Bolivia

Origins

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.

With the help of grant money from Alpine Ascents International, The Mazamas, and the American Alpine Club our dream became reality.

Planning

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.

Acclimatization

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. 

 

The Business

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.

Reflections

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! 

Tacoma

It has been a few months since I last posted, and it has been a wild time!

After getting back from Argentina I quickly packed up our things and drove non-stop to Tacoma, WA. My wife, Katie, started a new job out here and I was eager to be back in the NW more full time. Amongst the chaos of Plaza de Mulas basecamp I found out that we are expecting a new member of the family! All the stress and confusion of basecamp dissipated immediately and my good friend and co-guide Juan and I were in tears. We are officially due in September with a baby boy or girl (we decided not to find out)!

Other than that Katie and I have become the most sedentary either of us have experienced in over a decade. Full time jobs, new house, dog, and now baby on the way. I guess you could say we are settling in a bit.

The past few months out here in the NW have allowed me to explore and climb more than I have in the past. This has included getting back into backcountry skiing after a 6 year hiatus (oh Thailand....), as well as climb a few one day objectives like Chair Peak. I was even able to get down to Smith Rocks for a long weekend with some fellow guides.

Added to the chaos of the summer work season has been planning a personal climbing trip to Bolivia. My good friend Ethan and I have received grants from Alpine Ascents International, The Mazamas, and the American Alpine Club to explore the Mururata Massif in the Cordillera Real. Ever since I began climb over a decade ago, this has been my dream. Feels amazing that it is finally coming together but perhaps at an inconvenient time with the baby en route.

Beyond that I will also be guiding in Mongolia and Russia before the baby is here. Whirlwind tour but all very good things. I feel very fortunate to have a partner that understands my dreams, passions, and love of both the outdoors and family. It will become more of a balancing act once we are parents!

Now with the NW season in full swing I will be running laps on Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. Check out my Upcoming Trips page for more information on open trips.

Aconcagua - Tejas Anejos

Once again I flew south for the austral summer to guide on the Stone Sentinel -- Aconcagua. I was fortunate to work alongside my good friend Juan Araya, who was celebrating his 22nd season on the mountain. Our team consisted of 6 climbers from the great state of Texas! This was a Clean Water Climb, with each climber raising $10,000 USD for donation to Child Legacy International.

Unfortunately, this trip would be very challenging in a number of ways. After acclimatizing on Cerro Bonete we took a rest day, at which point one of our team members had a acute sinkable event in which he did not remember hitting the ground. Due to the low oxygen saturation in his blood we were forced to evacuate him. This event scared not only the climber, but the team as a whole. No matter how many times you tell people "this is not Kilimanjaro," they never seem to get it until something like this happens. Over the course of the next few days we lost another climber to upper respiratory issues, another to physical inability, and yet another to altitude sickness. All in all we ended up with only 2 climbers left at Camp Colera (19,600ft)!

Luckily we were able to summit with the two remaining climbers, however our summit day was marked by a few notable issues. Firstly, the Argentinian military was in the midst of their annual climb, which meant they kept dashing and crashing every 10 meters......much to are astonishment they would not let other groups pass them on the trail until about 1 hour out of high camp. The other notable feature was a deceased climber about 200 vertical feet below the summit. Evidently he had passed away due to a heart attack a few days before and was not able to be taken off. Our climbers were able to come to terms with their own mortality, as these big mountains are often underestimated.

Back in Plaza de Mulas we were able to breath easier but not before the snow started flying. With over 30cm of new snow at basecamp and over 50cm at high camp we were grateful for our summit window!

Overall I think this trip was challenging in many ways, but also helped me grow as a guide. Juan and I were happy to say farewell to the group and let our minds and bodies rest. This group also sparked my concern in terms of client expectations vs. guide expectations. I hope to create another post in the coming weeks outlining specific do's and don'ts for climbers on these types of expeditions.