American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Bolivia, Ascarani and Soral Groups, Apolobamba Region and Illimani, Cordillera Real

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 1971

Ascarani and Soral Groups, Apolobamba Region and Illimani, Cordil- lero Real. As far as we know, we were the first Americans to visit the Macara valley, which lies between the Ascarani and Soral Este groups in the Nudo de Apolobamba. From a base camp at about 14,600 feet in this valley, which drains into the Río Sánchez Cruz (Coochu) north of Pelechuco, we established, on July 2, a high camp at about 17,000 feet at a site used also by the 1969 Spanish expedition (A.A.J., 1970, 17:1, p. 171). Climbs of two minor snow domes in the Ascarani groups and a minor nipple in the Soral Oeste group were made; and Rodolfo Gutiérrez succeeded on July 6 of getting to the top of Ascarani (18,307 feet) by the north ridge, the third ascent of this rock and snow peak. At this time, Frank Zahar, who had remained immobilized at high camp by soroche, became seriously ill with signs of cerebral and pulmonary edema and had to be assisted down to Base Camp, where he received morphine, Lasix, and penicillin, and was given oxygen continuously the rest of the day and all night. He recovered sufficiently by next morning to ride a horse down to the lower elevation at Pelechuco for a two-day convalescence, following which he was able to hike back to Base Camp. Next day, four of us, including Frank, made an attempt on an unclimbed 18,000-foot peak in the Soral Este group on the razor-sharp rocks of its east ridge but were forced to rappel off a few hundred feet below the summit by a wet snowstorm. Although we would have liked to remain in this area to try the several still-unclimbed peaks easily accessible from our Base Camp, our schedule forced us to return to Pelechuco for a rendezvous with the truck which was to take us back to La Paz. A few days later, martial law was declared for the northern part of La Paz province as an aftermath of a Communist guerrilla action at Teoponte, 75 miles north of the capital.

Everybody was well acclimatized when, on July 16, we camped by the side of a mining road on the northeast base of Illimani’s south peak. Here on a small meadow, we could lie down and drink cold, pure water from a spring bubbling just outside our tents, look across the altiplano and see the symmetrical cone of Sajama, 125 miles to the southwest. From a high camp, on July 19, four of us, in two rope-teams, made an attempt on the south peak (21,201 feet) but wrong route-finding led us to an impasse at a crevasse at about 20,500 feet. When we arrived back at La Paz on July 22, we found an uneasy city heavily patrolled by police and soldiers, and could see rifles of leftist students sticking out of the windows of the engineering building of the San Andrés University, which they had seized under gunfire a day or two before.

All members of our expedition, except Rodolfo Gutiérrez, who lives in La Paz and was therefore well-acclimatized, took Diamox, 250 milligrams four times a day, starting on the day we flew out of Miami, and discontinuing it upon our arrival at Base Camp in the Apolobamba five days later. Up to that point, we had all felt quite well, and I was convinced the medication had facilitated our acclimatization. However, in the next few days, we were all affected to some degree by altitude sickness, and it seems likely that we discontinued the drug too soon and too abruptly. In retrospect, I believe the dose should have been tapered off over a period of three days, while one or two days of rest at Base Camp should have been interspersed with the relays to High Camp. Frank had climbed Mount McKinley in 1969, confirming once again that previous unaffected exposure to high altitudes does not mean freedom from the hazard of serious mountain sickness if adequate acclimatization discipline is not followed on returning to high elevations after a lengthy stay at sea level. It was very fortunate that we included oxygen in our supplies, a decision which was largely influenced by Dr. James Morrisey’s account in the 1970 American Alpine Journal on the 1969 American Dhaulagiri Expedition. Frank Zahar and I were co-leaders of the group, which included Jeffrey Lea, Ronald Thomson, Mark Sullivan, James Petroske and Rodolfo Gutiérrez.

John A. Woodworth, M.D.

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