In recent years little mountaineering information has come out of Bolivia. This may partly be due to there currently being no agency or individual committed to collecting mountaineering information, particularly activity relating to new routes or notable repeats of established climbs. One of Bolivia’s best known guides and archivists, Alain Mesili, has taken a break from climbing to concentrate on writing, which may have further limited the flow of information. It seems the number of climbers to Bolivia continues to decrease, despite the country offering one of the most stable weather patterns in the mountaineering world and high scope for new route development. In recent years most activity has been on the popular and often guided peaks of the Southern Cordillera Real, easily accessible from the capital: Huayna Potosi, Condoriri, and Illimani.
In September, after a five-year break from mountaineering, I traveled home to Bolivia, joining Kiwi expat Gregg Beisly for two weeks intensive climbing. Gregg and his family work as missionaries in El Alto. In his backyard, at 4,000m, Gregg has set up what must be the highest bouldering wall in the world. After I had repeatedly failed on the easiest problems, we decided to tackle bigger, easier, and potentially achievable objectives in the Northern Cordillera Real.
We approached the isolated eastern valleys of the Ancohuma-Illampu Massif via Cocoyu. Although there is significant scope here for new routes, expeditions have all but abandoned the eastern aspect of the Northern Cordillera Real, and there have been no reported climbs of Ancohuma from this side for a decade. Over nine days we climbed three routes. On September 1 we put up a new line on the north face of one of the Hancopitis (Peak 5,723m), an easy glacier approach, followed by five pitches of steep rock directly up the middle of the face. Climbed in a 16-hour roundtrip from base camp at 4,800m, Via Santiago was F6b.
Two days later, in an eight-hour roundtrip from the same camp, we climbed the southeast ridge of Viluyo I (5,540m), a route likely followed in 1979 by French Yvette Jupin and Jean Therisod. After a rest day we moved camp to 4,900m, from which we summited Ancohuma (6,430m) in 16 hours of sustained and at times complex climbing. We followed the established route up the northeast ridge to the north ridge and summit. Hardly acclimatized after only a week at altitude, I staggered onto the summit in a whiteout, and Gregg had to help me back down to the 6,200m col. Here I found my legs and sufficient air to get back to camp. Since my last visit to this peak 15 years ago, the characteristics of the climb have changed significantly for the worse. The route used to be a straightforward snow ascent, but now penitentes have appeared, and the summit ridge is loose rock, making for a more serious undertaking.
However, snowfall in 2011 was significantly greater than in recent years, and some traditional ice routes, which had disappeared due to climate change, reformed. On the 13th we climbed one of the longest and most sustained ice faces in Bolivia, the west face of Huayna Potosi (6,088m). We more or less followed the Direct Route, first climbed in 1970 by Americans Harthorne, Harvard, Lanney, and Thompson but often referred to as the French Direct after a 1978 repeat by Challeat, Faure, Levi, and Mesili (900m, D+/TD-). We zigzagged around a series of bergschrunds before taking the steepest, direct line to the top, reaching the summit in eight hours. In 1996 we had climbed another line on the west face and were delighted to have one final weather window this season to climb back up memory lane.