I arrived in La Paz for the second time in my travels in late October, 2012. This was at the very tail end of the climbing season in Bolivia, and I had low expectations for finding climbing possibilities and reliable climbing partners. On my second day in La Paz, however, I entered the office of “Dr.” Hugo Berrios, the owner and operator of “Huayna Potosi,” a climbing outfitter based in central La Paz that had helped me organize some climbs a couple of years back. Hugo comes from a rich family of doctors that own properties throughout Bolivia, including the major Coca growing regions of Rurrenabaque and Santa Cruz. His entire family, minus his uncle, has left for more developed countries, leaving Hugo and his Tio to run what’s left of the family legacy. To my surprise, three older but evidently fit Austrians strode into the office with Hugo, and Hugo’s wife communicated to him that I had been sitting and waiting to talk to him about potential climbing opportunities. He invited me to join the group upstairs and see if I would be interested in their proposed program. Gerhard, Michael and Gottfried are professional climbers from a town near to Salzburg. They were climbing in various parts of Bolivia, but their present plan was to climb Acotango, Parinacota (and ski down this 6,300+ meter mountain) and Sajama. They had been connected with Hugo through a mutual friend in Austria, the daughter of Willi Bauer, one of the two survivors of the K2 disaster of 1986 (the other being Kurt Diemberger, whom I’d met earlier in the year in Huaraz, Peru). The plan was ambitious, especially for my still sub-par condition, but it was a clear opportunity, and the price offered to me was extremely low for such an expedition (all included, $200 if I only climb the first two, $350 if I continue on to the most challenging Sajama).

My Colombian half-orange (“media-naranja, as the Colombians say, something like “better half”), Vannessa, had been waiting with me in the office as Hugo arrived. She told me immediately afterwards that the combination of his wild demeanor, teeth and eyes, convinced her that at the very least he was a heavy cocaine user, if not even more heavily involved with drugs in some capacity. I greeted Vannessa’s claims and instincts with skepticism, not thinking much of it and not fully considering Bolivia’s prominent standing in the South-American drug trade.

“Dr Narco” – Oil on Canvas -Vannessa Circe

Bolivia is smack in the middle of everything in regards to illegal narcotics trafficking, growing and producing, in the vast continent of South America. Bolivia borders South America’s largest illegal drug-consuming nation (and the second largest in the world!), Brazil, and the world’s largest coca-growing and cocaine producing country, Peru. Argentina, which borders Bolivia to the south, has exponentially rising consumption of “paco,” a kind of crack-cocaine that often is produced itself in Bolivia. And Chile, which borders to the south and west, has rising domestic recreational drug consumption, and offers more than 4,000 miles of nearby coast to illegally export South-American produced drugs to global consumers. In addition, South America’s largest marijuana producer, Paraguay, also shares a border with Bolivia. Bolivia itself also produces a fair amount of cocaine, falling a somewhat distant third behind Peru and Colombia in that category.

All of this illicit production and transportation is facilitated by thousands of miles of sparsely populated and remote mountain, desert, jungle and coastal regions, which are either impossible to keep track of, or easy to pay corrupt officials and policemen to look the other way about.

With cocaine, or more specifically the Coca plant, in Peru and Bolivia much of the growing of the plant is actually legal and sanctioned as well. Coca, in its natural form, has been used both in ritual and daily life by the indigenous tribes of the Andes and lower Amazonian regions for more than 5,000 years. When chewed, it is a natural and mild anesthetic, and when placed in hot water as a tea, it acts as a mild stimulant, less potent than that of coffee, for example. Its consumption is also believed to aid with preventing and controlling altitude sickness. Citing these reasons, indigenous communities refuse to stop growing the Coca crop, and while some Coca does indeed go to indigenous consumption in its natural form, much of the legally sanctioned crop is illegally dried, synthesized, purified and refined into the international illegal “narcotic”, or more correctly, “stimulant,” Cocaine hydrochloride, the familiar white powder. This context was far from my mind, however, when I was met at 5am the next day by Hugo, and we headed to the equipment deposit to meet the Austrians.   We loaded up the jeep, and at one point I was left in charge of guarding all the equipment on the street. Hugo put a backpack in my hands and said in English, “guard this with your life.” There was a police blockade on the way out of La Paz, and Hugo, to be called from hereon “Doctor Loco,” got out of the Jeep with his bag and walked straight to the right and into the desert, without saying anything to anyone. Past the blockade, our driver, known as “Babyface,” stopped the jeep, and about 40 minutes later Dr. Loco sauntered in from the desert. We were supposed to arrive around 10am at the base of Acotango, a 6,050 (first peak) – 6,140 (second peak) mountain that was to be our first objective.

A late start, a strange circumnavigation of the police by Dr. Loco, and at least five stops along the way for Dr. Loco to make phone calls on the side of the road, left us starting our climb, at 5,100 meters, at 1pm. Dr. Loco said he was going to be a bit slow due to a recent undescribed surgery, and would thus follow behind as to not hold anyone up. The Austrians were fast, and I mean blazing fast given the conditions, like walking up stairs at a normal altitude, and I soon fell behind. But I was in a good mental state and feeling far better than I suspected I would after not climbing at this altitude for some time. I had made a commitment to myself that on this expedition I would put my ego to the side as much as possible, not feeling I had to do any more than I felt like doing or the mountain/my body allowed. This helped I think, sort of letting the mountain come to me instead of me attacking the mountain. So I went slow, falling into a rhythm and not worrying about where the Austrians were, and retaining my strength and good spirits.   I reached my first 6,000+ meter peak in more than two years at around 4:30pm. The second peak was visible with the Austrians at the top, a good 1-1:30 hours away for me.

I felt fine, albeit tired, but it was too late to continue on with the prospect of returning in the dark through fields of large penitents, which are strange blade-like snow formations pointed in the direction of the sun that only occur in very dry, cold, sunny, and high-altitude glaciated environments. So I settled for the lower northern peak of Acotango, a little bit miffed that we had gotten such a late start, and exacerbated, though humorously, by what I’d seen on the way up… Dr. Loco had followed behind us alright, all the way up the dirt road that headed for Chile. At what I estimate was about 5,400 meters, I saw another Loco coming up from the Chilean side, and the two met at a pass which was likely very near the official border line. The contents of Dr. Loco’s bag was transferred to the Chilean Loco and vice-versa. They were only specs in the distance, but it didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to piece together what was going on. By the time we all got down, Dr. Loco was comfortably asleep in the car, arms wrapped around his backpack. We headed to the village of Sajama for a good night’s sleep, with Dr. Loco harshly instructing Babyface (in Spanish, I was the only other one in the car that understood him) “I don’t care where we stay puta, I just need a private room for my things and leave me the fuck alone.”

On the way to Sajama, Dr. Loco, sitting next to me in the back behind Babyface, took a smelly rock out of his pocket, and turned to me asking me to smell it. He asked me, in Spanish (normally he spoke in English to me with me responding in Spanish but it was clear he was trying to speak just to me) “do you know what this is?” I responded, “yes, sulfur.” He asked, “do you know what it’s used for?” and I said no. He proceeded to explain that they mine sulfur in Chile and illegally smuggle it into Bolivia where it is converted into sulfur-dioxide, a crucial ingredient in the production of cocaine. He then asked me, “do you want to give this to your girlfriend,” which seemed like a very odd question at the time, and I responded in the normal fashion, saying no, why would she want a smelly rock? I told Vannessa the story afterwards and she’s convinced that he was testing me to see if she, being Colombian, had said anything to me about her suspicions of his true livelihood. At the time, I did not make that connection, but I think she’s right.

The next day we headed off in the Jeep for Parinacota. The Austrians’ plan was to go straight from base camp, at about 4,800 meters, to the summit at 6,300+. I didn’t much like this plan, it was too long a day, and this was further enforced in my head when I saw how far and sandy the base camp was from the climb up the mountain ridge, and the likelihood of many penitentes high on the mountain. So I repeatedly expressed my desire to camp higher to give myself a better chance for the summit the following day, and eventually me and Roca headed off to high camp at 5,400 meters, with nothing but our equipment and snacks for the night and morning.

After a good night’s sleep the previous night in Sajama along with the previous day’s conditioning/acclimatizing, I was feeling quite strong and was fast on the way to high camp. The night was cold and I didn’t sleep at all, which is the norm for me at high altitude, but by 1:30am, our designated wake-up time, I was feeling good to go. For breakfast I had carried with me some yogurt and a plastic bag that appeared to be raisins and cereal. The “cereal” was circular and covered in caramel. I scooped one up and popped it into my mouth. Upon biting down, I immediately yelled “Fuck!” and proceeded to spit out as much as possible. It was a bulbous granola and caramel covered peanut! I’m badly allergic to peanuts, and at 5,400 meters, the autoimmune system is way down. I quickly was gasping for breath, as my throat closed up. High fever and itchiness all over my body followed. I tried explaining to Roca what was going on, but he didn’t seem to grasp the situation and kept preparing his equipment. Nobody was answering the radios below and there was nothing for me to do but wait. Once Roca understood and looked at my swollen and reddened eyes, he went back to sleep and I just sat there, gasping and scratching, for two hours until two of the Austrians passed by. We spoke for a couple of minutes and I told them I would be fine,  as I was feeling a little better, but at that point I knew it was getting late to start the climb. By 5:30, still sick but breathing a little less alarmingly, I decided the day was lost and got some sleep.

I was back at base-camp by 10am, and the Austrians made it down around 3pm (nobody even bothered to bring their skis up due to the penitentes). Gottfried was very sick, Gerhard and Michael were exhausted, and only Michael had made it to the summit. The mountain was full of large penitentes, which I had clearly seen from high camp, and the long and grueling climb was too much for all but Michael, who is a professional mountain guide in the Alps and has climbed (along withGerhard) some of the tougher peaks in the Himalayas. Along with Gottfried and Dr. Loco, later that day I headed back to La Paz, leaving Roca, Michael and Gerhard to attempt the evidently daunting and penitente-ridden Sajama.

I was upset about what had happened, but generally satisfied with my attempt to keep up with these guys. Once back at the deposit in La Paz, we unloaded all the equipment and brought it upstairs. Somehow Dr. Loco lost track of his precious backpack, and at this point I decided to hint to Gottfried at what I had pieced together over the past couple of days. “I suspect that his bag is full of money” I said. Gottfried was a bit confused, so I continued, “I’m guessing it was filled with one thing and now with another,” adding a sort of wink-wink. It was funny watching the dots connect in his head, and while Dr. Loco was in the street screaming about his bag (which was with all the other equipment upstairs), Babyface chimed in with the universal money expression of rubbing his thumb against his pointer and middle finger. My suspicions were confirmed, and Gottfried fully agreed. Dr. Loco had used us as an excuse to transport his product to the Chilean border and is in fact Dr. Narco.