Huayna Potosí is a 6,088-meter (19,974-foot) mountain in the Cordillera Real of Bolivia. Situated a mere 15 kilometers from the city of La Paz, it has been called the most accessible 6,000-meter peak in the world. That being said, the normal (and easiest) route holds a UIAA rating of AD on account of a number of uniquely challenging sections, namely the ultimate knife-edge ridge leading to the summit platform.
The rock of the Cordillera Real is dominantly granite that has undergone intense folding and deformation. This range contains many point above 6,000 meters, including many of the highest peaks in Bolivia. Moist air masses from the eastern Amazon lowlands bring heavy precipitation to the area. As a result, this range is home to significant glacial activity that belies its latitude of just 17 degrees south of the equator.
TUESDAY AUGUST 13th, 2013
Glorious sunrise breakfast on the upper terrace of my hostel (Muzungu – under heavy renovations and therefore deeply discounted to $4 per bed) overlooking the great Andean bowl of La Paz. The majestic tripeaked Nevado Illimani catches the early rays of the sun. The great pyramid of Huayna Potosí can’t be seen, but I know it looms just beyond the rim of the city, rising above the vast Bolivian altiplano (high plain).
I check out of the hostel at 8:45am, buy two liters water and toilet paper and crackers, and walk down awakening Calle Illampu to the Huayna Potosí mountain agency. There I meet my climbing partners: eager Nick from London, crazy-eyed Stefan from Austria, and Stefan’s new girl Laura from Spain. Together we stop in at the equipment apartment and rent glacier gear. Our huffy van puffs up the windy road out of La Paz and onto the broad altiplano. We hop out to admire the panoramic views during vehicle-cool-down breaks.
Up on the altiplano sits El Alto, the highest major metropolis in the world at an elevation of 4,150 meters. Once nothing more than a suburb to La Paz, El Alto is currently an expanding city with more than a million people. Still it has that dusty altiplano vibe, perpetually cold and blustery. We buy snacks in a tiny hole-in-the-wall. The snowy highlands of the Cordillera Real occupy the northern horizon, the pyramid of Huayna Potosí standing tallest.
Despite having a crow-fly length of only 15 kilometers, the dirt road to the bottom of Huayna Potosí takes over an hour to navigate. Our van bumbles northward up the Milluni Valley, passing Nevado Chacaltaya, which at an elevation of 5,395 meters once hosted the world’s highest ski resort but now (since global warming) is nothing more than a brown mound of Andean earth. At the base of Nevado Chacaltaya there is a large lake called Laguna Milluni, navy blue in the middle and a ring of crimson red around the edge. Across this lake at the head of the wide valley stands our objective: Huayna Potosí.
The road climbs to 4,700 meters at Zongo Pass, which is as far as the van takes us. We hop out and scramble down a gravel path to Refugio Huayna Potosí, a large barn-like building on the shores of an artificially-formed lake. For some reason (perhaps chance or even artistic intention) the roof of the refugio matches perfectly the color of the lakewater.
Quickly we drop our things in the refugio and gear up for an afternoon of ice climbing. The purpose of this afternoon is to acclimatize ourselves and brush up on our techniques of climbing and glacier travel. The gravelly approach to the toe of the glacier takes a little over an hour. Once at the wall of ice, we take some time to test and adjust our gear on a mellow 60-degree slope. Meanwhile our guide Mario constructs a toprope anchor and we each get to have a go at two pitches of vertical ice climbing.
Around 5:00pm we descend back to the refugio and share a pot of coca tea by the fire. Outside the lighting fades from bright afternoon to dusky twilight. We all swap stories and the craziest by far are those of Stefan, a 39-year-old who has been essentially traveling since the age of sixteen.
We eat dinner (soup, steak, fried potatoes, pineapple and rice) and chat with a German couple who is in the midst of a grand cycle around all of South America. Nick dives off to bed, feeling tired and slightly altitude sick, so Stefan and I migrate to the fireplace and exchange more stories. Just past 9:00pm I leave the warm fireplace and crawl into my sleeping bag in the wooden bunk bed attic.
WEDNESDAY AUGUST 14th, 2013
I wake early and charge my natural energy supply under the brilliant morning sun on a flat rock outside the refugio. Looking directly up the mountain I see the climbing route, the high-camp huts and the glacier trail zigzagging up to the incredible summit ridge.
I eat breakfast, rest in the sunshine and walk around the shore of the lake until lunchtime. After lunch we collect ourselves and start up the trail, just me and Nick and Stefan because Laura’s feeling ill from the altitude. Laura waits for the van to take her back down to La Paz and hopefully her and Stefan will meet again. The rest of us spend the first hour scrambling up the moraine on loose rocky switchbacks.
At the base of the glacier we encounter a shabby stone shelter; Mario tells us to wait for the ‘trail guardian’ so we can pay the fee of 10 bolivianos (just over one dollar) but the so-called guardian never shows himself. We shrug and strap our crampons to our boots, roping ourselves together as a four-person train. Soon we find ourselves on a giant slab of shiny ice surrounded by jagged chocolate-colored peaks. There is a well-beaten path up the slope of the glacier, making it easy to ascend.
At 5,100-m we pass the large building normally used as high camp, continuing ourselves up to our own hut at 5,300-m. Two hours on the giant slope of ice has given me severe windburn and sunburn; I’m pleased to be sheltered in our little red hut. The hut itself is nothing more than a little red cube offering nothing more than protection from the fierce wind.
Late in the afternoon a trio of climbers arrives to the door of our hut, exhausted from the approach. Two of them stand with hands on hips smoking cigarettes; they are French. The third fellow is a young dreadlocked Englishman named Andrew, who has experience snowboarding in Canada and climbing in the Alps.
The seven of us gather in the hut and sip hot soup in a crosslegged circle. With our bellies warm and full we crawl out onto the rocks and watch the sunset. Actually the sun fled behind the mountain sometime mid-afternoon but the alpenglow show is in full swing. The view is sensational from the hut, which really is perched on a dramatic south-facing escarpment looking along the Cordillera Real to Nevado Illimani.
There are three buildings at this high camp: the sleeping hut, the cooking hut, and the outhouse. The outhouse doesn’t have a door but on one of the walls is scratched the phrase ‘La caca mas alta en tu vida’ – meaning ‘The highest poop of your life’. By 7:30pm the temperature outside is too cold for us to be outside so we retire to our sleeping bags. Including now a second guide (for the late-arrival group) there are eight bodies sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder in the miniature hut.
THURSDAY AUGUST 15th, 2013
At the outrageous hour of 1:00am I hear the guides stomping around in the tiny hut. They shake the rest of us awake and prepare a groggy breakfast of tea and bread. I stuff my pockets with camera, chocolate bars, chapstick and sunglasses. Shivering from the extreme wind chill, I put on all of my clothes and apply my crampons. In between jumping jacks I slip into my harness, clip a waterbottle and some extra carabiners to the loops, and tie myself in to the rope with Mario and Stefan.
At 2:00am we are on our way! The first 300 meters of elevation gain are very slow, Stefan requiring frequent breaks to adjust to the thin air. He’s not feeling well but he’s absolutely determined to give it his best try today. Already the French couple has abandoned their summit mission on account of altitude sickness. Their guide has decided to escort them down to safety, sending Andrew ahead to join our rope.
Surprisingly the four of us move swiftly and Stefan deals well with the altitude. Since neither Stefan nor Andrew are able to understand Mario’s spanish, I have the job of translating all climbing instructions. On most of the steep sections Mario just climbs ahead and sets anchors for us to follow on belay. Mario keeps forgetting Andrew’s name and just calls him Pelo Grande (‘Big Hair’).
There are two pitches of moderate ice (between 40 and 60 degrees of incline) on the otherwise flat glacier route. We pause for chocolate at 5,800-m and for the first time I begin to feel out of breath. The sun has still not risen and I can’t believe how cold my fingers are. The terrain steepens to 60-degree ice with a series of waist-high steps; I don’t dare let go of my ice axe for fear of slipping down the perilous slope.
The four of us climb over a series of large boulders to achieve the 6,000-m summit ridgeline. Despite being less than 100 meters below the summit, the psychological crux of the climb is still ahead of us: a lengthy knife-edge ridge featuring 1,000-m sheer drops on both sides. One side of the ridge is snowy while the other is a bare cliff. We stick to the snowy side, for the most part about a meter or two below the crest with our ice axes firmly inserted into the mountainside snow.
There are several sections, however, where we are forced to step up to the very tip of the ridgeline and take a series of short steps along the crest, which is barely wider than the width of a boot! In spite of the debilitating cold, my poor fingers remain whiteknuckled around the handle of my ice axe for the sake of balance. I stare ahead at the sinuous ridgeline, trying not to give notice to the unspeakable abyss waiting on either side.
The crux ridge takes the better part of a half-hour, and when I step foot on the pointy summit platform I can do nothing but collapse into a cold ball and bite my tongue against the pain of frozen fingers. “What are you doing?!” Mario scolds me lovingly. “You are a man, not a boy!”
Not two minutes later the sky brightens and I lift my head to behold the most amazing sunrise of my life. The sun is a divine orange orb beaming over the forested peaks and jungle lowlands of the Yungas region. The mysterious Amazon Basin sits beneath an impenetrable fog.
For a few minutes I simply sit and bathe in the wonderful rays of the sun, allowing my fingers to warm and function properly again. Looking to the south I trace the brown rocky mountains and alpine lakes of the Cordillera Real out to the iconic Nevado Illimani. North along the spine of the range there is a savage scene of high rugged mountains, among which I am able to identify the peaks of Nevado Condoriri (5,648-m) and Nevado Illampu (6,368-m).
The west face of Huayna Potosí (the biggest wall of rock in the Bolivian Andes) falls away behind my back and there is nothing but thin air between me and the flat expanse of altiplano. Lago Titicaca forms the western horizon; just to the southwest I see the smog-filled bowl of La Paz. Earlier in the morning, El Alto was an enchanting cluster of twinkling orange lights. Now it’s a distant dusty altiplano town again.
There is barely enough room for all six of us (including Nick and the other guide who have just arrived) on the tiny summit platform. We keep getting our ropes tangled during photo sessions. Remarkably, Andrew just sits on the edge of the west face staring off into the distance with a slight smile. “No tienes cámara?” asks Mario (asking Andrew if he has a camera). “Tengo ojos,” responds Andrew (meaning ‘I have eyes’).
I lead the meticulous descent down the knife-edge ridge, not allowing myself to become distracted by the panoramic surroundings which are now illuminated by the daylight. Beyond the ridge we initiate a long descent to the refugio which feels more like crossing a desert, with the glaring sun and blinding white ground.
While applying sunscreen I lose control of my helmet watch as it slides off the edge of a cliff. Mario and I have to crawl across dangerously unstable terrain to retrieve it at the bottom of the cliff some 200 meters below. At several points we are forced to swerve our path around big gaping crevasses. My steps create deep post-holes in the soft mid-morning snow.
With helmets and all, we reach the high camp hut (5,300-m) around 9:00am. I throw off the rest of my clothes and stuff down two more pieces of bread. We continue descending the mountain on steep mixed terrain, scrambling down the moraine and arriving to Refugio Huayna Potosí at the early hour of 10:30am.
Waiting for the van we chat with other hopeful international climbers and share beta knowledge. At 11:30am we eat lunch of soup and meaty spaghetti, then we load into the van and bump our way back to La Paz. It’s a brutal stomach-turning ride; we all chat in the backseat to take our mind off the sketchy driving around blind corners.
The relatively low elevation of La Paz feels positively balmy and we spend the remainder of the day relaxing on a city patio with a few rounds of cold Paceña beer. We are hardly able to believe that earlier in the day we had been shivering on the 6,088-m pinnacle of Huayna Potosí.