Bolivia - Climbing Huayna Potosi

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South America » Bolivia » La Paz Department » Huayna Potosí
February 19th 2011
Published: April 1st 2011
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I decided that whilst I was in the Andes I wanted to climb a 6000m mountain. I'd already done quite a bit of high altitude hiking, but the highest peak I'd climbed was 5,100m. I booked on a three day tour from La Paz to climb Huayna Potosi - purported to be the one of the easiest 6,000m mountains in the world to climb and is about 6,050m.

I, and two Australians - Pat and Alex - set off in the morning to drive to the mountain, which is a couple of hours from La Paz. We arrived at base camp at around 4,800m and after lunch set off to practice ice climbing on the glacier. We walked for around an hour and then when we reached the start of the glacier we spent some time parading around with our crampons and ice axes practising different techniques. All pretty straight forward and good fun. The scenery was spectacular and the weather sunny, and despite the high altitude, warm.

We spent the night at the base camp lodge to acclimatise and then the following morning climbed to high camp at 5,200m. The climb took around three or hours or so following a rocky path. Despite the low oxygen air and the fairly steep paths I didn't find the climb too difficult and was in good spirits when I arrived at the camp.

I looked out over the jagged snow covered peaks lit up by the harsh sunshine. I was feeling a little out of breath and could notice the lack of oxygen but felt pretty good. It was, however, bitterly cold: even in the shelter. I was wearing all my clothes and was still freezing (literally). As darkness fell it got colder and colder and we retreated to our sleeping bags to try and get some sleep.

Sleep did not come. My heart was pounding and my body was charged with adrenaline as it tried to pump enough oxygen around my body. Despite the thermal sleeping bag and my clothes I was still freezing cold.

Finally, at 12.30am we rose unrested to begin preparation for the push to the summit - predicted to take around 5-6 hours. Unfortunately the weather had change and it was snowing heavily and visibility was reduced to about a meter! This did not seem to deter our guides, however, and I doubtfully set off.

It was slow and painful going. Any exertion at that altitude left me gasping for breath and dizzy. And climbing a steep slope covered in a meter of fresh snow is pretty exerting... What concerned me the most was that we couldn't see more than a meter ahead and had no idea whether we were following the right path. Any deter from the path could see us plunging into a crevasse. Of course, the guides make this trip everyday and know the route in any condition, but I wasn't so sure.

We pushed on for several hours, making slow but steady progress until we were delighted to reach a vertical ice wall of probably around 20-30m. Vertical ice climbing is hard work at sea level so at 5,600m it was excruciating. I reached the top and my hands were painful with the cold - frostbite? It was bitterly cold and whilst we had stopped to recover from the climb the cold started to seep deep into the core of my body.

Nevertheless we trudged slowly on, stopping frequently to get our breath back. At around 5,800m faced with another steep climb in the blizzard I started to rethink the idea... The conditions were appalling, I was dizzy, my head was throbbing and my lungs felt like they were going to burst. The thoughts going through my head were something like... I can't breath or think, it's fuc king freezing, this is hell, this is fuc king dangerous, we would never have been allowed to climb this in these conditions anywhere else apart from Bolivia.

Out of the seven trekkers who were in the high camp three of them, obviously much fitter or acclimatised than us, had made much quicker progress and were presumably some way ahead. The three of us and another Ozzie guy were trailing behind. Our guide said we were making such slow progress that it would probably take another two or three hours to reach the top!

Three of us decided that we were going to throw in the towel. Pat carried on with another guide. We started to descend, which was a little easier going down than up but still hard work. And climbing down the ice wall was even harder than going up. We couldn't see the route and didn't want to end up climbing off the edge of the cliff. Our guide was still at the top after securing the rope.

We trudged back to the high camp which seemed to take forever and at one point my foot went through the snow and my leg was left dangling in the abyss below...a snow bridge over a crevasse. The guide did an expert job of leading us back despite that the heavy snow had obscured all traces of tracks and crevasses. At one point he couldn't find the way and spent a few minutes walking around checking out routes. But we set off again and he lead us back perfectly. (We later found that one of guides had got lost with his group and spent quite some time wondering around trying to find the route).

We got back to the camp and some time later the rest of the trekkers returned. The three had made it to the top; although they also said it was hell. Pat made it to around 6,000m but the guide made him turn back due to an avalanche, which made it too dangerous to continue. I was comforted slightly that even if we had continued we wouldn't have made it.

It was still bitterly cold in the high camp even in the sleeping bag and I couldn't get warm. After resting for a couple of hours we descended back to base camp. We were driven back to La Paz and I was relieved to be back in the hostel with a nice warm shower and some decent food.

Only in Bolivia do they let backpackers with no mountaineering experience climb an extremely high mountain requiring technical ice climbing in a blizzard...

It was one of the most intense experiences of my trip, beautiful, scary, and painful. That evening I was obliged to numb the pain in the hostel bar with my climbing companions.

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