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Mountaineering in The Cordillera Real: Part 1

Article by planetFear
Wednesday 5th May 2010

- Co-written by David Wolf and Norie Kizaki, Boulder, Colorado, USA -

 

A Short Introduction to Mountaineering in the Condoriri Region

For Bolivia neophytes, the Condoriri area offers an ideal first “taste” of what it’s like to climb in the Cordillera Real. This stunning mountain park presents easy access, as well as a multitude of phenomenal routes on peaks that are only moderately high by Andean elevation standards. In short, Condoriri provides a good “warm-up” before confronting the Real’s 6,000-meter giants.


Approach

From La Paz, find 4x4 transportation to the tiny town of Tuni. At an elevation of 4,450 meters, this frigid village is 30 meters higher than Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the continental United States, and only 360 meters lower than Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe!

Tuni’s friendly locals will gladly carry your excess gear on their donkeys, enabling you to make the two-hour hike to base camp with a feather-light pack. This is definitely an idea worth considering, especially if you have an aggressively-planned climbing schedule, as we did.

The pleasant hike from Tuni to base camp leads past a series of dams, then through the bleak foothills west of the Cordillera. Covered with brown and yellow grasses during the dry winter season, this is the Andean tundra, or páramo, a habitat supporting hordes of llama and other semi-domesticated animals. If you’re lucky, you may also spot condors, foxes, and guanacos.

Near the end of the hike, reach Laguna Chiar Khota, an ancient glacial lake at an elevation of 4,600 meters. This lake is full of trout; you can catch your own, or pay an Aymará camp caretaker to catch one (and cook it!) for you. Tuni residents maintain the area, and they sleep in huts near the lake. Visitors, however, must use the campsites, which are situated about 10 minutes above the lake. They are clean, but it costs 5 USD per person per night to camp there. A large faucet tapped into a nearby glacier provides fresh water.


Tarija & Pequeño Alpamayo

Pequeño Alpamayo (5,370 meters) is justifiably one of the most popular peaks in Bolivia. It is a gorgeous snow pyramid presenting a stunning, but moderate ridge climb. There is an added bonus: in order to climb Pequeño, you must first climb Tarija (5,200 meters). So essentially, you get two 5,000-meter summits for the price of one!

Begin by hiking east-northeast from base camp, following a good trail through the moraine. After about an hour, reach the glacier and rope-up. The glacier is low-angle (never steeper than about 35 degrees) all the way up to the saddle between Tarija and Huallomen, the very steep and technical peak to the west of Tarija. There are lots of crevasses, but they are small and easy to avoid. The base of the glacier is sheer ice, but the ice concedes to néve about 150 meters higher up. The views down the glacier valley are spectacular.

Reach the 5,000-meter saddle between Tarija and Huallomen 70 to 90 minutes after starting on the glacier. From this saddle, attack Tarija’s southwest slopes by making a right-ward ascending traverse up a 40 to 45-degree face of hard snow. Snake around to the south side of the peak, and ascend towards a false summit. Just beneath the false summit, carefully negotiate a deep and treacherous crevasse by crossing some thin snow bridges; this is the crux of the route so far. Once on the false summit, stroll northwest along a broad ridge up to Tarija’s true summit. From here, the dramatic white wedge of Pequeño Alpamayo dominates the view to the northeast.

 

Pequeño Alpamayo, as seen from the summit of Tarija.
The southwest ridge is the obvious and prominent snowline
leading straight up to the pointy summit

 

Viewed from Tarija, Pequeño Alpamayo’s most prominent feature is its southwest ridge; this is also the normal route of ascent. Descend northeast from Tarija’s summit for about 50 horizontal meters to arrive at the top of a rocky cliff. Don’t rappel here; the Yossi Brain guidebook, Bolivia: A Climbing Guide, grossly overstates the difficulty of the descent. Just follow the vague network of “trails” leading down. There’s nothing more serious than a few class 3 rock moves, and it’s only about 30 meters to the bottom.

The connecting ridge between Tarija and Pequeño has steep drop-offs on both sides. If you encounter virgin snow, it may be hard to judge the ridge’s stability. Test the snow near the crest of the ridge, on its right side, while on belay from a rock anchor at the base of the cliff. If deemed safe, carefully make an exposed, descending traverse on the ridge’s right side for about 30 horizontal meters to arrive at a rocky gendarme. Use a good snow ramp to bypass the gendarme on its right side. Curve around to the right and arrive at a small col; this is the base of Pequeño Alpamayo’s southwest ridge.

From here, the route is straightforward and a lot of fun. Stay near the crest on the left (windward) side of the ridge, and ascend over an initial, exposed hump. The snow should be good for cramponing, and should hold pickets quite securely, as well. The exposure increases as you ascend; it gets intriguing, but never desperate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Co-author David Wolf ascending the lower
southwest ridge of Pequeño Alpamayo

After the hump, the next section of ridge exceeds 50 degrees in steepness before topping out on a false summit. Ascend the final 50-meter, 55-degree section of ridge to reach Pequeño’s true summit, which is tiny. Place some pickets or screws, clip in, and enjoy the spectacular views—weather permitting, of course. Expect a five- to seven-hour ascent from base camp.

 


Descending Pequeño Alpamayo: the rocky gendarme guarding the
saddle between Pequeño and Tarija is visible on the left edge of the photo.

Descend the same route back to camp; there are numerous opportunities for setting bollards or v-threads if you decide you’d rather rappel the steep sections than down-climb them.


La Cabeza del Condoriri, Southwest Ridge

The view of the Condoriri group from the trail between Tuni and base camp is spectacular. It’s an absolute wonder that these amazing peaks aren’t more widely celebrated within the climbing community. Condoriri, the largest and highest massif in the area, is actually a stance of three separate peaks connected by treacherous, glacier-carved saddles. Viewed from the south and west, the three peaks form the obvious shape of a huge bird lifting its wings in preparation for flight; hence, the name “Condoriri.” The largest, and center of the three peaks is the Head of the Condor, or La Cabeza (5,650 meters). The two lesser peaks are Ala Izquierda (5,530 meters) and Ala Derecha (5,480 meters), or Left Wing and Right Wing, respectively.

 

The south/southwest face of the Condoriri group, as seen from the trail just below Laguna Chiar Khota base camp. La Cabeza, the condor’s head, is the main wedge in the center; the condor’s wings are the prominent peaks flanking the head on either side. The main (east) summit of La Cabeza is the high point at the far right of the head; the slightly lower west summit is the left point. The “Scree Slope from Hell” is hidden behind the rocky promontory peak directly in front of the Left Wing

 

Of Condoriri’s three peaks, only La Cabeza offers a “moderate” mountaineering route to its summit. The Wings exclusively present committing technical ascents (see the Brain guidebook for albeit vague descriptions). To access La Cabeza, hike north from base camp on a good trail, then ascend a large scree slope. It’s steep going, so if you’re well-acclimatized you’ll gain elevation fast. After about 200 meters of ascent, skirt around the scree hill to the right, and come to the terminus of a large ancient moraine. The terminus is really a prominent wall of scree resembling a man-made dam. Walk across the “dam” along its crest, which eventually curves left. Beneath you and to your right will be the lower Condoriri glacier. Arrive at the base of the wide and imposing gully containing the infamous “Scree Slope from Hell.” Allot 50 to 70 minutes to reach this point from camp.

The Scree Slope from Hell is a grunt; just take your medicine and ascend it 300 meters straight up. The rocky cliffs looming far above look ominous, but rockfall in this gully is apparently rare. There is a network of trails leading up, but much of it may be covered by snow and/or ice. To minimize energy expenditure, try using your ice tools as walking sticks. If you’ve climbed the Canaleta on Aconcagua, this is not as bad. First, the Scree Slope from Hell is only about half as long as the Canaleta; second, it is about 1,100 meters lower in elevation; and third, it is muddier, which means that, early in the morning, when the mud is frozen, you can actually get some purchase from your boots.

Once at the top of the Scree Slope from Hell, choosing the correct exit can be confusing, especially if there’s no moonlight. Several inviting rock gullies to the left appear to lead safely up and onto the glacier above. Despite what the Brain guidebook says, do not take any of them. Instead, find a good snow-covered ramp that makes a gradual ascending traverse to the right, across and very near the top of the Scree Slope from Hell. When you find this ramp, attach crampons and rope-up.

Follow the ramp as it climbs about 20 vertical meters up a narrow, 50-degree slope. Arrive at a small, flat col between Condoriri’s flanking cliffs and a rocky satellite tower. From this col, you will have a spectacular view of La Cabeza and the upper Condoriri glacier, both of which still appear quite far away. Continue on the snow ramp, which descends a bit into another wide gully, then steeply climbs up to another col, this one much smaller than the first. From the second col, descend 15 vertical meters down a narrow but easy rock corridor between two small towers. Arrive at a rounded, scree-covered platform. The introduction is over; the snows of the upper Condoriri glacier are now just 15 meters away.

Incidentally, this scree-strewn platform currently appears to be the preferred bivvy site for parties choosing to climb La Cabeza in two days from base camp. The site offers a few small flat spots, some protection from the wind, and good access to clean snow. However, in our opinion, it probably isn’t worth hauling camping gear up to this site just to save three hours on summit day. Also, keep in mind that you cannot see this platform, nor the east-facing Scree Slope from Hell, from base camp. Both are tucked away behind the prominent rocky satellite peak directly in front of (southwest of) Ala Izquierda.

From the bivvy site, easily gain the glacier, then ascend a series of snowy hills, carefully making your way towards the enormous wedge of La Cabeza. To your left will be an absolutely breathtaking view of Ala Izquierda, which presents its very intimidating south face in all its splendor.

La Cabeza isn’t often attempted, so you may encounter virgin snow on the glacier, and crevasses may be hard to see. One of the climbers in our party fell up to her hip into a hidden, but thankfully small crevasse. She was able to extract herself, but this incident underscores the relative danger of this glacier compared to that used to approach Tarija.

Approach La Cabeza’s intimidating southwest ridge over steepening hard snow. Most parties retreat after failing to figure out how to access this ridge from the upper glacier. Indeed, this is a tricky prospect that will probably require a lot of probing and scouting. Our party negotiated the massive bergschrund guarding the base of the ridge by crossing directly underneath a huge, overhanging serac. There is a narrow, sloping corridor leading up and left through this scary obstacle, but since the opposing wall is slightly overhanging, there are no good foot placements to speak of. As such, this may be the crux of the entire route (depending on how high up the ridge you succeed in getting, and on snow conditions). The ideal technique for attacking this crux is to go leash-less: shoulder and match your ice tools as you work your way horizontally across the ice bulge.

Once past the overhanging serac, climb back towards the right and gain the top of a broad, snowy hump. This hump is actually the main mass of the serac you just climbed past! You’re now at the base of La Cabeza’s summit pyramid. Continue up, attacking a sharp, wedge-shaped stretch of ridge over steepening hard snow. Short snow pickets will be useful here. Bypass a small but deep crevasse about halfway up the snow segment, then arrive at the base of the ridge’s 70-meter rocky midsection. Negotiate several low fifth-class moves as you work your way up the rock. While the climbing isn’t technically difficult, most of the ridge’s solid rock is hidden under dispersed piles of loose “dinner plates.” Some rock piles are frozen in place, but others are just waiting to be launched off the ridge by an errant knock or brush. There aren’t many opportunities for protecting the rock sections, but bring some small nuts and cams, as well as some long slings, to take advantage of the few ribs and spikes of solid rock that do protrude through the dinner plate layer. A couple of pitons may be useful, as well.

At the top of the rock section, there is a good ledge from where you can prospect the final 50 meters or so of ridge. This last section is mostly lower-angled hard snow, but it is super-exposed. There is one last small, but very loose rock band about half-way up this final section. After climbing these last 50 meters, you will top out on the west summit of La Cabeza.

Because a lonely cloud parked itself over La Cabeza (entirely enveloping the summit and obliterating visibility) just as our party neared the top of the ridge, the west summit was as far as we got. Although the true summit is only 90 horizontal meters or so to the east, a Bolivian guide later told us that very few parties actually achieve it. Furthermore, he said that most climbers who do make the east summit don’t cross directly over the crest of the connecting ridge, since it is usually too unstable. Instead, daring parties typically down-climb slightly from the west summit to get onto the south face of the connecting ridge, just below its crest (i.e., onto the Directissima Route described by Brain). They then use ice tools and crampons to side-step east across the wall towards the true summit. However, when we climbed La Cabeza, the south face supported an obnoxious cornice that would have made such a wall traverse quite dicey, indeed!

 

Co-author David Wolf and Bolivian guide Hilarion descending La Cabeza just after a thick cloud finally left the summit (it had parked itself there for nearly three hours!). Dave and Hilarion are the tiny black specs on the peak’s southwest shoulder; they’re flanking a mostly-shaded snow-bulge just at the base of the southwest ridge. The overhanging serac mentioned in the route description appears as an ice cliff shearing this snow bulge on its southwest (facing) side. Note the heavy snow-cover on the south face, and the giant cornice clearly crowning the summit ridge above

Descend the same route of ascent. As previously stated, the lower rocky section offers a few solid blocks poking through the dinner plate layer, which make reasonable rappel anchors. Though some are already slung, it is impossible to spot the old, faded webbing in poor visibility. You may want to take a knife and some perlon cord for building fresh rappel stations.


Notes on climbing La Cabeza

There is another option for approaching La Cabeza, which involves hiking the pass to the northeast of Pico Austria, then gaining and ascending the glacier from there. Although much longer and more roundabout, this option is supposedly gentler than the Scree Slope from Hell approach. If you’re the type who prefers the adventure of circuitous approaches, you might consider ascending the Scree Slope from Hell and descending this longer route (or vice versa).

We should also note that the difficulty of La Cabeza apparently depends greatly on its snow-cover. Not long after returning to the USA, we met another Colorado party who had achieved La Cabeza’s east (main) summit in May 2004, about ten weeks before we attempted it. Although they had climbed at the end of the “wet season” La Cabeza was apparently almost bone dry. They had been able to shoot straight up an exposed, solid, and obvious couloir on the south face; in other words, they did the Directissima Route. However, with the exception of a few couloirs and runnels of hard-packed snow, the south face was bone dry. By ascending the most prominent couloir on the face, this party avoided the dicey southwest ridge altogether. Furthermore, they were able to hike the summit ridge, which was apparently bone dry, as well—it presented an easy rock scramble across! As evidenced by our photos, we encountered much more difficult conditions.


Other Peaks

There are many other peaks in the Condoriri area, as well as many other routes on the peaks described here. If arriving from sea level, you may want to acclimatize by hiking the easy Pico Austria (5,000 meters) or El Mirador (5,230 meters), which are dry, rocky peaks to the northwest and southeast of base camp, respectively. The views from these summits are supposedly spectacular. Then there’s the snowy and more difficult Illusión, Illusioncita, Piramide Blanca, and Diente. Highly technical options include the Alas of Condoriri, Huallomen, and the rock needle Aguja Negra. Routes on all of these peaks are described in the Brain guidebook (though not in much detail).


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