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The Mountains of Bolivia

I was in the lobby of the El Presidente Hotel when I spotted them. We had just arrived the night before. Seven of us had flown to La Paz to climb Illimani . Now as we gathered with our climbing gear in the lobby. I saw them as I looked out the window. Across the street in bold relief were two very large white swastikas painted on a blue wall.

I remember thinking, “Dammit, I came all the way to Bolivia to get away from the world and the first thing I see is this miserable crap”. I was honestly surprised to see them. It was 2004 and we were in the business district, yet there they were.

I pointed them out to my climbing partner, Marty Teague. Marty, who I had dubbed ” the Colonel” due to his military bearing and burr haircut, was visibly offended.

The rest of the climbers joined us with their gear. Backpacks and ice axes leaned against the modest lobby walls.
I had just met the other climbers the night before. Bud was from New York.
Like me, he was Jewish. I pointed out the swastikas that had greeted me that morning.
Bud shook his head in disgust, ” I guess it doesn’t matter where you go” he said with resignation.

Bud’s resignation triggered something in me. It made me mad. I looked at Bud and announced,
” Those things are coming down. Before we leave this country they are coming down.”
” Are you nuts?” He responded. ” what are you saying?”
I responded , ” When we get back from the mountain, those swastikas are coming down. The next Jews who find themselves standing in this hotel in Bolivia are not gonna have to look at those.”

Bud looked at me. He was guarded. He had not come to La Paz to end up in jail. For that matter neither had I. But I was resolute.

We left about an hour later for the mountain. It was a long drive to the base. On television, years later, I saw a program about the most dangerous roads in the world. I am pretty sure on the drive to the mountain we were on one of those roads.

The mountain road, if you want to call it a road, was just wide enough for the vehicle. The road hugged the mountain. As we wound ever so slowly around the mountain I wondered if we would just fall off the cliff. The driver slowly shifted gears as we climbed the eroded road. I looked out my window and I was looking straight down. There was no road, only the cliff below. I clung to the door latch. I thought if we go over, I will jump out. I will have a better chance if I jump clear.

For hours we slowly climbed higher until we finally got to the village at the end of the road. There we were warmly greeted by some of the poorest people I have ever seen. They were in rags. I was embarrassed. While these people struggled to survive in this harsh environment, we Americans arrived with our fancy gear to play.

After our guides talked with the villagers we put on our packs and began our long trek to the mountain.

We were on the mountain for the better part of a week. We set a base camp at 12,000 feet on a beautiful green plateau. There were a few scattered farms and animals nearby.
We got our water from a narrow, fast moving stream. Water purification tablets made the water safe to drink, but the tablets left a bitter iodine taste. Gatorade powder made the water drinkable.

After acclimatizing we climbed higher. At 14,000 feet we made a dangerous traverse across rock. The mountain was to our left. To our right was a free fall of five to six hundred feet. There was no rope. Our guide led the way, but here, we were each on our own.

The rock was jagged and provided fair footing for a while. I was behind our guide. I kept my head down. I focused on his boots. He chose each step with care. I did my best to follow his steps. The traverse got steeper. Water began to flow down on us. The rocks which earlier had provided good footing, were now wet and slippery.

I pressed my left side as close to the mountain as possible. The rocky edge cut into my left side and tore small holes in my climbing pants. It hurt but there was no stopping. There was no place to stop. Our guide pressed on and I followed.

Finally, we finished the traverse. We made it to a flat rocky area and sat. I was catching my breath as Marty and the other climbers finished the traverse. Their faces were strained. Marty and I looked at each other in silence. I turned to the guide, “You didn’t warn us about that ” I said. He smiled and replied, ” Yeah, I thought if I warned you, you would all be worried about it . I thought it would be better if we just did it.” I pondered and responded, ” Well that will only work on the way up. Now we all know it’s there for the trip down.” He laughed in agreement. ” I think we will find another way down” he said.

We established a new camp at 16,000 feet. We pitched our tents in a good clearing. It was a flat area and there was no snow. Below us we could see our 12,000 foot camp. Above, we saw the vast expanse of the mountain. The summit lay beyond our view.

As night fell the storm hit. We were just finishing dinner when it came. I felt hail stinging my face. We retreated to our tents. The hail pinged off our tent. The wind picked up. It was loud. Then came the snow. It was a heavy wet snow. The snow pounded our tent. The guides hollered out to check on everyone. Everyone shouted back they were ok. Our tents shook and strained against the wind and snow. “Is this thing gonna hold?” I asked Marty. ” No problem “, Marty responded. Snow quickly piled up against our tent. Throughout the night, we hit the tent walls to knock the snow off. There was no sleeping. The mountain was reminding us who was boss.

When morning came, we were buried in several feet of fresh snow. With the new conditions, the guides re-assessed our chances of making a summit bid. The hail that hit us first was now covered with the heavy snow. Under the weight of the heavy snow, the hail would act like ballbearings. A large slab of snow could easily break off and start a deadly Avalanche. The guides told us that it was now too dangerous for a summit attempt.

While the summit bid was gone, the guides suggested that we might safely try to climb a little higher. Several of the climbers were not interested. If they could not summit, they saw no reason to climb. Marty and I disagreed with them. We were at 16,000 feet. This was a personal best for both of us. While we cared about the summit, we came to climb. If we could climb a thousand feet higher,we wanted to do it.

So after putting on crampons, Marty and I roped up with the guides and we headed up. The other climbers joined us. A local guide lead the way. The local guide did not care to rope up with us. I suppose he thought his chances were better ” unattached” to the Americans.

We traversed upward, switchbacking with short pitches. The fresh snow balled up. I continually had to hit my crampons with my ice axe to knock the snow clear. As we got higher, the views became more spectacular. The upper part of the mountain, covered with fresh snow, was beautiful. The mountain drew us higher. But with each step, we knew the conditions were more perilous. We stopped and cut out a slab of snow. Two feet down we found the hail ready to set off an avalanche.

At 17,000 feet the guides stopped us. The conditions were just too dangerous to go higher. I knew the guides were right. Still, part of me wanted to keep going. Part of me didn’t care about the risk. But it didn’t matter. That was the end of the climb. The mountain was not going to let us get to the top this time. That was it.

Three days later we were back in La Paz. I was tired from the climb. The next morning we were going to catch an early flight back to the States. The mountain would have to remain unfinished business.

That night, Sitting in the lobby of the El Presidente, I nursed a beer. Marty and I talked about the climb. We were both disappointed that we had not gotten higher on the mountain.

That day Protesters had filled the streets of La Paz. Now, in the night they were holding a rally a block from our hotel. I could hear a loud speaker blaring where the protesters had gathered. In response to the protesters, police and military had filled the streets. Every few minutes a police or military vehicle would drive by. Police patrols were on every corner.

As Marty and I drank in the relative safety of the El Presidente lounge, I spied the two large white swastikas on the blue wall across the street. They were still there. I thought about the comment I had made to Bud about getting rid of the swastikas. We only had a few hours left.

” Marty, I am going to get rid of those damn swastikas”, I said. Marty stood up and said “Let’s go”. We walked outside and crossed the busy street to remove the swastikas from the blue wall.

One might think we were crazy. In a way they would be right. But, It is a fact, that if you act with confidence -like you belong where you are at, people will generally leave you alone. With police and soldiers everywhere, Marty and I acted like we belonged exactly where we were at.

As I walked toward the wall, Marty stood behind me, nonchalantly keeping a lookout.

I found the white swastikas were drawn with a heavy chalk. I walked down the street to a sidewalk kiosk. I bought a bottle of water and a pack of Kleenex. I came back to the wall. With Marty standing guard, I opened the bottle and soaked a handful of Kleenex. Then, in the middle of downtown La Paz, with police everywhere, I washed the two swastikas off the wall. Marty looked over his shoulder and told me to hurry up. I finished just as a truck load of soldiers drove by.

Marty and I walked back to the El Presidente. We got back to the safety of the lobby and I looked across the street at the blue wall. I could still see a faint outline of the two swastikas. “Dammit, I have to go back. I can still see them”.

We walked back across the street. Again, Marty kept a lookout while I poured water on the Kleenex and rubbed the swastikas. This time I rubbed harder. People walking by looked at me. I didn’t look at them.
I finished and again we walked back to the El Presidente. We stood in the lobby and looked at the blue wall. The swastikas were gone.

The next morning the climbers gathered in the lobby with their gear as we prepared to leave. I saw Bud from New York. I called him over and pointed to the blue wall. Bud looked surprised. ” What did you do?” he asked. I smiled, ” I told you before I left this country those damn swastikas were coming down. Marty and I got rid of them last night.”

We didn’t make it to the top of Illimani, but we improved the view from the El Presidente. In a way, that alone was enough.

Robb Fickman

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