The Cordillera Real, the magical paradise of the mountaineers
Fabrice pawlak & pierre kapsalis
Sacred rock of the Andes, the Royal Mountain Range rises like an impassable rampart between the Inca Empire and the Amazon...
Observed from the calm waters of the Lake Titicaca, the summits, methodically aligned,form an extraordinary wall, an uninterrupted succession of snow-covered peaks at more than 6,000 meters of altitude. They constitute without a doubt one of the most beautiful natural wonders of South America, and so it is unsurprising that the first civilizations decided to settle permanently at its feet.
"God is far away and we have to negotiate with his intermediaries, the mountains."
Despite this Aymara proverb, the natives of the Cordillera Real (named by the Spaniards and the predominant ethnic group in this part of the Andes for more than 1000 years) have never been much attracted by heights. Even today, few Bolivians can be found at high altitude. For them, the mountain remains a divinity that must be respected, a neighbour that deserves offerings when one dares to disturb it. What of hese strange "gringos" who venture to its summit? Of course, they go there to look for gold, even if they don't tell anyone about it...
The first man of the old continent to discover the Bolivian Altiplano was the Spaniard Alejo Garcia in 1524, on a quest for gold. A few centuries later, other explorers started visiting these regions of altitude with a completely different goal: to conquer the summits. The first expeditions in the Bolivian Cordillera date back to the end of the 19th century, at a time when mountaineering was still an exclusively European activity. The Andes are no exception and many of the refuges or climbing routes bear the names of pioneers from the old continent.
However, the Royal Mountain Range, named by the Spaniards, is full of Inca paved paths, some of which still not listed by the guides. A doubt remains as to whether these paths are in fact Inca or Tiwanakota, as the empire of Cuzco spanned two hundred years during which the Incas assimilated the techniques and knowledge of the previous civilizations, in particular that of Tiwanaku. The Tiwanakotas, at their peak, were sufficiently developed and powerful to carry out the construction of these roads between the Amazon and the Andes. Surely the Incassimply completed or improved them. We can therefore think of the architects and engineers of the roads as the same that built the Door of the Sun on the Inca Trail.
Today, however, there remains no trace of possible Incan ascents in this mountain range, and these fierce warriors certainly never reached its highest summits at 6 000 meters and beyond.. They were probably satisfied to control the few passes that offer passage between the Altiplano and the Yungas, a paradisiacal tropical region with steep cliff faces , wedged between the Andean mineral walls and the immense Amazonian plains. The thousands of streams that are born here, fed by the melting of the cordillera’s glaciers, lead straight to the Amazon and eventually the Guaranis, enemies of the Incas.
This geographical situation gives the Royal Mountain Range its first point of uniqueness : according to where we are along the slope, the environment, as much human as ecological, changes considerably. From the summits, we sit between two opposing worlds.
On the Yungas side, the rains and the fog are very frequent, while ascents on the Altiplano side are considered more forgiving. When the sky is clear, Yungas seems less hostile, probably due to dizzying smells of strange fruits and sounds of waterfalls. A little lower down, the vegetation thickens again, and human life reappears from all sides: on the winding roads, colourful trucks loaded with citrus fruits and passengers, make incredible turns. The land becomes fertile, generous. Everything is grown here: melons, mangoes, papaya, coffee, lots of coca, all to the sound of hummingbirds and "cumbia" music. It’s a setting that defies the imagination; and indeed it is hard to imagine, when you sip a maracuja juice with your hand dangling in the fresh water of the torrent, your watch deep in your bag, that you are near roped off climbers looking for a summit, enduring the cold and the altitude sickness, the "sorroche" of the mountains...
On the Altiplano side, our gaze moves to the Lake Titicaca and its Aymara population, full of history, legends and secular traditions. Crossroads of the most ancient Amerindian civilizations, place of passage of great historical destinies, the Lake Titicaca has always exercised a great power of fascination on travelers and conquistadors alike. From the empire of Tiwanaku to the Bolivians, from the Incas to the Spaniards, all have made this natural jewel one of their places of worship. Even today, thousands of pilgrims from all over Bolivia continue to come here during the Easter holidays to worship the Black Madonna of Copacabana. Meanwhile, as always, the sails of the fishing boats cross in the warm waters of the lake under the blinding light of the Sun God, Viracocha. It is this place that Viracocha chose to deposit his children: Manko Capac, the first Inca, and his sister, Mama Ollko, who later founded the capital of the empire, Cuzco, the "Navel of the world". The beliefs here are mixed with legend and it is not rare to be told a tale by one of the wise men of the village of Kalahuta or Tiquira, around a fire under the starry sky.
To these Inca myths the Aymaras added their own: Illimani, Huayna Potosi, Illampu, Sajama…to understand the meanings of these names we must look to Andean mythology, transmitted from generation to generation, and still present in popular belief. "Pacha" is the father of the world, the cosmic God of the Andes. Great master of the heights, the mountains and the rivers, he divided himself into 3 fundamental forces, each of them represented by a God. The three of them form a Trinity: "Pachama", the universal essence, "Wira", the energy that animates the world, and "Kjuno", the force of destruction. Hence "Pacha Tata", the Father of the Inca world, "Wira Kocha" the holder of the waters of the earth and "Jacha-Kjuno", the great destroyer descended from the snows. Are you following?
While one deity builds, another destroys with the same force. "Wira" chose the stones to build the mountains, while "Kjuno" chose avalanches and glaciers to do his evil work.. When the divinities were through fighting,they were transformed into splendid peaks of rock and ice, living in the beauty of the Andes and dominating the world of men. The gods of snow are called Illampu, raised to the glory of the sun, Illimani, dedicated to the moon or Huayna Potosi, the youngest of all who keeps in his bosom the secrets of the ancients.
All of these beliefs create an atmosphere that is unique to the ascents of the Royal Mountain Range, but the avid mountaineer will surely not need this mysterious perfume to feel the desire to touch the surrounding summits. This was my case. When you live in La Paz, it is natural to climb these peaks that you admire from your window as soon as you wake up. My most beautiful memory remains my ascent of the Ancohuma. We had to stay one week at more than 6 000 m fordrilling during a glaciology mission. The team looked good andafter sacrificing some chickens to the Pachamama our Bolivian teammates were ready to start the ascent. We wereoverloaded with drill pipes, heavy equipment, and inadequate provisions. Our expedition leader Bernard Francou, who is an experienced Andeanist, even brought whole bags of oranges along whenlightweight freeze-dried products would have sufficed, .and for his birthdaywe had overloaded ourselves with good bottles of French wine. A film crew experienced in difficult conditions accompanied us on this mission, but returned two days later lacking oxygen and without ever having tasted the wine.. This was regretful for many reasons, one being that we would have been happy to film what was to follow: the drilling head got stuck at a depth of about ten meters, at an altitude of about 6180 m, so we had to take turns for two full days to cut stairs into the ice, thus sculpting a deep pool on the beautiful plateau of Ancohuma. We returned a few days later after having completed our mission and recovered the drilling instrument. Splendid weather, great team, beautiful mountains - what could be a better adventure?
Embark for a crossing of the Andes, with a caravan of mules.
Glaciers in danger
Unfortunately, the glaciers of the Royal Mountain Range are retreating faster than in any other region. This is evidenced by the total disappearance of the Chacaltaya glacier - 18,000 years old - where the highest ski slope in the world was located until recently, or the gradual and inevitable disappearance of the Illimani glaciers. The state of health of these glaciers is so significant that it is studied by scientists from all over the world, especially from France and Bolivia. They have published a report showing that these glaciers have lost almost half of their volume in just 30 years. When we know that the city of La Paz depends mainly on these glaciers for its water supply, we can easily imagine the problems that this will cause for the administrative capital of the country.
For us Westerners, the magic of these divine mountains may seem like a fairytale, but for Bolivians they are a hard fact, apart of their culture, and history. And it is perhaps then to us, travelers, to respect - and why not - to believe and to impregnate ourselves of this culture. (I’m not sure I understand this last sentence)
- HUAYNA POTOSI - 6 088 m
To land in La Paz, the plane has to fly around an imposing mountain, the Huayna Potosi, which offers the traveler his or her first strong emotion before setting foot on the ground. The Huayna Potosi, less than an hour from La Paz, is the most accessible "real" 6000m peak (with ice!) in Bolivia. From a comfortable refuge located at the bottom of the mountain, the typical routedoes not present particular technical difficulties, aside from a few crevasses, and good physical fitness and acclimatization to the altitude will ensure a successful ascent. .. Frequented from April to the end of September, this classic route is done almost entirely on the trail from the refuge. A great way to acclimatize to the altitude before attempting the more difficult Huyana Potosi is to start at the Milluni refuge (1 hour cab ride from La Paz) and climb the Charquini, just next door.
Several routes are possible: the classic route, the French route, or the more difficult West face. Well acclimatized, it is perfectly possible to reach the summit by the classic route in one or two days. It is not uncommon to meet 10 people at the Argentinian camp (at 5450 m,reached after 2 hours of hiking on the glacier), taking a sunbath before the efforts planned for the following night. Don't worry, there’s also a camp just before the glacier, for those not at Mont Blanc level!
From the Argentinian camp (normal route, grade II/AD, max 50°), take the glacier towards the East face. Then take the steep slope (50 m vertical drop) to reach the ridge on your right. Once on the ridge, go left, on the gentle slope. To reach the snowy plateau below the summit, on your right, you’ll need to cross a series of small slopes lined with crevasses (3 to 4 hours from the Argentine camp). Finally, to reach the summit, there are two possibilities: take the slope in front of you (40/50°) or cross the snowy plateau to the ridge on your left. This second route is less steep but a bit longer. Descend the way you came.
- ILLIMANI Pico Sur - 6 462 m
The Illimani is probably the most famous summit in Bolivia. From La Paz, we can easily distinguish the 3 summits: Pico Norte, Central and Sur (6462 m, highest point). It is an integral part of the panorama of La Paz, an immobile mineral mass that serves as a backdrop to the city teeming with life. In fact, the mountain is so emblematic of the capital that in 1934, the Nazis mounted a large swastika flag to the top in order to intimidate Bolivia’s Jewish community. A few days later, an Englishman climbed the big mountain to remove it.
The Illimani was climbed for the first time in 1877 by Charles Wiener, a French explorer. His main objective was to determine the exact altitude of the "monster", which he estimated at nearly 8000 meters! This was certainly one of the first ascents of a 6000 meter peak in the Andes cordillera, a real exploit considering the technical meansof the time. Today, the race to the summit is no longer done in a week, as it was for Wiener, but in 3 or 4 days from La Paz. More recently, on a trip through Bolivia, famous French mountaineer Lionel Terray expressed his admiration for the summit, though he never climbed it himself. In his honor, Alain Mesili, perhaps the greatest Andeanist of the moment, named the southwestern route of Pico the "ruta Lionel".
Despite its illustrious past, however (it is the only Bolivian summit to be part of the "Encyclopedia of the mountains of the world" published in the 1960's), Illimani has also earned a bad reputation due to a few tragic accidents that have occurred there..
Normal route itinerary (difference in height 1400 m, Grade II/PD, Max 50 °):
From Pinaya, walk 3 hours to the site of Puente Roto (4400 m, where the trail crosses an old mining track), set up camp there or continue another 5 hours to the "Nido de Los Condores",following the old trail south for 15 minutes before going up the rocky ridge on your left. Follow the ridge to the camp (5450 m). In general, crampons will become indispensable from this point forward, another 5-7 hours to the summit. From the Nido de Los Condores, follow the steep ridge towards the summit until you reach a rimaye, then go north (left) until you see a false summit. Go south (right) to reach it. From this false summit, follow the snowy ridge to the real summit. Descend by the same route.
- CONDORIRI - 5 650 m
The Condoriri range is made up of 13 peaks reaching an altitude of more than 5,000 meters. The most famous is the Condoriri, which owes its name to its shape: that of a condor with spread wings. A superb summit with the classic route presenting some technical challenges, it is one of my favorite ascents in the Royal Mountain Range. Sir Martin Conway, the first Westerner to discover it in 1895, was left with the following impressions: "This strange rock (?), which exerts a kind of evil spell and which the peasants of the region call the Kondoriri, is full of mysteries and populated with ferocious animals. One can see, at nightfall, clouds of condors flying over an immense ice dam".
According to the myths of the region, this mountainous zone is the refuge of the biggest condors in the Andes, ones that use their massive legs to kidnap children and turn them into condor-men. Don’t worry, though, as these condors are rather rare nowadays.
If the weather is bad, go trout fishing in the lagoons around the base camp of the Char Khotia lagoon (ask for the Quispe Mamani family in the village of Tuni).
Itinerary Cabeza del Condor (head of the condor), normal route southwest (Grade III/AD+, Max 55°):
From the base camp, take the path oriented northwest in the direction of the Cabeza del Condor. The slope gets steeper and steeper until you reach a tiny pass with a view on the glacier. You’ll have to go down into the rock to finally put on your crampons. Follow the glacier towards the summit, via the snowy ridge leading to the summit. Depending on conditions, you can opt for another, quite interesting route, following the snowy base to the right leaving the ridge. You will come upon a snowy corridor that leads to the summit ridge. Wide at the beginning, this corridor narrows and gets progressively steeper until you reach the ridge,exposed on both sides, to the right until the summit. Descend the way you came.
- ANCOHUMA - 6 430 m
For a long time, the Ancohuma ("White Waters" in Aymara) was considered to be over 7000 m high by Bolivian cartographers, thus crowning it the highest peak outside the Himalayas. It was climbed for the first time in 1919 by the Germans Dienst and Schulze, a feat given the difficulty of the summit and the means at the time. In my opinion, the Ancohuma is the most attractive summit of the Royal Mountain Range, simply for the pleasure of its ascent; one mustcross a huge snowy plateau before continuing to the summit via a long and uniform ice ridge.
Normal route itinerary, via the Laguna Glacier (Grade I/PD, 1000 m difference in altitude, 8 hours, 7 days from La Paz and back):
Join the muleteers at Sorata from La Paz, then take the well-known trail to the impressive site of the Laguna Glacier (5040 m). This will take two days, so make sure to stop at Laguna Chillata on your way to pay your respects (no bathing). . The base camp will be located above the Laguna glacier (5200 m). The next day, go up the granite blocks, southwards, for 300 m. Progress through the rocks to the right of the glacier until you reach it (5500m). Go up the moraine on the right of the glacier until you reach the snow (5700m). The slope leads directly to a glacial plateau (5800m) that you must cross to the base of the main southwest ridge. Set up camp, then follow the route to the summit along the ridge. Descend the way you came.
- JANKHO LAYA – 5 545 m
A lesser-known summit located in a less popular area of the Royal Mountain Range.
Base camp: from the bottom of Paso Mulla Apacheta (on the edge of the Janco Cota Lake), walk 30 minutes to the end of the grassy flat to set up camp (4600 m).). The waters are muddy but with patience you will find some streams of clear water for drinking.
Normal route (South-East face, grade II, Max 60°, 700 m ascent, 6h):
Due to the recent retreat of the glacier, you must first cross a field of granite blocks to reach the glacier by different entry points (slope 50/60°). Once on the glacier, go towards the East ridge, avoiding the wide and obvious crevasses, then follow the ridge to the summit. Same route for the descent.
Extract, in part of the book Sommets Incas: Les plus belles courses des Andes centrales, by Patrick Wagnon and Fabrice Pawlak, Glénat editions.