Peru & Bolivia

Summer 2006

Part 7: Huayna Potosi


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August 10th-12th (days 16-18): Huayna Potosi (6088m)

During my previous trip (to Nepal and India) I trekked in the Himalaya and climbed two peaks of 5500m. Those weren't mountain tops though, but lower peaks of much higher mountains, and they were still below the snow line, so they didn't give me the real mountain climbing experience and left me somewhat unsatisfied despite the magnificent views. That's one reason why my number one goal on this trip to Peru and Bolivia, which like all Andes countries have many high mountains, was to climb to a mountain top of more than 6000m. The other part was that 6 of course.

Huayna Potosi is a mountain near La Paz that is 6088m high. Being above the psychological mark of 6000m, and yet technically not too difficult for newbie climbers to attempt, makes it a popular climb. For Americans it's the opposite though - at 19974 feet, it's just a fraction below their big mark.

At this point in my trip I was as well acclimatised as I could be, and I'd done it by just traveling around: I'd been over 3000m for two weeks now, around 4000m for over a week, and during the Uyuni tour I'd slept at 4300m and gone to almost 5000m already. In Nepal I'd had to trek in carefully planned stages for a week to get this well acclimatised!

Day 1

I was picked up at the agency along with three others: an Englishman called Jason who was on a one-year round-the-world trip, and two French guys called Matthieu and Bruno who were on a five-month trip. We first drove to an equipment storage in El Alto where we each got outer pants, a vest, extra gloves, mountain boots (much like ski boots), boot covers (to prevent snow creeping in), crampons (irons that you attach to the boots, with sharp peaks to get a grip on steep ice) and an ice axe. The biggest outfit available was in orange so I was gonna look like a Guantanamo prisoner :/

We also stopped at a shop near the edge of the canyon and got a great view down on La Paz. As we drove out of El Alto we got our first sight of Huayna Potosi.
La Paz and the Illimani as seen from the edge of El Alto.
Our first look on Huayna Potosi
Wow, it looked far more impressive and harder than I'd expected. That made me even more determined to make it though; I really wanted to be able to point to a mountain like that and say "I climbed that" :)

It took another hour to get to the mountain. Along the way we passed a mineral-rich lake that reminded me of my Uyuni tour.
Mineral-rich lake near Huayna Potosi
Huayna Potosi
Huayna Potosi

We were dropped off at a Swiss-built refuge at 4700m altitude where we'd also spend the first night. I shot this movie when we arrived...


While having lunch in the refuge we talked to a group that had just come down from their summit attempt; about 2/3 of them had made it to the top. After lunch we put on our gear and set out for a crash course in ice-climbing, which would be our only activity today.
Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!
(Special bonus points if you can translate that caption) We hiked to the edge of the gletsher that flows down from Huayna Potosi, put on our crampons and walked on the gletsher where our guide Luis showed us the basics: walking up a slope like a crab, using your ice axe as a walking stick, etc.
Walking up Huayna Potosi - the right one of the two peaks in the middle is the summit
The gletsher ahead
Walking on the gletsher. Since we were roped up everyone had to stop while I took this picture :)
Then suddenly, without a word of explanation, Luis started climbing up an almost vertical ice wall, leaving us all behind wondering what the plan was - certainly he didn't want us to climb up that wall?
Up goes Luis
When he reached the top, which took quite a while, he yelled down. Yep, he did want us to follow. Imagine you're on your first ever skiing lesson, you've just learned how to make a V to break and think you're doing well, and then the instructor suddenly wooshes down a black slope and asks you to follow him: that's how this felt.

We went up one by one, using Luis' two little ice axes instead of our big one. Together with the crampons that gave us four points of contact with the ice wall, so it was just a matter of kicking the crampons and smashing the axes into the ice really hard to get a secure grip, and crawling up like Spiderman while never moving more than two limbs at the same time.

Sounds easy enough, but it was so incredibly exhausting that after the first half I got sloppy and often lost grip on one of my crampons. I could never have made it without Luis providing counterweight with the rope, and I think the same was true for the others. As it was we all made it without any accidents though!
Jason climbing up while Luis provides counter-weight.
Jason has a picture of me climbing up, taken from above, but since he's still traveling I haven't received it yet. I think the importance of this exercise was that we learned to trust the rope. In any case nothing in the actual climb would be this technical, so it was good for confidence to have done this.

Now we had to get down again, and this was our introduction to the abseiling or rappel technique. To my surprise that turned out to be exhausting as well because Luis let the rope slide very fast and I had to place my feet very quickly.
I just rappelled down this slope.
It had become misty during our practice session and while we walked back to the refuge it started to snow. A pretty sight but I was worried it would be like this during our climb.
The edge of the gletsher. The ice is about 20m thick.
Bruno and Jason walking home in the snow

In the evening we just sat by the fire in the freezing lodge for hours. It was too cold to do anything fun, even play cards, and I was reminded of the miserable evenings in the Nepalese lodges. This part of being in the mountains just sucks.
Matthieu, Bruno and me having dinner in the lodge

Day 2

We left the lodge at noon. This afternoon we were just gonna climb to the high camp on the mountain, then try to sleep during the evening, and climb on to the summit during the night.
Huayna Potosi as seen from the refuge
Close-up of the top. The right one of the two peaks is the summit; we`d climb up around the right.

Along the way we passed the gletsher on which we'd practiced the day before, now seeing it from above. The little specks are other people practicing, which shows the scale of the ice.

To get to the high camp we mostly had to scramble over loose rocks, which wasn't difficult but very tiring. Jason was having problems with the altitude and couldn't keep up, but Luis didn't bother to wait, let alone help, which amazed me.
Climbing up the rocks
Looking back. The refuge was on the far side of the artificial lake on the right.

The high camp lies at about 5200m. There's a little brick building, but most people set up their tents around it. Not us though, because our agency owns a metal cabin a little higher up the mountain. Just as cold, but much more comfortable otherwise.
Jason climbing past the high camp. This was the hardest part of the climb this day, because we only had cracks in the rock to put our feet on here.
Me in front of the cabin.
In the cabin Luis made us an excellent meal of soup and noodles on a little gas fire, and then at 5pm, when it was still light, we all crept into our sleeping bags to pass the evening, the five of us lying on four adjacent matresses on the cabin floor.
Jason, Bruno and me inside the cabin
Definitely the earliest I've ever gone to bed! I tried to sleep but at this altitude, in this cold and this early it just wasn't possible. Around 8pm I forced myself out of my sleeping bag and into the freezing cold to pee, but the sight of the mountain glowing in the moonlight with thousands of stars above made it well worth it. The rest of the night I just lay huddled in my sleeping bag, twisting and thinking about the climb all the time.

Day 3 - Setting out

We got out of 'bed' at 1am. At first I felt terrible, with a headache that I feared indicated AMS (altitude sickness), but while gearing up I started feeling better and when I went outside and saw the mountain towering above me, adrenaline started rushing through me. By the time we got going at 2am I felt just great and eager to get going.
The road ahead. I took this at 1:30am, before we set out from the cabin.
Meanwhile we'd been joined by a second guide, Lorenzo. Jason's AMS had become worse during the evening and he wisely decided not to attempt the climb. The rest of us first walked towards the snow and put on our crampons. Then I roped up with Lorenzo while Bruno and Matthieu roped up with Luis, and off we went.
Me and Lorenzo, ready to go.
Walking up that mountain in the night was a fantastic experience. There was a three quarter moon that night and the sky was clear so we didn't need any lights, we just walked by the moonlight, which reflected beautifully off the snow which seemed to glow all around us, while the black silhouettes of the rocks formed sharp outlines against the relative brightness of the star-filled sky. To our left and below us we saw the little figures of two roped-up groups of climbers who were climbing up from the high camp, their head-lamps dancing in the night. It was a fantastic sight in so many different ways and I just felt pure joy to be there and to be part of all that.

The temperature on the mountain is -20 degrees which was tough in the beginning, but there was little wind and once we'd been moving a while I actually got too warm - except in my face of course and on my hands whenever I had to take off my gloves to drink or whipe my nose, which was all the time. After some time my bottle of 7-up (everyone takes water on these climbs but I don't see any reason not to take something tasty!) had frozen, and each time I opened the bottle I had to lick my way through a thin layer of frozen 7-up before I could let some more pieces of 7-up ice fall in my mouth. It still tasted great though and I had no problem 'drinking' like that.

At about 5500m we had to pass two ice-walls, the main obstacles on our way. I had got the hang of using my crampons by now, swung my ice-axe like a dwarf and overcame the walls without a problem and without any help.
The only picture I made during the climb, while resting before one of the two ice walls we had to climb.
At 5700m it was easy going again and though I was very tired and constantly breathing hard in the thin air, I was feeling great and euphorious about the whole experience, which had something surreal because it was the middle of the night. I felt certain now that I was going to make it to the top, and felt so happy about being there and doing that that I had a lump in my throat.

Lorenzo and Luis were setting a fast pace and we passed several other groups of climbers along the way, though me and the French guys were in no hurry at all and in fact wanted to make sure we wouldn´t arrive at the top before the sun was even up. I was getting somewhat irritated with Lorenzo, because when he decided to rest he stopped so long that I got all cold, but whenever I had to rest during the climb he'd wait just a few seconds and then go on before I was ready. I didn't want to argue though, so I just pulled him to a halt when I really wanted to rest more, like a dog on a leash, and he didn't seem to mind that.

A beautiful moment was when we suddenly saw thousands of little lights glowing in the distance on our left - the lights of La Paz. When the French guys stopped to admire this sight Luis cheerfully yelled "mas rapido es mas bonito!" ("more fast is more beautiful") which I thought was hilarious but also showed that our guides really wanted to hurry up and get this over with.

The final slope

Then at 5am and 5900m altitude we reached the foot of a very high and steep slope of ice, the final stage of the climb. We had been told there was a long 45 degree slope at the end, but it looked a lot steeper and more intimidating than we had expected - we were convinced it was almost 60 degrees (but it is indeed only 45 degrees, I just looked it up).

After a long rest we attacked the slope. The only way to get up the ice is to pull yourself up with your ice-axe bit by bit, which was incredibly exhausting. This wasn't fun anymore, this was just really hard work. The air was much thinner now than what I was acclimatized to and every effort cut off my breath and made my heart pound like crazy. I wanted to take my time for the whole thing, not being in any kind of hurry, but Lorenzo wanted to hurry up and never gave me enough time to recover when I was out of breath.

At one point when I really needed more rest I said "espera" ("wait") three times, but each time he waited just five seconds and then moved on, each time almost pulling me out of balance with the rope that bound us together. The third time I got angry and pulled back the rope so hard that he almost fell down the slope (luckily he didn't coz I would have fallen with him). He got pissed off too now and pointed to the one pair of climbers that had passed us, like this was some kind of race. That just made me burst out completely and I started yelling to him (all in my poor Spanish, these guys didn't speak any English) that I would set the pace, that I wasn't in a hurry and that he was only making things more dangerous. I made a spectacle of myself to the other climbers but I didn't care, I was seriously angry. This guy was supposed to guide me, not to endanger me by pulling me out of balance all the time so he could get his job done with more quickly. After my outburst he didn't once bother me again though.

When I started climbing again I was still so upset that I forgot to use my ice axe at first. When Lorenzo pointed that out I calmed down and started concentrating again. The rest of the climb was somewhat psychedelic. I could set the pace now, and in return I went as fast as I could and completely wore myself out on that seemingly endless slope, swinging my axe and pulling myself up with it again and again almost mechanically. I had no idea how far up or down I was at any given point, lost all sense of time and didn't notice anything that might be going on around me; I was just manically fighting the ice and my heartbeat. I have never before gone so deep and exhausted myself so completely.

After what must have been more than an hour I did notice something: the horizon behind me, which I could only see by looking down between my legs, was starting to light up. It was beautiful probably but I didn't take the time to turn around and watch it, I just struggled on. Not long afterward the slope became less steep though and I realised I could climb on without the axe now. A bit further I noticed people standing still and then to my complete surprise the slope suddenly ended and I found myself staring into a vast depth where a dark landscape far below me stretched out to the horizon. I immediately turned left because I thought the climb continued there and I wanted to push on, but the only thing there was a little bulge. I turned around completely now but there was only empty sky all around me. Only then did I realise that I was standing on the top of the mountain, and that I had made it to above 6000 meter!
This bulge is the very top of Huayna Potosi. Notice the rainbow colours on the horizon announcing the sunrise.
It was the most amazing moment. The beauty of the surroundings, the sensation of standing on top of the world and the satisfaction of having reached my goal, all combined at once, were so overwhelming that emotions and tears welled up inside me. I just stood there feeling dazed and off this world for a while, completely drained but intensely happy and relieved and overcome by the moment.

On the summit

At 6:45, just a few minutes after I reached the summit, the sun appeared on the horizon and coloured everything pink. I asked the Frenchies, who'd made it ahead of me, to take some pictures of me, but (as I only noticed afterwards) I was still all teary-eyed and biting my lip on them so I can't show them :) (I keep them for memory though) Instead here's a picture made by Matthieu that also shows the pink glow on the ice.
Sunrise seen from the top of Huayna Potosi

A few minutes later the sun was out completely and now it coloured everything golden! Now that I didn't look like my favourite puppy had just died anymore I had another picture made with my favourite mountain top pose.
The top of Huayna Potosi again, now bathing in the first sunlight.
Woohoo I made it!
More people scrambling up the last part of the slope towards the summit
My new bank card will have that middle picture as its background btw :) I also shot this 360 degree panoramic movie...


Here are some more pictures taken from the summit.
Other snow-capped mountains south along the main axis of the Andes
We`d climbed up along the other side of this ridge
The landscape on the other side of the mountain
The shadow of Huayna Potosi reaching towards the horizon - I`d never seen anything like this even on pictures

I stitched together an almost complete panorama (about 345 degrees). The stitching is very bad because it was way too cold to hold my camera steady and the sunlight was changing fast, but it'll still give you a good idea. Click the thumbnail and the panorama will open in a new tab or window where you can scroll it horizontally...


We stayed on top for about half an hour. There were about 10 people while we were there, I think in total about 40 people reached the top that day.
Bruno and Matthieu starting the descent down the slope

The descent

I rappelled from the summit to the bottom of the slope in 4 stages with a 50 meter rope, which means the slope is 200m long. It looks like a piece of cake on this picture, but consider it took me one and a half hour to climb it, so only 2 meters per minute, yet I went as fast as I could. Between two stages I met a weird Englishman who was being literally pulled up the slope by two guides.
Looking back on the final slope. Bruno and Matthieu resting on the left, other climbers going up or coming down.
Beautiful ice

The rest of the descent was mostly a fun walk, except for the two ice walls. After those I convinced Lorenzo to part ways and he literally ran down, so he really was in a hurry. The rest of the descent I walked alone and felt fantastic, enjoying the landscape and savouring the sense of accomplishment. Here's a selection of my pictures.
The view from the bottom of the slope.
Some pretty ice along the way.
A steep part.
People scrambling up.
One of the two ice walls along the way. As you see I took this picture right after rappelling down it, before pulling in the rope. Jumping backwards across those crevices was quite spectacular.
Looking down into a crevice.
That mountain in the distance is the Illimani again (6438m)
The mineral-rich lake we passed when we drove up from El Alto, which you can see behind it.
This shows the rest of the way down. Near the bottom right you can see the high camp - the red speck is our metal cabin. On the far side of the lake is the refuge.
Looking back to the summit, only 90 minutes after I left it!
Snowy bulge
The final snowy slope. This is where our climb had started that night, imagine how this looks with all the snow glowing in the moonlight!
Near the end of the snow I wasn`t sure where to go to reach our cabin so I sat down in the snow and waited for the others. When they arrived Matthieu and Bruno just sat down as well and I had Luis make this great picture.
We were back at the cabin at 9:15. Jason was waiting for us and had made great pictures of us descending from the mountain like little colourful specks. I hope to get all those pictures when he finishes his round-the-world trip. I removed all my upper clothes and laid them in the sun to dry (all layers were completely wet with sweat) while I cooled down, which took a long time.

After about an hour we left for the final part of the descent. My feet hurt like hell because the climbing boots were too tight, but I rushed ahead anyway to get it over with, arriving back at the refuge at about 11am. The entire descent from the summit had taken less than four hours, of which an hour spent at the cabin. At the refuge I made these final pictures of Huayna Potosi...
My mountain :)
The peak on the right is the summit
As you can see the weather was perfect this morning, whereas the previous days it had been overcast. Very fortunate for us!

Back to La Paz

After lunch at the refuge, where a newly arrived group attacked us with questions just like we had done with others two days earlier, we drove back to La Paz where I said goodbye to the others. I wanted to get a good hotel but had made a reservation in the cheap hostel where I'd stayed before, so I felt obliged to go there. I soon regretted it. The rush of excitement had gone now and I felt just like you'd expect after a night of climbing instead of sleeping: miserable. My back hurt, I had a bad headache and I discovered two big deep blisters on my feet that hurt like hell. The room was depressingly dark and cold, and I couldn't get myself to use the shared cold shower even though I needed to clean the blister wounds.

I lay on the bed but couldn't sleep and started feeling feverish. After two hours I felt I was gonna get sick if I didn't take care of myself, so I collected my energy, packed my stuff, checked out of the hostel with some excuse (they were very friendly so I felt bad about it), took a taxi to a really good hotel (the Rosario) and was very fortunate that they had 1 room left, because I had no energy to go hotel hunting.

This room had a heater which I put on max, and a private bathroom where I took a heavenly hot shower for half an hour until I felt human again. I took care of my blisters, and then had a great sumptuous dinner in the hotel's restaurant (the Tambo Colonial where I'd been before) which is the best in town. After that I felt tip-top and spent the evening internetting and watching TV in my room. It had been a very good decision to change hotels, for once I really needed to have some comfort.

The next morning I checked out parts of La Paz I hadn't seen yet (I already used those pictures in the previous part), went to the bus station to buy a ticket to Copacabana, and then had to literally run to the hotel and back to still catch the bus.
Passing Huayna Potosi on the road to Copacabana
On the bus I got talking to a young French couple. As we drove out of La Paz I had my proud moment when I could point to this big snow-capped mountain we saw on our right and say "I climbed that!"

<< Part 6: South West Bolivia    -   Back to Index   -    Part 8: Lake Titicaca >>




Cy Mon 12 Feb 2007 @ 15:58
I enjoyed your photos, especially of Arbor de Piedra! How fragile it looks. Thanks for your tips on traveling to Machu Pichu on LonelyPlanet.com.

Daria Thu 07 Dec 2006 @ 00:20
Ammmazing photos and exciting views!!! :)
I can't find the right words!

I bet in real life these views were much more breathtaking :) At some point I envy you - you had a chance to see all this beauty by your own eyes!
But the same time thank you very much for sharing this beauty with us :) This way it is also very nice ;)

Looking forward to seeing new pics and reading new reports ;)

Godsmurf Thu 30 Nov 2006 @ 00:11
It'll be 90% nature pics in the rest of the report. You ain't seen nothing yet :)

Well apart from some really wild desert llamas I saw penguins, condors, flamingos, pelicans, other birds, and sealions!

Fia Wed 29 Nov 2006 @ 15:07
Excellent pictures! Very beautiful sceneries! As usual I prefer mountain pics before buildings. ;-) I especially like the green colours of the mountains and the blue colours of the lakes that you visited.

By the way, you didn't happen to see any wildlife? Apart from that creepy millipede I mean. (And lamas don't count as wild.) :-)


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