Huayna Potosi - My First Summit

by Asurah on May 24, 2011

Huayna Potosi - My First Summit

For a few years now, I have been more than fascinated by mountains. I have no idea for what reason, but I often find myself reading about certain mountains on Wikipedia or watching mountaineering videos on YouTube and fantasizing that I was one of those lucky bastards summiting Mount Everest or K2. So naturally, even before I started packing my backpack, I knew that during my six-month trip to South America, I would definitely have my go at climbing a mountain or two. After all, South America is widely known for being todo posible, nada seguro, no?

My first target was Aconcagua, the highest mountain in South America and also the highest mountain in both the Western and Southern hemispheres. But after I arrived in Argentina and discovered that the Aconcagua climb was well above my backpacker's budget, I had to pick a new target. That new target was Huayna Potosi.

Huayna Potosi--in free translation from Quechua - Young/New Potosi--is a mountain about 30km outside La Paz, the de facto capital of Bolivia. Huayna Potosi's summit stands at exactly 6,088m, which is about three times as high as the highest peak in my country, Mount Hermon in Israel.

After spending a week in La Paz doing basically nothing as part of my altitude acclimatization, I arrived at the mountaineering agency I booked the climb through to try on some equipment, get a quick briefing and sign a waiver. I was told to bring some warm clothes, good sunscreen and a "summit treat," chocolate or some kind of snack to eat at the top, some sort of tradition among mountaineers.

The following day, I reported exactly at 9:30am at the agency headquarters and was ready to attack that monster of a mountain. My brothers in arms were three Dutch guys who seemed really unprepared for this kind of extreme activity. They were all wearing sneakers and did not have a decent backpack or sleeping bag. Their idea of warm clothing was a 100%-fake-alpaca-wool sweater they bought in the street five minutes before arriving at the agency. One of them was wearing Billabong surfing shorts, I kid you not.

Off we go, on a two-hour transport ride to the base camp of the mountain. We unpacked our gear and went on a little hike to the base of Glacier Viejo (Old Glacier) at about 4,800m, to learn and practice some ice-climbing techniques that would prove useful on d-day, the day of the summit. We returned to the base camp at around 5pm after successfully climbing a 15m vertical ice wall. After a nice dinner and a fierce session of several international card games, we went to sleep at around 9pm. I never had a problem with altitude before, even while visiting higher places in Bolivia in the weeks before the climb. But now I started to feel the headache creeping slowly in as I tried to get some sleep. I put on my iPod with some relaxing music and almost forced myself to go to sleep.

The second morning started with some coca tea served with a surprisingly nice breakfast. One of the Dutch guys, the one with the surfer pants, actually, was feeling really bad when we woke up. The guides didn't want to take any unnecessary risks and decided he should go back to La Paz with a taxi. After saying our goodbyes, we packed all of our gear and went on our way towards High Camp, a three-hour hike to 5,200m. After paying a 10 Bolivianos entrance fee to some nice Cholita along the way, we arrived at the High Camp at around noon, had lunch, and continued our card game tournament from last night. The guides taught us a Bolivian game called "Penalty," where, apparently, you cannot make a mistake, and if you do, everybody screams "Penalty" at you. Fun times.

Dinner was served at 5:30pm. Afterwards, our guides instructed us to go directly to sleep, as wake up would be at midnight, and we would start climbing at 1am sharp. They say it is a six- to seven-hour climb to the top, and you have to start climbing down before 8am, as the snow and ice starts to melt, and there is a higher chance for an avalanche after that time.

I don't know if you've ever tried to sleep at 5,200m, but it is really really hard. The fact that we had to sleep at 6pm didn't really help, frankly. I passed the hours listening to music and starring at the ceiling, freezing my ass off in my sleeping bag. The "refugio" we were staying in was no more than a wooden shed, and the freezing winds were leaking inside from cracks in the wood. Not a good experience, even for a generally warm-blooded man like myself.

We "woke up" at midnight, had some coca tea and some biscuits for "breakfast," geared up with all our warm clothes--a polar jacket and polar pants--harness, waterproof boots, crampons, ice-axe, and a rope that ties you to your guide and climb-mate. As now we were only three climbers with two guides, I was the lucky one (not the Dutch one) to get my own private guide. Before leaving, I took one last look at the walls of the refugio, which were filled with comments from previous climbers. One commenter suggested that I should have brought some lube, since the mountain was going to rape me. Another favorite was, "Never made it to the top, but at least I took a dump on it." Right next to the exit door, there was the most important one, "It's all in your head," which proved to be very true later into the night.

The climb goes like this. You walk one hour and get a five-minute break. Most breaks are standing up, so you won't cramp your muscles. My guide told me that it is best to keep moving even while resting, suggesting that I jump a little and move my arms and feet so that my fingers and toes won't freeze to death. At one point, I even saw him doing push ups in the snow. Crazy Bolivians.

The first couple of hours were fairly easy, mostly going around the mountain, because the access is easier from the other side. In two hours we gained about 200m elevation, so we needed to make up for that in the next section, which is a steeper, sort of zig-zag walk up the snow. This proved to be quite difficult, and I could feel my breathing was starting to get harder and harder. My heart rate started to rise, and general tiredness was not late to follow.

When we reached 5,800m, I was officially out of breath. It was around 5am, and you could see the sun starting to shine over the eastern mountains of Cordillera Real. I started to take longer and more often breaks. From one short break every hour, I started taking smaller breaks after 50 steps, and then after 20 steps. By the time we reach 5,900m, I could only make about 10 steps before I needed to catch my breath. I rested for five seconds, then the rope stretched between me and my guide. He looked back to see what was wrong, and I just kept on, trying to disguise my little break.

By 6am, we reached the 6,000m point. It was located right after a pretty steep section and followed by an even steeper section to 6,080m. We were really close to the summit, but I had no power left. I collapsed back into the snow, completely out of breath. After a minute, my guide hovered over me, asking if I could continue on. My answer was that I could not. Then he asked me if I wanted to go down. My answer was, "Hell, no." I was getting up to that summit.

Then, I picked myself up. I barely managed to walk that last section to 6,080m, and then I could finally see it--the summit. It was less than a 100m away from me, only eight meters up, a touch away. I found some miraculous power source to give me energy for those last 100m, and I make it. I reached my first summit. And what a view that was--the lights of La Paz to the south, Lake Titicaca to the west, and a bunch of mountains piercing the clouds below. To the east, the sun just completed its full rise--a big, clear orange fireball, a truly unearthly sight and certainly well worth all the effort.

At the summit, I was so powerless that I couldn't even take my own photos. I asked one of the Dutch guys to take photos and email them to me later. I tried to eat the pack of Oreos I brought as a "summit treat," but I couldn't. I ate half a cookie and then almost vomited it back up. I just sat there, completely overwhelmed by the view and the impact of the situation. I suddenly remembered the writing on the wall of the refugio. "It's all in your head." How true was that.

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by Nicole
About 6 years ago

Hi - what was the name of the place you stayed? I'm looking for a similar experience in Bolivia!

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