A Bolivian Couloir and Other Climbs

Publication Year: 1970.

A Bolivian Couloir and Other Climbs

Stanley S. Shepard

Of my climbs in Bolivia in 1967, 1968, and 1969, three merit an account. These three, although thoroughly modern in their technical requirements, recalled the days of Tyndall and Stephen, when maps were rare and provisions were roast chicken and wine.

I. We make the third ascent of Tiquimani, 18,400 feet, by a new route, July, 1967. From Huayna Potosí and Charquini I had studied Tiquimani, an immense Victorian mansion of rock and ice rising 14,000 feet above the Bolivian jungle hills and had soon come to imagine the peak as the Tower of Mordor or the Black Stone of the Incas. Except for the long and easy route of the first and second ascents, Tiquimani was defended by some of the most sensational walls I have ever seen. The prospect of making a lightning assault upon this fortress seemed dim, until one day I discovered Wonder Couloir, a 6000-foot slash in the otherwise impracticably high and complex north face. (The name Super Couloir has been pre-empted for Fitz Roy, but Tiquimani’s couloir is no less impressive, although technically a far easier proposition.) Wonder Couloir cuts a ruled line through the 7000-foot-high north face and offers a direct ascent almost to the skyline about a kilometer east of the summit towers. Its difficulties are concentrated in the upper 1000 feet, where it steepens into an ice-floored chimney before ending in immense overhangs festooned with hundred- foot-long icicles.

Excited by the discovery of Wonder Couloir, I talked Gus Iturraldi, a Jesuit and Bolivia’s best climber, into making the attempt. Brian Rennix, a physicist at the cosmic ray laboratory on 17,000-foot-high Chacaltaya, made us scientifically respectable. Gus persuaded him to leave his boiling- point thermometer at home but could not keep him from periodically holding out his hands to count the cosmic rays as they hit them. Mike Hallahan, Gonzalo Aliaga, and Miss Ronnie Connley joined us to help carry the chicken and wine to a camp beneath a hanging glacier interrupting the couloir about 4000 feet up.

We began at nine A.M. on Saturday. The first 1000 feet of the couloir were of very-high-angle grass, and were followed by about 2000 feet of very-high-angle cemented dust, scree, and large rocks, about 2.9 on the old Yosemite scale. Where the couloir narrowed to about 20 feet we en- countered water-ice which became a series of frozen waterfalls, over which Gus draped fixed lines for our Two Porters and a Girl whilst I pushed from below and ate chicken. The cataracts of ice ended in a high steep wall which we turned to the right by an easy slot and ramp, leading finally to a large bench beneath the hanging glacier. We had passed the mountain’s lower defenses and camped on the bench as a fine drizzle strengthened into a steady rain. Hopes sank, and we all knew that the serious work would commence with the dawn.

At five A.M. Gus, Brian and I stumbled off into the murk to look for the glacier, which we found as the mist began to lift. The glacier rose steeply and then absurdly steeply as it rose to the mouth of the upper couloir, now a slot floored with blue ice. (The rock-water ice mix of the day before had dulled our crampons, but Gus had thoughtfully carried a file amongst the chicken and wine, so we were ready once again to surmount the iron-hard Bolivian ice.) Today the iron-hard Bolivian ice had been softened by the warm weather, so the first lead in the couloir was easy. Water ice had formed about two inches of plating over harder stuff, and a few blows with the axe gave a good step. The next lead required aid from two ice screws to surmount a bulge, and as I moved off aid, the plating below let go and clattered down the glacier, accompanied by a modest avalanche which shot out onto the moraine above High Camp. With no further excitement we arrived at a six-foot-wide ice slot beneath the great icicles hanging from the wall above our heads. Stemming between ice and rock, I climbed the slot until I was able to step to a ledge on the right.

The ledge was the end of the climbing, and widened to a ramp leading west to the summit towers. The sudden change from the vertical to the horizontal was like finding a McDonalds and a parking lot on top of Devils Tower. We followed the ramp, which soon became a great plateau ending in a rock ridge overlooking the impressive upper walls of the north face. We scrambled along the ridge until we reached a snowfield abutting the 600-foot summit tower, itself draped with weathered fixed ropes tied to rusting pitons. After one lead on the rock it became obvious that the three of us could not reach the top today and return without bivouacking, so Gus gave me his club pennant, and I climbed as quickly as possible up the fourth class (4.86 to 5.479) rock and reached the summit about four P.M. I left the little pennant and rappelled and climbed down to my companions.

We reached Wonder Couloir in failing light and descended the terrible slot in semi-darkness. In utter blackness we backed down the glacier and stumbled into camp. On Monday morning we rattled down the couloir to the road, and I arrived at the office that afternoon, refreshed and ready to work.

II. I make the first ascent of a namelsss mountain in the Quimsa Cruz, June, 1968. (Piedra de los Incas) Roger Whewell and I marveled at the granite walls which rose to the spires surrounding our valley. To reach this place we had driven past Mina Viloco where the metamorphic rock of southern Quimsa Cruz changes abruptly to the perfect granite of the northern mountains. We had time for only a short look, but left filled with enthusiasm for this beautiful area.

Roger and Elspeth, his wife, having left for Peru, and Gus in the middle of a school term, I had no climbing partners, leaving me to choose between climbing alone and sitting at home. But there was really no choice, so on a cold day in May I loaded my motorcycle with food for five days and enough iron to nail to the moon and rode into the Quimsa Cruz. The bike ride took ten hours, my normally nimble 500cc Triumph handling like a pig from the weight of food and iron.

One peak* in the Quimsa Cruz attracted me more than any other. It was a rock pinnacle perched upon a snow dome which rested upon and was surrounded by Yosemite walls of perfect granite. The mountain plunged directly into a lake, and at the head of the lake was a beautiful meadow studded with large granite boulders. The summit was about 3500 feet above the lake, itself at about 14,000 feet elevation.

It was after dark when I reached the foot of the valley of the granite peaks, almost falling off the bike from fatigue. Still feeling the bike ride, I dragged myself, my 27 pitons, and my food up to the lake the next afternoon. From camp I studied the possibilities of the granite peak. The shortest route to the glacier which formed the upper half of the climb was via slabs from the east, but these were powdered with snow and unattractive. A better line was a chimney-couloir cut into the 600-foot slabs of the south face. From the chimney one could reach a great bowl surrounded by pinnacles with the retreating ice plaque at its head. From here it would be a walk to the summit, except that… The summit itself was a rectangular, apparently monolithic tower which appeared to be 50 to 100 feet high. Its appearance from a distance was the reason for the 27 pitons and associated hardware.

The small talus and grass fan at the foot of the couloir was only a few minutes from camp, and I was soon stumbling up it to the couloir. The powder snow covering everything got deeper as I neared the couloir’s first chockstone, making progress awkward. The first chockstone was thickly covered with ice, so I used crampons until I left the couloir. Three more chockstones, none difficult but all heavily iced, followed until the couloir ended in a cul de sac surrounded by big rock walls which made me feel pretty foolish, standing there with my 27 pitons. I took off my crampons and climbed about 20 feet up the right wall until I was perched on a block in front of a 15-foot powder snow-covered slab inclined over about 500 feet of high angle slabs. Since there wasn’t a crack in sight, if I wanted to climb this mountain for which I had spent ten hours on a motorbike, I had to make the next moves without protection, which was like getting your teeth filled, not so bad in retrospect.

The glacier provided several truly miserable hours of post-holing, but I eventually reached the summit block. This turned out to be more broken than I had expected and of most perfect granite. The climbing was between moderate and rather difficult, and I used five pitons for protection. The top was a little stone altar, and the view (we climb for the view, don’t we?) was superb, with the clouds of a big storm moving slowly into the cordillera.

After the rappel the end of the rope stuck in a crack, so I left 20 feet of new goldline as an offering. The descent was like running a film backwards at double speed, with the only novelty being the use of ice pitons in a clump of frozen moss as anchors for a gingerly performed rappel over the bad spot at the top of the couloir-chimney. On the afternoon of the fourth, and the morning of the fifth day I rode out of the Quimsa Cruz, pursued by the big storm which halted climbing for some weeks.

III. With Roger and Elspeth in 1969 I make a return to lighthearted climbing, and discover a superb climb on the west face of Charquini. I have completely forgotten the date. Charquini had been my first climb in Bolivia, in 1967, when I crossed the peak from south to north. The whole business had covered about 30 kilometers in one long day and a few hours the next morning. After that I had forgotten Charquini. But the mountain’s several summits have attractive granite-and-ice west faces, so when Roger Whewell pointed out a nice line, I was ready to return. Of the variety of possible routes we selected a couloir on the west face of the third summit of the peak, some distance from the main summit. The climb began with a strange ice fan, ten or twelve inches thick with about six inches of air between it and the rock. It was actually quite solid and not steep, but its apparent delicacy made us hurry over it to a short ice-sheathed chimney barring access to the main part of the couloir. I squirmed up the slippery thing, and after Roger and Elspeth joined me, we climbed about 600 feet of steep but solid and easy snow to the climb’s great obstacle. This was an intimidating sight, a rock step perhaps one long lead high. Above this the couloir continued steeply in the form of a shallow wide trough to the skyline. This headwall made the couloir we were in look as flat as the Utah salt flats; impressive but hopefully harmless loads of snow whooshed over it at intervals. The headwall was formed by great solid blocks stacked almost vertically and almost totally obscured by frost formations, themselves thickened and modified by the frequent falls of powder snow.

Using a few pins for aid, Roger swam up the first sixty feet where he placed a piton and then descended to rest and give me some of the fun. Thanking him with false diplomacy, I clambered, crampons grating, to his high point. This was really picture book climbing, with the ropes swinging in to your belayers perched above a great Andean couloir (small Andean couloir?). The climbing was really steep, and it was a job for a miner to find holds under all of that frost and compacted snow, but a few pitons and many grunts later I reached a tiny stance. Roger joined me, and as the stance was not large enough even for friends, I moved on up, now more on snow than rock. The lead was memorable for a rickety snow bulge which I partly demolished in climbing over it.

The way was clear now and we climbed up steep flutings and traversed right to an easy ridge which ascended to the skyline. Rather than walk down the tiresome east face of our mountain, we traversed about 1000 feet south along the ridge, to a point where we could descend an awesomely steep snow face leading to a glacier down which we cheerfully glissaded. (Bolivian snow really must be experienced before anyone can believe that it can be so compact, steep, safe, and enjoyable. When it is good it must be the best in the world.) We returned that afternoon to the milk shakes of La Paz. Viva los Andes!

Summary of Statistics:

AREA: Bolivia, Cordilleras Real and Quimsa Cruz.

ASCENTS: Tiquimani, c. 18,400 feet, third ascent, by new route, the north face, July 1967 (Stanley S. Shepard).

Piedra de los Incas, 17,553 feet, first ascent, June 1968 (Shepard).

Charquini, a new route, the west face, 1969 (Shepard, Roger and Elspeth Whewell).

*The Bavarian expedition of 1969 confused this peak with the Torreni de Catalina, which lies two miles to the west. The name, Piedra de los Incas, now seems to have been accepted in Bolivia.