- Stay with us
- Stay with us
20th June 2019
Martin Scrowston our Estates Manager along with his friend Mike Hope set off at the beginning of June to Bolivia for a thrilling and unique expedition.
On the 5th of June, our climbing gear arrived in Madrid which was a shame because Mike and I had just arrived in La Paz and had been planning to use it on our expedition to the Quimsa Cruz. The airport at La Paz is situated at just over 4,000m above sea level which made our acclimatisation plan simple; ‘we can sit in the bar for three days waiting for our gear to arrive, then head for base camp!’
Over the years Mike and I have climbed together on many expeditions and were no strangers to the Americas, having climbed from Baffin Island in the north down through Alaska, Peru and Patagonia. We had selected Bolivia as a fun destination for adventures ideally suited to lightweight expeditions due to the lack of perceived bureaucracy or the need for permits, peak fees, porters or and other formal mountain paraphernalia. The other main attraction was the wealth of unclimbed summits and faces waiting to be climbed before the inevitable impact of global warming and expected total glacial retreat takes effect. As environmentalists, we planned to offset our carbon footprint by planting trees in Cumbria and converting Mike to vegetarianism.
La Paz is a vibrant, wild and exciting city and our accommodation in the Witches Market was ideally situated for picking up the supplies for base camp: gas, fuel, food and climbing gear are all readily available in the markets. You can even purchase a lucky dried llama foetus and various magical potions to ward off evil spirits if required. A visit to the Street of the Butchers was the first step towards Mike’s vegetarian conversion.
Our contact in La Paz was an outfitter named Pablo Escobar whom we thought we had been corresponding with from the UK. It turned out that he was in fact dead (we didn’t enquire as to how he met his end). A close relative called Fabricio arranged to transport us by 4x4 land cruiser across the Altiplano allowing us to check out possible objectives on our way before reaching our intended base camp. This involved a dusty seven-hour drive south-east the last five hours on seriously exciting dirt tracks that made the famous “Bolivian Death Road” look like a stroll in the park.
Bolivia is a fascinating country to travel through; full of dust and dogs and, sadly, much-discarded plastic. We always found the locals to be extremely welcoming and helpful though unfortunately, we could not say the same about the many stray dogs we encountered. On our approach to the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz, the height of the mountains grew taller in stature, as the height of the indigenous Nayans became noticeably shorter. Our Toyota journey ended abruptly several miles from camp due to severe washout and damage to the track, we were just coming to terms with the prospect of several days ferrying loads when a chance meeting with a local farmer who came to our rescue. The offer of porterage by llamas or better still his motorbike was negotiated. It helps if you not only speak Spanish but also the Aymara dialect (we didn’t) so relied on the interpretative skills of our driver with much gesticulation and sign language. Arrangements were agreed so we quickly threw up a tent for the night as temperatures dropped to -15°C. Early next morning Falido the llama farmer returned as agreed, with his extremely dodgy and highly dangerous motorbike and suggested that he could shuttle both of us and our gear up the mountain track on the back of his bike.
‘Buenos Dias, moto biko-mucho splendido, gringos walko, muchas gracias!’ was our unanimous and no doubt unintelligible response.
The morning progressed with Falido demonstrating much skill and absolutely no regard for his own safety by negotiating his overloaded wreck across gullies and obstacles, balancing only on an old rotten plank of wood. After several amusing trips, we arrived and set up our base camp at Laguna Choco Khota.
During our approach, we had checked out Gigante Grande which at 5,748m is the highest mountain in the range. We had been disappointed but not surprised to note that global warming had thawed out the two major ice lines never to return as snow or ice routes again. Atoroma peak at 5,565m appeared to be a very accessible and attractive trekking peak with a fine blanket of snow and ice but with limited potential for technical new routes.
The spectacular unclimbed South Face of Korichuma was calling out to us at the head of the valley. A steep line direct to the summit proved to be largely ice-free and I suspect one day may present as a super granite rock route for those with better blood circulation in their fingers. So we turned our attentions to the east couloir and buttress. But first, it was time for pancakes. It’s a well-known fact amongst expedition mountaineers that in the absence of alcohol, eating pancakes and drinking copious amounts of strong coffee greatly helps with acclimatisation.
Our base camp at 4,400m proved to be a great place to chill out with around twelve hours of daylight and temperatures up to 20°C in the sun, falling dramatically to sub-zero temperatures in the evenings. There were stunning views of the mountain and a fine display as a skein of wild Andean geese returned to their roost on the banks of the Laguna each evening.
The whole mountain range is riddled with old mine workings and access tracks reminiscent of the Lake District Coppermines Valley but on a grander scale. With a pint of Bluebird Beer in your hand, you could almost be back in Coniston. The advantage of these tracks would give us easy access to our advanced gear dump and a comfortable bivy site for the night below the south-west glacier marvelling at the endless unfamiliar sparkling stars in the southern hemisphere.
It’s always hard, and getting noticeably harder at my age, to break out of an ice-encrusted sleeping bag hoping to emerge like an alpine butterfly from its chrysalis to start the day’s adventure. A snatched vegetarian breakfast of luke-warm coffee provided the motivation to follow a short ice-filled stream bed leading us up through boulders to where the hard work started. Plodding up and across the receding dry glacier mirrored by the feeling of our receding muscles as we traversed under the south face. Steeper climbing then followed, moving up to reach a break in the bergschrund below the couloir. Five full pitches of steep but well-protected climbing lead to a spectacular pinnacle ridge and good belay ledge.
The route ahead was barred by an impenetrable labyrinth of huge balanced blocks and spires of Chamonix-like granite; our only chance of progress was to make a 50m rappel descent down a loose groove on a single marginal wire, into the unknown north side of the ridge. This, fortunately, gave access to a precarious traverse line west over shattered ledges to gain a rocky gully that presented the only possibility of regaining the ridge. Sometimes the skill of route finding is down to pure luck and this proved to be the case as a thrutch up the blind gully gave access once more to the exposed ridge and a comfortable belay. The temperature was dropping fast as the sun swung low to highlight a beautiful fairy tale ridge; all that was left was to follow the line of super hard nevé snaking up to the summit.
The descent should have been a breeze by reversing the first and only other route on the mountain climbed back in 1992 via the west face. However, to give it some spice and to justify our anticipated pancake consumption, we somehow managed to descend a couple of unexpected ice cliffs and crevasses before reaching the bivy site just as the sky turned black and the stars came out for us once again.
First ascent of the South East Buttress 500m TD 14/6/2019 Martin Scrowston, Mike Hope.
Trees have been planted at Rydal.
Mike has reverted to eating meat.
Our pancake recipe is available on request.