Two days after my (ultimately) successful ascent of Cerro Parinacota, I started my attempt on Nevado Sajama. Sajama is an extinct stratovolcano. It is the highest point in Bolivia at 6542m (21,463ft), is the ninth highest volcano in the world and is the 16th highest mountain in South America. It was first climbed only in 1939.
Sajama dominates the landscape for miles around. I was even able to see it from around 150kms away on the road between La Paz and Oruro. It presents itself as a giant pudding basin shape as you approach from the north east where its secondary crater has collapsed. A glacier caps the mountain.
I had had a close-up view of the mountain when I climbed a sub-peak, Wisalla, 5 days before I started my attempt.
Local lore suggests that Sajama is the head of Mururata (a mountain near La Paz with the appearance of a flattish summit). The story goes that Mururata was decapitated by Illimani in consequence of the (usual) dispute over a woman and the head duly landed in what is now Sajama National Park.
After my travails on Acotango and Parinacota I was by no means certain that I would make it to the top of Sajama. But this mountain was to be the last of my summer 2022 trip to Bolivia.
Traditionally, the approach to the mountain has been from either Sajama village to the south west or from Tomarapi to the north and using a base camp below the north west ridge. The north west ridge comprises the easiest route up the mountain. In either case, mules are often used to carry gear up to the base camp.
From base camp climbers will then ascend to the lower reaches of the north west ridge and climb up this to a high camp at around 5450m. This is nestled just below the ridgeline beneath a massive rock. The camp is quite exposed. When I was there the tent rattled away with some gusto.
Recently, a “road” access has been created. I was told that this was to enable more speedy access for mountain rescue teams. The “road” is extremely rough and even some 4WD vehicles might struggle on parts of it.
Eduardo, my guide, decided to use this approach for the first time. The “road” leaves the road between Sajama pueblo and Tomarapi about 5 or 6 kms north of Sajama pueblo. There is a locked barrier. The previous day we had a last-minute panic when we discovered that the owner of the land had gone off to La Paz urgently with the key. Fortunately, Eduardo ascertained that there was a spare key and this was located.
The advantage of using the road access is that one can avoid the stay at base camp. The “road” terminates at a point that is perhaps 100m metres higher than base camp but around 1km further away from the mountain. Eduardo had engaged two porters to carry our tent, sleeping bags and mats, and cooking stuff. So, we only carried what we needed for the ascent to high camp.
At our starting point there was another client, guide, and porter. So, we would not be alone on the mountain.
The initial climb was quite gentle with a few ups and downs all on the usual volcanic soils. Up above we could see that massive rock under which high camp is located. It still looked some way off.
To the right we could look down to where the base camp is located, next to a convenient stream with potable water.
Below the ridge ahead of us, the path swung to the left and made an ascending traverse up to the ridgeline. Behind us was a sweeping panorama from Parinacota to Laguna Huanacota and beyond.
We stopped for lunch when we hit the ridgeline. It had taken us around 2½ hours to reach this point. Above us it became progressively rougher with increasing amounts of volcanic scree.
We could see Illimani over 200kms away through the haze.
We then took another couple of hours to reach high camp, zigzagging and slipping and sliding as we went up. And, in my case, my predisposition to a high altitude cough re-appeared. So there were occasional stops to allow for coughing fits to play out. By the time we reached high camp the porters had already set up the tent and placed our other gear in it. We had passed them coming down 20 minutes short of high camp. They were amazingly strong. They would go home to Sajama pueblo and then come up again the following day to collect their loads!
I must admit that I felt quite exhausted by the time we reached high camp. Eduardo collected some snow to melt for drinks and food. Meanwhile I crawled into my sleeping bag to keep warm, had a further 5 minute coughing episode and then did some tidying up in the tent whilst Eduardo got on with the cooking duties. It was still relatively early and we were eating shortly after 4pm.
We were in for an early start the following morning. Eduardo was suggesting 1am. I must have looked bad because he asked me if I wanted to continue up. Still I re-hydrated and ate everything that I was presented with. However, I did not sleep well – a combination of the wind making the tent flap, my cough, the altitude and nervousness about what the morning would bring.
12.30am came around. I must admit that I did not feel great. I had been up once in the night to relieve myself and noted that the wind had dropped. The lights of Sajama pueblo twinkled way below. I was able to drink a little more, but at those early hours I never seem to be able eat anything.
We readied ourselves with harnesses and high-altitude boots on – I had reached high camp just with light alpine boots. Crampons would come later. We were off nearer 1.30am. The other party left before us.
The climb broke down into six sections
First, an initial section on volcanic ash weaving between penitentes which was straightforward.
Second, reaching the foot of the snow where we put on crampons and roped up and then followed ever steepening snow. We could see the other party’s headlamps seemingly impossibly above us.
Third, an even steeper climb up a couloir to hit a narrow ridge.
Fourth, an enjoyable section of mixed terrain along the ridge. Normally I do not like using crampons on rock, but this section went well – perhaps because we had a few micro stops whilst Eduardo checked the way ahead. It was still dark at this point.
Fifth, the penitentes. These were simply dreadful. The advice in the pueblo had been that there were only about 200m vertical of these, but it was nearer 400m. There was no track through them. Here I started to struggle. Eduardo tried to clear a bit of a way. I appreciated the effort, but it did not make too much of a difference.
It became light on this section. At least I could rest and look at Sajama’s shadow casting itself towards the twins. The view was absolutely stunning
We had been going about 5 hours by this time.
Here is a pic looking down the penitentes from around ½ way up them showing the narrow mixed ridge and the location of high camp near the patch of snow below the furthest block
Sixth, once above the penitentes there was still another 350m of ascent on uniform snow slopes. Here I could only keep going by making wide zigzags up the broad, seemingly never-ending slopes above. Eventually Eduardo decided that we were not making sufficient upward progress and took a slightly more direct line up.
It was here that we passed the other party on their way down. I ground my way up with frequent stops for recovery and to deal with my coughing and sucked sweets for energy. 150 vertical metres from the top, the gradient eases and I could plod along without stopping.
Eventually 11 hours after starting out I reached the top. Here is a video.
If I was a machine, then I was a fairly clapped-out one. I could not believe how long it had taken me. 1000m+ of ascent in the UK would take me 2½ hours max in good conditions. But I guess we do not have penitentes in the UK and there was the rocky, mixed section to contend with. But at least I had made it – not too bad at my age….. I think.
We were able to spend 20 minutes on the top marvelling at the views and wandering around the surprisingly flat summit area.
The trivial fact is that the location holds the world record for the highest point at which a football match has been played – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1476866.stm
So, it was time to go down. The descent was somewhat faster. It took just 5½ hours from the summit back to the car, including finalising the packing up at high camp. Without the penitentes we would probably have been at least an hour quicker.
Once off the snow, Eduardo went ahead to make sure that the porters had packed up correctly. At that point I stopped for water and some food. I realised that I had not eaten anything except occasional sweets all day.
I looked back up the way we had come. The view to the summit dome was extremely foreshortened.
I then followed Eduardo, changed footwear at high camp and then we were off. We returned a slightly different way. Once at the point we had joined the ridge, we went straight on instead of cutting back on ourselves for a gentle descending traverse. Instead we went straight on using scree to speed the descent. We then needed to cut left and cross a big open bowl before we could then walk parallel to our ascent route which was on a low ridge above us to the left. Where the ridge dipped we rose to its low point and then it was only 10 minutes back to the car. We reached the car just after sunset but there was still light in the sky.
That was the end of a 16½ day. But the final hours, though I was weary, passed quickly as the sense of achievement grew. This had been the second highest mountain I had ever climbed and there had been some doubt as to whether fatigue would defeat me. But thanks to the patience of Eduardo Unzueta, I made it.