La Paz, Bolivia
Huayna Potosi, 6088m (19,974ft) high, about 20km from the Bolivian capital of La Paz, high in the Andes. After hearing about it from a guy we met in Uyuni, it was quickly added to my “to do” list. Fearghal was meeting his mum in Puno so myself and fellow revolutionary Marina signed ourselves up with a guide and all the kit needed for the climb, plastic boots, crampons (spikes that attach to the bottom of the plastic boots), ice axe etc.
The road to the base camp was like most of the other roads in Bolivia, rutted and dusty, and our driver seemed to have some kind of natural urge to drive on the edge of the cliff face (despite this being on the left of the road, and in Bolivia you´re meant to drive on the right).
We spent the first day ice climbing and practicing walking with crampons on the glacier and on the second morning, we climbed from the base camp (4700m) up to the rocky glacial moraine to the high camp at 5130m. After numerous cups of matte de coca (tea made with coca leaves that helps combat altitude sickness) and lots of high calorie food we hit the hay. I lay in my down sleeping bag, listening to the storm outside, hoping it would pass by the time I woke.
I got up at midnight, went outside, and was greeted by a beautiful clear starry night, the near-full moon lighting the surrounding glacier and snowy peaks. We donned our crampons and head torches and headed into the night, climbing slowly and steadily up the glacier. Our trail wound past deep, dark crevices and under huge walls of snow. As we climbed higher, we could see the lights of La Paz below us. Our first major obstacle was a 45degree ridge, one side of which dropped near vertically to the glacier below. As we climbed it, only a foot or so from the edge, I was trying to concentrate on getting the maximum grip from my crampons and Ice axe in the crumbly snow.
At around 5700m, my stomach started feeling a bit nauseous, and breathing was becoming increasingly difficult. Every few paces, I´d stop and lean on my axe, trying to catch my breath, my throat raw and lungs burning from the lack of oxygen. We each took a “soroche” pill, and after a short time, both of us felt much better. It was lucky, as the hardest part of the climb was just ahead, the summit ridge.
We began zig-zagging up the side of the ridge, then it steepened so we had to climb, rather than walk, getting grip from the toe spikes in our crampons and thrusting the head of our ice axes into the snow. I was trying to concentrate on not looking down, but then the sun started to rise and an orange glow came over the peaks now well below us. It was impossible not to look at such a beautiful sight. After another hundred meters of climbing we got to the top of the ridge. This was literally knife edged, each side dropping precipitously to the ice below. At times there wasn’t enough room to place both my feet side by side, I felt like a tight rope walker. Cornices (overhanging edges of snow) had formed on the side of the ridge in places, and I could feel my axe piercing right through to the fresh air underneath.
After a tense period of climbing, we came around a corner, over a last climb, and up to the summit. The view from the top was absolutely awe inspiring, truly one of the most amazing I’ve ever seen. The peaks of the Cordillera Real pierced through the blanket of cloud which stretched right over to the Amazon. Crevices cut huge slashes in the glacier that glowed orange in the now risen sun and the giant shadow of Huayna Potosi was projected onto the ground below. The sky was a deep dark blue and framed the incredible picture that was painted all around us.
Down-climbing the summit ridge proved pretty tricky, especially as I had to lead. We were getting tired, dehydration was now setting in and the sun attacked us both from above and below, being reflected in the snow. Towering ice cliffs and huge gaping crevices that weren´t lit by the pewney light of my head-torch on the ascent, were now in full view. After a short stop at the high camp for much needed food and liquids, we made the final descent down the rocky cliffs to the base camp.
My knees were burning from the impact on the descent, I was still dehydrated, my stomach was back to being nauseous, but I had a great big smile on my face.
Check out our flickr photo set here