Together with Nicolas and Kevin, l set out on an adventurous journey to climb the third and fourth highest mountain in Bolivia, namely Ancohuma (6427m) and Illampu (6368m). Everything didn't go as planned though.
Shit, I forgot my plastic boots! (Day 1)
Unfortunately Kevin forgets to pick up his plastic boots as we get off the shared van in La Paz. In sheer desperation, we see the van disappear up one of La Paz's many streets. We see no taxis to catch in the vicinity, so Kevin starts to run up the street, but he soon realizes the stupidity in this. He is much slower than the van, and there are thousands of such "collectivios" in La Paz's streets. To find the van we had, will be like looking for the famous needle in a haystack.
We walk over to the Cementerio and the street where there are frequent public transportation to Sorata. We have agreed to meet Nicolas there at 8am, in order to catch a mini bus to Sorata, where we together will climb Ancohuma and Illampu. But without Kevin's boots, everything seems a bit hopeless now. Kevin decides to stand along the streets for a while to see if the shared van will come back the same route as it went up. He still have a tiny hope that he will recognize the van/driver and get back his precious plastic boots. But after 1 hour we give this up, instead we decide to head down to Andean Base Camp where they have plastic boots for hire.
Fortunately, the Andean Base Camp store is already open, so we quickly get a pair of boots that fit Kevin, and then we head back to the Cementerio and the street where the shared vans to Sorata depart. We leave before 11am and it takes 3-4 hours to get to Sorata in a Toyota Hiace packed with local Indians. We pay 17 Boliviano (2.5 USD) each for the mini bus.
Arriving in Sorata, we seek out the Casa de Guias. But unfortunately it turns out to be a greedy man who controls this monopoly association of guides and porters in Sorata. He charges a crazy 200 Boliviano (30 USD) to arrange 4x4 transport up the mountain, and 150 Boliviano (21 USD) per day for a porter. This is almost twice as expensive compared to Pinaya, at the foot of Illimani. In pure curiosity, we ask a taxi on the street how much he charges to drive from Sorata (2700m) and as far the road goes uphill towards Laguna Chillata. His asking price is only 100 Boliviano (15 USD), and unlike the guy at Casa de Guias, the taxi driver says that the road is fully drivable without a 4x4 up to 3500m. We go immediately back to Casa de Guias, and asks the guy to cancel the transportation part, but then he becomes angry and says that either it's deal or no deal on the entire package of transportation and porters. Uncertain about whether we are able to find porters otherwise, we have no choice but to accept the agreement. Because the price of porters is so outrageously high in Sorata, we decide to minimize our use porters, and even carry everything ourselves the first day, on the short leg to Laguna Chillata. We will only rent porters for the second day, when we are moving from Laguna Chillata (4200m) and up to Laguna Glacier (5040m). Stupidly we do not make any agreement to hire porters for the long day in unfamiliar terrain and no trail between Ancohuma BC and Illampu BC. That mistake later proved to be a real show-stopper for Illampu.
It turns out that the driver of Casa de Guias has a comfortable Toyota 4runner, so maybe the steep price is worth it anyway. We pass several small villages on the way up. At about 3500 meters altitude we arrive a larger grazing area. The road is blocked by several stones, probably to prevent normal cars (without 4x4) to drive higher. The driver removes the stones and we continue driving up a considerably worse road. He brings us all the way up to 3900m, on a closed mining road, for an additional fee of 30 Boliviano (4 USD). It is just a short walk to Laguna Chillata (4200m), but with heavy burdens on our backs, we spend almost an hour on this. There are many suitable places to pitch tents around this beautiful lake, but in the dense and cold fog, we choose the first and best place we arrive.
Trouble with the porters (Day 2)
Our two porters arrive as agreed at 9am. In Sorata, we had been given strict instructions that each porter can only carry max 18 kg, in contrast to Pinaya (Illimani), where our porter carried between 25-30 kg without complaining. One of the porters wrinkles a little on his nose when he tests the weight of the backpack. Perhaps it is a couple of kilos too much, but he accepts it in the end. The trail up to the next camp, Laguna Glaciar (5040m), turns out to be far easier to follow than what we've read/heard about in advance. We use no more than 3 hours and we could easily managed without porters as wayfinders. We meet two German girls with a guide and porter, on their way down. They tell us that they did not reach the top of Ancohuma due to altitude sickness. At Laguna Glaciar there are three German guys, one of them has altitude sickness, but they still plan to climb both Pico Schulze (5934m) and Ancohuma (6427m) the next few days. Unlike us, they have hired a porter, who stay with them all time and guards their equipment in camp to prevent theft.
Before we send down our two porter, we try to arrange that one of them will come up again after 3 days to carry equipment from Ancohuma BC to Illampu BC, in addition to being a wayfinder on this difficult traverse. But we don't reach any agreement, because of all additional conditions he requires and the overall price. So we send them back down without a tip, and that means we have to manage everything on our own from now on.
The Germans do not seem to be very well prepared. One of them must even sleep outside, because their Hilleberg tent is not big enough for 3 people. Not really a problem for the upcoming night, but what do they do if there is bad weather?
Up to High Camp (Day 3)
We wake up to yet another wonderful day, so we are very surprised to see that the Germans are still asleep. We realize immediately that they must have cancelled the climb of Pic Schulze. Well. we are healthy at least, so we are getting ready for departure to High Camp of Ancohuma. After what we have read, we can either choose between 5400m, 5600m or 5800m.
We find a marked route (and in some places a trail) up from Laguna Glaciar. With heavy loads on our backs, it takes us almost 2 hours to reach the edge of the glacier. We pass several possible campsites along a moraine (5400m). But it is too early to camp here, so we take on our glacier gear and continue through the very broken glacier, sometimes with significant elements of penitentes. After an hour or so on the glacier, we arrive at a flat spot and decide to camp here (5600m). With no sunshine it becomes too cold to sit outside in the cool breeze, so we spend most of the afternoon in the tent. But the sun hits our tents in the evening, and we enjoy about one hour in the snow, high above Lake Titicaca, before the sun eventually disappears behind the horizon.
On top of Ancohuma (Day 4)
The alarm wake us up at 2:30am, and we spend roughly one hour to eat snacks and get ready. It's a starry sky out there, but still pitch dark because of the moonless night. I take the lead over the glacier, initially very easy, because we find a track from an earlier expedition. But the tracks eventually disappear higher up, and we have to find our own way through a maze of huge crevasses. We have some luck with us because there are still some well positioned snow bridge over the major crevasses. Thus, we avoid having to embark on a long detour around the crevasses. At the most suspicious snow bridges, I'm crawling forward on my stomach, to visually examine the thickness of the bridge. Elsewhere it's sufficient to just use the ice axe and search for a safe crossing. This rigorous testing does not hinder that the second guy in the rope (Nicolas) step through a crevasse up to his waste at one occasion. But both Kevin and I have a tight rope at each end, so Nicolas gets easily out of the hole and crawl over to safer ground.
Beyond the large crevasses, we arrive a large flat section, and can make out the contours of Ancohuma in the dark. We aim at a direct route up the west side of the mountain, which eventually leads up to the southwest ridge. This route is graded from PD+ to D depending on the conditions in the upper part. It is steep, but the snow conditions are perfect. In the top section, leading up to an insane overhanging cornice, we have to cross a very dubious snow bridge and continue up a 55 degree pitch just below the cornice. I do not feel very safe where I stand under this huge overhanging cornice, waiting for the others to come after. We move along the cornice for about 50 meters before it becomes smaller, so that we can easily get on top of it and the southwest ridge. It's then easy walking to the top of Ancohuma (6427m), which we arrive in only 4.5 hours, ie much faster than the normal time of 6-7 hours.
We take our time to enjoy the view and take lots of pictures on the summit before we start to descend. Impulsively, we take a different route down, northwest ridge (graded AD), because we see some footprints that leads down there. Very simple in the beginning, but it's gettig more vertical when we have to climb down a steep snow ridge which in the lower part is both icy and almost 60 degrees steep. But with two ice axes each and facing inward, we climb safely down this treacherous section. Then it's easy again, before we have to climb down a steeper section, which ends in a crevasse. This crevasse, covered with penitentes on each side, turns out to be a challenge. Kevin goes halfway through the crevasse on his first attempt, and we decide to retreat. We look further to the right and find out that the crevasse eventually disappear, but the downside, we have to cross a section with large penitentes. The latter is much preferable, and we get fairly easy across it.
Finally down from the northwest ridge, we cross over a large flat section, before we are back on the same tracks as we were on the ascent. But now we have much better overview, since it is daylight, and we find a more direct route across the glacier and therefore avoids some of the larger crevasses. We walk at a high pace down the glacier and arrive at High Camp approximately 2.5 hours after we set off from the summit. In High Camp it feels like summer, and we rest outside in the warm sunshine for a while before we start to pack up camp. It takes us about 2 hours to descend from High Camp and back to Laguna Glaciar. The camp is empty, so the Germans must have left without even having tried to climb Ancohuma.
We cannot find the route to Illampu Base Camp (Day 5)
We granted us 12 hours of sleep after a strenuous summit day, so we are actually quite refreshed in the morning. We don't have much information about the route between Ancohuma BC and Illampu BC. We have no porters to lead us across and we have no maps of the area, so this will certainly be a challenge. We have read that we must traverse high up in the west side of Pico Schulze, and keep an elevation at about 5000 meters. Initially it's going this fairly easy, but as the terrain becomes more difficult with steep cliffs and wet slabs, we are forced lower and lower. We are at about 4800m and have done much of the west side of Pica Schulze, when the fog comes drifting in. We see nothing around us in the extremely complex terrain, and we start to realize that this will be an almost impossible task. After a serious team talk, we decide to give up. On the way down to Laguna Chillata, we get into a hailstorm. The hails are as large as M&M's, and it's very painful when they hit our heads. Thus we put on our helmets!
Well back at Laguna Chillata (4200m) there are still dark clouds up in the mountains. Without maps and porters, we realize that we probably will have much difficulty finding the route to Illampu BC the next day as well. So we decide to cancel Illampu, and continue down to Sorata. Unfortunately, there are no taxi's to see along the road, so we end up walking a full 15 km back to Sorata, not very pleasant in plastic boots. We arrive Sorata by nightfall, after a very long day (9-10 hours) on foot. Extremely hungry and thirsty, we seek out the first and best restaurant, where we get some chicken, french fries and plenty of coca cola. Then we check in at a nearby hostel, where we get a 3-man room and pay 30 Boliviano (4 USD) each. We go straight to bed without a shower.
Return to La Paz (Day 6)
We eat a better omelet for breakfast in Sorata, before we catch a share van back to La Paz (17 Boliviano). As this was our last climb in Bolivia, we celebrate the night in La Paz with juicy steaks and beer. A well-deserved ending to a successful stay in Bolivia, where we have climbed the 3 highest mountains in Bolivia (Sajama, Illimani, Ancohuma) and a lower 6000m peak (Huayna Potosi). So we have every reason to be delighted!
Ancohuma at EveryTrail