Mountaineering in The Cordillera Real: Part 3

Article by planetFear
Monday 17th May 2010

- Co-written by David Wolf and Norie Kizaki, Boulder, Colorado, USA -


Huayna Potosí’s foreboding appearance as an enormous ice pyramid betrays its status as the easiest and most popular high peak of the Cordillera Real. The Normal Route to Huayna’s south summit - which ascends the mountain’s west face - is supposedly one of the easiest routes to any 6,000 meter summit in the Andes. But the more challenging Vía de los Franceses attacks the mountain’s much steeper east face, topping out on the peak’s slightly lower north summit.

Co-author David Wolf with the northwest face of Huayna Potosí in the background, as seen from the road to Tuni. Huayna’s north summit is the obvious high point, while the actually higher south summit is the serrated peak to the immediate right

Approach - Campamento Argentino

Jeep transportation from La Paz takes under two hours to reach the Zongo Pass trailhead for Campamento Argentino, the normal staging point for climbs on Huayna Potosí. From the pass, cairns mark the route to the glacier. Follow the trail as it snakes up moraine and scree. Reach the glacier, then follow the trail as it proceeds up to Campamento Argentino at 5,450 meters. The whole approach takes under three hours. However, you may want to actually camp at snowline rather than deal with the dirty and cratered glacier surrounding Campamento Argentino. Snowline is approximately 20 minutes below the established campsites.

The east face of Huayna Potosí, seen from near Campamento Argentino. The Via de los Franceses route ascends directly up the face, topping out on the left side of the ridge crest. The south summit is the prominent high point on the right. Note the cornice on the ridge crest, and the bergschrund partially visible at the base

Huayna Potosí, Vía de los Franceses, North Summit (with optional traverse to South Summit)

From the campsites, follow the Normal Route’s “cattle trail” until you find a logical spot to break left towards the imposing east face. Weave through various topographical features, such as snow-mounds and crevasses, as you climb gradually up the glacier. There will likely be considerable post-holing - not to mention serious crevasse danger. Our party on several occasions post-holed up to the waist, and even fell twice chest-deep into hidden crevasses. Thankfully, the largest crevasses were exposed and, therefore, avoidable.

The steepness of the slope increases dramatically as you approach the east face, from about 35 to 55 degrees. Expect to reach the bergschrund at the base of the east face in about two hours from camp. From this point, traverse far to the left (south) to get around the monstrous ’schrund, then go back to the right to access the east face itself. Attack the face by the most convenient and attractive line - just climb right up! Although the steepness probably varies with season, we judged it to be consistently 60 to 65 degrees.

On the east face itself, we encountered hard snow that was quite good for cramponing. It was crusty on the surface, with a thin layer of sugar directly underneath. Below the sugar was hard-packed néve. As such, we had to brush the sugar layer out with our boots in order to get good purchase.

Unfortunately, while the cramponing was solid, the sugary snow layer made screws useless on this face. As such, our party ended up climbing almost the entire route unprotected. Aside from consistent steepness, the slope presents little technical difficulty until you reach the summit ridge, which sports a nasty cornice blocking easy access to the crest. This cornice tapers off farther away from the summit, so stay well to the left (south) as you approach the top of the face. Protect the final section of the face with a couple of pickets, then carefully punch right through the cornice with your ice tools to access the crest of the summit ridge.

Approaching the corniced summit ridge crest, Via de los Franceses, east face of Huayna Potosí

Although it is only about 30 degrees in steepness, this summit ridge is razor thin, and extremely exposed. Use screws to protect it as you move north for about 60 horizontal meters along the crest towards Huayna’s north summit.

To descend, return to the point at which you topped out on the summit ridge crest. Then make a descending traverse northwest across the east face towards the opposite (northeast) ridge. Aim for a stretch of water-ice near that ridge. The water ice leads west onto some boulders frozen solidly into place. These boulders are very near the crest of the rocky northeast ridge supporting Huayna’s north summit.

Continue down-climbing steep rock to a platform atop a large, obvious boulder near the terminus of the rock band. From here, rig a rappel station around the largest of these frozen boulders. Rappel diagonally down, aiming for the point where a bergschrund tapers off from the snow of the east face to the rock of the northeast ridge. At the end of the rappel, down-climb more frozen rock to reach the bergschrund itself. Jump across the ‘schrund at its narrowest point (about a meter).

After crossing the bergschrund, descent to a saddle, from where you’ll have spectacular views of the Condoriri area off to the north. Descend farther south, carefully avoiding crevasses and hanging seracs. Arrive at an area directly below Huayna’s main (south) summit, from where you have two choices. You can either ascend the south summit, or go home. If you decide to go for the south summit, you can either continue your southward traverse until you join up with the Normal Route (from where you can ascend or descend), or you can just blast straight up the clean face directly to the south summit. When making your decision, keep in mind that the cornice at the top of the face below the south summit is much bigger than the cornice at the top of the east face below the north summit!

Whatever you decide, use the normal route for a speedy and casual descent back to Campamento Argentino.

Descending frozen rocks near the northeast ridge of Huayna Potosí’s north summit



Umriri Hot Springs

After your vigorous climbing regimen, you may want to spend some time “recovering” at the charming Umriri Hot Springs, the closest major thermal pools to La Paz. Nestled in a small box canyon at an elevation of about 3,200 meters, these springs were originally discovered by Native Americans long before the arrival of the Spaniards. Collective transportation is available every morning from the Hotel Gloria in downtown La Paz. The scenic (though bumpy) two-hour ride will take you over a 4,400-meter pass, then down a very dramatic dirt road, with absolutely phenomenal views of Illimani’s west face along the way. Once you arrive, you can enjoy hot pools of three different temperatures, a hot waterfall, a natural sauna, soothing body massages, and a full buffet lunch at a fraction of the price that these amenities would cost in the more “developed” world. You can stay overnight at the hotel, or return to La Paz in the early evening. Either way, this excursion is highly recommended.

Lake Titicaca

Another highly recommended aprés-climb activity is a trip to the mystical and spectacular Lake Titcaca. At 3,800 meters, it is said to be the highest body of navigable water in the world. Although it’s far too cold for any sustained swimming, you can kayak along the shores, or even all the way out to the sacred Isla del Sol (“Island of the Sun”). Of course, you can also take a diesel-powered boat over to the island! Considered the center of the world by the area’s native inhabitants since even before the Inca, this small island offers easy and pleasant hiking among fascinating archeological ruins, as well as spectacular views of Ancohuma - Bolivia’s third highest peak - across the lake to the east. You may also behold some fascinating wildlife, such as South American flamingos! The small but charming little town of Copacabana (no relation Brazil’s steamy beach of the same name), situated on the Lake’s southeastern shore, is the typical staging point for these activities, and is less than a three-hour bus ride from La Paz.

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