21-May-2007 -- For all the pomp and ceremony of being the highest confluence in the Western Hemisphere, this confluence is most interesting for the path it laid down for us to get to it. Straight into the heart of the highest altitude altiplano volcano country, the path led us through solid white seas of sparkling salt and down an ever-deceiving network of dusty roads past ruins, strange face-like tombs, broad sand dunes, herds of llamas and alpacas, majestic vicunas (an almost deer-like relative of the llama), and enigmatic darting ostriches. Dwarfed by wide-open vistas of bushy plains, villages appeared as tiny clusters of mudbrick and steeples, and ultra-blue, waterfowl lakes as thin sapphire veneers. The horizon was often fringed with impressive groups of jagged and Fuji-like volcanoes, some with windy wisps arcing off of snowy summits. Almost like an oversized concert hall, all these parts would come together at the same time inside a giant valley with the harsh sun beating into it. Yet there was nothing but a peaceful silence and the soft wind with its prickly chill. This, in a nutshell, was what we encountered during the two-day jeep journey from Uyuni to Tomarapi, before we even attempted to summit the confluence peak.
It was ten months prior that I received an email from McKenzie Funk, a freelance writer for Outside Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, and Harpers, to name a few. He was interested in coming with me to do a story on a confluence adventure. By late 2006, after considering many confluences, we decided on a plan to visit the Western Hemisphere's highest confluence. By early 2007, to our great surprise, and after much scrutiny of complicated issues involving confluence elevations, we determined the point was 18S 76W in western Bolivia (not our original target of 12S 76W in Peru which had been previously listed on the DCP site). Mac (McKenzie) would write up our adventure for Outside Magazine.
As far as planning went, it was coincidental that I had been working as a geophysicist in Rio de Janeiro from late March to early May. So instead of flying long distance to Bolivia, I traveled by land from Rio. Mac was constrained by time to meet me on May 17, so I had about 2 weeks to make it there by land. I traveled across southern Brazil to Iguaçu Falls, Argentina, and then across northern Argentina to its Altiplano northwest. It was from there that I entered Bolivia.
I met Mac and an Italian cameraman named Paolo (who resides in Montana) in Tupiza, a 2950 meter (9680 feet) high town in southern Bolivia. Together on 18 May we took a local bus and crowded jeep to Uyuni (3669 meters, 12030 ft.), from where we rented a jeep to take us to Tomarapi. Very early on the first jeep day, 19 May, we set off across the expansive salt lake, Salar de Uyuni. In addition to transecting the lake, we were able to get to confluence 20S 68W, which is IN the salt lake. The write-up on that visit will go into the interesting things we saw in the Salar de Uyuni leading up to that confluence. Think of it as a prequel.
After the salt-lake confluence, it wasn't long before we found we were leaving the salt lake. We had spent the morning and part of the afternoon in the Salar. Now the challenge was taking unfamiliar dirt roads across the expanse of terrain along Bolivia's western border between the Salar and Sajama National Park.
Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia, is a giant majestic volcano. It sticks strait up from the surrounding plains as if the Matterhorn had been placed amidst a dry brown desert. Though it was far away from us at this point, we were quite aware of it, and had seen numerous photos of it. It served as a focal point, in part because it is so prominent, and in part because the confluence was only a few kilometers from it.
Although our jeep driver Criso, an indigenous Bolivian, insisted he knew the way from the Salar to Sajama, he turned out to be pretty clueless. This could have been a point of contention but he redeemed himself to us as a genuinely kind person and a real trooper. Riding shotgun was Maria, a Bolivian woman whom, although she cooked meals for us, we assumed was his wife or significant other. They scratched their heads about where to go.
It turned out that Mac and Paolo were the best equipped for getting us out of our quandary. Paolo had a pretty detailed map of this region of Bolivia, and Mac had a fancy color-screen GPS that worked inside the cabin of the jeep! We used the map to find some dirt roads and villages, and to estimate the lat/lon of "control points” to enter in the GPS. The GPS then gave us an arrow of the general direction to go.
Mac, who is fluent in Spanish, would relay this to the Bolivian couple, but soon he found it was better to just give them the GPS. We weren't sure if they had ever seen a GPS, but it wasn't long before they seemed mesmerized by it, studying it together every few seconds. Soon they were so fixated on it that they excluded us from discussions about where we were going. Though they worked together as a sort of navigation team, they would sometimes, quite admirably, quarrel about where to go.
In the back seat Mac, Paolo and I were of the opinion that we were headed too far west, and that we might end up in Chile. But we were soon to find out that we had only made it to the tiny village of Llica, Bolivia, from where we sought directions.
The rest of the day involved heavy navigating between Mac and the couple, and a few small missteps. Soon we had things figured out, and were headed across a salt lake called Salar de Coipasa. We didn't see as many shear white plains as on Salar de Uyuni, and it appeared to be more of a sabkha with brushy sagebrush-like bushes. Once we left it, dusk set in. We discovered a beautiful deserted village, complete with town square and church. Not far from there was Sabaya where we would spend the night.
Sabaya reminded me of a dusty, shoddy Chinese truck stop town. The buildings were made of block brick construction and some white shiny tiles. Though we arrived in the dark of night with poor lighting, the place appeared beaten-down and full of dust and diesel. It was a small village but a popular truck stop for traffic transporting goods to and from Chile. Our driver found us a room with a few beds.
The next morning was bright and sunny and brought us a whole new outlook. We discovered that there was actually a somewhat charming part of the village just behind the bleak truck stop boulevard. We were also told we were only about four hours away from Sajama (we had previously thought it might be more than a day away). Upon driving out of the village, we rounded a hillock and stopped the jeep, in awe of the view. Way off in the distance, over plains of llama and cobalt-blue streams, we saw Sajama.
But as we soon found out, things were not as simple and straightforward as they seemed. The day was filled with several "wrong turns", and it took us a lot more than four hours. Nevertheless, in the process we saw many beautiful places. We explored old villages, tombs, a sand dune, and saw a lot of wildlife.
At one point we asked local villagers which road to take. In response, an older woman and four dusty-but-cute children decided to get into the jeep with us. It was an exchange: they would show us the way if we would take them to another village.
Another event occurred at a checkpoint where young guards tried to extract a bribe from us. In a conversation excluding us, Criso let them know he was no pushover, "Don't you remember what Evo said!" in reference to President Evo Morales' drive to stamp out corruption. The guards let us pass.
After a semicircle from Sajama's south side to its north side, by late afternoon we finally made it to Tomarapi. Tomarapi, at 4270 meters (14000 feet), just happens to be the closest village to the confluence, but it's no ordinary village. The village contains an ecolodge, where we stayed. It's a charmingly adorned adobe complex that is managed to be eco-friendly. So eco-friendly in fact that the power was too low to recharge our camera batteries. This didn't seem to present a problem for Paolo, but my camera batteries were out of power. I had a back-up film camera with me, but instead decided to accept Mac's offer to share his photos.
Besides the ecolodge, there wasn't much else in the village: a picturesque church, a soccer field and some llamas – and, of course, Sajama looming in the background. It was a very serene place.
We woke up the next day, ready to attack the confluence. The confluence sits in the middle of a volcanic complex mountain named Jachcha Condoriri, a few kilometers to the northwest of Sajama. 'Jachcha Condoriri' means 'crying condor' in the local Quechua language.
We planned a day trip, but packed provisions in case we needed to camp at the bottom of the peak to ascend a second day. We hired a local driver to take us the 10 plus kilometers to the road's closest approach to the confluence. We also arranged for him to rendezvous with us at the end of the day for a likely pick-up.
Both the previous afternoon and that morning we studied the mountain to come up with a hiking strategy to get to the confluence. We had also been studying Google Earth screen captures that both Mac and I had brought with us.
The confluence appeared to be on a group of bluffs at the center of the Condoriri complex. We decided to hike up an arcuate ridge which would bring us gradually up the right side of the mountain to a false summit, the second highest peak on the mountain. From there we could most easily descend on the central bluffs and to the confluence.
We began our journey where the dirt road nears the mountain, at an altitude of about 4500 meters (14800 ft). On the way up, we passed queñua, bushy trees that look a lot like juniper trees. They are famous for comprising the world's highest forest on Mt. Sajama (though it's said that it doesn't really look like a forest). We also passed bright green blobs of llareta, boulder-sized clumps of hard moss. They often ooze a sappy substance that is used as a fuel by local people.
We continued up, well over 5000 meters (16400 feet), with all of us, but particularly me, getting extremely winded. Often we wouldn't realize how out-of-breath we were until we had already over-exerted ourselves.
As we ascended, gusts of wind were so powerful that they threatened to blow us off the ridge. We stayed off the spine of the ridge, but fortunately the gusts subsided further up. There were some rocky parts of the ridge where we had to do some bouldering.
We made it to the false summit at a height of 5357 meters (17600 feet) by about 1 or 2 PM. The view was spectacular. Paolo snapped away.
For about an hour or two leading up to the summit, I had worried about time, expressing this to Mac and Paolo at least once. Once at the summit I urged them to move on, but to no avail, as they were too awed by the view. I decided to descend toward the confluence on my own.
There was little snow on Condoriri other than a few hard icy patches on the shadier south-facing slopes. To get to the central mound of cliffs I had to slide across a short swath of ice. Finally the other two caught up, and slid accordingly.
We walked among the big boulders of the central mound counting off only tens of meters remaining to the confluence. Perhaps at first slowly but then more suddenly, a stark reality sunk in. The confluence was off the side of the cliff!
Mac and I attempted to get close to the edge of the cliff while Paolo backed off to get photos. First I found a notch in the cliff that seemed to get us close to the confluence. Mac came down to join me on a very precarious ledge where we documented the point with great caution and meticulousness. His GPS was superior to mine for two reasons: 1) It worked! It had a reception inside the notch surrounded by steep walls, and 2) it was able to get an accuracy down to 2 meters!
Surprisingly, once we climbed to the top of the cliff again, we found we could get a little closer to the confluence. We got to within 14 meters (46 feet) of the confluence with an accuracy of 2 meters (6 feet). Shivering and with frozen hands, we documented the point once again.
Although the consensus among us was that the confluence was somewhere in the middle of the cliff, I felt I had to get to the bottom of the cliff to take another reading even though it would involve circumventing the entire length of the mound and scarp. Suddenly, this was the least of our problems.
After all the documenting of the point we finally
found Paolo. He had disappeared, but what we found was
a quite altered Paolo. He looked tired and dizzy, and
had a pounding headache – a clear sign of altitude
sickness. He had also lost several of his photo memory
cards – which fortunately were blank. Mac,
incidentally, lost his sunglasses off the scarp!
And, on top of that, it was starting to get dark. We tracked around the group of cliffs until we were under them.
Mac and I started traversing across to the bottom of
the confluence cliff, while Paolo descended. However,
it suddenly became clear that Paolo was not doing
well. We felt it best that Paolo not go down alone.
Mac gave me his GPS as I tried to edge toward the
confluence on my own.
Then more problems. The scree slope consisted of little more than a few centimeters of loose rock over what seemed to be frozen soil. Every step I took I slid with little aid from friction. I asked Mac how use the ice axe in the event of an uncontrolled slide, but he assured me I was ok.
With darkness encroaching, he thought I might have 45 minutes to spare to get close to the confluence. I continued to traverse the precarious slope. At a certain point I was frozen in place to prevent from going into an uncontrolled slide. Although Mac assured me it was fine, my instincts told me it was unsafe, and I decided to abandon the lower attempt.
We descended the rest of the mountain into the dark of night. It turned out we really didn't have the 45 minutes we thought we had. Luckily our ride was waiting for us at the bottom, but he told us he would have left had we not turned on our headlamps.
A 9-page article (3.8MB PDF) about this trip, about my confluence endeavors, and about confluence hunting in general, titled "Because It's There. (Sort Of.)", written by McKenzie Funk, with photos by Paolo Marchesi, appeared in the June 2008 issue of Outside Magazine.