By Phil Amos
I sat bolt upright in the darkness. I was in a confined space with steep walls, black and empty. I could see nothing. I was stuck on a ledge, in a crevasse! The walls loomed over me as I wrestled an arm free from the sleeping bag and reached out to touch the ice. It was soft and flexible, not hard and cold as I was expecting. Slowly, sleep released its numbing grip from my brain. I was in the tent at our high camp, a football pitch sized col overlooking the Grupo Tres Marias. Adam was asleep beside me, the crevasses were gone, we were past them. I closed my eyes and was asleep before my head touched the ground.
It had taken four days to establish our base camp in the central Bolivian Cordillera Real. Of these, the last two had been spent ferrying loads through the tottering boulder field at the toe of the Tres Marias Glacier, exhausting work at almost 4900m, even with our acclimatisation. However, we were rewarded with a 3600 panorama of peaks waiting for first ascents and new routes. We had brought enough food for three weeks, giving us twelve days at basecamp. The first part of this was spent climbing on the Tres Marias, a line of serrated granite ridges and icy west faces forming one side of the valley.
Our first successful day out nearly ended in disaster when I slipped descending from Cerro Wampa. We were roped together and moving down a steep icy runnel stacked with powder snow. My foot slipped and I went down, Adam going at the same time, and a large part of the runnel avalanching for good measure. Looking back on our close shave, we could clearly see two polished streaks of ice, perhaps two hundred metres long, where we had slid down the hard, marble ice of the glacier.
Three days later, once the bruising in my arm had reduced, we made the first ascent of the south face of Cerro Cocorico. The line was begging to be climbed: a slender ice ridge leading through a serac barrier to a ramp and from the ramp a gleaming ice face stretched to the summit. The ice on the upper face was hard and smooth, like marble. There was not even a ripple for a footrest and so we teetered up on front-points, thankful for those shiny ice screws from the nice people at Lyon Equipment. As I hung off one, basking in the sun, I soaked up our situation: the face stretched on for eternity, all I could see were Adam's boots and rucsac and showers of ice chips glistening in the sun as though someone were emptying a bag of diamonds down the face.
Behind me lay Chachacomani, next week's project and beyond that the altiplano, a bleak plain home to seventy percent of Bolivia's population and Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. A stone's throw from the summit was the start of the Amazon jungle, home to cocoa growers and cocaine refiners. This was adventure, the stuff that you read in Tintin books, and we were right in the middle of it, doing it for ourselves and not just talking about it over too many pints after a session at the wall. The summit saw us exhausted and dehydrated, but we were jubilant, running on empty. We descended through an amphitheatre of neve penitente, eighteen inch high ice cones moulded by the sun and arranged in rows, like gnomes in an auditorium.
The opposite side of the valley was capped with serrated fin of granite pinnacles. The pinnacles ended at a snow dome and from this a ridge dropped to the col below the South East Buttress of Chachacomani. It offered a much more enjoyable approach to Chach, the alternative being a long plod up the glacier, and so we packed a tent at the crack of sparrow fart and headed up an interminable scree slope to the start of the pinnacles. Despite our ridiculously heavy sacs, Adam quickly pulled away and I was left struggling in my own pool of light, lost in a world of my own. How the hell did the big boys manage with their ten day routes? We thought we'd cut everything down to the minimum, there wasn't a thing I would throw out of my sac without a great deal of heartache, and even if I did it wouldn't make that much difference.
Dawn broke as a crimson flood over the cloud filled Amazon. We reached the first pinnacle, an outcrop of granite overlooking out basecamp and began soloing. The ridge was pure, perfect, virgin granite flakes and blocks, cracks and corners. It was warm to touch and wickedly sharp. Adam quickly gained on me and once more I was left in my own world. The sensation was dizzying, I was one of the first people in the world to be touching this rock, to be crossing this mountain. My mind slipped back to those polished horrors in the Lakes and Scotland; how far removed was this? Each pinnacle grew higher than the last in a succession of waves and as I floated up rough flakes my spirits soared. After three hours of perfect soloing we reached the base of the last pinnacle and donned crampons for a gleaming ice slope leading to the summit.
At the top I threw my tools down and took my rucsac off to relieve my aching shoulders. Adam was just below, nearing the top of the ice slope, I had a few minutes of rest before he reached me. Suddenly there was a tremble and a roar beneath me. The mountain was falling apart. The crack and splinter of smashing rock echoed across the valley, clouds of dust and smoke rose over my shoulders. Sweat drained down my arms, fear gripped me. I reached for my rucsac and ice axes, and looked for somewhere to jump. The yawning crevasse, which I had carefully negotiated five minutes earlier, suddenly became invitingly safe and I was preparing myself for the leap when the rockfall stopped as suddenly as it had begun. I wasted no time in fleeing for the security of the ice below the summit.
We roped up for the ice pitch to the summit of Mirador de las Marias and by 2pm we were brewing up on the col below Chachacomani, a football pitch sized affair with our tiny red tent on the centre line. It was eleven days since the World Cup Final and during that time we had seen only three passing llama herders. We still didn't know the final score, it would take us another five days to find out. In the meantime we amused ourselves by imagining the size of the party if France managed to win.
It was windy at dawn the following morning and we delayed for an hour until the wind began to drop. The first part of the buttress was a horizontal ridge, yet more perfect orange granite. As we weaved around blocks and bridged up corners I thought of the crowds on the Cosmiques Arête, fighting for bolts and belays, and giggled at our situation. A dream route, seven hundred metres leaping from glacier to summit, a stunning view, and all to ourselves, as though we were the only people on the planet. There was not even a trace of the American ascent several years earlier. A 50m ice pitch fell to me and we started on the buttress proper. A wall with limb swallowing cracks, Adam went at it with gusto gained from Yorkshire esoterica, whilst I preferred a line of sloping holds to the right, thankful for a tight rope. My pitch, a boot sized crack splitting a pinnacle. It looks tempting but probably calls for an abseil down the other side and we don't have the time. I turn it on cruddy snow, bunched up and awkward. Gaining the ridge above and looking back I can see a blade of rock joining the pinnacle; no abseil after all and cheated of a stunning pitch. Another rope length on easy slabs an then the rock gives way to an ice ridge; the end of the buttress. We plod upwards, each step breaks our altitude record. Near the top I hold back and we walk to the summit together, shoulder to shoulder.
This mountaineering game is a strange one. In the valleys we dream of reaching summits, the conversation is of one tracked aspirations, to get high. We go through extremes of discomfort and emotion, from freezing cold to searing heat and intense fear to soaring joy, to attain these goals. But, it seems, when you finally get that goal your feelings are just swamped by exhaustion and a strong desire to get down. The goalposts have moved, from the sparkle of sun on the summit cap to the tiny red dot of the tent on the glacier far below. We floated on the summit in a dream. I desperately tried to memorise my feelings, but I can only recall weariness. The photos show a vast spread on mountains to the north and south, cloud covered jungle and mottled brown altiplano and I truly regret that I cannot remember them at all, just the sight of that tiny red dot that meant safety and security.
We traversed the west summit and began abseiling down the south west ridge. A frayed piece of abseil tat assured us that someone had been down this way, however the terrain soon became awkward, a steep buttress changing to a sloping, slabby ridge. The ropes twisted, then tangled and then jammed in the descender. A short section of moving together and then another buttress with more awkward ground. 'Why don't we abseil off the side of the ridge and pick up the Normal route in that bowl?' The going certainly looked easier, and thus the die was cast.
Two 50m abseils got us to the snowline, hanging off an ice screw above a yawning bergschrund. The last abseil had used all our tat and Adam had cut an ice bollard to keep warm whilst waiting for me to join him. We looked at it blankly.
'Will it hold? I've never abbed off one of these before.' I could recall laughing hysterically at pictures of ice bollards in the Handbook of Climbing and never intended to have to abseil off one. However, we only had four screws, and they were too expensive to leave behind. 'Well let's back it up with a screw and take the screw out if it holds after the first one's down.'
The reality bit: our unspoken rule was that Adam always went first, he was heavier than me. There seemed something surreal about the whole situation, forty quid for an ice screw suddenly seemed very cheap. He set off, I watched the bollard like a hawk. If the belay failed then he was in the crevasse and I didn't have a rope. His shout came all too quickly and I reluctantly removed the ice screw and set off. The first few metres were the worst. I was terrified that the shallow angle between the rope and the slope would cause it to flip off the bollard and down I would go. After five metres I began to breathe again, my confidence grew and I began skittering down on front points.. The ropes disappeared over a serac and into the bergschrund. A delicate snowbridge connected to the far bank and I landed on this, using an undignified backstroke to propel myself to the safety of the glacier.
We reviewed our situation as we pulled the ropes in. A direct line across the amphitheatre was barred by another huge crevasse but we both agreed we had seen a way across at the far end. We could simply walk round this, skip down the slope and trudge home to the tent. Time was pushing on, we would have to abandon our original plans of getting all the way back to basecamp before nightfall, but we had spare food in the tent.
The going was tough, slabs of deep powder snow slipped down the icy slope with every footprint. After ten minutes Adam stopped suddenly and swore. "S***! Seracs!" What we had seen as a continuous slope from above was broken by a 30m high serac barrier.
The traverse along the fracture line to the bulge was exposed but secure and led to 10ft of down climbing in an icy runnel. My left foot came to rest on another slope, this time crisp neve that squeaked as my axes sunk home. Adam was belayed 20ft further down, and below him the slope stretched into the bowl and home to our beautiful tent. Night was gathering fast as we reversed down the slope. Down into the gloom, daggering axes into firm neve, moving quickly. The serac barrier we had traversed along the top of now loomed ominously overhead. I wanted out of here. Just as I thought we were home and dry came the words I least wanted to hear.
And then the true horror of our situation hit me. When eyeing up the route at dawn we had been confident we could get to the top and back down way before nightfall, and so the headtorches had been left in the tent to save weight. The tent, that smug square of red nylon with sleeping bags, food, comfort, safety and f*cking head torches. All day I had watched it shrink to a minuscule dot on the dazzling glacier as we climbed, and then grow as we dropped off the summit to its beckoning warmth and security. Now all it could do was mock our foolishness. We were in trouble.
Adam began traversing left, back under the seracs. They were enormous, possibly 75m high, and overhanging. The rope went tight and I moved off. The neve was firm and easy to move on, but I was tired and my legs ached from the endless front pointing. The slope undulated in runnels which were impossible to distinguish in the moonless night. I moved like a robot, left foot, right, don't skag the rope.
He moved off left again. I followed, down a 15ft slope overhung by seracs. At the foot of the slope was a snow shelf and from this a steeper, 20ft slope appeared to lead to the glacier. I could just make Adam's shape 30 feet below me as I down climbed to the snow shelf. This was a bad, bad place to be. The shelf on which I was standing appeared in shades of grey and black. These must be snowbridges. I wanted to get out, now. The rope was moving quickly now, Adam must be on safer ground. I gave him a shout and began down climbing.
Five minutes and it was over. I stepped into deep powder snow and looked across the glacier to where our tent should be, 1½ -2 km across the glacier. It was extremely hard work, we sank up to our knees with each step, the powder sometimes gave way to crisp neve and we could squeak along for four steps before plunging back into powder. The night hid the contrast between the different forms, we were walking blind. Every so often we would hit a patch of neve penitente, the ice ridges smashing and bruising our shins. It went on for ages, there was no choice but to stagger on blind. Adam was nothing more than a black silhouette against the stars. We knew if we could just carry on, it would finish soon. The rope became our only communication, it would snatch at my hand as he lurched into another patch of penitente and I would give a gentle pull back to help him from going over. Likewise as I slowed in a powder drift it would tighten for a second and then ease as he slowed to match me. The night was silent save the crunch of crampons on snow and the occasional gasp as one of us stumbled.
Eventually the glow of the lights from La Paz appeared from behind Cerro Jakocire, then we saw the actual lights of a village on the Altiplano. The ground levelled, the powder became shallower, then developed an icy crust. Suddenly I could see the tent straight ahead. We were home.
It was 8pm, we had been out for fourteen hours with only a handful of nuts and chocolate and a litre of water each. We threw down axes and hugged each other. Adam apologised for his shouting in the seracs, but he didn't need to. I would have done the same. We collapsed in our sleeping bags.
The following morning we packed up the tent and, after long understanding looks at Chachacomani, Mirador de las Marias and the Picos Ingles, we dropped down from the glacier and headed back to Base Camp. It was the beginning of the end. The following day we started load carries to Leche Quota, two days after that a herd of llamas ambled into view and behind them, our man, five minutes early. We were tired and hungry, our food supplies were down to half a dozen tea bags, beer and burgers in La Paz beckoned.
That was a year ago. Outside it is a grey, wet Thursday afternoon, but in Bolivia it will be a cold, blue, sunny morning. The permafrost on the altiplano will be warming in the sun, turning to a slippery layer of clay. Andreas will be preparing his donkeys for a carry out from Condoriri; a motley crew of kids will be hanging off the jeeps bringing another load of gringos to Pinaya for the four day trip up Illimani. Mario will be buying beer with the US dollars that his wife earned carrying gringos rucsacs up to the Nido de Condores high camp, and our llama herder will be wondering if any gringos are going to come back to his peaceful part of the Real. And maybe we will.
If you are interested in visiting this region and would like to read the full expedition report, it is available for download here (17kb zip file).
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|All photographs © Adam Thomas|