Bolivia Expedition 2018: Arkhata, Mururata, Willa Sallaloma

Below is an article I wrote for the Mazamas, who helped make this trip possible through their Alpine Adventure Expedition Grant. A huge thanks as well to the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant and Alpine Ascents International for their support. For a nice summary of the expedition see Brian Houle’s blog and the AAJ.


July 10, 2018

Breathe. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. I stem out of the belay cave, already panting from such high exertion above 5000 meters. Inhale. Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten. The ice is steep off the bat. I place a screw and work my way left onto the main flow. It is skinny, featured, and delicate. I climb slowly, swinging gently, and stopping to gasp for air after each move. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. My counting meditation helps to ease the intensity, to battle the nausea. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Place a screw. Nineteen. Twenty. I know I have to gun it for the ice strip up higher, where the angle will slightly relent. I go for it, climbing fast yet precisely over an overhanging bulge. I reach a good stance above, perched with tools sunk in solid ice, and feet stemmed across on small rock edges. I look down. Nothing but air fills the space between my legs – it is steep and I am here – reaching for my potential with each swing, each step, realizing what lies between skin and bone as I live through each moment.

Climbing out of the belay cave on the crux pitch of Power to the Process. Photo: Brian Houle.

In late June 2018, Brian Houle and I travelled south to Bolivia to spend a month climbing and exploring in the Cordillera Real. We were excited to continue the development of our climbing partnership, which began in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 2013, and had since taken us on trips to places such as Liming, China, and Pico de Orizaba, Mexico. Our plans this time were definitely next level. On top of being a country rich with cultural pride and tradition, Bolivia boasts a multitude of peaks in the 5000-6000 meter range, and sees relatively little climbing traffic compared to other big mountain destinations in the Americas, and world at large. Our goal was to spend a month climbing alpine objectives on some of the bigger peaks and faces of the range, culminating in a nine-day excursion to a high camp at Laguna Arkhata, where we would attempt new routes on the southern aspects of Cerro Mururata and Cerro Arkhata.

Brian traversing to the col between the summits of Huayna Potosi, after climbing the French Route. Photo: Ethan Berman

July 11, 2018

Yesterday was a monumental day. For my progression, our partnership, and simply for the achievement we were able to accomplish. All the hard work has paid off. All the running, all the gym sessions, all the time spent driving here and there, all the focus put into this craft. Yesterday I really got the chance to take my skills and learning to the big mountains, and we succeeded in establishing a new route, Power to the Process, with 350 m of steep, sustained technical climbing. It was the line I had been dreaming of, on the left side of the south face of Mururata. I had seen it in many photos, but conditions were uncertain, as well as its connectivity. We couldn’t have asked for better conditions yesterday, as we snaked our way up snow-slopes, rocky pinnacles, steep ice and mixed, and broken, glaciated terrain…

Our trip began with a week spent acclimating around Huayna Potosi (6088 m), probably one of the most accessible 6000 meter peaks on the planet. Due to its popularity, there are several “refugios” to stay in at the base (around 4800 m), which made things quite comfortable besides the headaches, swelling, and dizziness of our rapid acclimatization plan. We spent a full week exploring the surrounding peaks, including an ascent up the ridge of Pico Mulluni (5500 m), the glacier route on Charquini (5392 m), and the French Route on Huayna Potosi. We were off to a good start. The weather and conditions were cooperating, and we were feeling relatively strong considering we had both arrived from sea level, myself from Vancouver, BC nine days prior, and Brian from Tacoma, WA only six days before climbing to 6000 meters. Back in La Paz, we rested, ate, and packed for Laguna Arkhata.

Climbing the summit ridge of Charquini. The east face of Huayna Potosi is visible behind. Photo: Brian Houle.

July 4, 2018

Finally up at Laguna Arkhata! Nothing short of spectacular… I think we are going to have an incredible week up here. First objective is the SE face of Cerro Arkhata, which looks like it will have a fun ice pitch down low and then follow a bunch of snowy ramps up. The line I’ve been thinking about on Mururata also looks like it might connect. Very excited to explore. Our trustworthy driver Mario dropped us off in the village of Totoral Pampa this morning, a rustic farming community nestled between the towering massifs of Mururata and Illimani. We followed grazing trails up past several lakes, losing the trail twice and having to back-track, but finally made it up to our camp after 7 grueling hours with a heavy pack. Been thinking a lot today about how the world is moving toward instant gratification. We are losing our way – our drive to put in the necessary time to really learn and achieve. To fail. To grow. We have put a lot of time and effort into putting this trip together, and here we are. Tomorrow we are going to take it slow. Get to know the place a bit…

Camp at Laguna Arkhata below the impressive south face of Mururata. Photo: Brian Houle.

Life at Laguna Arkhata moved at a different pace. We woke up slow, spent hours laying in the tent, on the rocks in the sun, examining the steep faces of Arkhata and Mururata, and planning our strategy for the week to come. On our second day at the lake Brian was feeling a bit sick, tired from a busy guiding season and the pressures of being an almost Dad. I was ready to move, so set off solo, and established the Southwest Ridge of Cerro Willa Sallaloma (~5588 m).

July 6, 2018

I left camp at 9:40 AM with my eyes set on the SW Ridge of an unknown peak that shoots up like a pyramid from the lake. I climbed a few sections of low 5th in between 4th class until realizing the ridge was full of nasty gendarmes which would take me all day to navigate. Rock was suspect. Actually it was a total pile of choss! I continued below the ridge on the left side and followed all sorts of intermittent scree ledges until finding a gully leading upwards. I dawned my one ice tool and climbed low-angle snow and ice, kicking steps where I could but often stemming on rock in my approach shoes and camming my foot into gaps between rock and ice. The gully spit me out higher and I continued scrambling up, eventually gaining the ridge just below a nice, wide, flat summit. I built a cairn, snapped some photos, and was on my way. It could be an FA. But why does it matter? My experience is my own.

The south face of Cerro Arkhata, as seen from the summit of Willa Sallaloma. Photo: Ethan Berman

That evening Brian was feeling better, and the next day we set off for Cerro Arkhata, establishing a new route on the SE face: The Keep. We found two stellar ice pitches at the bottom, and followed low angle snow and scree before climbing a long mixed gully. Higher on the face, Brian led up for 2 hours through horrendous snow conditions, eventually gaining the ridge and leading to the summit.

July 8, 2018

Psyched, and on the summit of Cerro Arkhata, we took photos with Illimani looming in the distance, and began our descent by pretty much the same route (but finding bypasses around both technical sections). We were 8 hours up from camp, and 2 ½ hours back. I was happy to be heading down, as I was dealing with some nausea and stomach pain, exacerbated by the effort of upward movement.

Brian whipped it down and laid straight in bed, coughing and wondering whether his ill-condition signified the end of our stint at Laguna Arkhata. Thankfully he was feeling better this morning, and decided that we should take a couple rest days, and if feeling good, give a shot at the beautiful unclaimed line up the south face of Mururata. There are so many reasons why we shouldn’t go, shouldn’t try, shouldn’t succeed. Weather, conditions, health, altitude, attitude, fear, to name a few. What is beautiful about our pursuit is our ability to draw strength from the few factors going our way, believe in their power, and relent ourselves to digging deep, finding our stride, and ultimately giving in to the experience.

My desire to climb Mururata is strong. But I hope it can be outweighed by my ability to succumb to the experience, to what we find up there, and ultimately let that guide our decisions. A restful day it is – we are happy in our accomplishments, and humbled by the majesty of this environment.

Brian climbing the summit ridge of Cerro Arhkata, with the Illimani Massif in the distance. The winter in Bolivia boasts some of the most stable big mountain weather on the planet. Photo: Ethan Berman.

Brian’s condition improved over the next couple days, and we prepared ourselves for an attempt at Mururata. While in camp, we rested and sorted our remaining rations for the days to come. Since we carried everything in on our backs, we were running quite a caloric deficit. A packet of oatmeal for breakfast, cookies and granola bars for lunch, and a freeze-dried for dinner… None the less, the fire was lit, and our determination fortified.

Brian stoked about tent life. We got real cozy this month… Photo: Ethan Berman

July 9, 2018

It connects. A steep pillar of something guards its upper reaches. Tomorrow we will face it. See what it is really like. I am nervous. It is a big route, and I know it will be on me to make it happen through the crux. There is no external pressure. Just me. My abilities. My mental state. We will approach it open-minded. Step by step, pitch by pitch, move by move. That is the beauty of the game. The uncertainty of what we will find, of what will happen. Let good decisions be made, and let us give it a go…

The line of Power to the Process. Photo: Ethan Berman

July 10, 2018

We awake at 1:30 am, again leaving camp around 2:15. This time we head past the looming seracs guarding the south face in order to reach the route. We traverse the big, rocky bench, and are decending a huge pile of debris when we hear the foreboding scream of ice breaking above. Literally right above. We huddle behind a modest-sized boulder, and feel the dusting of snow blow by us. It is a small break, and obliterates before reaching the base of the wall. We had been weighing the risk all week, and had not seen anything other than dust reach the base, and not very frequently. None the less we are hit by serac fall, and that is fucked. When the mountain speaks we are forced to listen.

Climbing a beautiful pitch of h2o ice on Power to the Process. Photo: Brian Houle

Shortly after we find the smooth, debris-less snow slope at the base of our route – a sign of the relative safety of our chosen line – and begin soloing up the gully, leading to the snow band and difficulties above. I solo up a rock step, break out the rope, and belay Brian up to a good anchor below a steep rock wall, which was not visible from the outside. Although at first quite intimidating, and making me wonder whether our day is already over, I see a ledge system running right, and leading to a lower angle chimney. I lead off, placing one piece of pro, and make an airy traverse across the ledge and up the chimney to another snow slope above. I don’t find another piece of protection until belaying Brian up on a solid angle and an ok nut.

There remains one more pitch before the snow band, and we know there is a funky rock pinch at the end. I start out again, connecting back into the snow gully on the left, and continuing up easy terrain until below the pinch, which actually splits the gully into two. I go right, finding a fantastic strip of ice, and follow it up to the snow band, placing a few screws as I go. The thought of seracs behind us, I start to find a rhythm in this REALLY GOOD CLIMBING. Brian kicks steps up the snow band and I follow to an anchor below a large gully of undulating, solid ice.

Brian follows ice up to the belay cave below the crux pitch of Power to the Process. Photo: Brian Houle

I lead this amazing, long, sustained pitch, the whole time wondering how we have managed to find such a good ice climb on this complex and shattered mountain! As the ice begins to steepen, I keep looking up to what I already know will be the crux of the route. A steep column of ice flowing down from another gully above… It isn’t too long, and is attached to a rock wall on the right, which looks as if it might provide good stemming to counter balance the verticality. There is a small belay cave wedged between the ice and rock, and I burrow into it, set a bomber two screw anchor, and bring Brian up. For all the anxiety and uncertainty I have experienced leading up to this moment, now here I know I will make it through the crux. The ice will protect well enough, and in this utterly fantastic place, position, and route, I know I can and will make it happen…

Brian leading up glaciated slopes toward the summit of Mururata. Photo: Ethan Berman

At the summit we hug, exchange happy words, take photos, and start heading down, slightly worried about some weather moving through the area (which doesn’t materialize). We rappel over the summit cornice, and seven more times down ‘Goulotte Marie’ before down climbing snow slopes and stumbling back to camp after 17 hours on the move.

Stoked on the summit of Mururata after climbing a new route on the south face. Photo: Brian Houle.

Two days later, and back in La Paz, Brian and I fuel up before icing the cake with a rapid ascent of the normal route on Illimani in 36 hours round trip from the city. What a sweet, sweet adventure we had. It is hard to overstate the intense feelings, a whole spectrum of them, that I felt over our month in Bolivia. I feel lucky to have been able to share them with a close friend. I will forever be amazed by the generosity of the people on this planet, from the good graces of the Bolivians we encountered to the opportunities provided through adventure grants from the Mazamas. Brian and I are grateful for the support we received, and also want to thank the American Alpine Club Live Your Dream Grant and Alpine Ascents International for helping to facilitate this experience. Porque lo major está por venir. The best is yet to come.

Just before saying goodbye to Doña Yola, who runs Refugio Casa Blanca below Huayna Potosi. Many evenings were spent chatting in her kitchen. Photo: Brian Houle

“How beautiful the world is when you have had to make a real effort to experience this beauty. Alpinism is like art. You put all your strength, your entire soul into your work. You forget everything. You only live for that metre ahead of you, and when you stand, exhausted, on the top of a snowy mountain and bask in the warmth of the sun, you feel beauty within you that cannot be described. You feel the world. You feel the earth, the sun, the wind; everything breathes with you and intoxicates you. The friend with you keeps silent. Only his eyes glow above his sunken cheeks. And without asking him, you know that he has exactly the same experience. That he is living life itself.”

-From Pot by Nejc Zaplotnik, as translated in Alpine Warriors by Bernadette McDonald (p.307).

The three new routes climbed above Laguna Arkhata. From left to right: The Keep on the southeast face of Cerro Arkhata (700m, III WI3+ M4), Power to the Process on the south face of Cerro Mururata (750m, IV WI5 M5), the Southwest ridge of Cerro Willa Sallaloma (400m, III 5.5 WI2). See AAJ 2019.