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Two First Ascents in the Bolivian Andes

Two First Ascents in the Bolivian Andes

Joseph P. Prem

IN Bolivia1 the Cordillera de los Andes that stretches through the

whole continent of South America reaches its greatest width, although not its greatest height. It consists essentially of the Western and Eastern Cordilleras, separated from each other by a high (average 3800 m.) non-draining plateau, with dry, cold climate and scant vegetation—the Altiplano. The Western Cordillera is made up entirely of volcanoes and is attractive from a climber’s point of view only where erosion has removed the loose and soft material, the remaining harder rocks forming rugged crests like Mt. Sajama (6520 m.), N. Payachata (6420 m.) and others. The excessive dry climate accounts for the high snowline (5600- 6000 m.), so that only a few of the peaks and none of the passes carry a permanent snow capping, with but very small glaciers. The Eastern Cordillera, of mountaineering interest only in Northern Bolivia, consists of slate or granite, and forms where this latter is exposed world-renowned peaks like Mt. Illimani (6400 m.), Mt. Huama Potosi (6200 m.) and Mt. Illampu (6500 m.). Without regard to the Cordillera de Apolobamba, which is in the extreme N. and stretches into Peru, and also carries a few glaciers, the Eastern Cordillera can be divided into two parts, separated by the deep gorge of the La Paz River : a bigger and higher N. W. one called Cordillera Real, which bears the above mentioned high and gallant peaks, and a smaller and lower S. E. one, the Cordillera de Quimza Cruz. Although this nowhere reaches 6000 m., there is only one ice-free pass, the Abra de Tres Cruces (Pass of the Three Crosses). In the N. W. the Quimza Cruz range is composed of slate. Here, therefore, the peaks show more rounded forms but are higher and carry longer glaciers.

The Ascent of Mt. Atoroma (5700 m. ; Quimza Cruz Cord.). August 4th, 1928, during the Bolivian national holidays I took the train in Oruro, at that time my headquarters, and went to Eucaliptus. On a fairly good motor road I crossed the grass and tola (a common bush) covered foreland, consisting of flat stretches called pampas, and intervening ridges with occasional fine glimpses of the snow mountains, to the village of Caxata, on the very foot of the Quimza Cruz Range. Here begins the scenic part of the trip, the road winding in serpentines over red sandstone hills toward the Tres Cruces Pass. Before reaching it we take the branch road that leads on the S. W. side of the range to Araca, its terminus. Grand is the sight to the left into the red and blue gorge of the Luribay River, which flows N. W. and collects the glacial waters from the Cordillera. Successively we pass the valleys of Monte Blanco, Chejñacota (Green Lake), Laramcota (Blue Lake), Mallachuma—each with superb glacial background of wonderfully colored lakes—until we arrive at the Atoroma mine. With a letter of introduction from the owner of the little tin-mine I soon made the acquaintance of the administrator, Mr. Krueger, and the storeman, Mr. Perowitsch, who was to accompany me on my ascent.

The next day, August 5th, with a workman from the mine, I made a reconnaissance trip up the central Atoroma Glacier to the Abra de Atoroma, the view being limited because of fog. The 6th of August I spent surveying and geologizing.

The weather was promising on August 7th, so Perowitsch and I left at 7.40 a.m. with the intention of ascending Mt. Atoroma. A small trail led to the head of the Atoroma Valley, then we followed the left orographic moraine of the central glacier to its end, continuing straight up the névé close to a big crevasse and proceeding to a ridge at the right hand, beyond which the névé is broken by big seracs. Crossing a depression and step-cutting upwards again, we eventually gained ground above the seracs, ascended again to another crevasse, which we followed and finally crossed by a narrow bridge near its left upper end. We steered to a ridge to the right, then keeping somewhat to the left over the flattening névé reached the Atoroma Pass, between the Cerro de Atoroma on the N. W. and another big peak to the S. E. It was noon, the weather had improved so that not a cloud was to be seen, and the temperature was very refreshing. Far to the W., beyond the gorge of the Luribay and the brownish Altiplano, the snow peaks of Mt. Sajama and the two Payachatas had slowly risen. From the pass to the E., where it breaks down in terrible seracs, the eye reached the Cordillera de Choquetanga, a N. branch range of the Quimza Cruz, with small hanging glaciers. Through the gap between the two ranges appears one forested ridge after another until in the blue distance they merge into the Amazon plain. A warm current rises from these woodlands.

After a short rest and a little lunch we went on again, first straight up the S. E. arête of Mt. Atoroma to a crevasse, which we crossed on a mighty bridge—as we did a second smaller and finally a third and very wide one. Keeping somewhat to the right we gained a ridge just above a projecting rock and followed it to a shoulder. Over a depression we proceeded to the S. E. corner of the summit ridge, and from there to the summit at the N. W. As my companion was complaining of headache I had to take the lead all the way. Splendid was the sight of the Quimza Cruz Range and of Mt. Illimani beyond the La Paz River, rising a sheer 15,000 ft. above the gorge. Deep below us to the E., at the foot of the cliffs, appeared the sheet-iron roofs of the Bengala mine. After depositing a visiting card with the date in the nearest rock, somewhat below the summit to the E., we went down again to the pass. We crossed the névé of the Atoroma Glacier below the S. W. face of our mountain, thence descending to the right orographic moraine and on to camp. The people told us they had seen us clearly emerging on the S. E. arête and on the summit.

I spent the two following days (August 8th and 9th) surveying and making geological observations, especially of the contact between the granite and the slate. I also went up the E. Atoroma Glacier to its névé, to the right being El Morro with mine workings at 5500 m.

My vacation came to an end, so next day I took a camion and went back to Oruro, satisfaction in my heart and not without throwing a last glance at the glorious shining glaciers of Quimza Cruz before they disappeared behind a ridge.

The Ascent of Mt. Parinacota (6330 m. ; W. Cord.). On the morning of December 6th, 1928, I went by train of the Bolivian Railway from Oruro to Viacha, changed to the Arica-La Paz R. R. and arrived at Charaña, the Bolivian frontier station, at midnight. A heavy thunderstorm had burst, the first sign of the rainy season. One day I spent in hiring a mozo (servant) and animals. On December 8th, at 10.30 a.m., we started southward : I, the mozo, one saddle-mule and a cargo mule. Ahead of us 80 km. distant loomed the snowy giant Mt. Sajama, and somewhat to the right of it Mts. Parinacota and Pomarape, these two called the Payachatas. Most of the other peaks of the W. Cordillera, on whose inner feet Charaña is situated, have pointed forms and red, brown and white colors, but carry no perpetual snow. Over pampas, for the most part covered with tola bush, we went on. Sometimes there is a hissing in the bush—one of the frequent dust-whirls in formation. Later on the terrain becomes broad waves as we approach a great tufa plateau, and already in the dark we reach the ranche Cellpa, a group of Indian huts, through the canyon of the Kelatia River, where we spend the night.

Next morning we crossed, the Abra de Laramkawa into the valley of the Aciuta River, and through a tributary valley continued to the village of Rio Blanco. Over another pass, with fine glimpses of Mt. Sajama, we reached at night the village of that name.

Spending one day in preparations, I started on December 11th with one saddle- and two pack-horses of local race—small but resistant—for Mt. Parinacota, or Payachata Grande, accompanied by the Terrans, father and son. First we went over the plain on which Sajama village is situated, then over gently rising ground covered with maja (coarse, sharp-pointed Andean grass) , tola bush and Queñea trees, where charcoal-burners make a little industry. Later we followed a second valley leading toward Mt. Pomarape (N. Payachata) , crossed a ridge and ascended a second valley, coming down between the two Payachatas, extremely desolate and grassless—no bush, no tree. It is filled with volcanic ash and sand, into which one sinks to the ankles, bombs and solidified lava weathered to odd forms. There are lava blocks rolled up like snowballs, and some of the lava weathers to thin slabs that clink when one touches them. While my companions pitched the tent, I went on to the pass between the two Payachatas.

December 12th was clear, so I decided to make the ascent. At 8.30 I left camp with the younger Terran, ascending toward the mighty stream of lava that comes down the E. flank of the mountain. Over this flow, which in places is weathhered to coarse blocks, and in others covered with sand and bombs, we ascended with toil to the snowfield that stretched down to the pass between the Payachatas and shows the characteristic Nieves Penitentes in initial stages. Up we struggled on the ash cone, inclined at 33°, infinitely painful and causing us to stop for breath after every two or three steps. In many places ice is hidden below the ash and makes going dangerous. To estimate the distance to the rim of the crater is impossible, as it remains invisible until one is close by. Far below our camp appeared.

At 3.15 we stand in the notch of the crater’s rim, proceeding after a short rest to the highest point a little to the N., where I deposit a tin box containing my visiting card and the date in the tufa rock. The crater is elliptical, possibly 200 by 300 m., and approximately 100 m. deep. It breaks down toward its interior in almost vertical tufa walls, from which rocks are continuously thundering. It is filled with Nieves Penitentes, and so is the rim of the crater. Most imposing is the sight of Mt. Sajama and the N. Payachata. At 4.40 we started the descent and were in camp in less than an hour, sliding down a stream of debris to the N. of the lava flow.

On the following day I ascended to the fields of Nieve Penitente on the slopes of N. Payachata, or Sajama, and made geological observations. Mt. Parinacota is a much younger mountain, showing no signs of former glaciation, and has a well-preserved crater. December 14th I returned to Sajama through the Payachata Valley and over the plain. There I was sick for almost a week, owing to an over-extended bath in a little stream under tropical summer sun at an elevation of 4200 m. The rest of the month I spent in exploring a few valleys that lead up toward Mt. Sajama. Then my mountaineering program was at an end. Setting out homeward, I travelled to Curahuara over tola heath and a tufa plateau, resting and visiting a nearby copper-mine. In two more days I reached Chacaillas another copper-mine, crossed the Desaguadero River, the most important stream on the Bolivian plateau, in a ferryboat, and finally arrived at Patacamaya on the Oruro-La Paz railroad. My trip was at an end.

1 See Map of Hispanic America (La Paz sheet), Am. Geogr. Soc.. N. Y. ; also Map of South America, Natl. Geogr. Soc. [The author, a mining-engi- neer, has been interested in the American Alpine Journal since its inception, and sends his most acceptable Ms. by airmail from Tirapata, Peru.—Ed.]