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Bernardo Guarachi

Bernardo Guarachi
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Bernardo Guarachi, An Aymara Alpinist

by Gregory William Frux

We were getting desperate. We'd been all over La Paz our second day in Bolivia trying to find a decent tour company, and more importantly, a mountain guide.

By the time we reached Andes Expediciones our heads were pounding, our vision grainy, not only from moving quickly through the city's 12,500 foot elevation, but specifically from the three flights of concrete stairs to that office.  The compact rooms wore layers of posters, maps and photographic momentos along with a couch, desks and two computer terminals.  A compact brown man with alert features welcomed us.  He listen carefully to our desires, his face set in concentration, then swift as a cat he was pulling out topographic maps and photo albums.  He plied us with endless rounds of Coca-Cola, punctuated his sentences "entonces" [.then.] and drafted out itineraries on a lined tablet.  This man, the proprietor of the company, in his faded blue jacket with 'Bolivia' appliqued on it, was Bernardo Guarachi, likely his nation's top climber.  In the weeks to come, we were to see that his promises were not hot air.  Guarachi is a man of boundless energy and great curiosity.  We'd booked a three-day tour to the silver town of Potosi.  Bernardo showed up at our hotel early, after spending a night out retrieving an expedition. 

The next days were a kaleidoscope of experiences beginning with a picnic in the sharp altiplano grass, followed by flocks of flamingos and mirages as our jeep left paving to cross the low mountains to Potosi. Guarachi was nonchalantly behind the wheel for twelve hours that day, evincing no signs of being tired other than to chew the occasional coca leaf.  In the colonial town of Potosi, Bernardo not only located the obvious attractions like the mines, the Casa de la Moneda (combination fort, mint and art museum) and the many Baroque churches, but he also uncover the little known, like the University Art Museum and a local hot springs.  Bernardo was as interested as we were in everything and he had a walking pace that we had to run to keep up with.  The climax of this brief journey was our last campsite on the return leg.  Guarachi negotiated permission with the local Quechua chief for us to camp on the shore of Lago Popoo.  It was the Fiesta San Juan, the Solstice celebration and from our vantage point we could see a score of blazing bonfires dotting the shore, inviting the sun to return.  However, Andes Expediciones' main work is mountain guiding.  On more than 200 mornings in the last ten years Bernardo could be found leading parties on snow slopes 8000 feet above the sleeping streets of La Paz. In the dark predawn hours he had broken high camp at The Nest of the Condors, which lies at 18,000 feet, to start the final ascent.  By first light the climbing parties would be strung out along a rope, on 30-degree snow slopes, carefully bypassing gaping crevasses.  The scene is usually silent except for the faint sound of ragged breathing and the occasional clattering of dislodged ice chattering away down the slope. After a time, a dramatic transformation takes place as color floods the sky-- the sun has risen behind the peak.   On the clearest of days a singular spectacle greets the climbers-- for a few moments after dawn a triangular shadow of the mountain stretches clear to the horizon.

For Bernardo Guarachi it is a day's work- guiding yet another party to the summit of Illimani at 21,201 feet, over a thousand feet higher than North America's highest mountain, although he admits it to be his special mountain.  Guarachi and much of the indigenous La Paz have a relationship with Illimani.  From his office and much of La Paz one can see this multicrowned peak.  Its distinctive shape appears everywhere around town-- on the city seal, chocolate wrappers, postage stamps, and beer bottles and as a character in the annual folklore parade "El Gran Poder".  Bernardo says of the mountain,  "Illimani plays a very important role for the citizen of La Paz-- for three quarters of them it is the great Achachila or Wirajocho (translated "King of the High Mountains of the Cordillera Real" and also "Great God Owner of Water"). Once a year, in August, the inhabitants of the region carry out a ceremonial sacrifice with the blood of a white llama, which represents richness-- so that Illimani may possess sufficient water.  After the ceremony people celebrate, there is music and dancing with white banners.  This is done in all the localities around this giant Illimani.  Wirajocho is revered as the chief of the mountains, owner of all the forces nature."  For Bernardo's people, this and other Andean peaks are sacred.   He treats each ascent with care and respect, asking Illimani's permission to ascend.  "This I do in the following manner: a moment of silence without moving, eyes closed, and in this moment I think only of Illimani.  My request to Illimani is what permits me to penetrate this gigantic body and allows me and my clients to return safe and sound. This is an act of respect towards the mountain.  I do this with other mountains as well."  The indigenous people of the Andes have held the high peaks sacred for centuries.  

Archeologist Johan Reinhart has dedicated much of his life's work to studying the region.  In an article for National Geographic he described his perspective of the Inca's point of view, "The mountains control the weather which provides water which induced fertility.  But they can be capricious." Contemporary campesinos also see the mountains in duel role-- the mountains nurture the crops in the sun-baked altiplano with rain and melt water, their height forcing water from the humid Amazonian air masses.  But the range can also exert a destructive influence.  Violent hail can ruin a year's planting in minutes. Lightning annually kills dozens in the flat and exposed landscape. Bernardo's wife Maria Elena describes this aspect of the mountains concisely; "Occasionally the mountain needs to eat someone."   Born in Patacamaya, Bernardo Guarachi was drawn early on to the mountains, although he had no idea that mountaineering was a profession.  His career began as a high altitude mountain porter in 1972.  Impressed by his dedication, the German Alpine Club assisted him in traveling to the Alps where he was certified as Guide and Instructor in 1979.  Guarachi has racked up a considerable list of ascents since then: Aconcogua and Ojos del Salado, the first and second highest peaks in South America; he has climbed Sajama  (at 21,462 feet) the highest mountain in Bolivia thirty times; and the nearly 20,000 foot Huayna Potosi over one hundred times.  He has climbed all of his nation's highest and most important peaks (all those over 6,000 meters), including 22 in the Cordillera Real and 5 in the Cordillera Occidental.  He also pioneered a new and highly technical ice route up the North Face of Huayna Potosi.

His most important mountaineering achievement to date is likely his ascent of Makalu in the Himalayas.  On April 29, 1994 he became the first Native American and the first South American to reach the summit of the fifth highest mountain in the world.  "I've always wanted to climb an 8,000er," he said referring to the 14 mountains on the planet over 26,000 feet in height.  Climbing this high can be compared to running a marathon, day after day.  It is among the most demanding endeavors in the world, with only one third as much atmosphere available to breathe as compared to sea level.  "Many people use oxygen once above 23,000 feet, but I prefer not to.  It gets harder and harder to sleep and breath at that altitude, the longer you're up there."  Guarachi's climb was part of a joint team with the U.S. based Condor Adventures and the Russian alpinist Antoli Boukreev.  The expedition spent over a month on the climb, which included an arduous approach march and weeks of work fixing ropes and carrying supplies to the higher camps, before the dash to the summit.  It remains Bernardo's favorite climb, "I am bewitched by that mountain."  It is only natural that a climber of Guarachi's ability and situation should want to summit Mount Everest.  His first attempt was at age 39 in October 1994.  Climbing from the Tibetan side his team took four weeks to acclimatize.  High winds and blizzards of the monsoon season plagued the expedition.  A window of good weather allowed the team to reach 25,600 feet.  " I noticed changes in the moon, and I knew the weather was going to turn bad."  He decided to make a solo attempt before the conditions failed.  Bernardo climbed to a tent at 26,900 feet, a mere 2,100 feet below the summit.  He says, "I slept sitting up that night. Lying down I couldn't get enough air.  And it is very dangerous.  The fatigue is incredible.  Sometimes you go to sleep and don't wake up". "I thought about many things, repenting all the small injustices that one commits in life, and of course asking God the creator to save me from harm and promising many times to do no evil in life."  Winds rose to over 120 mph, wrecking all the camps on the mountain and forcing him to retreat. I saw him days after his return to Bolivia, gaunt and exhausted, but already back at work guiding.  

He was also beginning new plans to climb Everest.  That expedition is slated for 1998.  Bernardo Guarachi's life can been seen as a continuation of the ancient Andean people's relationship with their mountains.  In a 1952 expedition Chilean climbers, planning a first ascent, arrived at the summit of Llullaillaco Volcano, 22,000 feet high, only to discover an ancient wall on the top.  Subsequent archeological excavations found sleeping and living chambers, a llama enclosure, a wood dump, evidence of fruit and corn, a shoe, pottery, a woven litter, all within 200 vertical feet of the summit. The native peoples of the Andes, the Aymara, Quechua and Atacamenas climbed many of South America's highest peaks before Europeans had entered the foothills of the Alps. Bernardo says of this, "We have proof that the ancient people climbed mountains such as Lincancabur, Llullaillaku and up high on Aconcagua (highest peak in the Americas): they built what were clearly altars and carried out ceremonies and sacrifices."  Throughout Bolivia people continue the ancient ways. "Today the Aymara make similar ceremonies, but not over 20,000 feet. However they do go as high as passes of 16,800 feet, where small chapels have been built and which are visited periodically to leave or burn offerings of coca, alcohol, incense and sugar.  From these high points the smoke of the fire can be distributed in all directions, thus reaching as far as the other sacred mountains.  These shrines can be seen even on trekking paths."  His work remains demanding.  

Guarachi has had difficulty finding reliable staff and complains that people aren't always will to submit to the rigors of properly learning the mountaineering skills.  He has been called upon for many rescues, especially at the request of the government.  He was the first responder at the fatal crash of an Eastern Airline jet high on Illimani.  Another time he carried an injured man heavier than he off Huayna Potosi.   His work seems grueling to me, as he shirks no aspect of the profession; whether shouldering a sixty pound pack a client can no longer carry or driving for 15 hours a day.  I asked him if he knew the old law of the Inca "ama sua, ama qhella, ama llula--" (don't lie, don't steal, don't be lazy).  He responded, his face wrinkling into a brief smile, "Yes, I believe some of us guides follow these traditions, the ancient rules of our ancestors."

Note: May 25th 1998 Bernardo Guarachi fulfilled a lifetime dream of reaching the highest point on earth. When he gained  the summit of Mount Everest at 6 that morning, he became the first Bolivian and the first Native South American Indian to do so. He was greatly admired by his companions on the mountain. Climber Swee Chiow said this about Mr. Guarachi, "Bernardo is a superman. He moves like the Sherpas. He's the most courteous guy I've ever met. I saw him sitting outside his tent alone everyday,
looking at the mountains. That's how he sat out the bad weather. His inner strength and patience shows."

ReferencesGregory Frux is a curator of the art collection of the New York City Public School system.  He is a trained architect and a working artist.  His mountaineering experience includes ascents of Mount Rainer, Grand Teton, Pico de Orizaba (Mexico's highest summit) and New Hampshire's Mount Washington twice in winter.  His highest ascents, however have been in Bolivia.  Greg reached nearly 20,000 feet at the summit Huayna Potosi in 1990.  In 1994 he climbed the remote desert peak of Lincancabur at 19350 feet on the Chilean border and survived a violent thunderstorm at the apex of the Cordillera Real, Illimani at 21,200 feet.  The author hopes to have the opportunity climb with Mr. Guarachi again in the near future. Gregory Frux can be reached at

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Related Sites:

  • The News Times
    Bolivian climber aims for world's highest summit. By Peter McFarren.

  • Bolivian Times
    Bernardo Guarachi First Bolivian to Scale Everest. By Peter McFarren.



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Last Updated 20 June, 2003 - 02:30 PM -0400

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