Ancohuma is a big mountain located in an area of the Bolivian Andes known as the Cordillera Real. Until a team of three American teenagers and one adult guide collected summit data in 2002, its elevation was never determined. There was conjecture up to that point that its height was possibly over 23,000 feet, which would make it the tallest peak in the Western Hemisphere, but that didn’t turn out to be the case. It ended up being 21,079 feet- tall, but not the tallest.
The expedition to accomplish the goal was a significant undertaking. In addition to the usual difficulties associated with ascending a 20,000-foot peak, collecting the elevation data required running a professional-grade GPS unit on the summit for over 10 minutes. Various groups had tried to do it in the past, including a team of British Royal Engineers. But for one reason or another, none had yet been successful.
The expedition involved U.S. and Bolivian resources, including three commercial companies, various guides and leaders, a mapper, a doctor, a nurse, and a videographer supporting 1 Bolivian and 11 American teenage climbers. It was one of the biggest adventures I was ever involved in but didn’t go on. My company, Outpost Wilderness Adventure (or OWA), organized and facilitated the event. So, as the OWA Director, I assembled the team. And I also planned some of the logistics during the organizational phase. Once all was set and the team gathered at our Colorado base, I just watched as they drove away, headed to the airport, South America, and the adventure of a lifetime. If you consider an expedition a sports game, this was the Super Bowl.
As for the event itself, undoubtedly, there was an element of good fortune involved in getting even one person up onto the summit, to begin with. Thankfully, the weather was mostly clear and dry, although, on summit day, it was frigid. Fortunately, while the temperature hovered in the single digits and low teens, it wasn’t particularly windy except high up on the summit ridge.
There could’ve been an adverse weather event at any point, which likely would’ve altered the outcome, but it never happened. A handful of the group did reach the top of the mountain, where they set up and ran the measuring equipment for 11 minutes and then got safely back down. The measuring business happened, in part, due to the cooperation of the weather-gods. And it was also partly because everyone on the entire expedition team played their best game, all simultaneously.
Back in the mountains of Colorado, visions of various things that could be going wrong kept cropping up in my director-mind. But every time they did, I thought about the people involved, and inevitably my worries about Bolivia and Ancohuma melted away.
During the actual event, there was an abundance of daily intrigue, personal perseverance, and acts of compassion. And that is accentuated if the prequel and aftermath are included. First, the group flew into Bolivia’s capital city, La Paz. From there, they drove a short distance up to the Refugio Huayna Potosi. That lodge/hut sits at around 14,000 feet and rests between the mountains, Huayna Potosi and Charkini. While at the hut, they spent several days acclimating, practicing alpine skills, and discussing medical issues. And they also learned how to operate both the GPS unit and the portable emergency altitude chamber they were carrying called a Gamow Bag.
After a few days enjoying the relative luxury of the hut, they took a small private bus to the small mountain city of Sorata. From there, they began walking toward the mountain and loaded the bulk of their gear onto pack animals for the three-day trek. Once they reached a spot near the base of the final summit pyramid, they set up a high camp just below a massive glacier. And from that camp, they launched the summit assault.
Summit Day came early. The entire group was organized into five separate rope teams, each led by an adult guide. As mentioned, the sky was clear, but the air was frigid- likely near 0 F when they started. Thankfully, until they reached the top of the summit ridge, the winds were relatively light. But as mentioned, it was blowing a gale up high, which made conditions especially harsh for the final bit of climbing.
Jose Lima, an experienced Bolivian Guide, led the way as the leader of the first rope team. Teenagers/young adults Elliot White, Christian Dean, and Michael Sproul were on his rope and carried and ended up operating the GPS equipment. The videographer, Chris Haaland, stayed back to film the event from various angles and locations as it unfolded. OWA Guides Brett Merlin, Paul Johnson, Peter Merlin, and Quentin Keith (the expedition leader) led the other groups. Those subsequent rope teams included team doctor Ken Adnan, Holly Gryckowski (an R.N.), mapping guru Jerry Brown, and climbers Jody and Caudill Miller, Paul Caine, Sam Feather-Garner, Peter Livingston, Jason Yeatman, Natalie Dean, and Scott Kramer. Dr. Hugo Berrios (owner of the Refugio Huayna Potosi and our longtime in-country logistics coordinator), his son Jose, and company cook, Marta rounded out the team and took a separate and unsuccessful route toward the summit from high camp.
Just getting to the base of the summit ridge was laborious, physically demanding, and cold. At least the lower part of the route wasn’t excessively steep or technically challenging. However, the groups did begin to spread further apart as the climb progressed. After a few hours, the first group arrived at the summit pyramid and started ascending the 300-foot steep headwall of snow and ice that would take them almost all of the way to the top. It was separated from the lower part of the mountain by a significant Bergschrund (basically, a crack in the snow and ice). As if the altitude, cold, and steepness were not problematic enough, the “Schrund” presented additional challenges.
Ultimately, the giant crack had to be crossed to get to the summit. There was simply no other realistic route choice at that point. It was well over 50 feet deep and several feet wide in places. Crossing it was a slow and complicated process exacerbated by poor snow quality. And, all the while, time became more of the essence as the cold began to exact its toll.
The lead team finally got across it and onto the steep slope. But not until after some drama as Elliot fell partially into it (remember, he was a part of a rope team and connected to a climbing rope). Paul and Brett arrived with their groups just as he was beginning the process of getting himself out and assisted him as much as they could. His fall caused a delay, but once he was out of it and, on the headwall, his entire team resumed moving toward the top. At that point, Paul crossed over and began leading his team over the chasm and onto the steeper snow. At the same time, Brett stayed at the Bergschrund to assist Paul’s group in getting across.
Up on top of the ridge, the lead group’s progress came to a near standstill, as the full force of the wind and deep snow conspired to create horrendous conditions. But at that point, the actual summit jutted right up out of the ridge only a few hundred feet away, and the sight of it beckoned them forward.
Meanwhile, Paul’s team slowly continued making their way across the Bergschrund, and Brett continued to help, even as his hands began to freeze, literally. Further down the mountain, Quentin and Peter kept moving up with their teams. But, ultimately, Quentin became unnerved by the slowing pace. He looked ahead and noted that the challenges of both getting onto and then ascending the summit ridge were formidable and were beginning to cause a bottleneck. And so, he put a stop to things and turned everyone back. Everyone, that is, except for the lead team, which was already approaching the summit by that time.
The four climbers at the front ultimately dealt with the thigh-deep snow and howling winds and made it to the top. After a few moments of back-patting and fist-raising, they pulled out the GPS and put things into motion for determining the elevation. Operating it was particularly tricky as the process required nimble, ungloved fingers to push the buttons and turn the dials. Finally, after 11 excruciatingly cold minutes, the data was recorded, and they put on their gloves. They then loaded it back into the backpack and immediately began the descent.
Backtracking down the steep slope and across the Bergschrund was tedious. But eventually, they got across and out onto gentler terrain. Slowly but surely, the temperatures warmed as they descended, and they ultimately rejoined the other teams. Finally, after a few hours of going down, everyone walked from the snow out onto the grass, where water, food, and high camp tents awaited.
The initial aftermath was a mix of euphoria and disappointment. The summit had been measured but was lower than some thought it might be. Everyone returned safely, although Christian, Elliot, and Brett had bits of frost-nip to show for the experience. Four people made it to the top of the actual peak, but 12 did not. The sentiments were complex. Months, or indeed years of preparation, had culminated in a few harsh moments in a frozen and oxygen-starved world that was far from home. That alone is more than most people ever experience.
Quentin made the right call when he turned everyone around. Undoubtedly, it’s what needed to happen. He realized that while the journey should have been the goal, reaching the summit and measuring its elevation had become the priority for many team members. And that, he understood, can be a dangerous thing as some people tend to go too far in attempting to achieve that priority rather than relishing the journey.
In this case, the summit was ultimately reached, and everyone returned home safely. In the near aftermath, there was a lot of discussion of priorities and the journey. Like the Bergschrund, it’s complicated. And now, years later, the teenagers have become adults, and the adults have become older adults. Years later, it’s a sure bet they all remember the exhaustion, thirst, and cold they experienced high up on that mountain. But I’m confident it’s the journey they remember most.