I had been sent photos of the Pico Austria hike and after reading about it in the guide book I decided it was something that I needed to do. Again without really knowing anything and being a solo traveller I decided to book a guide. This is because the trail is 45km outside of La Paz and whist it is possible to take a taxi, I saw others doing the same, really you need a group to make it worthwhile.
I asked around for advice on travel agents and took a list from the guidebooks and headed into town on the Wednesday before the weekend I wanted to do the trek. The first one didn’t exist, the second one didn’t either but I found Inca Land Tours who were the closest agency to the address where the second travel agents were located. I went in and they said they they had a tour going on Sunday. I tried a couple of others for good measure and they were either more expensive/not running or a combination of the both. One agency gave me the number of another traveller and said we should work it out between ourselves. I messaged Inca the next day, they told me two other people were going and so I confirmed.
I had to be at their office for 7am. They normally pick up but I was staying in Jupapina which is to the south of the city. It meant I needed to be ready and in a taxi by 6:15. That all went smoothly and I arrived outside of their office before 7am. After waiting for 15minutes Simone arrived to let me in. I paid the 400bs and soon a driver and a guide arrived and I was put in the back of a minibus. We drove off and ten minutes later picked up my travel companion, a French lady, and we were off. She had booked the day before and was also told there were two other people going. I don’t know who these mysterious travellers were but they never showed.
It took just under an hour to leave La Paz and soon after we arrived at a dirt track which we would follow for the second hour of the journey to the drop off point at 4400 metres. We got our, put on sun cream and all the other necesites and I quickly realised that I had overdressed and packed as it was not as cold as I thought and being dry season there was not a cloud in sight.
We started off in some llama fields and I quickly took some photos. I did end up lagging behind most of the way up as I stopped to take photos. There wasn’t much opportunity other than the viewpoints but I suppose we needed to get up and get back before dark. And if I’m honest I’m glad we weren’t driving back in the dark.
As we rounded the first big corner I got my first proper site of the mountain range.
It wasn’t long before we reached the first lake, Laguna Khauan Khota, and we stopped to snap a few photos before moving swiftly on. Here we saw a couple of other hikers who didn’t take a tour guide. I would argue that you don’t need a guide for this trek but whatever you do done go alone. Again all the trails are clearly marked on Maps.me. We saw somewhere between 20-30 people on the trial all day. Most were on tours and while the path is relatively easy to follow there are some scary parts, well for me, as you will see below. I think I a group you will be fine as the guide didn’t really do anything to stop us from falling. That’s not a criticism as I don’t really see what he could have done although he did try and show us the best path to take. I think you could find your own way easy enough.
We walked around the first lake and the terrain remained reasonably flat. There were some horses and more llamas, i think you can find a lot of llamas all over this section of the trail and we got closer to the snow covered mountains.
After another kilometre of hiking we arrived at Laguna Chair Khota. There is a Refugio here, I have no idea how you stay there or how much it costs but there were tents around and we saw people relaxing. The photos don’t really do this Laguna justice as it’s truly beautiful and I expect the sun rise/sun set here is something special! I also expect it’s freezing at night and once dark there is nothing to do. We did meet some people that did multi day treks in the area so this is something you could definitely explore if you wish.
We followed the path around the lake to the left and very quickly it’s starts ascending up very steeply. From this point the path doesn’t really let up until you get to the pass. We walked slowly and I was out of breath the entire way. I kept stopping for photos, you are welcome, and then I had to play catch-up which left me even more out of breath.
Around a third of the way up we stopped for a short break and had a banana. I snapped some more pics and after this was the first lot of snow. Now I don’t know if crampons would help in this situation but as people do travel this path daily the footprints left by my predecessors were very icy and slippery. The path is maybe 30cm wide and if you did have a bad fall the wrong way you would easily be over the edge. I say this although every trail I’ve walked on has elements of this although this is the first with snow. Actually that’s a lie as Torres del Paine had snow and ice but there was a “safety rope”. Here there was nothing but spectacular views.
We climbed higher and higher and through another big patch of snow. I just kept taking pictures as everything became more beautiful. Looking down I really couldn’t believe that we had walked from all the way down there. It looked unreal!
After more up and more levelling off you could begin to see the mountain pass. Look at the footsteps in the snow below. There was a lot more up and by this point we had reached 4900 metres which is higher than Mont Blanc in France. The trail to the pass was largely over small rocks but the last 200 metres or more was all snow. It’s was challenging getting up, I was exhausted and my lungs began to hurt as we pushed past 5000 metres. I was particularly scared on this section of snow. It was really slippery and I felt unbalanced by my camera which was swinging around in front of me but I didn’t dare stop and put it in my bag. Still for the love of pictures, again you are welcome.
We reached the summit of the pass and took a well earned break. You can see photos of it above and below. In the two photos immediately below you can see that we still had someways to climb before we reached the summit. It was really difficult to walk now and each step was becoming a huge effort. We put our bags down and only took the essentials for the last part of the climb. I’m not sure that I would have made it if we hadn’t.
We stopped for a break near the summit and you can see Lake Titicaca in the background here.
And then after another hour of climbing up from the pass we reached the summit. I’ll let the views speak for themselves but I can see your house from here!
We headed back down to the pass to have lunch and this is where it went wrong for me. A headache hit and after I had eaten I felt as if I was going to be sick. This wasn’t helped by the thought that it was three hours to the bus, then two hours along bumpy potholed roads, which would make any council in England proud, and for me another hour at least back to Jupapina. That coupled with the idea of walking back through the snow but this time going down 45degrees along narrow ledges was not great.
Suffice to say I went slow and took things carefully. We all slipped a few times but nothing out of control but I kept feeling worse and worse thinking I would be sick at any point. Coupled with this i was exhausted by this stage. My bag was too heavy, there was not enough oxygen and I was forcing myself to move. I would have taken more photos as the sun changed the landscape but I felt I couldn’t hold is up anymore and I didn’t want to throw-up in my camera bag.
There was one really fun part as to make it easier to go down we were instructed to walk in the fresh snow which at times came up to my knees. We took giant leaps and it many we could go faster and when I fell it was backwards not down hill so this was safer (I think) than following the path.
We stopped at the bottom by the lake and I thought I’d never be able to move again but after this I started to feel better. We took a different route through the llama fields and eventually made it back to the bus. I colapses on the ground not being able to move for a few minutes and after a quick loo stop, there is not much in the way of facilities, I was on the bus and we were on our way back to La Paz. By the time we got back i was feeling much better but exhausted. However this hike was totally worth all the pain. Do it!