For the first time since my adventure began two months ago, I am going to write to you out of sequence. That´s because I just completed what has to be the greatest physical challenge of my life to date…the 3 day expedition I took to climb Huayna Potosi, a stunning mountain in the Cordillera Real of Northern Bolivia, just a few feet shy of 20,000 feet. It was the worst and best experience simultaneously, however, by far I believe it will be the most memorable moment of this trip (if not of recent years) and something I will look back on in utter disbelief for many years to come.
I returned to La Paz on the 13th of May and had a flight booked to San Jose, Costa Rica for the morning of the 14th. For some unknown reason, however, I had it in my head that I wanted to tackle this 6088 m peak…and set out to explore my options for joining an expedition, and whether changing my flights was even a possibility. My Kiwi guide whom had accompanied me on the World´s Most Dangerous Road had told me that he had climbed the mountain the week before, and that whilst it was the most gruelling trek, he said that the views and experience was otherworldy. So, I had been thinking about it over the past week, and I don´t know why (I really need my head examining) but I decided I had to do it on the flight from Sucre to La Paz.
On arrival in La Paz I went to a travel agency and called the trekking company my guide had recommended, and was disappointed to hear that they didn’t have a group leaving for the summit until May 22. A few more calls to other agencies left me similarly disappointed. Just when I thought I should give up and leave Bolivia in the morning, I came across an agency by the same name as the mountain, and they had a group leaving for the 3 day trip in the morning! I walked there and spoke for a while with the owner, a mountaineer and ER doctor with a crazy and generous personality, and pondered my options. He explained the route, the ice climbing training on the first day during acclimatization, the risks of altitude sickness, physical fitness requirements, and all the gear that I would need to rent if I had a chance at success. He seemed very pleased that I had essentially been at altitude for a month, and assured me that I shouldn’t have a problem, but that he would give me some drugs in the event I started to feel sick.
When I explained that I needed to first check and see if I could alter my flight…he offered to take me directly to the airline office because he wanted an excuse ¨to get out of the office for a while!¨¨ How kind. We hopped in a taxi which took us down to La Paz´main thorough fare of The Prado whereupon he helped me secure a flight out on Tuesday next week, giving me two more days in La Paz after we got back. It seemed a lot of time, but then again, I would probably be needing at least a day of rest on return (too right) and then one more day to actually SEE La Paz (which I hadn´t yet) before departure. So, it all worked out and we cabbed back to the office where I proceeded to pay the $140 for the whole trip and sign my life away for the adventure.
Funnily enough, one of the girls from my 10 day tour of Bolivia, Helen, who had the same flight booked as me tomorrow but connecting onward to Santiago, also decided to come on the trek after hearing me talking about it on the flight from Sucre! I asked her if she had any idea what she was getting herself into, to which she happily responded ¨no, but a great spur of the moment decision, right?¨¨ As yet, I wasn´t so sure…I was pretty anxious but excited at the same time.
I called my sister back in England and told her about my plans and asked her to try and dull the details to my mom. I tried to tell her not to worry, and that I would be in touch as soon as I returned to La Paz on Saturday afternoon.
It was a somewhat restless night as I contemplated postponing my departure until the next morning so I could have one day to rest before this gruelling excursion…but Helen convinced me to come along with her. OK, then.
If I´d had one more day to really contemplate what I was about to do, I may have pulled out anyway!
Off we set for the van which took our trekking group of 8 (though one of the trekkers, Wolfgang from Germany was setting out to complete the ascent in two days instead of 3) to the company´s equipment rental store where we were all kitted out with gloves, crampons, gaiters, plastic boots, ice axes, jackets, down jackets, head-scarf combos, extra wool socks, backpacks, and climbing harnesses. Each pile of necessary gear was enormous and I wasn´t looking forward to carrying it all up to high camp…
The drive was 2 hours and we all excitedly chatted about what lay ahead and stopped a few times to get photos of the massive peak as it got bigger and bigger as we approached. I kept thinking…was I going to make it?
Arriving at base camp, I was pleasantly surprised at the charming little refugio where we were to spend the night. It had several rooms filled with bed bunks, and a cozy living area with combo dining room-kitchen and a lovely open fireplace providing the only heating in the building for the chilly night ahead at 4700 metres.
After a home cooked lunch, we strapped on our gear and harnesses and headed out for the hour walk to the foot of the glacier for some ice climbing-crampon-ice axe training.
I had some experience with this equipment so I wasn´t too nervous. Turned out that it was a good thing I was there as I was the only person on the trip who could speak Spanish well enough to translate the guide´s instructions to the group about the various methods of ascent and descent. We spent roughly 3 hours there, ending with a rappel down the side of the ice. Lots of fun and hopefully the information had stuck enough in our heads and bodies to be of help on summit day (though at the time it didn´t really dawn on me just how much harder it was going to be to scale a wall of ice and snow in complete darkness).
After our trek back to the refugio, we were famished and dined heartily on vegetable soup and pasta…carbing it up for tomorrow. After some welcome Coca de Mate tea around the fire with my new companions, I headed upstairs to my sleeping bag and an early night. Of course I filled my Nalgene with hot water first to serve as a welcome hot water bottle for my frozen toes.
I slept surprisingly well, despite the altitude (insomnia is notorious at these heights) and after breakfast, we welcomed the group from that morning´s summit attempt (including Wolfgang) as they trickled in around 10-11:30 am. I was very disturbed to learn that of their group of six, only three had made it to the summit. The other three (all girls, I might add) had turned around after just a few hundred metres higher than high camp, vomiting and suffering from horrendous headaches and disorientation. They looked pretty shaken and weary. But then again, so did the triumphant three who had made it. I asked them about their experience and it did little to allay my own fears. Very tough, difficulty breathing, narrow ridges with extreme sheer drops either side, harder than they had thought it would be, yet entirely amazing, were all descriptions of what lay ahead.
After lunch, our group geared up and set off for the 3 hour or so ascent to 5300 metres and the refugio at Campo Argentino…high camp where we would attempt to get some sleep before our 12:30am wake up call to begin the summit day. (NOW THAT´s EARLY!) I found the walk to be pretty easy and was pleased at how well I was breathing. Saying that, I had copped out just a little and paid a porter to carry the heaviest items of my gear…and I´m not ashamed of it! I wanted to have the best possible chance at making the summit, and I thought that saving my legs was probably a good idea. Helen agreed with me and we shared the cost between us.
The views as we climbed got more and more spectacular, but the peak still seemed an impossibly distant and far away treasure. We got to the snow line around 4pm and scrambled up over rocks where we could to reach the refugio. Watching the sun set over distant Illimani and the other peaks of the Cordillera Real range was a sight that was breathtaking…especially with all of the clouds hovering below where we stood, seemingly at the top of the world.
But no, that was for tomorrow (or tonight, if you think of midnight that way!)
The refugio was tiny but very cute…we all lined up like sardines on the one top ¨´single´bunk bed, happy to be close to one another for warmth. I was very much enjoying the camaraderie that was developing between our happy little international group : countries represented amongst us were France, the US, Canada, the UK, and Israel. We chatted happily and shared stories from our travels and conjectured about what may lay ahead, over bowls of chicken soup ( which I had to force down my throat because I was not hungry at all).
The refugio also contained the worst outhouse I´ve ever seen, it does not even bare description, lets just say it was ¨´overflowing¨¨ and one was far better off choosing to do one´s business behind a rock despite the bitterly cold night air.
We all agreed on lights out at 6:30pm, and despite the early hour, attempted to crawl into our bags and get some shut eye before our ridiculously early start. I lay there, anxious and heart pounding from the altitude, feeling a little out of breath just from turning right or left in the bed, or re-arranging the bag. WTF. Shit.
I got maybe an hour of restless sleep. It was just too high to get hard sleep. And I lay there for an hour trying to convince myself to get out of my sleeping bag because I needed to pee, not wanting to step out into the icy night. It was time to prep for the big day, and it was madness in the tiny refugio as the seven of tried to sort out our day packs, water, gear, headlamps, and plastic boots.
Stepping out into the still of the night, I will never forget the excitement and thrill that lingered in the air, the bright stars shining overhead lighting up just the outline of the majestic peaks surrounding us. And the cold. God it was cold….around -15 degrees Celsius without the wind factor. Brrrr.
I was going to be in a rope team with just my guide…Gualberto, since we were an odd numbered group (plus, he´d probably correctly figured out that I was going to be the slowest of the group). Gualberto helped me as I struggled to tighten the second pair of plastic boots I had (the first were horrendously too big and he had another pair sent up from La Paz for me) and affix them to my crampons and thick gaiters. Affixing my headlamp onto my woolly hat to light the few feet ahead of me, we set out into the dark silence. My heart was racing.
It was 2am, and my team was the penultimate to leave.
The going was tough and looking back on it…it was also somewhat of a mental blur. I couldn´t think of anything more but trying to control my breath, attempting to get more oxygen in my lungs by forcing air in and out through pursed lips. It helped at first but got more and more difficult with every step, with every gained metre. Roped up with Gualberto, I soon fell behind and was visibly the slowest one of the team. I didn´t care much, and the owner had told me that the key to success on the day was to travel as slowly as possible. Having said that, Gualberto kept pushing and pushing me to keep going, not really allowing me to take breaks when I felt my lungs might burst if I didn´t rest.
It was gruelling.
About an hour into the climb, I fell into a rhythm that was almost hypnotic as I listened only to the sound of my ice axe and crampons crunching into the snow. Every few minutes I looked up, horrified at the sight of the peak which still seemed an impossible distance away from my tiny and insignificant little speck of a body.
As the slope became more intense, I realized that I needed to go to the bathroom, and number two as well. I´m not sure I´ve ever crapped in such an uncomfortable state in my life (far worse than on the Salkantay) with my bare arse exposed to the blistering wind, trying to remain stable on an impossibly steep slope, and my guide standing a few feet away, hopefully with headlamp pointed away.
However, I was definitely able to climb in an improved fashion afterwards.
The silence was comforting in some way. Until it was disrupted by a deep rumble that suddenly grew in volume and my mind cleared enough to comprehend that what I was listening to was an avalanche which seemed to be hurtling towards us. Unfortunately, one couldn´t see anything and I had no idea whether we stood in its path. My heart leaped into my throat for a few seconds as I saw my guide, frozen, seemingly contemplating whether to make a run to the right or left. As he was about to make such a decision, the rumbling stopped, and the mountain fell quiet again but for the sound of our breaths. ¨¨That was very close¨¨ Gualberto said. ¨¨We are ok, lets go¨¨.
Trying to remember to keep up my energies by eating chocolate and drinking water, we plodded on, each step increasingly more painful and breathless. At one point, I saw that the first real ice climb just lay ahead and I was sure that I wasn´t going to be able to keep going. I asked Gualberto how much further? He looked at his watch and was concerned, telling me that we were running late. For what exactly, I asked? Apparently, the descent becomes hazardous too late in the morning as the snow becomes soft and falling deep as you tread an additional danger. I was up against the clock which didn´t help my nerves one bit, nor my aching muscles. ¨¨We have another 2 and 1/2 hours to go to El Cumbre¨¨, he said. More devastating words I could not have imagined him saying.
What on earth was I doing, and why? Why was I putting myself through this? Why not just give up?
Trust me, these thoughts plagued me, and even more when we passed up one of my companions, Matthew, who had turned around due to a bad stomach. I so wanted to go with him, but something deep inside pressed me to keep going.
That first ice climb was ridiculous. It was then that I realized doing what we had practiced a few days before was completely different when attempted in the middle of the night. I couldn´t see where I was going, nor how far down the drop was below my feet. I was utterly terrified. To make matters worse, Gualberto kept yanking on my rope, urging me to climb faster as I gasped and gasped a few feet below him. I kept screeching ¨¨No puedo! Me Espere. Momento, por favor!!!!¨¨ which means, I can´t, wait a moment, please! I can´t count how many times I tried to yell this, out of breath, only to have him continue and tug on the rope.
The top of that first technical climb was a welcome relief, until my headlamp lit what lay ahead. This time, only swear words entered my head and I felt like crying. I was numb from cold. I couldn´t feel my feet. I asked Gualberto if I could rest a while, to which he responded (as he did many times)…¨¨in another twenty minutes, ok?¨..though of course, in Spanish. Thank God I could speak Spanish. I wondered how my friends were managing to communicate with their guides… I could see their headlamps in the far off distance, moving slowly up the side of the mountain. God, they seemed so far away from me! How could they be going so much faster?? Ugh.
At one point I had to stop and re-tie my boots. My left foot had no blood running through it and my neuroma was being aggravated. That was the last thing I needed, because once acute it would not be weight bearing. I couldn´t afford that to happen today.
I told my guide that I wasn´t sure if I could make it. ¨¨No te preocupes, Anita. Yo te ayude. Vamos a la cumbre!¨¨ he said…encouraging me not to worry, I will help you, lets go to the summit!! Wiping tears, I pulled on my down jacket and another hat, put my ice axe to the mountainside. Onward.
And onward. Breathing was ridiculously difficult. Gualberto stopped and told me I had one more hour to go, but that it was going to be much harder climbing than before. Once we started he said, we could not stop. This was my last chance for chocolate and water. I was terrified at this point, my legs ached, my heart pounded, and my head started to throb from the altitude.
I absolutely do not know how I managed that last 35 degree slope. Every swing of the ice axe was exhausting, every step felt like an effort coming from a place that wasn´t my body. Pulling myself up on to Polish ridge (so named for the Pole who fell from it in 1994 during a solo ascent) I was greeted by the incomprehensible sight of a ridge of snow just a foot and a half in diameter with 3000 foot drops either side…one stretching to La Paz and valley, the other to snow capped mountains to the west. It was quite a sight. To add to the magnificence, the sun chose that exact moment to pop above the horizon and shed its golden rays over us. I was overwhelmed. I could see the summit. And I could see my friends already making their way down.
It was another twenty minutes, and we had to stand on a treacherously thin sliver of shelf to allow my group to pass us on their descent. Weary, they offered words of cheer, and we climbed on. When I finally hauled myself to the top of the world, I broke down in hysterics.
I had made it.
As it turns out, crying is much more difficult at this height also. I couldn´t catch my breath between gulps of tears and I tried to calm myself. The view was beyond words. I couldn´t believe I´d done it. Gualberto hugged me in congratulations and we proceeded to snap lots of victory poses as I tried to choke back emotion. Wow.
After 15 minutes or so enjoying the sunrise and the glow of victory it was time to head down. Luckily I´m far more adept at descent than I am at ascent and we quickly caught up with the others.
It started to make more sense why we start the climb in the middle of the night…its not just for the snow conditions. You simply wouldn´t attempt the climb if you saw what lay ahead. Simple as that. Bloody stupid. That’s all I can say.
Deep treacherous crevasses that I had jumped across without a thought in the night suddenly became lightened caverns of death. We saw the results of the avalanche and stared in disbelief at its proximity to the route we had taken.
It was so very beautiful and it was on the descent that I could take most of the pictures to remember the ascent by. On and on we trudged, our knees taking a beating with every step. At one point I fell down, my head dizzy from altitude and exhaustion. A little chocolate helped.
After a couple hours we were back at the refugio where we were welcomed with some hot tea. I would have welcomed breakfast but alas! we had to wait till we descended to base camp. I was spent, beaten, unable to move. I lay down and quickly became very cold by my wet underclothes. I quickly changed, re-packed all of my equipment, and then headed down with the others, thankfully back in my hiking boots.
That 2 hour hike is a blur. My head hurt so much but I thought it must be from hunger and tension as much as from altitude. The sun beat down on us like meat on a grill. I was so so happy to see the lake, to cross the dam, and enter the refugio a full 10 hours since we had set out.
After a cold shower, I sat down to a bowl of soup followed by chicken and rice. I felt like hell. But I had made it. This image of eating lunch at the table with my fellow climbers (and with the anticipatory group for the next day) had got me through I think. ¨¨How was it?¨ I was asked by the nervous looking new group. ¨Hardest thing I´ve ever done in my life¨¨ I replied, truthfully.
After two hours in the van I was ecstatic to crawl into bed back in my hotel room which I was sharing with Helen. After a 3 hour nap, I felt somewhat jetlagged as I showered and changed to meet the group for a celebratory curry. It was the perfect ending to a unbelievable day.
Anyway, hope you enjoyed reading this…I must ge going…we are off to watch Cholitas wrestle in El Alto. I will write Part II very soon.
Meanwhile, here are some pictures taken by Ezra a member of my team. I should be able to upload my pics in the next day or two before I fly to Costa Rica and on to Panama. What a relief sea level, sunshine, and the beach will be after this….