The views across the Cordillera Real are spectacular as we fly into the city of La Paz. At a height of 3,640m/11,942, the city sits as high as many of the world’s mountains and boasts the title of the highest administrative capital in the world. We’re met at the airport and as we drive into the city we see the peak of Illimani standing tall on the skyline, its snow covered slopes in stark contrast to the busy streets of La Paz.
We meet our guide at the hotel and he undertakes an expedition briefing and gear check. We’re able to answer last minute questions and get to meet the rest of the team. We’re all excited about the days ahead and enjoy dinner together at one of the nearby restaurants.
After breakfast we meet in the hotel lobby for our tour of La Paz. The tour allows us to familarise ourselves with the city and some of the history of the area, and as our guide explains, also gives our bodies time to adjust to the altitude before we head into the mountains. We visit historical landmarks including Plaza Murillo and the San Francisco Church before heading to the Witches Market, where a few of us purchase colourful Bolivian souvenirs. We finish the tour with a stop at Mirador Killi Killi, with its spectacular city views across the plateau to the surrounding mountains. It leaves us eager to get moving closer!
We leave the bustling city behind us the next morning and drive 3½ hours to the lakeside town of Copacabana (3,841m/12,601ft) nestled on the shores of Lake Titicaca. We stretch our legs and wander the streets of the town, taking in its unique atmosphere and red-roofed buildings before making our way to our traditional lakeside accommodation on the edge of town.
The following morning, we board a boat to take us across the lake to Isla de Sol or Sun Island. The rocky island is criss-crossed with hiking trails and is home to over 80 archaeological sites dating back to the ancient Inca civilisations and beyond. We spend the day hiking and exploring some of the island’s highlights, including the Escalera del Inca, a beautiful Incan staircase leading to a spring once believed to prolong youth.
We arrive back at Copacabana tired after a long day in the sun, but the hiking was just a taster, and tomorrow the adventure starts in earnest as we begin the trek to Condoriri Base Camp (4,600m/15,000ft). We depart early in the morning and drive to the trailhead, it’s only a short 2-hour hike to the Base Camp, but the jump in altitude is significant, so we take our time, enjoying the scenery and spotting alpacas and llama as we hike. We are accompanied by some mules who help transport our group and personal equipment, we only carry small packs with those items we need throughout the day. Once at Base Camp we help set up camp and enjoy a delicious barbeque for dinner!
We wake the next morning and prepare to climb our first peak, Pico Austria (5,320m/17,454ft). We walk through the alpine vegetation that finally gives way to the rocky slopes of the mountain, and we reach the summit in time to get views of the nearby Condoriri (‘Head of the Condor’, its neighbouring peaks the wings, 5,648m/18,530ft). We stay a few minutes on the summit, taking photos and allowing our bodies time to acclimatise to the height. We return to the base camp, feeling good that we all exceed the 5,000m mark with few complaints!
The following day is dedicated to skills training. Most of the group is new to mountaineering, so we spend the morning starting with the basic skills. After lunch we head to the nearby Tarija Glacier and practice those techniques on the ice. By the end of the day everyone is feeling confident on their feet and ready to tackle our next objective Pequeño Alpamayo (5,410m/17,749ft).
It’s the first alpine start for most of the group and it takes us a while to get organised, but by 3.00am we’re off and making our way by torchlight back towards the Tarija Glacier. Initially we climb across moderate-angled snow slopes to Tarija peak before climbing down a short rocky section onto Pequeño Alpamayo. We follow the snow-covered West-Southwest ridge all the way to its pyramid shaped summit. Elated, we snap photos on the summit before returning via the same route to curl up in our tents at Base Camp.
We return the next day to La Paz, it’s a welcome respite. We spend the afternoon resting, sorting out our gear and doing laundry!
Refreshed from the previous afternoon relaxing, the team piles into our van, ready for the 4-hour drive to our next objective, the remote peak Chachacomani (6,124m/20,092ft). Excitement brews as we drive closer and see Chachacomani and its neighbouring peak Chearoco (6,127m/20,102ft) standing head and shoulders above the Altiplano and their surrounding peaks.
Again, at the trailhead we’re met by mulas to help transport our equipment to Base Camp, and we follow a trail alongside the Rio Keka Jahuira river along an immense valley carved out long ago by glaciers. Our Base Camp is located on the river flats near the head of the valley. The next morning we move to High Camp, the trail from here becomes too rough for the mules, so we utilise porters to assist carrying some of the heavier group equipment. Our packs are full with our personal gear and our anticipation is high, can we really push through and climb a 6,000m peak?
The climb to High Camp takes us away from the main river, up across glacial moraine towards the slopes of Chachacomani and the edge of its glacier. At around 5,500m/18,044ft, High Camp is higher than our last climb! The weather looks favourable for a summit tomorrow, so we all have dinner and head straight to our sleeping bags, hoping to catch some sleep before our next alpine start.
Our guide wakes us early, we dress, have a quick breakfast, and get moving. The team is more organised this time around and we head out into the torchlight by 2.00am, initially scrambling across moraine but soon reaching the edge of the glacier and donning our crampons. The night is still, but cold, and the sound of our crampons crunching on the glacial ice is all we hear as everyone concentrates on the task ahead.
Dawn brings spectacular purple and pink colours across the sky. We start to see views behind us as we stop to refuel, and ahead, the summit looms large. There is still a way to go! We’ve weaved our way around crevasses and up through the glacier and around onto the north east side of the mountain. From here the route takes us up the NE face of the mountain and before long, we take our final steps onto the summit.
The views from the summit stretch across the whole Cordillera Real, overlooking Lake Titicaca and the Altiplano. It’s a real reward after a long climb! We spend some time on the summit before descending via the same route to High Camp, where we stop for a late lunch. We continue onto Base Camp where dinner and a good night’s sleep await!
It is hard to crawl out of the sleeping bag the next morning, but the thought of a long hot shower in La Paz soon sees everyone on the trail and making our way back. For some of the team, they’ll rest and head on to climb Illimani (6,462m/21,201ft), the highest peak in the Cordillera Real, while others depart for home.