Categories: Bolivia, Hiking
I don’t know why but 6000m got stuck in our heads. Dan nearly reached this goal with his successful summit of Cotopaxi, we had a chance with Chimborazo but altitude sickness got the best of me. After spending 3 months at high elevation in Peru, we decided to try Chachani at 6075m just outside of Arequipa, but then we couldn’t find a guide, did some research and found we could do it on our own. Dan didn’t really want to go it alone considering just how sick I was last time I went over 5500m but I talked him into it, the day we were going to drive to the trailhead, we woke to clouds and the threat of rain. We didn’t really fancy hanging around waiting for the weather to clear, so we headed to Bolivia not sure if we’d have an opportunity to climb again.
We went through one of the worst border crossings we’ve ever had, Dan had to be sent to the truck lest he argue any more with the Aduana women and get us permanently stuck in no mans land. A crazy bicycle cart side swiped the Hulk, leaving him with a rather large gauge in he’s side, we might have chased down the culprit but it was market day and even driving at 5km/hr we were pulling down stands. Next up was getting through La Paz, or more precisely around it to our campsite, I thought I had it figured out but we were met with one road closure after another, finally just a few kilometres from our stop we could appreciate the lunar surroundings of La Paz. I think someone built a city in a National Park.
Arriving at Hotel Oberland (with Overlander specific parking) our day got better by the sight of our friends Bridget and Brendan. We originally met in Oaxaca and bumped into one another on our way south but never really spent a lot of time together, this was our time, as we spent the next day trying to organize car insurance, change money and discuss what we wanted to do in Bolivia. Turns out they were also looking for a big climb and heard of guide hiking company that climbs Huayna Potosi, just north of La Paz, at 6088m we couldn’t help but jump at the chance to go with friends.
As per most organized tours, nothing seemed organized when we arrived at our meeting point. Here we met our other climbing partners, Kevin, Moritz, and Nikalus from Germany and Charlotte and Carolina from France. First we were taken to a strange apartment and given gear that didn’t fit anyone, thankfully Dan and I are pretty kitted out and only needed to borrow boots, crampons (yes, those evil things again), ice axe, harness and helmet. Then it was out of the crazy traffic of La Paz and up to the tour company’s base camp (at 4700m). Here we had a big lunch and sorted out our equipment. Next was a walk to the glacier to practice with said equipment. Once at the glacier we all struggled to get into our boots and crampons, then we were taught how to walk. Next was how to climb an ice wall, as the panic set in for me that we might actually have to climb this mountain not just walk up it I cursed myself for not reading the brochure better and stayed firmly at the back of the line. “Is this really necessary for our ascent?” I asked Felix, one of our guides. “Yes, of course” was his response. What had I got myself into, as my panic descended into hysterics, Dan assured me this was just a bit of fun, that we would not have to ice wall climb on our ascent. Phew, I tried to opt out of this exercise to avoid the embarrassment of people seeing how upper body weak I was but no that was not allowed. To make matters worse, now everyone had to wait for me to complete my 30 foot wall climb before we could return for dinner. With much encouragement I took my place at the bottom of the sheer wall, thinking “maybe I could just fall and hurt myself” something deep down inside said that this was the wrong attitude. Things I learned;
1. Ice climbing is hard, you have to swing your axe quite hard to get it to stay in the ice, but then it’s really hard to get out.
2. Helmets are essential. As I swung and swung to try to get my axe to hold I managed to swing back so hard I axed my own head, it hurts even with a helmet.
3. Eye protection is important. I decided for this hike to wear my ski goggles as on other hikes the wind made my eyes water and then it freezes uncomfortably to my face. In this case my goggles saved my eyes from falling ice chunks.
4. I suffer from “ice climbing Tourette’s”. I couldn’t help but constantly swear and grunt, this was ridiculously hard work.
5. Ropes are the best, as is the man holding your rope. When I was finished I thanked Celestino for hauling me up the wall with the aid of the rope, he assured me that he simply stopped my from falling, I appreciate that too.
That night we had a nice big dinner, played some cards and went to bed early. I (as usual) did not have a great nights sleep, it’s the kind of sleep you get before a race, fitful. The next morning we had breakfast and readied our bags with only the essentials needed for the upper Refugio of our climb. After lunch we started our hike up to the Refugio at 5300m, we stopped for a couple of breaks and paid our entry into the national park. We lost Moritz to altitude issues shortly after this and one of the guides had to take him back to base camp, and then there were eight. Once we made it to our home for the night we all got cozy while our guides set out about melting snow for water and cooking our not so gourmet meal of ramen noodles and hot dogs. My tummy was already acting up, but I managed to choke down what I could knowing I needed the energy. We went to be at 7pm with a 12:30am wake alarm. No one slept a wink, we all just laid there listening to one another toss and turn, I don’t know if it was nerves or lack of oxygen (or both) but sleep was not in the cards for our group.
At 12:30am my beeping watch set us into action, dressing in layers, fighting into our boots, and eating breakfast. We all arose with headaches and tablets were handed out. I truly started doubting myself before we’d begun, the dry bread for breakfast (damn you strawberry allergy) was not sitting well and I was struggling with the smallest of tasks, I was miserable. Dan assured me we’d be fine (funnily enough the night before as the guides picked “teams” one guide wanted Dan and Brendan, Bridget and I shut that down straight away) and now he was stuck with me and I didn’t think I could do it, but I knew I had to try because it wasn’t fair to Dan for me to quit. Somehow we were ready by 1:30am and we marched off into the dark with Celestino leading, me the weak link in the middle and Dan being the party in the back. I wish I was joking but Dan was singing and making jokes and chatting away to people, all of this was to help me, but all I could do was stare at my feet and will them to go. The first 1/3 actually wasn’t so bad, unlike volcanoes that go unrelenting straight up, we had a few flat bits and ridge lines to traverse. By half way my stomach was not good and I could no longer eat, but I could still drink and I wasn’t coughing. By 2/3 I was some what delirious, I was walking with my eyes closed, I just couldn’t keep them open, I finally collapsed into a heap and cried at the bottom of what would be our final ascent. I was exhausted. The nice thing was that I collapsed just ahead of our friends Bridget and Brendan and just behind Kevin and Nickalus, we took a group break, where Brendan pointed out it would be stupid to quit now, and Dan pointed out that the sun would be rising soon and that the light of a new day always helped in ultras so the same must apply here. Celestino just patted my head and told me we were going on, I pulled myself together and marched on. That last ascent was brutal, Dan and Bridget suffered terrible calf cramps and I just felt like death walking, but whenever I looked to the East I was amazed to watch the sky turn beautiful shades of pink and then orange* and amazed again to see we actually were getting closer to the summit. The summit was spectacular, after crying (happy cry) I took in views of the Cordillera Real to the Northeast and Lake Titicaca, south we could see La Paz and El Alto, west was more mountains. It was beautiful and freezing, so we didn’t stay long.
The descent was long, but pretty getting to see the sights we’d missed in the dark. After getting off the glacier and changing into our normal shoes we faced the challenge of a 1 kilometre section of snow and rocks, where we all fell at some point due to poor footing, exhaustion, and generally tired legs. Once back at base camp we were fed and started to feel the accomplishment of what we’d just done. All eight of us made the summit which was amazing. Although I felt like a total wimp at times, I didn’t give up and now I know I can do it. In case you are wondering 6088m works out to 19,974 feet, I guess there is a new number to work towards.
*dear readers you will have to take our word for this as none of our party had the energy to get out a camera.