I had been in Bolivia for about 3 days when I decided to go look for an agency to summit Huayna Potosí with. Credited as one of “the easiest 6000 meter mountains to climb”, it really sounds alluring. One of my friends has done it, and she described it as the best and worst thing she has ever done, so naturally I felt the need to experience it myself. So, after buying essentials such as an alpaca wool sweater and three bricks of chocolate, finding a climbing buddy and releasing the company from my potential death, I signed up to climb the 6088 meter beast, resting a mere 30km from La Paz.
It all started by us getting driven to the first basecamp at a moderate 4750 meter altitude. My partner in crime was a really lovely lad from Israel, called Guy. Having served in the military for 3 years, there was no question if he is physically fit to endure this climb. Me on the other hand….
The first day for us consisted of ice climbing practice on a near by glacier. Having only held a pick axe during archaeological excavations, I very happily accepted the potential damage that I could have done with an ice pick in my hands. The practice involved climbing your way to the top of a 10 meter glacier wall and abseiling down, learning how to put crampons and the harness correctly to make sure you don’t plummit to death down an ice crevice along the climb. Surprisingly enough, climbing and abseiling for me came really easy, even my guide gave me a pat on the back for doing a good job. Maybe I finally found my life calling…
We got woken up at 7am to grab breakfast and begin our ascent to the 2nd basecamp, resting at 5100 altitude. This limit already passes the highest I have ever been, and the was only the beginning of the climb I had signed up for. As much as I love a challenge, I couldn’t help but think of how mildly stupid this decision was when I went outside to pee, and the toilet had a thin layer of ice forming in the water.
We could feel the -8 degrees seeping through the already thin refuge walls as we had our 20th cup of coca tea to help with both cold and the altitude. Apart from that, entertainment for the evening was slim, though I did provide some comical relief when, after trying for 10 minutes to stab a pea with my fork at dinner, it gracefully flew away on the floor and I bursted out laughing until I cried. Anyone who’s friends with me knows how often this happens, however I think Guy was slightly terrified of who he had signed up to climb a mountain with after witnessing that.
We went to sleep at about 6pm as we knew we would be woken up at 12am to start the climb to the summit.
We started at 1am. In otherwise complete darkness, our weak headlights guided the way to the top. I felt like a wabbling penguin, wearing two pairs of socks, tights, two pairs of leggings, a T-shirt, one long sleeved shirt, my alpaca sweater, and mountain climbing trousers and coat to help me survive the coldness of the night. The rocky path leading to the glacier climb was icy and slippery, as were the rocks we were meant to hold onto for balance. Already at that point all of this felt like a bad idea. After 30 minutes, we put on our crampons, tied ourselves together with rope and began the fun part. Ice pick in hand, we slowly started trekking up. High altitude meant I would be stopping every two minutes to catch my breath and focus to stop my head from spinning and potentially blacking out. Nothing but silence, snow and freezing wind kept us company for the next 5 hours. I kept making the guys stop for short breaks, and at one point I started to doubt myself if I have the physical and mental capacity to summit the mountain. You try not to focus of what’s around you or how far the other groups have gotten. You just tilt your head down, starring mindlessly at the ground as you drag your feet through the snow higher and higher, silently encouraging yourself not to give up. The fact that the final ridge to get to the summit is more narrow than my shoulder width does not make you frightened for your life any less.
At 7:04am, March 28th, we reached the peak of Huayna Potosí. I have never been more proud and more exausted then I did that very moment. Imagine climbing ice walls, walking on glaciers in pitch darkness of the night, gasping for air as oxygen deprivation slightly takes a toll on you, but in the end achieving the goal of reaching the summit of 6088 meters. I literally fell on my knees into the freezing snow and started to cry. And it was one of the most cathartic, joyful experiences I have ever endured. Once you’re up there, you forget about freezing fingers and toes, the fact that half your hair has ice on it, that at 6km you still could very easily pass out due to low levels of oxygen. None of that matters anymore. You cry because you’re proud of yourself more than anything, that you managed to push yourself to witness the beauty of nature that can be admired from the summit of that mountain. Yes, the tears froze on my cheeks, but that ecstatic moment is something I will never forget. The weather took pity on us and gifted the most spectacular view of La Paz, part of Lake Titikaka, and the Cordillera Real for us to admire before frostbite forced us to start our walk down back to civilization, warmth, pizza and the rest of the human race.
Fun fact: on the second day I was admiring the view of the mountains when I saw a few birds fly by. My guide told me they are called Suerte Maria, and seeing a black feathered one is meant to bring good luck. I saw two. Maybe that helped us on our climb, who knows… We did come back in one piece.