Huayna Potosi. It’s worth recognising I had never attempted a 6,000m+ peak before, in fact this was my first alpine mountaineering experience. As I was a novice climber (and still am) the experience was definitely something I wasn’t taking lightly. I had a desire to challenge myself with something completely new. I built this up in my mind as the biggest challenge of my entire trip to South America.
Picture: On the mountain side
Huayna Potosi in Bolivia is just over an hour’s drive from nearby city La Paz. I had prepared by resting, eating well and cutting out alcohol for two weeks prior to the climb. I stayed in La Paz for 3 days at 3,650m to appropriately acclimatise for higher altitudes. In mountaineering terms Huayna Potosi is considered to have a relatively easy technical difficulty and is often quoted as the ‘easiest 6000m+ mountain climb in the world’. Nonetheless any mountain is no easy feat and I was about to discover why this was the case.
What was meant to happen.
For this story to make sense you need some context about the standard game plan for climbing Huayna Potosi. The climb is broken up into a three day itinerary shown below. Basically the first two days are designed to give you the chance to acclimatise and do general mountaineer training. This is because there are some technical sections of the climb that need knowledge of how to use ice climbing equipment.
Transport from La Paz to base camp at 4,400m.
1 hour trek to the ‘training ice vertical’.
2 hour ice trekking and climbing exercises including vertical ice climbing and crampon training.
2 hour trek to high camp at 5,100m.
Rest and preparation at this altitude. (Acclimatisation)
Preparation of mountain gear including crampons, ice-axe and ropes for midnight ascent.
12 midnight wake up time to begin overnight climb.
2 hour snow trek segment.
Ascent of 30m, 45° ‘ice vertical’ with ice-axe and crampons.
Continue along a 3 hour snow trek segment.
Ascent for 2 hours up 45° ‘ice wall’, a section of compressed snow that zig zags up the mountain.
Reach 6,088m summit at 7am.
Descent to base camp.
What actually happened.
Calm before the storm.
Got on the rickety minibus to the Cordillera Real mountain range from La Paz. There was a spectacular view of the mountain range coming in, although driving directly past a cemetery was a little ominous. We pulled up to a small little building at Huayna Potosi base camp at 4,400m. On the bus I met our climbing guide Feliciano and my Mexican climbing partner Carlos. We shared the bus with others doing the same climb but in a different climbing group. On the first day the training conditions were snowy and foggy. Wow this was different. Trusting the crampons was hard at first. Just as I trusted them, one dislodged from my boot. Feliciano quickly assisted me to put it back on. I hoped it would be fastened a little better before I attempted the ‘training ice vertical’.
Picture: Climbing the ‘training ice vertical’ on day 1. This was training for the technical sections of the summit ascent.
I took on the ‘training ice vertical’ with an ice-axe, crampons and cramping hands. The climb was tough, however all went smoothly which gave me a huge amount of confidence to complete the technical sections of the main summit climb the following day/night. Very glad and comfortable that I now felt prepared. The encouragement from my guide and climbing partner gave me further inspiration. Crashed out that night and prepared for the hike to high camp at 5,100m the next day.
Picture: My backpack.
Bag is heavy. Very heavy. I really packed stuff that wasn’t necessary and I was paying the price. Upon reaching high camp at 5,100m, I was blowing hard and a splitting headache was starting to set in. The sum of the altitude and pushing myself too hard was starting to knock me around. My normal, energetic, and talkative self was absent as I laid down holding my throbbing head. I could barely think straight. Disappointment and doubt started to set in as I wondered how I would be able to get up and start climbing at midnight. Very hard to see how I could summit the mountain if this condition persisted.
A few hours went by and I was still feeling pretty awful. My climbing partner Carlos was playing cards and looked completely unaffected. He and the other climbers were having a great time as they drank coco leaf tea and played card games. I felt like a bit of a loser as I was the only one struggling to cope. At this point it was approximately 6pm. All I could do from this point is hydrate, eat and sleep to give me the best chance of being in good enough condition to start climbing to the summit at midnight.
Picture: High camp at 5,100m.
Woke up at midnight, head felt great. I felt like I was a good chance to make it up to the top of the mountain. Prepped all my gear and got ready to climb. There is a certain sort of madness required to step out on to a dark, cold mountain at 1am. Could feel the excitement in my stomach. The trek started on a steep snow incline. I felt good in the first hour, but I understood that this was a marathon. My mindset was tuned to not let any complacency set in. Took a break for water and chocolate. Carlos and I had a strategy, to only take one bag between us and take turns to carry it. This strategy was giving us both a break and was saving our energy. Although cold and dark, we were doing fine.
Without warning, our guide Feliciano took out his ice-axe and started ascending a 45° degree ‘ice vertical’. We had seemingly reached the first technical part of the climb, and I began to climb up the ‘ice vertical’ using my ice-axe and crampons. Upon finishing I laid on the snow exhausted, cursing the guide for giving no warning. Feliciano laughed at me. I then took a moment to contemplate the position I was in. Novice mountaineer, 3am, dark mountain, ice vertical climbing and a Spanish speaking guide. Certainly felt a little out of my depth.
Carlos was starting to show signs of fatigue. In a shared climb both people must remain together, therefore if Carlos decided to go back I would need to go back as well. My ambition to climb to the summit was really strong, so encouraging Carlos to keep going was part of the experience. ‘You can do it man!’. Also determined, Carlos pressed on.
We kept walking and it hit 3.30am. We heard thunder and saw lightning in the distance. We all looked concerned. Feliciano warned that the metal on our harness belts could attract a lightning strike. We then took a break for chocolate. Carlos was starting to doubt whether it was worth continuing. To the best of our knowledge all other groups had turned back because of the less than ideal weather conditions. After a discussion, Carlos admitted he was tired but said he would give it his best. He too was very determined to climb to the top. We agreed the storm was not that close and posed minimal risk. We pressed on.
We knew we were close to the ‘Ice Wall’, a section of compressed snow with a 45° incline. This section starts at 5850m altitude and finishes at the 6,088m summit. This was the final stage of the Huayna Potosi climb, and is regarded as the most difficult segment. Carlos had been moving but his pace had slowed a little. Feliciano warned that with deteriorating conditions of rain and snow, it would be difficult for amateur climbers to complete the climb. Despite this he said the summit was still possible, and we agreed to continue even though Carlos had fallen off the pace a little bit.
The ‘Ice Wall’.
At 4.15am we started going up what we could only assume was the ‘Ice Wall’. It was a walkable section of compressed snow at a 45° incline that zig zagged up the mountain towards the summit. The path was certainly more narrow than I expected. It did not look like too big a slip would be safe. The weather was closing in around us a bit. The light from our head-torches showed that it was borderline whiteout conditions. The ‘Ice Wall’ looked walkable, but light rain and sleet was concerning.
Carlos continued to struggle. Genuine exhaustion has started to hit him. I now knew not making the summit was a possibility. ‘Did you fly all the way from Mexico to go back at 5,900m? We’re so close, keep pushing!’ My pep talks were a little repetitive but they were working for Carlos. He assured me again he would give his best effort. Very gutsy from Carlos, had huge respect for him pushing his physical limits.
As we increased our speed Feliciano told us that we were within one hour of the summit. Suddenly Feliciano stopped dead and raised his arm for us to stop. Ahead we could see loose snow rushing down the slope in front of us. This is known as a ‘loose snow avalanche’ or ‘sluff’. Although generally not dangerous on flatter snow terrain, a sluff had the potential to disrupt our balance on the incline at this altitude. Feliciano looked concerned, and when the snow stopped we started having a discussion about whether we should continue.
At the time it felt logical to continue. My rationale was that going up or down was equally risky at this point, and given the fact we had come so far already it seemed silly not to go all the way to the summit. For all we knew the loose snow could come from anywhere. Carlos all but said he wanted to go back. I rested my head on my ice-ace with disappointment. In that moment I felt like reaching the summit was no longer a possibility, but given the weather it was probably sensible to start going back down.
Suddenly, Feliciano starting yelling at Carlos and I, instructing us to push our ice-axes into the snow. Feliciano then pressed his body into the side of the mountain and ducked his head for cover. I quickly copied the position that he was in. I barely had time to duck my head when loose snow from above began to dump on top of us. The snow started covering my head and I could feel cold snow hitting the side of my face. The sluff continued for about 20 seconds and as it dumped on me I wondered how long it would last. It was a very scary moment. The snow stopped coming and I dislodged my body from the brace position and brushed off the snow which had thinly covered about 60% of my body.
After the shock of the sluff, we resumed our conversation. Feliciano said ‘we continue at your own risk’. I was honestly surprised he even gave us the option to continue. At this point I was very prepared and willing to take the safety first option and start going down. Carlos looked like he wanted off the mountain. Despite being a little freaked out, the ambition for the summit was getting the better of me, as we were literally within 100m of the top. Walking down now did not necessarily feel like it reduced our danger. What a situation I found myself in, 5am, dark, mountain and storm brewing. Fucking hell. Mum wouldn’t be happy with me doing this.
We had to make a decision, and then the big conversation happened.
Me – Es possible? (Is it possible?)
Feliciano – Es possible. (It is possible.)
Me – ‘Well it’s dangerous no matter which way we go, so fuck it, I say we go up’.
Remarkably everyone agreed. Up we go. I now felt like my willingness to go to the summit was perhaps unwise, especially given we were not that confident it was completely safe. However the threat of thunder and lightning was no longer there, so it still felt very achievable despite the whiteout conditions closing in around us. Feliciano was looking a little stressed. Don’t blame him considering he felt responsible for the two of us.
The white summit
Carlos – ‘How long left?’
Feliciano – ‘Cuarenta minutos’ (40 minutes)
We’re actually really close now, we were a big chance to actually make it. We heard cheering at the summit, someone else was obviously bold enough to go up. That gave us hope as we saw the light from the head torches above.
It was 5.45am and we had cracked 6,000m. This was digging deep time. My physical condition had been solid until now, but even I now had to concentrate on every step. Carlos had hit a rough patch, I even yanked his rope a bit when he started to tail behind.
‘Come on, you can do it! We’re so close!’
We passed the other climber and guide coming back down and it gave us a lift. We were now walking on a mountain ridge, although it felt surreal as we could see almost nothing. Conditions were almost solid white, and then I saw it. The summit. Carlos asked how far. I pointed at the peg on the summit which was 20m away.
We made it to the summit and we could see nothing but white. We indulged in photos and videos for 1 minute. We then had an unspoken understanding that we had to descend immediately. The wind picked up and conditions deteriorated further. It was bizarre to think we were actually standing on a mountain peak, visibility was so poor we literally did not know which direction to walk to go down.
Carlos and Feliciano had to communicate in Spanish to identify path in the low visibility. I understood what they were saying. Carlos was the first in the chain so he was the main man to communicate with Feliciano. When Carlos hesitated to start walking, Feliciano pushed Carlos forward in the direction of the path. Stress high here, definitely time to get off the mountain.
We carefully, bit by bit negotiated our way down the ‘Ice Wall’. Feliciano secured us at 10 metre intervals as we edged down the mountain. After a few hours we eventually hit the flat segment of snow and relief started to set in. Feliciano’s experience was invaluable. Outstanding guide.
Picture: Feeling a bit over the whole experience on the descent.
Enjoying the mountain
When the weather cleared we felt safer, and now the mountain was in full view. We knew we had just climbed it but it was hard to believe we were even up there! Relief and excitement started to set in as we strutted down the mountain. Enjoying the mountain without the stress of the bad conditions was awesome. We took pictures and were chatting as we continued our descent.
Picture: The 6,088m Huayna Potosi summit in full view.
Picture: Enjoying the mountain.
At one point my ice-axe that was being used as a kind of walking stick starting pushing straight through the snow. When I looked down the hole the ice-axe made was enough to see a gaping crevasse underneath where we were walking. Momentarily I was a little freaked out but Feliciano didn’t look too concerned. I assumed that it was all good then. I was trusting the guide’s knowledge and experience at this point. After all, he had climbed to the summit of this mountain over 200 times.
When I reached high camp we were reunited with other climbing groups, almost all of which had turned around. They thought it was pretty brave to go to the summit, even a touch crazy. They and the mountain guides congratulated us for getting to the top.
Video: GoPro footage from my summit climb.
Reflecting on Huayna Potosi
Summiting Huayna Potosi was one of the most challenging, rewarding, intense and satisfying things I had ever done. I also experienced a few other emotions in the first 48 hours after the climb. Some part of me felt a little embarrassed by my ambition to go to the top. It was a little dangerous to continue in those conditions and many would probably judge it unnecessary. There was also a bit of disappointment because I was not able to see the spectacular views at the summit. However, this was obviously completely out of my control. Missing out sparked my interest, so I searched online for summit pictures out of curiosity.
These images filled me with a little more disappointment because I was not able to enjoy the summit. The weather meant I was literally was not aware of what was around me. Crazy. My close friend is a mountaineer and I told her about my experience. She listened and then summed up the whole thing rather well.