Peaking above the clouds on Huayna Potosi

Published: May 18th 2011
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When we trekked to Annapurna Base camp (November 2009) we had ascended 3,500 metres over 5 days bringing us to the lofty altitude of 4,300m. At the time this was the highest point on earth either of us had been, and as we stood there awed, gazing at the snowy mountain peaks all around us Lewi declared that he had a huge urge to continue higher. Obviously at that time it wasnt possible (no gear, no guide), but i think it was this lingering curious urge and promise of other-worldly sights that brought us to the door of 'Huayna Potosi Refugio Tours'.

Like many of the countless agencies in La Paz, 'H.P.R.T' offered guided excursions to the summit of the collosal and beautiful Huayna Potosi. One of the many stunning snowy monsters in the Cordillera Real range, Huayna Potosi towers at over 6000m, 6000 and 88 metres to be precise. Creating a formidable backdrop to Bolivia's governmental capital, the mystery of the Cordillera Real inspired the beginning of an epic mountain adventure.

The chuckle brothers-esque drivers who collected us from our hotel half an hour later than arranged didnt exactly fill us with confidence, however, as soon as we met Felix Vargas, our guide into the wilderness, fear was dispelled. This father of three had 30 years of mountainering experience and was professional, experienced and friendly. He organised all our equipment, and we sat back staring bewildered at the huge pile of ice axes, crampons, helmets, harnessess, fleeces, balaclavas, jackets, sallopettes and plastic snow boots that grew before us...where would it all go? The answer was, on our backs! Loaded up like donkeys we set of with the chuckle brothers in a rattly old van, climbing to El Alto (the highest section of La Paz city) and onward until we rounded a corner and the gigantic sight of Huayna Potosi filled the windscreen. The van trundled along the dusty road, passing ancient graveyards and purple lakes, dodging herds of alpacas as we went. It was a scenic trip, with alpine hillsides, jagged rocks and glaciers, but the mountain kept pulling our attention back...the thought that in two days we would be standing at the top was very hard to believe.

Base camp, reached by road, was at a chilly 4624m and came in the form of a wooden lodge, complete with an open fire and huge meals served by the in-house cook. It was sat on the shore of a milky blue reservoir of melt water. This water powers the hydro-electric plant and in turn provides electricity to millions of homes in the valleys. After we'd taken in the lovely location and digested the delicious almuerzo it was time to get on with it.

Felix set a steady pace, and Lewi and I clumped along behind him, uncomfortable in the plastic snow boots, today we were headed for the glacier where we would learn the icey techniques necessary for such a climb as we had ahead of us. It took an hour to reach the glacier and as soon as we clicked into our crampons we were off, crunching over the ice, up 60° inclines and perfecting our steps. The thick cloud that hung all around occassionally parted to give a glimpse of the peaks, but with equal gusto blew sharp hailstones at our faces. It felt such an intense experience and the scaling of a shear ice wall and abseiling back down it capped off a thrilling insight as to what was to come.

We had had a brilliant day and, although a little tired after the three kilometre round trip, were still brimming with energy and excitement for tomorrow. We shared the warmth of a blazing fire and dinner with a friendly french couple, before getting an early night in preparation for a potentially sleepness night to come.

The next morning a peek out the window revealed a perfectly clear sky and crystal sharp image of the regal mountain we were going to attempt to summit. It was stunningly beautiful and we stared at it while sipping our coca leaf tea and warming our hands around the mugs. We weren't due to set off for the ascent until 1pm, which was just as well becuase Felix had disappeared. After a few jumbled spanish questions we discovered that on our return from the glacier yesterday, Felix had hot-footed it up to the high camp and was, at this point in time, probably half way back to base camp having completed a summit attempt at dawn with a different group. We were impressed but hoped he would still be in good form and not tired for the climb he was again going to lead. We shouldn't have been concerned, the man was a machine. He collected us from the base camp refugio and we began what was to be the hardest walk of our lives.

For the first section there was no need for ice equipment and so all the weighty extras were shoved into our rucksacks and of course this made the relatively easy path that much harder. We scrambled across freezing icey rivers, and passed uninterested alpacas who continued their scrub chomping without a single glance in our direction. We reached a check point and paid our national park fees, and from here it was a vertical scramble over rocks which as we got higher became covered with snow. We had overtaken the 5000 metre mark long below and now stood at approximately 5200m. There was one final push necessary before we reached our camp for the evening. It took a lot of determination to force my legs into gear to tackle the last few hundred metres of undulating snow, which finished with a grueling slope to reach the orange tin hut that was our shelter for the night.

It had been good to use the crampons on snow and having had the previous days practice we felt more comfortable in them and had learnt to trust in their grip. As we had hiked, the clouds had encroached upon us, and now a white blanket surrounded us. We set about removing our cumbersome gear while Felix prepared an evening meal which neither of us had much stomach for. High base camp was at 5,300m and I honestly don't think humans are meant to sleep, eat or live at such heights. Our bodies began to refuse to cooperate, we could barely eat and when we attempted to sleep we were thwarted by heachaches, nausea and discomfort. Fortunately the tin hut was better insulated than it looked and we were at least warm in our (non)sleeping bags.

It was pitch black outside when we awoke, we prepared for the ascent and stood shivering outside the hut at 2am, the strong wind swirling around us and howling in our ears. It felt as though we were about to commence an Arctic expedition, especially when the ropes that linked us all together were fastened securely to our harnesses and headlamps clamped to our foreheads. This was the real deal, and as soon as we commenced climbing we both pushed aside the sleeplessness, swallowed the sickening feeling in our stomaches and tried to settle into a walking rhythm.

This was easier said than done and it soon became clear that I was struggling. The thinness of the air, strenuous phsyical activity, mild altitude sickness and lack of sleep and nutrition were playing their part. I huffed and puffed my way up the snowy passes, leaning heavily on my ice axe to support myself as I regained my breath. Lewi pointed out the twinkling sea of lights far below in La Paz, which I did my best to observe. I can recall now that it was a gorgeous sight but at the time all I could do was put one foot in front of the foot further. Somehow, between Lewi's gentle persuasion and encouragement from behind, and Felix's silent tug on my harness I kept moving.

There were times when I said I couldn't go any further, and in my exhaustion I lost the abiltiy to form sentences (in english or spanish) just mumbling "momentito" and "stop", but we pushed through this. We were able to draw a little strength from the fact that others were in much worse states than we were; some people passed us having turned back, and others were vomiting regularly into the snow. On we determinedly went, the cold having taken over our toes was now seeping up the feet towards the ankles, but we kept going.

Finally in a moment of rest (read: Hannah slumps to the floor while Lewi feeds her chocolate and nice words) we noticed that the horizon was sliced with red. It was beautiful, the sun was beginning to rise and we were almost there. This was enough motivation to get us back on our feet. A steep and narrow path cut diagonally across the mountain and along it we marched, the sky becoming lighter all the time and the incredible sunrise colours painting the surroundings in stunning pinks. After a painful last half an hour we reached the summit, a huge wave of emotion swept over me. Partly pain, exhaustion, pride and happiness and partly terror at the situation we found oursleves in. The last section of the climb was along an impossibly narrow ridge with literally thousands of metres drop on either side, I almost had a panic attack and had to sit down. When the shakiness had receeded and the tears subsided I was able to look around me and truely appreciate the beauty and the enormity of what we had accomplished.

Lewi, who seems to be made for this activity, was composed and began to point out all that we could see around us. To the west we could see as far as Lake Titicaca, and the huge shadow of Huayna Potosi laying across the land like a perfect triangle. To the north phenomenal mountains and a sea of shimmering clouds. Looking below at the path we had climbed it was difficult to believe that we'd made it, shear drops, ice caves, crevaces all sparkling and glittering in the early morning sunlight. It was the most magical sight in the world and worth every painful step to get there.

The cold was intense though and so we couldn't hang around for too long. The downward journey was less extreme in pain but more astonishing, to be able to see the route we'd traversed in the dark was at times frightening. It was like a winter wonderland, massive cracks deep in the ice, fringed with hanging icicles, and powder perfect snow that tempted you to roll in it.

It had been an exhausting, emotional journey, but by midday we had descended all the way down to base camp, gradually peeling off layers as our body parts thawed out. Along with the stunning photographs, intense memories and sense of satisfaction, Huayna Potosi has left other reminders...Lewi's left toe is still numb and this is 2 weeks later!!

Additional photos below
Photos: 50, Displayed: 29


our first pic of the ascentour first pic of the ascent
our first pic of the ascent

...such hard work we couldnt take any.

Tot: 1.631s; Tpl: 0.057s; cc: 30; qc: 130; dbt: 0.0623s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.7mb