We are ready to climb Illimani (6438m) in the middle of the night but something important is missing, which puts the entire climb at stake. The worst anti-climax imaginable. What really happened that night?
After a successful climb of Huayna Potosi (6088m) and a couple of rest days in La Paz, Nicolas and myself continued in a taxi towards Illimani (6438m). We got a local travel agency to arrange a taxi from La Paz to Pinaya, which is a 3 hours drive on very bad roads. We paid only 800 Bolivianos (115 USD), which also included the pick up 4 days later in Pinaya.
The trip to Pinaya in an old Toyota was a fairly rough journey on bad roads, but the fabulous view of Illimani kept our spirits up. Arriving in Pinaya we quickly arranged a mule for the first day and a porter for day 2 and day 3 with the local people. For this package we only paid 300 Bolivianos (43 USD), which is a lot cheaper than arranging it with an agent in La Paz. So it pays a lot to cut out the middleman in La Paz. From Pinaya (3800m) we followed behind the mule and a teenage girl who happened to be the mule driver. It went in variable pace up to Base Camp, depending on how busy the girl was with sending and receiving SMS on her mobile phone. We arrived at Base Camp (4450m) after 1 hour and 45 minutes. We had been told in Pinaya that there were no one else on the mountain, so we had a free selection of tent sites in the big camp. Not long after however, another western tourist appeared in Base Camp. It turned out he was from Austria and that he had hired a Bolivian guide and two porters. Once they had set up the kitchen tent, the guide came over to our tent and asked if we had a stove, because theirs didn't work for some reason. We were kind enough to let them borrow our stove. But it took a very long time before they returned it to us, thus our dinner got substantial delayed for the evening.
The next morning our porter showed up in Base Camp, though a lot later than promised. The two porters of the other expedition had arrived a little earlier, thus we got started after the other group to High Camp. The first half part of the hike was gentle uphills, while the latter half went steeply up a ridge with some scrambling involved. We had been told that this was a 5-6 hours hike, but it turned out to be a 3 hours walk for us. It was indeed fortunate that we arrived earlier than planned, for once we got to High Camp (5470m) then it started to snow. We had to wait a while for the porter to arrive with our gear, but at least we got to pitch the tent before the snowstorm turned more serious. The porters were only wearing sandals for the occasion, but fortunately they descended towards Pinaya before the snow started to accumulate on the ground. We spent 2-3 hours inside the tent, mainly cooking food and melting snow, before it suddenly cleared up and we could go out and enjoy the view. The ground was now covered by 10 cm of fresh snow, but we didn't consider this as an issue for the upcoming night and climb. We had not seen any tracks on the glacier, so anyway we had to find and make a new track by ourselves. A few centimeters of fresh snow would not make any difference.
We woke up at about 1:30am and immidiately noticed that in the neighboring tent they were already busy cooking. We however only ate some dry snackbars. The guide of the Austrian client came over to our tent and asked whether we had seen his second ice axe. We had of course seen nothing of it, and told him to keep looking, maybe it was under the snow. We eventually got on our warm clothes and moved out of the tent at 02:30am. There I met the upset Austrian guy who told me that his guide refused to start the climb because he lacked his second ice axe. Too bad for him I thought, but this did not change anything of our plans. Nicolas and myself put on our crampons and we tied into the rope. But as I went over to fetch my two ice axes, I discovered that they were gone. Only Nicolas' two ice axes were standing firmly planted in the snow. Initially we assumed that a thief had visited the camp, because the guide also was missing his ice axe. But why didn't the thief also take Nicolas' two ice axes, which were as new and valuable as mine? And why did he steal the guide's 15-year old ice axe when he instead could have taken Nicolas' 2 years old and much better ice axes? Something really strange had been going on here, and after a while we started to suspect that the guide had done a cruel act of sabotage.
In the cold dark, we began to search around the camp to see if we could find the ice axes. During the search we also noticed that there were no footprints outside of the camp, which indeed was a very strong indicatation that no one from outside could have stolen the ice axes. The traces of my ice axes (holes in the snow) were fresh, as if someone had removed them very recently. We eventually gave up to find the ice axes in the dark, and decided to return to the tent and continue the search the next morning.
At 7am we continued the search. We suspected that the guide of the other expedition had thrown my ice axes over the cliff to the north, or down the glacier to the south. Therefore, we started to search below the cliff but found nothing. Then we continued to search on the glacier, but realized pretty quickly that if he had thrown them down there, the ice axes would fall steeply downwards and most likely end up in one of the big crevasses. The 1-2 hours search was fruitless. We walked over to the other tent and started an angry discussion with the guide. We confronted him with all the contradictions in his story. But this remained hopeless, he would not crack. Instead he just continued with all his stupid lies.
Here are our evidences that the guide setup a theft of his second ice axe and two of our ice axes in order for him to avoid loss of face:
1) The inexperienced guide of the Austrian client had most likely only brought one ice axe for Illimani. We have photographic proof that the guide only had one ice axe attached to his backpack. He claims that his second ice axe was in the luggage, but both his client and the porters deny this fact. Most likely, he believed that Illimani could safely be climbed with one iceaxe, but then got cold feet when he at close range could see the steep and partly icy conditions on Illimani. His client also had only one iceaxe, a non-technical tool more intended for glacier walking. In other words, they were poorly equipped compared to us. We had 2 technical ice axes each, in addition to 4 ice screws and 2 snow pickets.
Another likely theory is that the guide had simply forgotten to pack his second ice axe in La Paz, a mistake which would be very embarrassing to admit to his high-paying client, especially since the guide also had managed to bring a non-functional stove. These are very serious deficiencies, and not what one would expect from a professional guide. Thus by setting up a fake theft story, the guide would prevent "loss of face", because then he could put the blame on someone else.
2) The guide had communicated several times to the Austrian client that he was somewhat concerned about the conditions on Illimani. The Austrian guy told us this later. That confirms our impression that the guide was inexperienced and not very confident about climbing Illimani. He was simply afraid to go up, and thus he tried to find a solution which would ensure that no one went for the summit. By setting up a theft of ice axes, he would easily prevent any of us to go for the summit. To sabotage a climb for two innocent people who were not even part of his expedition, is such a cruel act. Especially since we had been so kind to him by lending our stove to them. How could he have conscience to betray us like that, we did nothing wrong to him....
3) We have photographic evidence that my ice axes were still outside the tent after the blizzard, and therefore long after the porter had went down again. Moreover, we have photographic evidence of the fresh holes from my missing ice axes. Thus, it had evidently not been snowing after the ice axes were removed from the snow. When the guide setup this theft sometimes during the night, he could not have been thinking very much about the fresh snow and what complications this would make to his fake story. We had made a lot of footprints in the camp in the evening, right after the snowstorm. These tracks were still as good as fresh in the morning. Outside of the camp, there were no tracks at all. If any outsiders had stolen the ice axes, he would have left footprints in the snow. The Austrian guy who first went down from High Camp to Base Camp, confirms that no footprints neither headed up or down. Thus no one else could have come up to the camp to steal the ice axes (unless they have wings).
4) If the guide is correct about a thief, why didn't the thief take everything outside the tents, including Nicolas' new ice axes, our 2 new snow pickets which have a value of 200 Bolivianos each, etc. This remains incomprehensible, and thus the guide's story is not credible.
Back in La Paz we got in touch with the agency which the guide works for. His name is Boris Martinez. He admitted as expected, no responsibility for our loss. We got him to arrange a meeting with the guide, which name we now got to know was Rodolfo Chura. But Boris Martinez never showed up, so instead the meeting resulted in a big argue with Rodolfo. We threatened him to involve the police, but Rodolfo did not care at all. Neither Boris or Rodolfo seem to have a name or reputation to take care of. Both of them are what other agencies define as pirates, operating in the black marked. Boris does not have a registered/certified agency, and Rodolfo are not a registered/licensed guide. They are simply just doing monkey business here in Bolivia. Foolish tourists hire them on the street or via dodgy connections. This can be confirmed by serious agencies in La Paz, which have lists of approved agencies and guides. Neither Boris or Rodolfo can be found in these lists.
In the end we went to the tourist police in La Paz, where we filed a case. But this is nothing but a useless paper, so the case ends here. The paper can however be used to file a case with my insurance company. However, it was not the financial loss that hurted most. We wasted four whole days of hard work and was only a few hours away from the summit of Illimani. But we were defeated, not by the mountain, but by an evil guide from another expedition.
But this case will at least have some impact on the guide Rodolfo Chura. He can no longer show up in the village of Pinaya. He is not welcome there anymore. The porters of Pinaya has assured us of this. Rodolfo Chura can never guide on Illimani anymore. That is a small victory for us.
PS! We shall return to Illimani in a couple of weeks!
Update! We now have information that the true name of the guide might be Rodolfo Laime (Chura is probably just a fake surname). We got this information from another agency in La Paz. This Mr Laime has been involved in other scams/thefts in Bolivia, and the agency seems to recognize him from the photos we have sent them.
Illimani at EveryTrail