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New Route on Pico Italia

Pico Italia (5750m) showing the standard route, and the new south face route (center) as climbed by Gregg Beisly and Erik Monasterio. [Photo] Gregg Beisly

A careful search of internet mountaineering sites and even Google will not provide you with any useful information about Pico Italia, a subsidiary peak southwest of Huayna Potojsi, in Bolivia. Huayna Potojsi (6088m), meaning the “youthful mountain” in the Aymara dialect, is one of the most popular and frequently climbed 6000m peak in the world. Indeed, guided climbs are the main source of income for Bolivian mountain guides and porters, and visitors number in the thousands every season. The imposing east face of Pico Italia (5750m), with its large rock buttress leading to the ice and snow summit, is striking and unmistakable to anyone climbing Huayna. The 500m steep granite face and buttress forms the fortress like barrier to the western edge of the Huayna Potojsi glacier, and casts an alluring orange-obsidian glow in the early morning. Given its prominence in such a popular climbing area, it is surprising that the east face of Pico Italia has hitherto not been climbed.

In May 2012, I returned home to Bolivia to climb with New Zealand ex-pat Gregg Beisley. Beisley, was living in the rambling and chaotic city of El Alto, barely one hour’s drive from the southern Cordillera Real mountains. Because of political uncertainty and various travel obstacles, we opted to minimize the time spent on roads travelling to remote regions and focused on climbing the Southern Cordillera Real.

On May 15, to assist with my acclimatization, we climbed a new route on the south face of Charquini (5400m); a five pitch sustained mixed line that leads to a ridge and the summit. The crux first pitch was slightly overhanging and precarious (M5) and eventually led into thin vertical ice (AI4) that eased off near the ridge. On the May 18, to extend my hypoxic exposure and to determine whether or not I could sustain a high intensity climb at altitude, we climbed a new route on the east face of Pico Milluni (Pt. 5500m; 250m F6B), without any difficulty.

On the 20th, we left the “Casa Blanca” refuge (normal route on Huayna) and walked three hours to the base of Pico Italia. We proceeded to fix two technical pitches on the east face. Both pitches go up an obvious sustained chimney/ crack system (70m, 6c) with adequate natural protection and two pitons. The next morning we set off from the Casa Blanca at 4 a.m., retraced our steps to the wall and jummared up the fixed lines in the warming rays of the sun. Carrying a full rack, stove and bivouac equipment made the jugging difficult. In the end, I had to haul while Gregg somehow managed the jummar up the chimney without flipping upside down. By 10 a.m. we reached the end of the fixed lines.

Monasterio about to start the rock of the south face of Pico Italia. [Photo] Gregg Beisly

On most climbs, there is often an intense moment when a decision is made to definitely disconnect from the ground. It’s a moment that I cherish, respect and have trained hard to overcome. It is a little like solving an equation; finding the right balance of effort, belief, judgement and inspiration to overcome the intuitive drive to descend to safety. On that morning, the moment and the tension passed quickly, almost subconsciously and the climb “felt right”. Gregg’s enormous store of experience and technical ability helped to balance that equation in our favor. We pulled up the fixed lines, tied into a single rope and began long sections of simul-climbing, interspersed with sections of belayed steep climbing. The tightly packed graniodorite face lacked clearly defined cracks or corner systems and the way ahead was unclear. We followed the most aesthetic path up the wall. In general we trended to the northwest, on good quality alpine rock.

The climbing was engaging and well protected as we linked up disconnected corner systems, chimneys, runout slabs and the occasional overhang. After eight pitches we pulled over the final summit blocks and onto the summit ridge, at 2 p.m. Like steam from a boiling kettle, a steady stream of clouds blew up from the eastern rainforests. Bolivia is on the equator and the verdant jungle seems to have catapulted straight from the highest peaks of the Cordillera Real. We could see forks of lightning piercing the blanket of Amazonian clouds and yet the weather in the mountains remained cold and stable. The outline of the buildings of the central business district of La Paz were visible fifteen km away, and the cone of Bolivia’s highest mountain, Sajama (6,542m) pierced the horizon 300 km to the west. We sat on top of the buttress only long enough to change into our ice climbing equipment. Gregg led out on the last two pitches across the mixed ridge and onto the summit slopes. The final easy steps to the summit felt like a formality after the demanding climb up the buttress. We had planned to follow the ridge all the way to the summit of Huayna Potojsi, but we decided to down climb the mixed terrain to the col instead.

Between the two peaks we opted to abseil down to the glacier and cut across to the normal descent route on Huayna and the easy walk back to the refuge, by 8 p.m. The route took sixteen hours to complete. Gregg and I have climbed a lot in Bolivia (more than forty new routes) and feel that this is the hardest climb in the Huayna Potojsi region and one of the hardest in Bolivia (TD+).

Erik Monasterio on the snowy summit ridge of Pico Italia. [Photo] Gregg Beisly