When I planned my Bolivia trip, I never expected I’d get to climb its lone ski resort, Mt. Chacaltaya, which, at 5,421 meters, was once the highest ski run in the world in terms of elevation.
Yes, ONCE, because Chacaltaya (which means “cold road” in the Aymara language) has been closed since 2009, its ski lodge abandoned, bearing only a faded sign that advertised its past glory.
The reason? The snow in Chacaltaya has melted; its 18,000-year-old glacier that rich tourists and Bolivian elites had enjoyed for decades, is already gone due to global warming.
Founded in 1939, the ski resort was once full of life. It attracted a lot of skiers even during the summer season, and the club there used to organize ski competitions. Nowadays, the lodge is opened only when tourists come from La Paz, its toilets the only place that visitors still find some use of (there’s no light and no flush though).
Reports say that when it snows, some alpinistas still go to Chacaltaya and ski from the summit for around 180 meters, then they pick up their skis and poles, and walk back up.
I must say it has indeed fallen from glory, and it’s fallen high and hard!
I’m not a skier nor an alpinist, but I admit I was excited when a friend proposed to go to Chacaltaya one day last September.
After all, I’m a member of the UP Mountaineers, the Philippines’ top mountaineering organization, and I had always dreamed of summiting Everest. At 5,421 meters, Chacaltaya is even higher than Everest Base Camp!
Unlike in Nepal, however, it turned out that scaling Chacaltaya is super easy (or so I thought). There is no special equipment needed (aside from jackets and winter gear), and we only had to walk 200 meters to reach the peak.
Our tourist bus from La Paz—after over an hour of winding dirt road—deposited us directly in front of the ski lodge, behind which lay the trail to the peak.
Unfortunately, it turned out that I was unprepared for the altitude, the cold, and the steepness of the slope. I begged off from climbing the peak and had to satisfy myself with scaling the secondary summit instead which was still around 5,400+ meters.
(At this point, I gave up on my Mt. Everest dream. If I couldn’t even walk up 200 meters to Chacaltaya’s peak without feeling like I was dying, it’s highly unlikely I would ever want to undertake the weeks-long trek in super cold Nepal.)
If you won’t have problems with the altitude (which left me short of breath) and the cold, I highly recommend hiking to the peak. I’ve seen the photos, and they were incredible!
The view from the secondary peak wasn’t so bad either. There were clouds, but I could still see Mt. Illimani in the distance. The guide said that on really clear days, Lake Titicaca is visible too, but (1) it wasn’t a clear day, and (2) I don’t have 20/20 vision, so I just took her word for it.
The best thing was that, on the secondary peak, there was some sort of a scientific instrument. I sat there for a while, trying to ignore the chill, while the wind made music.
When my friend came back down from the peak, smug from his accomplishment and phone full of selfies (thus, nothing I can use!), I had to ask him to take my photos too. I never thought I’d get to step on or touch snow in Bolivia (though it did snow once in La Paz!), and the fact that Mt. Chacaltaya had such an illustrious past made it all the more special for me.
Tips in Going to Mt. Chacaltaya
Chacaltaya is usually bundled up as a day tour together with Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon), another really interesting place outside of La Paz. Book it from any travel agency; it’s only ~$15 (or less, depending on the agency) for the whole day, guide and transportation included.
Wear layers. Chacaltaya is really cold while Valley of the Moon is relatively much warmer. I had four layers (shirt, sweater, jacket, windbreaker), two of which I later removed when we left Chacaltaya. I also brought a bonnet and gloves, and I still felt cold. Note though, that I’m an island girl, so anything less than 20 degree Celsius is already cold for me!
Bring water and some food. While the trek up isn’t very taxing, it wouldn’t do for you to get dehydrated at that altitude.
I admit I haven’t done Mt. Chacaltaya justice. Perhaps someday, I would get another chance of seeing her at its best at the peak.
Where to Stay in La Paz: Hotels in La Paz, Bolivia
How about you? Have you climbed a 5,000+m mountain yourself? How was it?