Going Places: Climbing the Andes

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Climbing the Andes


Guide services and equipment rental
If coming to Bolivia specifically for mountaineering, most climbers bring their own gear. However, La Paz contains a number of companies that rent equipment. Quality varies greatly even within shops and technical tools are in short supply; few shops stock hard-to-find items like ice screws and snow pickets. All can help arrange transport and guiding services.

Conveniently, most shops are clustered within a few blocks of Calle Sagárnaga, also the main street for artesania. You can often sell gear when leaving to make room for all those beautiful hand-woven textiles.

Colibri, Calle Sagarnaga 309, (T 371936 F 355043). Has the best selection, including large-size boots and some technical axes.

Condoriri, Calle Sagarnaga 339, (T/F 319369). Less selection than Colibri, but sells some new equipment including carabiners, cord, harnesses, and that damned square battery for your Petzl headlamp. Also makes and repairs clothing; excellent work.

Andean Summits, Calle Sagarnaga, (T/F 319369). Decent selection of new climbing gear. The guiding service is on the first floor; equipment is on next floor above.

Ozono, (T 791786, F 722240, Cellular 012-28824, email [email protected]). This outfitter is run by local guide Yossi Brain. Smaller selection, but generally high-quality — especially for technical equipment.

Always ensure the competency of your guide and don't be afraid to question curious procedures. Most guides are experienced, though not often with the formal technical training found in other countries. Some "rouge guides" exist believing they need little more than lungs to pull a rope-length of tourists to the top of a mountain. You should always know enough to get yourself out of a potentially dangerous situation.

When to go
The Bolivian "season" runs from May until late August and is characterized by blinding blue skies and consolidated snows. Climbing is possible in September and even into October, but with increased winds and less stable weather. Of course, disregard all of the above when El Nino is visiting.

Guide books
La Cordillera Real de Los Andes, Alain Mesili (Los Amigos del Libro, La Paz, 1984; reprinted 1996). Although in Spanish, this is the most definitive book on the major peaks of Bolivia to date. Some route conditions have changed since publication, notably less snow.

Trekking in Bolivia, Yossi Brain et al. (Mountaineers Books, Seattle, 1997). Although not a route guide, contains approach details for most mountain areas. Also describes a wealth of treks for acclimatization or other wanderings. Read our review of this book.

Climbing Guide to Bolivia, Yossi Brain. (Mountaineers Books, Seattle. Due May 1998). This is the guide climbers have been waiting for. Brain, a British expat of four years, is one of Bolivia's most knowledgeable experts, especially on little-known places such as the Cordillera Apolobamba. Cross your fingers on this book being out in time for next season.

Escalando Roca en la Zona Sur de La Paz, Francou & Miranda (Oct 1994). Spanish. Describes 20 bolted routes in Barrio Aranjuez, south of La Paz. Short but challenging routes (to 5.11); solid belays off the soccer goal posts nearby.

Bolivia: A Travel Survival Kit (Lonely Planet Publications, 1996.) and The South American Handbook (Footprint Handbooks, 1997) are good general guidebooks including information on access and route descriptions. The Bolivia Handbook (Footprint Handbooks) is due out January 1998 and should be more comprehensive still.

Louis, manager of the Residential Sorata, can show photocopies of a German guidebook specifically covering the Illampu/Ancohuma massif. Describes both major and little-known routes.

Many of the maps listed below are available within the United States through Omni Resources, Burlington, NC (T 910-227-8300 F 910-227-3748) or Maplink, Santa Barbara, CA (T 805-965-4402). In La Paz try Los Amigos del Libro (Mercado 1315), or Ichthus bookshop on the Prado (No 1800).

The Institute Geographic Militar (IGM) stocks maps for most areas of Bolivia. Head office is at Estado Mayor Gen, Av Saavedra Final, Miraflores. Maps are seldom identified by the mountain you wish to climb so you'll need to consult the grid for the whole country. Rosemarie is particularly helpful. Open 9-12 a.m., 3-5 p.m. Bring your passport.

The Cordillera Real, Liam O'Brien. 135:000. Nicely shaded topographic relief map covers major climbing peaks.

Wálter Guzman Córdova has produced color maps for most major peaks including Sajama. He also produces notated maps for popular trekking routes.

The German Alpine Club produced two high-quality maps named Cordillera North and Cordillera South. North covers the Illampu-Ancohuma massif; the southern covers Illimania-Mururata. Available through the IGM.

The following hotels are popular with budget travelers, thus climbers. Most will store extra luggage while you're in the mountains. Hostal Austria, Yanacocha 531. Central. Positive reviews. Hostal Republica, Calle Comercio1455. Nice central courtyard. Has "in-house" travel agent. Helpful.

Hostal Torino, Socabaya 475. Seems a little shabby, but still popular. Good notice board.

Alojamiento Universo, Calle Inca Mayta Kapac 575 (between Plaza Alonzo Mendoza and Avenida Pando). Cheap, but questionable showers and flaky service. Secure long-term storage.

Alojamiento El Carretero, Calle Catacora 1056 (between Junin and Yanacocha). The latest favorite. Friendly; nice courtyard. A little further from center, but good hill for acclimatization.

No partner? No gear?
Most of the above have helpful notice boards for finding partners and buying or selling gear.

Club Andino Boliviano, Calle Mexico 1638 (T 324682) has a notice board and can help arrange transport although they mainly administer the ski lodge at Chacaltaya (the highest ski runs in the world!) They also have some route topos for the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz.

More time to explore?
Bolivia has a wealth to offer beyond the snowy reaches. The diversity of ecosystems is perhaps unsurpassed in a country of its size. For those who can find the time:

Salar de Uyuni in the southwest, a lunar landscape encompassing the world's largest salt lake.

Rurrenabaque on the edge of the Andes and the Amazon Basin. Fantastic river trips swimming with Amazonian Pink River Dolphins or trekking the jungle discovering about medicinal plants.

Potosi, the highest city in the world at over 13,000 ft. and once the world's richest for its silver deposits. Interesting colonial history and buildings.

Jesuit Missions to the southeast of Santa Cruz. Six churches survive from the mid-1700s. Elegantly simplistic reminders of one of the most enlightened attempts in South American colonization.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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