Huayna Potosi, at 6088 meters, is one of the highest mountains in Boliva. I got this crazy idea to go climb the thing. Why? I dont’ know. Because I can, because it’s there. So anyways, after checking around, I made arrangements to go climbing.
Leaving La Paz in the morning, you drive up to the base of Huayna Potosi, and start your climb around noon. The drive up there is amazing. Or at least it was to me. You wind your way through a few pueblos and end up in the high country which I would describe as tundra. You are well above the timber line, so no trees grow here. You’ll see some scrub brush and llamas grazing all around. Off in the distance you can see the base of Huayna Potosi. This mountain is huge! Or at least it was to me! Covered in snow and glaciers, the summit can’t yet be seen as it is hidden far above the clouds.
After passing by a platinum mine, you wind your way up the mountain, driving past a small lake until you reach the end of the road. The rest of the way to the summit is by foot.
At over 4500 meters, the air is thin, and your lungs can feel it with every step you take. Hiking up the trail and climbing over boulders and rocks becomes a real challenge. Climbing higher and higher, you become engulfed in a cloud, and the landscape seems surreal. Off to your left, you pass by a glacier, and the water flowing out from underneath it is almost emerald green. Nothing grows up here except for the occasional small clump of short grass. Not even enough for any animal to eat. About 2 hours later, with the temperature dropping, and the air thinning, you finally reach base camp at over 5100 meters. Here is where you spend the night before attempting your ascent, early the next morning.
The base camp consists of an outhouse, a kitchen sheltered by a tarp, and the main cabin, where you eat and sleep. There’s no heat or fireplace here, so I hope you brought some warm and dry clothes. The temperatures reach -15C at night, and you never seem to be able to warm up.
I’ve never been this high before, and it was a real awakening for me. With most your clothes on, you lay curled up inside your sleeping bag trying to keep warm. You dare not move, because every move you make, your body finds another cold spot that sends cold shivers straight to your bones. The air you breath is cold and thin.
Imagine running a 1/4 mile at a pretty brisk pace. When you are done, you are not overly tired, but you have depleted yourself of oxygen and your breathing is deep as you gasp for air. Well, that’s the same feeling you get as you sleep! Lying perfectly still, you are always out of breath. Oh yes, and did I mention it was pretty damn cold too?
There’s no light here, so when the sun goes down, it’s time for bed. And you need all the sleep you can get. Around midnight you wake up, have as much breakfast as you can stomach, then start your ascent to the summit well into the night.
Myself, along with 7 other guys, woke up at midnight, and started our ascent around 1am. Less than 100 yards from the main cabin, you stop and affix your crampons to your climbing boots. From this point forward, it’s all snow and ice.
You climb start at about a 35-45 degree incline. And literally, you are taking baby steps. With each step you take, you gasp for air, and your legs feel like they have 50 pound weights attached to them. It’s all you can do to concentrate, placing one foot in front of another. Again, and again, and again. Slowly making progress, up the steep incline towards the summit.
As your hiking, sooner or later, you hit a soft and your legs sink into the snow up to your hips! Ugh! Now you much expend even more energy, that you don’t have, to pull yourself out, and start on and upwards again. This cycle repeats itself over and over again.
I remember being so fatigued that I just wanted to fall asleep. And given the opportunity, I’m sure it would have been no problem. However, if you fall asleep here, you’ll die in no time. So it’s not such a good idea to take a nap.
Chewing a wad a coca leaves on one side of my mouth, I would stuff chocolate in the other side of my mouth to get some quick energy. The funny thing was, the chocolate would never melt! Not even in my mouth. Maybe that will give you an idea of how cold it was up there.
At one point, I made my way over a crevice. You walk along an 18 inch path that on both sides drops off. In front of you, is a shear vertical wall that goes straight up. Upon reaching the end of the small path, you leap forward, digging your ice pick and crampons into the wall in front of you. Slowly, you scale up the wall making new foot holes with your crampons, and by placing your ice pick higher and higher. Eventually, your back on terrain that you can walk on once again.
I made it to 5500 meters before I could go no further and decided to turn back. Actually, I could have gone further, but there was no way I would have ever made it to the summit at over 6000 meters. I just didn’t have it in me. I couldn’t breath, I was cold, I was tired. I just couldn’t do it. No excuses, the mountain won!
Later that day, I discovered only 4 of the 8 people that started actually made it to the summit. Some were just to fatigued like me. While others got altitude sickness and started vomiting uncontrollable.
Huayna Potosi kicked my butt! But it’s an experience I’ll never forget. And if your the kind of person who like challenges, then Huayna Potosi is definitely for you!