A Broken Man - Failing to Climb Huayna Potosi 6088m

Published: November 14th 2011
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About This Entry

This is my longest ever blog entry, which is a little mad considering the actual events documented only cover three days. I have my reasons though, in the run up to the mountain attempt I was unwell in La Paz; not massively so and I don't know why exactly. I was incredibly lethargic and hard a brutal phlegm riddled cough as well as a bit of travellers sickness. Perhaps it was the altitude, perhaps it was something I ate, perhaps it was the foul dust in the air in Adventure Brew's new building - it doesn't matter. The easiest thing to do when you're not feeling well in this sort of situation is to just relax until you regain energy, this can lead to a situation of watching endless television or one where you head constantly spins, thinking and pondering elements of life. My brain struggled sluggishly through the latter.

I was heading towards my two year mark of backpacking and this fact was in my thoughts a lot; how I have changed since 1st November 2008 when my terrified person somehow took a flight, alone, to the insanity of Delhi and how I hope to change in the future. Alongside this is where I came from before that, why I am the person that I think I am.

During this period of contemplation I decided that I would attempt to put down my thoughts in words, something more concrete than writing where I have been and what I have done. When I made a decision whilst not feeling well to have a go at climbing the mountain anyway, I figured I would add these writings to this entry to justify my reasons for the attempt and also to touch upon why I try to spend as much of my life as possible travelling.


Why Despite Feeling Like Ass I Still Chose to Reach for the Top

At 6088m, Huayna Potosi is a huge mountain, just under 20,000 feet. I think for people who have never been on a proper mountain it is difficult to visualise this height. For those from the UK, feel feel to attempt to imagine four Mt Snowdon's piled on top of each other as a totem pole, with a Ben Nevis sitting underneath the tower to form the base. That is how tall Huayna Potosi is.

The first reason I wanted to attempt the mountain is obvious, I wanted to be able to sit at the top of a mountain above the clouds once again. I have trekked and scrambled numerous peaks in past travels and the challenge of the next steps were too great for me to turn down. A new altitude record, walking in snow, climbing on ice. Sitting atop a collosal mount as the sun rises around. Why wouldn't I want to attempt something this challenging, potentially dangerous and therefore thrilling?!

As noted before, I was heading towards my two year anniversary of backpacking and coincidentally the same day friends I'd made in La Paz were due to attempt the final push for the top of the mountain. My 730th day of backpacking could be spent atop a 6088m, once again, why wouldn't I want to try to do this, despite knowing the probable challenge from other ascents, more so due to the increased challenge, more so from my recent sicknesses.

Deeper into things I delve...

For as long as know, my mind has appeared to function different to almost every person I have met. I don't believe this is a self-indulgent, teenage imagination at work and most of those who know me well will agree. "I like you because you're strange" is a comment that springs to mind. My opinions on almost everything are different to others, the few times a point of view on something is shared closely I am surprised and of course, pleased. My differences are not intentional and have irritated many of my family and friends. I am certain plenty of people who are slightly more open to their mental situation feel the same, I guess I feel that it occurs to me far more. It is also something that I dislike, the world would be far easier if I could follow the crowd more often in my thoughts.

I don't know why it affected me differently, but I always wanted to escape my life in the UK. Perhaps it's because I am from Hereford, a small city near the Welsh border and as much as possible in overcrowded England, it is in the middle of nowhere, devoid even of a major road connection to anywhere else in the country. To me it always seemed like a trap, in the autumn until a recent year, it was regular for every route out of the city to flood, effectively turning it into an island. It is a beautiful countryside town, a place for people who desire quiet lives, a place where plenty come to retire (or as I joke blackly sometimes, to die), a place that I grew to appreciate more whilst away travelling the first time by reading the town news online for comically benial headlines such as 'For Sale Sign on Fire'.

I have such divided feelings, it's a bore I realise, but this is my writing, no one elses. I can't imagine living in my home town in my future life, I would miss the life of a bigger city, the easy connections to travel and the knowledge of the outside world. Most people I know at home seem to have little to no interest or knowledge of what is going on in the world, often even within the UK. For example an international disaster such as an earthquake is barely news unless there is a celebrity event to raise money for it. Most people are far happier to read an exaggerated tabloid with news about the latest Big Brother of X-Factor news than of something that genuinely matters. I have always found the world far more interesting than my surroundings and so I have always wanted to see it.

The idea of a typical life within my home town has always appeared impossible to me. I am now 26 and at my age if I was following the standard of the majority of my friends, I would at least have a mortgage, if not a married with children. I would love that settled 'normal' life, but I have always had a war in my head between commitment and complete freedom. I assume I will always be able to settle one day, who knows when, but I won't always be young enough to travel in the fashion I am now. So many marriages seem to break down whilst people are in the 20's and I can only assume it's either because people haven't realised who they are so early in their lives or because they realise their partner isn't right for them. I would love to avoid this if possible! I would love to meet someone whilst on the road. Whilst working in my hometown last year, I was working entirely with a group of settled people from in an around the county, or various ages. They all told me that I should carry on travelling, that perhaps if they'd thought more whilst younger then they would have.

Similarly to relationships in a persons 20's is working and careers; so many people I know have or had almost no clue what they really wanted to do with their careers during these years and as a result so many have done absolutely terrible jobs purely for money before going on to various decent professions. I have little idea what I want to do in the future, although gradually I think I am homing in on the answer, but I have no desire for the part of my life to be wasted with lousy indecisive days and work, earning low wages or doing a job I dislike just to get to the next day. I try to look for good jobs whilst I travel and varied ones to give me a better idea for the future. To date I have worked in customer service, an autoworkshop looking after children and cars, in management information, debt collection which turned into invoicing to payroll to rewriting and rebuilding the financial structure of a national Australian company - I've tried numerous different types of jobs to help give me a better career idea, without being stuck in one and whilst being able to save and continue travelling until that time.

I guess part of me wants to travel until my late 20's, keep enjoying myself in a slightly crazy varied life until I have a better idea of what I would like to do in the future and whilst avoiding some of the more traditional clichés on the way. Another excuse to keep travelling is that the job market in the UK is somewhat of an abomination at the moment, my last job in my home town was a terrible one as there was nothing else around, even if I were to move to a larger city. Australia barely felt the effects of the economic crisis so I have much better options. In addition to that, the cost of living there is relatively inexpensive compared to the average minimum wage, which is far higher than in England. For the same reasons I am to going to try my luck in Canada when I come to the end of my time in South America and perhaps after, New Zealand.

Increasingly during this trip, I have considered what the ideal lifestyle for me would consist of. This is a little off topic I guess, or perhaps it's not, but I am of course going to continue anyway. Perhaps that lifestyle would be a combination of travelling and working. Amongst considerations for this are working for the UN or a similar organisation, travel photography or writing, or perhaps even journalism. All of these are incredibly difficult to get involved with however, so at the moment it is only something that I have thought about. I do not believe I have a good enough style of writing or command of English to achieve the writing, but I do love some of the photos I have taken. Along with this idea, I again have my conflict in am image of me being relaxed, happy, in a garden with my wife and a child.

It is easier to keep travelling because it would be cruel for me to settle into a relationship that I couldn't guarantee I wanted in the long haul - it seems wrong to enter one with conflict and as I said, I want to avoid the 'messy confused 20's'. The pool of potential partners is infinitely increased whilst travelling - an endless stream of people from all over the globe. It clearly gives a person a far broader spectrum of different people to meet and experience. A much bigger choice so someone who is truely special sticks out far more.

When I started at university, one of my plans was to start playing far more sport again, which I did for a while. Definitely partying too much at the start, but also running a lot of trying to get into one of the university football teams. Unfortunately, only a few months into the first semester I destroyed my right knee, tearing cartilage, damaging my medial ligaments and snapping my anterior cruciate in half. My oldest friend has far bigger problems with respect to this than me, but I was devastated none the less. More so after 18 months of rehabilitation and two botched operations by a terrible surgeon, after this time I was left unable to play football, squash and various other sports again. I had always that the competitive edge of me defined a large part of me, and having it taken away hit me hard and for a long time after I think I drank too much, I put on a lot of weight and lost a girl who I was deeply in love with. My self esteem was at an all time low and losing her hurt more than anything I could've imagined, another reason why I needed to leave the UK, for a fresh start, to find some worth and to avoid a situation where I should have a partner more so, because I didn't want to consider going through the same again. I still have huge issues with relationships, hopefully it's something that I can work through one day.

I realise of course that compared to most of the world, my problems are petty. I have witnessed the horrors of politics and poverty in numerous countries, it is one of the things that has changed my perspective of home and I think why I am to write this. I know my problems and I know I want to correct them myself, I am not drifting unhappily.

The greatest moment in my life happened whilst I was in Nepal, January 2009, their winter. A cousin of mine had backpacked in the early 90's and has told me on a few occasions that completing the Annapurna Circuit was the best part of all of his travels. I considering trying the trek, especially in the deep Himalayan winter with my knee a stupid challenge, but I had to have a go. I walked for the first four says with a heavy duty knee brace on before removing it and to my surprise, making it to Thorung La at 5416m. It was a tremendous achievement for me, it hurt a lot, but I had found something that was physical and challenging that I could actually do. It boosted my esteem massively and opened up a huge door, I fell in love with the mountains.

I developed stomach problems in Asia during 2009, which despite treatment, spread to chest problems and only whilst home this year, 2011 did I finally start to lose some of the pain and problems. Other than diahorrea for months, I had worms and intestinal damage which after so much time, gave me never ending heart burn. The whole time these problems were in flow, I felt half alive. If you can't breathe properly or feel comfortable, it is not possible to lead a normal life, no matter how hard you try. I loved my first trip in Asia and the following time in Australia following this, but it was hard and I can't imagine how different it would all have been without those problems. Travelling without them now I feel genuinely free once more and want to take the opportunities like Huayna Potosi. Feeling like crap in La Paz was not on the same scale as the lousiness that I felt in that period before, so I thought it was possible, or at least that there was a chance.

I think of myself as a person who is confident in himself in comparison to the average person, although not in relationships. It is not a natural confidence, but one that I have found during my travels as I always wanted, although unfortunately it has not spread to relationships. I have little to no fears of the world or its environments, to some the remote Himalayas seems like an insanity, to others it's an adventure. Climbing Potosi was something I wanted from the moment I heard it was a possibility, to break 6000m and to do it on that two year anniversary was my final push despite my condition at the time. I wanted to stop the wasted days in Bolivia previously, to achieve a huge win, to bury my knee problems and my past issues another shovel of dirt underground. I want that win, I wanted that achievement. I wanted to be in the dark on top of the world and watch the sun being its climb into the sky. I wanted the win to diminish any residual anger.

I had been ill in La Paz for a week but it felt right to attempt the climb against logic, I wanted to reach, I wanted to bring a dream into reality and make it to the top of Huayna Potosi.

Finally, The Climb Itself

I had spent five more nights in La Paz to reacclimatize, during this time I had little appetite and felt nauseous most of the time. Everything and everything felt like too much effort, even drinking, I was lethargic in every way and generally not right. Perhaps it was altitude, perhaps a bug, perhaps even the poor air in Adventure Brew's new building, I don't know. In either case, for my many reasons, I booked myself onto the climb. Bright and early, August 25 2011, I met my group for the climb.

Along for the adventure were six other people, two German girls, an Aussie guy, a Spanish girl, a Dutch girl and a Dutch guy. It was a sound group of people with ages ranging from 18 to early 30's. We left the city office and headed to the outskirts of La Paz where the city border ends and the sprawl becomes El Alto, a former district which attracts thousands of poverty people in an attempt for a better life. They live in El Alto because it the the top of La Paz, therefore the coldest area and therefore also the cheapest. We stopped at an odd shaped building here and entered a large flat that was full of climbing here. We spent a comical hour attempting to gear up and find the equipment in the proper sizes. It was most of the groups first time wearing any of it. A pair of snow boats, crampons, an ice ice, a helmet, belts and clothes were eventually chosen by all, much like the people in our group, the equipment was of varied condition and age. I was blessed with a comical mix including a bright orange jacket and green dungarees. Wearing only the dungarees I was only a moustache away from a great Luigi Halloween costume.

We boarded the minibus and headed out of El Alto, the change from city to nothingness almost instantaneous. The peak of the mountain appeared over the horizon, a perfect white peak. We drew closer and closer, the mountain revealing more and more of itself whilst still hiding an unknown portion of its tremendous bulk. We stopped on a plateau for some photos, still far from the mountain, but in a perfect location to bring forth feelings of excitement, fear and impatience. We were already at 4000m, being in the madness of Bolivia's landscape but at 6088m, Huanya Potosi looked ridiculously tall, and a large portion was covered in an obviously thick layer of snow.

After our photos we jumped back in the bus. At this point I was already good friends with the Dutch pair, Linda and Thijs and the Australian, Liam, who had been staying in the Adventure Brew as well. I had only met Linda the previous evening, but as she wears a big beautiful smile constantly and only took a few seconds after mine and Liam's suggestion to climb the mountain, so I liked her straight away. We drew closer to the mountain, passing lagoons stained red from the chemicals of the earth and a large cemetery before arriving our surprisingly fantastic lodge at the base of the mountain, next to a lagoon and a hydroelectric dam. I've said it many times before but I will once again here - any journey in South America leaves you in a completely different environment and landscape. One of things I love most about this continent.

We unloaded our gear and had a brief wander around the close area (primarily consisting of vacant staring at the mountain), before settling into the lodge to relax. Whilst in a content state of lounginess, somes people began to return from the climb, carrying with them various stories of pain - every single person looked like they'd suffered a rather exhausting car crash. Amongst them were a pair of marathon runners who gave us a comparison of their sport to the climb - I'm sure you can work out which is harder. Their comparison of the difficulty fell upon 'the wall' and whilst I'm paraphrasing, it's something like this...

"When you start running a marathon, it is after much preparation, good sleep and good food. When you hit the wall during a marathon it hurts, a lot, but you continue at relatively the same rate of physical exhertion, but you know where the finish line is, you know how much further you must go.. When you start climbing for the summit, it is after barely one or two hours of sleep and lousy food. When you hit the wall whilst climbing a mountain, which isn't as far from you poor bed as you'd hope, you have only a relentlessly decreasing level of oxygen to suck away the last remants of your energy, whilst you continue to trudge forward in the dark with no concept of where the finish line is. It is absolute, purest hell"

Further comments such as "I'm glad I made it, but I hated every minute of it", weren't the most inspirational, but were expected. Some of my group were a little in shock, but I think I was well prepared for the extent of hell thanks to my previous high altitude trekking and scrambling. None the less, to have heard the comments from the runners was strong.

After a decent luncáh we left the safety of our lodge and having geared up with all of our snow equipment. We lumbered our heavy loads several hundred metres up the mountain, stopped at the base of an enormous glacier.

The sight of the glacier stunned me. Despite two weeks in the Himalayas, I had never seen one before and it's size and form blew me away, its beauty tremendous. If it stood alone it would have been described as a mountain but it did not. This ice mountain stretched for hundreds of meters in all directions. Pillars of ice sinking into deep chasms the bottoms of which were not visible. My body has been pumping adreneline from the hike, but in the shadow of this supreme place it surged through my body. I was happy. I was excited.

We sat on the ice and struggled into our gear, everyone sliding around the ice as they tried to do so. One by one, everyone was ready and we all meandered around the trough we were sitting in, experimenting with our cramp-ons, trying not to become the first Bambi. We were on this glacier in part for fun, well, a lot for fun, but importantly also to learn and experience using the gear, in preparation for the sunrise climb.

It began will some simple walking on the ice, our group making circles which progressed to walking up the side of ice surrounding us, cross-stepping up and down slowly and carefully, requiring precise placement of weight. We moved on and up into the ice fortress, watching for pockets and cracks in the surface. The glacier constantly melts under the sun, flowing out the bottom to form a river at the bottom of the mountain; the losses are replaced daily through snow, rain and water flowing onto the glacier.

For the next step, we advanced from merely walking to taking our ice axes in hand and stabbing the spikes at the front of our snow boots into an ice wall. With every kick into the ice we raised our axe, swinging it down into the wall above before kicking the next foot in. This was a huge amount of fun, climbing a wall in an alien environment with no ropes and no safety net. We were 5000m above sea level, leaning into an ice wall, pushing ourselves up, learning as we went. This was quickly becoming one of the most amazing things I have done in my life.

We progressed, eventually reaching the base of a nigh-on vertical ice wall; we turned to look down the glacier and spotted a group of tiny figures at its base, ephasising the barely believeable proportions of our surrounding elements.

When we turned our focus back onto the ice wall we noticed some ropes had been set up and in turn each of us climbed 20 metres to the top using only the crampons and ice axe before abseiling down the glacier. I could've spent all day in this world - it was different and fantastically fun, dangerous and challenging. This day will remain in my memory for my the rest of my life and is one of the reasons why despite my failure to reach the summit, I took a lot away from the trip.

We spent the evening as a group, sat around a roaring fire in the lodge. It felt as what I would imagine a skiiing holiday to be like. We were joined by a Spanish guy who was doing the climb over the same days as us with his own guide, having been climbing in the region in previous days to acclimbatise as best as possible and we ate some good food together as a group. There was a little anxiety through the group for the following days, but we slept relatively well none the less.

After breakfast, Liam, Linda, Thijs and I went wandering around the lounge, wanted to stretch our legs and psyche ourselves for the day. It was a strange morning, we had left individually, but one by one, everyone ended up atop a mound next to a hydro-pole. I guess we were all drawn by the potential view, which was obliging in its perfection. To our left we could make out the top of the lodge and see some of the pure blue lagoon. Behind us were many more Andean mountains with tiny zigzag trails leading up their greyish-green surfaces. To our right was a drop-of belonging to the hydroelectric damn with an extensive canyon view leading off into the distance and following the base curve of what lay directly in front of us, Huayna Potosi. We debated which of the peaks we were aiming for and pondered where we were to sleep that evening. It added to the excitment that the climb was finally going to happen.

We returned, packed and left the comforts of the lodge, crossing the dam and following a dusty path that turned into a huge pipe that we attempted to balance upon. Each member of the group had the option of paying a porter to carry their gear. The girls all chose to have theirs carried, the guys carried their own 18-24kg of equipment - this was probably the biggest contributing factor to my failure.

We stopped a few times to rest, snack and drink as we went. At one point we stopped at a crumbled stone shack where bizarrely sat a lady, herself on a pile of rocks, to check tickets to the national park. We stopped once more time after a guide had spotted a figure below us waving. I ate a Mars Bar as we waited, enjoying spectacular views only mountains can provide. Eventually the figure caught up, it was the owner of the agency where we had booked the climb! Bruno had arrived to inform our guides that on returning to the lodge the day after, they would have to be prepared to head straight back up, a group of 15 were arriving to attempt the climb so they were all required. There was no complaint and they happily joked with Bruno - it seemed like a good working relationship.

Bruno complained sarcastically of the weight that he was lumbering around in his pack and we laughed as he pulled out a two and a half litre bottle of Coke, "Two and a half fucking kilogrammes of fucking Coca Cola - the things I do for my customers!".

Bruno departed and we continued our ascent, up and up the mountain. We circled and clambered up a sharp incline of rocks, both hands being required to cling to the rocky edge of the mountain, a huge precipace looking to greet any mistakes. I felt in my element. I was tired and sore, but loving every single minute of the heavy adventure.

At the top of the climb, we reached the snow line of the mountain. At the same time we reached a large lodge and for a brief moment believed that our day was at an end only to realise that sadly this impressive looking structure was not ours, we had to keep going - ours lay another fifty vertical metres away.

We ploughed on, climbing through a narrow gap between a set of huge boulders, a sheltered area where there was little to no snow. Our camp came into view at the top of a good scramble climb and we piled over the rocks one by one onto the top of a tremendous flat rock and threw our backpacks to the floor. I lay on my back on the rock stretched out, exhausted by the days exertions. In July 2010 I climbed Gunung Kinabalu in Borneo where the peak is only 4096m (I use the term only lightly and only in comparison to Potosi!). When I reached the top there I found the altitude incredibly harsh, my breathing was poor and I had a painful headache. When I went up the mountains at the top end of the Salar de Ulyuni we reached around 5300m and my headache was pheonominally bad - altitude is a bitch. 5300m is at which we found ourselves and the height at which we were somehow expected to spend a night sleeping. We took some group photos as the days adreneline slipped away, which for me, was replaced increasingly by a dull pain in both of my knees. After a few more minutes, they were agonizingly painful, my only relief was found in consistent movement.

My stupid machismo in choosing to carry my 20kg of equipment at high altitude, 650m up a mountain, with my ever-increasingly poor knees had unsurprisingly proved to be a huge mistake.

Time passed as everyone appreciated the view, before one by one the group began to move backpacks into our orange corrugated iron shack. There is little else to describe our accommodation that was squatting on the mountain side. In comparison to the large building 50m down the mountain it was pathetic. I suppose if I had made it to the top from our cabin perhaps I wouldn't comment, but the obvious benefits from staying in a comfortable larger building with electricity, real beds and heating would have surely been an advantage.

The girls spent the majority of their afternoon in the cabin chatting and relaxing The guys remained outside and wandered about, exploring the local areas. We spent a lengthy portion of time looking out and across the staggering view. I had a good laugh at the mountain toilet - a tiny hut hanging on the edge the rocks. Inside was a proper plastic toilet seat and cover but with simply a black bin liner attached below. Changing the bag must be a fairly horrendous task and it was amusing for a while to joke over how the guides must decide who gets to do it. It's door did not shut properly due some fallen rocks in front of the entrance as I discovered by spotting Thijs waving at me from the inside. We discovered the mountains water source shortly after - it was cruder than the toilet, although much cleaner. It was simply a small cave dug into the snow that was away from where people had urinated. I found the secondary toilet shortly after which was a relief with regards to its distance from the snow cave. It was much larger than the metal shack, in fact it covered a vast amount of the mountain side where the rocks dipped down out of view, a hideous area where excrement and tissue paper lay in frozen scattered piles.

We ate as the sun set, or at least we tried to. The meal consisted of a pair of cold frankfurter sausages and some instant noodles. Considering our location it was unsurprising really, although I have had much better in many remote areas throughout different enviroments in Bolivia, perhaps the food in the larger building would have counted as an actual meal, perhaps at least one person could have finished it. Everyone could have definitely done with something a little more substantial to proide energy for the ascent in the morning.

As the sun set, the valley below us filled with clouds, rolling in as if the snow around us was sand and the clouds were the change in tide. In the distance, across the valley were several peaks which emerged above the cloud line. For a moment I wondered whether there should be a lighthouse somewhere to guide boats away from the rocks above the sea. The mountain and the views it granted were surreal, staggering and superb. I could have spent hours taking in the views, but the sun began it descent, its light was fading and the temperature started to drop rapidly. Before I entered the cabin I noticed a glow far off in the distance - the emment glow of La Paz.

The bedroom was as basic as can be imagined. It was a small space with a tiny table to one side, whilst the remainder of the hut was an area with a huge thin foam mattress with another piece of wood above it forming a top bunk. Our guides and porters huddled close to each other in the bottom left corner, some spilled out onto thte small floor space next to the table. The two guys took space in the bottom right and the girls and the Spanish guy (who had arrived before us) lay in strips across the top where I joined them, forming a double layered can of human sardines.

As there was no electricity, it was dark in the hut by 6pm and unrealistically everyone attempted to fall asleep, knowing too well that we were expecting to be up at 1am for the beginning of the sunrise climb. Some of the guides started snoring, it sounded like I was sharing the tin can with a group of yetis. Everyone struggled to sleep but we were nicely warm and protected from the well below zero temperatures through a combination of sleeping bags and the shared body heat of being so close to each other.

At best guess I found a little sleep shortly before midnight - my body is not wired to fall asleep outside of whatever sleeping pattern I'm set to, no matter how tired I am. Irregardless of this however, there was little chance of me sleeping much anyway, it was impossible for me to get comfortable. The surface on which we lay was ok, the problems were my legs. As when we arrived at the lodge, I couldn't keep my legs in the same position with feeling significant pain. I don't know the exact medical reasons for this, but I wondered in the dark whether it's fluid building up in one place, requiring movement to release the pressure. Every few minutes during the night I had to shift my knees up or down to stave off the pain, sleep was a far away desire.

I woke up after perhaps an hour of sleep at the most, feeling fairly terrible. There I lay until we were roused by our guides - it was time to get ready for the sunrise climb, without breakfast. I left the hut as soon as the others started moving, rapidly towards the bathroom with was occupied. My insides were released onto the side of the mountain angrily before I rejoined the others who were sitting around in the snow, adjusting head-torches, tightening boots and attaching crampons. Whilst trying to sort out my gear I had to leave once again for another period of hell - it wasn't looking good for me.

No one had slept well, but that is part of a sun rise climb and something that everyone had to deal with whilst being tied together, two people to every guide. I had hoped to have been paired with Linda, we got on well, seemed to be in similar shape and I could tell she was a determined person, but I found myself tied with Anna, the Spanish girl, who was celebrating her birthday 28th birthday on the mountain.

Liam and Thijs went ahead into the depths of the mountains darkness, with nothing visible unless lit by our weak head torches. Anna and I began our cold slow trudging through the deep snow. We started to ascend far more rapidly after a short while, cross-stepping up the snow due to the impossibilty of walking one foot in front of the other. This was the beginning of the end for me.

Every side step I made strained and pulled at the damaged ligaments through both of my knees, somehow managing to do the impossible and increase the pain I was already feeling from the previous climb. I was exhausted and devoid of energy from my sickness of waking and a lack of sleep, but I wanted my win and I willed myself to continue.

Anna's head-torch fell off her helmet and began to slowly roll down the mountain. It was a curious sight due to its surrounding darkness, the only thing visible was the emitted light, which turned and tumbled downwards, highlighting the cold white snow for a fraction before firing into the sky revealing nothingness. Once it stopped there was some discussion before one of the guides decided that he should go down and get the torch. Without the torch it was impossible for Anna to continue, the discussion was over the level of danger in clambering down a snow covered path where any potentionl holes in the ice would be covered. Fortunately, there was no problem, he retrieved it and we continued into the night.

Maybe half an hour later my trio stopped to rest and to wait for the young German girls to catch up, there were at the back of our group, the others were long gone to the headtorch incident. I tried to squat in the snow in hoping that it would relieve some of my pain, but instead I barely prevented myself from falling over as my knees gave way beneath me. I stood back up, bent over and and massaged my legs, a desperate attempt to loosen some of their shooting pains to no effect.

I was in pain, tired and extremely pissed off - I wanted to eep moving. I wanted to make the climb, but I could feel it slipping through my fingers as I shifted weight alternatively between my legs in another failed attempt to release some of what was breaking me.

The girls caught up and Katherina decided she wanted to head back down, she'd had enough, could hardly breathe and was too tired. The ropes were being rearranged so Lenka could be tied to Anna and myself when she too decided that she couldn't go on. This presented me with a decision that was brutally difficult and will little sleep I tried to weigh every element in my head.

On on hand I had to complete the climb. On the other hand, no matter how hard I tried, no matter much pain I could absorb, it was not going to be physically possible for my body to stand for the remaining distance. I was told we were just over 5500m at the point, with another 600m vertically to go - several more hours of walking and sidestepping. FUCK. I couldn't do it. But I had to, it was my dream. I had to make it, I could not fail. I had never failed at altitude before. I swore to myself a hundred times and beat at my shitty knees as I tortured myself through the possibilities towards the only real plausible eventually for this piece of shit situation, the decision that sent me back down the mountain.

If I had tried to continue up the mountain, I would have been continuing with Anna, during the early morning of her 28th birthday. She desperately wanted the win and to make it to the top on her birthday and I realised that with the now inevitable failure I was going to suffer, I couldn't carry on any-more. If I went further, when I would have had to turn round, she would have had to also. We only had one guide between us and neither of us could be separated from him because we'd both need a guide - she would have climb down with me. I couldn't ruin her attempt, I would hate it if things were the other way round, and so just as the German girls started their descent I called out and said that I should join them and their guide.

We reached the hut, the Germans satisfied at their efforts and totally exhausted. They went straight back to bed whilst I remained outside the hut, sitting in the sub-zero temperatures for what seemed an eternity, beating myself up inside, full of anger for my knees and their inability to withhold idiotic sidestepping, full of wretched hatred for my idiocy in carrying my backpack the previous day and full of self-loathing because I had completely and utterly failed to achieve this particular dream of mine. I don't know what time I dragged myself inside and fell asleep.

We awoke shortly before Linda returned, she had made it to 5800m, but turned around when she couldn't physically walk up anymore. For her awesome effort she was granted a phenomenal sunrise landscape, the mountain and La Paz.

Liam and Thijs returned next, having successfully made it to the top, everyone congratulated them happily, it was an awesome achievement, although I would be lying to say I wasn't bitter at the same time, I'm not that strong or good a person. We began to trudge back down the mountain from the base camp. My legs could not longer support the weight of my gear and so humiliatingly, grudgingly and reluctantly I agreed to pay a guide to carry it back down. I wore my kevlar knee brace what is ironically regarded as my good knee and the one that had failed even more so on this trip to exasperbate my anger.

We waited for the others at the bottom of the mountain. Anna returned next, having made it to the top. I was very happy she reached her dream and it gave me my vindication in turning round when I did instead of persisting further. The other Spaniard did not make the top, despite his previous climbing and acclimatization efforts in the days before.

We returned to La Paz in the early afternoon, the world felt different whilst we were sitting atop the city in Adventure Brew's bar having only a few hours ago been on the edge of a mountain. The guys wanted a few victory beers, I just needed to drink so we began on returning and somehow it didn't stop in the afternoon and instead carried on into the early hours of the morning when the remainder of the group joined us,

The End

Despite the agony I felt on the mountain and despite the burning rage it fired through me, I do not regret attempting the mountain even though I wasn't ready for it at the time of the attempt. On the mountain itself, I wasn't effected by the altitude much, I expected far worse in that regard but obviously my time in the jungle had not completely wiped out my previous acclimatization. The glacier climbing was fantastic fun and the views from high camp are things I will never forget. I only wish I had been granted a little luck with my stomach on the morning of the ascent and I wish I hadn't have been such an idiot carrying my pack. My knees more than likely couldn't have handled the side-stepping with the horizontal knee pressure for such a long period of time, but I won't ever know for sure until I attempt to break 6000m on a different mountain in South America. Peru is looking like a good place....


15th November 2011

Climbing Huayna Potosi
A rivetting account of what must have been a herculean effort.It kept me spellbound Despite mot reaching the summit it was a sterling attemptand you should not reproach yourself at all.Very very well done AL. I am sure you are not broken and that you will climb higher yet.
14th October 2012

huayna potosi
Alan! I feel so happy having read this all back after 14 months! complements that you took time to write all the details! I def was back on the mountain for 20 minutes! was really nice meeting up with you buddy! good luck in canada and take care! Thijs
22nd March 2015

questions on carrying gear
You mention carrying gear. Is this done up to base camp only, with the summit day being without carrying gear? Is it normal practice to carry your own gear or to pay a guide to carry it? Why do some people choose to carry their own gear? Is it as training for even higher mountains or bravado? You mention that the pack weights are 18kg to 24kg. This is quite a range. What is the reason for the difference.
22nd March 2015

RE: questions on carrying gear
You can choose to pay for a porter to carry your gear for you. You'll leave some clothes at the base of the mountain (whatever you absolutely don't need for the climb). A lot more is left at the high base camp (sleeping bags, cooking equipment etc.); again, you only take what you need to take. The gear is picked up on the way back down the mountain. Hiring a porter is relatively common among females, not so much men. Obviously for physical reasons, but also because the men are more likely to want to carry their gear for bravado reasons. Personally, I wonder if I would feel like I'd achieved less by not carrying my own equipment. That said, of course getting to the top with a porter, is better than not making it without one. It is generally regarded as good practice to hire a porter to support the local economy.

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