Getting High, Bolivian Style


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South America » Bolivia » La Paz Department » Huayna Potosí
February 18th 2008
Published: February 18th 2008
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Huayna Potosi from Base campHuayna Potosi from Base campHuayna Potosi from Base camp

Continually looming over us, a reminder of the climb ahead
Call it a sense of adventure, call it stupidity, whatever, it has been a goal on this trip to climb a 6,000m mountain. So my first opportunity arose near to La Paz where Huayna (Pronounced Why-na) Potosi stands, 6,088m (19,974 ft) high. (Warning - this blog contains lots of geeky figures and measurments that may impress some, but will probably bore most!). Its said that this is one of the easier 6,000m + mountains to climb in the world, but i can say now, if this is an easy one i never want to attempt a challenging one!

Off i set then for a 3 day expedition to attempt to summit with my guide, Felizandro, and a fellow adventurer from Argentina, Nicolas. The three day trip is partially to help with aclimatization, as well as giving a day to practice ice climbing and walking in crampons.

We arrived at base camp, a refugio located at 4,747m altitude, on the edge of a lake. Looming menacingly behind the refugio we got our first glimpse of the challenge ahead, as Huayna Potosi loomed overhead. It looked absolutely spectacular, covered in snow and glistening in the afternoon sun.

After a hearty
Huayna Potosi summit from advance base campHuayna Potosi summit from advance base campHuayna Potosi summit from advance base camp

It doesn´t look like 850m above, but it definitely felt like it!
lunch, we all set off on a 40min walk to the lowest part of the glacier on the mountain. Once here, we got kitted up in waterproofs, gaitors, harness, crampons and ice axe. Feeling (well at least looking) now like a proper mountaineer, we set off up the glacier. Felizandro taught us the basic techniques for walking on the ice, which is reasonably easy if you assume a John Wayne style walk with legs apart. Then it was on to the ice walls. To practice on, these were around 10m high, and at 70 degree gradients. We practiced climbing up and then rapelling back down these for a couple of hours. Feeling pretty exhausted even after the slightest exertion, i was beginning to wander how i would get the energy to climb the mountain.

So back to the refugio. It was then Nicolas decided he had had enough of the altitude and wouldn´t attempt the mountain. And we hadn´t even set off on the climb! So it was just going to be Felizandro and myself. What if he was actually a mass murderer and decided to throw me off the mountain. Now no-one would ever know! I decided to
Home, sweet home.Home, sweet home.Home, sweet home.

Advance base camp at 5,210m. A room with a view!
take the chance.

Day 2 and I awoke in the refugio to....a driving snow storm and blizzard outside the window. Not a great start to the day and not really inspiring me to start walking. Day 2 however is a short walk of 2.5 hours or so, going up to advance base camp at 5,210m. Due to the short walk, we stayed around the refugio all morning, having 2 huge cooked meals to get the energy levels up before the climbing started.

By the time we set off at 2pm, the snow had reduced to heavy rain showers and hardly any visibility. Lovely. We slogged on through the rain to the advance base camp at the bottom of the snow line. Amazingly as we walked, the rain stopped and the skies cleared dramatically, giving fantastic views of the mountain ahead. This walk wasn´t too challenging, generally steep rocky paths.

We arrived late afternoon at advance base camp and set up for the night. It appeared 1 other group were up for the summit attempt the next day too. After some soup and pasta, it was to bed at 6.20pm!!! This is needed as we were to get up at midnight for a 1am start for the summit attempt. Its really hard to try and sleep at this altitude. Every time i lay still, i could feel my heart beating out of my chest, struggling for oxygen. This is combined with the nervousness of the thought of the walk ahead and it being so early. I tried to listen to music to send me over. Neither Jack Johnson nor Jeff Buckley had the desired affect. I think i got about 30mins sleep before the welcome(?) noise of Felizandro´s alarm came. How could i climb this on 30 mins sleep!

After a cup of mate and a few chocolate biscuits (the basis of any healthy climbing breakfast!), off we set. This time it was with all the ice climbing gear on. The weather appeared to have held overnight and it was a reasonably clear night, but exceptionally cold as a bitter wind blew across us. I was roped to Felizandro, about 5m behind him, and on we trudged across the snow.

It´s just so hard to get the energy to walk at this height, it was a slow steady, one foot in front of the other pace.
Looking out over the Cordillera RealLooking out over the Cordillera RealLooking out over the Cordillera Real

Base camp was on the edge of the lake in the picture.
I found the hardest parts to be just after breaks, for a couple of minutes, before getting into a slow, steady rhythm again. The pace felt so slow i thought we weren´t getting anywhere. All i could do was focus with the light of my headtorch on Felizandro ahead.

The other group going for the summit, whom we had seen the torchlights of earlier behind us, seemed to have disappeared. It seemed they had given up after about 1.5 hours and retreated back to advance base camp. It was just going to be the 2 of us going for the summit.

At one stage the weather closed in to a bit of snowstorm. Summitting was looking a bleak possibility if it stayed. But luckily after 30 mins it passed on, giving way to the starry sky again. A relief, of sorts!

So on we slogged, for 4 hours. This included a 50m ice climb which really took it out of me. But mostly it was long, gradual uphills of varying difficulty across the snow. As the walk went on, breaks became more frequent and longer as i got more exhausted. Then we arrived at the base of
Daybreak over Huayna PotosiDaybreak over Huayna PotosiDaybreak over Huayna Potosi

The sun begins to show the snow covered hills we had clambered over in the dark.
the final summit climb.

Felizandro told me to leave my rucksack at the base for this one as it was a big climb. This one was going to hurt. The final push to the summit is up a 200m, 55 deg ice wall. Luckily it was still dark so i couldn´t see what was ahead.

It was so difficult. The only way i could take my mind off the pain was to count through the routine to ice climb. Ice axe in, then one, two, three steps up, then ice axe again. I was feeling so weak though, i hardly had the energy to lift my ice axe. There were many break when i was hanging on the ice wall by my axe and crampons. Felizandro was calling 50m to go, 25m to go, 10m to go. At only 10m to go to the summit, i looked up and could see the top of the ice, with the stars in the night sky ahead. But i just couldn´t move. So close. I had to rest for almost 10 mins before i could muster the energy to go on.

But i slowly pushed up the last 10m to
Because the Garmin never liesBecause the Garmin never liesBecause the Garmin never lies

Reading of 6,110m at the top. A little more than the official summit height, but i´ll take the extra. Its still a long way up!
the summit. By this stage it had been an hour of climbing on the ice. Felizandro is standing on top and says "Look, its the lights of La Paz", pointing off in the distance. I collapse at his feet, exhausted. But i had made it to the top. 6,088m. Huayna Potosi, conquered.

After a few mins to recover, i was finally able to take in the view. It was the first light of the day. As well as La Paz, the lights around Lake Titicaca could be seen, and the high altiplano off in the distance. In the other direction, a big lightening storm was moving over the Cordillera Real, below us! It was just amazing.

Its kind of a surreal feeling to think you are so high. To put things into perspective, I was standing over 6km, or over 3.75 miles, ABOVE the surface of the Pacific Ocean. The air pressure is so low up here that for every breath you take (and every move you make!), you get about half the oxygen from it that you get at sea level, so you have to breathe deeper and faster, which is exhausting in itself. Without the additional
Felizandro and myself at the summitFelizandro and myself at the summitFelizandro and myself at the summit

Very tired but very glad to have made it.
exercise of climbing. Basically nothing lives at this height, because it can´t survive. And there i stood, looking down on Bolivia and Peru below. Its really hard to describe how it felt. But i do know it was totally amazing.

After some photos and a confirmation from the GPS that i actually was on top (it actually credited me with being at 6,110m, i´ll take the extra 20m gladly), we started the descent. This was a slow, long and pretty painful journey. My knees were really starting to suffer. As we descended, daylight proper broke, giving some amazing views off to the Cordillera Real. We were looking down on cloud filled valleys and endless mountains poking through. It was awesome scenery.

Also on Huayna Potosi now, i could see what i had climbed. The final ascent climb looked even worse than it felt. I think it is good to do it in the dark so i couldn´t see what was ahead or left to do. The various snow and ice filled valleys of the mountain also looked aweseome, with some deep crevices in the glacier, which we had avoided in the dark.

Eventually we made it to
Mike the Mountaineer?Mike the Mountaineer?Mike the Mountaineer?

Glad to have made it to the summit.
advance base camp and gathered up the sleeping things, before continuing down to the base refugio. I was so glad to reach there in the end as i was absolutely shattered. But also so relieved i had made it.

It was a good thing to get back to La Paz for a welcome shower, big dinner, a beer, and a day to recover today. Its still kind of sinking in that i have done it. A fantastic few days and well worth all the effort.



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The final 200m summit ascentThe final 200m summit ascent
The final 200m summit ascent

So thats what it looked like in daylight! This climb nearly finished me off.
Cordillera Real at SunriseCordillera Real at Sunrise
Cordillera Real at Sunrise

As seen from the slopes of Huayna Potosi.
Huayna PotosiHuayna Potosi
Huayna Potosi

The first view of the challenge ahead
Practicing Ice climbingPracticing Ice climbing
Practicing Ice climbing

We climbed up and rappelled down that ice face, slowly!
Just like Spiderman!Just like Spiderman!
Just like Spiderman!

Practicing on the ice wall of the glacier - Not at 6,000m, not in the dark and not feeling exhausted....that was all to come.
View from base camp.View from base camp.
View from base camp.

Situated on the edge of a turquoise lake.


19th February 2008

I don't want to steal your thunder but I went to the CO-OP yesterday for my weekly shop. It was terrfic! Hope you are having a great time mate. Looks amazing!

Tot: 2.428s; Tpl: 0.055s; cc: 14; qc: 81; dbt: 0.0518s; 2; m:saturn w:www (104.131.125.221); sld: 2; ; mem: 1.5mb