Having put our time in at elevation and climbed Pequeño Alpamayo, Cabeza de Condor, and Huayna Potosí, Dale and I were ready for a bigger adventure. After an exceptional gustatorial experience the night prior at the destination restaurant Gustu in La Paz, we took a taxi in the morning to the cemetery, where a line of collectivos waited to make the three-hour drive to the remote mountain town of Sorata. We piled in, paying for two extra seats for our gear rather than strapping it to the roof for fear of caking it in dirt or, worse, losing something. At 20 Bolivianos per seat, (and a 7:1 exchange rate), we weren’t exactly breaking the bank to do so.
The drive went smoothly, including a somewhat harrowing descent from a pass down more than 5,000 feet to Sorata. At 9,000 feet elevation, Sorata felt downright tropical, complete with giant palm trees in the main square. The collectivo deposited us directly across the street from some 4x4 taxis. We inquired and they were very excited to take us up to the high mining town of Lakathiya for 125 Bolivianos. Deal.
Minutes later, we were quickly moving up the improbably steep cobbled streets of Sorata, which quickly gave way to an intestine-like dirt road that switched back incessantly up the hillside. We waited for a few minutes at one point for a bulldozer to do some work on the road in startling proximity to our car before slipping past and continuing up. Views down into the valley were unbelievable, with over 6,000 feet dropping off sharply.
Our driver took us to the end of a road he could drive near Lakathiya for another 25 Bolivianos and deposited us in a grassy pampa with alpacas at about 3pm and 13,125 feet. We started hiking with heavy packs, but the weather on the other side of the pass didn’t look so good, so we decided to camp in a pampa at about 14,400 feet.
We knew the next day would be a bit of work. After a leisurely wake-up, we started hiking up to Paso Huila Khota at 15,950 feet. From the pass at 10:15am, we got our first view of Illampu since the weather the day prior hadn’t afforded it. What a mountain! Glaciers hung and cascaded down every aspect and our Southwest ridge to the summit stuck out as the righthand skyline. We were stoked. It was a good thing since we had a lot more work to do.
After dropping 600 feet or so to the established camp of Aguas Calientes, we took a few minutes to figure out that the approach trail heads sharply uphill on the other side of the valley before contouring and descending into the next valley over. From there, we followed large cairns up the glacially-scraped rock to a point at about 16,200 feet where the rest of our approach and the full glacier came into view. An thin edge of talus clung to the eroding hillside on the right margin of the moraine and we gingerly walked across it, looking hundreds of feet down to our left where the receding glacier was a dirty mess, spotted with turquoise pools.
A bit more than 1,000 feet of talus brought us to high camp at 17,500 feet near the edge of the glacier. A client and two guides were camping there and we said a quick hello as we scouted around for a good campsite. The best we could find was a set of flat granite rocks arranged as best someone could to be flat. Hoping our tent and pads would stay intact, we set up shop at about 4:30pm, making it about 7 hours on the day.
Knowing the headwall would bake in the sun that afternoon and worrying a bit about rockfall and wet slide potential, we decided to start relatively early. At 2am, we slowly dragged ourselves from our warm, down cocoons, made some hot tea, and got moving before 3am. The glacier was pretty easy to negotiate, though it’s always spooky walking among looming seracs in the dark with limited sight. We could see the headlamps of the client and guides on the headwall above us, which helped us know where to point. Well before daybreak, we started our way up the face.
We decided that we’d coil the rope and simul-climb, leaving about 15 feet between us. We both felt confident on the 60-degree neve, which produced fantastic sticks. The bergschrund looked intimidating, but we were able to get through it by traversing right in the middle where it ran vertically. From there, it was 1,000 feet of calf-burning neve by headlamp. Every so often, one of us would yell “calf break!” and we’d both chop a couple of inches into the snow to stand flat footed as well as catch our breath. At over 19,000 feet it didn’t take much to start breathing pretty heavily. It was also bitterly cold and our extremities were icing up in our boots and gloves, so shaking things out helped a lot.
I’m guessing it was about 1.5 hours to climb the face and we gained the ridge just as alpenglow started bathing the valley in pinks and oranges. We recomposed ourselves for a few minutes and then started up the ridge. It was quite exposed and still steep at first, dropping off straight back down the headwall we’d climbed, but then eased off and flattened out quite a bit. There were a couple of steeper sections with less-consolidated snow, but nothing too tough. Eventually, we slogged up 30-40 degree snow, switching back every so often. We were moving decently fast for the elevation even though it felt like a slow walk and we were both breathing like we were trying to run a mile PR.
Just below the summit, we were greeted by a large, overhanging glacial ice face. We curled around to the right to find the guides and client climbing the last technical section—an airy, steep ice traverse to gain the last little bit. They were moving very slowly. We hunkered down in a small cutout nook in the snow and waited. The wind was howling, but thankfully we were now in the sun. Things balanced out a bit, but we got quite cold waiting there for 20 minutes or so.
Finally, it was our turn and Dale scooted across the face with a picket belay. After turning the corner, he discovered deep, unconsolidated sugar snow. It took him a while to build a marginal anchor and then I came across to meet him. We coiled the rope back up and headed up the last bit to the 20,892-foot summit. Both of us being quite cold and not happy about the snow conditions near the summit, we did not dally. A couple of shaky summit shots and we were heading back down.
We leveraged the guides’ left-behind T-slotted picket to rappel down from the summit block and then started descending. Only a minute later, after turning the corner around the summit block, we found ourselves on a flat area in the sun with no wind. We crumpled in two heaps, thrilled to be warm for the first time in the day. We thawed food and water, sitting there for 15 minutes or so.
The descent from there was way easier and better than anything we’d done to that point despite being referred to in our guidebook as the most difficult descent from a 6,000 meter peak in Bolivia. We simul down-climbed the headwall, eventually boiling even after taking our big puffy layers off. Meanwhile, the guides and client were doing a time-intensive series of six or seven rappels down the face. At the base of the headwall, we stripped down, sheathed most of our gear, and then tramped down the glacier, which was now trivial in the sun and with soft snow.
We were drinking tea and lounging in our tent by 2:30pm. Dessert and naps ensued. 11 hours of sleep happened. At about 8am the next morning, we started our hike out. At 3:15pm, we made it to Lakathiya. After going over Paso Huila Khota, we’d met an old man who was headed down to town for a ride, so he walked with us. At one point when Dale was taking a break, he gestured to Dale that he could carry his pack. Turns out he was 86—what a beast!
Just as we reached town, a man was driving his kids back up from school in Sorata and he offered to drive us down. I told him an old man wanted a ride and the driver said it was his father. Ha! In a town of 18 people, I guess everyone is related. We picked up the old guy and then cruised down to Sorata where we stuffed our gear in a collectivo leaving in 20 minutes, did a hot lap of town, and then headed off. After only 10 minutes or so, the axle of the collectivo snapped in a huge pothole and we waited by the side of the road for 20 minutes for another collectivo to pick us up.
On the positive side, the timing couldn’t have been better—we raced uphill as the sun was setting, holding us for a while in a state of perpetual golden hour and then sunset. A handful of turns opened up views of Illampu and Ancohuma, looming thousands of feet above us, turning pastel colors as the light faded.
Eventually, the sun set and we cruised down from the pass and across the altiplano, picking up people in the fields every so often. When we reached El Alto, Dale and I had experienced enough traffic and pollution that we asked the driver to drop us at a teleferique station. We linked together four lines to get within a few blocks of home—a somewhat slow, but quite novel and fun way to finish off a big day. Being 9pm on a Friday, some of the locals we met in the cable cars were out on the town and interested in what two gringos were doing with huge packs, boots, and a rope. We were quite the sight, I’m sure.
Now that was an experience. Thank you, Dale, for staying safe and getting it done up there.