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Starting the South Ridge of Condo riri, photo by Gordon Turner

RAFMA Bolivian Venture 1992

Standing alone on the summit of Ancohuma, my first 21,000 ft summit, and looking down at Lake Titicaca in one direction and cloud-covered jungle in the other, the feeling of sheer exhilaration was quite overpowering, with the obvious physical ‘high’ being matched by an even more dramatic mental ‘high’ that words cannot express. We had all been well-aware before we left home that the major 1992 RAFMA expedition, Bolivian Venture, was going to be quite different from the more usual Himalayan pattern of expeditions. Instead of having a single major peak as the sole objective, with the option of trekking for those who felt they had less adrenalin to spare, it was intended to be more like Alpine climbing, with very small (typically 2-man) lightweight groups setting off for one to four days at a time to bag a chosen summit, and then to return and regroup for the next objective; and so it turned out. Since each member of our 18-strong RAFMA team succeeded in climbing as many routes as were within his own personal level of ability and aspiration, the expedition was undoubtedly an unqualified success. For me personally, it meant relegating Mont Blanc from its lofty position as the highest summit I had previously climbed, (31 Jul 80 on a Joint Services Alpine Meet) to being merely the twelfth highest; and my experience was by no means unique. Unfortunately, one minor drawback is that none of us who took part can give a first-hand account of the whole expedition, so my own personal recollections can only paint a partial picture. This was brought forcibly home when I first saw Gordon and Phil’s excellent slide show, and realised that I had been on a quite different expedition for much of the time.

La Paz

La Paz and Illimani, 6,438m (21.109ft)

Landing at La Paz International Airport at 4,100m was the first shock to the system, but the sight of 6,400m peaks in the distance in the clear early morning light as we drove to our comfortable but cheap hotel in the city, gave a reliable promise of the delights to come. The altitude of La Paz, combined with its proximity to the mountains, made it the ideal place in which to acclimatise, while we shopped for food and maps, and arranged transport through Club Andino Boliviano. Since Bolivia is self-sufficient in everything from potatoes and vegetables to citrus fruits and bananas, we had no problem finding everything we needed at very low prices. Laurie soon became the party’s expert at sampling the large variety of ‘funny foreign fruits’ that abounded on roadside stalls, but he failed to persuade everyone to try them. Bolivia is certainly very different from the Himalayas in many respects; in addition to the lack of humidity, rats, flies and objectionable odours, aficionados of the amber nectar soon agreed that the local Cervesa resembled a rather fine German Pilsner. Day trips to the neighbouring foothills gave our lungs a taste of what was in store for them, and culminated in a visit to Chacaltaya, the highest ski resort in the world at over 5,000 m; our considered verdict was that the skiing there was only fit for those who liked exceedingly lumpy Scottish boilerplate.

Lama

Domesticated Lama, used for meat, milk and as a pack animal

We split into 2 parties for the first 10 day climbing phase, with Gordon’s team of 8 heading off to the Zongo valley, primarily to climb the 6,094m peak, Huayna Potosi, a beautiful peak that we had all studied carefully from Chacaltaya. They warmed up by taking forays into the mountains, sampling the delights of loose, knife-edge rock ridges, snow plods and searching for the best way up onto the upper glacier. Team by team, they moved up to the high camp to make their attempt, by any route, on Huayna Potosi. In the end, all 8 made the exhilarating but fairly straightforward, ascent of the South Face - The Via de los Franceses (380m at 50-55 degrees all the way). Some then tried to link the two summits by a loose, sharp and dangerous ridge. Three hours and only three pitches later, they abandoned ship, abseiled off and walked round to it instead. Two 6,000m peaks in one day!

Base Camp

Base Camp at 4,700m

The other 10, led by Mike, set up their base camp by Lago Jankho Kkota at 4,700 m, in typically Scottish surroundings, except for a total lack of humidity and midges, and much thinner air. Surrounded by a dozen glaciated peaks at between 5,200 and 5,550m, all within a few kilometres, we had the valley to ourselves except for shepherds, shepherdesses, sheep, llamas, birds and fresh lake trout. With mixed mountaineering in abundance, excellent snow conditions and dry glaciers, everyone was well satisfied. We oldies contented ourselves with bagging just about everything in sight, leaving the epics (such as exceedingly late returns and jammed abseil ropes left behind for later recovery) to the more impetuous youths. Other than climbing, the main challenge was persuading MSR stoves firstly to light and then to stay lit for a complete meal, no mean feat.

High Camp

High Camp

After a 2-day break in La Paz for R&R and re-victualling, we all headed out together for our second climbing phase. I had not realised before that you can spend 6 hours driving by the most direct route between 2 points, without straying from the same 1:50,000 map. What a road! After a damp road-head bivouac near to a long-abandoned silver mine, we started an exhausting full- day trek to our base camp at 4,660 m, above the head of the Rio Cocoyo Jakuira, supported by 45 load carrying lamas; we needed so many since each could carry only 13 kgs. Now that we were on the jungle side of the mountain watershed, the weather was damper and featured the odd few snow flurries from time to time, but still no rain. Nothing daunted, one intrepid party had their eyes on the 6,060 m Pico del Norte, and backpacked out to establish a glacier camp at its foot, at what was very obviously only a short distance from our base camp - Well, they certainly thought it was fairly near, after all, it was clearly visible just 4 km away... but it took them 2 whole days to get there! Some glacier! Apparently, it can be quite time-consuming crossing crevasses by abseiling into them and front-pointing back out at the far side. They certainly achieved their objective, although somewhat later than they had intended. The main objective for most of the party was Ancohuma at 6,427 m (21,086 ft), which required an advanced base camp below the glacier and a high-level camp at 5,800m.

Taking a break

Takinga break

Enjoying the view

Enjoying the view

The first team of 4 (Neil, Peter, Dave and Murray) carried with them 2 lightweight tents plus fuel and cookers, all the way to the high-level camp, leaving them well dug into a ledge sheltered within a large crevasse, for use by later parties. Unfortunately, these 4 failed to make the summit because of adverse weather and possibly the after-effects of the previous day’s heavy carry, but they did spot a couple of unknown climbers above them, one they described as moving excruciatingly slowly and the other spending a lot of time waiting around. These two, later identified as Gordon and Phil, had set out several days earlier to make their way up the next valley to have a go at Illampu. They, like Laurie and Nick, had one hell of a walk-in and, seeing that there was no chance of getting up Illampu, decided to cut their losses and nipped up our mountain via a long linking ridge - a great day in very windy conditions. In some ways this highlighted the flexibility of this type of expedition, in that climbing objectives could so easily be changed at short notice to suit personal whims and the various mountain conditions encountered. Those of us who later succeeded in climbing Ancohuma owe a lot to the unselfish efforts of the 4 who established the top camp. Well done, lads, and thanks! Laurie and Nick also deserve special mention for putting up a new 11-pitch Grade IV ice climb on Pico del Norte, probably the hardest route done on the expedition. After yet another 2-day break in down-town La Paz, we split into 2 parties for our third and final climbing trip. With only 4 days available the choice was between the more technically challenging Condoriri, or the higher Illimani. Gordon's Condoriri team had the time of their lives. Mules materialised from nowhere to take their sacs the full one and a half hours to base camp which, for the first time on the trip, they shared with other parties. With little snow that year, there had been few ascents of the mountain and the patchy ice on the face meant that the more common trade routes had to be tried. Whilst Gordon and Phil set off up a beautiful looking snow and rock ridge, the rest of the team climbed the ice couloir just beyond it. Although conditions lower down were not good, the final ridge above the couloir was fantastic and the view was only the best in the world, looking all the way down the Andes.

Lake Titicaca

Shoreline of Lake Titicaca, at 3,812m

Mike’s team set out for Illimani, the mountain that is almost to La Paz, what the Matterhorn certainly is to Zermatt. At 6,438m (21,109 ft), it is the second highest mountain in Bolivia, and the highest on the Cordillera Real range. Although it stands out so well from the City and looks so close, it took a 4 hour drive followed by a 5 hour walk (with our rucksacks carried on burros) to reach our chosen base-camp at the foot of the mountain. Although this is not to be divulged at Catterick, rucksacks were not all that travelled on horseback, since our 2 from the RAF Regiment took it in turns to pretend they were in the Cavalwy Wegiment, one outbound due to a poorly tummy and one on the return trip due to very painful snow blindness. On the second day we carried our camp up a rock ridge to 5,500m, leaving us with an exhausting 940m to climb on the following day to the top. With no spare days for bad weather we had no choice but to climb to the summit on the only day it was in thick cloud; this was obviously disappointing since it marked the climax, but no-one really complained at having just one day of such weather in a 6 week expedition.

Altiplano

Looking down on the Altiplano, the world's highest desert at around 4,000m amsl

Hills

The first of 4 scenes showing the abundant scope for peak-bagging

Hills

Hills

Hills

By whatever measure, Bolivian Venture 92 was a great success. In terms of men-summits it must surely have set a RAFMA record for the Greater Ranges. Everyone climbed above 5,500m, many climbed above 6,000m on several occasions, most tried rock and snow ridges, some had unforgettable epics, some put up what are believed to be new routes, all came back having achieved more than they had set out to do. The credit for the success of the expedition goes primarily to Gordon for pulling it all together and leading it so capably; but also to Russ who did an excellent job as Treasurer in finding so much commercial sponsorship, proving that the money is there if you only make the effort to write some 30 begging letters; and finally to Mike the deputy leader who led the vital advance party. For those reading this article and wondering how they might join a future trip, or for the few cynics we have, it is worth noting that every RAFMA member who was eligible to go (i.e., had previous Alpine experience), who could get time off work and who applied for a place, went on it. A great trip. Why not join the next one!

Mel Owen

The Cast:

Martin Bohl
Nick Clements
Neil Daniel
Rod Fountain
Brian Kirkpatrick
Russ La Forte
Mel Owen
Mike Parsons
Tim Payne
Paul Rice
Dave Robertson
Tony Singleton
Laurie Skoudas
Peter Skoudas
Phil Smithson
Murray Spark
Liam Thompson
Gordon Turner.

The above article was first published in the RAFMA Annual Journal for 1992 and published here in May 2017

Civilian Postscript

The above article was written for a military audience, and therefore takes a few things for granted that need expanding for a civilian audience.

  1. Spanish. No Bolivians speak English, Spanish being essential. All of our in-theatre transport and support requirements were negotiated with the natives on our behalf by an official of the Club Andino Boliviano. Because we were a military party, we were able to meet him in the British Embassy in La Paz, together with an embassy interpreter. A civilian party would need to include a good Spanish linguist.
  2. Mountain Rescue. Harping back to the theme that military activities of this sort are considered to be opportunities to develop self-reliance in enemy terrain where no help is available, we were reasonably self-sufficient. Please remember that mountain rescue insurance does not provide mountain rescue, it merely pays for it, so if it doesn’t exist, such insurance might be worthless. One of our party was an RAF Medical Officer, a qualified doctor, and he brought out to Bolivia a comprehensive medical kit. We also brought out with us a portable stretcher, and quite a few of us were well experienced in RAF Mountain Rescue. Civilian parties should take careful note.

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This webpage was last updated 16th May 2018.