The One Less Traveled By: a chronicle of my yearlong sabbatical

Getting High and Not Dying in Bolivia – Part 2 (in which I develop an addiction)
May 24, 2010, 8:34 pm
Filed under: Bolivia

I spent about two and a half weeks (April 12 to 28) in and around La Paz.  In addition to cycling Death Road, while in La Paz I, like so many others, found a way to feed what became an addiction.  Fortunately, mountaineering is probably not as dangerous as the addiction that most others come to La Paz to feed, on the cheap, usually in shady nightclubs, for weeks on end.  I fed mine in the Cordillera Real (the Royal Range), which surrounds La Paz and is home to dozens of 5000- and 6000-meter peaks.

I had been carrying, but had not used, my mountaineering gear (technical boots, gloves, and clothing) since El Chalten – which was back in early February – so I was happy to put it back to use.  My first trip out I hired an excellent guide named Teo to attempt Condoriri (aka Cabeza del Condor/Head of the Condor) and Pequeno Alpamayo over the course of four days.  My friend Chrissy came along as well to attempt Pequeno Alpamayo.  Condoriri was by far the more technical of the two, but when I had seen a picture of Pequeno Alpamayo I immediately had an overwhelming desire to climb it – the mountain, and the line up, were both so aesthetically perfect.

Pequeno Alpamayo


The first day we hopped in a taxi for a two hour ride to a tiny village named Tuni, population like 25, to load up the donkeys – that’s right, we had donkeys carrying our gear and food – and commence the two hour walk to basecamp.  We set up camp on the edge of a lake with perfect views of Condoriri.

The tiny town of Tuni, with Hyuana Potosi mountain in the distance

Our beats of burden

After almost no sleep (thanks to an obnoxious group of trekkers who must have thought that being incredibly loud was what the outdoors call for), Teo and I awoke at midnight, suited up, had breakfast, and headed out at about 1am.  The approach to the climb was fairly brutal, including about an hour or more up a very steep moraine field.  Then, after an hour and a half crossing a glacier, we finally arrived at the business of the climb – a 300-foot, 60-degree, snow, ice and rock canaleta (gully).  It was super fun and involved true mixed climbing, using the rock and the ice at the same time (the conditions were pretty thin; later in the season there’d be more snow):  while I found purchase in the ice with my right crampon and right hand, which had the ice ax, I used my left hand and left crampon on the adjacent rock.  Teo did an excellent job leading even though minimal protection was available.

The second pitch of the 60-degree canaleta/gully (as photographed from the rappel)

The canaleta -- the obvious snow gully on the left -- viewed from the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo

We reached the top of the canaleta just in time for sunrise

Upon reaching the top of the caneleta, we gingerly climbed over a knife-edge ridge and began to climb up the north ridge, which was snow and rock, to gain the summit ridge.  The ridge leading to the summit was unbelievably cool and exposed.  For about the two hundred feet that it ran to the summit, it was very narrow, with steep, see-you-on-the-other-side drops of hundreds of feet on both sides.  We reached the summit (18530ft / 5648m) at around 7:30am.  We stayed for twenty minutes enjoying the sweeping views of the Cordillera.  The altitude made the steep climbing tough, and breathing was always a challenge, but overall I felt pretty strong and had no problem making the summit.

Teo leading the southwest ridge

Dawn sweeps over the Cordillera as we continue to climb

The remarkable summit ridge, steep on both sides, massive drops. That's my ice ax.

Me on the narrow summit. At the time, this was the highest I'd ever been - 18,530 feet.

Teo on the summit with the Cordillera Real unfolding behind him

Our base camp, at the far side of the lake, from the summit.

The blister-inducing hike down was as brutal as the hike up, and we finally arrived back at base camp at 11:15 am, I with a massive headache either from dehydration or the effects of descending from altitude, or both.  I immediately fell asleep for an hour and, totally exhausted, I ate and remained horizontal the rest of the day.

We had considered having a rest day between Condoriri and Pequeno Alpamayo, but we decided instead that, since the weather was looking good, we should carpe diem etc.  And, anyway, after resting all day, I felt ok.  So, the next day, we woke at 2am and headed out by 3.  The approach to Pequeno Alpamayo was much more gentle, though there were some steep parts on the glacier and a challenging 4th class rock descent to reach the start of the climb.  The route we chose, the normal route, follows the awesome, aesthetic ridge all the way to the top.

Pequeno Alpamayo at dawn from our approach. The ridge -- which ascends from left to right -- is just visible in the light.

Sun rises over the Cordillera Real as we approach the climb

Most of the ridge was of moderate angle, but there was a fun section of about 100 feet of 55 degree climbing, before reaching the summit, at 17618ft / 5370m.  It felt awesome to get two summits in two days!

Teo cruising where it gets steep

The last few steps to the summit...

A bit blinded on the summit

Descending the ridge

Oh yes, there were plenty of crevasses

We arrived back to base camp at about 1 and again spent the rest of the day relaxing, eating, and hydrating.  The next day the arrierro (donkey driver) showed up at about 9am and we hiked back to Tuni for our ride back to La Paz.

Back in La Paz I rested for a few days before heading back out to the mountains, this time to attempt Huayna Potosi, just shy of 20,000 feet high (6088m).

Huayna Potosi from the miners graveyard

I went again with the same guide, Teo.  We did the climb in the normal three days.  The first day we drove to base camp, which this time was a comfy refugio, in the morning, and spent the afternoon ice climbing on a nearby glacier. The next day we packed up and left in the morning to make the 2.5-hour hike to high camp, another refugio, situated at 16830ft / 5130m.

Hiking to high camp with Huayna Potosi obscured by clouds in the distance

High camp refugio at 5130 meters

View from high camp toward La Paz, obscured by clouds

Having an early dinner at high camp

After lunch and an early dinner, it was off to bed by about 6 pm as we had to wake at midnight to start climbing.  It’s true that it’s difficult to sleep at altitude:  I slept for about an hour, from 7 to 8, then laid awake checking my watch every half hour hoping that it was time to finally go.  And then it was.  There were about six or seven other groups of two or three, but we felt like we were the most fit, so we let them all go first up the glacier while we took our time getting ready.  Teo did a great job of setting a slow, steady pace – one step every second or second and a half – which soon took us past the other groups that regularly had to stop for breaks.  We minimized breaks to two because it was just too damn cold to stop moving.  Our route was the normal route but with a direct variation that took us straight up the east face to the summit (the normal route winds around a bit more to an exposed ridge to the summit; this was our descent).  The face climbing was super fun, with 800 feet of climbing at an average grade of around 50 degrees, and with portions up to 60 or 65 degrees.

We reached the summit well ahead of the other groups and well ahead of sunrise, too – about 20 minutes ahead.  We planted ourselves on the precarious summit cornice for an extraordinarily cold half an hour to wait for sunrise and allow some of the others to gain the summit and clear room on the narrow ridge that we would descend.  (It was so cold that I debated for 15 minutes whether to take out my camera and off my gloves to snap some picks.  I’m glad I did.)  The wind was blowing fierce and it was already well below zero and as soon as my toes went from being totally numb to tingling with needles of pain I knew it was time to start moving.  The descent was quick and uneventful; we were back in La Paz by 1 pm.

On the summit, a knife-edge ridge with a 3000ft drop on the back side, at about 5:30am

Detail of the summit - an Israeli girl fell over it a few days before, but lucky for her she was still on rope so she only went about 10 feet, out of a possible 3000 feet.

Frozen on the summit

Sunrise over an ocean of clouds, from the summit

A look back at the summit of HP, which is on the right barely poking its head above the foreground ridge

While not out climbing I mostly just hung out in the city, enjoying the various gringo cafes that have a monopoly on good coffee in the city; eating regularly at a Mexican (finally!) and an excellent Cuban restaurant; and exploring the various eclectic markets that spill into the streets of La Paz.  I did get one day of rock climbing in on fantastically crappy rock; I had one hold bust on me slicing open my finger pretty good.  Unlike many people I met, I was fortunate not to get mugged or robbed while in La Paz – a regular occurrence, unfortunately, and often at knife- or gunpoint.  Overall, I had a great time there and left with wonderful impressions of La Paz and Bolivia, too.  Next stop:  Peru.


Getting High and Not Dying in Bolivia – Part 1
May 22, 2010, 9:21 pm
Filed under: Bolivia

After two months in Argentina I finally bid it adios and headed north to Bolivia, a country about which I knew little and had few expectations, but which soon proved to be fascinating and wonderful.

Crossing the border into Bolvia

Among its most immediate charms are the women (and, less often, men) dressed in traditional clothing, complete with llama-wool leg warmers, pleated skirts, sweaters, throws, and bowler hats – no matter how cold or how hot the day, the dress was always the same.  Nearly 60% of the population identifies itself as indigenous, making Bolivia immediately and palpably different than Argentina, which itself feels much more European.  Another charm:  Bolivia is very cheap, so is an excellent place to be a traveler and climber.  Whereas a 15-hour bus ride in Argentina might cost 80 USD, the same ride in Bolivia cost 10 bucks or less.

I traveled into Bolivia with four others that I had hung out with in Cafayate, Argentina – Chrissy, Silvia, Susan, and John – as well as two British girls I had met weeks earlier in El Bolson – Emilie and Sara – and their Dutch friend, Hanneke.  Our first stop was Tupiza, in southern Bolivia, a few hours’ ride along a dusty, bumpy road from the border.


Tupiza is a hot, sleepy town in the middle of gorgeous red-stained mountains and cliffs. The second day there we went horseback riding around the quebrada and saw the most incredible red rock formations – the looked like massive stalactites.  My horse was a competitive bugger and every time another horse would gallop ahead, he’d race and try to cut it off.  After riding horses twice here in South America, I have concluded that it’s fun – for about 15 minutes.

Headed out into the quebrada

Our guide and his donkey

The main reason we stopped in Tupiza was to do a four-day Jeep tour of southwest Bolivia, from Tupiza to Uyuni.  The highlight of the trip would be a day on the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat, at 4,086 square miles. I was a bit skeptical at first of spending four days in a car – not exactly an adrenaline rush – but the trip proved to be a highlight of my time in S. America so far, in large part because of our awesome group.  The eight of us — Chrissy, Sylvia, John, Susan, Emilie, Sarah, Hanneke and I — piled into two Jeeps, each with a driver and cook, loaded our bags on top, and headed out into the high desert that makes up Bolivia’s southwestern flanks.  The first day we spent driving up, up, up into the alitplano, a high desert-like plateau, at about 4000m/13,000ft, and enjoyed an excellent lunch of dried llama jerky, salad, corn, potatoes and fruit prepared by our skilled cooks.  Perhaps the best part of the meal was the super hot fresh salsa they provided – the first spicy dish in months, as Argentina has an allergy or something to anything spicy.

The eight of us, very high

Interesting rock formations as we head up into the altiplano

We spent the first night in a tiny town, population 250, hours from anywhere, and standing tall at almost 14,000 feet above sea level.  Fortunately we had bags of coca leaves to munch on (well, masticate and suck on) to combat the effects of the altitude.  That night I spent well over an hour just laying outside being blown away by the incredible number of stars visible.  I had never seen anything like it – billions and billions and billions, so clearly visible thanks to the high altitude and complete lack of light pollution.  It was very nearly overwhelming.

Stopping for the night

San Antonio de Lipez, pop. 250

The next day we woke up at some illegal hour, like 5am or something, to get an early start on a long day.  We visited a number of sights – lakes and lagoons (often full of extractable minerals), small salt flats, volcanic geysers at 5000m/16,4000ft above sea level, rock formations of petrified lava, and an abandoned gold mining town.  But the highlight of the day was a stop at a natural hot springs for a swim and lunch – that, and drinking a couple of bottles of rum with the others that night and having some laughs (drinking at altitude makes everybody a cheap drunk).

Kicking back in the hot springs

The long and dusty road through the antiplano

Bolivia's beauty

The next day was surprisingly hangover free and we continued our drive north, passing by more lakes – red and full of flamingoes – and incredible painted landscapes with bizarre rock formations.  We spent the night on the edge of the Salar de Uyuni in a hotel made entirely of salt and enjoyed a drunken game of cards with out drivers.

Packing up and getting going on day three

Laguna Colorado full of flamingoes

Having coca tea in the salt hotel

Finally, the fourth day, we woke up early again to make it out onto the salt flats for sunrise.

Sunrise on the Salar

It was gorgeous.  And cold.  The Salar de Uyuni is immense and stretches as far as the eye can see in every direction.  It contains something like 60% of the world’s lithium reserves and locals harvest its salt in small plots. Incredibly flat, the average altitude variation is only one meter over the entire area of the Salar.  After marveling at all this, we spent the afternoon walking around a small island dotted with centuries old cacti, and then taking the obligatory “photos locos” on the Salar before being dropped of in Uyuni.

Las chicas

Detail of the Salar

On the Isla del Pescado with Emilie and Hanneke

Our cooks were giants...

Disproving the notion that you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can't pick your friend's nose

Salt being harvested

In Uyuni our group split, some heading to Potosi, others to Sucre, and I to La Paz via overnight bus.  Arriving in the morning and seeing La Paz for the first time was amazing.  It’s a big, chaotic city that comes tumbling down some seriously steep mountainsides into a small valley, with immense Illimani mountain (6,438m/21,122ft) standing like a sentinel over the city.

La Paz, the world's highest capital at 11,943 feet, with Illimani in the distance

Downtown La Paz

The first order of business in La Paz was cycling down what the Inter-American Development Bank dubbed The World’s Most Dangerous Road, and which is known in town simply as El Camino de la Muerte, or Death Road.  This two-way dirt road descends over 12,000 feet over about 38 miles, in most places is no wider than 10 feet, and despite miles and miles of sheer drops of over 1000 feet, there are only about 20 feet of guardrails along its entire length.

Performing a safety ritual before departing: pouring pure grain alcohol on the bike's tire..

... and touching it to the lips before departing

World's Most Dangerous Road

For years – before a new, paved road was built in 2006, but which regularly closes due to mudslides – there were on average close to 300 deaths a year on this road.  While Death Road is no longer as heavily used by motor vehicles, it’s popular with bicyclists as it’s almost all downhill and is totally rad.  But it’s still very dangerous:  an Israeli girl died, biking of the edge, four days before I went.

The remains of a truck the plummeted off the edge

Crosses commemorating those motorists and bicyclists who took the plunge

My group made it down safely. We ended to ride in a jungle town called Corico (strange starting in the mountains and ending in a jungle) and spent a few hours at an animal refuge playing with monkeys and other animals before returning to La Paz.  Despite having to ride on the outside of the road, closest to the massive drops (vehicles drive on the left side of this road so the downhill driver can stick his head out the window and check to see how close his wheels are to the cliff edge), the scariest part was driving back up Death Road in the van.  Almost as scary is when I hit a rock on the downhill and came close to losing control on a turn where there was a 1000 foot drop, having to put my foot down to regain control.  The dude riding behind me told me I scared the s*** out of him.  Imagine how I felt!

One particularly gnarly turn


The bus/support vehicle. The driver was a former rally car driver - no joke

Monkeys at the animal sanctuary