Into the mountains

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Into the mountains
October 11, 1997

Illimani's summit towers over
the city of La Paz in Bolivia
Illimani, its triple-crown summit towering over the city huddled at its feet, is for many the trademark image of La Paz. For me, it was a mocking reminder that I was here to climb but had yet to get into the mountains.

Once in La Paz we began putting up notices in the city seeking climbing partners. As every climber knows, finding a partner is an often exhausting endeavor. You need to have similar objectives, but you also need someone matched in skill and desire. In my case, it didn't hurt if they also had a spare rope, harness, and a few ice screws.

Even in Bolivia, renting gear isn't cheap. And with rented gear and new partners — with such unknowns — it seemed wise to start small. A 20,000-foot mountain seems daunting in such light, and indeed Huayana Potosi appeared so commanding on the horizon outside La Paz. We traveled with Lavar, a reticent Bulgarian expat of 40, and Archie, an amiable Brit, who had spent the last year traveling and climbing mountains around the globe.

Archie I was glad to have along. Although we'd only met the day before, his easy and competent manner told me we'd have a good time together regardless. Lavar was more withdrawn, speaking in sentence fragments if at all. When I asked Lavar about a rope for possible crevasses on the route, he had replied, "No problem. If difficult, I go solo." Not a statement that inspires confidence.

As it turns out, Archie and I did climb together and had a great time, sharing a gorgeous summit vista over the Cordilla Real. Lavar plodded along with others he met on the mountain, much to my relief. Condoriri was next on the agenda, and with Archie flying back to Britian we hooked up with Ken and Dan, two Americans down for the climbing season. Along with Carlos, a Bolivian guide, we shared five days of 3 a.m. starts and scrumptious meals of dehydrated foods, climbing amid the peaks of this alpine paradise.

It was a perfect outing. The weather compliant, the mountains magnificent, and our partners open and competent. No small bonus was their horde of tasty American food, foreign delicacies we hadn't seen in almost a year.

At the Illampu summit
Alas, we lost Ken and Dan back to the States. The hotels, too, were thinning out as the end of the tourist season passed us by. Still, we had unfinished business. Illampu and Ancohuma, the great mountains anchoring the Cordillera's northern extremes.

Henry appeared, a manic soul from Germany determined to climb every mountain by its hardest route in as little time as possible. One morning he materialized in our room. We were still rubbing the sleep from our eyes when he declared, "I have seen your note. Where shall we climb?" Thankfully, his schedule didn't allow a moment's thought, and he disappeared while we pondered.

Matthew filled the void, a confident Aussie whose schedule meshed easily with our own. We both carried a wait-and-see approach to the mountain, evidence that we weren't sure which mountain we thought we'd climb, even as we were leaving town.

For three days we trekked under threatening weather through small towns connected only by footpaths. The summit of Illampu seemed remote and inaccessible, even underneath the shimmering stars of a clear black night. Fortune smiled, however, and we made the summit as menacing clouds flooded the adjacent valley over Ancohuma, the mountain we had elected not to climb.

Once back in Surata, at the mountain's base, we were treated to two days of brass bands and partying. It was a fitting celebration to end our climbing season. We had survived the both the mountains and our partners.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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