Monday, 14 November 2011

Climbing Huayna Potosí

Ice climbing on day 1.

One of the most memorable things I did in Bolivia – on this whole trip even – was to climb Huayna Potosí. This 6088m mountain stands proudly over La Paz, its classically pointed peak daring to be conquered. It was memorable both because it was high, and because it was one of the tougher things I’ve ever attempted.

I am not a particularly experienced mountaineer by any means, but I do like climbing things. I once climbed a tree in my garden when I was five and it was almost ten feet high. I got stuck and had to be rescued but the point is that I got up there. People only care whether someone reached the summit, not whether they made it back.

I was lured by the prospect of challenge. 6088m sounds high and it would be a shame to settle for anything less than the arbitrary 6000m mark. (Frustratingly, 6088m is 19 974 feet. I’m henceforth declaring myself decimal so I don’t have to think about it.) I was attracted also by the rumour that this is one of the easiest 6000-ers to climb, though I was to discover later that this is only due to the relatively high starting point of La Paz at around 3600m, not because it’s a leisurely stroll. No, it was tough.

Huayna Potosí, 6088m
The trekking agency provided two options: a two-day or three-day climb to the summit. I chose three days because I was warned the failure rate on the two-day climb is some 40%, mainly due to the monumental altitude gain one must endure in such a short space of time. Furthermore, I would get to practise ice-climbing and crampon-stumbling, something I didn’t want to have to worry about on the final ascent.

So off I set for the base camp along with five others and our guides. We stopped briefly on the way to load up on supplies such as chocolate and peanuts. An Aussie for some reason decided to purchase rum and wine, as if he were going for a wander in the Dales. After one glass of rum that night, with five tea-drinkers looking on in perplexity, he thought better of it and donated the lot to the ladies who collect the entrance fees. They were delighted, to say the least.

The ladies collecting entrance fees.
After a simple lunch of rice and chicken (rice and cheese for the vegetarian) we donned our climbing gear, attached our crampons, secured our ice axes and set off up the nearby glacier. At first we merely made use of our newly spiky feet, sidestepping up the slippery ice, but we soon came upon a wall of vertical ice. Our guides fastened ropes but it was up to us to clamber upwards, our axes and crampons sticking us fast. It’s both an exhausting and a satisfying feeling to scale something most animals can’t.

Off towards the glacier.
Base Camp, at 4700m, comprises a simple stone and wood hut, into which we all squeezed for warmth. Despite the cold we slept well that night, having worn ourselves out and satisfied ourselves that we had the necessary strength and skill to reach the summit.

The second day broke with bright, clear skies. After plenty of breakfast we picked up our absurdly heavy bags (we had to fit all our climbing gear into them) and began the slow, steep scramble up towards Rock Camp. It wasn’t a technical day at all, but it was steep, full of loose rocks and over 5000m of altitude. That sort of elevation has the effect of making you many times as tired after every step as you normally would be. As one of the girls put it upon reaching Rock Camp, “This must be what it’s like to be fat.” It also has many other negative effects, as I was to experience the next morning. Finally the walls of the camp came into view as we hauled ourselves up over the last few boulders.

Rock Camp, also known as High Camp, is at 5130m, by far the highest I’ve ever slept. We reached it by lunch time (rice and chicken for most, rice and cheese for the vegetarian), and spent the rest of the day resting and acclimatising. It’s not a bad place to waste an afternoon. The views across the snowy Andes were beautiful, and La Paz twinkled far down in the valley, the sunlight glinting as it reflected off the tiny buildings. Above us loomed the almost menacing peak of Huyana Potosí. I stared at it for quite some time, contemplating the climb ahead of me. I suddenly felt like I was asking for permission, as if it were a living being I was trying to scale.

View from Rock Camp, 5130m, on the second evening.
Being in the tropics at high altitude does funny things to the temperature: in the sun it’s intense, but in the shade you need to put on jumpers, jackets, hats and gloves. As the sun went down, the clouds rolled up. The final sight by natural light was of a sea of clouds maybe a kilometre below, the peaks of mountains poking out like islands. It was an awesome scene and I felt very far away from everything, way above the earth and its people scrabbling for room under a choking blanket. But up here we were free for a few fleeting days. I began to appreciate the almost spiritual way in which addicted mountaineers speak.

The camp itself is another plain hut, this time with an upstairs sleeping area to conserve some wisps of heat. After a makeshift spaghetti bolognese (spaghetti and cheese for the vegetarian – I don’t know how he reached the top) we headed to bed at around 7pm. Together with the new arrivals (those attempting the climb in just two days) we squashed ourselves like logs on to the floor of the room for a restless night’s sleep. Restless both because I was trodden on several times in the night by people going to toilet (altitude has the annoying side effect of making one wee a lot), and because we had to get up at midnight.

Midnight is not a time that my body likes to be woken up, especially not at altitude. In a daze I layered myself up in my climbing gear and went downstairs for breakfast with everyone else. I didn’t feel hungry. In fact, I felt rather queasy with an unusual headache. I knew immediately what was wrong – these are classic signs of altitude sickness. Being the stubborn fool I am, I kept quiet and forced down a biscuit and a cup of coca tea.

Donning crampons at 1am on the final day.
We set off by the light of our head torches at 1am. Most people went in threes – one guide to two climbers. I, however, had the dubious pleasure of being alone with my guide, Mercario, since my partner had been taken ill the day before and had returned to La Paz. It meant that I wouldn’t be able to blame anything on anyone else – any failure would be down to me alone.

It may seem counterintuitive to walk in the dark, but in fact it’s far safer. It means that the snow and ice are firmer, making walking easier; there’s less chance of overheating during the climb; the views at day break are better; and there is plenty of day by which to return should anything happen. We sidestepped slowly up the smooth sheet of ice and snow leading away from the lodge. I could see only the few feet of snow in front of me; otherwise the only sign of the mountain was a large dark patch absent of stars. It was slow, painful going, pausing every few steps to catch my breath. Very soon the lights of the other groups grew dim as we became spread out over the mountain.

I felt sick, and I was having difficulty breathing. I felt as though I couldn’t breathe fast enough to get enough oxygen into my blood. This is one of the aspects of acclimatisation – an increase in your breathing rate. But I was having to consciously force myself to breathe faster; if I relaxed, my breathing would slow down and I would become dizzy.

After a couple of hours of maybe 60° incline, we had to use our axes to clamber up a sheer face of ice. I had absolute trust in Mercario, who whistled as he shot up, securing the rope on the way and encouraging me to follow. Shortly afterwards we descended into a crevasse and had to pull ourselves out the other side. Day was beginning to break, though the sun was still far below the horizon, and I felt shattered. Hearing my breathing, Mercario came close to me and suggested that we might return. Looking back now, I realise he was probably trying to gauge whether I had the determination to do it. He pointed up at the peak and said, “That’s the end.” I looked him in the eye and said there was no way I was giving up.

Day break on the final ascent.
We edged along a treacherous ledge, making energy-sucking leaps over holes through which I could see blue-tinted spikes of ice waiting to punish the merest slip. Rounding a corner, I was presented with a clear view of the route to the top: nothing was going to stop me now. I half ran, half crawled up the last few hundred metres and threw myself over the summit.

The peak was pleasingly pointy, tapering up to a mere needle. I stood atop it and surveyed the world around me, which curved down to the horizon all around. The clouds were dissolving far below and I could see to the salt flats on one side, Lake Titicaca on another and down to the start of the Amazon basin to the north east. I forgot my fatigue and sickness and revelled in the acute sensation of relief and achievement. At risk of cliché, I felt on top of the world.

My guide at the summit!
The way down was easier on the lungs but harder on my now jelly-like legs. Approaching Rock Camp, Mercario told me to sit down in the soft snow, then pushed me and ran behind me as I slid down several hundred metres, giggling like a child. At the lodge I lay in the sun and sipped the very welcome soup before picking up my heavy pack for the last few hours back down to Base Camp and La Paz.

In honesty, the real thing that kept me going was the thought of having to do it again had I failed on this attempt. I’ve done one or two very physically and mentally demanding things in my life, but thinking it over, it wasn’t the physical exertion that made this climb so difficult – it was the altitude. Had it been a couple of thousand metres lower I would’ve been far happier. But then, it wouldn’t have made the exhilaration at reaching the top anywhere near as intense.

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