(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.