(Ed’s note: With Sweetgrass Productions slated to premiere ‘Solitaire,’ its latest film, on Sept. 15 in Boulder, we’re rolling out this dispatch and gallery from one of the production’s adventures, in Bolivia. See a powder.com interview with director Nick Waggoner, and the ‘Solitaire’ trailer, HERE.)
By Kim Havell
Skiing in Bolivia is a high-altitude experience. With a majority of the country sitting well above 11,000 feet and the highest capital city in the world in La Paz, you travel in thin air, too. At 13,500 feet, La Paz is layered into a deep and dry canyon of the Choqueyapu River. The airport rests on a high plateau—altiplano—above the city, where charm runs deep: steep streets, cobbled alleys, and endless rows of colorful shopping stalls.
La Paz served also served as our team's rallying point, this past June, for a Sweetgrass Production's ski mountaineering segment. We met at a popular local hostel, getting acquainted and making plans. We were winging it. We were to be in Bolivia for the next month for filming, climbing and skiing in Sweetgrass' new film, produced entirely in in South America, titled Solitaire.
The team consisted of filmmakers Mike Brown and Ben Sturgulewski; photographer Jim Harris; athletes Kyle Miller and I; and Argentine Alan Schwer as translator and film assistant. Information was not readily available and we had little help. Even with the best efforts of Spanish-speaking Schwer, it was hard to get good reports on mountain conditions.
Skiing in this country is not a linear equation. There were many hurdles between us and actual ski descents. First up was 6,000-meter Huayana Potosi, a two-hour drive from La Paz. All we knew was that there were numerous route options and some easy-to-access camping locations to postion high up for filming.
For several of our team, this was a first experience at high altitude. With some minor encounters with altitude sickness at the base of the peak, the team recovered and headed up to a 17,500-foot camp for five days. Perched over the abyss of the valley below us, we settled into our rocky site amongst mystical surroundings. From camp, in the distance, we could see the cloud cover over the Amazon rainforest, as well as the mountains of Chile. On our third evening, a mesmerizing lightning storm cracked and flashed for several hours in the distance.
The first few days we encountered ice and penitentes on almost all the slopes. With a cold wind and not enough heat during the day, the surfaces stayed locked up, and unforgiving. But with a limited window for ski attempts, we went for it despite the adverse conditions. With some effort, and a tight grasp on our whippets, we skied around the regular route just below the main summit massif. Jim and I also tackled the steep and glaciated French Direct Route off the South summit, and explored terrain immediately above our advanced base camp.
Once back in the city, we took stock of our situation and absorbed more of our surroundings. Bolivia has a population of roughly 8.9 million, and a reported 3 million llamas. We ate a lot of llama on the trip. Roughly 4-percent of the population is below poverty levels, with an average income of $2,900 (U.S. equivalent). The literacy rate, on the other hand, is 87 percent. It is also a quiet culture with many kind, shy people who hold their customs dear and their privacy paramount. We quickly learned not to take photos of local women.
Taking stock of our cultural immersion, we had some challenges. Hot showers evaded us. At meals, we were never served together; conversations never quite completely or correctly understood. The country does not offer a healthy diet. At most of the questionable shack stops during our roadside travels we had our choice of processed cookie packets, like the popular "Frac" and/or Pringles. Our staples consisted mostly of llama and alpaca, which are delicious (when cooked right). We encountered the occasional raw piece of chicken, and pizza and pasta in abundance. Gastro-intestinal disorders took out some of the team at various junctures but all managed to rebound.
Landscapes dominated the trip. Each unique location shed light on the highly varied topography of Bolivia. In the pursuit of some B-roll footage, we headed down south to Uyuni's famous train yards and natural-wonder salt flats. With a red-eye eight-hour bus ride there and back, we visited the monochrome township that seemed to be on the edge of nowhere. As we walked to the outskirts along the train tracks, plastic and garbage were strewn about, just beyond the sight of normal visitors. And at over 12,000 feet, we were in the cold, dry, and dusty altiplano.
Referred to as Salar de Uyuni, the salt flats are a sparkling white expanse of cracking and caking dry salt in hexagon shapes that stretch out to meet distant mountains and volcanos. It’s a stark and stunning contrast, an ocean floor of pure white with a prehistoric glacial feel. Small conglomerate rock islands with tall and furry-looking cacti adorn random points of this austere desert. We spent a full day exploring everything we could.
With a quick stopover back in La Paz, we ventured southwest. Due to rumors of a civil strike, we arranged for transport, at 4 a.m., to Sajama National park, home to dozens of high-altitude volcanoes, and a four-hour drive from the city. In the early morning mist and rain, our aging jeep had two terrifying near misses with other vehicles (not our driver's fault). It was a rough drive—compounded by neither windshield wipers nor defrost, windows rolled all the way down, and exhaust seeping up through the floor.
The central town there, Sajama, named for the highest point—Nevado Sajama, at 6452 meters—was our home base for our volcano adventure. Again with little beta, we decided upon Volcan Parinacota, another 6,000m peak within an hour-and-a-half drive from the tiny, dusty township. We had two good ski days high up on the mountain but once again battled challenging high-altitude conditions; this time furious wind, more hard pack, and some temperamental weather.
For our final act, the team concluded the month-long adventure with a night out in La Paz, with our guest star, Fernet and Coca-Cola. An Italian drink adapted to South American ways and a Sweetgrass Solitaire staple that had us dancing salsa until the next day. Olé.