Cycling The Globe

A Cycle Touring Expedition Around The World

« ||| »

Day 1414 – 1416: Climbing Huayna Potosi

Posted by Thomas Andersen Posted on Jul - 27 - 2014

There was excitement in the air as our minibus left downtown La Paz and headed for the mountains. Our small team consisted of Jason from California, Matt and Peter from New Zealand, and myself. None of us had done any ice climbing before, or been close to 6088 meter of altitude, the height of Huayna Potosi, the mountain we would be trying to climb.

At basecamp, a nice and comfortable hut at 4750 m, we had a quick lunch before starting to put on all our gear. Day one on our little expedition would consist of some ice climb training on a glacier a few hundred meters above the camp. To some degree I felt like being on a skiing holiday in the alps, although this time the skis would be replaced by crampons and an ice axe.

As we began our hike to the glacier it started to snow, which was somewhat unusual this time of the year. The short hike also very well demonstrated how different people react to altitude; Matt and Peter had both been staying 10 days in La Paz, but while Peter was suffering greatly on the climb, Matt was making steady progress. I felt OK myself. I have now been spending over a month on the altiplano with some cycling above 4000 m – all in all a good way to prepare for a climb like this.

As we reached the foot of the glacier the snow increased, and we could hardly see a thing. We put on the crampons and our guide Lucio made us climb up and down the steep, icy slopes. While hiking up to the glacier had been rather uncomfortable in the big boots (much like skiing boots), things started to make sense after putting on the crampons, providing a good grip on the ice.

I knew that normally the training would also consist of a real climb up a 20 meter high vertical cliff of ice using the ice ax and ropes, but today it was snowing too much. I was disappointed about this, as I had been looking forward to learn about ice climbing, but Lucio explained that our training had been good enough, tomorrow we would be ready to scale the mountain.

At this point Peter had already decided that he would not make it higher than basecamp. While Matt and I had been training with the crampons he had started to feel very uncomfortable, and back at the hut he decided that he might as well make it back to La Paz that same evening. Also, Jason from California was not going to climb the mountain itself as his goal was to spend a night to acclimatize at the hut before climbing another mountain near to La Paz. That reduced the climbing party to Matt, I, and our guide Lucio. First however, we would spend a night at basecamp, eating good food and trying to get as much sleep as possible.

The next morning we woke up to a clear but very windy day. It was also obvious that it had been snowing a lot during the night, even down at here at base camp. After breakfast we were waiting for another party to return from the mountain. Two Belgian girls had left for the summit yesterday as we had arrived at the hut, and now we were looking forward to know how they were doing. It turned out that one of the girls had made it to 5800 m before turning around due to wind and snow, the other had stayed in high camp, another hut located at 5300 m up there on the way towards the summit. Hardly the most encouraging news to get. Although Potosi has the reputation of being an easy 6000 m mountain to climb, it was clear that it would not be a walk in the park.

Just before we sat off towards high camp ourselves, we were joined by Brian from California. Brian had signed up for a two day trip to the mountain, skipping the night of acclimatization at base camp. Something I think he would soon regret. Although the morning had been clear, the weather continued to be unstable throughout the day. At some point we could see it snowing on the summit, as we slowly made our way up the mountain towards high camp. I seemed to be moving at the same speed as Matt and was feeling rather OK at this moment, as long as I didn’t climb to fast, and took plenty of breaks. The air was starting to get really thin by now. Brian on the other hand was really suffering, and had to give his backpack to Lucio, who was now carrying two bags. We soon nicknamed our guide Superman.

During the last 200 vertical meters towards high camp, things got really hard. It was now impossible to climb for more than 5 minutes at a time, before having to take a break. Just before sunset we reached the camp, truly exhausted. The views as the sun set over the mountains were amazing.

A very tired climber arriving at high camp.

With the sun setting and the temperature dropping rapidly, we returned to the hut where Lucio was making soup. At this point I started to feel the headache that I knew was coming, and the appetite was disappearing as well. I managed to eat a small bowl of soup before we would return to our sleeping bags. It was now 7 pm, and we would try to get a few hours of sleep before starting our summit push at 2 am.

While I had felt OK, but very tired, as long as we were climbing, laying down and trying to sleep I felt absolutely terrible. A strong headache and nausea made it almost impossible to sleep, even though I think I managed an hour or two before the alarm clock went off. During the sleepless night I could hear the winds picking up outside the hut, and more snow was falling. Lucio seemed concerned with the snow as well, saying that it might not be possible to make much further progress. Anyway, we get dressed up, put on our crampons, roped up, ready to face the storm.

The temperature inside our hut was -7°C. Outside I guess it would have been -15, and with the storm howling the wind chill factor must have been huge. My fingers were indeed very cold for the first 20 minutes, but then everything started to warm up. While I had felt terrible at night, things started to improve a little as we started the climb towards the summit. The altitude still made it impossible to take more than 10 steps without the heart racing uncontrollable, but the headache and nausea had almost disappeared. The biggest problem now seemed to be the wind and snow. At some point our legs went knee deep into the fresh snow.

Not long after we had started our push for the summit we were traversing a 60 degree steep slope. It was completely dark and we were using our head lights. Even then, the sensation that you were walking on a ridge with thousand feet of free fall was very real. The fact that we were roped up was slightly assuring, but I still didn’t hope one of us would fall down these slopes. The wind made things very difficult as well. When the big gusts came we had to stop walking, learn into the mountain, get a grip with the ice ax, before we could continue.

At this point Lucio said that we would probably only be able to make it to 5500 m with these conditions. We continued to push forward, 5 minutes at a time before pausing to catch the breath. At 5500 m we could see the lights of La Paz below, and Lucio asked us how we felt. OK I said, feeling that my adjustment to altitude was going as good as I could hope, although I didn’t like the howling wind too much. “Let’s try to go for 5600 m” Lucio replied, as we continued our way up.

I wouldn’t say I’m a very experienced person in the mountains, but after some time spent in the Swiss alps and on mountains in New Zealand I have learned a few things. One of them is the sound of an avalanche. The one we could now hear was not big, but it sounded like it was coming towards us. In the darkness that was honestly a very scary feeling. The sound disappeared as soon as it had come, and both Matt and I looked at Lucio. “Yes, a small avalanche he said, pretty normal up here”. In fact the risk of avalanches was the main reason why we were climbing at night and not at day, but with all the new snow in the last 48 hours it didn’t take much to realize that the risk was much bigger than usual.

I felt like the mountain had been speaking to us. First the snow, then the wind, and now the avalanche. The message to me was clear, today would not be the day to climb the mountain. It wasn’t a hard decision to make, simply to follow the intuition. Matt very much agreed that he didn’t like the sound of the avalanche. Lucio said that we might have been able to make it a little higher, but with the snow and wind the summit would probably not be possible today. We decided to turn around.

On the way back we passed 3 other groups on the way to the summit. At first we had thought we were the only persons on the mountain, but it turned out that we had just been in front of anyone. As we passed the groups we wished them good luck as we continued down. A little later we could see that at least two of the groups turned around as well. I’m not sure if the 3rd group made it to the summit that day.

Back at high camp we once again made it into our sleeping bags, trying to get a few more hours of sleep before continuing our way down the mountain. As we woke up at sunset the winds had indeed died down, and it was a beautiful morning. It would have been an amazing sight to see the sun rising from the summit, but I was still happy about the decisions we had made.

On the way up the mountain it had been so hard that we had only snapped a few photos. On the way down it was much easier to stop, take a few shots, and continue. The weather was just amazing as well.

Finally, back at base camp, the expedition was almost over. The headache that had been so strong a few hours earlier had almost disappeared, and the appetite had returned as well, as we enjoyed a last base camp lunch before catching the bus.

On the ride back to La Paz I was thinking about the adventure. Earlier Brian had told, that to him climbing mountains was almost a religious experience. I very much agreed. The views, the challenges, and the feeling that you are a part of something bigger… it was all present right there on the mountain. I didn’t feel disappointed that we hadn’t reached the summit – the mountain will always have the last word. But, in my guidebook I could read that in Peru there would other 6000 m peaks waiting. And Peru was where I was going next.

Categories: Bolivia, Mountaineering
« ||| »

7 Responses so far.

  1. hi thomas,what a fantastic venture on the mountain you almost made it, hi hi i’am sure it was for the best that you turned back.maybe next time……but you only get a climb like this once in a life time,and LUCIO knows best when too ‘call it aday’.fantastic photo’s……….all the very best take care ,safe travel,enjoy your life you only normally travel that way once. 73 de john w G4WQZ .

  2. Altaf says:

    Hey Thomas, wonderful photos and journey documentation. Though luck you didnt make it to the summit, but your journey never is about destination right :).

    Good luck for your future tracks.

  3. Marie says:

    Amazing! (the photography too)

  4. aart wedemeijer PA3C says:

    Wow! This was nice. Its not the destination but the road that counts.

  5. My words Aarts 🙂 Thanks and 73 from Peru!

  6. Thanks a lot John. I’m already planning the next mountain to climb here in Peru. 73 de OA/OZ1AA 🙂

  7. Thanks a lot Altaf, and yes… you are very right. It’s not about the destination but about the road that takes you there! Best wishes from Peru!