London – Gatwick Airport, 30th May 2015
I’m on board of the Airbus A340 which is ready to take off. Yesterday, I took a one-month unpaid leave from my boring job. In order to cover the cost of my participation in the Alpine Club’s expedition to Cordillera Real, I loaded my credit card with over two thousand pound debt. Apart from this, I recently split up with a girl I had been dating for the last few months. To be fair, this had nothing to do with this expedition. I knew she wasn’t interested in me anyway and I just had a good excuse to finish it. At least once I can say that it was me who broke up, no other way round. So now I’m sitting on this plane thinking to myself “what the f*** am I doing here”.
About 36 hours later I arrive in La Paz, Bolivia. It’s 1.20 am here. As soon as I come off the plane I notice that the air here is a lot thinner than back in the UK. This is hardly surprising since El Alto airport lays at 4000 meters above the sea level. I pass the passport control, collect my bags and walk in to the arrivals lounge. Two seconds later a gentleman in his forties comes to me, explains that he’s a taxi driver and offers a lift to hotel. I walk outside with him to find out that his car doesn’t look like a taxi at all. Being suspicious, I say I’m going back to find a proper cab. At this point, a policeman, who was standing next to us, comes to me and says that my driver is “a good man” and I should go with him. I’m too tired to look for another taxi anyway so I agree…
After one and a half hour of circling around La Paz and several phone calls to his “friend” my “good man” eventually finds the hostel in which I’m supposed to stay. Here I encounter another problem – man in reception can’t find my booking. I kindly offer to help and, to my big relieve, manage to find names of my companions in his guestbook. Receptionist takes me to my room. As soon as I come in, my new “mates” – Derek, Hugh and Peter jump out of their beds to say hello and immediately jump back under their blankets to continue their sleep. I also climb onto my bed and fall asleep straightaway. I’m really tired now, it’s nearly 4 am. The following morning, at the breakfast, I meet the rest of the team: John, Nick, Ken and his wife Lili.
Three days later we set off to the mountains. We are going to the Condoriri Group. This area is relatively well known for its classic climbs and should be a good place for acclimatization. The following morning we wake up at 2.30 am in order to climb the Normal Route on Pequeno Alpamayo (5370m, AD). We leave the base camp about half an hour later. I’m roped up with John and Nick. First of all we have to cross a glacier. I am not acclimatised yet so this feels like a never-ending walk… A couple of hours later we get on a steep snow and ice slope that takes us to the 1st sub-summit. From here we down climb about 60 meters on an easy rock and eventually get on the final steep, snowy ridge. I now start to realise what Voytek Kurtyka meant by calling high altitude mountaineering an “art of suffering”. My boots feel as heavy as if they were made of steel. I’m a lot slower than my companions. My fingers are stiff from cold. It feels as if my head was going to explode and I can hardly resist myself from vomiting… Nevertheless, I make it to the summit where I get the “prize” for my effort – I look around and I just don’t know what to say. The Andes look impressive in the early morning sun. The weather is perfect – sunny, without clouds, a very light wind. Here I can “enjoy” my breakfast that consists of a chocolate bar and few sips of water… Soon we all realise that it’s actually really cold up here so we decide to make our way down. Descent is even more painful – apart from acclimatization problems, I’m also very tired and blisters on my feet become really annoying. To make it worse, I’m going first now. This means that I have to lead the rock section to the sub-summit. It’s only about 60-meter VDiff which wouldn’t be any issue in “normal” conditions. Here I have to stop after every two or three moves to catch my breath. Eventually, we safely make it to the sub-summit and to the bottom of the glacier. I still have to get back to the base camp. Walk through a scree takes me more than two hours. Once back in the camp, I’m trying to force myself to eat something. I have no craving whatsoever but I know I need some calories so I slowly consume a cup of chicken soup with noodles. As soon as I finish I sneak into my sleeping bag and fall asleep… That’s my first experience in climbing at such high altitude – a hard lesson learnt. Before leaving the Condoriri base camp I manage to climb one more summit – Piramide Blanca (5230m) via the Normal Route (PD). A lot easier and more pleasant, my body is gradually adapting to the thin air.
After few days in La Paz, we make a move to Kasiri – Calzada valley. This part of the expedition is a lot more adventurous. This area is remote and unexplored. Even local mountain guides don’t have any knowledge about summits we intend to climb. Therefore, we end up in a wrong place, from which we can’t climb Kasiri, as we had originally planned. Fortunately, there is another summit which, on the map, is marked as point 5661m. It doesn’t have any name and there are no records of any previous ascents. Together with John, Derek and Nick we decide to give it a go. Again we start at 2.30 am. First, we climb an easy slope at around 45 degrees. Snow conditions are really good but it’s a lot colder this time. I have to wear my warm down jacket and mitts all way up. Fortunately, I have no signs of altitude sickness anymore so I can really enjoy climbing. After about two hours we cross a bergshrund and get on a narrow and steep (60-65 degree) snowy ridge that leads to a kind of plateau. From here we climb another ridge to the summit where we stop for a moment to have a breakfast and celebrate our little success. It looks like we have just climbed a mountain that had never been climbed before so we congratulate each other. This little bit of exploration makes us all very proud and satisfied. After all, we got what we came for – a new route. We take a GPS record and start going down. The view is amazing again – Cordillera Real on one side and Lake Titicaca on the other side…
Unfortunately, the following week is far less interesting for me – I get seriously sick. Problems with stomach and diarrhoea are not unusual on expeditions to remote parts of the world. However, my case is really nasty. Because of this, I have to retreat from Hati Khollu (5421m) and bail out completely from an ascent on Chachacomani (6074m). Instead of climbing I have to stay on my own in La Paz trying to sort out myself with antibiotics that Derek left for me.
Once I’ve recovered I still have two more days before flying back to the UK. I manage to convince Nick to climb Huayana Potosi with me. To be fair – this is not particularly exciting climb. The normal route on Huayana Potosi (6088m) is considered to be easy (AD-) and it’s just about one and a half hour drive from La Paz. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular target for commercial expeditions. Nevertheless, we manage to do this in a very good style – light and fast, beating guidebook time by about 3 hours (3 hours 45 minutes instead of suggested 7). Altogether, it takes us less than 24 hours from the “door to door” of our hostel in the centre of La Paz. Perhaps not as fast as Ueli Steck would be but still not too bad…
La Paz – El Alto Airport, 27th June 2015
I’m sitting on a plane again. This time I’m heading back to the UK. Nobody is waiting for me. In two days I have to be back at work and start paying off the debt on my credit card. I suppose I should be worried right now… Instead of this, I look out the window and as the plane is ascending I can clearly see Andean summits raising above the clouds. They look stunning again. Now they remind me all the successful climbs, retreats, suffering, “slow” life in base camps, cold nights and sunny days on the mountains and I realise that I am actually really happy right now:)