Cerro Parinacota is a dormant stratovolcano on the border of Bolivia and Chile. It has an elevation of 6342m. Parinacota’s name derives from the Aymara language and means flamingo (Parina) lake (quta). There are lakes on both sides of the national boundary.
The mountain can be climbed from both countries. I made the approach from the Bolivian side. The Bolivian side of the mountain sits in the Sajama National Park. Eduardo (my guide) and I based ourselves in Sajama pueblo. We had previously made a successful ascent of Acotango which lies about 25km kilometres to the south.
Parinacota proved to be the most challenging of the climbs that I made in the summer of 2022, certainly in Bolivia.
Whilst I have been fortunate enough to travel to many places around the world and climbed many mountains, I still consider myself merely an enthusiastic amateur. I do not have a lot of experience of climbing over 5000m. Those heights have largely been encountered only when tackling the Volcanic Seven Summits. But at my stage in life I was keen to see if I was up to 6000m Andean peaks.
I often think that mountaineering has many analogies to life itself – objective setting, planning, development/use of skills, teamwork, ambition, determination etc. Even then, despite best efforts, goals, desires or summits may not be achieved.
That happened with Parinacota. Despite great weather we did not make the summit. Penitentes (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penitente_(snow_formation)) and (my) lack of speed saw us fall 300m short. At these altitudes that is quite a long way.
We had driven from Sajama pueblo and arrived at the start point just below the col between Parinacota and its twin, Pomerape, in the dark at around 3.30am. It was a chilly night but it was almost windless. The weather conditions promised to be, and turned out to be, perfect.
There is a basic refuge at the start point which is about 100m below the col. The gradient from there, initially, is benign. We weaved our way on the volcanic ash between many lava boulders, climbed a short steeper section and then hit the col.
From that point there was a rising traverse to the left above the col, still for the moment on rock and ash, to find a path to take us to the higher reaches of the mountain. It was still dark and we continued up in irregular zig-zags with the terrain ever steepening and with a couple of stops for a drink. Below us we could see a couple of other groups with their head torches.
The sun rose behind us to the west with Nevado Sajama standing proud and isolated.
Pomerape on the other side of the col also caught the early morning light.
Soon after we were on to the snow and on the dreaded penitentes. Whilst I had walked through a field of penitentes on Rainer, there there had been a track flattened between them. The passage had been easy. Here, the passage of previous feet had been far, far less and there was no track.
The penitentes were worse than the few we had encountered on Acotango. I struggled with the foot placements and the crumbly nature of the snow. The steep ground did not help. We did gain height inexorably, but slowly. The other groups passed us.
On the uniformly steep slopes the skyline above never seemed to be getting closer. Eventually Eduardo called it a day. Any successful summit would mean a return in the dark, not sensible given the snow conditions. Pomerape was still higher than us.
But somewhat less so than earlier. The next photo shows the slopes above us at our high point. Expand the photo a bit and you will see three figures on their descent. My GPS showed that we were at 6000m.
Disappointed I was back at the car in four hours.
Whilst having that disappointment, I did not regard the attempt as a failure. It was an eye-opener for me. I learnt a fair bit about the sort of conditions that can be encountered, and about myself. It was a big learning exercise based on (for me) a new experience. Over the next couple of days Eduardo and I discussed alternative options. I climbed (solo) a straightforward 5000m sub-peak of Nevado Sajama, Wisalla, with great views across to Parinacota and Pomerape.
And eventually we came to the conclusion that we would have another go at Parinacota. So using the experience, lessons from the first attempt and flexibility in our programme, we were able to have a fresh attempt 5 days later. We would adopt a new approach. We would stay at the refuge below the col between the twins and make a much earlier start at around half past midnight. With a better understanding of the conditions and, perhaps, a different mindset success might ensue.
The second attempt ended up being a 16 hour round trip. It is up there as one of the hardest mountain days I’ve ever had. We made the early start. The forecast was not as good as for the first attempt with 40kph winds predicted for the summit. Another (Brazilian) climber left at around the same time as we did. Again, on familiar territory, we weaved between the lava rocks, to the col and up the zig zag paths.
A half moon and Venus rose in the sky by Nevado Sajama which we could just see silhouetted to the east. We were well up on the snow by this point.
The way was no easier. But we lost the Brazilian – he turned around after a couple of hours. Another group caught and passed us. The penitentes continued almost all the way to the crater rim. It required a good deal of determination to battle through them. Just the last 80 metres of ascent was on crumbly volcanic soil where we could weave between the isolated pinnacles of ice.
However, just under 9 hours from our start we were on the so-called Bolivian summit and looking into a rather wonderful crater.
Pomerape was below us for the first time. It is just 80 metres lower than Parinacota.
Nevado Sajama looked to be about the same height, though in fact it is over 200 metres higher.
But the Bolivian summit is not the high point of Parinacota. This was a further 30 minutes or so around the crater to the west. So after having some food and drink, we left our rucksacks on this first summit and tiptoed around the rim of the crater, first over another bump and then down a 30m or so drop followed by a 50m climb. To one side of the rim was a 300m fall into the crater. On the other were fields of penitentes. Occasional wafts of sulphur drifted by. Despite the forecast, there was just but a gentle breeze. We had not wasted the good weather of the first attempt.
Here we are on the so-called Chilean summit.
The maps of this area are inconsistent. Some show this summit in both Bolivia and Chile. Others show it in Chile. Whichever, for the second time we crossed the border into Chile. The view down into the crater was no less spectacular from here.
We spent less than 10 minutes on the Chilean summit before making the precarious return. However, this passed more quickly. We had a further brief stop at the rucksacks. It was time to take our last look into the crater. It certainly rivals the one on Orizaba.
A tired me then descended, with Pomerape in front us the whole way. I cursed the penitentes most of the way down. That said we made the descent from the Bolivian summit to the refuge in the same time as I had 5 days earlier from our somewhat lower high point – four hours. This was notwithstanding the numerous micro-stops that I had on the way.
Here are a few more pics from the descent.
We made it back to Sajama pueblo before it went dark. Many thanks are due to IFMGA guide, Eduardo Unzueta, for his knowledge and, particularly, patience and encouragement.
The next objective was to be the big one – Nevado Sajama. Could I get to the top of that one? Had I learned the necessary lessons?
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