Political upheaval thwarts RSF resident’s plan to climb Bolivian mountain

Reaching the summit of a mountain is the goal of just about every mountain climber, but sometimes circumstances arise that prevent the ultimate attainment of that end, according to Rancho Santa Fe resident Rick Noble who was recently thwarted by a country’s political upheaval in his attempt to summit a Bolivian mountain.

Noble and a team of other climbers and guides planned the ascent in early June as a fundraiser for Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes. The $115,000 raised from an April dinner in support of the climb has been donated to the Iacocca Foundation program Join Lee Now that is raising $11 million for research by Dr. Denise Faustman at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Donation information can be found at Noble’s Web site www.conquerdiabetes.org.
More information about the Iacocca Foundation’s efforts for diabetes can be found at www.joinleenow.com.

“It’s not that unusual to not get to the summit,” Noble, 46, said. “That’s what makes summiting so great.
Political upheaval in Bolivia
“Lots of things can happen on mountains. You can have altitude problems, equipment problems, weather that can lead you to never come close.”

None of those potential difficulties kept Noble and his team from summiting this time, however. It was protests, blockaded roads and the imminent downfall of the Bolivian government that prevented the climbers from even reaching the base of the mountain they set out to climb.

“It’s not usually political protests, governments falling and threats of civil war that keep you from summiting,” he said. “What started off by being interesting, became alarming.”

In fact, at one point during their sojourn, Noble said he and his team weren’t sure they could make it out of the country as the La Paz airport was closed and the airline they had reserved tickets on had cancelled all flights.

Noble started Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes in August 2002 at the suggestion of his daughter Kate, 14, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 16 months old. His first climb-a-thon was to the top of the 14,494 ft. Mt. Whitney that same summer. The Mt. Whitney ascent sparked an interest in climbing for Noble, who subsequently attended two week-long mountaineering courses on Mt. Rainier. It was during those two climbing trips that Noble found fellow climbers and a guide to travel with him as a team to Bolivia on May 31 this year.

The team’s original plan was to meet in La Paz and spend a day or two in the hilly city located at 12,500 feet. “It’s a great place to acclimatize,” Noble said. From there, the team would travel to the Lake Titicacca area, which sits astride the borders of Bolivia and Peru, for more training before attempting their ascent of Mt. Huayna Potosi.

After getting settled at the hotel, the team set out to tour La Paz with the Bolivian guides who also would be mountain climbing with them.

“I was absolutely struck by how beautiful the capital (La Paz) was, “ Noble said. “We walked down a big, wide boulevard with international first-class shops and hotels. I had turned on my camera to take pictures when all the sudden there was a big explosion.”

The group turned, he said, to see protesters marching up the street. Noble and the others soon discovered that miners throwing dynamite caps into the air made the explosion.

The protests arose out of demands for a constitutional rewrite to give Bolivia's Indian majority more political clout and for nationalization of the Andean nation's massive reserves of natural gas.

“At first it was completely easy to avoid them,” Noble said. “We continued to do our walking and touring of La Paz.”

Soon, the climbing team discovered, however, that not only were the protesters marching on the city of La Paz, but they were also blockading roads and the team could not travel to Lake Titicacca for the planned training climbs. Instead, the team left the city for a day hike in the Andes Mountains where they were able to ascend to 17,800 feet with a beautiful view of Mt. Huayna Potosi, Noble said.

Returning to the city was not easy, however, and the group found they had to pay some protesters to get around a blockade. “At that point it was more of a curiosity and interesting,” Noble said. “It was disruptive in that it was changing our plans.”

By this time, the protesters were more noticeable in the city, there were more explosions, and Noble said it was getting harder to avoid the marchers. That night, the climbing team went out to dinner and the streets were quiet. With all seeming to have settled down, the team decided to continue with its plans to summit Mt. Huayna Potosi, but to go to a different training ground since the roads to Lake Titicacca were closed.

“We shifted our initial plan and we went to another area,” Noble said. “We drove out of the city on back streets and off road to avoid blockaded streets as much as we could.”

Reaching another area in the Condoriri mountains, the team was able to hike up to about 15,500 feet and practice traversing glaciers and ice climbing.

“We were now all beginning to feel strong and ready to go,” Noble said. “We were all now absolutely convinced not only were we going to make it but we were going to enjoy it.”

That night, the climbing team went to bed prepared to drive to the base of Mt. Huayna Potosi and begin their ascent to 18,000 feet, where they would establish camp and summit the mountain on the following day.

Unfortunately, they awoke the next day, June 6, to the news that the protesters were marching to the very area the climbing team was to drive, Noble said. The team also learned that while they were training, the protesters had taken over a large oil refinery, they were marching to a dam with plans to interrupt electrical service to La Paz, the Bolivian president Carlos Mesa had resigned and there were reports of violence throughout the country.

“Much to the disappointment of everyone, we got back in the cars,” Noble said, “The plan was to head back to La Paz, regroup and head out from there.” By traveling overland to avoid blockades, the group took seven hours to get back to the city, normally a two-hour trip.

Upon their return, Noble described La Paz as “basically a city under siege.” Their hotel was empty except for some international reporters. The U.S. State Department had issued a travel warning that day authorizing non-essential personnel to leave the U.S. Embassy.

“There was no hope of getting to where we were planning on going in the first place,” Noble said. “Our focus changed to ‘How do we get out?’”

American Airlines had cancelled all flights into Bolivia and the airport was closed. Noble said the climbing group called around and was able to secure tickets on a regional airline.

Having been packed for a climbing trip, the group now had to repack for flying, an effort that took until 1:30 in the morning, he said. They then left the hotel for the airport at 4 a.m., hoping to avoid any blockades and that the airport would be opened when they arrived.

“We made it most of the way until we were stopped at one blockade,” Noble said. “That was probably the most nervous I had been the whole time. After about 20 to 25 minutes of negotiations and payments we got our trucks through.”

Fortunately, the airport did open and the climbing team was able to board a flight to Lima, Peru but sadly on the very day the team was supposed to be on the 19,975 ft- summit of Mt. Huayna Potosi.

Feeling the need to summit a mountain, Noble and another member of the climbing team from Los Angeles, traveled to Mt. Whitney the next weekend where they successfully reached the top and unfurled the Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes banner.

One of the ironies Noble has noticed in the midst of this was that originally he was considering tackling Mt. Elbrus, the tallest mountain in the European continent, but decided not to because of its location near Georgia and Chechyna.

“When we headed to Bolivia, our concerns were about altitude and ice wall climbing,” Noble said. “As it turned out, everything on the mountain was the easy part. The adventure was going on around it.”

Despite the disappointment of his latest trip, Noble plans to keep climbing both to conquer new mountain summits and diabetes.

“In 2002, we set out to raise $14,000, but we raised $60,000,” Noble said. “ I started out this time saying to myself if I could beat or even double that, I would be wildly ecstatic. Raising what we’ve raised so far is absolutely awesome.”

Rancho Santa Fe Review, July 2005

Written by Janice Coy