Our last few days in La Paz were filled with shopping and mountains. We decided to do things in order of increasing complexity, so first we did the Chacaltaya trip and then the Pico Austria trip.
On the first day, when we were picked up in the morning, we drove for about 2 hours to end up at Chacaltaya, once the world´s highest ski resort at 5,300 m. Along the way we had great views of Huayana Potosi, as well as Lake Titicaca, and the mountain ranges surrounding La Paz. A little bit cloudy, so we didn´t see everything, but still very impressive. It should be noted that we drove up to 5,300 m. Yup, them hills (and roads) around here are pretty high. From there, where the view was already pretty spectacular, we hiked for almost an hour (hey, hiking actually take effort at this altitude) to get to the 5,421 summit. The second most stunning part about the tour (after the views, of course), was finding out that 50 years ago, the areas where we walked had been covered by a glacier 50 m deep. Now, occasional small patches are the only thing that´s left, remnants of snowfall a few days ago.
From there, we drove back to, and through, La Paz, to end up at the Valley of the Moon, a very interestingly eroded area. The erosion happens during the rainy season as the clay soil gets washed out. After tens of thousands of years, we´re left with what looks like a desert filled with stalagmites, a very interesting and intricate network of walls and spires, reminiscent in places of organ pipes. In others, narrow openings plunge 15 m below, serving as a drainage during the rainy season. Some spires, where there is some rock material present, in addition to the clay, end up with these cute little hats made of small rocks.
The second day, our last full day in Bolivia, was devoted to a scramble of Pico Austria (5,300 m). This was a hike that actually involved work, as we started around 4,500 m. What didn´t we have on this day! – oh yeah, that´s right: sun. We had all forms of precipitation (rain, hail, snow), but no sun and few moments when clouds parted enough to see. Up at 5,000 m, this means that parts of the hike, as well as the summit, were spent in a milky-white haze.
Breakfast at the hostel officially started at 7:30, but we headed down around 7:29 and were lucky enough to find some pancakes already out. Our pick-up time was 7:30-7:45, so we figured we had a good 20 minutes to eat. Imagine our surprise when, at 7:25, our guide shows up! Amazing, given all our previous complaints about the timeliness of things around here. Luckily, we were the only people in the tour, so he graciously waited for us to finish out breakfast.
The hike began easy enough, with a pleasant little stroll past pastures and a few small lakes to the base camp. This one is used for climbing Condoriri, as well as a half a dozen nearby peaks whose names I can´t remember. We kept getting teasing glimpses of a few of the closer peaks, as well as the glaciers, but never enough of an opening to see everything at once. Here, too, the effects of global warning are apparent – our guide said that he first started coming here in 1985, and back then there were two glacial lakes which are now thawed into regular lakes, and the glacier was at least 100 m farther, as can be seen from the distance between the moraine and the current glacier.
From here, the trail started to get more difficult. Much more steep with sections of loose rock. To the lake took an hour. The rise and a bit of plateau-walking took another hour and a bit. Eventually we got to an area with dozens of the little long-tailed rabbits we had first seen in Uyuni (so adorable!). Nearly impossible to spot when sitting still, as soon as you made a sudden noise they started in a flurry of hopping and springing, taking a few bounding leaps and then freezing again.
Now began nearly an hour of slogging up to the first pass, up a path on crumbly loose scree. Not too exciting, but becoming hard. As soon as we got to the pass, though, fantastic views of the glaciers, mountains, and a lake around the back side of Pico Austria opened up. The rest of the path lay along the back side of the peak, much less steep and more manageable than the front. The summit looked within reach from here, but was still over an hour away. When we got there, four and a bit hours after starting out, there was absolutely no view – just white clouds all around. Boo. For the last hour, the guide´s pace, which had seemed on the slow side up till then, was just about all I could manage.
On the way down, we stopped at the pass to have some sandwiches made by our guide on the spot, and they were the best sandwiches ever. But then again, I think that at the altitude and after that much exertion, I would´ve eaten anything with equal gusto. As we kept descending, the hail, and then rain, picked up. However, on looking back once we got to the lake, we discovered that our peak looked much more like a ¨real¨ mountain, with a fine dusting of snow along its upper third.
Once we got to the car, we found that in addition to the driver, there were 3 girls and their dog, from the nearby settlement, waiting for us to return. All 4 were almost equally as wild – it would be sad if it wasn´t so comical. They circled us in curiousity, but shied away when we made any sudden movement. Dan shared some wafers with them, and after hesitating each grabbed one, and then ran off a bit to nibble. So very odd to be so cautious of.
Overall, I would say two spectacular (and very tall) days. One of these days, Dan and I will
a) make it up a peak together, where
b) the weather will cooperate enough that you´ll be able to see that we´re actually on a summit.
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