I thought that biking the Death Road was the most dangerous and stupidest thing I’d ever done until I attempted to climb Huayna Potosi (HP). HP is one of the mountains in the Cordillera Real mountain-range that surrounds La Paz. Its height is 6,088 meters (for all you metrically challenged people that is 19974 feet!).
When I heard about the Cordillera Real I thought, “I like mountains. Maybe I should try climbing one.” HP is, after all, the most accessible 6,000 meter peak in the world. Then again, that’s not saying much. That’s the height of the Mt. Everest basecamp! One of the guys in my group exclaimed with disbelief, “You’ve never trekked before and you decided to climb a 6,000 meter mountain!” Yup!
I spent several days in La Paz acclimatizing to the altitude (3,700 meters). I figured that after those days added onto the four weeks I’ve spent traveling through various high-altitude cities in Bolivia (Salares – 5,000 meters, Potosi – 4,060 meters), I’d be fine. In Potosi, I struggled to reach the third floor of my hostel. I would arrive winded and panting. Whereas in La Paz, I’ve been able to run up and down staircases without a problem.
We set out on Monday and reached the basecamp around noon. After lunch, we hiked 40 minutes and then suited up. We had to put on snow boots, crampons, helmets, and harnesses, and carry an ice pick in one hand. We weren’t just mountain climbing, we were climbing a glacier! That day our guides taught us how to climb ice. The trick is to hammer your axe into the ice and trust that your crampons will hold your weight.
The next morning, we hiked 2.5 hours with the weight of our mountaineering equipment on our backs. Even though we were only ascending from 4,700 meters to 5,100 meters, we could feel the change in altitude. Only 20 minutes into our trek, I was having trouble breathing. I couldn’t catch my breath because of the lack of oxygen molecules in the air. We all took a long siesta once we reached the high camp.
Despite the fact that we woke up at 4 PM, we were back in bed by 7 to prepare ourselves for the next day’s climb before dawn. I didn’t sleep a wink I was so nervous. We woke up at midnight, suited up, and left at 1 AM. My four person group was broken into two pairs of two climbers each with a guide. We used our headlamps to navigate across rocks until we reached ice. Then we began our slow ascent.
Imagine climbing up an incredibly steep climb. Feel the pain as you place one foot above the other. Now imagine that you are walking on ice. Mountain climbing is like that, slow and painful. It’s similar to running a marathon. You know that those 4-5 hours of pain are only temporary, they’ll be over soon, but in that moment, the only thing you can think about is the pain.
The worst part, even more than the leg pain, was the altitude sickness. Altitude is a funny thing. It can give you headaches, nausea, and even kill you. I’m prone to headaches at high altitudes. Fortunately, the altitude sickness pill I took n the morning warded off head pains. Unfortunately, my stomach felt like it was going to explode. I had to pop a squat at 5,500 meters!
In spite of the pain, we walked onwards. We climbed from 1 AM to 4:30 AM, by which time we reached 5,700 meters. By then, the nausea, dizziness, and lack of energy overwhelmed me. We had to turn back. Out of our group of four, only one person summited.
No harm done. Sure, my body feels like a wreck and my stomach still wants to explode, but I made it to 5,700 meters! For a first timer, that’s great! I also managed to catch some amazing views of the sunrise on the way down the mountain. Besides, I have glory, and that lasts forever.
It wouldn't be Bolivia without the llamas!
Mountaineers who died trying to climb Huayna Potosi
In the clouds