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 Altiplano.

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!

The USA (ugh!)

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 comfortable.


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 metres.

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.

La Paz

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 discovered.

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.