Though profoundly beautiful and deeply interesting, Bolivia is a challenging country to travel through. Among the myriad difficulties one can reasonably expect to encounter are police corruption, unauthorised toll scams, constant protests, difficulties in purchasing fuel, a dearth of accommodation and supplies outside urban centres, and high levels of public urination. But perhaps the most testing of them all is the general shittiness of Bolivian roads.
We never quite got used to the road quality, nor were we able to effectively estimate the potential length of any given journey. Google Maps was equally bamboozled. Having travelled along the precipitous, truck-infested highways of Colombia, we thought we were prepared for anything. As it turns out, we were wrong – Bolivian roads are next level.
It’s not surprising that Bolivia houses “The World’s Most Dangerous Road”, although the claim has been watered down somewhat with a bypass of increased safety and sanity having been installed in recent years. The Death Road now sees far less traffic and fatality statistics have decreased accordingly. These days, the road is mainly used as a venue for tourism, with MTB tours operating daily. Deaths still occasionally occur when dodgy tour operators cut corners with maintenance and parts, so pick your operator carefully and be prepared to pay a little extra for the added perk of not becoming pink mist on the valley floor.
During our time in Bolivia, we’d travel on less famous but equally sketchy thoroughfares. After the steep and winding streets of La Paz, Ruta Nacional 2 crawls through the sprawling slums of El Alto before surging forth toward the shores of Lake Titicaca. Whilst on the highway, you can expect very reasonable conditions and speeds, but as soon as you leave the main drag, it’s on for young and old.
Our route to Laguna Q’ara Khota had a fairly benign introduction, but quickly became spicy. The valley began to narrow as we passed the first of two glacial finger lakes, channelling the erstwhile road engineers into some rather intense terrain. Soon, the road was positively apocalyptic – steep, eroded and strewn with fallen boulders. Some sections were carved directly into landslide debris, some were covered in sheets of ice, and almost all were bordered by a sheer and unquestionably fatal drop-off.
And what were the rewards for this titanic test of will? The introduction of several grey hairs, a modest cortisol surge, and a gloriously remote and positively stunning lakeside campsite. A nearby mine, now abandoned, had given the site some use in years past. As a result, a large flat area had been cleared of glacial detritus and a basic and surprisingly clean latrine facility had been constructed. You really couldn’t ask for more.
The Janko Laya area, named after the mountain of the same name, is a little-known valley in the Cordillera Real. It contains a diverse collection of peaks, most of which are easily accessed, with routes that range in difficulty from F to TD. In fact, the access is so good that the lack of patronage seems suspicious – apart from the occasional carload full of locals destined for who-fucking-knows, we saw nary a soul. Perhaps one reason for the lack of attention is that the impact that climate change has had on these lower peaks has been significant. Glacial retreat has been particularly noticeable on the lower flanks, and loose scree approaches are de rigueur.
Make hay while the sun shines, they say, so we took advantage of what little of these glaciers remain. We spent a long day on a short climb, using the mellow terrain of Wila Llojeta (5244m) to practice protection placements and self-arrest. A later ascent of Janko Huyo (5512m) was only marginally more difficult, with the most interesting terrain presented in a fun scramble up the initial ridgeline. These were Morag’s first successful alpine climbs – a perfect introduction to the discipline.
Running short on supplies, we ventured once more unto the breach and began the hairy descent, forced to halt at one point by a vast herd of alpaca. Our next destination would be found in the valley immediately south, so close that it was contained entirely on the same topographical map. Despite their proximity, the experience to be found in each valley was like chalk and cheese.
The Condoriri area is one of the most popular mountaineering and trekking destinations in Bolivia, and with good reason. Dramatic, muscular peaks surround a pristine alpine lake, where stone-walled huts line the shores and donkey teams ferry supplies in the crisp, clean air. The place is a goddamn postcard, and the short approach hardly dissuades visitors – unlike the abandoned Janko Laya valley, there were dozens of folks scattered throughout the area. And yet, despite the significantly higher human presence, Condoriri somehow maintains a sense of isolation and wildness.
Recent snowfall made our ascent of Pequeño Alpamayo (5,410m) slightly more difficult than it needed to be. We broke trail on and off, alternating with other parties as they faltered or stormed ahead. The weather was unsettled with intermittent banks of cloud and gusty winds, but serendipity granted clearing skies as we crested the sub-peak of Pico Tarifa. Ahead of us, revealed by the fledgling sunshine, was a graceful ribbon of snow and ice – the West Ridge, a 200m span of exposed, moderate climbing. We summited and returned via the same route as the weather plunged once more into misery.
Reading the ill portents contained within the high winds and building lenticulars, we decided to ditch our intended attempt on the Southwest Ridge of Condoriri. It turned out to be a most enlightened decision, as the snow dump that night was prodigious. As it turned out, the unsettled weather was due to continue, with a series of weak lows set to parade throughout Bolivia for the following week. Vamos al Peru, we decided, and turned La Tortuga northward.
Bolivia has been perhaps my favourite destination of the trip so far. We’ll be returning sometime around the end of August, possibly for more climbing, but definitely to experience more of the unique culture and incredible landscape of this very interesting land.
Ryan Siacci, Esq.