When it comes to choosing where we will go and what activities we will participate in, our methods are quite varied. Sometimes we find things on the internet, sometimes we hear about excursions from fellow travelers, sometimes we get suggestions from the people who work in the hostel where we are staying, and sometimes we see a poster or sign on the street or in the window of a tour agency. The last of these was how we ended up deciding to climb Huayna Potosi. Kevin saw a sign advertising a 2-3 day mountain trek to over 6000 meters. Within an hour we had done some preliminary internet research on the mountain, compared prices at a couple different tour agencies and booked the trek – leaving the next morning. We hadn’t anticipated leaving the next morning but a brief look at the weather report for the next week made us realize that we had a very small window to make it to the top of the mountain before a snowy weather front rolled in. So, by necessity, we opted to skip the acclimation day and try to make it to the summit in two days.
The next morning we packed our backpacks with all the gear we would need for the trek (compliments of the our agency) and set out for Huayna Potosi. It took a couple hours to drive to the trail head. Our driver stopped several times along the way to allow us to take photos of the majestic mountain we would soon be climbing.
When we finally arrived at the lower base camp (situated at the trail head), we still didn’t totally appreciate what we had gotten ourselves into. We ate a hot meal of soup, met our guides and a few people who were coming off the mountain. The climbers looked exhausted after their descent and told us the trek was spectacular but one of the hardest things they had ever done. Thankfully, when you are just about to start a trek like this, excitement and anticipation win out and paid little heed to their warnings.
Both of us have worked very diligently over our time traveling to try to make our packs as light as possible. When you are constantly moving and need to carry everything on your back a few pounds makes a huge difference. Lisa’s pack usually weighs around 11kg and Kevin’s is 13/14kg. We were quite surprised when we struggled to hoist our packs on our backs and with their new weight. We had left almost all of our own belongings back at the hostel and now had our backpacks full of ice picks, crampons, gaiters, snow boots, sleeping bags, jackets, helmets, harnesses and snow gear. We would wear the gear on the hike to the summit so we only had to carry it to the upper base camp for the night, but as far as we were concerned, that was far enough.
The first day was an “easy” hike. We only had to achieve a 500m elevation gain and we could wear regular hiking shoes. The path was rocky and often required a bit of a leap to get up some of the boulders (or perhaps it only felt like a leap because of the heavy backpacks we were wearing). The upper base camp was a welcome sight, even though we had only been hiking a few hours.
The upper base camp sits at 5130 meters (16,830 feet). It is strong stone building with a small kitchen and a large room with bunk beds and tables. Just outside the building were a couple of out-houses. There we met the other three trekkers who would be attempting to summit the mountain the next morning. There was one French girl, an Australian girl, a guy from Japan, and the two of us. We chatted, drank tea, and listened to the freezing wind howl outside. Dinner was served at 5pm and we were all tucked in our sleeping bags by 6pm.
As you can imagine 6pm is not the easiest of times to try and fall asleep , and elevation often makes it even more difficult. We mostly just tossed and turned for the next six hours until our wake-up call came. That’s right, we had to get up at midnight to prepare for our trek to the summit. An early breakfast at midnight then it was time to gear up. Our hike would be entirely up the snowy face of the mountain and it is much safer to trudge over frozen snow and ice then once it has been warmed by the sun. As the day warms up the top layer starts to melt, causing a slippery and dangerous landscape.
Six hours also seemed to be the opportune time to let us really appreciate many of the symptoms associated with climbing to that altitude. Upper base camp was high enough to make us feel sluggish and nauseous. We were taking acetazolamide for the altitude and Lisa had brought a small supply of Zofran to try and combat the nausea. Unfortunately, this didn’t work too well for Kevin and he was unable to keep any of the medication (or his breakfast) down. Being the determined (or some might argue stubborn) personalities that we are, and since we didn’t have headaches or other signs of dangerous complications related to altitude, we set out as scheduled.
We were wearing 2 to 4 layers of insulating clothing, covering every inch of our bodies except our eyes. On our feet we had snow boots and crampons and gaiters. The boots closely resembled ski boots and did not allow for any mobility at the ankle. Over all of this padding we squeezed into harnesses that allowed both of us to be roped to each other and our guide. For safety each guide can only accompany two people up the mountain.
The next 5+ hours were some of the most physically challenging of our lives (we now fully understood what the prior hikers were talking about). At that elevation each step is an effort. Or path was a sea of white, illuminated only by our small head lamps. Thankfully for us the hike was not technical. We used our ice axes almost exclusively as walking sticks, helping us balance on the steeply inclined mountain.
The sun began to raise about an hour before we reached the summit. This created some of the most spectacular view either of us have ever seen. We were above the clouds, looking down at the smaller mountains that surrounded us. In the twilight we could see lightning jumping between the clouds in the distance. Above us the sky was changing colors- pinks, yellows, and reds, as the sun crept onto the horizon. Unfortunately we failed to capture some of the most impressive views on film because our camera battery had frozen and refused to turn on.
After a while our camera warmed up enough to function again and we started our final ascent to the summit. We were physically spent but still filled with determination. It felt like we were on a near vertical climb as we struggled to move our feet one step at a time. We would count out 30 steps and then we would pause to rest and catch our breath for a couple of minutes. As we were crossing the final stretch and could see what we assumed was the summit in front of us, our guide turned around and said “only one hour left.” We almost fell over. He then laughed and led us the final stretch to the summit where we arrived about 10 minutes later.
We had bought a collection of snacks for the hike knowing that it would be difficult to keep food down. We bought foods full of calories that are small and easy to eat, such as chocolate and gummy candies. It turned out that our planning was for nothing. We both had trouble trying to drink small amounts of the Gatorade that we had bought (and only partially because it had started to freeze), so the idea of eating food was impossible despite the large number of calories we had burned walking up the mountain,
The summit was much smaller than we anticipated. There was only space for us to sit against the peak and smile for a couple photos. We had planned to do a photo with Lisa on Kevin’s back reaching for 20,000 feet (as we were only a few feet short of that benchmark). In reality the combination of our poor balance due to exhaustion and high winds made it difficult just to stand on the peak, let alone try a pyramid. Only two of the other travelers actually made it to the top about 15 minutes after we arrived (the other one was suffering from altitude sickness and had to return back to the upper base camp). The other two hikers had to wait a on a lower ridge while we took photos and enjoyed our accomplishment because the steep sides only allowed for 2 or 3 people at the summit.
After reveling in our victory for a while it was time to make the steep descent back down the mountain. Now that the sun was up we could actually see some to the terrain that we had crossed to make it to the top. There were times when we were underneath overhangs full of massive icicles, or on a ridge with severe drop offs on either side. We decided it was much better that we couldn’t see anything but the path on our way up the mountain. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.
We made it down to upper base camp and rested for a short while. Kevin tried to eat some soup but after a spoonful the nausea returned and he had to leave the bowl almost untouched. We then packed up the rest of our gear and continued on to the lower base camp to meet our shuttle driver and ride back to La Paz. Overall it was an amazing experience and we are so glad we did it…but we are pretty sure this will be the last 6,000 meter climb we will attempt on this trip.
Next up for us will be resting for a day or two before heading to Cochabamba to visit Alejandra, another Bolivian friend that Kevin met in Spain.