In Bolivia for a few days the truck lost the ability to find low gears and pulling off in sixth is a slow process. With the combination of a sensitive clutch the truck stalled half way through a U turn mid street. The street was busy, and reversing would mean having to clear cars from around us to make space. Fi looked across at me, her annoyance showing. I looked at Fi, and then altering my focus I stared out of her window.
Fi turned to follow my gaze.
Who would have expected a freight train to be pulling itself along the tracks through the middle of the main market? The tracks were the same ones that the truck was, at the time, straddling. The market stalls were moving out of the way of the train a lot quicker than us. Slowly the train approached.
I jumped out to try and make space for the truck to move. The train was still grounding its way towards us. At this point I assume the train driver awoke as there was a screeching of brakes and the train was no longer an imminent danger to us as it had stopped. The risk of being skewered had gone and we edged our way out of town and along the road to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia.
Almost a month earlier we had been based for a week in the mountains of Los Arenales, near Mendoza in Argentina. The base camp was in the garden of a border control post and the climbing, a three hour walk-in and at an altitude of 3,300m, was incredible… We had just descended from one of the many 300m towers and I was catching a few zeds when a shadow flew over me. I opened my eyes to see a condor with a 3m wingspan no more than 10m above me. It was probably deep in thought as to whether to invite me for dinner or not. But it soon disappeared in amongst the maze of unclimbed rock. Yet again we had come to an area where a lifetime of climbing would not do the area justice.
The long drive north to San Pedro, and Socaire Gorge, was punctuated with Christmas
on the beach. The feast consisted of a 10kg piece of marlin, 6kg of pork ribs, 15 mackerels, 5kg of clams, 3kg of shrimp, 4kg of squid, all served with fruit salad, barbecued veg and champagne. A short walk along the beach saw those with “itchy feet” climb until the sun dipped into the Pacific and darkness brought them home.
New years eve was spent in San Pedro de Atacama which was a further 2 days drive north through the desert. The small typically Chilean town is a hive of activity. Yet the bar we had the New Years Eve party in said the night was beyond anything they had seen before. The climbing area was a further 1.5 hours towards Bolivia. At 3,700m in altitude Socaire Gorge winds for 10km down the hillside. Stupendous cracks, arêtes and faces provide the climbing that kept us busy for the week that we were there for. We claimed a further two new routes bringing the total to 25 since the start of the South American leg… The sky at night provided the camp with a perfect ceiling. The stars were brilliant; the only light pollution was that of distant electrical storms over Bolivia.
We now began to travel into Bolivia over salt flats, past thermal springs, through the spray of geysers, under the shadow of six thousand meter peaks and into the city of Oruro. Oruro, a town complete with strange positioned train tracks with freight trains that appear from nowhere, and a bustle and ambience in clear contrast to Chile that makes you feel “out there” even before the climbing starts. Even the simplest thing can be surprising as shown by our evening out. 10 steps down into to the cinema my eyes began to sting and water. 20 steps and my throat was burning. The ticket booth was in reach but I returned to the roadside. On investigation I found that the cinema was still full of tear gas from the mornings demonstrations. Harry Potter – who would have thought that it could be such a risky film to watch!!
We had arrived in La Paz and I had been very happy to find the two guides that know the granite walls of the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz area. I had spent a few days picking their brains, taking their photos and copying every topo available. With the info in our pocket and the group inspired we packed for 10 days in the mountains. Kit included 100 loaves of bread, 100 oranges and fishing tackle. We left early the next day by bus as the truck was still misbehaving.
An hour down the road, we came to the top of a hill with a perfect view of, we guessed, 10,000 bowler hat wearing dumplings and miners blocking the road ahead of us. We were told that they would probably stop for lunch at around two. Although it seemed very unlikely we waited with blind optimism that we would be able to get through and continue the journey to the Quimsa Cruz.
Buses that were turning around taking people back to La Paz had to run the gauntlet of driving off road through a hail of stones thrown by protesters. Our blind optimism had faded and we joined the others turning back to La Paz. Even the stone throwers had left us but as the blockages were still there, it was clear that we should to leave. We arrived back in the Hotel in La Paz with our tails between our legs having failed to achieve our goal. Later we had found out that two had been shot at the demonstration and a bus had overturned. We were pleased with our timing to leave the road block but were now left with 100 Orange sandwiches. The Cochabamba were not happy and were threatening to block the whole of La Paz. It was now our turn to leave La Paz and escape the country. We had been told the road north to Peru and Copacabana was still safe to travel on. Our informers were correct and we arrived at the border safe from harm.
“No sir, sorry, but you must go through the other border, this is for freight only.” We were on the Bolivian side of a very open wide bridge, 100m away from Peru. The other border crossing that the official was talking about went through a very wet, muddy, crowded market place. The widest gap between the stalls was at the most enough for three people to fit through.
Passports stamped and with the promise from an official that if we go back to the bridge he would provide authorisation to pass via this bridge. Feeling happier we returned.
“No sir”. What?! “This is for freight only”.
We returned to the market place, armed!! I instructed the group of the plan and then with little warning, whistles in mouth, 20 hot rockers walked through the market picking up stalls to lift them out of the way (complete with dumplings), blocking bus stations with our parade, wheeling rickshaws, clearing traffic jams and smiling very sweetly at very bemused police. The effect was something that Moses would have been pleased with. The seas parted and the truck sailed through the once crowded market place and to the amazement of the customs we were now able to depart Bolivia.
A two hour ride through Peru took us to the Bolivian border again so as to get to the town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titicaca. The border, in clear contrast to the last, was crossed easily and we were able to watch the sunset while sipping wine around a fire with sleeping bags laid out under the stars.
After adventures in canoes and boats we left the beach for the city of Cuzco, with the infamous Inca Trail and Machu Picchu. I didn’t join the others on the three day trail as I was busy preparing my next adventure. I was to leave the truck and travel with two others and 198kg of climbing kit to the “big” wall known as The Sphinx, in the Cordillera Blanca range. The aim was to put up a new route on its sides. The base starting at 4700m and the summit at 5400m it was to be no easy undertaking, but clearly it had plenty of scope for a new adventure.
Two and a half years later I returned to the Cordillera Quimsa Cruz, where we weren’t able to get to this time around because of the road blockades. It turned out to be incredible and is remains high on my list of places to return to.