Going Places: Climbing the Andes (continued)


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Climbing the Andes

Mules carry climbers’ gear to the Illimani base camp

The distinctive summit pyramid rises like a whale’s back surfacing
on the glacial ice.

Both peaks are challenging, even by their easier routes

Even in the best of conditions, Illampu
is the most difficult mountain in Bolivia.

Due to its commanding position overlooking La Paz, few climbers will leave Bolivia without attempting Illimani (21,195 feet).

Despite its proximity to the city, getting to the base camp approach is not simple. Public buses infrequently serve mines in the area; most climbers share private transport from La Paz to the Aymara village of Unna (four hours; $100 each way for as many as six people).

From there hike or take mules (such bliss!) to base camp at Puente Roto (Broken Bridge), about five hours. If planning on mules you may want to try reserving from La Paz, as they could be in short supply in high season.

Plan on another five hours from Puente Roto to high camp at Nido de Condores (Condor’s Nest), 5,600 meters reached via an ugly scree ridge. Many a delighted climber has enjoyed the services of a porter up to the Nido de Condores.

Immediately above the high camp is a steeper exposed arete, perhaps the crux of the climb. Beyond, several hours of slogging will bring you to the highest point in the Cordillera Real.

At various times Ancohuma (6,427 meters) and its neighboring peak Illampu (6,368 meters) have been thought to exceed 7,000 meters. Such heights would place them not only above Sajama (at 6,530 meters Bolivia’s highest point), but Argentina’s Aconcagua (6,960 meters), the highest point in all of South America.

Although it’s enticing to believe in the unconfirmed heights of these monoliths, reality is not so kind. Local experts smile at the thought, but all agree with the altitudes determined by the German Alpine Club.

Nonetheless, both peaks are challenging by even their easiest routes and their remote location at the northern end of the Cordillera calls for a more expeditionary effort. Expect five to seven days to climb either peak.

From La Paz head to Sorata, a charming town three hours by bus from La Paz. The residential Sorata, the ramshackle mansion of a former rubber baron, is an enchanting place to stay while arranging transport into the mountains.

Louis, the manager, can help arrange burros and porters (about $8 to $10 per day), useful not only for carrying heavy loads, but for finding your way among the labyrinth of trails leaving town.

The two mountains have different approaches out of Sorata:

For Ancohuma plan for two days to walk into Laguna Glaciar at 5,000 meters, a popular hike in itself. From there the normal route to the northwest ridge follows south to the glacial moraine.

Follow the moraine, staying to the right, to reach high camp on some platforms at about 5,800 meters. The distinctive summit pyramid rises like a whale’s back surfacing on the glacial ice. Follow the ridge, 45 degrees at steepest, to the summit.

Illampu, like Ancohuma, receives few visitors due to its remoteness and often more difficult weather. This season in particular, Illampu thwarted climbers as El Niño brought heavy snows in August.

Even in the best of conditions, Illampu is the most difficult mountain in Bolivia. All routes require experience on steep ice.

From Sorata, set out for the community of Lakathiya, a small village connected only by footpath. Camp in the meadows just beyond town. In Lakathiya you’ll find many willing porters to take you over the pass (4,800 meters) and onto base camp at Aguas Calientes — sorry, no hot springs.

The trail follows cairns up and around the hill above the camp, leading to magnificent views over the broken glacier spilling down into the valley toward Ancoma. The trail continues over moraine, eventually hitting the glacier at a jumble of penitentes, or ice stalagmites.

Finding a path through the maze of crevasses can be time-consuming, but once through it’s an easy stroll to the
high camp in a cirque below the mountain walls. Meteorites of discharged rock remind you to camp well away from the faces.

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