"The road blocks are not as bad as they used to be," noted Sandifort, referring to the political protests that can stop all traffic in cities and towns for days or weeks. "If the country is relatively more politically stable, with less road blocks and protests, that is going to bring more people."
For Bolivians, that calm is a welcome change. As remote as the mountains appear, even the highest Andes saw tremors during the gas wars of the early 2000s, when the country was ignited by conflict over natural gas resources.
Laso recalled a time when his own hometown of Sorata was paralyzed by a gas-related road block, trapping dozens of tourists as the town slowly ran out of food.
Less than three and a half hours from La Paz by car, the only way to escape Sorata during the blockade was on foot, and Laso led a group of tourists on a week-long trek to the capital that followed some parts of our own, calmer hike.
"Everywhere you looked in the mountains there were people," he recounted in Spanish. "Grandmothers, children, local people—everyone walking, everyone trying to get to La Paz."
While the political situation is indeed more stable, occasional protests over natural resources, corruption and other issues still disrupt travel. During a 10-week stay in Bolivia, I was ensnared in a two-week, non-violent blockade of Sucre, the country's constitutional capital, and I walked 25 miles along the highway to reach the next province.
As Laso hiked from Sorata to La Paz in 2003, he was passing peaks that Aymara tradition believes to be inhabited by apus, powerful spirits that watch over the mountain people and protect the land.
And from Illampu in the north to Illimani in the south, many of the Cordillera Real's most imposing peaks retain their Aymara names, a geography that--along with the very existence of the Aymara people--is a powerful testament to cultural resilience under two powerful colonial empires.
The Inca arrived in these mountains as an invading force, and quelled Aymara rebellions only by sending waves of troop reinforcements, then attempting to replace the local population with Quechua-speaking Inca loyalists.
The Aymara survived that initial onslaught. But when the Inca empire fell at the hands of the Spanish, things got even worse.
The glaciers are melting
Jen Rose Smith for CNN
Spanish rule brought centuries of slavery and oppression, as well as anti-indigenous discrimination that still echoes through modern-day life in Bolivia. Like many of their Aymara-speaking peers, Laso's parents weren't able to attend any formal school because they didn't speak Spanish.
Even now, when Bolivia is led by an indigenous, Aymara-speaking president, Laso's children are reluctant to use the language outside of the home, fearful of being taunted at school.
"They don't want to be called 'Indian' or 'uneducated,'" he said.
Despite years of colonization and struggle, however, the mountains have remained a powerful part of Aymara life, customs and beliefs. Now, under an Aymara president, indigenous rituals that never disappeared are gaining new prominence in mainstream Bolivian life. On the recent Aymara New Year on June 18, 2018, celebrations took place at sacred sites around the country, including one led by Morales himself.
Some of those rituals address weather, traditionally believed to be controlled by a council of achachilas, ancestral beings that inhabit the Cordillera Real's most imposing mountains.
And despite the resurgence of indigenous pride, some Aymara leaders blame modern lifeand the decline of traditional practices for disruptions to the yearly weather cycle that has long defined pastoral life here.
"It was different before," one Aymara leader told the Swedish researcher Anders Burman. "There was a time for sowing, a time for harvesting. Not now...There is climate change, and it worries us."
Though they offer a different set of reasons, scientists agree that a changing climate is rapidly melting Bolivia's glaciers into trickling streams.
Glaciers in the Cordillera Real shrunk 41.9% between 1986 and 2014, according to researchers -- dramatic evidence of that change.
Once the highest-altitude ski resort on earth, the 17,700-foot Chacaltaya doesn't have enough snow to keep the lone ski lift spinning, and the mountain's main glacier has disappeared even faster than scientists once predicted.
People don't need specialized instruments or a lifetime of farming to see the transformations take place. In 23 years of climbing in the Bolivian Andes, he has watched the mountains melt from one climbing trip to the next.
"There's more rock exposed all the time," he said, "and the glaciers are not just retreating; they're losing thickness as well."
With conditions that change from year to year, Bolivia's Andes are melting even as the country finds its way out of political turmoil and onto travelers' itineraries.
For travelers who wish to see the mountains where Inca troops clashed with Aymara rebels or walk snowy peaks named for the spirits that inhabit them, the coming years are a vanishing opportunity to plan a trip. But for now, the Cordillera Real remains a shining challenge just beyond the skyline of La Paz, with technical peaks and walking trails that are an invitation to adventurous travelers.
And whether you opt for a 20-day expedition that traverses the entire range, or simply summit Pico Austria on a day trip to La Paz, you'll set out along the trail to the sound of a changing world.
Listen carefully as you walk the Cordillera Real, and you might hear the cry of the Andean Condor, learn to exchange a greeting in the Aymara language and catch the drip, drip, drip of melting ice.
Guided day hikes and overnight trips are available from many outfitters based in La Paz. With pack animals and guides, the 5-night, 6-day route we followed is available starting at US $785 per person from Climbing South America; trips with a Spanish-speaking guide may be arranged for US $70 per day for a self-supported group carrying their own gear.