Fear, distress, anxiety and sufferance are all indispensable elements to be faced in order to overcome an obstacle, a difficulty or a barrier. Once we have found the courage, the boldness, the imprudence and the tenacity to move forward, we can look back with a smile on our lips, serenity in our soul and happiness in our heart.
The mountain and its laws, before facing it you must have well understood but above all respect them. We are all equal in front of it and it is one of the few places in the world where meritocracy really exists. Here the privileged and the recommended have no power. It is the mountain that dictates the rules, and it is the mountain that acts as an arbiter to ensure that they are respected. The only act of clemency, random, is given by the weather conditions that, in some cases, make the ascent easier and possible. In this environment you are alone, with your group, in extreme conditions, and only your will and your physical strength can make the difference to reach or not the final goal. Step by step you feel the mountain talking to you through the wind, blocking you with its difficulties (snow, cold, icy walls) and you can only appeal to yourself to overcome any obstacle. This is not a time challenge, to those who get to the summit first, but it is a personal challenge, against yourself, to see how far you can push yourself, endure and resist without the help of anyone else. It’s an incredible feeling: you, your group and the mountain. You have enough time to think, to decide whether to retire or rather continue. You have time to evaluate yourself, to get to know you better. They are intense moments, it is a long journey in which, in addition to the legs and arms that move mechanically, the only organ that continues to work is your brain that thinks, reflects and dwells on the most varied topics. Here the weak desist, the cowards surrender while the brave continue to fight the fatigue and impediments they encounter. The only drawback is the mountain sickness, against which nothing can be done and forces you to abandon.
Dear friends, after days of physical and mental preparation, the day has finally come to challenge our bodies and our endurance by climbing the Huayna Potosí, one of the mountains of the Cordillera Real that rise above 6,000m. It is considered as one of the most accessible peaks at these altitudes because it does not require special skills (unless you choose to take the “French” route, by far the most complicated). But one thing is certain, when you are going to challenge nature, the feat is never easy, and we are well aware of it, but we are very motivated to reach the goal.
Our motivation also comes from self-confidence and the awareness that we have respected the stages of acclimatization. To climb a mountain of this altitude is recommended to stay about 6 days above 3,000-4,000 m to get the body used to it.
My girlfriend (from now on Nam) and I decided to travel to Bolivia and stay for almost 3 weeks above the 3,000 meters, and finishing our preparation by walking in the salty desert of Uyuni, touching the 5,000m, and climbing the Pico Austria (5,328m) near La Paz. We were mentally ready for the challenge.
It is June 22, 2015 and our experience begins with knowing the rest of the group and delivering the equipment. We will be seven in total, a couple of French guys, Francois and Audrey, the two guides, Alex and Patricio, the cook, Francisco, (Nam) and me. In this type of experience, the bond of complicity that is created with the team members is fundamental because it generates mutual support, nourishing the strength and mental attitude to reach the end. From this point of view we couldn’t be better off, the two guides were nice and prepared, the cook was excellent and a friendship was born with the French couple that could go far beyond the experience itself.
The first stop will be the base camp, at 4,700m, which we reach by car. On the way we had the opportunity to chat with our adventurous friends who warned us about the real difficulty of the climb. They are already at the second attempt because in the previous Audrey had been the victim of mountain sickness, and she had to surrender as well as other members of their group. Their experience and advice will prove to be very valuable for our success.
Just to start, we accept their suggestion to take the Diamox (medicine against mountain sickness) as a precautionary measure, even if, like any other medicine, it is not without contraindications. However, we decide to accept its diuretic properties, which will force us to make several toilets stops, in the hope that the mountain sickness remains for us only a myth.
The first day, after taking possession of our beds in the dormitory, we get ready to reach the glacier, about forty-five minutes walk away, where our guides show us the equipment and their mode of use. We all find ourselves barred with crampons, ice axes and trapeze walking on the ice. Every movement is more complex than we imagined it would be but, like everything else, after the first few minutes of difficulties we are able to understand how to move more easily, gaining more confidence in our means. After learning the basic techniques of the march they showed us how to climb on a frozen wall, the real climb. This briefing is not only in case something goes wrong, but they are all techniques that we will have to put in place the next day to face the final climb that will take place on a snowy slope and icy walls. We were happy and we all respond in the best way and none of us detects particular problems in climbing and descending. The exercise is over and we can return to the camp with a more than positive mood to enjoy Francisco’s dinner and recover the necessary energies.
The next morning we wake up early and start loading our backpacks. We immediately realize, as often happens, how many unnecessary things we had brought with us. The result is simple, between clothes and technical equipment my backpack weighed about 20kg, and Nam’s one just under 15kg. These weights on the shoulders may not seem like much but, trust me, when the path climbs to more than 4,000m.a.s.l. between rocks and pebbles, and you are aware that it’s not going to take last less than three hours, it is not really a piece of cake!
As always, a positive attitude from the group is the best way to face a challenge. So, between a chat and a laugh, time goes by and the goal approaches. For the first time I see Nam suffering a lot during a trek, the weight of the backpack is exhausting her because of our lack of habit to face great distances with this ballast on our shoulders. We stop to take a few breaks to catch our breath and energies, since the altitude increases and it’s always harder to breath correctly. Nam looks tired, but her attitude is not affected and she continues without too much complaint. On the last ascent, our guide Patricio starts to climb quickly to drop off his backpack and came back to pick up Nam’s one. But she looked at him and said: “I made it this far so I can finish it all by myself, I thank you but I continue with my backpack”! I’m definitely proud of her. Good answer Nam!
We reach the “high camp” just before midday, where we will spend the rest of the day relaxing. We are already at 5,160m above sea level and, as far as I’m concerned, it’s the highest altitude where I’ve ever slept. The place is exceptional, we are surrounded by a multitude of peaks that seem to create islets in the white mantle produced by the clouds. Yes, dear friends, what you see is a carpet of clouds! Sitting outside the refuge, looking at the landscape, time seems to stop, the only sounds you hear is the breeze of the wind and the chirping of birds flying over us. The tranquility and serenity of mind that transmits this place are indefinable. After dinner, we enjoy the sunset. The sky begins to change color, suddenly the blue and white are mixed with yellow, orange and red, second after second, take the lead. We are all fascinated by this indescribable moment that ends when this multitude of colours fades into darkness. It is night and the surprises are not over yet. The stars appear and move above us quickly, creating a beautiful play of lights. It’s about 6 p.m. and it’s time to go to sleep, considering that the alarm clock is set for midnight.
The final ascent, in fact, will be at night for two reasons: first because this way you get to the top at dawn, enjoying a much more beautiful view, and second, but not least, for the danger of avalanches. With the sunrise the snow can warm up and the continuous march of many people could create failures.
The few hours that separate us from the beginning of the last climb are far from easy, sleeping above 5,000 m is far from simple, because of the adrenaline and the body’s reaction to this altitude, and those who manage to sleep for two hours in a row can consider themselves lucky. The first wake-up calls, the first noises and some flashes emitted by the torches set off the preparations, everybody inside the refuge is dressing up. The atmosphere let us forget about the tiredness and after not even half an hour we are all ready to leave. Our group is the last to leave the refuge and, as soon as we are outside, we realize the total darkness that surrounds us, only the moon emits a ray of light that makes the environment less distressing. We load the backpacks, and leave as a rope party, Patricio in front, Nam in the middle and me last. We start to move the first steps and the only light that really helps us not to put our feet in foul is the one coming from our headlamps placed on the helmet. The adventure has begun and our mood is great.
After half an hour we are in a surreal scenario: we are in total darkness, we barely see a few meters away and the only noises came from the crackling snow and from our breathing. The rhythm is rather slow to avoid altitude problems and not to burn our breath and our energies too fast. We do not wait too long for the first pauses. In these places it is better to stop more constantly but for a short time because the cold temperatures are unsustainable when you are not moving. Especially the fingers and toes are the extremities that make us suffer the most. In addition, the water starts to freeze, even if the bottles are well wrapped in warm clothes inside the backpack, and both the dried fruit and the snacks become as hard as the granite. However, the need for energy is very important, so we strive to bite the frozen bars and fight the lack of appetite to ingest even a small amount of food. Each break is initially welcomed with great enthusiasm, but soon it turns into suffering and the need to restart becomes imperative. During the climb, for what we can see, the view is still impressive, especially when we start to see the city of El Alto all enlightened.
The feeling while you are hiking is unspeakable, step by step you move away from the security to reach extreme nature, every movement of the body seems to be automated, feet and arms move mechanically, and the thought travels so fast that thoughts are crowded on top of each other. I reflect on the greatness of nature, on the importance of the sacrifice that is made to achieve a goal, on the value of the essential and the uselessness of the superfluous, on human relationships and the lack of people important to me, on the importance of living life to the fullest.
Thinking is distraction, meditating on important topics helps my body to feel no more tiredness, but rather to be filled with a constant positive energy.
Continuing along our road we reach, after hours of walking, one of the most critical points of the route: a wall of ice of thirty meters to climb. We are tired, but we try to dig up Patricio’s advice on the use of our equipment in the back of our memory. So I start first, being held by Nam and Patricio. Some parts of the climb are vertical to the ground and the physical effort to hold on to the ice axe is considerable. Adrenaline in these cases is the weapon that makes the difference, releasing the amount of energy needed to get to the top. Once we have overcome the obstacle, we enjoy a little rest thinking that we have completed the most difficult part, being only 200m from the cumbre (peak in Spanish).
The finish line can finally be glimpsed but nothing has been gained yet. Dear friends, it may seem crazy to you, but it usually takes more than an hour to cover these last few metres. Does that sound like insane? Try it to believe.
So begins a steep hike that goes up the mountain. The path is so narrow that it barely seems to think that both feet enter in line and on our sides the slopes are so steep that it seemed to look into the void and a mistake could have been disastrous. With the supervision of Patricio we work one step at a time with calm and safety. One thing is for sure, it is not a recommended place for those suffering from vertigo! At every step we feel the fatigue increase and we realize how difficult is to breathe due to the lack of oxygen in the air. The pauses become more and more regular, but if on the one hand they help us to catch our breath and rest our muscles, on the other hand they allow the cold to enter into our bones flooding the whole body with shivers. Every break is therefore very short and at every departure we are more and more motivated by the desire to arrive. When we see the top of the mountain we feel a strong emotion and the energy explodes in our muscles giving us the strength needed to take the last steps. We are at the top! It is 6.15am and, sitting on the mountainside, we watch the sun rise. The light begins to prevail over the darkness and the surrounding mountains begin to take on color as well as the entire landscape. We have a 360° view around us: the city of El Alto, Lake Titicaca, the various peaks of the Cordillera Reale and finally, in the far distance, the Amazonian area.
I look at Nam and we understand each other right away: we did it! Once again, we managed to complete the feat! The emotion is great and our enthusiasm is skyrocketing, we dominate the whole country from one of its highest peaks. We are so excited that even the cold is overshadowed, but when I pull out my camera I notice that one of the small glasses has been broken by the frost of the night. Damn cold! However, there is no room for any nervousness or anger, we are at the top and the camera continues to work perfectly. We enjoy these endless moments in the company of our French friends and our guides, Patricio and Alex. At these altitudes it is not recommended to stay for more than 10-15 minutes so, after seeing the sun rise fully the descent starts again.
Ouch, the head starts to ache and the descent is not without trouble. The strain on the quadriceps is constant and the energies are lacking. We go back along the route but this time the sky is clear and we can admire the mountains and at the same time understand the “dangerousness” of the path. After about five hours of ascent, two and a half hours of descent await us and we face it with a feeling of satisfaction and desire that everything will end as soon as possible because the goal has now been achieved. The view of the high camp is a mirage as well as the arrival is a moment of immense bliss. The challenge is finally accomplished. As soon as we set foot in the refuge we take off the harnesses and we jump into the cot. The bad thing is that we have only one hour to rest, eat the soup, prepare our backpacks (the 20kg one just to be clear) and retrace the road of the previous day to return to base camp where the car awaits us. Another hour and a half of descent through unstable rocks with a burden on the shoulders, it is endless.
Now it’s really over, we can celebrate thinking back to all the difficult moments we went through and the endless moments of happiness that we experienced and that we still feel.
As they say in these cases: “all is well that ends well”, and for us it has been so, the minibus brought us back to La Paz and we found again the civilization after two days plunged into nature.
Two days in total. It is recommended to stay in La Paz at least 4-5 days and, if possible, make a trek in one of the nearby mountains, such as Pico Austria. This will help you to acclimatize and not suffer from mountain sickness.
All year round it is possible to climb the Huayna Potosí.
- Winter, from May to September, is the driest and sunniest period, and therefore the most recommended.
- Summer, from November to March, is the rainiest and most cloudy period, which makes climbing less pleasant and the view less beautiful.
- Snowfall is possible throughout the year.
From the first refuge to the second you will have to bring all your equipment, usually the backpack weighs between 15kg and 20kg. This is obviously up to you. In some cases you may be able to leave some of the unnecessary equipment at the agency you use to organise the climb.
You will sleep in two refuges, but it’s cold. Bring a warm sleeping bag and some thermic clothes.
Don’t forget warm cloths, gloves, good raincoat, sunscreen and lip protection.
The price ranges from $150 to $300, depending on quality and duration. Price affects:
- the quality of the guides (whether qualified or not)
- food quality
- the quality of the technical equipment supplied
There are various paths, but it is good to divide them into two main categories:
- Accessible to all. The “normal route”, that takes two days. You sleep in two refuges and the only more technical part is the wall of ice to be climbed with ice axe and crampons in rope, during the final ascent.
- For experienced climbers. The routes are located on the east facade: French Route, Bordaz Muñoz, and the South-West.