Cordillera Real, Bolivia: High Altitude for Beginners

by Dan Bailey - UKHillwalking.com Jul/2015
This article has been read 13,188 times

The Cordillera Real of the Bolivian Andes are an ideal destination for those less experienced at high altitude. Ranging in height from 5000 to nearly 6500m, they're big but not silly big. It's a spectacular and exotic range, yet much of it is quick to access. And better yet, it's easy on the budget. Unlike Nepal or India there are no peak fees or permits here; the feel is more informal holiday than full-on expedition. It's as if the convenience of the Alps and the awesome scale of the Himalaya have met somewhere in the middle. Add classic peaks and generally reliable weather, and you've got the perfect place to make your first steps into the rarefied world of high altitude.

Illimani from Huayna Potosi, 92 kb
Illimani from Huayna Potosi
© Dan Bailey

From Lake Titicaca the Cordillera Real range runs about 125km, passing just east of the city of La Paz to form a huge natural barrier between the dusty high plateau of the Altiplano and the low humid rainforest of the Amazon. With its higher base, drier climate and more amenable terrain the standard approaches to the range come from the Altiplano side. Floating in the skyline above the smog of downtown La Paz, the mountains of the central and southern sections could hardly be more accessible, just a few hours in a 4WD or a rickety taxi from city centre to trail head. Stagger off the plane (you're already 4000m up on the rim above the world's highest capital city); stock up in a supermarket; haggle a bit over transport and you're good to go. Just remember to acclimatise along the way.

"It's the perfect place to make your first steps into the rarefied world of high altitude"

On Pequeno Alpamayo, 69 kb

Cordillera Real in a nutshell:

  • Low cost
  • No fees or bureaucracy
  • Easily accessible by road
  • Classic routes are not especially technical
  • High altitude, but not extreme
  • Good chance of decent weather
  • Not as scary as Peru's great ranges

The famous snow summits of the Cordillera Real are stunners, and though their standard routes are not at all technical, and as a result often busy, they remain climbs of real quality. For acclimatised teams many can be done in short two or three night raids from La Paz. Then with your peak in the bag (hopefully), it's back to the city with its range of accommodation and restaurants, to recover in comfort.

Aside from easy alpine-style ascents on the big glaciated peaks there are plenty of other things to keep you busy in the mountains: multi-day treks and walkers' summits; ski touring; expeditionary ascents of the more remote biggies; and for those in the know, great potential for new technical routes.

Sticking with the high altitude beginner's brief, here's a rundown of the most popular routes on the well-known peaks nearest La Paz.

Pico Austria 5315m and Mirador (or Jallayco) 5224m F

Mini Mirador (foreground) and the humungous Huayna Potosi from Pico Austria, 122 kb
Mini Mirador (foreground) and the humungous Huayna Potosi from Pico Austria
© Dan Bailey

Standing one on each side of the Condoriri base camp at Laguna Chiar Cota, these glacier-free summits make ideal non-technical acclimatisation hill walks. Pico Austria looks the more striking of the two, but proves to be nothing harder than a scree trudge: the view of nearby Condoriri is worth the effort alone. As far as the summit ridge of Mirador it's easy strolling (or hypoxic wheezing, if you're not yet acclimatised), but the final stretch is an exposed scramble on rubbish rock. Up here you're on the very edge of the range overlooking the Altiplano, and the view is immense; the stand-alone giant Huayna Potosi is bound to pique your interest (see below).

Pequeno Alpamayo 5410m PD+

The weather closing in on Pequeno Alpamayo, 58 kb
The weather closing in on Pequeno Alpamayo
© Dan Bailey

A perfect steep-sided little snow peak hidden away behind an extensive glacier and intervening summits, Pequeno Alpamayo is justifiably popular. With a long glacier plod (watch out for some hungry crevasses) up to a bonus extra summit, a surprise rocky downclimb, an airy and aesthetic snow ridge traverse and a steep icy finish at about 50 degrees (Scottish I), this standard route has a bit of everything. It's a long day out from the Condoriri base camp, and definitely not to be underestimated. Few Alpine PDs would make half as much impression.

Condoriri 5648m AD+/D

Cabeza and its wings from Laguna Chiar Cota, 113 kb
Cabeza and its wings from Laguna Chiar Cota
© Dan Bailey
Dawn on the Condoriri glacier, 112 kb
Dawn on the Condoriri glacier
© Dan Bailey

Most ranges have their 'Matterhorn', and with some poetic license this is the Cordillera Real's version, a steep-sided sawn-off rock-and-snow peak (La Cabeza – the head of the Condor) rising between two spectacular satellites (the condor's right and left 'wings', A la Derecha and A la Izquierda). From the base camp at the crystal clear lake of the Laguna Chiar Cota scrabble up precipitous moraine scree, negotiate a crevassed glacier plateau, run out a pitch or two up a steep icy gully (Scottish II/III) and finish on an utterly spectacular snow crest. Save something for the descent.

Huayna Potosi 6088m PD

Easy but exposed on Huayna Potosi's summit ridge, 132 kb
Easy but exposed on Huayna Potosi's summit ridge
© Dan Bailey

Do not be misled by the fact that inexperienced travellers are regularly guided / goaded up this mountain: at over 6000m Huayna Potosi is quite big and serious enough for most people, and if you're going unguided then its standard route is no pushover. Rising in isolation, the highest thing for miles in any direction, this great glaciated pyramid is an obvious objective for acclimatised parties. With a drivable road from La Paz over the 4700m Zongo Pass at the foot of the mountain, access couldn't be simpler. The standard route on the eastern flank is served by various Alpine-style staffed huts, and though it's largely non-technical there is a lot of heavily glaciated ground with some huge crevasses, topped off with a steep final snow climb and a very airy (if easy) summit ridge. The high point is usually a cornice overhanging the 1000m west face - the largest face in Bolivia, and quite a different animal to the normal route.

Illimani 6439m PD/AD

Nido de Condores - High Camp on Illimani -5400m, 171 kb
Nido de Condores - High Camp on Illimani -5400m
© jasoncash, Jun 2012

The big one. The highest peak in the Cordillera Real, and the second highest in Bolivia, Illimani stands alone at the southeastern end of the range, a huge glacier-streaked massif that draws your gaze from downtown La Paz. One of the classic big peaks of the Andes, it forms a main ridge of several 6000m summits running roughly NW-SE for about 8km. The high point is Pico Sur near the south end, usually climbed from a camp at Nido de Condores (5500m), an exposed site at the top of a scrambly rock ridge. Above is a snow ridge leading to the upper snow fields, where you might encounter a rope length of 50-degree ground, then a final snow plod up the summit ridge. Watch for crevasses all the way, and the possibility of a tricky bergschrund (its condition reportedly varies year to year). Even if acclimatised, allow at least three days for the round trip.

Cordillera Real Info

When to go

The main period runs roughly May-September, winter in the southern hemisphere and also the dry season in this neck of the woods. June, July and August are best; September can still be a go-er, though things might start to deteriorate. In season the Cordillera Real are renowned as having some of the most stable weather and conditions of any alpine climbing area in the world. Ideally this should mean minimal precipitation and nice stable snow, with overnight freezes and strong daytime sunshine. However some think the climate may be becoming less reliable, and El Nino can periodically play havoc with your plans. Unseasonal heavy snowfall severely limited the climbing options during the 2014 season, for instance.

Factor in acclimatisation time

La Paz sits in a bowl at over 3500m, while its twin city on the rim above, El Alto, is a full 4000m up. On the plus side that means you're acclimatising (hard) as soon as you step off the plane from sea level, but the downside is that you'll feel rotten at first. Headaches, shortness of breath and general lethargy are to be expected in the first few days, and that's just while you're sitting still. Try climbing the stairs and it all falls apart. Before heading to the mountains it is essential to spend several days acclimatising in and around La Paz, perhaps going out on day trips to the altiplano at around 4000m before returning to the lower city to sleep. It would be sensible not to move up to a base camp such as Condoriri's (4600m+) for about a week. Trying to hurry these things is a false economy for most people. Once you've reached the mountains there might be a temptation to hit the ground running, but stay patient and work up slowly through progressively higher summits.

  • For more advice on coping at high altitude see this article

Illimani from downtown La Paz, 118 kb
Illimani from downtown La Paz
© Dan Bailey

Guided or solo?

The Cordillera Real are not exclusively for hardened mountaineers. Fit hill walkers with a head for heights and some basic ability with axe and crampons could get plenty done here, but if you've no experience on glaciated ground then do hire a guide. With so many travellers passing through Bolivia and wanting to have a go at a peak, guided trips are a popular option and many firms offer their services in La Paz. However their competence and reliability vary enormously, so if you wait until you get there before organising a trip then it's crucial to shop around. A more sure way to hook up with a decent guide is to book in advance through a UK-based company. Operators with trips to the Cordillera Real include Bolivian Mountains and Jagged Globe

For climbers with a couple of Scottish winters of leading under their belt, and crucially some relevant experience of Alpine mountaineering in glaciated ranges, the standard routes covered here should present few technical problems. The actual climbing is unlikely to exceed Scottish grade II/III (at the very most), or the occasional bit of Moderate ground on the rock. However do not be complacent. If these are your first 5000m+ mountains then the sheer scale of the glaciated peaks of the Andes will be far more of a challenge than the steepness of your routes. Bear in mind too that your physical and mental abilities will be taking a battering from the altitude. In season the headline routes may be marked by a trough of footprints, making it almost impossible to get lost, but if you do find yourself alone on the hill then the potential seriousness of Andean mountaineering will be obvious. Rescue services are ad hoc at best. For all these reasons it pays to have a few grades in hand on your chosen route.

Moderately steep ground on Pequeno Alpamayo, 111 kb
Moderately steep ground on Pequeno Alpamayo
© Dan Bailey

Getting to the mountains and other logistics

There's quick road access to the main trail heads. For Condoriri/Pequeno Alpamayo base camp you can arrange mules to carry all your gear with the family that lives in the house at the start of the trail; be prepared to haggle. On Huayna Potosi and Illimani it's porters rather than pack animals.

For those with more time than money the Cordillera Real can be accessed pretty cheaply on a DIY basis. Ask around at the downtown hostels for fellow lift sharers; hunt out the best deals at the many tour firms on Sagarnaga and Illampu in La Paz; and again you'll need to haggle.

But if your holiday time is precious then it may be worth arranging some logistics in advance with one of the operators. This might work out slightly more expensive, but it saves time and hassle. Even if you don't intend to employ a guide for the actual climbing, a firm can help with vehicle travel, hiring mules or porters, possibly a base camp cook, and help you find key supplies.

Last year we used the friendly and efficient UK/Bolivian firm Bolivian Mountains for various journeys between La Paz and the mountains. Jeep driver Hugo proved very dependable; and at HQ his English-speaking daughter Miriam is a whizz with the logistics. It was quite a novelty to phone her in the office from a 6000m summit to arrange a pickup from down at the trail head later that day.

Cholita and her burros, 171 kb
Cholita and her burros
© Dan Bailey

Food, gas and equipment

Specialised mountain food is not easily available in La Paz, but all the basic staples can readily be had – stuff like noodles, pasta, packet soup, bread, jam, biscuits, cheese, chocolate, tins of fish, porridge, fruit and veg. Downtown supermarkets are the most convenient for grocery shopping (and only expensive by local standards); outdoor markets add a touch of holiday exotica to the shopping experience.

As for gear, it's sensible to bring everything you'll need from home. Camping equipment and outdoor clothing may be widely available in the many shops in the tourist ghetto around the streets of Sagarnaga and Illampu, but the quality is variable. Cheap (and not-so-cheap) knock-offs abound, so shop with care. Reliable technical climbing gear is harder to come by, though some bits and bobs can be had. Gas can be more difficult to find than you might think; you may need to ask around. It is comparatively expensive too.

What to wear

Base your clothing around stuff for a Scottish winter or an Alpine summer 4000-er, and add a decent down jacket. Bring plenty of layers to suit a wide range of temperatures from the strong sun of a windless base camp to minus double digits on the pre-dawn summit trudge. Very warm gloves (and of course spares) are a must. A winter weight hard shell, top and bottoms, is a good idea too: there may not be much rain but snowfall is always a possibility and high wind chill is pretty much guaranteed. Super insulated high altitude boots might make life more pleasant for your toes at 6000m+ but most of the time they'll be overkill – so go with your standard Scottish winter climbing boots, perhaps with the addition of full rand gaiters for Illimani.

The normal routes don't demand a lot of gear, 110 kb
The normal routes don't demand a lot of gear
© Dan Bailey

Technical gear

For the routes covered here crevasse rescue is as much a consideration as protecting the occasional steep pitch. Bring a single rope and a handful of ice screws, plus crevasse kit including slings, screwgates, prussiks and ideally a small mechanical traction device such as a Wild Country Ropeman or a Petzl Micro Traxion. Twelve-point crampons and a single mountaineering axe will suffice, though if you did bring two axes just in case then you might appreciate them on the odd steeper section (Condoriri for instance).

Guidebook

The Andes - A Guide for Climbers by John Biggar is an essential source of reference, covering (briefly) the standard routes on all the major peaks in the Cordillera Real, along with pretty much every other significant mountain from Venezuela to Patagonia. As a guide and South America old hand John can also help arrange trip logistics through his company Andes

Maps

Do not expect them to be as accurate or easy to come by as OS maps:

  • Condoriri / Pequeno Alpamayo: BIGM 1:50,000 sheets 5945-II 'Milluni' and 5945-III 'Penas'
  • Huayna Potosi: BIGM 1:50,000 sheet 5945-II 'Milluni'
  • Illimani: BIGM 1:50,000 sheet 6044-III or Alpenverienskarte 1:50,000 0/9 Cordillera Real South: Illimani

Websites

Local website BoliviaClimbingInfo.org is an excellent source of reference, with mini guides to the various peaks and ranges, very useful recent conditions reports and new route news (some of these look great).

Detailed weather forecasts for specific mountains (even specific altitudes) can be had at mountain-forecast.com

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