underrated destinations: humbled by the bolivian mountains
I always thought the world was maxing out on travel destinations. With Instagrammers and their 7-figure followers, it seemed like everywhere I had been was already overrun by selfie-taking, social media superstars. Not Bolivia. And certainly not the Bolivian mountains.
Bolivia seems to be one uncommon thing after another. We were lucky enough to snag one of the last flights that American Airlines even operated into La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia, that boasts the highest elevation of any capital city in the world. Throughout La Paz it's bizarre to see zipping gondolas overhead, a public transportation system the government installed to lessen the traffic burden. Even better, perched above a high winding road, is the airport. A local guy tells me that it's a routine occurrence for medical personnel to board landed flights to place oxygen on attitude-startled travelers. Once off the flight, not to worry, you can grab a burger at the "Highest Burger Joint in the World". A smooth 13,325 feet.
Having made plans with an established mountain guide company, the guys from Bolivian Mountains grabbed us from our hotel for gear fitting including mountaineering boots, harnesses, crampons, and ice axes. I always find it humorous when dealing with these sorts of things outside the US. Before our Patagonia trek, we had to sign our lives away in the form of waivers and releases to our American company. They even required me to have a physical exam signed by a medical doctor just to participate in a low-altitude, non-technical trekking trip. Not here. If the shoe fit and you were crazy enough to wear it, you were good to go.
Back in the guide office, they tell us they size climbers up when they get on the mountain. No waivers. No questions. No problem. Did I mention that guides, food, equipment, transportation for 5 days in the mountains cost $550.00 per person total? It’s insanely cheap.
Side note: we had some sickness run through our group for a few days and we had to delay the start to our mountain time. I'm happy to report that for about 6 USD at the local pharmacy, however, you can get supplies to administer IV fluids.
Chacaltaya Ski Resort outside of La Paz.
To get prepped and acclimatized for the big-boy mountains, we hiked around an abandoned ski "resort" called Chacaltaya or "the wind's meeting point". It was beautiful. Bolivia doesn't get the kind of snow most skiers are used to and the glacier that once covered the area disappeared completely in 2009. Sitting over 17,000 feet, Chacaltaya was popular in the 1930s when the first tow rope in South America was installed using an automobile engine. Our guide mentioned that a potential skier had to bring their own diesel up in order to use the lift! So of course, in typical Bolivian fashion, Chacaltaya is the "highest ski resort in the world". I'm sure you are seeing the pattern.
Since we passed the high altitude trial, the next day we found ourselves in a van on the way to base camp of the Condoriri range. It's bizarre to look out the window and essentially see desert plains then look down at your altimeter and see a 14,500 feet reading. It makes you start to questions whether your equipment is malfunctioning. After a 2-hour drive outside of La Paz, a walk through llama and alpaca herds and up a steady dirt path, we arrived at camp, the burros that brought up the majority of our food, tents, and gear right behind us.
Approach to Condoriri
Base camp at the base to the Condoriri is mesmerizing. The reflection in the lake reminds you of an image seen on professional photographers pages where the mountains appear almost as clear in the water as they do when looking up. Felix, a weathered guide in his 50's, tells us that we are lucky that the mountains were just dusted with a snow storm a few days before. Even more extraordinary was the lack of people. Besides the seven Americans in our group, we ran across a few Germans, a couple Spaniards, and a Scandinavian couple. That's it. I didn't witness a selfie the entire time.
The hot soup and pasta dinner at 15,500 feet was just what we needed. A below-zero sleeping temperature was not. It will always be a little amusing thinking about us holding our pee for 8 hours because it was too cold to relieve outside the tent.
Trek into basecamp.
The next check-point would be a trial on the glacier to make sure our crampon-strapped feet were steady enough for the ascent. After an hour or so tramping on the glacier's steep walls, all roped together, we were instructed to rest and prep for a summit of Pequeno Alpamayo in the morning. And by morning, I mean a 1:30 am wake-up call.
When you get up that high, you don't feel it at first. The altitude has a way of chipping at you from all angles. First your heart rate increases, which slowly fatigues you. Then your appetite is gone, no more calorie replenishment. Then you can't sleep. A snowball effect at its finest.
People rustling in the morning woke me up slightly early, as did my need to urinate. Altitude causes a diuresis effect as another way to effectively get more oxygen to the right places without building up too many dangerous metabolites. For summit morning, our cook Nellie made us an epic breakfast of fresh cheese empanadas and quinoa, not to mention the coca tea. Traveling anywhere in the Altiplano of South America, you will run into this tea. Coca tea gets the reputation for being an altitude sickness antidote. The bitter tasting drink is made from the leaves that also produce cocaine, making many frown upon it, including the U.S. government. The stimulant effect seems to help headaches and aide with energy.
With headlamps strapped and flipped on, we approached and headed up the glacier. If you've never done a night hike before, it's a bit trance-like. Only the space in front of your feet is visible and you sink into this rhythm of breathing and trudging. The lack of other stimulus is an opportunity for your mind to run all over the place. Usually, wherever the mind goes, you seem to have thoughts drifting back to wanting a warm bed and some kind of American fast-food meal.
After 6 or so hours plodding up the 50-degree slope, you can almost see the sun break. You could almost palpate the adrenaline in your stomach as we edged over the ridge and got our first view of white-capped Andes mountains for miles. Oh, wait that's not adrenaline, that's vomit. I painted the clean, white ice with a shade of light brown, more than likely from the Oreos I hastily thrown in my mouth at our last break. Sometimes you can beat altitude, sometimes altitude wins.
Sunrise over Cordillera Real Mountain Range.
Our guide was a tough, ballsy guy in his 30s named Alfredo and the guy could scale a mountain. I was thankful he was gallant enough to take us up further despite my gastrointestinal distress. For another hour we went up until we reached Tarija Peak, just below 18,000 feet. At this point, the sun was fully out and was reflecting gorgeously off the surrounding structures. In order to summit Pequeno Alpamayo, we would need another hour of exposed, ridge scaling. There just wasn't enough time. I was able to snag a few pictures from the epic viewpoint and we started down.
Back at camp, I laid on the grass near my tent. Maybe I was laying on burro poop, maybe not. I didn't care. I was spent. Eventually, I was able to pick myself up and pack my belongings so we could hike the hour back to the van. Now out of the high altitude and back to a reasonable elevation, my body began to function again.
Bolivian mountains are humbling. You have no idea how your lungs, heart, and stomach are going to respond when tested with thin air. Colorado hikes seem like a cakewalk when looking back. You may get a challenge in the Andes, but you will also get epic views and an uncommon travel destination not overrun by sightseers. Totally worth the effort!
Llamas near basecamp.
Regrets (the D's):
- Diamox: I should have taken it. This is a medication which causes excretion of bicarbonate, essentially tricking the body to get more oxygen into the blood. I know some people who take it anywhere over 10,000 feet. Ask your doctor if Diamox is right for you (in my best advertisement voice).
- Drink, eat, drink, eat, repeat: Even with no appetite, I should have been drinking and eating more. The body rips through your sustenance quickly up high.
- Documentation: I really regret not getting more photos and videos. I felt too lazy to take my pack off, take off my gloves, and pull out my camera. Dumb move, Brock. Don't travel across the world and not document it.