I have just returned from Huayna Potosi and my initial feelings are that I will be a happier man if I never set eyes on it again. I still feel physically terrible from the ordeal, quite simply it was the hardest thing I have ever done.
There turned out to be seven of us who were gluttons for punishment; three Israeli’s, one of them a girl and each with equally unpronounceable names, a red-haired Australian called Scott who confessed he’d never actually seen snow in the flesh so to speak, a Frenchmen named Julian, and James and myself (two fine upstanding Englishmen). Throughout the entire kitting up process and drive to the first “refuge”, everyone’s spirits were noticeably high as we shared a few jokes in the minibus. Though I became a bit worried we might be out of depth when we encountered a group of Brazilian mountaineers there preparing to climb the mountain as part of their training for an Everest expedition next year!
Leading us were a group of three experienced mountaineers, all indigenous Bolivians, Quechua-speaking save for a smattering of Spanish and wearing state of the art gear “loaned” to them by the tour company. Truth be told all were probably desperately poor and reliant on the tips of tourists for their livelihood. We were told that victims of altitude sickness frequently had to be taken down the mountain by the guides and for that reason the company operated on a 2:1 tourist to guide ratio. Obviously someone had played a bit fast and loose with the remainders when calculating the needs of our party.
The first day was surprisingly civilised, intended as it was, to ease us into the task ahead and further acclimatise us to the altitude. We arrived at the refuge unloaded all the kit, took in the scenery, which was impressive, then had a nice two course lunch, (one of them being that Bolivian staple, chip soup), before heading off for a practice ice climb. That involved a 3 hour round trek and a crash course in basic ice axe, crampon and rope climbing techniques. I found the ice climbing difficult, my ice axed seemed to have an annoying habit of bouncing off the ice instead of burrowing into it, but I wasn’t worried. I’m not a performing monkey, I do it when it matters. My mood improved. This might not be the most ill-advised thing I have ever agreed to, I thought.
In celebration of this revelation and in the absence of any TV or radio or books, or indeed anything, we played charades. And by “we”, I mean me and James as everyone else pretended they didn’t know the rules and had no interest in learning them. Two man charades is an interesting game; it seemed from the reactions of the refuge’s other inhabitants to give more pleasure to the spectator than it did to the participant. I can’t imagine why. Anyway this epic encounter had to end at some point and after the excitement had died down we went to bed. At 8.30pm.
The next day we set off to refuge number two, where we would spend that night, before our final push to the summit. We retraced the previous day’s steps to the place where we practiced our ice climbing, then pushed on further, our guides leading the way, setting a pace that although not lightening, showed no signs of relenting. It became clear that breaks would not be on today’s agenda. At one point we had to walk on top of the water pipes which took water from the mountains down towards La Paz. For some reason this reminded me of the iconic scene in Stand By Me, where they walk down the railway track. I decided to lighten the mood a little bit by whistling a bit of Ben E King. Nobody else joined in. They probably had their minds on the task in hand, but I’m pretty sure they appreciated it.
After about four hours or so of trudging along we reached a glacier over which a guide informed us was the second refuge or high camp. The glacier sloped up around 100m or so, regardless we were told not to bother with crampons as these were only needed for the next day. Instead we used our ice axes like a kind of walking stick and contoured up the treacherous slope, Chaplin-esque. I’ve got to be honest I did question the guides decision that crampons were superfluous to requirements for this section as we repeatedly slipped and slid our way up. But on seeing them stroll up in their trainers, casually smoking bare-handed whilst the rest of us wore two pairs of gloves each, I decided not to question their leadership. James and I pushed on to the glacier top where we sat and waited for the group to reassemble. Looking down we saw Matta, one of the Israeli’s, (who I believe may have shortened his name for my benefit), and Julian who were really struggling, lying on their backs in the snow catching their breath. We decided maybe now was a good time to start taking our Sorochi altitude pills, each one so big it practically needed two bites.
I’d love to hear how an estate agent would describe the second refuge. Perhaps as “homely”, “compact”, almost certainly in a “secluded location” and most likely as “rustic” and “oozing with charm and character”. Personally I’d describe it as a dilapidated two room shack, lacking any basic amenities, stuck on the side of a bloody great mountain 5000m up, though that may lack a certain je ne sais quoi. It consisted of a kitchen of sorts, where chip soup (inevitably) and hot drinks could be prepared on a calor gas stove and a bedroom in which the ten of us would all sleep. The three guides on the floor, the seven of us above them on a kind of shelf, huddled together against the minus 20 degree cold of outside. I can be as condescending as I like now, but it did the job. Not that there was much time given over to sleeping, mind. In order to reach the summit before the sun came up and the melting snow became dangerous, we were to be woken at 2am for a 3am start. One guide had already “bagsied” me and James, not so much impressed by us I felt as happy to avoid taking Matta and Julian who looked increasingly sick as the afternoon wore on.
As the plan dictated at 2am, we were woken and began getting dressed by candle/head torch light. 3 pairs of socks, 3 pairs of trousers, 2 thermal vests, 1 alpaca hoody, 2 coats, 2 pairs of gloves, hat, helmet, gators, mountain boots and crampons later, I was ready and looking bloody cool I’d imagine. Our guide however, broke any delusions we may have had (and I certainly did) of being fearless explorers, by roping James and I to him, like a pair of naughty horses.
And so we walked, trudged and plodded through snow and ice and any and every conceivable mixture of the two. It was pitch dark and we walked with our heads down in silence. None of us spoke. There was no small talk. This seemed appropriate giving the mountain the solemnity it deserved. As we walked higher we saw the impressive lights of La Paz, the world’s highest capital far below. Other than that we looked at the ground. Anything else became too much effort. After two hours or so, it was an effort to put one foot in front of the other. You had to find rhythm in the monotony of plodding on, to distract you from the tiredness. Occasionally we stopped for drinks and chocolate bars that my stomach could no longer take, our guide expressing approval of our progress with the odd “muy bien”. Around half five our guide instructed us to rest, we had reached the final approach. So impressed was he at our pace that he “rewarded” us with the difficult ascent: up a 60 degree slope of compressed snow and ice around 150m high I guessed. I’d hate to have pissed him off! Everyone else was “punished” with a gentler ascent along the summit ridge. Even the Brazilian Everest wannabees took the easy route.
The next 45 minutes to an hour were not pretty. Climbing as we had been taught to do so, first our ice axe, then digging the spikes of one crampon in, then the other, ensuring that two of this three anchored you into the cliff face at all times. Our guide advised us “despacio, despacio” (slowly), as if there was another choice. Fatigue and altitude were winning. Snail’s pace does snails everywhere a disservice, we would have killed to have attained snail’s pace. Ever frequently I had to demand a rest, at which point I buried my covered head into the cliff face taking the strain off my muscles, and gasped for amounts of oxygen that weren’t there. Increasingly my willpower became weaker than my lungs and we could barely go for 2 minutes before I needed to stop. Not until our progress took us within sight of the still dark summit did I discover a steelier resolve and manage to wrench myself to the top with an impressive 5 minute continuous ‘burst’.
The summit itself proved far from the sanctuary we had envisaged, a most inhospitable place you had to be roped onto less you get blown off. Nevertheless we had made it and before sunrise. Although this latter point is, in my eyes, not so much an achievement as an oversight, as it turns out summits are pretty cold and if the sun is yet to come up you can’t see anything. Imagine our surprise then to find Matta already up there, having raced round the summit ridge route with his guide, seemingly recovered from the altitude sickness that had afflicted him just the day before. By way of celebration he decided to strip completely naked for a photograph, much to the amusement of the two guides, one of whom turned to me and said “I’ll give him four minutes”. I’m still unsure if he was joking or not. We posed for a few pictures with a Bolivian flag we had got from the recent world cup qualifier against Venezuela in La Paz, I inwardly cursed both the metric system and our decision to use it writing the mountain’s height on the flag. 6088m is just not as good as 19,976ft anyway you spin it. Subsequently I have told anyone who will listen and many who won’t that the mountain I climbed was 20,000ft, it just sounds better and is easier to remember. On our way down we encountered the others on the way up, minus Julian whose sickness did not miraculously disappear. We exchanged a knowing nod, which I think communicated congratulations to each other, commiserations for Julian and never again for any of us!