“An Exploratory Adventure to the Cordillera Real in Bolivia”. This title succeeded in winning Brian Houle and I funding for our expedition, but the significance of the words has changed in the last year and a half. We based our trip off a handful of photos taken around Laguna Arkhata, showcasing vertical walls of ice and rock, which comprise the south faces of Cerro Arkhata and Cerro Mururata. We had heard the southeast face of Arkhata to be unclimbed, and the ice runnels falling from the large summit plateau of Mururata, practically straight into the lake below, seemed to represent endless opportunity for exploration. “Remote and rarely visited”, we wrote, this area seemed perfect to establish a base camp and climb for a week or two. It was perfect, and we did establish a camp in July 2018.

Six months before departure I read Alpinist 57, in which Anna Pfaff describes “ice lines wrapped like glistening snakes around the south face” of Mururata. Others had also dreamt of this place? I reach out to Anna, wondering about her decision to climb elsewhere in the range, nervous about the potential for dry conditions. No ice. No climb. Conditions can be as fickle as a wavering mind. We stick to our plan.

La Paz with the Summits of Mururata and Illimani Behind. Photo: Ethan Berman

Three weeks out, sitting in my graduate lab at the University of British Columbia, I am unable to contain my enthusiasm. I dive into the depths of Google and Facebook, curious for any tiny bits of information about Mururata I might have missed. Click, click, boom. I find several AAJ articles, including a detailed report of a solo climb of the south face by Robert Rauch, a well known climber based in La Paz. On a whim I search for Mururata on Facebook, revealing a plethora of photos, recent photos, all taken from Laguna Arkhata. It turns out the lake is well known locally for its majestic beauty, and is a popular hiking and camping destination for Bolivians and travelers alike. I laugh at the fact that the background of all these photos will soon be my foreground, but also at my ignorance in imagining a practically untouched landscape that I really knew nothing about. For all I know, our exploration might entail sharing camp with a large guided tour group, roasting a pig on a spit and passing a bottle of strong stuff around a raging fire. I struggle with what that means for our adventure, or what I thought it meant. Does it matter?

On day 12 in Bolivia, our trustworthy taxi driver “Maestro Mario” deposits us at the last hairpin turn before the village of Totoral Pampa, 2 and a half hours of dusty, winding dirt road from the congestion of La Paz. This is our launching point for Laguna Arkhata, and we’re ready, having spent a week around Huayna Potosi, acclimating on Milluni and Charquini, before climbing the French Route to the main summit. Mario zooms off, promising to come get us in nine days, and we are finally off on our own, onto our exploratory adventure. The valley is stunning. Green grasslands rise up to sheer cliffs on all sides, the towering seracs of Mururata barely visible above the surrounding sub-peaks. We begin our 7 hour trek up to Laguna Arkhata, the highest of three glacial lakes spawning from a massive icefall, burdened by our heavy packs full of climbing gear and sustenance for 9 days.

Brian starting the trek up to Laguna Arkhata. Photo: Ethan Berman

Small stone houses dot the landscape, a clear upgrade from the decomposing mud huts of generations past. Goats, sheep, alpaca, cows, and pigs graze tranquilly. Farmers tend to their arid fields. We pass a bulldozer, clawing at the hillside to construct a new road. Later on, after establishing our camp at the upper lake, we had trouble distinguishing serac fall from the blasts of dynamite used to advance the road, built to provide better access to a nearby gold mine, we suppose.

Further up, among the scree slopes, shrublands, and towering buttresses of rotten shale, the landscape is still dominated by human activity. The trail is well-travelled and we imagine a train of mules carrying up supplies for other visitors. Stone walls partition the steep hillsides for grazing, and small shelters built for herders stretch all the way to the upper lake, the last stop before the mountainous fortress. Ungulate scat is everywhere, as animals spend the better months feeding up high, when it is warm, wet, and the grasses turn green. “Who are the real mountain people?”, I ask Brian, jokingly. The signs point to centuries of inhabitance. We are clearly not the only ones who seek refuge, experience, and solitude amongst these mountains, not to mention livelihood and sustenance. I cannot fathom the reality of having to carve out a meager existence in this harsh landscape. It is often easy to forget, to ignore, to pass over the histories of local peoples, and the meaning they derive from the places we visit, the places we “explore”. We are burdened by our adventurous intent to discover, to be the first to do this, or that, to feel as if we have uncovered some deep secret that has been looming above, waiting. We derive virtues and find meaning as we climb, uncovering pieces that lead us to summits above and depths within. We serve as ambassadors for the majesty of the natural world, and facilitate cross-cultural understanding through our interactions. Yet we must emphasize, honor, respect, and acknowledge that we are visitors, and our presence cannot, and should not undermine what already is and has existed for so long. For who are the real mountain people?

A stone hut at Laguna Arkhata, with Cerro Mururata behind. We camped on the banks of the lake. Photo: Ethan Berman

Up at Laguna Arkhata, we are in awe of the castles and cathedrals reaching high above us. The Bolivian winter is mild, and the sun warms us each day as we study the mountainous pillars, arches, vaults, and spires, like pilgrims in awe of such immaculate construction. We do not encounter another soul, savoring our seclusion, but the small fisherman’s hut at the corner of the lake reminds me of our place. As we envision our intended climbs, I cannot help but think about the climbers who have also beheld this site before us, and how the knowledge of their previous presence might affect my interpretation of the landscape.

A placed a cairn at the summit of Cerro Willa Sallaloma after climbing the mountain solo. Why should my experience have been different if someone else had climbed it before? Photo: Ethan Berman

Too much energy is focused on the encyclopedias of routes that have been accomplished, and those that have not yet been done. As I have learned through conversations with local climbers and guides alike, the history of Bolivian climbing is quite convoluted, further juxtaposing the absurdity of our desire for “firsts” against a landscape visibly shaped by the historical presence of human beings. It is now clear to me that what is most important in the mountains is to keep an open heart and an open mind. An open heart will allow the forces of the mountain to resonate within, and allow you to envision your most meaningful interaction with it, in the form of the route that speaks most strongly. An open mind will allow you to fully process the experience you may be setting out for, to reason through the strategy and hazards, and make good decisions about the climb. If this openness leads you up a path that has never been climbed before, you have found your unique expression in that landscape. If you are led up a path that has already been established, that is equally wonderful, for your ultimate expression is one that is shared with others on similar journeys, and you should relish that connection. This is what I strive for.

Brian descending back to the road after 9 days at Laguna Arkhata. Illimani in the distance. The road on the left was being constructed and leading to ?. Photo: Ethan Berman

Back in the hustle of La Paz, I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and sip my morning coffee. I cup my hands to grasp the grains of memory not only from the climbs themselves, but equally from the knowledge and wisdom gained through the experience. I am grateful for the opportunity to experience a landscape sewn with the rich history and culture of generations past, and to plant a tiny seed amongst the vastness of the others.

I wrote this story in the summer of 2018 at the end of our expedition to Bolivia. I felt so present, so alive, so satiated with the experiences we had during that month. Having spent a lot of time living and travelling in different parts of the world, it surprised me how much I had overlooked the cultural side of the expedition. I had spent the last couple years fully focused on trying to become a climber; it felt like I had lost this other side of me, the side that was content to just try and exist and thrive in the moment of experience in new places, with new people. Looking back from 2022, my life since Bolivia has still largely been focused around progressing as a climber. Recently I have noticed how much I miss the adventure of showing up in a new country, and taking the experience moment by moment day by day, without any agenda, or itinerary. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to blend these personas and mentalities together, to take off on the next climbing adventure, while also learning and appreciating the rich histories and cultures of the places I visit. In fact, I just started reading Himalaya: A Human History, by Ed Douglas, which prompted me to finally share this post, and is getting me excited for good things to come.

The author 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