American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Climbing in the Bolivian Andes, 1939

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1945

Climbing in the Bolivian Andes, 1939

Joseph P. PREM

First Ascent of the Cerro de Santa Vela Cruz, ca. 5600 m. (18,372 ft.)

THE little Santa Vela Cruz Group lies directly S. of the Quimza Cruz Range, being separated from the same by the Tres Cruces Pass, ca. 4600 m. (15,091 ft.). Its length is about 20 km. (12.4 miles), between Huañacota at the N. and Ichoco to the S. It culminates in two magnificent snow peaks, the Cerro de Santa Vela Cruz about 5600 m. (18,372 ft.) and the Fortuna Peak directly N. of the former and only a little lower. The other peaks of the group are of no interest from a climber’s point of view. The Santa Vela Cruz is the southernmost glaciated group of the Bolivian Eastern Cordillera, its glaciers being situated chiefly on the S. and W. sides. Geologically the Santa Vela Cruz Group is made up of slates of Silurian-Devonian age which have been intruded and hardened by little stocks and dykes of Tertiary granitic rock. The first man to make known the Santa Vela Cruz and Quimza Cruz Ranges to the mountaineering world was Henry Hoek, who visited these mountains at the beginning of this century, without, however, climbing any major peak.

During the last days of June, 1939, when the weather had become favorable for climbing in the high mountains, I took a truck at Oruro, 3700 m. (12,139 ft.), on the Bolivian “Altiplane,” at that time my headquarters, and drove in about six hours over the level pampa and the rolling S.W. foreland of the Cordillera to the Tres Cruces Pass and the little village of Huañacota, a few hundred meters below and to the N.E. of the pass. Being entirely out of training, having just come up from the Peruvian jungle, I thought it wise to spend a few days in reconnoitring the approaches to the main peaks of the Santa Vela Cruz.

The morning of June 30th broke fine, so I set out for the higher peak—the Santa Vela Cruz proper—at about 8 o'clock. First I rode up a little mule trail of the true left slopes of the short Huañacota Valley that leads up S.E. and terminates in a steep rock wall.

After a short time I reached the lovely little lake “Huariananta.” Sending my Indian companion back with the mule, I proceeded on a miner’s trail above the mentioned rock wall to a small dry lagoon. Over the fresh ground—and terminal moraines of the retreating Santa Vela Cruz Glacier, later over the glacier itself or along its S. bank, I made my way up to the Abra (notch) de Santa Vela Cruz,2 between the two main peaks. It was nasty going along the bank of the glacier as the ice continued below the scree and was hidden by it. From the abra there is a grand view of the N. face of Fortuna Peak breaking down in sheer icefalls, and a fine glimpse to the E. where the eye roves down the glacier and over ridge after ridge of black peaks, the Bolivian pre-Cordilleras.

The route from here to the summit is clearly indicated by the N.N.W. ridge, which is snow free on its eastern side, but heavily covered with névé on its western flank. After easy going at first over the broad ridge, this became later a labyrinth of rock points, so I descended E. to a wide scree-covered gully which soon led me back into a broad deep notch in the ridge. The vertical cliff beyond, breaking down into the notch and which would be difficult for a solo climber, I turned by traversing on the W. side to a narrow gully, ascending this to the crest-line again. Proceeding over the ridge or a little below its E. side to a deeply cut, narrow notch, I descended to the W. and reached the notch through a crack. Thence, with very exposed climbing, I gained the pre-summit, traversing on its eastern flank to the saddle between it and the main peak. The ridge extending from this point forms the division between black and white—rock and névé. Taking chiefly to the rotten rock, as I had left my ice-axe lower down, I soon stood on the summit. The weather was fine, only a little windy, and the view had become more and more sublime; especially the sight of nearby Fortuna Peak and the icy Quimza Cruz Range, which seemed an endless sea of peaks. To the E. appeared deep gorges and black, jagged crests. The ascent from Huañacota, about 1200 m. (3937 ft.), had taken some five hours.

After a quarter of an hour of the usual summit work, such as building a little cairn to contain a tin with my card, some photographing and a little surveying, I started down again, introducing slight variations in the route. Toward evening I was back at Huañacota, tired but happy. Next day a truck brought me back to Oruro.

Three First Ascents in the Quimza Cruz Range

At the beginning of September I received a wire from Mr. W. Kuehm, who had just arrived from Ecuador, inviting me to climb in the Cordilleras. I proposed Quimza Cruz,3 as this was the snow range nearest to Oruro. Setting out from this town on September 9th, we arrived in the afternoon at the village of Caxata at the foot of Tres Cruces Pass. The rest of the day we had abundant time to behold from the nearby hills the magnificent glacial range, with Jachakunukollo and the black pyramid of Leon Jihuaña as the most conspicuous peaks. The next morning saw us at the tin mine of Monte Blanco, ca. 4800 m. (15,748 ft.), heartily welcomed by Sr. Cesar Grillo, a well-known mining industrialist.

Cerro San Juan or Cerro Altarani, ca. 5750 m. (18,865 ft.). This peak sends out a ridge in a S.W. direction to Cerra Mamani, ca. 5570 m. (18,274 ft.), whence it turns N.W. to the “Solución,” ca. 5350 m. (17,552 ft.) ; from thence it bends to the S.W. again and terminates finally in the Cerro de San Luis, the peak just above the mining camp. In both San Luis and Solución are extensive mine workings.

Starting September 11th from the main camp we rode up to the high camp, and passing the little glacial lake of San Luis, arrived at a cancha (a platform for sorting ore). On foot we ascended over a slope of loose scree to the saddle N.E. of San Luis Peak and proceeding in this direction over the ridge, which was all covered with thin slabs of shale, we soon stood on the summit of Solución. The descent to the notch between this peak and Cerro Mamani afforded no difficulties, but soon afterwards we roped up and put on crampons, climbing the latter peak over its N.W. ridge. After a short descent into another notch we stood at the foot of the short but sharp S.W. ridge of San Juan and it was not long before we shook hands on the first new summit we had climbed together. I had led as far as Cerro Mamani, thenceforth Kuehm, and I again. Fortunately the hail and fog in which we had been enshrouded from Cerro Mamani gave way to fine weather, so we had a grand view of the near surroundings. There is a striking difference between the snow-clad S.W. and the N.E. sides of Quimza Cruz, the latter

slope being made up of black vertical cliffs. Most lovely are the various glacial lakes low down, especially Lake Altarani. Outstanding among the peaks are Cerro Aguilar, climbed in 1912 by Theodor Herzog, and Jachakunukollo, the monarch of the range. After depositing a tin with our cards on the snow-free N.W. shoulder, we started down the N.W. ridge until close to the saddle between San Juan and the “Tres Marias,”4 as the miners call the three peaks following to the N.W. Over a very steep slope of hard snow, that required step-cutting, we reached the neve of the Huallatani Glacier. Keeping to the edge of the same we gained its true left bank, and over smooth rock pitches and later over moraine-covered ground, reached the shore of Lake Huallatani. After a fruitless trial to get along on its E. shore, we found at last a little trail on its W. side, which soon brought us back to the mine and Sr. Grillo’s hospitality.

Huaynakunukollo, or Peak Grillo, ca. 5800 m. (19,029 ft.). On September 12th we visited a friend at his little tin mine near Monte Blanco. Next day we set out for Huaynakunukollo.5 This is the middle peak of the “Tres Marias,” and was hitherto unnamed. So I baptised it the “Little Snow Mountain” to contrast with Jachakunukollo,6 the “Big Snow Mountain,” Kuehm afterwards proposing the name Peak Grillo.

Right at the start my mule fell with me, on the frozen ground below the concentrating plant, resulting in a bruised knee and torn trousers. We started anew, first mounted, later on foot, following the trail of the W. shore of Lake Huallatani up to the rows of fresh moraines left by the retreating Huallatani Glacier, which occupies the whole space between Huaynakunukollo and San Juan. We proceeded laboriously over the crest of its right lateral moraine, then in the moraine valley itself. Later we took to the slopes on our left that extend downward from the ridge dividing the Monte Blanco and the Chejñacota Valleys. Over snowfields, rocks and scree-slopes we gained the crest line and followed it to the deepest notch, 5400 m. (17,716 ft.), where the S.W. ridge of Huaynakunukollo begins. Deep below to our left lay the emerald Chejñacota (Green Lake), while to our right, looming through the mist, were the wild icefalls that break down from Huaynakunukollo to the Chejñacota Glacier. Over the S.W. ridge we ascended to the highest exposed rocks, where we roped up, having put on crampons before. Then followed a steep pitch of névé and soon afterwards a sharp, exposed crest of almost icy crust. The last part of the ridge was less exposed, but to the right big séracs were menacing. In two and a half hours from the notch we made the summit. All the way up Kuehm had the lead, as my knee was still aching badly. As on the ascent we were enshrouded with fog on the summit for most of the time, but at intervals had fine glimpses of Chejñacota and the wild black cliffs breaking down to the N.E. We photographed a little, deposited our cards in a rock below the summit, then started the descent. Soon we were down at the highest rock exposure, thence descending in deep new snow mostly on the edge and partly in the morainal valley of the Huallatani Glacier, to the moraine-covered foreland and the little trail leading to Monte Blanco. On the last part of the trail a mozo (servant boy) waited for us with mules, which Sr. Grillo had sent to meet us.

For the following days we accepted a special invitation of Sr. Grillo to see a friend of his who owns a farm below Araca, on the N.W. end of Quimza Cruz. After the snow, ice and fog of the last days, the green of the meadows and the blossoms of the peach trees were doubly welcome. It is one and not the least of the charms of Quimza Cruz that within a few hours one can go from the Arctic to the Tropics. The spot was the Teneria farm, with a famous view of Mt. Illimani, which rises a full 5000 m. (16,500 ft.), from the bottom of the gorge of the La Paz River to its summit. At the beginning of the century Teneria had been visited by Henry Hoek and his companions, and later by Th. Herzog, all of whom have spread Teneria’s fame as affording one of the grandest mountain views of the world.

On September 17th Sr. Grillo returned to Monte Blanco, while Kuehm and I went up to the Chejñacota mine, 4750 m. (15,584 ft.). Here we were guests of Sr. Peró, the manager and brother of the owner of the mine, who treated us with extraordinary hospitality. On the same afternoon we made a short trip with him to the snout of the Chejñacota Glacier.

Jachakunukollo, 5950 m. (19,521 ft.). On September 18th we started for this peak, the “big snow mountain,” of the Aymara Indians, highest elevation of the Quimza Cruz Cordillera. Together with Gigante Grande it dominates the icy background of the Chejñacota. Jachakunukollo was climbed in 1912 by Herzog and C. Seelig as far as the shoulder of the summit ridge, by way of the same route as ours, i.e. over the S.W. ridge. The summit itself is about 20 m. (65 ft.) higher and approximately 70 m. (230 ft.) distant. In the same year these climbers also ascended Cerro Imaculado, 5800 m. (19,029 ft.), and Herzog alone Cerro Carnaval, the S.W. summit of Cerro Aguilar. Herzog also made the first map of Quimza Cruz.

Leaving the mine at 7.15 a.m. we were soon at the snout of the N. branch of the Chejñacota Glacier, 4900 m. (16,076 ft.). Advancing first over the left orographic moraine, we later took when it ended to the rocks that form the left bank of the glacier. After surmounting three steep pitches partly covered with ice, we gained the medial moraine between the N. and S. branches of the glacier and ascended to the foot of the S.W. ridge, 5100 m. (16,732 ft.). The view had opened while we were ascending and before us lay the wide flat névé basin of the Chejñacota Glacier, with Gigante Grande in the background, while in the distance beyond the deep and fantastically eroded gorge of the Luribay River and the dull brown Altiplano loomed the snow-covered volcanoes of the Western Cordillera —Mt. Sajama and the Payachatas. Putting on crampons we advanced, a little below and northwestward of the crest line,. to a small platform, where we rested a bit and roped up. The following stretch of the ridge is cut by four oblique, narrow depressions, probably snow-filled crevasses, which from a distance look like notches made with an axe, and offer welcome resting places on the otherwise very steep ridge. We passed over them, and keeping always a little to the left of the crest, came to a big crevasse entirely filled with snow just below the shoulder. This we crossed to the right, gaining the steep S.E. side of the summit ridge, and in deep soft snow ascended to the shoulder. Thence a sharp, exposed ridge leads to the summit, the drop on either side being several thousand feet. We walked partly on the ridge itself and partly southeastward below it, as the cornices were overhanging to the N.W. For belaying we occupied a position astride the ridge. At 1.45 we stood on the summit, I having had the lead all the way up. During the whole day a strong, chilly west wind was blowing constantly, which, however, threw back the clouds rising from the eastern woodlands.

The view from this highest point of Quimza Cruz is overwhelming. The eye roves over a sea of snowy peaks from Santa Vela Cruz in the S. to Illimani in the N., while on the western horizon Sajama and the Payachatas stretch their heads into the blue sky. Deep below us lay Chejñacota on one side and the tin mine Bajaderia on the other.

On a rock below the summit to the E. we rested and here we also deposited our cards. After an hour we started down again the same way and arrived at the mine at 5.30. Here they had watched our ascent with the telescope of a theodolite, and we were heartily congratulated on our success. According to Sr. Peró’s desire, we drew up a document on our ascent of Jachakunukollo, which he kept in the mine office.

Next day we looked about in. the mine. On September 20th we went back to Oruro in Sr. Grillo’s car.

To the Top of Bolivia, Mt. Sajama, 6530 m. (21,423 ft.).

Which is the highest peak of Bolivia? If you put this question to a Bolivian he will probably say Mt. Illampu. A few might name Illimani, but no one is likely to think of Sajama. The reason is that the latter is an out-of-the-way mountain, far from the bigger cities and therefore unknown to the average Bolivian. What one finds in the schoolbooks and almanacs about the altitude of Bolivian mountains is pure fancy. Thus, in one recent almanac, Mt. Mururata7 is mentioned as the highest peak in Bolivia and is given an altitude of 6700 m. (21,982 ft.), while in another Mt. Illampu figures with 7695 m. (25,345 ft.). The actual altitudes of the three highest Bolivian peaks are: Sajama, 6530 m. (21,982 ft.), measured with an exact aneroid by Kuehm and myself on the occasion of our ascent; Illimani S. peak, 6500 m. (21,325 ft.), according to best authorities and verified by Kuehm when he ascended this peak; Ancohuma,8 6420 m. (21,063 ft.), according to Troll and Hein, who made the first map of the N. part of the Cordillera Real.

Mt. Sajama has been my hobby ever since I made my first attempt on it in 1927. In the month of June, the coldest of the year, I had then reached the village of Sajama in six days from Oruro, five of them on mule back, over the dreary, dead Altiplano, under a cold sun and swept by an icy gale constantly blowing from the W.

After establishing a camp at 5000 m. (16,404 ft.), on the W. side of the mountain, I climbed alone on the N.W. ridge to the point, approximately 6200 m. (20,341 ft.), from where it stretches horizontally to the summit cupola (June 20th, 1927). The second attempt I made in 1931 with W. Strieker on February 19th over the N. side. We attained a point about 250 m. (820 ft.) below the summit, from which we were driven back by a terrific thunderstorm. We had reached Sajama village from Charaña, the frontier station between Chile and Bolivia, and had started from a camp about 5000 m. (16,404 ft.) on the N.W. side of the mountain. The third serious attempt I made with P. Ghiglione on August 26th, 1939, again over the N.W. ridge, and after having established a base camp at 5000 m. and a second one at 5350 m. (17,552 ft.), we climbed the whole N.W. ridge until it loses itself in the summit cupola, and the latter to about 100 or 150 m. (300 or 500 ft.) below the summit. On account of the very bad snow conditions—new snow, deep over nieve penitente—and a heavy storm, we turned back. This time we had reached Sajama village by way of the new auto road from Charaña, now the best and quickest approach.

After our return from Quimza Cruz, Kuehm had gone ahead to the copper mine Yauricoya, near Turco to the W. of Oruro. I arrived on September 27th from Eucaliptus, after a trip in a truck that lasted two days owing to bad roads. The first day, after crossing the Desaguadero River in a ferryboat, we had advanced over the top level pampa to the village of Chuquichambi at the foot of the sandstone ranges and, after ascending a long cuesta (declivity) that afforded a grand sight of the Quimza Cruz peaks, had reached a few miserable Indian huts called Palca, where we spent a bad night. The whole sandstone region has an abundant flora of cacti, and plenty of “tela,” which serves as fuel. The second day, over rolling country and passing the village of Chequecota, I arrived at Yauricoya where I was welcomed by the owner, Mr. Biggemann, and his family. Kuehm was impatient, as he had been waiting for five days, so we hurried and next day drove to the village of Turco in Biggemann’s car. In order to reach Cosapa, from where we had planned to make the ascent, we had to traverse the Cordillera de Turco on muleback. The first day (September 29th) we got as far as Choquelamayu, a small Indian hamlet. The next day rewarded us with fine views of Mt. Sajama, which had remained invisible since before Yauricoya, and glorious rides through some queñua forests. But a terrific sandstorm raged all afternoon, so that we arrived half frozen and with aching eyes at Antakollo at the western end of the Cordillera de Turco. October 1st was fine and we had only a short ride over the pasture-covered pampa to Cosapa, arriving there at noon. Owing to friends I had made there on previous travels, we were well received and lodged.

On the following morning we were able to start for camp: Kuehm, I and an Indian in charge of the pack animals. Over level pampa and a gently rising tola heath we headed for Huaillas, a hamlet at the E. foot of Sajama. A swampy place on the following slope was difficult to cross, as our animals sank in and shied; later we ascended a valley with queñua trees.9 Originally we had planned to cross the mighty ridge coming down from the summit to the base in a true easterly direction, and to continue to the N. side of the mountain, but after short deliberation decided to tackle the mountain from the deep notch in the S.E. ridge. We therefore traversed along the E. ridge to another valley and ascended over scree slopes to a terrace strewn with huge boulders of lava. There we pitched the tent, ca. 4900 m. (16,076 ft.), as neither our Indian nor the animals could be induced to go any higher. It was not an ideal campsite, water far away and snow too high to collect before nightfall. The Indian was afraid and couldn’t go down fast enough with the animals to a pasture ground below. It was sensibly cold, and Mt. Sajama cast its cone-shaped shadow over the pampa. On October 3rd we started up the mountain, winding through the lava blocks and later ascending over moraines to a pentitentes field. As Kuehm complained of indigestion we turned back to camp, taking a load of ice with us and spending the rest of the day cooking and resting. All day long a furious west wind was blowing the loose snow on the summit ridge in large streamers far into the air—a bad omen for the coming day.

We were off on October 4th at 8 A.M. and soon reached the little penitentes field of the preceding day. Ascending first over moraines we later traversed to the left, over penitentes and ice buried under scree, to the slopes that stretch down from the big notch in the S.E. ridge. In the latter, ca. 5800 m. (19,029 ft.), I was struck by the full force of the penetrating west wind, from which I had been hitherto protected. Here there was a fine glimpse of the heavily glaciated S. face of Sajama, bounded by the S.E. and S.W. ridges, the latter terminating in a characteristic rock needle. Kuehm had ascended directly to a gendarme N.W. of the notch, where we stayed until noon. With rope and crampons we traversed onto the S. face above the uppermost horizontal crevasse, our fingers losing all sensation in the mad wind. Later we were more protected against the storm. We continued close to a slope of bare ice, before which we climbed straight upwards over névé until beneath the mighty icefall crowning the S. face. Below this we traversed again to the left, over slopes strewn with lumps of ice that had fallen from above, until we found a passage up which we climbed to another but much smaller icefall. Turning to the left once more we finally emerged on the broad, gently sloping S.W. ridge, ca. 6200 m. (20,341 ft.). Here we were struck by a veritable hurricane, but not a single cloud was in the sky. It was a day of absolute predominance of the west wind, and one on which I never expected to climb Bolivia’s highest mountain. All over the pampa sandstorms were raging, and the sky had taken on a dark blue, almost blackish color. It was a strange experience we had on this high snow mountain rising from almost desert environs. Deep below at the W. glittered the big Laguna de Chungara and another smaller one. On the ridge we met with all kinds of snow—powder snow, snow with breakable crust, névé, nieve penitente and ice. After some time we surmounted a hump and shortly afterward stepped out on the summit plateau—the great Sajama, the top of Bolivia had fallen.

The existence of this plateau was quite a surprise to me, as from every side from which I had seen the mountain its summit has the form of a cupola or a sharp point; so much so that I did not at once realize that we were on top. On the plateau, which probably represents the snow-filled crater of the volcano, we saw fine patterns of sastrugi.

Owing to the crazy wind—in the few seconds I was without mittens for taking snapshots, I suffered frostbite on my fingers that lasted three weeks—we stayed only ten minutes, then hurried down again. On the descent we missed the spot where we came out on the S.W. ridge, so we traversed back into the S. face at a somewhat lower place, then descended straight down to the W. of the pitch of bare ice (to the E. of which we had ascended), and finally made our way between the two uppermost horizontal crevasses in the névé, slightly ascending, out to the notch in the S.E. ridge. Here we took off the rope that had united us for seven hours and, since the snow had been sand-like all the time, our boots were not wet in the slightest.

It began to darken and it was decided that I should go ahead and try to find our tent. It was completely obscure when I arrived in the vicinity of camp and I failed to find the tent in the maze of lava blocks. Fortunately I met with enough dry queñua wood to start a big fire that lasted all night. After a while Kuehm showed up, and I shall never forget the night we spent around our fire, talking over all the details of the eventful day, chewing lumps of ice and happy beyond all desire.

Towards noon the next day our Indian with the animals came up and we returned to Cosapa. On October 6th Kuehm and I said farewell, he riding to Charaña where he took the train to La Paz, while I in a three days’ ride went back to Yauricoya by way of Antincurahuara and Turco. I couldn’t then know that this was to be our last handshake—after a year and some months Kuehm found an icy grave on the N. peak of Illimani. On October 9th a truck brought me back to Oruro.

1The altitude and glaciation of the Santa Vela Cruz are not given in the Am. Geogr. Society’s map of Latin America, La Paz sheet, to which reference is made here, at least not in the edition at hand. For an earlier contribution by the writer, see A. A. J. iv, 29.

2This is not identical with the one of the same name on the Am. Geogr. Society’s map.

3Quimza in Aymara means three.

4The first of these is the “Trapezoid Mtn.,” so called for its form resembling a huge snow trapezoid, the second Huaynakunokollo, the third Jachakunukollo.

5In Aymara, Huayna means little, kunu snow, kollo mountain.

6In Aymara, Jacha means big.

7In reality 5900 m. (19,357 ft.).

8Often falsely called Illampu, which is a lower peak.

9The queñua forest on Mt. Sajama is the most magnificent in Bolivia. Some time ago it was in danger of being completely destroyed by charcoal burners, who had obtained concessions from the government. Owing to the intervention of sensible and nature-loving men the concession was annulled and the forest saved.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.