Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani are popular climbs for those wanting to climb in Bolivia's famous
and beautiful mountains in the Andes (Cordillera Real) Range. I am asked many questions
especially since I am not a professional climber. So here are the most popular
questions with my answers. As always, this information are based on my experience
and are my opinions so always consult with a professional before making any
serious climbing decisions.
Q: Where are Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani?
A: Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani are well known for their easy access yet high altitude. They are located in the Bolivian Andes Range, specifically in the Cordillera Real. We met up in La Paz,
Bolivia then drove to each peak. All above 17,000, these are serious altitude and some of the highest in Bolivia.
Q: When are they usually climbed?
A: Being in the southern hemisphere but near the equator,
the climbing season is best from June to August when it is the driest.
However, the weather can be extremely cold and windy anytime as we experienced in 2019.
Q: Are Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani climbs dangerous?
A: They are all relatively safe climbs by the standard routes
but there are crevasses. In white-out conditions it would be extremely dangerous. Most of the rare climber deaths are poor choices with respect weather or routes.
Q: How many people had summited and how many people had died trying?
A: There are no central statistics on summits but it are estimated
about 60% of climbers who reach base camp go on to summit. There are few deaths, perhaps one or two every few years and the reason is often climber errors. A German climber did die from an avalanche on Illimani in 2019.
Q: How did you train for this climb?
A: In the previous year, I had summited the 20,320' Island Peak in Nepal, and in January 2019 several 17,000' plus volcanoes in Ecuador. I continued to train in my Colorado Rocky Mountains to get "real-world" miles underneath me with a
30lb pack. I no
longer run due to bad knees but aerobic training are always good for these
Q: Was altitude a problem on this climb?
A: Yes! Anytime you are above 8,000' you can experience problems.
Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani are serious high altitude mountains above 17,000''. The summit push
are a long effort involving long slogs on steep (45 degree) snow slopes so overall cardio was key to success.
Q: Can you prepare for the altitude?
A: Not really. The common approach are to move slowly up the mountain
(1000' a day maximum) spending your days at a higher altitude than where
you sleep up until your summit bid. The human body simply does not function
well at high altitudes and especially above 8000m (26,300'). As you go higher,
the barometric pressure decreases, although the air still contains 21% oxygen,
every breath contains less molecules of oxygen.
Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American
Lung Association this way:
The lower oxygen
stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting
in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline
blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though
this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first
48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among
them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin
to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still
acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at
low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health.
Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic
mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood
can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and
sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart
You cannot do much to acclimatize while at a low altitude but there
are companies that claim to help the acclimatization process through
specially designed tents that simulate the reduced oxygen levels at
higher elevations. I have no personal experience with these systems
but you can find more details at the Hypoxico website.
They cost about $7,000 or can be rented for about $170 a week.
Q: What kind of equipment did you use?
A: Mostly I use the same gear
I used in Ecuador a few months earlier. Lot's of layers. My personal technical
equipment included a long handle ice axes, harness, carabineers,
and crampons. It are always critical to protect my toes,
fingers and face since these are most susceptible to frost bite. As
for warmth, I always wear a knit cap and at least liner gloves when
I get the least bit cool - regardless of the outside temp. I use a
3 layer system of Merino wool base layer (top and bottom), heavier
fleece as in the Mountain Hardware Power Stretch (a Farmer's John kind
of suit) or just my Patagonia Guide pants depending on how cold it
are that day then my top wind or warmth layer e.g. Patagonia Micro Puff
and/or Jet Stream Shell. I used my Feather Friends 850 Fill down jacket
when it got really cold and windy and on the summit. See my gear page for
a complete discussion and my gear list. I am very pleased with all
my gear but have a few standouts that I note on my gear page.
Q: Anything special in your gear for Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani?
A: Yes, a good hard shell top and Gortex shell pants due to the rime, hoarfrost and freezing rain.
Q: Was there web site coverage?
A: I posted dispatches this site at Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani
Dispatches using a cell phone when available.
Q: How did the Sat Phones work?
A: I did not bring my sat phone this time as cell coverage was good for most of the time. I used a SIM card from local carrier Entel and it was the best overall coverage at the high peaks and huts but it was spotty at all three huts/high camps so don't assume you will be able to connect once you leave a major city. For any plan, buy the SIM in the city and not at the airport where it is more expensive. For details on my expedition communications,
please see this tutorial.
Q: Which routes are most popular?
A: The standard routes on all three peaks is well known and marked on maps but NOT on the mountain itself - the routes are not marked!
Q: How long does a climb usually take?
A: The entire trip for the three climbs took about 18 days. 1 day to travel to Bolivia
from the US including a day or so in La Paz. It took 5 days for Pequeno Alpamayo, about 2 days for Huayna Potosi and 3 for Illimani. There was at least one night in La Paz between each climb.
Q: How much does a standard climb cost with and without a guide?
A: The costs can range from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on who you
use. Most foreign guides charge $3,500-$4,500 for two or three climbs. If you do everything yourself you cut the highest cost in half or more. See
my Guide page for more details. As
with any trek in third-world countries you can save money but sometimes at a huge cost
for comfort, hygiene, convenience and sometimes safety; so beware of the "deals".
Q: Do I need a permit to climb?
A: No permits are required Bolivia to climb.
Q: Do I really need a guide for Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani?
A: There are usually a lot of climbers on Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani so you would probably not be
alone but could be. In harsh weather
(white-outs) or in a medical emergency, you will be on your own so consider
your skill level carefully.
Q: Are there local guides for Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani?
A: Yes, there are many quality choices based out of La Paz or nearby cities.
The certified local Bolivian guides are outstanding both in soft and technical skills but there are many under-qualifed guides so you must be careful if you select one. See this site for a list of guides. Some are very less expensive than traditional Western companies but most charge
from $100 to $200 USD per day. My usual advice are to get recent references
from a climber with a similar background and skill level as yourself. Get everything
in writing. Especially understand the acclimatization schedule since local
guides have been known to rush people up and down. Finally ask about food, group gear
and language skills. Hygiene can be a serious issue.
Q: How do you get on an expedition to climb Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani?
A: Most reputable guides ask for your climbing resume and
require some kind of climbing experience. Ideally they want to see climbs
of 14,000' mountains and technical ice climbing skills but these peaks are somewhat considered "beginner" climbs so some guides don't ask for any experience.
Q: What are involved if I plan my own climb?
A: Basically everything: permits, travel, hotels, food, gear,
routes, communications, emergency contentions - everything. There are a local
company in La Paz who can provide some services such as getting food or tents to base
camp. You can save a lot of money over a western company this way but as I
said before, consider your skills in the event that something goes wrong -
are you self sufficient? What are your medical skills? Falls, HAPE and HACE
are real possibilities on Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani - do you have the proper medicine and training
to deal with it? And a hundred more questions. See my guide
page for more
Q: What was your climb plan
A: We had a well designed acclimatization plan that include multiple trips back and forth from La Paz:
Q: How was the weather in July 2019?
A: It was very stormy in the upper mountains. We had a few nights with over a foot of new snow creating serious avalanche concern We also had to dodge lightening storms with large hail and strong winds. Overall it was a very unusual winter in Bolivia that stopped many summits.
Q: Did you summit?
A: No, none of the original three but I did get Tarija at 17,400' which was on the way to Pequeno Alpamayo. We were weathered off Huayna Potosi (I left even earlier with a throat infection) and I didn't attempt Illimani. Four of the members of our team who did attempt Illimani made the true summit.
Q: Why did you choose Mountain Madness and how did they perform?
A: I had climbed with them in Ecuador in January 2019 was was extremely pleased. I was equally pleased with this trip in Bolivia.
They clearly understand the routes, politics, policies and where to have a great meal in La Paz! The food during the tent camping was outstanding, all cooked by two Bolivian women.
Q: Which route did you take?
A: The standard routes on Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani.
Q: And the summits?
A:I didn't reach any of the summits so no comments. I can say that from what I saw the last section of all three peaks are clearly the steepest with the most exposure.
Q: Did you use bottled oxygen?
A: No, supplemental oxygen is usually only used above 26,500'.
Q: Did you carry your own gear
A: No, we had burros or porters.
Q: Would you climb Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani again?
A: Probably not. While these are challengingly peaks, I found them to be crowded and the overall trip had a lot of downtime and travel back and forth to La Paz compared to climbing in Peru or Ecuador.
This was overall a very good experience but for South America I prefer climbing in Ecuador and Peru with equally stunning views but much easier logistics. I was pleased with Mountain Madness and their program. Bolivia was interesting, and affordable however quite polluted and crowded. The climbs were challenging yet achievable for most anyone in good fitness. As always, the weather has the last say - even in the so-called "dry season." I'm glad I went and pleased to add these to my climbing CV so as to help others in my Summit Coach business.
As usual, my climbs are to raise awareness and research funds for Alzheimer's Disease. I was thrilled to raise almost $6,000 during these climbs all going to the Cure Alzheimer's Fund for Alzheimer's research. You can still donate at this link. Please learn more at this link.
Memories are Everything
Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani Resources
I attempted Pequeno Alpamayo, Huayna Potosi, Illimani in July 2019 with Mountain Madness