The journey from London to La Paz
The transport situation was altogether different from any Asian destination, and considerably more complicated and expensive. On the subject of expense, a Vote of Thanks is required, as this expedition, like those before and after, would not have been possible without the generous financial support of the Imperial College Exploration board. The Mount Everest Foundation, The World Expeditionary Association, and numerous private firms and individuals also helped to make it possible. The remaining cost was met by our personal contributions.
The equipment and food would be sent by sea to Arica in Chili, Bolivia
has no marine frontier since it lost the War of the Pacific to Chile in
1882, a bone of contention to this day between the two governments.
Everything must travel across neighbouring countries by road or rail,
Arica is the standard way by rail to La Paz, capital of Bolivia. From
there, the Cordillerra Real is relatively close by road across the
We were to travel by a complex system of charter plane to Philadelphia, Greyhound bus to Miami, flight to Lima in Peru, bus up onto the Altiplano and the Northern tip of Lake Titicaca, steamer (yes, steamer) South along the length of the lake to Bolivia, then finally narrow gauge train to La Paz. At the time this was the cheapest way of getting there as no direct charter flights existed, these days there are certainly simpler ways of going, but they must certainly lack the charm!
We didn’t all set off at once for reasons which
escape me now, Steve and I travelled together, the others caught up with
us in Lima. The flight (my first ever) to Philadelphia was fine (25/6/72), "whisky and
coffee all the way" according to my diary, but arrival in the
industrial zone reeking of kerosene was less so. The descent was
completed by a night spent in the Greyhound Bus Station. Steve fell
asleep with his legs stretched out to be rudely awoken by a hefty kick
from the jackboot of a policeman, who was probably bored and looking for
someone to "hassle". Good morning America! We took the bus,
which, as we discovered, is very much the poor man's mode of
transport in the US. The others used a system of car delivery to travel
down to Miami in a Cadillac, probably a better choice. Train or plane
were excluded for reasons of cost. Miami was hot and unpleasant, both
the place and the people. They were expecting a political party
convention and anyone with long hair was assumed to be there for the
riots. This was generally communicated by the standard yankee
expletives, beloved of Richard Nixon, and invariably starting with an
“F” and completed by references to our supposed incestuous sexual
activities with our mothers.
We were glad to leave. A pleasant, and unexpected,
interlude was a technical halt in Quito in Ecuador. The airline lodged
us for free in a very nice hotel, a good days sightseeing was had and
many photos taken with my newly acquired duty free Canon SLR. It was a
bit on the heavy side, but thirty years later its virtually
non-electronic mechanism is still going strong. The technical quality of
my photos certainly made a noticeable improvement.
Subject matter certainly didn’t lack, South America
was a continual series of images, I was still young enough not to feel
too much the suffering behind the images. I was vaguely idealistic, and
capable of spouting the standard series of platitudes, but it didn’t
really mark me that much, my role of an observer remained acceptably
Steve and I spent several days here waiting for the
others and playing the tourist. The city, at this time of year, is
perpetually shrouded in mist. A fine rain fights with the temperature
continually. The result is not unpleasant, but digging a ditch might be
trying. The Spanish Colonial architecture gave me scope to use up a few
more feet of film, and then, now that the others had joined us, we were
off by bus together towards Bolivia. Driving across the Altiplano the
moonlight was so bright that the driver could turn off his headlights.
It was cold too, and at a stop a friendly local introduced us to their
standard recipe, a glass of pisco, to be knocked back like vodka, with
much the same effect.
We arrived in Puno early in the morning. The air was
amazingly clear, and the town strangely quiet. We later discovered why:
a few days before a demonstration by peasants had been put down by the
Peruvian army, leaving many indians dead. As tourists, we were unaware
of this and headed down to the lakeside to take the steamer to Bolivia.
The T.S.S. Ollanta, made in Hull by Earle's Co. Ltd., sailed across to
the Pacific coast, then transported by train for assembly by the lake,
was like taking a step back for a century. In the dining room, the
tables were covered with immaculate, well ironed, white linen, the
cutlery was the heavy old fashion sort and there was even Worcester
sauce on each table, splendid! Neville was most impressed.
While we were waiting, we had time to look around and
found a smaller, older ferry moored nearby, whose story is even more
fantastic. It was again built in Britain and sailed over to the Pacific
coast, it was then dismantled, and as the railway line did not yet
exist, it was carried up to on the backs of mules to the lake at 3 800
We steamed off to Bolivia in the evening and sailed all
night. At dawn we got our first view, and took our first photos, of the
Cordillera Real. We soon docked in the Bolivian Port of Guaqui on a fine
morning, admiring the old steam cranes, again “Made in England” and
still in use after so many years. We then transferred onto an narrow
gauge train which seemed nearly as ancient, and trundled off across the
Altiplano towards La Paz.
On the route, the train stopped, as a matter of course,
at the famous pre-Inca ruins of Tihuanaco, and we all took numerous
photos of the Gate of the Sun. A few hours later we arrived at the edge
of the Altiplano and La Paz lay below us spread out in its huge hollow, with Illimani, white and majestic, in the distance.
We had to spend a couple of weeks in La Paz while Paul
sorted out problems of importing our equipment and so on. We were well
received by the Club Andino Boliviano, too well in some respects as our
hangovers witnessed. If anyone ever offers you some “Leche de Tigre”,
beware! We were also entertained by the cultural attaché at the British
embassy: Noël Coward would have been perfectly at ease in his villa and
conversation. We were both flattered and amused by all this attention
which we had not expected.
It wasn’t only the high society that made us feel at
home, the indians , who make up the majority of the population, were
most friendly too. One day Paul Bunting and I walked up to the top of
the town and the Altiplano, this is the poor, indian quarter as, in La
Paz, the rich live at the lower part of the city where the air is
thicker. We came across a curious ceremony in which lines of men danced
to the enthusiastic music of a mobile band, mostly metal wind
instruments, while carrying plastic models of cars. Apparently this was
a group of taxi drivers and their professional organization, but whether
it was just for fun or had some religious significance we never
While we were hanging about, enjoying yet another fine
evening, Paul, who spoke a little Spanish, struck up a conversation and
before long we found ourselves invited to dinner by an indian family.
This consisted of soup and potatoes in a small house built of dry mud
bricks, like all the surrounding houses and lit only by paraffin lamps,
they had no electricity. It was a moving experience as they were clearly
far from wealthy yet thought nothing of sharing their dinner with
complete strangers simply for the interest of talking with us, and that
in a very limited way. This was a far cry from the calculating
miserliness of European society, where little is done without a thought
of “What’s in it for me?”
Another evening we all found ourselves in a bar near
our hotel in the cheaper parts of the Spanish quarter of the town, but
where much of the population is indian. We were drinking and chatting,
amongst ourselves and, as much as we could, with the other customers
eating “ El muerza” like us. Suddenly a guitar was produced and one
of them broke into song, accompanying himself on the guitar. We were
impressed, even more so when one of the others did the same thing. Two
musicians in the same bar seemed quite a coincidence, but then, one
after the other, they all performed just as expertly, voice and guitar
working naturally in tune. Obviously we had to try to follow but none of
us could play a note on a guitar and despite many a night of bawling
folksongs in pubs and the back of the Climbing Club van, our efforts
were pathetic in comparison.
During our forced stay in La Paz, we also did a little
tourism. We admired the little brass plates on the lamp-posts in front
of the presidential palace, which gave the name of the president who had
been hanged from each; the history of Bolivia since its independence in
1825 has been pretty troubled. There has been a change of government,
rarely peaceful, per year on average; a wag in the Club Andino explained
that it only snowed once a year in La Paz, and each snowfall was the
omen for the fall of the government. Needless to say, the great majority
of the population, essentially indians, have seen little improvement in
their situation. We visited the mud spires
of the “Valley of the Moon” a few miles from La Paz and, on the
suggestion of the President of the Club Andino, whose capacity in
enjoying himself was only matched by his hospitality, as Paul found to
his cost (say no more!), we decided to visit La Paz’s own ski-resort.
A Toyota Landcruiser, the only vehicle with enough power to be at ease
at this altitude, took us to Chacaltaya, 30 kms by twisting dirt road
from the city and at 5 400 metres, the highest ski station in the world.
“Ski station” was perhaps a slight exaggeration, as, at the time,
there was a chalet and a ski tow powered by an old car engine, but only
one “piste” of about 200 metres. The views, however, were
breathtaking, as was the altitude, as we were not yet acclimatized. Here
I took my best photo of Dave, Rog and Steve, a pity I didn’t take a
few more. The surrounding mountains took up a bit of film too.
We returned to La Paz by foot, downhill and in a
straight line it wasn’t too bad and met here our first llama, a fine
specimen who looked at us with a superior nonchalance before returning
to grazing the sparse, dry grass. In the background the way La Paz has
grown in its basin, just below
the edge of the plateau can be seen clearly.
Finally transport to the road head at a wolfram mine
called Mina Candalaria was set up, our food and equipment loaded on the
back of the lorry that regularly supplied the mine, we climbed up on
top, and we were off, at last, to the mountains.