The last few years have witnessed a resurgence in the development of technical ice/mixed routes in Bolivia's high mountains. A notable recent success took place on the ca 1,000m northwest face of Pico del Norte.
At 6,050m, Pico del Norte is the eighth highest mountain entirely within Bolivia. It is a northern outlier of Illampu (6,368m), forms the northern end of the Cordillera Real, and is infrequently climbed.
Approaching from the mining town of Ancoma in mid July, Argentinians Gabriel Fava and Carlitos Molina pitched their tent at 4,900m, just below the small but contorted glacier that bars access to the northwest face.
Leaving at 7:00 the following morning, they reached the foot of the northwest buttress, a somewhat enigmatic line that is documented as having been climbed [possibly by Germans, possibly in 1984] at a grade of TD or TD+ (AI4, UIAA III).
This buttress lies left of the much older Slovenian Route. Put up on the west face in 1964 by Golob, Mihelic and Savenc, and graded AD+, this route has become very much harder and more dangerous due to the appalling desiccation of Bolivia's mountains.
The Argentinians chose an unclimbed line up the left flank of the buttress, starting via a pronounced corner system. Three 60m pitches up this (5.11a, 10c and 10b) led to a large snow terrace.
The granite proved to be of surprisingly excellent quality and above the terrace another excellent rock pitch (10d) led to an area of easier ground where the two could move together.
To reach the upper mixed terrain they climbed another steep rock wall via a thin but enjoyable crack. Above, they again moved together, this time for around three pitches, to reach the sharp arête forming the left edge of the face.
Here, one and a half pitches of 5.9 led to easier ground and the summit dome. They reached the highest point at 5:00pm and subsequently named the route Neq'e, Neq'e (1,000m: 5.11a or F6b+, 60°), Neq'e is an Aymara word meaning strength.
The original route on Pico Norte climbed the northeast ridge (AD+) from the west and was first completed in 1928 by Erwin Hein, Alfred Horeschowsky, Hugo Hortangel and Hans Pfann, who also made the first ascent of Illampu.
Between this and the northwest face is the more difficult north arête, both running towards Ancoma. Fava and Molina were not sure of the "standard" route but concluded neither the north nor northeast ridges would give an easy return to the tent.
Instead, they down-climbed the northwest ridge, running out of daylight near the base. They made four 60m rappels down the west flank in the dark, before contouring moraine northeast to regain their tent at 10:00pm.
It is not clear who made the first ascent of this ridge and it is the east flank of the mountain that is perhaps more known, particularly the elegant but rarely repeated Bettembourg Pillar, climbed in 1982 by Frenchmen Georges Bettembourg, Bernard Chaud and Alain Mesili.
Climbing hard routes in Bolivia is no longer the preserve of visiting foreign parties. Indigenous mountain guides, who display superb physical ability on the higher peaks, have made impressive ascents in recent years.
A team of local climbers made what may well be the first repeat of Nada Mañana (900m, ED1), the steep, mixed, 1991 Slovenian Route (Vreca-Vrecv) on the west face of Illampu.
Eduardo Unzueta, a guide from La Paz, made the complete traverse of the Illimani group in a continuous push of 18 hours (the time for the original traverse was almost a week), while the ever-active, long time Bolivian resident Robert Rauch made the first free ascent, alpine style, of the 900m Central (Cosimo Zappelli) Pillar on the northeast face of Ancohuma (6,427m) at 6b (originally climbed with fixed ropes in 1978 at V and A3).
This year Rauch has made impressive solo ascents in the Quimsa Cruz, the lower altitude range of granite peaks south of the Cordillera Real, which still holds much scope for high standard rock climbing on generally good granite.