Preparation Phase Bolivian Flag

To Bolivia

Time used to be that I would enjoy a trip to the airport. The anticipation of, and the sheer thrill of lifting off the runway would be considerably rewarding for its own sake. Nowadays I cannot claim to get anything more out of an airline flight than a destination.

This attitude, certainly shared by the vast majority of travelers, has been fostered by the current rash of flight delays and cancellations which currently plague the public air transportation system. My short flight from San Diego to Los Angeles proved no exception - it became delayed to an extent that I would miss my connection. Hence I was forced to take an earlier flight and hoped that my baggage would arrive at their final destination, La Paz Bolivia, without mishap.

I met Bob Packard at the gate in Los Angeles and we boarded the flight bound for Miami. Miami is the terminus for many flights to/from Latin America. This is reasonable because, as South America lies largely east of the United States, Miami is the natural place for connecting to that continent from a geographical perspective. Miami also has a large hispanic community. The flight was uneventful.

While in Miami's airport awaiting our overnight connection, I purchased a package of key lime flavored coconut patties in dark chocolate. I always try to enjoy some aspect of the local cuisine when traveling, and, since key lime appears to be popular in southern Florida (key lime pie being famous), I felt compelled to do such. The delectable confection then gave me an excuse to enjoy a double dip ice cream with the coconut mixed inside. It would also keep me company on the long flight south when there was little else to do but sleep.

The flight included a rather opinionated man who insisted upon relating to Bob and myself his religious philosophy. He eventually became quite annoying to me because he would not accept the fact that Bob, and myself, had opinions that diverged from his. Worse still, I was seated in-between this nut and Bob, such that I was caught in the cross-fire between their verbal volleys against one another. Eventually I told this jerk that I wanted no more controversy and that, as such, to please let the topic of discourse to be anything BUT religion: for it was pitifully evident that nobody was even close to an agreement.

The nut changed the topic and even fell asleep in time. Finally I could enjoy my own nutty confections in peace and quiet! The sweet coconut filling went well with dessert - which just so happened to be coconut cake. He did have one saving grace (at least for my sake): he gave me most of his meal, including the red wine (free on international flights). So happens that by flight's end I had enjoyed four 187 ml bottles. Nevertheless owing to the large amount of food eaten (including all of my key lime deserts), I was tolerably sober upon landing in La Paz at just past six AM Bolivia time.

Since we had largely remained awake the entire night (with perhaps an hour total sleep for myself), this day would merge into the next. Nevertheless our landing in Bolivia forms a natural break point for descriptive purposes.

Day One in La Paz

Our check through customs was followed by the taxi driver's scam of trying to separate our luggage into two vehicles such that Bob and myself would have to pay double for the drive into La Paz. I grabbed back my duffle bag, got Bob's attention, and then focused on a single waiting cab whose driver had not entered the fracas.

Once in the passenger compartment a man asked through the window if I was Adam Helman. Here was Carlos Escobar - my contact in La Paz for arranging our climb of Illimani. Carlos is the head of an adventure travel agency, and a mountain guide himself, with whom I had been in continuous e-mail discourse for the previous three months in the effort to secure our climbing plans. He wanted to meet us that day, possibly even in a few hours. In perfect Spanish (which surprised even myself) I told Carlos that we needed to sleep first and that I would call him later to arrange a time. Bob was impressed by my Spanish proficiency.

El Alto International ("the high one") is situated on the Bolivian altiplano at 13,300 feet above sea level. One traverses the now enormous, eponymous shantytown, El Alto, enroute to La Paz situated 1,500 feet lower inside a large canyon, bowl-shaped, sheltered from the sometimes biting cold of the altiplano proper. The descent by motor vehicle affords a unforgettable view of the city with Illimani as its guardian in the distance. Few cities are more spectacularly situated as Bolivia's economic and de facto political capital.

View uphill from downtown La Paz.

We check into the Hotel El Dorado on Avenida Seis de Agosto ("sixth of August") in downtown La Paz. The view outside of our seventh floor window looked uphill towards the rim of the altiplano proper.

After a couple hours of sleep we awoke and eventually found ourselves meeting Carlos Escobar in our room by around eleven. We discuss the climb and reviewed our clothing and climbing gear which by now were sprawled out over both beds.

View uphill from
downtown La Paz.

We all taxied to Carlos' place of business by the noon hour. After being informed that Carlos would not be coming on the climb with us, we were introduced to our future mountain guides. Rene, age 28 is Carlos' younger brother. Roberto, 24, is the second guide (and will later prove to be a superior guide on the climb).

I call out Robert's name and asked who I am referring to - so identifying a potential problem on the mountain. Everyone laughed and I then noted that the context would certainly determine who was being addressed.

I found myself translating into English for Bob's sake whenever an important point was made. Somehow this role of intermediary never bothered me for the entire trip, perhaps because it highlighted this critical function that I served.

We required topographical maps of the Potosi area in order to safely and successfully do some hiking and climbing in that region. I had tried stateside to acquire maps yet had met with no success for various reasons beyong my control. Upon entering a Bolivian military compound we were escorted by a guard in green camouflage, automatic rifle at the ready, to the IGM (Instituto Geografico Militar). He must have been about nineteen or so. At the IGM a civilian assisted us in locating and purchasing a copy of the relevant 50,000:1 scale map containing the mountains we had in mind for the following week. Evidently in many Latin American nations the military is in charge of more than just defence.

The remainder of the day was highlighted by dinner at the Cafe Ciudad across the Plaza de los Estudiantes from the hotel. As anticipated I was reluctant to order any salad or beverage lest the water used in the cleaning or ice cubes prove tainted. The bowls of soup were enormous (mushroom for me, asparagus for Bob), and I enjoyed mine with French beaufort cheese brought in my rucksack as well as with the delicious little bread rolls provided. I was full enough that I only ordered a Napolean-like dessert that I enjoyed with some Grand Marnier I had also snuck in.

Silpancho - a typical Bolivian dish.

Bob had ordered silpancho - a very filling Bolivian dish of meat pounded flat as the proverbial pancake; it is topped with much rice, fried potatoes, and eggs sunny-side-up on the very top. Of course I got to enjoy some. I had silpancho at the same establishment six years earlier. The meal, like all food in Bolivia, was very cheap by North American standards at about $6 - $8 US for everything.

Silpancho with
the fried eggs.

Lake Titicaca and Copacabana

Seven in the morning. We stood at the main "bus terminal" for La Paz in anticipation of a departure for the resort town of Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca. In truth we were amidst a chaotic scene of operators hawking their destinations; street vendors eeking out an existence; and a few buses in disarray waiting to get filled by customers. We purchase three tickets, including one for our backpacks, since the mode of transporting baggage - lashed to the bus's rooftop, appeared too primitive and fraught with danger from both theft and accidental loss. After one hour we finally understood that the system had to be learned: no bus departs regardless of the posted schedule, until it is filled with passengers.

I had located a one liter carton of orange juice for Bob. It served as his breakfast seeing as we had left the hotel earlier than the free continental breakfast provided. This menu choice proved flawed - after 1 1/2 hours on the road Bob was in pain for want of relieving his bladder. With an empty water bottle the solution was simple and effective. I intentionally drink very little, if at all, prior to an extended road trip. Halfway through the 4 hour journey I enjoyed a salteña from a street vendor who had boarded the bus at one of multiple stops. The salteña is a late morning pastry filled with savory items such as diced chicken and potatoes. It is invariably oozing with spicy juices and is guaranteed to make an absolute mess.

Lake Huyñaymarca

Views of Huayna Potosi (19,974 feet) appear to the north as we approach Lago Huyñaymarka - a southern extension of Lago Titicaca connected to it by the Estrecho de Tiquina ("Strait of Tiquina") where the bus and its passengers are separately ferried by boat to the other side for the remaining hour of travel.

Lago Huyñaymarca

We arrive at Copacabana around noon. Copacabana is famous for its beautiful nineteenth century church and contains gold religious ornaments within. We walk immediately to the base of Cerro Calvario - a hill, just on the edge of town and perhaps 500 feet in vertical extent, with 14 waystations enroute to the summit for religious pilgrims, including one on top. We carried our full-sized backpacks since we were not guaranteed a clean room for the night, wherever that may be, and so required space for cold weather clothing and sleeping bags.

At the summit I called home and reported my position to a mother happy to hear that my rented satellite phone really works after all. I then called my sister-in-law, Dana, only to have the conversation cut off mid-sentence by a dead electrical supply (as best that I can guess). Bob and myself descended the backside and headed for the waterfront.

Lake Titicaca is absolutely enormous. I could not see the northern shore, it was so distant. Being the highest navigable lake in the world has made it famous worldwide. Although Bolivia is landlocked, they have a Navy nonetheless. Evidently Lake Titicaca is the main, if not sole venue for their operations.

Israeli girls on Lake Titicaca.

The boat trip lasted ninety minutes and was highlighted by a conversation with a bunch of female Israeli teenagers (or young women) on vacation. I got in a little Hebrew practice. Better, they got some English practice. One of them was completely bald and, as such, my first thought was cancer and of leukemia in particular. I had not the chutzpah to inquire.

Israeli girls on
Lake Titicaca.

Selling placemats on La Isla del Sol.

Our destination was La Isla del Sol ("Sun Island") - the largest island within Lake Titicaca. We disembarked and were assailed by several little girls selling cloth table settings of native design. I was awash with seven girls each wanting seven bolivianos per cloth. My smallest Bolivian note was a 50 so, noting that 7 x 7 was nearly 50, I offered to purchase one cloth from each provided that they could find some means of splitting the note evenly amongst themselves. Else, I would tear the bill in seven pieces and yield up worthless paper instead. The girls found a means of splitting the money and I received seven tablecloths, two of which were eventually given to Bob. A photograph captures the moment.

Little girls
sell placemats.

A set of stairs constructed by the Inca led to a both campsites and alojamientos (primitive residences) about 500 hundred feet above the water line. Bob and myself chose to sleep in the best alojamiento available - at just 15B/person/night (about 2 1/2 dollars), finance was not a concern! We received a private room with a padlock for the door. The owner, a young man about 20, was very congenial and enjoyed hearing a gringo such as myself talk Spanish.

In the late afternoon Bob and myself hiked up the roughly 300 feet to the island's second highest mountain. I had a headache from the effort up the stairs owing to altitude, and this remained a problem during our little hike and on into the evening. Bob, who had never seen anyone abstain from breakfast the way I do, exclaimed that my eating habits were to blame since I should ideally be full of energy for the day's activities. Clearly I know my body's reactions to varying conditions, including high altitude, better than anyone else. So I simply did not respond and hoped that the problem would disappear before it had the chance of adversely effecting my chances on Illimani.

I should note that I normally do not eat breakfast for two logical reasons and one personal reason. At home I wake up rather late and would rather eat well at lunch which is just a few hours away; I am not hungry when I get up anyways; and, quite frankly, breakfast food is boring since there is precious little variety compared to, say, lunch. I make an exception when either someone INVITES me to breakfast OR there is a full day of climbing, e.g. on Illimani.

A well prepared trout entree.

Dinner was perfectly appropriate for Lake Titicaca - fried lake trout ("trucha") served with rice and vegetables. I even got the skin from Bob's fish, a kind gesture on his part which also served to indicate that he already noted, and was willing to go along with, my "interesting" food habits. Never mind the fat content - fried fish skin is delicious!!

A well prepared
trout entree.

The bowl of soup preceding each Bolivian meal was equally delicious. It was quinoa soup. Quinoa is the high protein grain used by Andeans as a staple much as westerners employ wheat. My headache gradually subsided during and after dinner - likely because of the hydration it supplied rather than its energy content. Keeping hydrated at high altitude is crucial to avoiding the symptoms associated with altitude sickness.

At the highest point of La Isla del Sol.

That night it rained slightly. Fortunately it cleared up for our intended hike the following morning to the island's highpoint. On the summit, some nine hundred feet above the lake, the expansive views were beautiful in all directions. It turned out that the most certain means of reaching the summit had entailed descending to the water line followed by re-ascent of the height so lost.

At the island's
highest point.

Just prior to the summit we had decided to leave our packs near some Inca ruins to lighten the load. As we were about to leave an Indian farmer happened by and, upon hearing Bob's greeting, approached us. This old man had lost half his teeth and was surely in need of new clothing. A chance meeting of cultures in a most unlikely setting. He had never lived elsewhere than this little island, and had never traveled further than La Paz. Had he only spoken his native tongue, likely Aymara, it would have been difficult to communicate except by hand gestures. Spanish did swell for the two of us, as I translated for Bob's sake. We waited until he left before continuing to the summit - just in case he was intent on pilfering our bags.

We continued our traverse of the island from south to north. Eventually we ended up at the second, more northerly main boat launch and hired a private motorboat ($30 US) for the 2 1/2 hour trip back to the mainland at Copacabana. I slept a little on board in the shade of the cabin.

Back in Copacabana by 4 PM, we purchased return bus tickets for a 5 PM return to La Paz. I had already visited the church six years previously. So while Bob explored the church architecture and interior, I purchased exotic snack food for the ride "home" to our hotel room. This was supplemented at the Straight of Tiquina by a very greasy sandwich of hot dog meat and eggs smothered in fried onions with hot sauce - the closest Bolivia comes to fast food. For 25 cents how can one go wrong?

Outside of El Alto our bus began smoking from a tire. The driver continued despite the obvious danger. Eventually he was forced to a halt. As repairs were contemplated another bus from a competing line stopped. They were all too obliging to charge for onloading some of us stranded passengers. Bob and myself were among the fortunate dozen or so.

A box of exquisite chocolate truffles.

We arrived at our room (lucky number 707) around 9:30 PM. Bob ate a sandwich at Cafe Ciudad while I, being satisfied with all the snack food and the grease job, simply showered. A few chocolate truffles with Grand Marnier at bedtime.

A box of exquisite
chocolate truffles.

Decision Point

The day was Monday, April 30. Word was out that some political group was threatening to block major roads in the countryside should their demands not be met. This is a common occurence in Bolivia and tends to occur on May 1 - their Labor Day. The deadline for a decision was the midnight between Monday, April 30 and May 1, with any blockades to be in place by 8 AM the following morning.

Since our plans were to take an overnight bus to Potosi Monday night (there are no daytime departures), we had to consider a major change in plans: we would arrive in Potosi before any blockade, but would not be able to return to La Paz in order to climb Illimani.

The famous Cerro Rico.

Should we go to Potosi (and there was no guarantee that a blockade would occur at all), I would be able to get my planned 15er, at the famous Cerro Rico (15,700 feet), as well as a 16er (Cerro Masoni, 16,142 feet). However going to Potosi would put at risk the opportunity of climbing Illimani. To me climbing Illimani, successfully, was worth perhaps five times more than everything done while in the Potosi area combined. Thus if I were at least 80% certain that we could return to La Paz in a timely manner I would opt for Potosi.

Cerro Rico

To Bob, who already had 15er's and 16er's to his credit, Potosi was worth only one twentieth of Illimani. Surely we were not 95% certain. Bob also made the valid point that we would lose an entire night's rest, plus good meals, should we continue to Potosi. That would diminish our strength for Illimani but five days later.

All things considered I decided to stay in La Paz and attempt to find hiking in the area each day in order to continue our acclimatization. I was feeling tired from the incessant travel and realized that, with an entire night of sleep lost to a 12 hour bus trip, we would be asking for a miracle to somehow gather enough energy to climb Illimani.

The threat of a road blockade never amounted to more than a threat while we were there. Any decision was delayed for 30 days. However since this moratorium had not been decided in advance of our ride to Potosi, we made the correct decision given the information we had at the time.

Valle de Las Animas

Bob and I had decided to leave ourselves stranded in La Paz for the five days remaining prior to our attempt at Illimani. I recalled that, on the final day before leaving Bolivia six years earlier, Edward Earl and myself had visited Valle de la Luna ("Moon Valley") - a short drive to the lower part of La Paz (11,000 feet) where a series of odd geological formations reminded one of an eerie moonscape.

Our taxi driver, Walter, suggested the alternative of visiting Valle de Las Animas ("Spirit Valley"), since, although it was further, it was far more impressive. Boy was he right!! We enjoyed a one hour hike, all up, through the most fantastic rock formations, extremely wind and water eroded. Upon reaching the top of a hill I was disappointed to see that it merely connected to another slope just ten feet lower than the hill's summit. Bob and I walked to the nearby slope and climbed it to a lookout.

Highly eroded sedimentary structures.

We saw an entire valley filled with thin vertical needles of eroded rock that seemed to defy gravity in the way they remained upright despite their seeming fragility. Looking down was a vertical drop of perhaps one thousand feet. I did not get closer than two feet from the precipice since I felt the ground we were on might give way under our weight. It was a unique vista that made the entire hike worthwhile.

View from overlook
to eroded formations.

I spied a peak some 3 miles to the southwest and noted that it had some antennae on the summit and that it was a few hundred feet higher than us (I estimated that we were at 14,000 feet). A road led near the mountain. Later (see below) I would climb to its summit for the wonderful views that I suspected it would provide.

On return to La Paz we visited Valle de la Luna as well. It was anticlimactic given what Valle de las Animas had to offer.

That evening at Cafe Ciudad I enjoyed the chicken in cognac cream sauce that had been on my mind ever since I saw it on the menu the previous Friday. Bob had the fetticcini a la carbonara, and, fortunately, I got a good portion of it too. Both dishes were marvelous. I was certainly getting enough to eat in La Paz.

A Pair of Fifteeners

On Tuesday we decided to hire Walter again for a drive to the base of some hills which we learned from our maps had summits in the fifteen thousand foot range. The total distance and duration were small, as were the vertical gains for two hills (200 and 400 ft). However both Cerro Estuquerria ("Stucco Factory Hill", 15,679 ft) and a sister hill just to the north (15,873 ft), as fifteeners, satisfied my desire to have a fifteen thousand foot summit in my list of successful ascents.

These hills had very gradual slopes and were foothills of Nevada Chacaltaya immediately to the north. Only upon seeing them from a great distance, and from above at the same time, could one discern without doubt that they were natural highpoints on the land, and, as such, true summits.

Llamas at 15,000 feet near La Paz.

On descent from Cerro Estuquerria we passed an irrigation field where crops were being planted by a man and his wife. I asked if potatoes were to be grown. Unfortunately I did not understand the response. They also tended a herd of llama, at this, some 15,400 feet.

On hiking up Cerro Estuquerria I developed a pounding headache that came and went with my level of exertion. Clearly this was an altitude effect. I recovered during the drive back to La Paz - during which we stopped to photograph more llama grazing at around the 15,000 level.

Llamas happy at
15,000 feet.


In light of my headache the previous day, with the advice of Carlos Escobar regarding the matter, on Wednesday we decided to play tourist and visit the Aymara ruins at Tihuanaco rather than resume our hiking regimen. This time we took a "micro" - a small van which is constantly stopping to onload more passengers. Sometimes the operator will try to stuff in more people than seats. It was a cramped and uncomfortable drive. However at only 8B (some $1.25 US) it was a bargain.

Ancient ruin at Tihuanaco.

At Tihuanaco the ruins were investigated. There were several armed guides who appeared to have to dual role of answering tourist questions and preventing illegal activity such as stealing or defacing the ruins with graffiti or urine. In the adjoining museum many of my questions were answered by one Gloria who felt that I could promote her local restaurant on the Internet.
Ancient wall at

Tihuanaco schoolchildren.

We walked to the nearby town of Tihuanaco and were accosted by school children who were just letting out from school for the mid-day break. They were all wearing the same uniform of a green sweater and white trousers. After learning that we had no chocolate or gifts to give, most lost interest in us.

Lunch hour in

We noted an impressive mountain to the south and learned that it stood a full 3,000 feet above the valley floor - so giving it an elevation of roughly 15,900 feet. Now THAT was a mountain worthy of being my fifteener.


On Thursday Bob Packard was set on climbing a very specific sixteener that we had spotted Tuesday while on the fifteener hike. It was impressive to behold and, upon examination of the map back in the hotel room, had the largest prominence island of any sixteener within a few hours drive of La Paz. To my eye the summit ridge looked dangerously rocky - unwise to attempt without a rope. However Bob assured me that it was within my abilities since I had already climbed much more difficult mountains involving similar terrain.

At the summit of my first sixteener.

We drove northeast from La Paz, again with Walter at the wheel, to a location on the route to La Cumbre which we deemed was the best jumping off point for our five hour hike. Unlike the fifteeners of the other day, this was a true mountain in every imaginable sense. Starting at about 14,400 feet we attained the summit within 2-3 hours. True, there WAS some rock scrambling. However at no time did we feel ill-equipped for want of a rope. The summit had no name on the map, simply being indicated as 5,108 meters tall (16,754 ft). I was pleased to have no headache.

Summit of my
first sixteener.

Enroute to the summit a herd of llama were spotted grazing up to 16,000 feet - the very limit of the grasses on which I presume they munch.

Walter with taxi at La Cumbre.

Walter was glad to see us. For an additional ten dollars we accepted his offer to continue onto La Cumbre - a location marked by a statue of Christ and from which the road descends precipitously a full 10,000 feet to the steaming hot Yungas in just 20 miles or so. La Cumbre ("The Summit") is at 4,650 meters, some 15,200 feet, and is the highest point on the road. Unfortunately at La Cumbre we were enveloped in cloud and could not see anything of the jungles far below.

Walter with taxi
at La Cumbre.

At La Cumbre we did however observe from across the road a pagan ceremony wherein the curandero (witch doctor) was burning something on behalf of some believers.

Walter was making a small fortune - and all he had to do was sleep as he waited for us!

Nevado Chacaltaya

Time to strap on crampons. Today, Friday, was the final day prior to our attempt on Illimani - and there was hardly a better way to guage our level of acclimatization than to reach the summit of Chacaltaya (17,700 feet). I had already climbed Chacaltaya with Edward Earl six years previously. However since it was only a 500 vertical foot gain from the Chacaltaya ski lodge (the world's highest), I decided to keep Bob company and do it again.

The drive from La Paz, with Walter, was less trivial than the hike itself since it presented an unforgivingly narrow and dangerous "road" up the mountain side.

Robert Packard on top of Chacaltaya.

On our short climb the snow conditions to the summit were "perfect" - hard and yet no ice on the most obvious route to the summit. The summit photograph of Bob is arguably the best of the entire vacation.

Bob Packard
at summit.

View along summit ridge from a subpeak.

On top I had a snack while Bob, feeling frisky, headed off along a connecting ridge to a subpeak immediately to the north. On return he reported of some views and the requisite photographs taken.

Chacaltaya summit
from a subpeak.

We returned to La Paz confident that our acclimatization was completed. The balance of our fees were paid by credit card to Carlos Escobar, and I returned to Zat, a local supermarket with foreign goods, to replenish my supply of snack foods for the impending climb of Illimani. I purchased all manner of sweets including cointreau-filled chocolate; almond torte from Spain; and rum-raisin chocolate terrine.

At high altitude most appetites wane considerably - so predisposing climbers to weakness, altitude symptoms and ultimately failure to summit. In providing myself absolutely delectible food the intention is to anticipate and enjoy regardless of how little I FEEL like eating: I force myself to eat, an act made easier when the food is wonderful from the start.

Bob and myself enjoy another fine meal in the hotel restaurant. I must say that his mackerel in butter sauce was tastier than my dish. I repacked my climbing gear, clothing and food for the ascent and, with Bob asleep by 10 PM, returned to the restaurant for a dessert of coffee and chocolate ice creams with the requisite mix-ins.

I was worried about the next several days and ate each bite (wouldn't you guess) as if it were my last. True, I could rationalize the situation and state that the probability of some disastrous outcome was statistically small. Yet at the same time I could not relieve myself of some sense of impending doom.

I have learned to accept risk as an inherent part of performing any act which by its very nature is at once both dangerous, and, consequently, rewarding at the same time.

For once Bob did not disturb me with his snoring.

Introduction Ascent Final Chapter