Note from 16 October 2013: How interesting it is to read this story again! It’s amazing how experience dims and morphs through time. In recent years when I’ve told people about my ascent of Huayna Potosi I’ve explained that it was a difficult climb, but the words have been a bit hollow since I couldn’t recall exactly how difficult it was. Now, reading about my own experience, I’m launched back to the dark, snowy expanse at the bottom of the final pitch when I truly didn’t think I had the strength to go on. I hope you enjoy reading this little flashback as much as I did! -SS-
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13 April 2008
Location: La Paz, Bolivia, at a mere 11,942 feet
Mood: Relaxed and still in disbelief
Most recent meal: Pancakes! Hallelujah for pancakes!
Well, folks, I have climbed the mountain. Just shy of 20,000 feet (6,088 m), Huayna Potosi is the most easily accessible peak in Bolivia over 6000 m. That does not mean it’s an easy climb. Trust me. Here’s the story of Kyle’s and my 2-day ascent of this magnificent peak.
Day 1: La Paz to High Camp
Kyle and I gorged ourselves on the free pancake breakfast at our hostel before strapping on our nearly-empty packs and snaking our way through the filthy, hectic streets of La Paz to the doors of the trekking company, Travel Tracks. There we met two other climbers: Martin, a British guy with five years of travel still ahead of him, and Ryan, a Canadian who looked like the Aryan ideal of Jesus with pierced ears. Together with our Bolivian guides we drove up through the labyrinth of the city onto the altiplano and towards our destiny.
My first glimpse of the mountain made my pulse race, though whether with fear or excitement I am unsure. Huayna Potosi exploded out of the plains like the prow of an ancient ghost ship, blanketed in snow and ice, glinting in the sun. It looked impossibly tall and forbidding. My eyes coursed over its contours, trying, and failing, to visualize our route to the summit.
At the trailhead we loaded up our packs with expedition-weight coats and pants, crampons, alpine axes, harnesses, balaclavas, mittens, gaiters and hard-shelled mountaineering boots. With our packs weighing us down, we climbed for hours through fields of boulders and along sinuous ridgelines to High Camp, a stone and wood hut at 16,831 ft (5,130 m). A permanent snowfield and the route to the summit began just on the other side of the hut.
I spent the late afternoon hours hanging around in the sun with my fellow mountaineers. Along with Martin and Ryan we were joined by trekkers and guides from other companies, making me the only woman out of fourteen men to be attempting the summit. We told stories, threw rocks at other rocks, drank tea and water, and ate handfuls of chocolate while our tireless guides climbed the snowfield and skied down to its bottom edge. Martin tried skiing for the first time, performing a set of beautiful faceplants and endos.
Sunset was magical, adding pale tints of gold and blue to the clouds swirling round beneath us in the valley. Other behemoth mountains poked their summits above the whirling clouds–we were already higher than most of them.
At nightfall we all settled into the cabin, and I fell asleep to the lullaby of thirteen farting men.
Day 2: High Camp to the summit
The lights came on at 12:15 am. It was barely tomorrow, and already it was time to start hiking. I pulled on all my layers of gear, praying that I wouldn’t have to pee after donning long underwear, hiking pants, mountaineering pants and a harness. My second pair of gloves, balaclava, a few pounds of peanuts and chocolate, two liters of water, and spare AAA batteries went into my pack.
Downstairs everyone was lively and talkative, excited for the task ahead despite the ungodly hour. We ate bread slathered in thick, fresh butter before tying up our boots and clomping out the door. The night was clear and crisp and still. There was no moon, only starlight and headlamps to guide our way over the snow. Kyle and I strapped on our crampons and roped in to each other: our guide, Andrés, took the lead, I took the middle, and Kyle followed in the rear. Around us, other pairs of climbers roped up with their guides, visible only as spheres of light from their headlamps.
And then, leaning on our axes for support, we began the tortuous five-hour climb to the summit.
The snow stretched away before us, as black as the night without light to shine upon it. The crests of hills and ridges were visible only as places where stars began, so it was easy to imagine that we were walking into the night-blackened sky itself. Every so often we’d see an even darker patch in the snow, indicating some unseen snow formation. Behind and ahead the bobbing train of glowing headlamps marking the progress of our fellow climbers. Then, halfway into the climb, the lights of La Paz came into view as a sea of fluttering gold far, far below–we were already 7,000 feet higher than the city.
My movements became meditative. There was no room or energy for thoughts or songs in my head, just the knowledge that we were going higher, making progress, little by little. My legs were tired, and my breath came ragged, but still I felt strong and confident that I would reach the summit. I focused on the sound my ax made as I placed it in the snow and picked it up again. Stamp, creeaak…stamp, creeaak… The regularity was soothing.
Kyle began to struggle a few hours into the climb. He called for frequent rests, and collapsed in the snow each time, panting hard and trying to summon more energy. He mentioned waves of nausea, a clear sign of altitude sickness. Nevertheless, he pushed onward, and together we scaled the near-vertical face of a berschrund and worked our way along a ridge, walking as slowly as possible. Still, Kyle was losing energy fast. Finally, he crumpled onto his hands and knees and told Andrés he couldn’t keep going–it was too difficult, and it was becoming unsafe. Calmly, Andrés told him we had to go a little further so I could rope up with another group, and then he and Kyle could descend together. By the time we reached another group, we were at the base of the final pitch. To our mutual delight and surprise, Kyle suddenly caught a second wind and decided to go for the summit after all. I fed us each a packet of Gu and many large mouthfuls of icy water, and then we began the climb from hell.
Though we couldn’t see it in the dark, Andres told us the base of the final pitch was 320 vertical feet below the summit, and the slope was an agonizing 65º. Almost as soon as I started climbing, my legs became weak and unresponsive, and I finally began to feel the altitude. Apparently when Kyle gained his second wind, I lost mine altogether. I paced myself as best as I could, willing myself to climb 10, 15, or even 20 ax-strokes at a time between rests. At each rest I dug my ax in deep, nudged my knees into the snow, and leaned into the wall. My breathing was ragged, and my heart pounded so hard at my chest I though it might burst right on through.
“Why the hell are you doing this?” I asked myself, over and over again. “Why do you think this is fun?” I didn’t have an answer–it wasn’t fun. Not at all. “I don’t want to go to the top,” one part of me decided. But another, stronger part of me responded by saying, “No, you don’t want to. But you will.”
I slogged out another fifteen paces and rested again with my face brushing the surface of the snow. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of color, and turned my head to see the most brilliant shade of orange I had ever seen in my life. The sun was rising to the east, glowing in the dark with such fiery fervor as to make all the other sunrises of my life unremarkable in comparison. My breath caught in my throat at the sight of such unrestrained beauty.
I glanced up the still-dark slope at the lights of my friends ahead of me. The hill was nearly vertical–how could I possibly finish climbing it? I glanced down between my legs and saw Kyle directly below me, panting into the snow. I looked at the sunrise again, and felt the promise of sunlight give me the energy to continue. Twenty paces, rest, fifteen, rest, twenty more, and the cheers of the other climbers pulled me over the crest of the summit, where I collapsed in an ungainly heap of exhaustion and pain.
It took a few minutes to regain enough energy to lift my head and take in the view. It was, without a doubt, the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in my life. To the east spread a sea of clouds so expansive I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. I didn’t know it was possible to see that far away. The clouds were butter colored, edged in pale tones of blue and gold. The orange band of sunrise was broadening and brightening by the minute, revealing ever more scenery. To the north a mighty peak rose out of the snow and clouds, a jagged and rugged monolith of stone and ice. And we were so far above that massive entity, so far above everything around us!
More mountains dragged my vision around to the left, out to the flat plains of the altiplano and the shy glimmer of Lake Titicaca in the far, far distance. Pink sunlight began to touch the snow at my feet, bringing me back to my immediate surroundings.
I was shivering, but not as hard as Martin, who was shaking so hard I thought he might start an avalanche. Kyle was also shaking, and needed me dig out his food and water so he could regain some energy for the climb down. During the twenty or so minutes we were on top, he never once stood up–the climb had been that exhausting. The other climbers and I exchanged feeble, bemittened hand-clasps of congratulations–it was all we had energy for. I sat and shivered and tried to take it all in. The beauty was so overwhelming that I choked up three separate times.
When the sun was nearly above the horizon, Kyle and I began to downclimb that hill of death, with Andrés above us belaying from a snow piton. After every 100 meters of descent Kyle and I would dig into the mountainside and wait for Andres to rejoin us for the next leg.
The sun was fully up by the time we reached the toe of the wall. We craned our heads backwards to stare up that ridiculously steep slope. It was a good thing we hadn’t been able to truly see it in dark or we never would have had the willpower to attempt it. Now the mountain was bathed in sunlight. Around us flowed the most pristine, smoothest, whitest landscape imaginable. The snow was immaculate, laying on the mountain in graceful swoops and fields.
We climbed down slowly, savoring the ease of the descent, and absorbing all the beauty. We took photos and talked with Andres about the climb, now that our fingers weren’t numb and we had enough air to speak. We kept spying massive formations of ice and snow, caves and potholes and crevasses lined with icicles. The rocks around us that were too steep and shear to hold snow were the deep, rich brown color of chocolate, shot through with veins of orange iron.
Back at High Camp we moaned and groaned in pain and disbelief. Everything ached, but each ache reminded us of the feat we had accomplished. It was a good pain, the pain of well-earned success.