American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Bolivia, Huayna Potosi, West Face and Illampu, Northwest Buttress, Cordillera Real

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1971

Huayna Potosí, West Face and Illampu, Northwest buttress, Cordillera Real. Our purpose in going to Bolivia was to verify the Lay-back theory of climbing: to rest as long as possible, muttering about acclimatization, then to climb as fast as possible so that upon returning you can eat as much as possible. In La Paz we met Dobbs Harthorne, a past member of the unsung Julliard Mountaineering Club. Dobbs mentioned the motto of the JMC, Allegro ma non troppo, “Fast but not too fast”, and was immediately included in the group. While Andy Harvard, Todd Thompson and I went up to 15,000 feet to rest for five days, Dobbs rested in La Paz. In the middle of July the four of us drove to the west side of Huayna Potosí and walked for two hours to the base of the face. The next day was spent in rest and contemplation of the unclimbed 4000-foot wall. The climb began at three A.M. the following morning. Snow and ice conditions were perfect; we could front-point or with three strong kicks establish a substantial step. The face, we estimated, was uniformly 50° to 55° straight to the top. After crossing the bergschrund, we skirted left around a huge hanging glacier and kept plugging away for hours, finally passing through a narrow section in the rock band which cut across the face. Much to everyone’s chagrin, we were forced to bivouac on the slope. Shivering was lulled only by drums of the festival in a town below. We reached the summit (19,996 feet) about noon of the following day. Out of food and out of water, we undertook a rather agonizing descent. Jimena, Dobb’s fine wife, rewarded the effort with apple pie, cookies and Swedish bread.

After many meals of bul koghi and shish kabob from Jimena’s kitchen, after the custard pie which Todd said he blew but which we all ate, and after making many batches of mocha ice cream, we turned our backs upon senescence and suffered through another Bolivian truck ride. Sorata, the Bolivian equivalent of Shangri La, is in a lush valley some 16,000 feet below the summit of Illampu (20,873 feet). Roman Laba, that guru of guaranteed suffering, had recommended its northwest buttress. The people of Sorata assured us that all we had to do was to walk up to Mina Andromeda, talk to Señor Herrera, who would drive us to Mina Susana and deposit us virtually at the edge of the snow. We swore we would not starve this time. So with huge packs we walked to Mina Andromeda. No car, no Señor Herrera. We walked to Mina Susana. Some snow, no Illampu. Illampu was still eight miles to the east. It took 2½ days to cover the 10,000 feet to our Base Camp on the glacier. There we rested. The climb did not look as good as we had hoped. The buttress was broken up and ugly. We thought of canning the entire idea. Fortunately, Andy stood firm. A day and a half later we stood on the summit with a view from the southern Cordillera Real all the way across Lake Titicaca into Peru. Mixed snow and ice had presented excellent conditions for cramponing. The first night we slept in a cave-like slit beneath a small sérac; the second night we spent 1000 feet below the summit; the third night we slept on the glacier after choosing a different route of retreat; the fourth morning Andy fell into a crevasse; the fourth night we were somewhere between the mountain and the town below; the fifth afternoon Todd and I hobbled and Andy limped into Sorata.

James Janney

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