Climbing Huayna Potosi (20k feet)

Trip Start Aug 25, 2008
Trip End Dec 16, 2008

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

My next adventure was to climb Huayna Potosi, a 20,000 foot snow-capped mountain that towers over La Paz.  Well, technically, it's 19,968 feet high - but there was a lot of snow on top of the peak, so we think we were at least 20,000 feet. 

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.  

An hour of ice climbing at >16k feet did me in - we went to bed about 8pm and I slept 12 hours.

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 this wasn't being overly precarious - we had to jump over about 8 crevasses - all of which were shockingly deep... although only about 2 feet wide, I couldn't see the bottom.  I was at the end of the ropes - and the first crevasse we came to, I looked down into open space and looked up at my guide "How deep is this crack?" I asked.

"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 little snow bridge about the size of a backpack sticking out into a canyon.  Step left or right, you fall into space.  If the backpack sized knob falls - you hope the two others can hold you.  But, then I had to jump two feet forward over the bottomless canyon, and grab on to an ice wall that was about a 60 degree incline.  I'm not spider-man, I thought.  "Conquer your fear" my guide said.  So I leaped, and stuck.  We then had to use ice axes to climb about 20 feet up the wall before we were back on a proper trail.  Oh, and this was about 19,000 feet so there wasn't any air - my limbs felt like they were lead and I was seeing little sparkly stars in front of my eyes.    

Speaking of stars, I have never seen so many (real) stars - the sky was almost milky.  Not only could you see the milky way, but multiple other galaxies were clearly visible.  And since we're south of the equator, we could see both the southern cross and the big dipper - it was a spectacular view.  (I wish I hadn't been so nauseous so I could really enjoy it).

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 lose my breakfast... But being roped together as a team was a huge benefit in this regard - if I lagged, the others would gently pull me forward.  We would either all fail or all succeed together.  The rule is that no one can untie while on the glacier.  So I continued - one step in front of the other. 

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. Again, I just put one step in front of the other and trudged forward. 

...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.  

Daylight also let me see all the amazing formations on the glacier.  There were ice caves big enough to swallow a small apartment building, ice cycles the size of roman pillars, and fields of upward pointing icicles.  It was beautiful.

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.

Next stop: Potosi - the most important city you probably have never heard of.  At one time, Potosi was the largest city in the Western world with a higher population than London, Rome, and Paris.  It was also the richest city in the world, and it's silver mines underwrote the Spanish empire for two centuries.  Plus at 13,500 feet Potosi is still the highest city in the world... 

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