Let me ask you a question. When someone says the number 20,000 does it really mean anything to you? I mean can you visualize 20,000 of anything? For me, it was such a huge number I couldn't really grasp it. It might as well have been a kajillion. I, for whatever reason, could not fathom its weight and, more importantly, how that number would translate into hiking elevation. So when someone told me that the mountain I was going to climb is almost 20,000 feet high I just smiled and said, "lets do it."
Noah, who has been our unbelievably gracious host here in La Paz, told us about a hike that he recently just did up Mt Huayna Potosi. Huayna Potosi is a peak located in the daunting Cordillera Real mountain range. Bolivia, being one of the highest countries in the world (home to both the highest capital in the world; La Paz - 12,000 ft; and the highest city in the world; Potosi - 13,420 ft) is also home to some of the highest mountains in the world. Billed as the easiest 20,000 ft mountain to climb in the world (its actually 19,974 ft), Huayna Potosi tempts the unsuspecting tourist. It did not take much to convince me to give it a try, and with my 28th birthday around the corner I had Lindsey guilted into joining me. What better way to spend a birthday than watching the sun come up from 20,000 ft, i told her.
Getting back to that number, 20,000. In my life, I don't think I have ever cracked the 14,000 ft marker, and, had I done a bit more research before the hike, I would have realized how different 14,000 and 20,000 are. Rather I compared the length, time-wise, of some of our other hikes. Mt Fuji was a two day hike, about 10 hrs of actually climbing, and that wasn't so bad (12,400 ft). For Acatenango we slept in a crater at sub zero temperatures after an 8 hour hike and I felt pretty unscathed by that climb (13,045 ft). The hike up Huayna Potosi is supposed to be about 3 to 4 hours the first day followed by a 5 to 6 hour ascent to the top the second day ... shouldn't be a problem. When we were questioned about our high altitude experience by the outfitter we "impressed" him with how we've spent the last 2 weeks in high elevation territory (Arrequipa: 7,740 ft, Puno: 12,500 ft, La Paz: 12,000 ft). I'm practically a local, i think I said at one point. My underestimation of the size of the mountain and the effect of elevation would eventually be my undoing.
We arrived to our base camp at around noon on a sunny breezy day. The base camp is more like a log cabin outfitted with just about all the luxuries of life at home (well maybe not home but life in Bolivia). We were extremely impressed with the access to hot tea, a fireplace and a private bedroom. The lunch we were served upon arrival had veggies, rice and meat ... this was like a 5 star resort compared to the places we had been staying (with the exception of Noah's apartment of course, they don't have enough stars to rate his place in Bolivia). At lunch we meet our guide, Eduardo. Not an extremely talkative guide he tells us it will just be us three making the climb together tomorrow and that we would be heading out for some ice climbing practice in an hour so get your equipment on and get ready to head out. Eduardo does not mention that its a two hour hike to get to the practice spot.
I don't know if you have ever been in ice climbing boots before but the closest thing I can compare them to are ski boots. Hiking for two hours on rocky and dirt terrain in ski boots is neither easy nor safe and, on many occasions, led to some close calls with sprained ankles. Our relationship with Eduardo was not going to get off on the right foot - pun intended.
Our practice spot is a ten foot wall of ice that reaches up to the top of a glacier heading up the western front of the mountain. It is a bit intimidating for the first day especially since doing this on top of a mountain face rather than in a contained practice area freaks us out a bit. We strap in and head up the face. Immediately we start feeling tired, the energy almost feels like it was drained out of our legs. Breathing becomes labored and just walking has turned into an effort. 2 hours walking on a glacier felt like a day of hiking. We practiced climbing up a practically 90 degree wall, walking down a 45 degree angle, walking normally on a glacier and descending down a large face. After 2 hours of what seemed like hard labor we were told by our guide that we would not have to do anything that difficult on the hike ... so much for saving our energy. The walk back in ski boots was just the final kick in the pants.
That night we relaxed with another hearty meal, fireplace and a few games of cards. We were definitely more intimidated by the climb now but still weren't really sure what we were in for. That number, 20,000, hadn't really hit home yet.
The next day we start our ascent at 1pm. We are outfitted in a few less clothes but still about 6 layers each and have shed the ice boots for the beginning of the climb. A lot more comfortable. The hike up to the second camp is relatively easily. No ice, no snow and only a bit of rock climbing towards the end. We realize immediately that the altitude is going to be a bigger part of this climb than the length. Again, as soon as we start exerting energy we can feel our bodies go weaker. Every 10 steps I need to stop and take a few deep breathes. Luckily we don't have any headaches or nausea but its difficult to imagine making it to the top at this rate.
Our guide Eduardo is not providing to be much support. Walking 20 to 30 feet ahead of us at all times, not talking and looking annoyed at how fast we are walking, he is not helping. We figure out during the climb that he actually doesn't know Lindsey's name.
"Novia de Andy," "Chica," and "Tu" are the only ways he refers to her. I start trying to help him since I know the wrath of Lindsey on unsuspecting victims can be rough (in reality its just an awkwardness for me that I would rather avoid) and saying Lindsey's name loud and often. "Hey LINDSEY
do you think that you, LINDSEY
, can make it to the top in one piece, LINDSEY
?" Didn't work, guess Lindsey is now "Novia de Andy" for the trip.
The second camp is much more similar to what I had expected. An orange metal box strapped together with two enormous bunk beds that will fit about 20 people. Lindsey and I were the only ones to be staying there that night with our guide Eduardo. Normally, this would be a good thing, we would actually get some sleep without the noises and annoying behaviors of the people around us. But actually it was a bit disheartening and, I think, made the hike a little more intimidating. Sleep isn't really an option at 17,000 feet anyway.
The effects of high altitude were already starting to hit us before we laid down to sleep. Minor headaches and a general nauseous feeling were creeping in. We tried to fight them off and get some sleep but in reality we got about 20 minutes of sleep. At 1am we were woken up and shaken out of bed. Lindsey's headache had gotten much worse and she looked even more miserable than she normally does when she's woken up early in the morning ... Lindsey is not a morning person. I have learned to keep my mouth shut during these times ... Eduardo has not. "I had a group like you last week. The man was strong but the woman was weak. I left the weak woman behind and took the man to the top. Lindsey you can stay here if you want." Ha, couldn't have scripted it if I tried.
After holding Lindsey back from choking Eduardo to death we were off to our hike. There is only one thing more intimidating than hiking a 20,000 foot mountain, hiking a 20,000 mountain in pitch black darkness. We had absolutely no idea where we were or how far we had to go. Randomly we would come across large crevasses, 20 foot drops, and washed out paths. We walked slowly and deliberately, sticking each foot into the snow like it would need to save our lives. At points we crossed what looked like endless pitfalls on a tiny ice bridge that didnt look large enough to hold a small dog. I was scared beyond belief and Lindsey was having trouble managing the crampons. The altitude was affecting us more here. It seemed like every 4 steps we needed a break. Bending over with your hands in your crotch (for the warmth) breathing heavily was definitely the majority of the climb. Eduardo again was proving to be a less than great guide. When asked if this was a normal pace he would say things like "some people do it faster" or asked if he thought we could make it to the top he would say "not sure." Motivational speaking is not a career choice for him.
The climb only seemed to get darker and more intimidating. At about 18,300 ft we reached a spot where we could see the final ridge. One of the most difficult parts of the climb is navigating a foot wide ridge with a sheet of ice on one side and a rock face on the other. We were at an incredibly slow pace and every step seemed to feel weaker. I turned back to Lindsey and asked her what she thought. Knowing that I wanted to do this she would only say "whatever you want to do," leaving the decision to go for it completely up to me. Very nice of her. And I was spent. Never have I felt so out of breath, weak and defeated. It wasn't just the hike up that worried me but the idea of exhausting all energy and then having to carefully navigate back down. So I made the call, just over 18,300 ft was the farthest we would make it. We headed back down to camp 2 and got a few minutes of rest before the sun came up ... probably should have changed out of our clothes first though.
Sweating for 4 hours climbing and then getting immediately into bed is not a good idea. After maybe an hour of rest both Lindsey and I woke up absolutely freezing and with no clothing options to warm us up. We huddled together and counted the minutes down until we could start our descent. I did brave the weather for a few minutes to get a few good shots of the sunrise. The sunrise at 17,000 ft is still pretty good.
Finally, at about 8am we decided to start our descent. the way down was, obviously, much easier than the way up. Lindsey finally made a comment to Eduardo to make him feel awkward by asking why he doesn't like walking with us. In reality i think it only made me feel awkward but Lindsey felt better after saying it so not all was lost. We arrived safely back at based camp around 1 and immediately found a good chair/resting spot and ate whatever they had cooked for breakfast. I don't really remember what it tasted like but it was one of the best tastes I've ever had in my life.
About 3 weeks after the hike I read the book Into Thin Air
by John Krakauer. Thank god I didn't read this book beforehand.
Obviously climbing Everest is completely different than Huayna Potosi but a lot of people don't realize the dangers of high altitude climbing. I'm glad we tried it, would definitely recommend anyone in good fitness to try it as well, just try and be a little more prepared than I was ... or maybe just a little younger. Celebrating turning 28 by not being able to reach the top of a mountain is a humbling experience.