An epic tale of extreme trekking and mountaineering in Bolivia, this time a joint effort from Nick McNiff and trusty leader Rowan Newman – thaks guys!
NICK: Our journey continued with a foul fish-smelling night bus into La Paz. The early morning arrival to the hostel reunited us with Nick and Rowan (we were lost without them). After hot showers we spent the night running errands for the upcoming trek and Death Road biking, a busy day made better by lunch at a traditional english pub. Friday night transformed into a fun night at the hostel with dancing and pulling people´s hair.
All you can eat pancakes were our saturday wake up call before taking advantage of the llama and jewellery tack in the city. A relaxing day came to a close early as we packed and went to bed early in preparation for the Bolivian mountain adventure the next morning.
ROWAN: Two days trek prep and we head off 4 hours north of La Paz to the Condoriri Range. The lowlands looked similar to the Lake District but on an epic scale. Starting at 4000m we walked to our first campsite at 4600m. The next day saw more of the same, but this time to get to our campsite we had to cross two passes each of 4800m. On a 7 hour day of trekking this was a test for quite a few. Lungs seemed to become small barrels hemmed in by brass bands simply not allowing the enough air which your body craved. The end of the day rewarded us with a 600ft scree slope which went all the way to the campsite, finally a chance for me to stretch my legs I plummeted down it like a man possessed, some would say too fast!! (Video to follow). We camped next to a lake shore with the view of the next days walk there in front of us. Up into the real mountains, out of the Lake District at last! Dawn saw snowy peaks reflected on the water, paling into insignificance the two hours sleep I had had for the past two nights! So now time for the real mountains.
NICK: As we travelled to our trek´s starting pòint loaded with rucksacks and gear, anxiety and trepidation were running through everyone´s heads. During this first day, altitude sickness chose its victims and we got our first sample of extreme weather conditions including hail, rain and snow. Our day wouldnt have been complete without having to cross an icy stream barefoot in order to reach camp.
Day 2 of the trek-left our campsite early for a long day of trekking through an otherworldy landscape of rock and llama. Altitude continued to take its toll on some, but we made it up to our highest point yet. TAfter racing down a slate covered mountainside (Rowan is insane) we camped in an incredible spot, ringed by snow-capped mountains and glacial lakes. Cook team capped off a great day with a brownie surprise for dessert.
ROWAN: Although we had been told this day would only be three hours with an optional hour and a half more, you must remember this is Bolivia! So it was actually a 9 hour epic! Traversing rock bands with sheer drops either side and fighting the thin air as we approached 5000m. I’ll be honest I struggled at times, after lunch especially, whaffing down four chorizo and cheese wraps in eight minutes is not the best approach! Getting to the pass we had the ‘choice’ of summiting, Pete and I decided we wouldn’t give them the choice and all fifteen of us set off without rucksacks up toward the snowfield leading to the peak. The exhilaration of stepping through eighteen inch snow, with people losing legs left right and centre seemed the catalyst for people to forget burning lungs and screaming legs and all of us reached to summit. No views to speak of but a sense of accomplishment and happiness leading to hugs and whoops for several minutes at the top. A very long walk down tested everyone but we all feel asleep with satisfaction and pride, who would we tell first……
NICK: On Day 3, our epic adventure through the Bolivian mountains kicked into turbo mode. While informed it would be an “easy 3 hour day”, we wouldn´t drag ourselves into our campsite until 9 hours after we started. The morning consisted of an upwards push towards the snow-capped mountains we had slept below the night before. After a particularly difficult section that had us rock-climbing with our rucksacks, we reached 5,000 metres, higher than any point in Europe. But our uphill battle wasn´t over yet. We chose to climb (and slide) through knee-deep snow in order to be the second group this year to summit Mount Austria. Standing on what felt like the top of the world, at 5,200 metres, the cold soon sent us back down. We bum-slid down the mountain back to where we started.
ROWAN: Now at Base camp for the next three nights we had in our sights Pequeño Alpamayo, at 5370m and his sister peak, Tarija 5255m (17,241ft). A couple of hours glacier practice to get used to crampons and ice axes was an easy day for us in preparation for the summit bid on Thursday.
NICK: Day 4 was luckily more of a relaxing morning as we waited for the 5 ice-guides to arrive. After a delicious hot lunch, we hiked to the glacier to practice our ice-climbing skills. The verdict… we are all experts ready to tackle Mount Everest! The day wrapped up with an early bedtime in preparation for our 2 o´clock (eek) wake-up tomorrow to ice climb.
Day 5. 2AM. Today is the big day. Death Day. We started at the bottom, tied in groups, ice-picks in hand and headtorches at the ready. It averagely took us around 5 hours to reach the peak, and all the headaches and falls were 100% worth the massive achievement we accomplished.. trekking up a huge 5,200m icy mountain. The braver few pushed themselves to the limit and climbed a neighbouring peak, 150m taller. On the way down we decided standing was over-rated and sliding on our bums was a much more sensible option.
ROWAN: Alarms went off at 2.00am, breakfast at 2.30am and we departed almost on time at 3.00am. A hour walk to the glacier was a warm up and then the ‘fun’ began! Trudging slowly up the glacier, the crunch of the ice, loud in the semi darkness, hoping for an amazing sunrise over the ice. Instead we got a cloudy fog as visibility dropped to 30 metres, which way is up?……just keep going….no doubts…no questions.
Glacier, plateau, glacier, dig the crampon in, suck in as much air as you could, forget the leg burn. And so it continued. Until finally we were told we were getting near….is this Bolivian time again? Doubts banished from the mind, keep going. At this point, bar two, slowly making their own limits below and an advance group marking our path we were all together, encouraging, battling and realising our potential.
Finally the first summit was in sight, an incredibly exposed narrow pass was all that stood in our way. Ridding the demons, we made it. Exhaustion, elation, bodies not sure weather to laugh or cry we all sat there with our own personal thoughts of relief, pain and pride.
The clouds cleared for a moment to show the summit of Pequeño Alpamayo, so near yet so far. A 50m rock step followed by a long ridge walk at times 70degrees steep. Could we make it? Three of us believed we could, I sure more could have. We had little time to spare so rucksacks back on and down we went to get the the ridge. Visibility still 20m or less we battled on one foot after the other. Roped together and to the mountain the serious undertaking was realised but negatives were quickly forgotten as the thin air reminded us to breath. Suddenly, we were there! The climax of seven hours, we had done it? Could we, couldn’t we, suddenly no longer a question. The fact that there was no view made little difference to our sense of pride. We sat atop of the summit beaming with smiles, few words exchanged but knowing glances of satisfaction.
Then the down…a long way. Down the ridge and then up the rock step, the exhaustion was obvious the pace slow, but steady in our minds, the achievement fresh. We even had the good fortune of the clouds clearing to show us our accomplishment behind. It kept us going. The return down the glacier only punctuated by a bum slide of half a kilometre! 11 hours had passed by the time we returned to camp, a welcome hot soup and a hot toddy of rum! What a day!
A mountain experience we will never forget!