I first visited Bolivia 25 years ago. Back then the country was very indigenous and very poor. But to me, it was the most fascinating country in South America, not only because of these factors, but also because it was full of once and a lifetime adventures that very few foreigners (or locals) had pursued. Over the course of two summers, Will Fox and I teamed up with a British expat, Yossi Brian to climb some of the highest mountains in Bolivia and to take pictures for a book Yossi was writing on mountaineering in Bolivia. On one ascent of the Cabeza de Condor, a technical route in the Condoriri Group, we asked Yossi what approach we should take when ascending the technical summit ride where one wrong move could result in a quick death. His response (in a thick British accent) was “just relax and enjoy the fear.” After our successful ascent, we realized that Yossi had asked the driver who we had hired to pick us up to bring a small duffel bag with him when he picked us up. Inside was the Repo Man soundtrack on a tape (yes a cassette tape) and a bottle of Jack Daniels. While speeding along the altiplano on our way back to La Paz, after drinking almost the entire bottle of Jack Daniels, Yossi proceeded to climb out of the window on top of the truck where to celebrate our triumphant ascent. And that was just the beginning of a celebration that lasted long into the night in the bars of La Paz.
A year later Yossi and another climber died in a slab avalanche on Cerro Presidente in the remote Apolobamba mountain range in northern Bolivia. This dampened my passion for high altitude mountaineering, but it didn’t dampen my thirst for adventure. As the American Alpine Journal wrote about Yossi after his death:
“Yossi was a complex character, and it would be wrong to suggest he was perfect. He was thoroughly uncompromising and entirely intolerant of anything that got in the way of his passions. If you climbed, drank or wrote, he was your friend, and a good one. If you didn’t, then you were at best a potential client. His relationships were generally short and tended to end abruptly. He made enemies as well as friends, both easily and in great numbers. He had crossed swords, literally at times, with many a Bolivian, but in the end the country gave him a medal. He left a legacy of work that will leave generations of visitors to Bolivia and Equador indebted to him. You loved him or hated him, but I suspect even his enemies will miss him.”
When we returned to Bolivia 25 years later, Yossi’s book, which was published posthumously, was still the only book on Mountaineering in Bolivia. Yossi was cremated in La Paz and his ashes are scattered on Illamani, the huge mountain that towers over La Paz. And as we traveled through his stomping ground, I felt like his infectious spirit was still alive in the mountains (and bars) of Bolivia.