Huayna Potosi & Cordillera Real, Bolivia 2005

Written by Nathanael Johnson, California, USA

Bolivia KTS TeamBouncing in our red, decrepit 4x4 Nissan Patrol, we are barreling over backcountry roads, passing squat stone huts and primitive farms and villages that probably bear no name.  We’re en route – back to the city of La Paz – but not on any conventional road or thoroughfare.  I look back at Rick, my companion and the founder of Kiss the Sky - the charity we’re here climbing for - and I mouth, “One down, five to go.” “Somehow,” he says, grinning and as un-phased as ever, “I don’t think we’re gonna make it back on time tonight.”

But we underestimate our Bolivian guides, Antonio, Eliot and David, who seem to have these unmaintained, sketchy dirt roads plotted and mapped in their cerebral cortexes.

Moments before we were waylaid at a road-block manned by a half dozen or so campesinos – the indigenous laborers, miners and lower-echelon, economic class of Bolivia. Huddled around a multi-colored flag, a trademark symbol of the coup about to erupt, they intended to keep us at the roadblock indefinitely - or until their point was made - which could have been hours.

Yet after an hour or so of negotiation, Eliot and Antonio returned resolute, started up the ORV’s and drove us through the blockade and past basketball sized rocks and freshly dug trenches and speed bumps.

We are returning from a day hike, en route back into La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, to spend our last night in the hotel before we head out to train for our climb up Huayna Potosi, a peak that towers a little under 20,000 feet in Bolivian Altiplano.  What’s driving me nuts though is the conversation between Antonio and David as we plod along the dirt road.  They fire away in Spanish about what just precipitated over the last hour, and I can’t make out a lick of their diatribes.

hiker in boliviaThey wind us through the backdoor of La Paz, rumbling over something that has very little semblance of a road until we happen upon the Autopista, a freeway and the main artery that connects the airport with the city proper.  Eliot, who’s manning the jeep, brings the vehicle to a slow crawl and looks back at Antonio in the seat next to me and points to the left lane of a median divided, four-lane highway.  Antonio shouts back something akin to “it’s your call” and on that, Eliot traverses the median, guns it and takes the left lane - my eyes peeled for any oncoming traffic.

This highway though is not seeing a lot of activity these days.  Weeks ago the campesinos started protesting over the nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbon assets - a movement started primarily by the Socialist party; understandably, they want to protect the wealth of their country (and themselves) so, to demand full nationalization of the country’s resources, they have engaged in protests, parades, blockades and - on occasion - deploying dynamite in the streets.

I arrived in La Paz about four days before my companions.  This was my first time to South America (and a third world country for that matter), and in order to combat my fear of being in unfamiliar country, far away from home and not knowing the native tongue, I decided to take everything head on and well, arrived solo in a country on the verge of a political coup.  Brilliant.

My life back in the states was rather insipid. Empty.  I was working full time as an Accounts Payable clerk in the basement of a hotel, trying to pursue a career as an actor that was spotty to say the least.  And I was feeling rather alone, grasping onto anything I possibly could to find some sort of identity and mountaineering fit the mold perfectly.  It got me out of my head in ways I couldn’t imagine and challenged me to face my fears and, more importantly, face myself.   If I was going to die, I thought, at least it wouldn’t be by the hand of carpal tunnel syndrome or a filing cabinet falling on me. My spirit was engaged in the art of adventure.  And what better place than a country undergoing a huge, political crisis?   To quote from a former mentor of mine, I was letting the bear out!

bolivia mountainsImmediately upon arriving in La Paz, I ventured out.  The resounding phrase, amongst all the people involved in the La Paz tourist industry was, “It’s no problem.”  Cannot tell you how often I heard that phrase being tossed around despite the fact that sticks of dynamite and tear gas were constantly being deployed in the city squares.  Sauntering north up Max Peredes, admiring the crystal clear blue skies and the snow capped volcanoes set against the backdrop of the city, I was in heaven.  I had a coffee in hand, and had finally slowed down my internal rhythm from a city clip to a nice, southern drawl.  The street, cobblestoned and barely wide enough for a car, was lined with street vendors - selling anything from alpaca blankets to llama fetuses.  Everything was perfect.  Peaceful.  I felt present.  And then the street vendors started to frantically shut down their shops.  And then a truck, furiously driving in reverse, started coming my way.  And then several people followed, running in a panic and constantly peering over their shoulder. Having no other recourse, I joined the pack and ran with them --- from what, I have no idea.  An old man sidled up next to me, patted my shoulder and said something in Spanish akin to “Welcome to La Paz.” I think.  I hope.  I finally ducked into the Museo de Coca and, in the most erratic, phrase book Spanish, inquired about the commotion.  What I could glean was that the current President was ousted from office today and will be replaced by a successor. Ousted President equals bad news.

The next day just got worse.  More protests.  Louder dynamite.  Lots of shouting.  Everything and everyone seems to be balancing on a precipice.  Waiting for the inevitable.  Only two years ago, the Bolivian Gas Conflict broke out and things got so violently out of control that the government imposed martial law, so as far as I’m concerned, anything is possible.  Leaving the hotel, I noticed that the entire entrance had been fenced and barricaded.  When I inquired about this, I got the requisite, “Is no problem.  It will all soon pass.”  Riiiiiiight. Constantly I can hear the pop pop of what? Gunfire?  Tear gas?  And the loud BOOMS of dynamite.  Oh... and how could I forget the mob of students running towards me, bearing sticks and thankfully passing me by? Yes. Let’s hope that this will indeed “soon pass.”

Eliot screeches to a halt as we come up against a line watermelon-sized boulders, luckily unmanned.  He promptly rolls a few to the side, hops back in and lest anyone should catch us trying to sneak through, throttles the gas and zigzags us through the miasma of boulders, dodging the biggest of them.

hut in bolivia mountainsBut, before we know it, we whisk off the highway and onto an offramp.  About 30 minutes worth of side street and side alley go-arounds brings us to the front steps of our hotel.  We erupt in applause. What a performance by our Bolivian guides!

Successfully at our home base, the question that remains, as we lay our heads down for the night, is whether or not we can make it back out in the morning to the mountains; we have two days of glacier training on Condoriri - an adjacent peak - before we head to Huayna Potosi for our final climb.

Eliot, our head guide and the son of Bernardo Gaurachi, the first Bolivian climber to summit Everest, shows up the next morning noticeably stressed out but smiling nonetheless.  This temperament is uncharacteristic of him.  Easy to laugh and put a hand around your shoulder, nothing seems to phase this guy; however, the demonstrations, roadblocks and strikes are starting to take their toll on him.  There’s a lot at stake! The average Bolivian makes about $1,000 per year.  Coup or no coup, they cannot afford to lose tourist business.

We soon learn that the barricades have impeded truck deliveries and necessities such as bread and fuel are becoming scant.  Right as we’re leaving, Helen (the office manager of our outfitter, Andes Expediciones) calls Eliot; she’s found some bread, and Eliot pulls over to rendezvous with her.  When she arrives, she is clearly upset.  Apparently, the highway we were just on the day before (L’Autopista) is completely impassable and heavily guarded by a group of protestors.  They argue, like a mother and son going at it, and it’s clear that each one has their own agenda and neither party is willing to compromise.  After their quick repartee, we jump back into our SUVs and make our attempt out of the city.

Unfortunately, our alternate route fails as a passerby waves our caravan down and warns us that, up ahead, a group of people up ahead is throwing softball size rocks at passing vehicles.  Uh...no.  With a quick three-point turn, and nearly missing an oncoming bus, we’re barreling down the streets back towards city center.  My climbing companions, I sense, are losing hope.  But looking at Eliot, Antonio and David, they clearly haven’t given up yet.  Onto Plan B.

Twice more we are stopped and warned by drivers that all the main roads out of La Paz are completely barricaded. Eliot chooses a completely remote and rugged route that takes us on a road that our 4WD vehicles have trouble traipsing on.

Crossing a river and climbing out of a valley, we are yet again blocked by a bulldozer and fresh line of boulders --- most likely set by the cantankerous old man who now guards them.  Waving his cane and shouting obscenities at us, he clearly has no intention of allowing us to pass.  But, every man has a weak spot and Antonio (who is driving the SUV ahead of us) quickly finds it: money.  The man gives Antonio’s hand one look and without further comment or deliberation, snaps the money from his hand like a hungry dog and walks away in a huff.  David runs to the back of the Land Cruiser - moves a few boulders out of the way - and we weave through the blockade, the old man waving his stick and getting in a few more choice words, none of us making eye contact with him.

I’ve never been in a four wheel drive vehicle where the four wheel drive actually comes of use, and I chuckle at the irony of all those Angelenos I left back in the states who drive their fancy SUVs and Hummers on the most well-kept, pristine roads in the world.  Oh how a Hummer would come in handy now as we follow a two tire track lane over rocks, scrub, ditches and mud.  The tracks occasionally fade in and out, and we chug along at a low-gear pace, stopping periodically in this 14,000 foot alpine grassland to find safe passage through the boulder forests and water ditches.

Eliot stops and gets out to survey the threadbare road to gain some sort of bearing; the outlook looks meek, but Bolivians don’t give up easily, and our guides are definitely no exception to the rule.  Their steadfastness and optimism make Lance Armstrong look weak.  This is reiterated when we encounter a steep, rocky ravine and our vehicle, on the verge of upending, barely makes the climb over and out. Whew.  Eliot sighs in relief, “Is difficult today.”  Difficult?  The SATs are difficult.  A smoker running seven miles is difficult.  This... this is in a category all on its own, and I feel grateful that I’m not the one driving.

We finally spill out onto a drivable dirt road and coast down a valley towards the base of the mountain, Condoriri.  The snow capped peaks of Illimani and Huayna Potosi flanking us.  But like a carrot dangling in front of us, we can’t quite seem to make it.  We encounter more and more lines of grapefruit and watermelon sized rocks strewn on the road, unguarded ... and a minor diversion.  This constant stopping, moving rocks and starting up again is starting to wear on Eliot’s patience, and he starts to pull off the road and drive around the boulders.
bolivia hiking team
We pass Antonio’s Toyota and plow ahead - passing herds of llama - the air tasting of diesel fuel and kicked up dust.  The lesson here is that anything is possible if you set your mind to it, and the Bolivian mantra of “Is no problem” that we constantly joke about rings true.  Obstacles are not problems. ‘Problems’ connote those unconquerable things where we either push through or turn back.  Obstacles are merely those little things waiting to be overcome - these little roadblocks which seem to stand in the way of the ultimate destination.  We must be careful when using the word “problem” and the word “obstacle,” for - to these guys - there is no turning back.

Finally, we arrive at the base camp of Condoriri which sits under the main glacier at 15,000 feet.  The altitude is dizzying and my first night I wake up so parched that I down an entire liter of water in about 30 seconds.  After a half day of acclimatization, we hike to the closest glacier for training. Gaining the summit of Huayna Potosi, which is just big enough for a single person to stand atop, will require us to use ascenders (a piece of hardware which clips onto a rope and can be easily pushed up but ‘grips’ the rope when pulled down).  I feel incredibly disoriented and fatigued just walking up to the glacier.  This feeling of slight paralyzation - of being put into an environment that is hostile - that I could not have trained for reminds me, ironically enough, why we’re here in the first place.  To raise money for Kiss the Sky, a charity founded to help find a cure for Type I juvenile diabetes.  As the altitude knocks the wind out of me, walking at a casual, Sunday stroll, I wonder if the adversities those children with diabetes face is comparable.  And a day of dizziness is in no way comparable to a lifetime of injections, blood checks and insulin pump catheter inserts, and I laugh at my naivete.

ice climbingWe edge up to the toe of the glacier and strip our packs off for a little R&R and to gear up for our climb up ice that, from close inspection, looks like broken glass.  The ice crackles and breaks like hard candy as we crampon up the slope and Cosmo, our head guide, leads us to a small ledge at the base of an ice wall where we spend our day ice climbing, ascending fixed ropes and honing our self-arrest and glacier travel techniques.  On the hike back, I hang back a bit from the group so that I can enjoy a bit of solitude.  The glaciated buttresses of the peak flanking me and nary a sign of life in sight, the feeling is awesome to be in such an alien, hostile environment.  I immediately feel lucky that we are returning to tents and some warm dinner and good company.   That night we hang out in the mess tent, Cosmo regaling us with climbing stories.  The next day we’ll hike back to the trucks and start our drive to the base of Huayna Potosi. I can’t wait.

But everything suddenly turns.  My hopes are dashed the next morning when we receive news that things have progressively gotten worse in La Paz. In order to take control of the capital’s water supply, revolutionaries have occupied Zongo Dam which just so happens to sit right at the base of Huanya Potosi.  Our bid up the mountain has subsequently been cancelled, and we are advised to evacuate the country as soon as is feasibly possible.

We gear up, move out and start our stealthy crawl back into La Paz - trudging along the high plateau of the Altiplano, off-roading through the alpine tundra.  We are in a landscape of tall grass which looks like tufts of straw.  Herds of llama feed off of the grass, raising their heads high as we pass - a gesture of either concern or machismo.  The sky is in complete contrast with beige landscape - a rich blue with nearly perfect, cottonball clouds completing the picture.  Everything seems peaceful. But the radio in our ORV dictates otherwise as it fuzzes in and out between “American Woman” and the Bolivian news.  The problems in La Paz have reached their apex. Gas, water and bread are short.  The US State Department advising on its website that all American citizens, including key embassy staff, evacuate the country.

We stop and David gets out of the Toyota ahead of us to survey the horizon.  The guides walk up to a ridge overlooking the expanse of La Paz, and they confer on the best route back into the city, looking for any sign of an unguarded back road.  There was much ado getting us out of the city, I cannot imagine what it will be like getting back in.  A few more clicks in the jeeps, and we stop again to talk to a chuleta country woman lounging in the long grass with her two dogs to get the latest road conditions.  Those who travel and live by them would know best.

After eight hours of snaking, trial and error and bribing a few campesinos to allow us passage, we are successfully delivered at the foot of our hotel.  Now... how do we evacuate a country with an airport that has been on complete lockdown for the past five days?  That’s right.  No flights in and no flights out.  We catch word that the Israeli government chartered a flight tomorrow morning to get its citizens out and that several local airlines have scheduled flights to leave in its wake.  Susan, a fellow climber and the brains behind our evacuation, takes the reins and books us all on a flight to Lima, the capital city in bordering Peru, and also manages to sweet talk our airlines into rescheduling our flights out of Lima back into the states --- for free. Our main concern, though, is how we will get to the airport, which is heavily guarded by protestors and happens to sit in El Alto - one of the poorest and most economically disadvantaged communities in the city and the nexus of the whole uprising.

Our Bolivian guides don’t see this as a problem and as dedicated and steadfast as ever, arrive at our hotel 4 a.m. the next morning to escort us to the airport.  Winding our way through backstreets and alleys we come upon a burning tire and a long line of vehicles paying a “toll” to a campesino for passage through.  Paying our toll, we manage to find our way to the airport without much trouble and collectively sigh in relief. We quickly say our final goodbyes to the Bolivian drivers and guides who were, by far, the heroes of the trip.

Walking through the terminal, the floors, benches, tables, chairs - any hospitable area - is strewn with baggage, rolled out sleeping bags and lots and lots of gringos.  Weary, irritated, bored and sleep-deprived, many of them look as if they have been here for days.  As our flight takes off from La Paz, I look down at the vast country below - the sky as blue and majestic as ever and the surrounding volcanoes bastions against a country under stress.  If anything else, they are a symbol of the strength and stoicism of the people we encountered during our travels throughout the country.  Easy to smile and laugh, none of them seem plagued by the current political and economic situation --- just wanting something better.  My heart sinks and nostalgia hits hard and, I realize that despite the abrupt departure and the unclimbed peak, this journey gave me exactly what I was looking for: perspective.  Ah. That’s what I came here for.
KTS Flag in Bolivia