Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Sajama - Bolivias highest mountain

I had been keen on the idea of climbing one of South Americas 6000+m peaks for quite sometime, originally thinking Hauyna Potosi might be a good option, as a fairly popular and relatively easy 6200m volcano which many people scale. However Carl was keen to make an attempt at Sajama – at 6542m it is Bolivias highest peak, and the challenge of this appealed to us both! 

It is only slightly more technical than Hauyna Potosi, but due to the extra height and the more extreme weather conditions it is a much more challenging and harder climb. As we already had our acclimatisation from cycling to 5000m over the lagunas we decided to make the most of it by organising an expedition as soon as possible; taking a bus from Potosi to La Paz from where it would be possible to make all the necessary arrangements. Unfortunately I had got sick on arriving in Bolivia, and by the time we reached La Paz I hadn't been able to eat anything other than plain rice for over 5 days  and we were worried this might counteract the benefits of the acclimatisation. After finding a guide and making all the necessary arrangements for the climb we stalled for a day in La Paz, to try and eat and build the energy levels back up. 

La Paz is definitely the most interesting and exciting city I've spent time in-it is totally different from other South American towns and cities we have visited; very distinctly Bolivian and incredibly frenetic; I could happily have spent weeks exploring and just enjoying the atmosphere. The city is in a massive bowl, with the city centre in the low point at around 3100m, and the urban sprawl spreading all the way up to the altiplana at 4100m. Our guide, Eduardo, very kindly gave us a tour of the sprawling altiplana of the city the night before we left for Sajama from where we got an excellent view of the whole city lit up below us, in the shadow of the impressive snow capped Chacaltaya mountain.

Leaving early the following morning we arrived into the national park around lunchtime, where we met and loaded up the mules who helped us carry our kit up to base camp (how I wished they could have helped us all the way to the top!!)

It was a nice easy evening walk to this first camp, at 4800m, and the wind which had been making it impossible to attempt the climb for the last week had dropped, making it look good for our starting the following day.

The climb to campo alto at 5700m was mostly a long scree scramble, that Carl and Eduardo seemed to have no problems with, but which I found absolutely exhausting, reliving the feeling of trying to walk through treacle I'd got when cycling at similar altitude. Sleeping at this altitude tends to be a problem due to constantly waking up gasping for breath and feeling like you're suffocating, so when we awoke at 2am to begin the summit we weren't feeling particularly refreshed, and eating was difficult.

Suffice to say the following 7 hour climb was without doubt the hardest thing I've ever done. At a lower altitude the route would have been quite easy – although steep and with many fields of penitentes (strangely formed icicles that are difficult to navigate) there was very little technical ice climbing needed. However with the added dimension of lack of oxygen, everything seems to become ten times more complicated and difficult! The last 400m were the hardest, when the cold nearly got the better of me; my hands felt like they were going to fall off, making it hard to hold the ice axe, the steep icy ascent felt insurmountable, I was exhausted, and the lack of food and energy meant I was very close to conceding defeat! Luckily, just as I was about to give up the sun rose behind us, creating the most incredible light and casting the shadow of Sajama over the two neighbouring volcanos of Parinacota (6330m) and Pomerape (6282m). I resolved that I was no way I was going to get this far and not summit! 

So, mustering all my will power, some kind motivational words I remembered from Dom and Michelle (come on man; toughen the f*ck up...) and with some rather gentler motivational words from Carl, we continued towards our seemingly unreachable goal. Finally, after one or two heart sinking false summits, we finally reached the surprising flat, dizzying heights of  6542m!-the highest point in Bolivia! and for the few minutes that we remained up there, we were literally on top of the world!

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