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The Sight of Solitude

Climbing in the Bolivian Quimsa-Cruz

by Tim Moss


The mountains of Bolivia © Phillie Casablanca

Tim Moss has climbed in Kyrgyzstan, the Russian Altai and spent several years organising Arctic and Himalayan expeditions for the British Schools Exploring Society. Here, he recounts his adventures climbing in the Bolivian Quimsa-Cruz

I awake with a searing pain in my eyes. Without a background in chemistry or any medical knowledge whatsoever, I imagine that this is what it's like to bathe ones eyeballs in a dilute solution of something rather acidic.

Sun cream?

A few weeks of being outdoors in the elements had left my skin a little worse for wear and last night, in a moment of Ran Fiennes-meets-Estee Lauder, I moisturised my skin with the only thing available: Factor 50 sun cream. Perhaps it had got into my eyes.

To be honest, I didn't really care what caused it. They were still burning and opening them was a bit like taking your hand out of the freezer to stick it in the oven - different but still not altogether pleasant.

The morning before we'd got up in the cold darkness of a Bolivian winter to enjoy another oat and brazil nut surprise on the stoves before trudging up the valley across the rocks. It was the team's third big day of climbing having knocked off two or three first British ascents between us in the past few weeks. First ascents, that is, by virtue of our quiet location within the Quimsa-Cruz rather than our expert climbing abilities (or, at least, mine). The Quimsa-Cruz is one of four "cordillera" mountain ranges in Bolivia. Located some 80 km south east of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, it was still a good five hours drive to get to. It's the smallest of the four ranges and, with no peaks over 6,000-metres, it's also the least visited. So, our victories beneath a British flag were easily won since no other UK expeditions had ventured into the area.

But still, it was pretty cool.

Extracting my upper torso from the sleeping bag, I held my finger tips trembling anxiously an inch from my eyes. Touching them was out of the question but ignoring the pain also didn't seem quite right and thus I settled for hovering my digits uselessly in front of my face. I fumbled for my Nalgene bottle and tried various permutations on the theme of washing out the "acid". I'm not sure it helped much but now my top was a bit soggy.

Daylight had expanded slowly into the crisp air that previous morning, imperceptibly warming the core and rendering our torches impotent without our realising. Crampons were fitted and knots were tied without a word being spoken. Two pairs moved together across the ice on a connection of nylon strands, the teeth on our feet biting into the iced cake beneath us with each rhythmic step. My mind shifted easily to the memory of that peak on the other side of the glacier that we had straddled earlier in the trip.

Despite having worked in and on expeditions for some time now, and having been based inside the Royal Geographical Society for two years, I'm still not entirely sure if there's any kind of official list of "who climbed what and when". To the best of my knowledge, each of those peaks we climbed were the first time they had seen British feet. I'm not a big one for first/fastest/longest/toughest in my expeditions. In part because I'm not that good at anything but also because it's just not what it's about for me.

I enjoy adventures for the thrill of trying to something new, the buzz of finding out what something you don't know anything about is really like, testing your mind as well as your body. For me, at least, that does not require doing anything extreme or ground breaking. And, presented recently with the opportunity to break a World Record, I'm still not sure it's what I want to do.

That said, I got a real kick out of standing on a summit that had barely been visited before. I'm staring now at a photograph of one such summit that sits framed on my desk. A hypnotherapist friend once asked me to go the most calming, tranquil place place in my head and that's what I came up with - that photo, that summit. I definitely got a kick from the remoteness. And I got an even bigger kick when my teammate, JC, returned from climbing a small peak deliberately on his own so as to claim all the glory of what he thought would be a first ascent only to discover a large shovel buried on the summit.

And so it was with the familiar blend of apprehension and coursing adrenalin that I followed the trailing rope across the glacier and towards our latest foe: the 5,700-metre high Cerro Sofia whose summit lay to the left hand side of a snowy col whose imposing wall rose in front of us. The sun, risen now, was shrouded beneath woolly clouds and somehow set the tone for what was to come.

Back in the tent a realisation is washing over me as fast as the water I'm splashed down my front. It was not the sun cream that was causing the pain.

Beneath the col now, we're cutting diagonal swathes across the vast embankment of snow in an effort to decrease the gradient and steady our ascent - a necessity in the thin air above 5,000 metres. JC, in particular, is not looking his healthiest and my rope-mate, Matt, and I sit on our packs at the top of the col and wait for him to catch us. Pure white expands beneath us, down the ski slope we've just ascended, across the surface of our glacier and back up the peak we climbed the other day. JC still flounders at the back of the group as we tread carefully our way along the razor sharp ridge of snow that leads us to the rocky summit buttress.

Blinking in slow motion - open for five seconds, close for five seconds - inside the tent, having worked out what's actually happened is of little solace. My eyes don't hurt any less only now my pride is suffering a little bit. How could I be so stupid?

The white tight-rope has been crossed and we're at the foot of the rocks. The summit is less than fifty metres away but the route up is not obvious. I take a steady stance as Matt explores on the other end of the rope.

"I think it'll go. Hard to say though", he cries back.

Sarah, our fourth and final team member for the day, is hesitant. JC silent. And I'm getting a little chilled. The altitude, the exertion, the fatigue, the remoteness, the cold. There's no way to be sure you're thinking rationally. The top is so tantalisingly close that we would be mad to turn back having come all this way - not just along the valley, over the glacier and up this slope, but from England. From our homes, our daily lives and through planning and fundraising and training. Turn back now? But now is not the time to try a daring move on untested rock, in full mountaineering garb with a, what-do-we-reckon, 1000-metre drop to our right? Did I mention I was getting a little chilled?

Few words are spoken as we make an about turn and retrace our steps along the ridge, cautiously down the slope, wearily across the glacier and exhausted along the valley. I'm still not sure to this day whether it was a shrewd decision or one made from fatigue but I do know that I should have been wearing sunglasses.

I did manage to get some sleep that night though it wasn't the most comfortable of experiences. And little comfort was garnered from the rest of the team when I told them I'd neglected to wear any eye protection on the glacier yesterday and was suffering the consequences.

I spent the following day sat at base camp in an embarrassingly large pair of what looked like industrial safety spectacles in a limited edition shade of black. It was a foolish mistake and I paid for it by missing a day's climbing, instead stuck with the entertainment of a base camp of rocks and dust. I couldn't even enjoy the view properly, my vision sub-par as it was, but the picture of the previous weeks' summits remained crystal in my mind's eye throughout the day as it does to this one.

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