Climbing Huayna Potosi (20k feet)
Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
50Trip End Dec 16, 2008
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The ascent can be done in two or three days; I chose three which is the "safer" option, giving me more time to acclimatize. The first day, my guide and I were driven to the base camp at 15,500 feet where we set up camp, had some lunch, and then hiked up 16,500 feet to the base of the glacier to practice (learn) ice climbing while getting used to the altitude. I think the most terrifying part of the whole climb was when I was about 50´ up an ice wall and my guide dropped my rope to take my picture. ¨Say Barbecue!¨ he said far below... Hurry up! (I thought). ¨Hold on - one more photo". The only thing holding me to the wall was two ice axes whose tips were poking into the ice about a centimeter, and the toes of my crampons.
On day two, my guide and I packed our gear, left the tents and did a 2 hour hike up to the high-camp at 17,000 feet where there was a really cool stone building built on a rocky outcropping at the base of the main glacier. There, we waited for the rest of our climbing party to meet us - the others were doing the ascent in two days. In all, our group was 6 climbers and three guides - three Israelis who just finished their military service and were traveling for a year, and two British medical students who were working in Bolivia.
The dodgiest part of the first day was having to walk about 1000 feet across a dam - it was between 6" and 12" 6" wide, and no railings. On the left side was a three foot drop into icy glacial runoff. On the right side was a thirty foot drop to rocks below. So I had to decide - if I lost my balance, do I fall right and break a leg, or do I fall left and get freezing and wet. Wet won. Understand we had to cross the dam with 50lb packs - and the entire time there were 20 mph gusts that would torque me randomly left or right. It was terrifying!
At the high camp, we spent the afternoon hiking around, playing cards, and waiting for our bodies to adjust to the thin air. The plan was to have dinner at 5, be in bed by 6pm, get up at 1am and begin our ascent to the summit at 2am. Climbing at night is safer since the glacier is frozen solid - the goal is to reach the summit for sunrise, then hurry down before the ice and snow gets too soft.
It was unbelievably cold - thankfully the tour company provided us with full arctic gear, climbing boots, crampons, climbing harnesses, helmets, ice axes and headlamps. We went up in teams of three: a guide and two climbers roped together so if one person fell into a crevasse, the other two could pull them out... and
"It doesn't matter - it could be a meter deep, it could be a kilometer deep. You still have to jump the same."
Great, I thought and leaped over nothingness.
The most difficult crevasse was absolutely terrifying. We had to walk out on a little snowy knob. Imagine a
The climb above 19,000 feet was one the toughest things I've ever done physically and mentally. Every third step, a little voice would tell me "this is stupid... why are you doing this? It's just a number... just stop." The next step, I wanted nothing more than to say "I need a break" to the team. The next step, I thought for sure I was going to
Finally, after 3 hours of climbing, we reached the final ascent just as an orange band of light formed on the horizon far below. The final ascent was probably the most dangerous - we shimmied up a knife ridge with a 3,000 foot drop on the right, and a 1000 foot drop to the left. One misstep would be deadly - and I was nearly delirious and dizzy from lack of oxygen.
...and finally made the summit just in time for the sun rise.
After about 15 minutes of high fives on the summit, we began our descent.
The descent was probably more terrifying since we could actually see down into what we were leaping over at night. I could see down a couple hundred feet into those ice crevasses... but couldn't see the bottom. Granted, we were only leaping a foot or two, but still - it was terrifying.
In all, it took 4 hours from high-camp to the summit, and two hours back down, and I was back to my hotel in La Paz by 3pm that afternoon. What I didn't anticipate was the 2 days of recovery... but I spent the time reading and eating soup in La Paz.
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