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Friends in High Places

Climbing Nevado Sajama, Bolivia’s Tallest Mountain

Hayley Gendron recently ventured to Bolivia with the intent of ascending Nevado Sajama, the tallest mountain in Bolivia, with an all-female, unsupported team. She recapped her journey for us.

6:32am. As our fingers, feet, and faces froze, we prayed for the sun to rise faster.

I whispered thanks to Pachamama—the Earth mother revered by indigenous people of the Andes— as light began to swallow us and create a gargantuan shadow of the 21,463-foot volcano we were inching our way up.

I looked up at Emma as she pushed forward, and had to laugh. A couple weeks ago, I had never met this person and was comfortably enjoying the beginning of summer at home—and at sea level— in Vancouver. Now, I was in the middle of nowhere in an area with more alpacas than people, six kilometers above the ocean, bundled in layers in subzero temperatures, attached to my new Swedish friend by rope.

“How did I wind up here?”

In March, shortly after a scary crevasse fall incident in Patagonia, I received a message from my online friend Emma Svensson, saying something along the lines of, “Hey, I read about your fall and I’m so glad you’re okay! Anyways, would you want to climb the highest mountain in Bolivia with me in July?”

She told me that it wouldn’t be especially technical, just a lot of glacier travel.

The thought of getting back on a glacier after I had spent hours inside the belly of one just days before, unsure if I would ever get out, was not the most appealing idea. But I couldn’t pass up the possibility of going back to one of my favorite countries and experiencing it from its highest vantage point: the colossal Nevado Sajama. My first experience at high altitude was a last-minute decision to climb Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi (19,974ft) on a guided expedition in 2014, during a multi-month backpacking trip long before I had formally learned anything about mountaineering. Going to Sajama could be a great test to see how I’d grown over the years.

Emma and I had never met before. Up until this point our relationship had consisted of sporadic chatting on Instagram, discussing potential future climbing trips. We had both started climbing around the same time about two years prior, and had also struggled to find other females around the same experience level to get out into the mountains with.

While I have grown very fond of climbing, Emma has committed herself like nobody I’ve met before. As a successful fashion and concert photographer from Sweden, she doesn’t exactly seem like a person you would find in the high alpine. Nonetheless, after climbing her first mountain—Mt. Whitney in 2017—she was hooked and set the lofty goal of climbing the highest mountain in every country in Europe in one year. A year later, she had climbed over 61 peaks, gained valuable new alpine skills, and broke the previous world record by more than 400 days.

Looking for a new challenge, she set her sights on a different part of the world, and her “American Peaks” project was born. Over the next several years, Emma plans to climb the highest peak in every country in the Americas—North, Central, and South. That’s where I come in. She invited me to climb Nevado Sajama with her, but first wanted me to come to the Alps to start to acclimatize, both to the altitude and to each other as climbing partners.

It’s a gamble doing a trip with a person you’ve never met before. It’s nearly impossible to gauge how well you will get along with someone to whom you will be attached at the hip for several weeks, often travel-weary and hangry. Throw in some high altitude and alpine terrain and your risk of interpersonal tension likely doubles. Somewhat apprehensive but stoked nonetheless, I decided to take the risk, and soon enough was Alp-bound.

I met Emma in Chamonix one morning in late June, in a jetlagged stupor, running on nearly zero hours of sleep. She picked me up in her van at 5am, hugged me, and exclaimed, “Welcome to our home for the next week!”

We drove through the Mont Blanc tunnel underneath the massif to the Italian side, and caught the first lift into the alpine. We would immediately be doing our first climb together, a moderate alpine route not far from the Torino hut. Since we had to cross a glacier to get to the route, I was nervous, but I took a deep breath, tried to play it cool in front of Emma, and tied into the rope. I quickly became comfortable, especially knowing I had all the proper crevasse rescue gear on me, and the knowledge of how to use it. After a few hours we had consummated our climbing partnership and were back at the hut enjoying lunch with a view.

Over the course of a week in Europe, we spent several days above 13,000 feet, climbing and walking up glaciers, and quickly developed a solid friendship. You learn a lot about someone when spending every waking hour together, and trust develops quickly when you have your lives in each others’ hands.

Our last two nights were spent sleeplessly in the Margherita Hut on Monte Rosa, Switzerland’s highest mountain at 15,203 feet (4634m), to acclimatize. Afterwards, we road-tripped from Italy halfway across Europe to drop off Emma’s van in Copenhagen and catch a flight to La Paz, all within 24 hours. A whirlwind of a mission, but I came to learn that this is how Emma best functions.

Two long flights later we arrived in Bolivia, rented a car, and were thrust into the sensory overload that is La Paz. Vertiginous landscapes, vibrant traditionally dressed women with long braids and tiny top hats, dust everywhere, lawless traffic, loud sounds and smells lay around every corner. I went on a scavenger hunt for camp fuel for the Jetboil through narrow streets chock-full of giant piles of herbs, spices, and colorful textiles, before beginning the four-hour drive to Sajama National Park.

As soon as one leaves La Paz, there is a stark divergence in landscape and feel; the madness of the city levels out into the vast, arid Altiplano, where people are replaced with alpacas and the air is hypoxic. At an average elevation of over 12,000 feet, Bolivia’s high plains form the second most extensive high plateau in the world after Tibet. Still hours away from our destination, we became excited and nervous when we were able to look across the tawny, shrub-dotted plains and see our objective erupting out of the earth. Nevado Sajama was slowly beginning to dominate the horizon as we neared.

The mountain is an extinct stratovolcano, heavily glaciated with little vegetation, although there are rare queñoa forests surrounding its base whose protection is the impetus behind the national park. Established as a natural reserve in 1939, the area has been home to indigenous Aymara people for millennia, and remnants of their ancient culture remain in the form of cave paintings, burial sites, and small adobe churches.

We arrived in Sajama village, a motley handful of homes in the heart of the park, and checked into a hostel that was one of the only buildings in town. The owner showed us to our red brick hut, where we organized our gear and prepared to leave for the trek to basecamp the following morning.

Many groups that attempt Sajama hire guides and porters with donkeys to carry gear, but Emma and I decided to do it self-supported. By the time we stuffed our winter sleeping bags and pads, four-season tent, crampons, axes, helmets, harnesses, rope, screws, ‘biners, multitude of warm layers, first aid kits, and four days worth of dehydrated meals and snacks into our packs, they weighed around 45lbs each. We were already out of breath just putting them on our backs at the trailhead the next morning.

It was finally time to begin. The plan was to hike in to base camp and spend a night there to continue acclimatizing, then head up to high camp (~18,700 feet) the following day, before getting an alpine start and attempting the summit via the Southwest Ridge route the morning after that. Four days of what would most definitely be a lot of “type 2 fun.” Walking at altitude is taxing enough, but add incline, loose terrain, and heavy packs, and it becomes a new level of suffering. Luckily, the hike into base camp was only about 1,700 feet of elevation gain over the course of a few hours. The terrain turned from loose desert sand to marshland and moraine as the volcano enveloped more of our field of vision. We passed some impressively large mosses, dodged a lot of vicuna poop, and finally found ourselves alone at the foot of Sajama.

A man with a dog appeared, and said that he was a porter waiting for his clients who were coming down the mountain. They would be hiking all the way back to town, which meant we would have basecamp to ourselves. It was fairly late in the day already so we set up camp, filtered water, ate dinner, and cozied up as the night cooled off. We believed we would be the only two attempting the ascent over the following days, so we decided to sleep in as much as possible; getting quality shut-eye at altitude can be extremely difficult. It is common to wake up gasping for air, in between bouts of tossing and turning.

We woke up leisurely on day two, eating breakfast and watching the morning sun cast a massive shadow over the summit of Sajama, creating a straight line of darkness jetting out into the sky as if the mountainside was continuing into oblivion. As we began to tear down camp, a group of porters arrived carrying gear, and told us they had five clients not far behind who were heading up to high camp with their guides. Not only that, but there would be two other groups of at least five who were also heading up that morning.

This worried us—we knew that high camp was nothing more than a small, somewhat level boulder patch on the southwest shoulder of the mountain. We had read that there was only room for a few tents, and with the other groups having porters to carry their gear while ours weighed us down, we knew we would be much slower. Luckily, the porters took a liking to us because of the Spanish swear words I knew, and the fact that we were the only female and unsupported team, so they ensured us they would save a space for our tent.

The hike to high camp is a 3,200-foot sand and loose scree ascent. A “one step up, slide two steps back” kind of slog. The upside of the terrain was that we had ample time to imprint the views of the surrounding landscape into our memories. There are two other major volcanoes to the west, Parinacota and Pomerape, that climbers often tag onto their trip as acclimatization hikes. Aside from these two peaks, the land in this slice of Bolivia, bordering the northeast corner of Chile, is barren and vast. It is an oddly freeing feeling to look out into nothingness when you’re used to dense mountain ranges.

We reached high camp around 3pm, and were grateful to find that the porters had stayed true to their word and there was a small clearing left for our tent. All of the tents were in close quarters, so we made small talk with some of the other teams. It was nice to meet mountain folks from all over Latin America and celebrate a universal love for the outdoors.

Totally spent from the altitude, we set up camp, cooked, and attempted to eat an early dinner. It was difficult to get my rehydrated pad thai down—it turns out eating at nearly 19,000 feet is super exhausting. We hit the sack at 6 o’clock and our alarms were set for midnight.

One of the hardest parts of any expedition for me is getting out of my sleeping bag. I stayed incredibly warm overnight wearing all my cozy layers, and knowing it was around -5°F outside didn’t make it any easier to get up. Emma and I shared sentiments, but when our alarms went off, we pushed each other to rise and start gearing up—this was actually happening!

After donning our headlamps, we left camp at the same time as the majority of the other teams, but quickly passed them all on the scramble to the start of the glacier. We had the advantage of being a team of only two, and moved at a slow but steady pace. With crampons on and rope tied in, Emma led the charge up the ~50-degree snow field, where we were first introduced to what would become the bane of our Andean existence: Penitentes—strange snow-ice formations found at high altitude in the Dry Andes. They are densely packed, long, thin blades of ice that stick up and point in the general direction of the sun, and range in size from about an inch to more than 16 feet (!). On Sajama, they stand over two feet tall, which makes for extremely challenging terrain when that is nearly half your height (I’m 5’2”).

There was a small reprieve when we reached a fun rock ridge, but it only lasted for a few hundred feet before dumping us right back into the sea of ice daggers. We navigated them slowly, with the metal of our axes spreading cold to our hands. Even without a lot of wind, it was absolutely freezing. Our toes were numb despite the toe warmers in our boots, our faces were plastered with boogers, cold air electrifying our noses, and our breathing was intensely labored. Looking out into the dark night, unable to see any signs of civilization save for the faint headlamps far below us, I had one of those moments where I questioned why I had ever allowed myself to get to such a ridiculous place—of all the trillions of square-foot spaces I could take up in the world at any given moment, why choose this frozen, uninhabitable, and very hard-to-reach plot?

Six hours after we began, all the answers to that question came flooding back with the sun as it spread its warmth across the Altiplano. Then I remembered: I take up challenging spaces like this because the struggle reminds me to never take for granted the small pleasures in life, and the reward for immense effort is overwhelming. I love the feeling of becoming a tiny speck in such an endless natural spectacle. And of course, it’s fun as heck.

After a long and laborious slog through the seas of penitentes and false summits, at last we reached the zenith of Nevado Sajama. It is not the most picturesque peak—in fact, it is so flat and vast that a soccer match was once held on it between Sajama villagers and Bolivian mountain guides in protest of FIFA’s decision to remove La Paz as a location for international football matches due to the high altitude.

But we didn’t set out on this adventure to see a gnarly knife-edge ridge. It wasn’t just for the views, although the 360-degree panorama across the entirety of Bolivia isn’t something I’ll soon forget. Personally, I was able to push a little farther out of my comfort zone, face some fears, navigate the complexities of an expedition in a different culture, and create lasting memories in the mountains with a new climbing partner.

Sajama brought Emma one mountain closer in her exploration of personal challenge, and gained her valuable experience for the bigger objectives to come.

We only stayed on the summit long enough to take a mental picture, along with a couple of terrible selfies, before starting the long descent through the maze of penitente torture. Just two days later and we would be swept back into civilization and the madness of La Paz, saying the hard goodbyes that come after enduring outdoor exploits.

Despite the struggle fest and lost brain cells, I couldn’t be happier with my decision to embark on this journey with Emma. She took a big chance on me, and I on her, and we’ve both gained a new close friend and climbing partner because of it. We are privileged to live at a time where we can connect with like-minded individuals from opposite ends of the world so easily. With an open mind and a taste for a little discomfort, the sky is quite literally the limit.

Hayley Gendron (@hayoui) is a passionate writer and nature-phile based in British Columbia, Canada. When she’s not hiking, climbing, or kayaking, you can find her working with environmental and social justice organizations to support ecological and indigenous rights worldwide.