South American Altiplano

In ‘The Wind Will Carry Us’, Pirmin Bertle and his family explore the arid, windy expanses of the Altiplano from Bolivia to Chile

The wind will carry us away… maybe. If we don‘t move it probably will. Gusts up to 144 km/h push salty air up the hillsides from Salar de Atacama, the sprawling salt lake covering the plains a thousand metres below. Sand and dust coat our bus and creep into every interstice. Our kids – two- and five-years-old – can’t even walk against the storm, while the 6000m-high volcanoes that normally reign over the scenery disappear into clouds. It’s time to leave – for now. There’s no way to climb. No way to try my project. Don’t even think about this dream – the hardest route of South America.

It will be called Le vent nous portera (The wind will carry us).

The feelings of frustration and failure are similar to those I felt six weeks earlier when we’d last stood here in the canyon of Socaire in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. But at the same moment it is very different because now it is a storm postponing my first ascent, whereas back in June, the 4000m altitude, the -15°C nighttime temperatures, the sun, the wind, the bad recovery in this environment and above all the lack of oxygen were my enemies. Back then the Altiplano still rejected us. Today it is our friend. The kids run up the hills as if the sea was just below. I carry a drill and a rope, a baby girl and bolts and gear and stuff – almost 40kg of baggage – 300m up pathless slopes without even getting out of breath. How could this happen?

Pirmin climbing the first ascent of Bolivia’s first 9a (35), In this light you look like Poseidon, El Eden, Potosì. Image from Bertle collection

Pirmin climbing the first ascent of Bolivia’s first 9a (35), In this light you look like Poseidon, El Eden, Potosì. Image from Bertle collection

Conditioning at altitude is as unforgiving as the weather can be. Six weeks ago we already had spent more than two months in South America – half of it in this high altitude theatre of steppe vegetation, scattered villages, llamas, nandus and vicunas, hot springs, great plains and (from time to time) freshly fallen snow on the highest peaks. But our mistake had been in visiting the Pacific Ocean for more than ten days: eating, bouldering and hanging out around the beautiful granite rocks of Coquimbo and Punitaqui. Ten days absence from altitude was too long. When you are trying to maintain maximum shape up here, sea level becomes your enemy. The Altiplano is a jealous lover, you cannot leave it.

Six weeks ago in June the El Nino weather had left one metre of snow in the shady side of Socaire canyon and my performance was almost worse than my initial tries after bolting this perfect line through the middle of a parabolic mirror–shaped face, a smooth face only just broken by the tiniest of holds – one-centimetre deep, one-finger pockets, three millimetre foot holds. A 7c+ (V10) boulder on a slab and, at the very top, after having done 50 moves, an 8b (V13) crux.

Le vent nous portera. But back then, six weeks ago, it would not carry. At least not me. I turned my back on snowy Socaire thinking of the almost three months we still had left to travel and all the beautiful places we still wished to see. I left only a little back door open, telling myself: If I lose some kilos and if we stay at 4000m during the next weeks, maybe on our way back to Uruguay I will permit myself another glimpse at this perfect line. Then we threw ourselves again at the steady rush of landscape wonders that travelling on the Altiplano meant to us from the first time we wiggled up a 4000m pass.

Everything started in April. After travelling through Patagonia for seven months the year before (see VL no 19) we had parked our camper van in Uruguay, the only country in South America where you are allowed to leave a vehicle for one year.

We knew the highlands would be harsh, but the lowlands near the Rio de la Plata challenged us right from the start. During the 10 months nobody used our van, mice had conquered it and they had left their traces everywhere. EVERYWHERE! We spent one day of cleaning with the vision of the Hanta virus awareness posters that you find everywhere haunting our work. Okay, this deadly virus transmitted by the excrement of mice normally does not occur in Uruguay, but – who knows? And could the diarrhoea that affected us shortly after be Hanta? Or was it just the normal ‘turista belly‘? Or was it the water from the fountain in the middle of green fields that the locals had recommended to us? It took us almost two weeks to figure out that the soils of Uruguay are full of the same bioengineering products advertised everywhere on the side of the roads. And that our stomachs weren’t meant to handle these small orange particles (of what?) floating in the water.

Valle de la Muerte – a small sand desert and one of many attractions around San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Image by Pirmin Bertle

Valle de la Muerte – a small sand desert and one of many attractions around San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Image by Pirmin Bertle

We didn’t die from the Hanta virus nor from the water. Nor from the great granite climbing in Capilla del Monte near Cordoba, nor from the quantities of wine we drunk in Cafayate. No, without any further problems we arrived in our first high-altitude bouldering spot in Brealito near Salta. With a freshly adopted four-month-old cat in the back of our van, Malbec, named for the Argentinian red wine that we think is the best in the world.

Cactuses and sandstone – the main ingredients of this wonderful place at almost 3000m. A river full of water-shaped caverns and banks of sand for the kids to explore and thousands of boulders for the adults to play on. With warm weather and mild nights this ‘altiplano for beginners’ is the best way to start the high altitude game. One 8b (V13) boulder in three sessions and we did not lose the cat. Pure pleasure, pure success.

Next step, the real game – Tuzgle, the feared Eldorado of the north for Argentinian climbers, it sits 4300m above sea level and has perfect volcanic rock. Lots of perfect volcanic rock. Boulders too high for our four crash pads, walls too beautiful not to bolt. Unfortunately, I‘d donated my drill on the last trip to the locals of Piedra Parada who had barely enough to eat (white flour, walnuts and apples they found in the fields). Now I had slight spastic attacks of pseudo-drilling movements as I gazed up at these Tuzgle lines. After some days of (forced) bouldering in more and more brutal wind, dizzying sun and breathtakingly low oxygen, I knew it was too tough for us. At the same time, I knew we had to come back – with a drill.

I’m not sure if this was when I began the shift to becoming a rope climber again, a thing I had dismissed with the arrival of our kids, or if this change only came some days later in Socaire, on the Chilean side of the high plateau. Socaire lies at ‘only’ 3600m and has a slightly milder climate. There were no boulders but about 100 routes on nice pocketed and cracked rock, and a lot of open spaces – for drilling. And when I walked down the canyon and finally stood in front this blank wall that three and a half months later would become Latin America’s first 9a+ (36) – Le vent nous portera – the Tuzgle-like spasms again took possession of me.

I needed a drill. I needed some bolts.

The author on Latin America’s first 9a+ (36), Le vent nous portera, Socaire, Chile. Image by Christobal Niedergrund

The author on Latin America’s first 9a+ (36), Le vent nous portera, Socaire, Chile. Image by Christobal Niedergrund

The super friendly locals furnished me with both and we stayed four weeks in this beautiful region around San Pedro de Atacama. The town is a little touristy, but has outstanding hot springs, sand dunes, salt and mountain lakes, geysers and climbing spots like Toconao or Caspana. I freed the first 9a (35) of the trip and the second in Chile – Ruta de Cobre – and worked Le vent nous portera at the same time. We only retreated when the third totally unexpected snow front in three weeks hit. Normally you hardly see a single cloud in the Altiplano winter, but this front tumbled a metre of snow into the canyon. Bad weather chased us down to the Pacific by mid-June, and that is how I lost a great part of my altitude-specific shape.

Thus we travelled north. Some locals had invited us to a climbing festival above Iquique in Taigrapata. Some 60 routes equipped and again some 10,000 to open. At the BBQ in -15°C degrees, dancing was the only way to not to lose parts of your extremities. I climbed one 8c+ (34), which I dedicated to the best chilli pepper in the world, Rocoto Love, and then we finally headed for Bolivia.

Only one obstacle still stood in our way: The national park of Lauca. Normally on trips like this you get stopped by bad roads, engine problems or too hard climbing projects. Here we stumbled on a salt flat full of flamingos, hot springs and 50m high steam columns.

I will never forget watching the sunrise lying in 40°C water, touching the still-frozen grass just beside the pool. Having breakfast with the kids wearing down jackets and standing barefoot in the water, with no other soul for miles in any direction.

We stayed two days, passed by the majestic Sajama mountain and its colourful geysers and then stopped above La Paz – the capital of Bolivia. Sitting at the edge of the Altiplano, we surveyed the houses of two million people spread out in front of the 6500m-high sacred mountain of Illimani. Here we spent some time in a friend’s house, exploring the nearby crags, first ascending the three hardest routes in Bolivia up to 8b+ (32) and visiting the boundless Titicaca lake. Only two miles from the Peruvian border we marked the northernmost point of our trip on the Isla del Sol, as changing countries with a cat in South America means a lot of effort and we still hadn’t seen the most vast boulderfield on Earth that lay to our south, Valle de las Rocas, not to mention the crag everybody recommends, El Eden.

The paradise, El Eden, is green and the moderate climbing feels like a dream. The cities of Potosi and, a little further east, Sucre, are considered some of the historical-cultural highlights of the continent. Silver mines, haciendas, narrow, winding streets and white painted houses. The milder Bolivian Altiplano climate, the bars and restaurants, the more than friendly prices and the equally open and curious local population add up to the most holiday-like part of the trip. Here I climb another 9a (35) – In This Light You Look Like Poseidon – the first 9a in Bolivia.

Then we are heading west again. And west in this part of the Andes means wind from the Pacific. It means cold. It means hard frosts at night. And, to me especially, it means: one great open project. Le vent nous portera.

Pirmin on the Elefanto Boulder in Valle de las Rocas, near Uyuni, Boliva. Image from Bertle collection

Pirmin on the Elefanto Boulder in Valle de las Rocas, near Uyuni, Boliva. Image from Bertle collection

But first comes what could be the planet’s best boulderfield, Valle de las Rocas. It came from great golden volcanoes spitting out megatons of ash 60 million years ago, which was compressed by glaciers and eroded by water and wind. Leaving behind perfect, roundly shaped, super solid, highly frictional red-orange boulders dotted with open pockets, slopers, pinches, jugs.

Why it isn’t world famous yet? The next water source is 30km away, the next paved road 160km. It makes no sense to document your ascents as you hardly need a brush and you can stroll into the boulders wherever you want along the only dirt road and find the best bouldering of your life, and people don’t go where there is no guidebook.

Despite these riches, I am unable to stop thinking about my Socaire project, and plan at least three weeks minimum to finish it. Thus we leave Bolivia after visiting the greatest salt lake of the planet – the Salar de Uyuni – at the beginning of August (2017).

I know I am lighter, I know I have spent a lot of time above 3600m, I know I have been climbing a lot without climbing too much. But I have no idea of my actual shape. There is no way to measure it in a region where no hard routes exist.

Standing below the route again after six weeks I am curiously elated like my kids are at Christmas and we have two and a half weeks until the last possible date to head south towards Uruguay. I am expecting a harsh and unrelenting fight with this monster.

But I am totally wrong.

I do not fight. From the very first try I know that this time I’ll be flying.

The wind will carry me.

On the second day I fall on the last hard move of the upper 8b (V13) crux and after five days of forced rest due to the previously mentioned epic storm, I send it feeling super solid.

And now for me there can be no harder climbing up here. And I believe that there also can’t be anything more aesthetic. And thus in this rush of having lost five kilograms and having gained the shape of my life, we switch sides of the border, I bolt the ‘quarter circle’ project in Tuzgle. After five days of tough, cold and very windy work I send it (unfortunately on a fixed rope, as my climbing partners leave me alone with the kids – but this is another story).

Juan Estellano attempting Comfort nos mata (9a/35) in Tuzgle, Argentina. Image by Pirmin Bertle

Juan Estellano attempting Comfort nos mata (9a/35) in Tuzgle, Argentina. Image by Pirmin Bertle

The second 9a (35) of Argentina – Comfort is Killing Us – is dedicated to the hardest climbing and travelling conditions I have ever encountered and the benefits I drew from them. In this last week on the flat roof of the world we are running out of gas, we cook on the fire, following the Milky Way with our eyes while having supper in -10°C and trying not to get stuck in this middle of nowhere with our porous tyres having punctured more than ten times on the rocky roads of South America. However, touching the anchor of this last project of the trip, I feel the tension falling. It might be time to leave.

The only ones who hardly care are the youngest members of the team, Jules and Aliénor. As nearly no viruses survive in this climate, they aren’t ill a single time. They lose almost no weight and whenever we meet some other tourists hiking uphill, our five-year-old boy outperforms them without pity.

And then comes the day to again hit the curvy road of the Cuesta de Lipan that leads us down to the flat lands of Jujuy. What we thought would be a freeing moment after long weeks of extreme experience becomes an act of losing something very deeply anchored in our hearts and minds and memories.

After almost four months at 4000m we say goodbye to a hostile stranger that has become a friend.

Pirmin Bertle is sponsored by Scarpa, Petzl, Bleed and Maiday

This piece appeared in Issue 24 of Vertical Life, to download the full issue – and all back issues of the mag – for free click here.

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