Nevado Sajama (6542m) is an extinct stratovolcano and the highest peak in Bolivia. Nicolas and myself climbed it by fair means (entirely selfsupported) on a 4 days adventure towards the border of Chile.
Preparations in La Paz
We got a very cheap deal on a touristvan that was going to pick up a group on Sajama. Well subsidized by this group, we paid only 150 Bolivianos (21 USD) each for the 5-hour drive from La Paz to Sajama. It would be a bit cheaper to take the bus, but when we got a whole touristvan for ourselves, and also was picked up directly from the hotel in La Paz, it was a rather simple choice. Moreover, there is no direct bus service between La Paz and Sajama, one must change bus in Patacamaya.
The driver picked us up at the hotel Cruz de los Andes at 07:00am as agreed. The 5-hours drive went over the Bolivian highlands, exciting in the beginning but pretty monotonous in the long run. The mood, however, rose significantly as we could make out Nevado Sajama (6542m) in the distance. The highest mountain in Bolivia is a perfectly shaped volcano and looms enormously from the north because it's standing so lonely in the flat terrain.
We arrived in Sajama village at noon and there we had to pay 30 Bolivianos (4 USD) each to enter the national park. We questioned them about mule services, but since there were no mules available until the next day, we decided to drop this, and instead carry everything on our own backs. The touristvan drove us further 4 km north of the village, where the group that had subsidized the van for us, stood and waited. From there on we continued on foot. The 6 km hike to Base Camp (4800m) took us less than 2 hours, so we had plenty of time to make lunch and dinner at the Base Camp. It was only a small group present in Base Camp, but the group consisting of an Italian guy and his guide and cook had no plans to reach the top of Sajama since the Italian guy was very tired after having climbed another volcano in the same area. Later in the evening another guided group of 3 people came down from the mountain, but these had not reached the summit due to altitude sickness.
It was an easy start of the day, first along a flat plain, then gradually up the northwest ridge. About halfway began the struggle to overcome a long hill composed of loose gravel and rock, not unlike Aconcagua for those who know this mountain. I arrived High Camp in 3 hours and 45 minutes, while Nicolas came shortly after.
High Camp (5700m) consists of 8-10 platforms for tents, and since no one else was on the mountain, we could choose the largest and flattest platform. As we had already been told, the snow was dirty in High Camp, and therefore not very suitable for melting and drinking. We had carried a little extra water from Base Camp, but far from enough to cover up the consumption of water for the next 24 hours. But I dug a little below the snow surface, and brought out some snow of usable quality.
In High Camp it was extremely strong wind, so we had to spend some extra time to pitch the tent thoroughly. The rest of the afternoon and evening were spent in the tent for melting snow and eating. We fell asleep at 7pm.
The alarm went off shortly after 2am. It was freezing cold inside the tent, so we ate biscuits and snackbars and drank plenty of water while we were still snug inside our sleeping bags. Then we got on our warm clothes designed for high mountains, and we were ready to take off at 3:15am. The first part was steep scree slopes until we reached the snow. Here we took on our crampons and put on the rope. The 100 meters high and steep snowgully (45-55 degrees) went surprisingly easily, and since the snow conditions were so good, we did not use any snow pickets for belay. The short ridge towards the glacier, was pretty exposed but without technical difficulties.
As soon as we came on the glacier, we realized that it was covered by penitentes (20-40 cm high) in the lower part. The rope hooked up in penitentes all the time, and we quickly decided that the rope had to come off. Penitentes were a major issue in the first 200-300 meters gain of altitude on the glacier, but after that they disappeared gradually and it was far easier to walk. The sunrise was absolutely magical and I took some photos even though my fingers became uncomfortable numb by handling the camera. The long northwest ridge was constantly between 30 and 40 degrees steep, and was a pretty timeconsuming affair with numerous false summits. But in the end it leveled out, and I eventually reached the highest point of the large and flat summit plateau after 5 hours. There was absolutely no wind at the top, which is supposed to be a very rare occasion on Sajama. Moreover, the sun heated quite much as well. Thus it was pleasant to sit and wait for Nicolas who appeared almost one hour later. Together we celebrated yet another successful climb in Bolivia, before we started down again.
The descent went very quickly until we reached the large field of penitentes. Here it was extremely slow going, especially for Nicolas's part who was beginning to become proficient tired. I had to wait almost a full hour at the end of the glacier, before Nicolas arrived and we could put on the rope again to start the short and exposed ridge and the steep snowgully. Snow conditions in the snowgully was still very good, so we didn't need any abseil. We were back in High Camp almost 3.5 hours after we started the descent.
We took a longer break in High Camp, before we began to pack up and take down the tent. The descent to Base Camp went very quickly, because we could slide down the scree slopes at a fast pace. It took no more than one hour and 15 minutes before we were back in Base Camp. Dehydrated as we had become during the long day, we went directly over to the water source and drank straight from it, without any form of treatment. But the water source seemed very safe, it was almost like drinking pure spring water.
We could have continued all the way to Sajama village, but we decided to spend the night in Base Camp after a very long day.
The 9 kilometers hike from Base Camp and back to Sajama village was done in 2 hours. From here we had to somehow get back to Laguna which is located on the main road. We got a Toyota Land Cruiser in Sajama to drive us back to Laguna for the relatively stiff price of 60 Bolivianos. The driver persuaded us to drive a little further to the Chilean border (30 Bolivianos extra) from where it was easier to hop on a bus because they had to stop at customs/immigration anyway. In Laguna, however, there was a high risk that the buses would not stop for us. So we decided to pay the extra price to get us to the border.
As we arrived the border, we could see a nice international bus standing there, but unfortunately it had no vacant seats. We were offered to stand on the bus for 3 hours to Patacamaya, but we rather chose to wait for the next bus. Thus, we could get some food in the meantime as well. But there came no more buses while we ate. However, we could see hundreds of large trucks that frequent the route between the coastal city of Arica in Chile and La Paz (El Alto). We decided to hitchhike with a truck and got lucky on the first attempt. The driver in a big Volvo truck was happy to bring us all the way to El Alto near La Paz.
It was funny to sit in an American truck, none of us had tried that before. I got the passenger seat, while Nicolas got comfortable on the bed in the large compartment behind. The driver stopped a few times to buy beer, which he drank while he drove. He was becoming clearly more affected as we approached El Alto, and the overtakings of other vehicles on the highway became increasingly more bold. But we arrived safely back in El Alto, where he dropped us off and also asked for some money. We gave him a total of 40 Bolivianos (6 USD) and he seemed very happy with that. From El Alto it's about 20 km down to La Paz. First we took a public minibus (1.50 Bolivianos each) before we switched to another minibus that took us straight to the tourist area of La Paz (2 Bolivianos each). It was really nice to arrive back to the hotel with a hot shower and a soft bed, well knowing that this summer's country highpoint project for Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia was now successfully completed. If I include the highpoints of Argentina and Chile, which I climbed in 2008, it means that the 5 highest country highpoints in South America are now completed.
Total costs for Nevado Sajama (excluding the microscopic expenses for food), amounted to 248 Bolivianos (35 USD) for each of us. That's not much when spread out over 4 days, ie less than 10 USD per day to climb a 6,000 meter peak!
Sajama at EveryTrail