Monthly Archives: January 2017

Night on the Mountain

The Banderita is the mountain above La Falda, and it is the mountain that the Weber-Loomis 4 have climbed more than any other (I can count at least seven times, the first few with Zeke in a backpack. You know, one of those kid carriers, not literally inside a backpack.).

What we write of today is something completely different – a bold post-supper ascent of the Banderita, a venture nearly unthinkable to most Argentines, who have supper between 9 and midnight. Our plan was to eat an early supper, then head up the mountain, summiting by sundown. We planned to go fast and light, leaving behind camp stove, tents, and board games (though this author, unbeknownst to other members of the team, did sneak David Halberstam’s 800-page history The Fifties into his pack), meaning that we would be forced to bivouac in the open overnight.

Our team had been chosen carefully, with each individual chosen for their particular skills as well as their ability to work well together. Leon, the eldest, was calm and steady, always prepared, and has spent more time on the Banderita than any native of Pennsylvania we know. Leticia was chosen for her logistical skills and her ability to keep the group together and on task. Anna and Zeke were along for their youthful energy, contribution to morale, and interest in nature. This author was added to the team by a sponsor for reasons unclear to the other team members.

Three members of the team set off at 6:30pm from Base Camp Francia (BCF), with two more following shortly after. The first part of the ascent is a mile and a half through the small village around BCF, during which the trail ascends from 3080 to 3500 feet. We joined forces at El Chorrito, where a small stream coming down the mountain meets the road. After a brief discussion, we decided the summit attempt was on. Over the next two miles we would gain another 1250 feet of altitude, reaching the summit at 4750 feet. Well-prepared by recent daytime ascents of the Banderita and Uritorco, we made good time. We passed two parties coming down from the summit, and though friendly greetings were exchanged, they were unfamiliar with our plans for an overnight bivouac and seemed concerned about our late start. But we forged on, enjoying the cool breezes and relatively mild evening sun.

As we neared the summit ridge, though, these cool breezes turned into a hard wind that blew us sideways when its gusts were strongest, making our goal of summit-by-sunset out of reach. As it was, we were high enough to enjoy sundown over La Falda, and we reached the summit about 15 minutes later. We had arrived in less than two hours, which would have been good pace even without sleeping bags on our backs.

The wind was blowing hard at the summit. We would later hear that at BCF the wind had also picked up significantly, causing consternation among those remaining at base. As we scouted a bivouac site, we were pushed around by 40mph winds which made much of the mountain untenable. We finally found a relatively level spot west of the summit slightly sheltered from the wind which also gave a view over La Falda and the valley. It was a clear night, and to the south we could see all the way to Lago San Roque and the lights of Carlos Paz.

We were happy with the choice not to bring tents; trying to erect them in this wind would be difficult. A few inches off the ground, though, the wind was calmer, while still enough to keep the mosquitos at bay. We lay under the night sky, watching the stars come out, though the lights of La Falda below meant that these were nothing like the stars at Condoriri, two months ago and almost 10,000 feet higher. I woke several times in the night, once to find Zeke had slid down the slight grade and was mostly into the grass at the edge of the precipice. I pulled him back up to our platform, which had the effect of pulling me down, but getting myself back up wasn’t difficult.

I woke at 3:40 to find the wind calmer and a few mosquitos buzzing around my ears. My default strategy was to wait until the buzzing seemed at its loudest, and then slap myself in the ear at maximum velocity. I’m not sure if this killed any mosquitos, but it passed the time until I fell asleep again.

I woke for good at 4:50 to predawn light and an increased wind. None of our team had been swept off the platform in the night. By six there was enough light for a few chapters of The Fifties concerning Werner von Braun and the American rocket program post-WW2. Soon Zeke and Leon were off to take pictures of the sunrise on the east side of the summit, and not long after that we were eating yogurt, granola, and bananas, as well as some very welcome cold coffee that Leon had thought to pack.

We headed down by an alternate route, following the Chorrito for much of its descent of the mountain. This route entails more rock-scrambling than the traditional ascent but offers opportunities to dip ones feet in the creek whilst snacking. By 11am we were back at BCF, a bit weary but delighted to have spent a night outside on the mountain.

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First Day, Parade Practice, and Parade

(Another old post: Zeke writing about the first few days at Los Amigos.)

The first day of school was a little overwhelming because everybody was asking “Que es tu nombre?”, “De donde eres ?”,”cuantos anyos tienes?”,”De que parte de los Estados Unidos eres?”….

Apart from one or two normal classes we went to the courtyard and marched around in circles “practicing” for the parade the next day . The parade practice wasn’t too interesting but I’ll say what I can about it. The only thing we really did was march in circles around the courtyard for about 50 minutes.


7:30am at the cemetery, waiting for the 6 de Agosto (Independence Day) parade to begin.

At the school they said to get to the cemetery at ocho en punto (eight o’clock sharp). (Actually, it was 7:30 – ed.) We got there ten minutes early, and there was one kid there. Five minutes late the first group of kids got there. I forget which they were but I know who two of them were: Waldo and Limbert.

After a little talking Waldo led me through the crowd which was not a regular crowd where its not too hard to get around but one where you have to push to get anywhere.




Figuring out the lines.

When the first school started marching we were kind of panicked because we were planning to be the second school to leave, so we quickly got ourselves together and the first band left and then we went. The march was pretty tiring not because of the length of the walk (it was only about a mile) but because half the time we were marching in place. At one point it was hard to know which band to follow because one stopped while the other kept moving. It was easier at first because the stopped one was closer, but when the bands were next to each other it got harder.

When we got to the school kids were everywhere but when Anna came in I joined her and we went out and found Ticia and Paul.


6 de Agosto

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(Here’s a post from a hike we did back in November.)


The three peaks of Condoriri, as seen from lower in the valley.

On a clear day, the highway from Tiwanaku to La Paz gives beautiful views of the Cordillera Real (is it?), stretching north from La Paz and east of the road. One of the most striking peaks is Condoriri, which with the glaciers coming down the front looks like a condor with wings outstretched. We had brought sleeping bags and tents to La Paz, but it took a visit from Tony, Hernan, Riley and Remme to get us out there. They had found a trekking outfitter who would drive us out near there and pick us up two days later, wedged in between teaching days at the UMSA.


Heading upriver and upvalley.

After a few days of logistical work by Leticia, Tony, and Hernan, we were up at 4 something Saturday morning, on the van at 5:30, and out at Estancia Tuni at 8:40. Even at 6am traffic in El Alto is bad, and most of that time was just to get out of the city. After that, Estancia Tuni – which feels like the middle of nowhere – isn’t too far. We spent most of the day walking gradually uphill to Lago Condoriri, the lake below the glaciers below the mountains. All this was above 14,000 feet, and we were heavily loaded with water and food. I was carrying 12 liters of water, in part to help me be patient with a slower pace. We could have given a few of those to Zeke, who repeatedly had to be pulled back to the group. We circled the Tuni reservoir, which looked low but was in the news a few weeks later as one of the better-off reservoirs supplying drinking water to La Paz during the water crisis.

From there we followed a dry aqueduct up the valley, past a number of dams and lakes, a few swampy mazes, past llamas and a friendly burro that came over to us to be rubbed on the head, all in increasingly narrowing valleys toward the head of the valley. There is a refugio – a no-frills place to spend the night – there, but we set up our tents a little ways away, over a hill and out of view, but close to a creek and in view of grazing llamas on the nearby hill. Here at the head of the valley we were surrounded by impressive glaciered peaks – Pico Austria to the left, the three peaks of Condoriri in the middle, and Aguja Negra to the right.

At 14,500 feet, it got cold quickly after the sun went behind the mountains, and after a good supper we were all in tents before too long. (Except Hernan, who erected a shelter with a tarp, rope and trekking pole. We woke up that night to hear him yelling Fuera! Fuera! (Out! Out!) at a dog that was trying to find its way in.) Leticia and I had two sleeping bags zipped together with Zeke in between us, which was plenty warm but somehow much tighter than when we had tried it out for 3 minutes at home.

It is a standard experience for me to have to get up to pee in the middle of the night when camping, and I always lie in the sleeping bag for a while delaying getting out in the cold (and in this case, delaying the challenge of merely exiting the bag), but once I am out, and if the night is clear, I would consider these some of the most clearly religious moments I experience. The night was completely calm, the sky clear, and the stars brilliant in the thin air.


Once high enough, Huayna Potosi is visible to the south.

We were up slowly Saturday morning, eating oatmeal, enjoying the delicious arrival of the sun over the mountain. We were finally off at 8:45 with a plan to hike up Pico Austria, at an elevation of 17,500 feet, meaning a 3000 foot elevation gain. Really, our plan was to take it slowly, stick together, see how everyone dealt with the altitude, and then decide how far to go. It turns out there was a shorter (if steeper) way up, but we started by heading right around Lago Condoriri following a trail marked on the best map we could find. I had the same big pack (it’s the Lowe that I bought in 1997 to backpack around northern Scotland), but now with only 4 liters of water, food, and extra clothes. Either from the altitude or not enough caffeine, I had a mild heachache all day, but it never got worse. We were slow, but in general we all did reasonably well with the altitude. And so we went, up rocky slopes, across little creeks running down from the glaciers, across meadows and gravelly bits and rocky bands and then up a steep scree slope leading up to Paso Austria, where we arrived at 1:45pm.

Surprisingly, it was calm at the pass – a guide we met said the wind usually picks up around 3pm – and we ate lunch, enjoying amazing scenery across more glaciers, a hanging lake, and, far below, another lake and ground without snow. We had gained enough altitude that we now had good views of Huayna Potosi to the south. Two groups with guides went by, heading up to Pico Austria, which was clearly mismarked on our map, and wasn’t visible (and hence looked daunting) from our vantage point. I think that some of us could have made the rest of the trip, but we were happy to stay together, enjoy the views and the sandwiches, and feel pleased about getting above the 16,000 foot mark.


At Paso Austria

Going down was, of course, much faster, but still not easy. Soup with quinoa for supper hit the spot, and we were visited by an old woman from the refugio who came to collect the 10 bolivianos per person (about $1.43 each) to spend the night. She was so warm and friendly and pleased we had come so far to see this place. It seems folks don’t often bring tents up there, and she asked why we hadn’t stayed in the refugio, but noted that we had “brought our houses with us.” Once again the nighttime bathroom break gave a chance to have my head in the stars, and I gave a little prayer of thanks for the opportunity to be out there.


Somehow this happened on the way down.

There was some confusion about where the driver would pick us up Monday morning at 9, and so we were up at 5 and moving by 6:40. We packed up the tents with frost still on them and headed down the broadening valley. Tenaja tweaked her knee on the way down, and we spread her load out among us. She was a trooper, though, and walked out, even though it turned out she had torn an ACL and had to return to the States a few weeks early for surgery. The driver turned out to be in the right place, and he took a long detour around El Alto – the kind where you drive on tons of little unmarked roads, sometimes apparently driving in circles, until suddenly he pops out in El Alto near the road that plummets down to Sopocachi, where we lived. An hour and 55 minutes after being picked up, we were back in Pasaje Gasco. Really, Lago Condoriri is less than an hour from all the bustle of El Alto, which is amazing in its own right.
That meant I was home in plenty of time to teach math 634 and 381 from 2 to 6pm, to come home to supper with a house full of friends, and to go to bed hoping that the next day’s elections would turn out OK.


One more of Condoriri on the way out Monday morning.

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