Serkhe Khollu, Bolivia: A New Line on Crutches

Posted on: September 20, 2011

Isabel Suppe on a pre-expedition outing in July. A few days later Suppe, along with Robert Rauch, climbed a new line on Serkhe Khollu (5546m) despite having shattered her foot one year prior. [Photo] Robert Rauch

Isabel: I was finally back in La Paz. After one year of surgeries, hospital stays, physical therapy and a promise from my surgeon that I would never climb again, I had returned into the colorful chaos of La Paz. And I was not merely wandering through that crowd of vegetable-selling cholitas and trout merchants at Mercado Rodriguez; I was once again doing the food shopping for a climbing expedition.

Every winter for several years I had packed up my ice climbing gear, and traveled from my home in Argentina to Bolivia, like a faithful migratory bird. I had climbed most of the classic climbs there. I was ready to move on from the well-traveled climbs, so it had become hard to find a climbing partner. That, and I was still hobbling around on crutches from a climbing accident on Ala Izquierda in the Cordillera Real a year before.


A rope length away from the summit of Ala Izquierda (17,761'), Suppe was pulled from her perch on the summit ridge when her partner fell and ripped out their anchor. They tumbled 400 meters, each severely breaking a leg in the fall. They spent the following two nights above 5000m in the open, trying to crawl back to camp. Her partner died of hypothermia during the second night, and she was rescued the next day.

So one year after the accident, I was ready to climb again and needed someone good to rope up with. I went to see Christian, a gear store owner and friend of mine on Illampu Street. "You need to look up Robert," he said at once. He was talking about the infamous Robert Rauch, who owns the Cholita restaurant ("La llama que llama") in Miraflores, and who is also know for opening new, extreme routes such as the south face of Illimani. According to Christian, Robert was a crazy La Paz gringo, and thus the perfect climbing partner for me and my crutches.

Meeting with Robert, I didn't have to explain much. Robert was well aware of who I was, and he didn't mind my crutches at all.

Robert: Living at 4000 meters in La Paz, and Isabel having just returned from Cordillera Apolobamba, we didn't need to acclimatize. The next day we did the food shopping at Mercado Rodriguez, packed our gear and left the following morning. Our objective: the southwest face of Serkhe Khollu (5546m) in Cordillera Real. Despite being just seventeen degrees south of the equator, Cordillera Real is known for its heavy glaciation—a result of its proximity to the moist Amazon lowlands.

Suppe changes a tire on the "Rauch Mobile" on the way back from Serkhe Khollu. [Photo] Robert Rauch

Construction prevented us from using the normal "road" (a loose definition in Bolivian terms). An abandoned loader stood on the roadside, but we could not find anybody who we could ask for advice. In Bolivia nothing is guaranteed, and anything is possible. Before we gave up on our plan we decided to ask an acquaintance, Hernan Mamani, a llama seller in the village Chincani for advice. He pointed us to an alternative road where my poor, old "Rauch Mobil"—with its dismal shock absorbers—struggled forward, painfully. This road, which hadn't been a road for quite a while, continued to get worse and we soon got stuck.

Isabel: After several hours of jolting and bumping over the alternative road, we had little faith that we would ever reach the base camp. The road eventually improved to "normally bad" conditions. At dusk we were finishing the set-up of our comfortable base camp.

Robert: Since we got to camp so late, we decide to take a day to carry our technical gear to the bottom of the face. After a sizeable breakfast we left our campsite. Our eyes "climbed" our new route as we walked.

Suppe belays as Rauch approaches the anchor. [Photo] Robert Rauch

Isabel: Around 2:30 a.m. we began the toughest part of our expedition: waking up. The alarm clock's shrill beeping was undeniable. No matter how hard we tried to banish it from the realm of our dreams, it tirelessly continued screeching.

Robert: We stepped into the night. The air was so cold that our lungs seemed to freeze. After we began to walk we warmed up, and the glacial wind wiped the last bit of sleepiness off our cheeks.

By dawn we reached our cache, and Isabel traded her crutches for ice axes. Most people without injuries wouldn't make it up here.

At the bottom of the face we set up a belay stance with two nuts, flaked our rope and I was off, leading the first pitch. These first two rope-lengths overlap the crux of Chamaca, a route I put up last year with Stefan Berger and Florian Hill. I stretched them into a single pitch. After sixty meters I built an anchor with two nuts and a friend.

Isabel: The ice was hard as stone, and it was difficult to stick an ice axe with just a single blow behind it. The first ice shower that Robert sent down from above felt quite uncomfortable. During my months of recovery from the accident, "climbing" meant dangling from the fingerboard above my hospital bed. I had become unaccustomed to real climbing. But by the time the third junk of ice smashed against my helmet, I felt just as uncomfortably comfortable as always.

I had told Robert that I wanted to do an easy climb that wouldn't strain my ankle, having had ten surgeries. I guess that over those past ten years spent in Argentina, I had forgotten that "easy and not strenuous" for Germans means ninety-five-degree waterfalls. Luckily, my foot was holding up very well.

Then it was my turn. At the crux of the pitch I jammed my shoulder behind an icicle to rest. Then I stuck the blade of my ice axe into a small crack fairly high above me, kicked my crampons as high as possible into the ice and pulled myself up on my ice ax. Two more meters of black rock covered with a paper-thin layer of verglass, and we made it, my injured foot and I.

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