Double dose of bad luck on Nevado Sajama

(See also Sajama photo album and Sajama peaks page.)

It’s Monday, May 17. I’m sitting in La Paz, back after a 3 day expedition to Nevado Sajama. We did not summit, and one of the main reasons was the horrible weather. In the dry weather of the Bolivian altiplano I had come to assume that the weather is pretty much the same every day and thus didn’t even bother to look at the weather forecast. Plus I wanted to join another small expedition to share in the cost (transportation, food, guides, etc.) and that had determined the timeline. So I neglected the most basic preparation, a look at the weather forecast. My only concern about the weather were the fiery red morning stratus clouds Friday morning when leaving La Paz, a classic bad weather sign. In hindsight, we could hardly have picked a worse period of weather over the last couple of weeks:

Sajama Weather for the week ending in our attempt

Sajama Weather for the week ending in our attempt

We picked the only three days with precip (snow), the coldest and windiest days. If you wanted to mess in zero-visibility, high-wind, cold and snowy conditions, that would have been the perfect time to go. We only saw the summit during our approach drive from Patacamaya, the rest of the time the upper reaches of the mountain were constantly in clouds.

Nevado Sajama from the South-East during approach to Sajama village

Nevado Sajama from the South-East during approach to Sajama village

I had joined a small expedition put together by French climber Anne who works for Terra Andina in La Paz, one of the major outfitters in the region. This consisted of driver, mules (to basecamp), two guides, cook, and a few porters (to high camp). Organization was good, albeit not cheap by Bolivian standards. I also had rented various mountain gear at a shop in La Paz, including boots, crampons, ice axe, mountain pants, and a large backpack.

Nevado Sajama - approach to base camp

Nevado Sajama - approach to base camp

Friday the weather was still ok; we hiked from the trail head (4300m) 2 hours to base camp (4600m) and set up our tents. This is a very nice landscape here, with still plenty of vegetation and lots of vicunas. I had read somewhere that here is the highest forest in the world, with trees growing at altitudes up to 5200m! The mountain and dark clouds loomed ominously overhead. Saturday we hiked up to high camp (5500m). I felt really strong and was hardly slowed down by the altitude. At the upper parts there is a steeper rock gully which is also exposed to some rock fall; here we wore helmets for protection.

Steep rock gully to reach the ridge and high camp

Steep rock gully to reach the ridge and high camp

As we set up our tents and spent a leisure afternoon it became clear that the weather wasn’t going to improve as we had hoped.

High camp (5500m) on Nevado Sajama

High camp (5500m) on Nevado Sajama

Then I must have eaten something bad for dinner – some soup and a freeze-dried ham puree – because I felt increasingly bad in the stomach in the late evening hours in my tent. The night was miserable. Not only was there no sleep due to the relentless howling and flapping of the tent in the strong wind. But also did I have to throw up twice in the middle of the night. And without pee bottle getting up to pee is always a major operation. At 3am Anne and her guide Sergio got up to prepare for their summit bid; they left at 4am. I felt too drained for a summit push – I actually felt so weak that even getting up in the morning and out of the tent required quite a lot of will power. At home in a similar state I would have just moved between my bed and the bath room…

Guide Lucio on the descent - note the fresh snow all around

Guide Lucio on the descent - note the fresh snow all around

Weak and disappointed I got up and started the descent at 8am with my guide Lucio. The first part required quite a bit of attention as it had snowed and so there was a rock / snow / ice mix, tricky to negotiate with my trail shoes. Further down it was still blowing cold wind and a bit of snow, but no problem to hike anymore.

We reached base camp after some 2.5 hrs and took a 1/2 hr rest. But sitting still it was uncomfortably cold, so we decided to continue our descent all the way down to the trail head and on to the village of Sajama. This took a total of 5 hrs and we reached Sajama by about 1pm. We were out of the wind and I took a 2 hr nap in the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag.

Anne and Sergio had made a strong attempt at the summit, but were eventually turned back around 9am by very strong winds and extreme cold. We were reunited at the Hostal Oasis in Sajama, and started our long drive back to La Paz – perhaps the most dangerous part of the entire expedition.

(Good bye in Sajama)

I am obviously disappointed, both in the bad weather and in my bad stomach on summit day. After Ojos de Salada (Chile) this is now my second failure to summit in a row. Let’s hope that I will have better luck for the remaining two climbs of this project: Huascaran (Peru) and Chimborazo (Ecuador).

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