[Photo credit: Ken Yaphe]
For six months, I was convinced I was going to die.
I’d agreed to join a group climbing Pequeno Alpamayo (17,749′), Huayna Potosi (19,974′), and Illimani (21,122′) in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real. I wish I could have looked forward to it as the trip of a lifetime. Instead I spent much of 2017 overwhelmed with dread.
From my rooftop deck in Denver, I can see into hundreds of apartments in the high rises around me. At night, I would spy on people fixing dinner and watching their big screen TVs. And I was overwhelmed with envy of these strangers who were going to live long, boring lives when I was gone.
I’m not sure why I got so worked up over this. I’d done high-altitude stuff before, though never anything this technical. But I do have a tendency to psych myself out and toss and turn the night before a big climb.
And it probably didn’t help that I’d spent the first seven months of 2017 running with a crowd that, to put it mildly, was unimpressed with my physical prowess. At least one person straight up told me that climbing in Bolivia wasn’t a good idea for me.
And stupid me, I believed it.
Well, part of me did.
A deeper part that was getting lost in the noise knew I’d be fine.
And I was. I not only survived but climbed well, I also shed much of the self-doubt that’s been weighing me down all year. Most importantly, I realized that I need to be way more discerning when it comes to taking criticism on board.
Here’s a little (OK, a lot) about our trip and the lessons I learned.
The Andes aside, our first hour in Bolivia was probably the most awe inspiring.
When the plane landed at El Alto Airport (elevation 13,323′), we assumed this was La Paz. But on the drive to the hotel, a yawning valley surrounded by jagged, icy mountains opened below us. Sprawling across its distant floor and clinging to its sheer walls was an enormous red city.
The bus turned down a bumpy, one-lane road and plunged toward the valley. A detail that stuck with me was the sight of a tire rolling past us, approaching terminal velocity on the insanely steep road. Seriously, La Paz, San Francisco has nothing on you.
Now I’ve been around that planet a bit, and I can assure you that La Paz is a city like no other. From the insane traffic to the much-loved street dogs to the street disco that raged in front of our hotel until 5 a.m., this city surprised us on an hourly basis.
When I come to a new place, I always want to see the market. So I was delighted to learn that the center of La Paz is pretty much one big market. Our tour guide Daniel explained that the chaos is actually well organized, with unions of fruit, hardware, fabric, and chicken sellers and so on.
My hands-down favorite spot was the Mercado de Hechecería (witchcraft), where you can buy natural remedies to improve your health and sexual prowess. Not measuring up in bed? Maybe you need the Magic Soap of the Seven Machos to restore your manly vigor!
This is also where you can buy a llama fetus (preferably decorated with Christmas tree tinsel) as an offering to the earth goddess.
Imagine my shock when I was searching a vendor stall for knit hats and accidentally bumped the llama fetus off the store’s altar. I couldn’t help seeing this as a bad sign. Pro tip: do not anger Pachamama before climbing three giant mountains!
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Lake Titicaca and Isla del Sol
Since we had a few extra days in our itinerary, Alex from Andean Ascents suggested we take time to acclimatize at Lake Titicaca. So we spent one night in the coastal town of Copacabana and another at an ecolodge on Isla del Sol.
Isla del Sol was especially charming, in large part because it doesn’t have cars. All supplies are carried up the (very steep) Incan stairs and rough dirt road to the village by horse and donkey.
We’d originally planned to hike across the entire island but met a group of men standing in the trail who told us (very politely) that there was a “conflicto” in progress between the north and central sections of the island. Apparently North Zone had just torn down Central Zone’s tourist cabana (or was it vice versa?).
No worries, there was still plenty of gorgeous hiking to be had to Incan ruins and tiny villages. We also enjoyed plenty of pizzas, beer in dusty bottles, and a fiery sunset that cast a beautiful alpenglow on the Cordillera Real.
Lake Titicaca may be the world’s largest alpine lake, but I was shocked how quite and peaceful the place was. I took a moment to ask the lake a few important life questions, including, How do I survive the next two weeks?
And it didn’t answer. Maybe it knew I already had the answer.
Climbing Pequeño Alpamayo (17,749′)
Five days into the trip, we set off for our first big summit. I was nervous, but also getting pretty sick of anticipatory anxiety. It was time to get this shit over with!
On that morning, we met the cast of characters that would transform our lives. They included our driver Freddy, our cook Francisca (nicknamed Panchita), and our mountain guide Roberto (an accomplished guy who’s made appearances in Outside and the American Alpine Journal).
At the trailhead, we watched our arrieros (mule handlers) descend toward the Land Rover with four donkeys named Blanco, Negro, Francisco, Sanchez. Sanchez made a great first impression when he stole one of the food bags and ran away with it.
After handing off our luggage to the arrieros, we took a short hike to Chiar Khota basecamp. Along the way, we had stunning views of Condoriri (18,530′), a mountain that resembles the wings and head of a condor.
Chiar Khota was a cozy little basecamp with a hut for cooking and eating. We could see Pequeno Alpamayo’s distant summit from our tents. Curious viscachas (chinchillas) watched us from the rocks as we set up camp.
When we got up at 2 a.m. for breakfast, I was feeling surprisingly calm and even a little excited.
Now that it was go time, months worth of doubt and dread had fallen away.
After an hour of hiking, we reached the glacier and roped up. This part is always challenging, because four brains and bodies have to march in harmony. There’s always someone going too fast or wanting to put on sunscreen or stopping for a photo while the rest of the group is on a snow bridge. But Roberto was very no-nonsense and kept us moving at a good pace.
Around sunrise, we topped out the first glacier and realized we were surrounded by enormous, man-eating crevasses. They were way bigger than the ones I’d seen on Mount Rainier.
We continued to the top of an intermediate peak, where we could see the elegant summit cone of Pequeno Alpamayo. It really was one of the prettier peaks I’ve met! But the route to the summit looked steep. (You can see it following the left ridge in the pics below.)
To reach the route, we had to make a scrambling descent in our crampons, which was a totally new experience for me.
Then we started the final ascent of the ridge. Despite having been pretty much written off as a high-altitude technical climber, I really had no issues on the steeper sections. (Other than some altitude-induced burning in the lungs and calves. But above 17,000′ I think that’s fair enough!)
Roberto protected a short but super steep section for us near the summit cone. I was so relaxed at that point that I didn’t even bother to take out my second tool. In fact, all three of us climbed it with our alpine axes.
And then we were on the summit!
It was a beautiful, clear day with amazing views of Huayna Potosi (our next peak).
I won’t lie, I got a little emotional. It’s quite a feeling to spend months panicking, convinced you’ve signed up for something you aren’t remotely qualified for — and then stand on top.
In fact, I was SO HOPELESS as snow climber that I actually led the descent, including a down climb of the super steep part. (With one hand behind my back. Just kidding. But I did do it with one ax.)
There were a few parts when we were walking straight down the steep sections where I had to take a few deep breaths. But overall, I was pretty freaking calm, if I do say so myself.
And even Roberto told me I was strong. So to all the doubters, neener.
During a break on the scramble, I looked back. Mist was closing in over the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo. And here I started to cry. After six months of dread, this climb felt a bit like conquering death.
A quote that comes to mind:
Death has an opposite, but the opposite is not mere living. It is not courage or faith or human will. The opposite of death is love. How had I missed that? How does anyone miss that? Love is our only weapon. Only love can turn mere life into a miracle, and draw precious meaning from suffering and fear. For a brief, magical moment, all my fears lifted, and I knew that I would not let death control me. I would walk through the godforsaken country that separated me from my home with love and hope in my heart.
— Nando Parrado, Miracle in the Andes
At base camp, Panchita greeted us with kisses and a bottle of Coke. Normally, I hate (non-diet) Coke. But it turned out to be the perfect recovery drink! I probably had a liter. In fact, it tasted so damn good that my mouth is watering at the memory.
Climbing Huayna Potosí (19,974′)
After our first taste of the Cordillera Real, we were all pretty excited to give this big beauty a try. For all three of us, it would be our first 6,000-meter peak.
The plan was to hike up to a refugio near 16,000 feet and make our summit bid from there. On the day we left, it was foggy and an inch or two of snow had fallen.
We slipped and stumbled up the slick trail in our Gore-Tex shells and double boots, only to be left in the dust by Panchita. She was hiking in a blanket and sneakers. Oh, and carrying all of our food on her back, too!
According to Roberto, she’s from a village that could only be reached by foot until a few years ago. So I guess she’s used to relying on her feet. But she definitely impressed the crap out of us!
We all loved the refugio. The walls of the dining room and dorm were covered with mountaineering stickers from around the world. It even had Crocs you could borrow to wear as slippers.
We started our climb of Huayna Potosi at 2 a.m.
For the first hour, we put our heads down and battled through wind and pelting snow. But then the storm broke and the stars came out.
Roberto protected one exposed section for us with a running belay. This is where I started having trouble with the cold. Keeping warm in the mountains has never been my forte. Even my new G2 mountaineering boots couldn’t keep my toes from freezing. I also hadn’t brought any oh-shit mitts, which I heartily recommend.
But the sun finally rose, and within minutes we were taking off gloves to slather on sunscreen. The upper mountain was a wonderland of snow caves and crevasses. I did hop one crevasse that was a bit of a stretch for this stumpy girl, but I managed it. (And with no replay of my superman stunt on Mount Rainier.)
The summit ridge of Huayna Postosi was exhilarating and one of my favorite spots on the whole trip.
There were a few exposed sections, but everyone managed without additional pro. The wind was really pounding the top as we approached but calmed just long enough for us to enjoy the pointy summit.
As soon as we turned to descend, the wind and snow came roaring back. It was a little spooky crossing some of the exposed spots in the wind. But we made our way down to the refugio and later the car. As soon as Freddy pulled away from the parking lot, the sun came out immediately!
Climbing Illimani (21,122′)
This peak was our biggest challenge. Unlike Pequeno Alpamayo and Huayna Potosi, which are overnight trips, Illimani has two camps. It’s also quite a bit taller. And to top things off, the weather forecast was calling for wind speeds of 90 kmh.
Not the best news. But being real vets of the Cordillera Real now, we were determined to give it our best shot!
Getting to Illimani is an adventure in itself.
Just imagine bumping along the Bolivian Death Road for three hours in a vehicle that’s top-heavy with luggage. It was so terrifying, I couldn’t even look out the window to get video footage, but this picture from Creative Commons should give you an idea.
(Note: Illimani isn’t on the “official” Death Road. But honestly, a lot of rural roads in Bolivia look like the Death Road.)
Due to a strike in the village of Pinaya, we actually four-wheeled it to basecamp rather than hiking in. And that’s where the Land Rover broke. Apparently there was a problem with the axle (!!!). But it didn’t phase Freddy in the least. He had it fixed in an hour. I got the feeling he’d seen it all before.
Basecamp was stunning.
Waves of herders moved in and out with llamas and sheep. We couldn’t figure out where they lived. Probably a village like Panchita’s with no roads! Panchita told us there were bears and pumas in the area, and Roberto had seen condors.
The next morning we met our porters. This would prove to be the biggest eye-opener of the trip.
We tourists were gasping and staggering our way toward high camp. Meanwhile, the porters were carrying 100-lb. loads up the equivalent of the shitty part of Mount Columbia IN SANDALS!
There were also two teenage porters — including a girl in pink leggings — who carried lighter loads. And of course, Panchita was killing it like usual with all our food on her back.
A few hours of hiking brought us to Nido de los Condores (Condor’s Nest) high camp at about 18,000′. That’s just a little higher than Everest Base Camp! Tucked between the summit and a huge icefall, it’s quite a sight.
I won’t lie, this camp was a little creepy.
You know it’s bad when there are memorials with crosses. There have been many accidents on the mountain and at least one fatal plane crash. According to Roberto, some climbers are disturbed by ghostly voices in the night.
At one point, Roberto asked Panchita (in Spanish) if she’d heard from “los muertos.” Her answer: “They’re sleeping.”
Another thing I should mention about this camp: as soon as the sun went down, it immediately got bone-crushingly cold. I nearly froze my ass peeing before bed.
When we got up at midnight for the summit push, it was even colder, and now the wind was screaming over basecamp. I was outside in my approach shoes for about five minutes prepping my gear … and suddenly I realized that my toes had frozen.
I grabbed some chemical warmers and ran for the kitchen tent where everyone else was having breakfast. My feet were as painfully frozen as they’d ever been, and it took me maybe 10 minutes to get some feeling back.
This is when I made the decision that a summit push wasn’t in the cards for me.
I saw the boys off and then got back in my sleeping bag with my parka still on.
At this point, I felt totally lame. But turns out staying behind was a good decision. No one summited that day. The guys returned after what they described as a very unpleasant few hours of climbing in which some toes got nipped.
So as we neared the end of our Bolivia climbing odyssey, we were 2 out of 3. Which according to my mom, who adorably quoted Meatloaf, ain’t bad.
Letting Go of Doubt
This trip was a revelation for me in many ways. I’m still processing it all, but it’s already changed my life for the better.
For one, I’m letting go of self-doubt in a way I never could before. I think deep down, I always believed that I could do this. But I let the opinions of others discourage and scare me. I actually trusted them more than myself. It never occurred to me that they might be speaking from their own doubt and insecurity.
Bolivia also inspired me to relax and accept what the universe gives.
I’m done with people who treat mountaineering like a competition. From now on, I’m spending my climbing time with friends who are there to enjoy the journey.
Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.
— Anatoli Boukreev
Our trip would not have been possible without the awesomeness of:
- Andean Ascents and especially Alex von Ungern who assisted us with two rounds of rescheduling after Hurricane Irma — all while recovering from a broken femur and other injuries sustained in a car accident. If you’re climbing in South America, I highly recommend Alex and his company.
- My wonderful climbing partners Craig Nielson and Ken Yaphe, who are all about enjoying the journey (and also generously shared their photos)
- Climbing guide Roberto Gomez, cook Francisca, drivers Freddy and Franklin, city guide Daniel, and all of the arrieros and porters
- Hotel Estrella Andina, La Paz, Bolivia
- Hotel La Cupula, Copacabana, Bolivia
- Palla Khasa Ecological Hotel, Yumani, Bolivia
- World Nomads travel insurance, my go-to coverage for all of my adventure travel. You can read more about buying the right travel insurance here. Or just fill out the form below for an instant, no-obligation quote!
Originally published Oct. 16, 2017. Updated June 11, 2019.