Above The Clouds
Sajama seemed to grow taller and more intimidating with every step as we began our long approach to high camp. From the shadow cast by the immense mountain, I saw the detail of each cliff dominating its south face.
With clear weather in the forecast and momentum building after successful climbs of Huayna Potosi and Pequeño Alpamayo, there seemed no better time to climb Sajama. Yet with any serious climb, even when confident in your preparation and fortunate enough to have good weather, nerves play their hand the night before.
I was particularly edgy on Sajama. It is renowned for testing even the most resilient climbers with its slog up to the summit and the brutally unstable terrain on its steep, western slope. Nestled in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates, the high-altitude desert near the Chilean border, Bolivia’s tallest mountain is known for her savage weather. Few other mountains surround this stratovolcano, so winds upwards of 100mph have been known to tear across the featureless desert and careen up its attenuated slopes, freezing the air. The window we had selected would be critical in determining not only if we made it to the summit, but also if we made it down. Of course, I feared not being able to reach the summit, or picking up a serious injury – and this fear was sharpened by the knowledge that a German climber had died on Huayna Potosi only weeks earlier, falling from the final ridge near the summit.
We had arrived in the dusty village of Sajama in a microbus piled high with gear and supplies, only to discover that, owing to a local football tournament, there were very few porters available. In Bolivian culture, football eclipses almost everything else. We were forced to carry the bulk of the load ourselves, with only two porters to aid our six-person climbing team. This did not bode well for me; I was carrying heavy camera kit, although I’d pared it down to the basics. My expedition pack was filled to bursting with water, climbing gear, and sufficient warm layers to keep me alive in the expected -30˚C cold. My bulky mountaineering boots dangled on the outside of my pack. I had trained in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia with a similar load, but now I was forced into an environment where every kilo felt like double the weight and breathing might as well be done through a straw. We drove our microbus up to base camp and pitched our tents next to an adobe shack surrounded by llamas, vicuñas, and spindly queñoa trees. After a plain meal of rice and eggs beneath an indigo, star-filled sky, I was nervous enough to experience fitful sleep. I roamed around base camp for hours, photographing the Milky Way as Sajama loomed in the distance.
Morning finally came. Sajama seemed to grow taller and more intimidating with every step as we began our long approach to high camp. From the shadow cast by the immense mountain, I saw the detail of each cliff dominating its south face. If the first six hours had offered something like a trail and a gradual climb, the last 500m was a steep slog up slippery, sand-like volcanic scree, littered with scant patches of melting snow that was far too soft and irregular for crampons to be of any use. My backpacking boots sank into the collapsing surface, finding little traction. For every step, I fell half a step back, sending red volcanic rock tumbling down the mountain and bleeding precious energy.
The two porters had been able to make it up to the high camp about an hour before us, and had set up the three expedition-style tents on a small and exposed snowy ridge surrounded by steep slopes and a large boulder. This provided marginal protection from westerly winds. When I caught my first glimpse of that high camp, I collapsed to my knees, exhausted. Inefficient climbing had robbed me of all my energy and my heart beat like a hummingbird’s wings. Ready to take one final break before finishing the climb, my heart froze as I watched one of the tents being ripped apart by the howling wind. We raced up the last 50m to salvage what we could of the damaged tent. When I got there, still desperate to help with repairs, I collapsed, lifeless, on a sheet of ice right next to it. I must have fallen asleep, because 10 minutes later Ethan shook me awake. My lips had begun to turn blue. An intoxicating desire to sleep overcame me and my eyelids grew impossibly heavy. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew this to be a symptom of acute pulmonary oedema, which could potentially lead to heart failure. Somehow, I sat up and slowly regained consciousness, my heart working so hard I could feel its beat in my extremities and in my head.
Once I was able to eat a couple of biscuits and drink some warm coca tea, I found a small measure of confidence. I even thought I might still have a chance to make a summit bid later that night. We tried to get a couple of hours’ rest before the climb, but Ethan, Cookie, and I developed pounding headaches while lying in the tent. I lost so much precious energy trying to focus on something other than the unforgiving clamour of the tent cracking in the gusting wind. For hours I turned, eyes wide open, waiting for the night to end. Relief came in the form of a shout from our guide, David, at 11.30pm. Although his tent was only a couple metres away, I could barely hear him over the increasingly savage wind. Despite this, my desperation to get out of the tent jaded my judgment. I still considered these climbable conditions. I was in rough shape to climb another 1,100m, but the thought of being able to turn my attention towards climbing rather than the pain that swept over me was enticing. But David had been trying to communicate that the winds were simply too strong to make a safe attempt on the summit. My poor condition had inevitably played a role in his decision.
At 8.00am, when we should have been at the summit, we instead packed up camp. The mood was dark and riven by a sense of failure. I was overcome by the notion that I had no business being in these mountains. It felt that pride and too lofty an aspiration had gotten the best of me. I thought perhaps I needed to re-evaluate my ability and set more realistic goals, that maybe I was just not cut out for mountaineering at this altitude. Not fit enough to make it to the summit. I found it almost impossible to break this cycle of negativity. As we drove in silence back to La Paz, I sunk into my window seat and stared at Sajama as it shrank in the distance, my motivation to keep climbing shrinking along with it. Ethan, Cookie, and I spent the next week eating greasy fast food from a corner dive and watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix, indulgences that papered over the cracks in our morale. It was easier to sit on a couch all day than to confront my fear of failure. If I stopped now, I told myself, I would still have summited Huayna Potosi and Pequeño Alpamayo, two out of the three mountains I had attempted, so that could be considered a modest success. With the brutal conditions on Sajama offering a way out, I could have left Bolivia at that point relatively unscathed. But, like a succubus whispering to us, Illimani remained, and towards the end of the week, the mood had shifted. With a narrow impending window of acceptable weather, we began to weigh the risks of heading to Illimani. All that mattered was the weather on our summit day, we said, and the forecast showed exceptionally strong winds every day for the next two weeks, except for what we had earmarked as summit day. There wasn’t much hesitation.
The mood was dark and riven by a sense of failure. I was overcome by the notion that I had no business being in these mountains. It felt that pride and too lofty an aspiration had gotten the best of me.
The treacherous drive to Pinaya passed by so swiftly I might not have even blinked. Our microbus fairly zipped along on dusty, precarious single-track roads carved into steep mountainsides, but I didn’t care. I’d become inured to the ludicrous driving conditions in the Bolivian mountains, and I knew deep down that far greater dangers lurked ahead. Doubt filled me. Illimani was the largest mountain I had ever seen, but one thing was clear: I had no choice but to leave every ounce of effort on the mountain.
A flat, icy section with space for five or six tents jutted from a rocky ridgeline just below the southern peak. This gifted an unbroken vista of the entire mountain above, as well as the brightly lit La Paz below. The luxuries of city life were gone, and we waited at the grace of the mountain.
From Pinaya, Illimani appeared even more titanic and intimidating. Its broad shoulders hefted three muscular peaks, all well over 6,000m. We eyed the tallest. Energised by the prospect of summiting in just 36 hours, we trekked two quick hours with large backpacks to base camp, nestled in a pastoral valley through which packhorses and llamas roamed. To occupy my time and keep my mind from wandering into dangerous places, I photographed the expansive mountain from every possible angle. Photography has always helped me relax, but I doubt it had ever had a more meditative effect than that night at base camp.
I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed. I welcomed this, the darkness of the hostel in La Paz forgotten, and looked forward to the climb. Instead of focusing on the terrain and the difficulty of the trek in, I visualised slamming my ice axe into the snow on top of the summit. Step by laborious step, I inched closer to that vision and eventually made it up to the high camp: Nido de los Condores, ‘the Condor’s Nest’. It was, hands down, the most beautiful camp I have ever seen. A flat, icy section with space for five or six tents jutted from a rocky ridgeline just below the southern peak. This gifted an unbroken vista of the entire mountain above, as well as the brightly lit La Paz below. The luxuries of city life were gone, and we waited at the grace of the mountain. Above us, the graves of five Chileans who died on this mountain offered a stark reminder of our isolation.
The frigid cold meant I spent the first half of the night huddled in my sleeping bag, allowing the tiniest possible opening for my nose and mouth. Although I felt fine, I still found it difficult to sleep. Perhaps it was the allure of summiting the tallest peak in the Cordillera Real that dominated my thoughts, or perhaps the chance to shed light on the darkness of Sajama. The thunder of dozens of avalanches filled the mountain and I soon began to feel the gravity of what waited for me.
At 1.40am, we geared up and painstakingly double-checked each other’s gear. We began our ascent of the stouter peak’s western slope beneath a full moon and passed hundreds of crevasses that, in its cold blueish light, appeared only faintly, like bone-chilling holes of icy blackness. I acutely felt the presence of these dark pits, but told myself that what lay to either side did not matter as long as I stayed on my feet. I broke the whole intimidating task down into tolerable increments. Each careful kick into the hardened snow served as a tiny victory. Finally, we made it to 6,000m, where one last push remained: a single section comprising the two steepest slopes of the entire climb. We steeled ourselves, perched on all fours and, ice axe in hand, metronomically punched our way up those frozen slopes. I approached the final ridge, calves searing, but even stopping to drag in a breath didn’t afford my muscles much of a break, so I had no choice but to power on. We arrived at the ridge just below the summit, legs like rubber, but I felt more motivated than ever to continue. Yet my mind swam in a hazy fog and I forced myself to fixate on the summit. Emotion flooded me as we took our final steps. I could not believe how our momentum had oscillated: we had begun with perfect climbs of Huayna Potosi and Pequeño Alpamayo, then had our hearts broken on Sajama. But there could be no more perfect reward for the pain this project had exacted than standing on the summit, gazing out at the surrounding mountains delicately balanced between menacing rock faces and gracefully meandering ridgelines. Warm, damask rays from the rising sun swept over a sea of cloud that rose from the jungle, illuminating and refreshing my spirit.
Going in to the expedition, I had been in the best shape of my life. However, I had learned with each climb that mental strength – remaining positive and retaining focus – was more fundamental than physical strength alone. In the heavy darkness of long nights before summit attempts, I found it too easy to allow a single negative thought to gestate and give birth to more. Understanding how I reacted to these challenges on the first several climbs, and through failure on Sajama, was instrumental in learning how to overcome them on Illimani and beyond. Perhaps it ought not to have required -20˚C cold, searing muscular pain, and a depleted oxygen supply to get me into that mindset. Yet, if that’s what it took for me to fathom what kind of resilience is required to realise dreams, then I got more out of this experience than I could have ever hoped.
This story was first published in Sidetracked Volume 13