Land of The Llama

The Trip 

Bolivia, a land famous for cocaine and the untimely demise of Che Guevara and Butch Cassidy. My reasons for visiting it were perhaps slightly less malicious than starting a revolution, but no less complex. Two years previously I had arranged to meet Rob in South America on his return from the Antarctic. In the event a "casual" meeting snowballed into an expedition of six, with numerous sponsorship deals and red tape. My main mistake was being sober enough to remember the agreement with Rob the following morning...

Antaquilla, a one horse town on the Bolivian side of the border with Peru looked like it had dropped straight out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western. Mud huts with tin roofs lined the streets, the chill Antiplano wind blowing dust around us as we stood talking to Benito Calancho (a.k.a Llama Man). We were standing outside the only hotel in town bargaining with Benito, only man who seemed to be able to rustle up enough llamas to transport us and our equipment to base camp.

"What the hell is he saying Viv?" We had been haggling for twenty minutes and I was getting bored with it all.

"He says it's now four hundred Bolivianos, not three eighty.", Viv, our doctor and part time translator, was having some difficulty understanding Benito. This was more to do with the mouthful of coca leaves, than Viv's minimal grasp of Castilliano. A worrying trend did seem to be coming to light. The price was increasing the more we haggled, in a sort of perverse manner normally only seen by those who follow government economic policy. We eventually paid up, rather than run the risk that Benito's demands would outstrip our rather limited supply.

Sunday was a rest day. Llamas only work a five day week after all. Antaquilla was virtually deserted. Jorge Saavedra, the Mayor, assured us that his town boasted a population of eight hundred. The evidence for this was fairly weak; the Mayor and his wife were in town, as was the Chief of Police and his side kick. The only remaining candidates for "member of the population" status were Bob and Ziggy (Marley), two dread-locked dogs who lay in the sun outside the Hotel. "Hotel" was in itself a misnomer. It was hardly The Dorchester, although it might have passed for a poorly maintained garden shed. The mud walls kept out the Antiplano's bitter wind and the upper room contained sufficient straw mattresses so no one had to sleep on the floor. A safe haven in a country were time and tide wait for no man, but only a fool rushes a llama.

Llama herding is a serious business. Benito and two accomplices arrived early Monday morning to round up enough of their flock to carry our gear to the head of the Hunacuni valley. We, for our part, had duly packed all our gear in twenty kilogram loads. The llamas were loaded in an orderly manner. Our numerous possessions being tied on with bits of rope and string. The "procession", for lack of a better word, set off from the village and headed towards Huanacuni at a leisurely pace. Llamas not only work a five day week, they also demand frequent rests and like to be involved in the route planning process, wandering off at the first opportunity. We arrived by mid-afternoon, the llamas having dictated the pace.

Our base camp, like many others, turned out to be ideal for playing chess, arguing over proposed Scrabble words, and catching up on all those books you've always wanted to read but have never had time. A place of happy memories... Playing cricket with a snow stake and a rock wrapped in crepe bandage, trying to avoid Ian's bouncers and having to keep wicket. Waking up at three in the morning to find Rob leaning half out of the tent retching violently as though his life depended on it. Then thinking that maybe this was indeed the case, and as I had eaten much the same food, considering doing a bit of vomiting myself - just to play safe. Above all Huanacuni basecamp left me with a sense of wonder not only of the place, but our own collective desire to be there.

Two weeks of attempting Hunacuni and getting nowhere were over. We had climbed two routes but not quite managed the summit (Hunacuni was climbed by a British / New Zealand pair a few weeks earlier from the other side of the peak). Benito returned and he and the Llamas ferried our equipment and much depleted pile of food back to Antaquilla.

The Rush

"Leave town before high noon". The bus was due to leave Antaquilla at midday, all the locals assured us of that, so why could I hear the unmistakable sound of a transmission struggling on the brink of failure, emanating from the main square at eight in the morning? Paranoia, and the knowledge that we had insufficient funds to hire a truck, led us to investigate further. The race was on, ten minutes to pack up the rest of our gear and load it on a the bus while the locals watched with great amusement. We made it, just, and climbing in the Andes by bus was about to be proven possible...

The bus was crammed with locals returning to Pelechuco from La Paz. They were most amused to find a group of "gringos" tagging along with them. An hour of haphazard driving and a barrage of well intentioned advice from the buses occupants brought us to Paso Pelechuco, the site of our basecamp. The bus drove off into the distance. Taking with it the woman with her children and chickens, and the local barber, who had finally given up trying to land the job of cutting off my matted hair.

Climbing at least some of the summits in the surrounding area seemed like a reasonable way to spend our remaining time in the region, if only to satisfy our sponsors. Objectives were picked, some inspired us. Some even inspired us to climb them rather than go home. At the end of all this success and failure Ian and I had ended up on a rather uncomfortable bivi below the West face of Katantica Oeste. We had arrived the previous afternoon and thought we could get by without cutting a bivi ledge. How wrong we were. As night spent sliding around tied to a couple of ice screws proved.

The High

"Wilco skipper, this ice is top hole!", Ian led through on yet another pitch of superb neve while I belayed him. The conditions were unsurpassed. Like something you read about in those rather over-the-top accounts of somebody else's routes. We linked pitch after pitch, pausing only to take contrived photographs of each other, for later publication. The eventual aim being to write better mountaineering articles than our predecessors, recounting tails of daring and hardship....

I wouldn't normally consider sticking my finger's into the flame of a MSR stove. The idea did however pass through my mind as I struggled to light the stove with stiff fingers. The bivi received no early morning sun, hidden below the West face. For some strange reason, which I never really got to the bottom of, nobody else was able to use "my" stove, especially early in the morning. We drank a brew and hurried off to tackle the first bergshrund, grateful to be moving and getting warmed up.

By eleven in the morning the sun finally made a far from welcome appearance on the face. Ian and I had been managing a respectable pitch every half hour. The temperature soared and our duvet jackets rapidly became damp with sweat as we struggled up the last pitches to a small crevasse. I dived in to get into the shade and set up a cooling bucket seat belay. The remainder of the south ridge passed without incident. The summit a hurried formality, the all to brief feeling of "we've done it" quickly turning into the more pressing "now how do we get down".

Climbing the face took the best part of the day, and we returned to our bivi site by dusk. A few rather contrived and ill-framed summit photos were all that we had to show for our labours. Another night on our rather uncomfortable sloping bivi seemed too much like hardship.

"Let's go home" he said. We just made it off the glacier back to basecamp without any serious incident. Staggering around a glacier in the dark is not the best time to try to put the theory of ice axe arrest into practice but somehow we managed to escape with bruises and a slightly strained friendship.

Route finding back to basecamp in the dark proved more problematic than the glacier. A tortuous route taking in several local beauty spots including a lake less than friendly group of half-wild dogs. Steve saved us some supper, and the world was truly right once again. Two days later we would be heading back to do it all over again. Rob and I climbed the West face of Apollo 11 before finally heading back to La Paz.

And that was that, as they say... Nobody got hurt or cross, well, not very. There were no epic tales of daring or tragedy, but when there are llamas about it's best to take it steady.

Summary:

An account of The Southampton University Mountaineering Club Bolivian Expedition, which visited the remote Apolobamba region in July/August of 1992. Sponsored by: Agfa-Gevaert Ltd, Austrian Alpine Club, British Mountaineering Council, COMSAC Climbing Equipment (Southampton), Heriot-Watt University, Mount Everest Foundation, Daniel Quiggin & Son, Southampton University, Sprayway Ltd, and North Cape Ltd. Reports lodged with the Alpine Club and RGS Libraries. Summary in Mountain Info, High, June 1993.