Huayna Potosí (pronounced wine-a po-to-SI) is a mountain in the Cordillera Real range of the Andes, about 25 km north of La Paz, Bolivia. At a height of 6,088m or 19,974 feet it is considered the “beginner’s 6000-meter climb,” as if such a thing exists. Still, there are newcomers brave enough (or foolish enough) to give it a try. This is the story of one of those
Countries like Peru and Bolivia are a trekker’s dream. With weak currencies and weaker economies the value is incredible, and the Andes mountains are simply spectacular. Earlier in the trip, my guided 3 day-2 night Colca Canyon trek in the south of Peru cost about $80 and included food, accommodation and transportation. Trekking five days to Macchu Picchu was $200 including the $50 entrance fee. The opportunity to climb Huayna Potosí was no different.
It had never been a goal of mine. In fact, I only heard of the mountain from a fellow traveler at the hostel in La Paz. It was one of those ideas that sounded crazy at first, then sounded doable – but crazy, but continued to stay with me until it drove me crazy. They say that 70% of people make it to the summit – but that’s 70% of people that decide they are fit enough to even try. After a week in the area watching trekkers leave the hostel and proudly return, researching, visiting tour offices, it was time to move on from La Paz one way or the other. With a knot in my stomach, snow-capped mountains in my eyes, and superman hemoglobin in my blood, I booked the trek.
That night I returned to the tour office to get the equipment ready. The company was providing a sleeping bag, climbing boots, crampons, two pairs of pants, a jacket, an ice axe, and a helmet. There would be three of us climbing with two guides. An Aussie named Charlie was at the briefing, and the other would meet us there; he was already trekking up in the mountains somewhere.
The next morning we took what seemed to be the rocky, unpaved back road out of La Paz. We passed some of the poorest areas I’ve seen – houses made of clay bricks with dirt floors and tin roofs. The hour and a half ride passed by lakes colored orange and red by pollution from local mines, and a cemetery of miners who had died in skirmishes between mining companies (although Charlie and I planned to tell people back home that those were the people who died climbing Huayna Potosí!). We checked into base camp for the trek at 4,700m, and chose beds from two rows of mattresses lined up on the floor. The third trekker, Fernando from Spain, was there to meet us.
Huayna Potosí can be climbed in two days, but three days is generally recommended for additional acclimatization to the high altitudes. Despite having started acclimatizing almost a month earlier in Arequipa (2,300m), then Cusco (3,400m), and Lake Titicaca (4,000m), there were always moments where I’d need to catch my breath from activities as simple as a climbing a flight of stairs. That thing they say about walking and chewing gum at the same time? It’s true when you’re trying to breath at these heights!
So we took it easy on the first day; we hiked an hour to a glacier and practiced using crampons and ice climbing. To work effectively, all points of the crampons should dig into the ice, which means keeping your feet flat on the surface even when climbing a 70 degree slope. I can still hear the guide saying “confianza en tus crampones (trust in your crampons)” as we descended apprehensively down the near-vertical ice faces. Did I mention the guides only spoke Spanish? Fernando would nervously ask me “Did you get that?” every time an important safety instruction was given.
Ice climbing at that altitude was absolutely exhausting. I’m not sure if my form was correct, but between digging the ice picks in and ripping them out, gripping them well enough to support myself, and hoisting myself up two feet at a time… Well, one trip up a 40 foot wall was enough for the three of us. We hiked back to base camp and devoured our pasta dinner. We played cards by candlelight and prepared for a cold night.
The next day we had a short hike up to high camp at 5,130m followed by an afternoon of rest and an early bedtime. The hike would have been easy except that we had to carry all of our heavy gear, probably 50 pounds of boots, crampons, food and water. As I arrived to high camp I worried that I had burned my legs out for the big climb.
The views from high camp were epic. We joined fellow climbers from Belgium, France, Brazil, and China on the “patio,” a flat area looking down upon the clouds and glaciers below. Looking up the other way, the snowy summit loomed ominously above us. Inside I took some time to read the walls which climbers had covered with proud messages of success or warnings of failure. One climber wrote “I didn’t make it to the top but I made a snowman at 5,800m!”
At 6pm it was bedtime. We would wake at midnight, start at 1am, and summit at sunrise; the climb is only safe when the snow is frozen solid. After 8am the risk of avalanche increases significantly. I lost my breath climbing the stairs to the bunkroom and thought, “How am I supposed to climb this thing tomorrow?”
The first few hours of the climb were surreal. We marched slowly – really slowly, fastened together with climbing rope. The spotlights of the groups ahead of us shone in the distance and the night lights of La Paz twinkled down below.
Breaths became more frequent as we advanced higher and higher. At 5,000m air pressure is half that of sea level and gets exponentially thinner. 5,500m is considered “extreme altitude.” We chewed coca leaves which are known to open the lungs to aid with breathing in high altitudes. The coca plant is illegal in the U.S. because of its obvious ties to the cocaine industry. However, there are plenty of responsible uses for the plant itself – it has many known medicinal properties, and also plays a role in Andean spirituality. My numb tongue told me it must be working.
After three exhausting hours the theme became “one more step.” And also, try not to look up at the huge, dark shadow that you still have to climb up. Bites of frozen Snickers bars kept spirits up. Before long we reached a deep crevasse and had to step over the gap where a snow bridge had fallen through in the middle. As I reached the other side massive icicles fell from the bridge to the bottom of the crevasse and Charlie, who I was fastened to, jumped across.
The sun started to rise as we made our final ascent, the last 100m to the top. Charlie and I were taking it real slow, and Fernando had turned back with a bad headache – a serious sign of altitude sickness. The ridge to the top was about four feet wide with steep drops on both sides. As we made it to the summit at 6088m, the guide said “We’re champions!” We took in views of a glowing sunrise, the clouds over the rainforest on one side of the mountain range, and Lake Titicaca and La Paz on the other.
After a few minutes of celebration it was time to get down before our snow bridge got any softer. After a slow descent to high camp, a lunch of thin soup, and another slow descent with 50 pounds of gear, we made it to the van at base camp. And by 3pm I was napping in the hostel. Climbing Huayna Potosi was probably the toughest physical challenge I’ve faced. In fact the rest of the day I felt a very undeserved hangover. Looking back I don’t think I’ll do it again. But for the epic views and the sense of accomplishment it was worth it; like the guide said, “We’re champions!”
(see more pictures of Climbing Huayna Potosí on the Photos page!)