Adventurous Perse students hit the heights in Bolivia expedition
29 Aug 2019
Perse Head of Outdoor Pursuits Ben Parker provides an insight into the Perse Exploration Society Summit 12 expedition to Bolivia.
The team of 17 students and four staff had all spent the year training and preparing for this expedition. For many this was the pinnacle of some 6-7 years with the Perse Exploration Society.
Following a gruelling journey, on arrival in La Paz we all collapsed in our hostel rooms and slept off what we could of our jet lag. La Paz sits in a crater 3,500 metres above sea level. We all swiftly felt the effects and got out of breath walking up a few stairs. Taking it very slowly we explored the streets immediately surrounding our accommodation known as the ‘witches market’. Stalls selling clay models of religious idols, desiccated llama skins and strange powders were touted alongside colourful rugs and pan flutes in a kaleidoscope of colour and noise.
After a single day in the Bolivian capital, we moved to the heights of El Alto – a sprawling metropolis 3,800 metres above sea level which stretched far out into the high altitude plane. Passing through along the only highway, we headed for Lake Titicaca to spend some time in Santiago de Okola.
The team split into smaller groups and spent four days living with local families, eating locally grown food and attempting to speak Spanish and indigenous language Aymara. We visited the local school and bakery, which was built by a previous Summit 12 expedition team, gathered in the harvest and learned about traditional weaving. As part of our acclimatisation, we ascended the ‘head’ and ‘body’ of the nearby Sleeping Dragon outcrop the dragon’s body. Suffice to say many of us found the ascent a struggle with the lack of oxygen labouring every movement.
We headed on to the Cordillera Real mountain range in the Andes. After climbing to 4,000 metres above sea level, we pulled over for our first camp in Bolivia. The area was surrounded by high mountain sides and above and below us ran a series of lakes. Chinchillas and llamas ran around and a digger smashed into the rock face nearby. Not quite what we had anticipated.
Over the following five days, we slowly acclimatised by ascending no more than 400 metres a day. We ascended and descended multiple passes in blistering heat and beside precipitous drops. The backdrop to our trek was spectacular with the dusty high-altitude plain to our west and glaciated peaks to our east. Scrubland gave way to shattered rock and winding tracks. The pinnacle of this portion of our journey was the 5,150m Austria pass which took four hours of difficult trekking in thin air to ascend to the base camp of Mount Tarija. A few suffered from headaches and dizziness in light of the extreme altitude, but steady progress to this height staved off the worst effects.
Our first challenge was to revisit ice axe, crampon and rope skills on the glacier ahead of the main assault on the summit. We left there ready and motivated to tackle the summit the following morning.
At 3.45am, after forcing down stale bread and porridge, we set off, our route to the glacier lit by a long line of head torches as we made good progress. What followed was a slow and challenging climb over cracking ice and zigzagging through crevasses. At one point this meant climbing down into a partially collapsed crevasse over a snow bridge and ascending the near vertical wall of the opposite side. After three hours of solid climbing, most teams clambered on to the ridge to be greeted with the early morning orange glow of sunrise.
However, we had to climb over steep, bullet-hard ice to reach the main summit. Conditions were perfect as all teams congregated at the summit for photos and a short celebration. After what felt a very short period of time, we descended once again to make the most of the good snow conditions before the heat of the day could affect the glacier. Teams took 45 minutes to descend in daylight what had taken many hours that morning.
This did not diminish the feeling of success. We had all made it.