First female ascent of all Bolivia's 6,000ers

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 08/05/2013
Anne Bialek on the approach to Ancohuma, with Illampu behind. Bialek Collection.

French mountaineer Anne Bialek has become the first known female to complete all 13, 6,000m peaks in Bolivia.

In 2005 she first visited the country, climbing the popular Huayna Potosi (6,088m) by the standard route, and then returned in 2007 for one of the most isolated but easiest 6,000ers in South America, Uturunco (6,008m).

Uturunco is an active volcano lying in the far southwest of Bolivia, and the crucial item of equipment for any ascent is a sturdy 4 X 4.

Using this, it is possible to drive an old mining road on the remote northern flanks to ca 5,800m, leaving a gentle two-hour stroll up scree to the summit.

After this, personal circumstances led her to relocate from France to Bolivia's high altitude capital, La Paz (3,700m), on a permanent basis, where she  formulated plans to collect all the highest peaks in the country.

In 2009 she climbed Volcan Acotango (6,052m), which lies in the Cordillera Occidental, straddling the Peru-Bolivia border (a neighbouring summit, 6,063m Guallatiri, which is a contender for the world's highest active volcano, is normally claimed by Chile).

At the same time she travelled a little further north and climbed the relatively popular Parinacota (6,342m), another volcano and the higher of the so-called "Twins".

With the ascent of the more technical, sub-6,000er, Cabeza de Condor in the Condoriri Group, she now felt confident to attempt more difficult peaks. In March 2010 Bialek climbed the highest in the Cordillera Real, Illimani (6,439m).

In May 2011 it was the turn of Chearoco (6,104m) and Chachacomani (6,074m). These lie in the northern Cordillera Real, are difficult of access, and still infrequently climbed. For many years approaching from the Altiplano to the west has presented difficulties due to often hostile locals. Ascents are normally made from the Yungas - the jungle side - to the east.

However, on Chachacomani, Bialek and her team of Bolivian friends were able to approach comfortably from the Altiplano, climbing from a high camp at 5,130m above the Rio Chachacomani to the southwest.

Her previous attempts on Chearoco had failed at a point in the massif now dubbed Pico Anne (5,880m).

The following month, June, she climbed Chaupi Orco (6,044m), the highest peak in the Cordillera Apolobamba, on the northern border with Peru. Then later came Illampu in the Northern Cordillera Real, the most technical of Bolivia's 6,000ers (AD, 55°).

In October it was time for the big volcano of Sajama (6,542m) in the Occidental, popular for being the highest mountain in Bolivia.

In 2012 she climbed Ancohuma (6,427m) and the border volcano of Alto Toroni. Although sometimes quoted as over 6,000m, the Chilean IGM map of the area records it as 5,982m.

Finally, in April this year Bialek climbed the other volcanic "Twin", Pomerape (6,282m).

Along the way she has made several important female ascents. In October 2011 she climbed the west face of Huayna Potosi, a 900m ice route that has become harder over the years (D+/TD-, 80°).

And in November 2012 she became most likely the first women to make the complete Illimani traverse, a high-altitude multi-day affair that is still rarely accomplished.

At the time of writing 42-year old Bialek is making a south - north traverse of the Cordillera Apolobamba, an exploratory trek during which she hopes to climb five new routes on various summits.

Although Bolivia remains reasonably fashionable with foreign climbers, there are far fewer exploratory British trips than took place in the 1990s, when the mountains were popularized by La Paz resident, and British ex-pat, Yossi Brain.

Until his untimely death at the end of that decade, Brain's reports, yearly summaries, and eventually his guidebook, did much to focus attention on Bolivia's mountains, traditionally noted for stable weather and snow/ice conditions.

Thanks to Chris Clarke and Aimee Verdisco for help with this report



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