a few years and I discovered climbing! Most of my early course work and climbing took place with an amazing organization called the Montana Mountaineering Association, based out of Bozeman. They offered a yearly trip to Bolivia to climb in the Condoriri Group and this was my goal. Though I never had the time or funds when I was younger to join an expedition with MMA, it did linger in the back of my mind for many years.
This trip was a culmination of many factors, including my close climbing partnership with Ethan Berman. Over the years we have climbed all over the world together, and it has been awesome seeing him progress into a true alpinist. I pitched Ethan the idea of exploring and climbing new routes in Bolivia and next thing you know we are applying for grants and boarding our flights south. We even did a trip to Mexico about a year ago to see how Ethan would handle climbing at altitude. The stars were starting to align.
Over the course of our research we were able to contact local climbers to see what had and had not been climbed. Greg Beisly (http://www.boliviaclimbinginfo.org/) was super helpful and steered us in the right direction. Robert Rauch was also very helpful in giving us beta and names of local contacts for logistical support. We decided to explore the south faces of Cerro Mururata and Cerro Arkhata. Often climbed from the north side via easy glacier routes, we were determined to find big new alpine lines. We decided to basecamp at Laguna Arkhata and see what we could do.
As with any foray into the high ranges, acclimatization is the key to success. The first part of our trip focused on getting our bodies in shape and producing more red blood cells. La Paz itself is quite high in altitude at 12,000 - 14,000 ft, so even getting off the plane was a test! Luckily having spent most of my guiding career at high altitude I was able to arrive and then immediately transfer to Languna Zongo at 15,748 ft. Not to say I wasn't feeling it, but not as bad as expected. We proceeded to stay at the Refugio Casa Blanca for 6 days. Upon arrival we were able to climb the SW Ridge of Cerro Milluni S. (Grade II 5.5) up to 17,564 ft. After this we climbed Cerro Charquini (17,708 ft) via the normal route before proceeding to high camp on Huayna Potosi.
In the end we decided to take a more interesting route up Huayna Potosi (19,973 ft) via the French Route. Looking up from the refugio the face looks steep and intimidating, however at about 45º the climb was straight forward and easy going. On summit day Ethan did start to feel the altitude a bit which concerned me. After a bro session we continued to the summit nice and slow. Back at Casa Blanca we were fed by Dona Montana (we never did find out her real name). She must have spent a lifetime at the base of the mountain, helping climbers realize their dreams.
After a successful acclimatization period up at Laguna Zongo we returned to La Paz to regroup and repack. We caught an early morning taxi with Maestro Mario and headed for Tres Rios , the jumping off point for Laguna Arkhata. Luckily the area has seen some trekking and the path up to the lake was straightforward. Though carrying 70lbs packs at and above 4000m was taxing we arrived to what would be our home for the next 9 days.
Over the course of the week we were able to establish a new route on SE face of Cerro Arkhata (18,562 ft) which we named "The Keep" based on a rock formation resembling a castle. The first 2 pitches were WI3+ which led to easier ground. We opted to take a more direct route up a gully in the M4 range and then proceeded to break trail through waist deep sugar snow for the last 250m to the summit. We decided that the route was Grade III WI3+ M4, 700m.
On a rest day Ethan also soloed a new route on the SW ridge of Cerro Wila Silliloma (18,064 ft) Grade III WI2 5.5.
Throughout the week we kept eyeing different lines on the main face of Cerro Mururata (19,351 ft). Previous parties had put up a few routes on the most obvious line up the face, however we opted to climb a snow / ice line on the left hand side of the peak. It was a bit heads up on the approach with some serac fall happening too close for comfort. The first few pitches involved some interesting mixed and ice climbing in the M5 range which led up to the money pitches. A full pitch of WI3 hero ice put us at the base of a vertical waterfall pitch. Ethan took the lead here and crushed the crux pitch (WI5), letting out a holler of ecstasy after the business had concluded. Beyond that we simul - soloed easy 45º - 50º snow / ice to the top. From here we made our way up the lower glacier, avoiding the looming seracs above to gain the summit plateau. After summiting we decided to rappel the main face to negate back tracking and any serac danger. The route itself took us 17 hours camp to camp. We named the route "Power to the Process," Grade IV WI5 M5, 750m.
We rested the next day before descending back down to the road where Mario picked us up, but not before we had time to drink a few Pacenas in the local town.
Cherry on Top
Given our acclimatization and how well we were moving we decided to do a quick lap up Illmani via the normal route. From Pinaya it took us about 6 hours to high camp at Nido de Condores. That night was perhaps the coldest we had experienced the whole trip, but we rallied and were able to summit and descend back to camp in 6.5 hours! Other parties had luckily broke trail during the morning so the going was easy.
All in all the trip was more successful than either of us could have hoped for! Not only were we able to climb some of the classic peaks of Bolivia, but we were graced with perfect weather and conditions to complete our new routes. We named one of our new routes "Power to the Process," which I think encompasses all the energy and planning that went into this trip. Being able to have a decade long dream come true was surreal for me, and I don't think it has fully sunken in yet. My mind is already reeling with new ideas and objectives in the Himalayas, Caucasus, and beyond!