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Serkhe Khollu, Bolivia: A New Line on Crutches
Isabel Suppe [Photo] Robert Rauch
Another pitch of pleasantly hard snow led us to a small plateau where we rested. In front of a majestic blue serac, Robert and I devoured some candy. Another eighty meters of steep, hard snow took us to a rather unpleasant ice traverse to the face's last great obstacle.
Robert: It was already almost 6 p.m., and we still had one very steep pitch to go before we would reach the summit ridge. Close to the equator the sun sets at 7 p.m. and rises at 7 a.m.
A falling piece of ice smashed against my mouth, and blood began dripping from my lip. I pushed on. A twenty-meter runout brought me to a final overhang. The ice was solid and four swings would take me to the ridge. But I could not continue. The soft snow on the ridge was not consistent enough to hold my axe while I pulled myself up. It felt like the end of a railway line. I was on a dead end track with nowhere to go. I looked back down to the last ice screw. Falling was out of the question. I downclimbed a bit, placed a solid screw and felt instantly better. I braved a traverse to the left so I could pass the cornice. Panting hard, I finally lay on the summit ridge. The wind tore at me and it was nearing dark as Isabel followed my line.
Rauch leads a short, vertical icefall on The Birthday of The Broken Leg (TD+/ED, 500m). [Photo] Isabel Suppe
Isabel: Surrounded by the peaks of the Cordillera Real that were illuminated by the setting sun, I struggled upward over incredibly hard ice. It constantly tried to repel my axes, and my frozen fingers struggled to remove the last ice screw. The wind's violent strength was menacing, and I couldn't believe it when I finally gained the summit ridge.
Robert: We had met up with the normal route, and were just a forty-five-minute walk from the summit, but it was a walk I had done so many times before. I knew even before we started that it was a walk we did not want to make.
Isabel: Despite the cold, I took out my camera and we shot a photo. We looked like two bank robbers after a successful heist. "Happy birthday," Robert said, talking to my broken ankle. Exactly one year ago, Dr. Alejandro Reyes Carrillo pulled my Spantix boot off my ankle. Several bones were sticking out, and I had lost a lot of blood. I had told the doctor that he couldn't cut my expensive boot because I would need it to climb again.
Shaking from head to toes, but happy, we finally began the descent.
Robert: I was totally frozen. I started stumbling down the summit ridge. Behind me, darkness engulfed everything, interrupted only by the shine of Isabel's headlamp. She was very optimistic we would find our cache, where we stashed her crutches. I doubted we would. At night, all the stones look the same in this dark expanse.
Suppe and Rauch pause at the summit ridge and the top of their new line. "We looked like two bank robbers after a successful heist," Suppe wrote. [Photo] Isabel Suppe
Isabel: I stayed back to call La Paz so as to let our friends know that we had made it safely off the face, and would be back the following day. Then I followed Robert. At the bottom of the last snowfield we began the "crutch quest." I didn't doubt that we would find our cache, simply because we had to find it. I needed my crutches for the descent.
Robert: It was almost as if it had been waiting for us. Our blue potato bag was nestled in a protected hollow. Underneath it were Isabel's crutches. It had been eighteen hours since we had left our base camp, and we were moving quickly toward the point of exhaustion. We soon got to Lake Sirkhi Khota, but took a wrong turn. We were lost. It was very cold, and I was frozen to the marrow of my bones from the last belay. We couldn't stay there. There were two options: either find the campsite, or keep on walking in circles to keep warm until we could see the way back. Isabel insisted that we follow the lights of La Paz. I finally agreed, and after a long, dark period of uncertainty we found the trail that took us back to Don Hernan's hut and our base camp.
Isabel: The mere thought of sitting in the kitchen tent and enjoying a cup of instant cappuccino (which I wouldn't drink in La Paz even if I were paid for it) made my mouth water. Luckily I was right about our path. After following the lights of La Paz that I remembered having seen from our base camp, we finally see our beautiful tents.
Rauch and Suppe called their line The Birthday of The Broken Leg (TD+/ED), which climbs 500 meters up the southwest face of Serkhe Khollu before meeting with the normal route on the summit ridge. The climb marks the third line up the face after a team of Austrians put up Durch das Nasenloch, a route that is now almost nonexistent because of glacial melting. Rauch, along with Stefan Berger and Florian Hill, also put up Chamaka, which is overlapped by The Birthday of The Broken Leg. Chamaka took the team ten hours, base to summit, and covered 600 meters of up to eighty-five-degree ice. -Ed.
Route line showing The Birthday of The Broken Leg (TD+/ED, 500m), Serke Khollu (5546m), Boliva. The line was established my Robert Rauch and Isabel Suppe on August 1. [Photo] Isabel Suppe
Isabel Suppe is a German writer and mountaineer living in Argentina. She has spent the past eleven years climbing extensively in the Andes, from Colombia to Tierra del Fuego. After her 2010 accident on Ala Izquierda, in which she nearly lost her right foot, Suppe returned to high-altitude mountaineering and began writing her story. Her book, Starry Night, was a finalist for Premio Desnivel, a notable mountain literature award in the international climbing community, and has received a special mention by the jury.
A landscape gardener by trade, Robert Rauch, has worked as a writer, farmer, restaurant owner and mountain guide in Europe and Bolivia. Rauch is based in La Paz, and has completed many notable solos and first ascents in the area, including the route Pacha Brava on Illimani (6438m) and the first solo ascent of the East Wall Pillar on Illampu (6368m).