From the Valley of the Moon to Huayana Potosi

Trip Start Jul 20, 2004
Trip End Jul 20, 2020

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Flag of Bolivia  ,
Tuesday, November 23, 2004

In La Paz, I spent some time to visit the crowded heart of the town, the wonderful cathedral, the museum of art and the various craft markets. But, I prefer Zona Sur as the area is more spacious (but has the same traffic problems as the inner city), and has some green. It is easy to commute in La Paz as there are minibuses to each and every place. On my second day in La Paz, I visited the Valley of the Moon.

Valley of the Moon: If there was not the asphalt serpentine or there were no coughs due to the combustion of the automobiles, you can even think that you have left the earth and have been transferred to the surface of the moon, because at this corner of La Paz -at less than 20 kilometers from the center- the erosion has given some incredible, surprising forms to the rocks. Forms that are strange to this world.

Before heading to the jungle area, I wanted to do a trek or mountain tour. None of the several agencies i talked to offered any of the 3-5 days trek i was interested in until a poster of Huayna Potosi tickled my interest. At 20,000 feet, the mountain can be climbed in 2-3 days. I wanted to do this as this was the first time I would be doing ice climbing. Tour agencies touted it as a beginners' peak. Easy. A good first technical climb they said. At 6,088 meters, Huayna Potosi soars into the brilliant Bolivian sky only thirty kilometers from the bustling streets of the world's highest capital city, La Paz. Its beautiful snow-clad slopes are seen everywhere on posters and 'daily departure' boards dotted along travel agency-crowded Calle Sagarnaga, the prime tourist avenue in a city that breathes outdoor adventure. And so it was that my feet set forth into a German run agency where a Swiss girl had just signed up for the trip and urged me to do the same. We would be three girls, Eva from Ireland, Elaine from Switzerland and me who signed up for the next 'expedition' to challenge Potosi. Our guide, Eulogio llusco was at the agency when w signed up and took note of the equipment we needed. We were all set for the next day when we met at the agency office at 8:30am.

With assurances of a successful summit we were fitted out in a wardrobe full of climbing gear, including rigid climbing boots and crampons, several layers of wind, water and all-round weatherproof clothing, ice pick, harness and head lamp. Head lamp? "We start the main climb at one in the morning," our guide, Eulogio said. We set off in Eulogio's car navigating through the canyon climbing streets of La Paz up to El Alto - an expedition of skill and tenacity in itself - and on into the Cordillera Real, the air-starved heart of the Bolivian Andes. On approach El Alto's wasteland, home to herds of curious llamas and alpacas, set an earthly frame to Huayna Potosi and its sister mounts. A Picasso-like graveyard of scattered tombs and crosses nearing base camp provided a timely blow to our mountaineers' confidence and an eerie reminder that people die in mountains.

We reached the guard station where we left the car and started our 2 day trek.After three hours of trekking we begin the long wait at 5,200 meters. Tents are pitched on a sleep-depriving bed of rock and a fierce gale threatens to blow us off the mountainside. Wind and snow delayed our 1am departure to 2:30am. Clouds make our departure one in pitch blackness, head lamps lighting up a small window to an icy world. For the next couple of hours it's head down, one foot crushing into the ice ahead of the other as we follow the safety of the guides ropes (Miguel and I and the girls with Eulogio) dragging ahead of us through snow frozen solid into fields of daggers. The occasional crevasse is cautiously stepped across. After about 2 hours, I could feel the altitude as I started having stomach problems, short breath and my legs feeling as if layered with steel plates.
By that time, I could only take a few steps and then had to stop for breathing. But the stops were dangerous as i got cold very fast. At 5600 meters, I decided that it is best to return as I did not want to freeze to death on the way to the top. From over 400 meters away, at over 5,600 meters, I look up at Potosi and see myself on its throne. Then, beaten by the cold and short breath, Miguel and I get ready for our retreat. The walk back to high camp is slow and beautiful as the sun had just come up and the wind had blown away clouds to reveal mountains in lower or even higher elevations. The beauty of our surroundings, filled with magical formations of snow caves and crevasses, is compensation for being forced down so close to the summit. Though I didn't make it to the top of Potosi, I still achieved something mountainous; I experienced an adventure that gave a glimpse into the world of those who meet and beat the challenge of high peaks around the world. For now at least, I'm happy to leave such admirable feats to the clan of mountain men and women whose world, if only for an instant from 400 meters away, I saw and felt. For my next 6000 meter trip, I have to acclimise longer and more carefully before attempting another trek. But, there will be another trek, that's for sure.
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