The magic of Huayna Potosi (6088m)

Dreams come true

Observing vast waters of Lake Titicaca, on that day the air seemed to be much clearer. I walked to the hotel terrace on the Isla del Sol, where I spent the last night and I looked ahead. Far away, almost on the horizon I saw the snow-capped peaks of Cordillera Real. Initially, my imagination registered this view as a landscape completely detached from what is real, I rubbed my eyes and after a while I realized that it was utterly genuine, surreal phenomenon. My heart beating inside told me this was the direction I should follow. At this very moment I locked one of the Bolivian six-thousanders as my next target.

Preparations with no plan

Copacabana, the view from Cerro Calvario

Soroche, in Bolivian dialect, means an altitude sickness. It applies to anyone who ascends from the sea level to a height of about 4,000 meters (often 3000 meters is enough) in too short time. The best remedy is time. You have to allow yourself a good rest, do not stress your body and gradually get acclimatized.

Drink tea with coca leaves, lots of water, limit exercises and stay at a light diet, it also helps. I was lucky to acclimatize quickly, for some people it can take 2 or 3 days. Of course, longer acclimation naturally reduces the risk of altitude sickness as you start passing even higher isolines.

A couple of initial days at the "suggested" altitude I spend in the town of Copacabana on the Lake Titicaca. The town is situated on the slopes of two mountains in the southern coast of the lake. It used to be a pilgrimage destination, nowadays is not much more than a friendly tourist destination. Just before sunset, I climb the Cerro Calvario, one of the hills to see the bay in its all glory.

We leave the mainland to stop on the Island of Sun (in Spanish – Isla del Sol), a small passenger boat takes us there. A brief exploration of the island makes already quite an impression. Isla del Sol reminds me of one of the Mediterranean islands, with an equally golden beaches. The only difference is that here nobody dares to swim, as those sandy beaches are located nearly four kilometers above the sea level, water is nine degrees cold and at some parts of the beach are covered with snow.

Wandering aimlessly along footpaths it is easy to see local everyday life. I meet many fishermen, shepherds and farmers cultivating potatoes and peanuts. All the small villages scattered around the island are dominated by modest clay huts, usually with no electricity. Inhabitant’s only household possessions are rarely more than two cows, a few pigs, a donkey and a modest plot of land near the house. On the island there is not a single car or motorcycle. You have to walk along small paths. The only way to quickly get from one tip of the island to the other is by boat.

My acclimatization continues. Isla del Sol is much nicer place than La Paz, the capital. Nevertheless I am kind of forced to visit the crowded capital to organize the expedition and prepare all necessary equipment. The steep streets are filled with stalls located directly on a roadway, some of them completely blocking the traffic. This is how your inventory search looks like. On one of the more interesting stalls an old lady sells various items meant to bring good fortune. One of those is dried llama, which you are supposed to hang on your wall in a living room. Why not … especially, if it brings good luck!

While preparing for my trip I concluded that it is essential to eliminate several reasons for potential failure. I try to strike off that list being hungry, thirsty or cold. Thus, I stock up enough supplies of food, water and arrange appropriate clothing. Regarding socks, I follow an experienced local guide’s suggestion: "put on at least two or three pairs of socks”. On one hand, I know what real cold means as I managed to handle -40˚C in Scandinavia and here I expect it to be “only” -15˚C, say -20&#730C at most. So? – “Well, this is Bolivia”, I thought … so I bought two pairs of llama socks and an additional, super-extra warm pair. My guide, having seen these socks concluded, "with this kind of socks, one pair is enough". Finally, after a few hours searching I also managed to find zapatero, a street cobbler, who repairs my shoes for 15 bolivianos (roughly two dollars) and they look like nearly new. Makes it weird to think I was just about to throw them away some six weeks ago…

To overcome the six thousands

Cordillera Real

It is not even a week since the idea came to my mind. Now I am making myself ready to sleep in Paso Zongo base camp at an altitude of 4700 meters. The initial stage of the expedition doesn’t appeal to me so much. The weather is miserable. It keeps raining, temperature is very cold and the air humid. I experience some stomach problems, minor fever, general weakness and unprecedented hypothermia. I can’t even remember if I ever felt worse than that. We spend the first night. At this point I get to know the rest of the group which totals twelve adventure-hungry souls.

In the morning, we look at the equipment and make final adjustments. Heavy-loaded with gear we set off to Campamiento Rocas, the next camp at an altitude of 5200 meters. The walk is relatively easy, the only difficulty being slippery icy rocks as in the morning temperature stays below freezing. In the early afternoon we go for a walk to a height of about 5300 meters and exercise with crampons and ice axes on the glacier. The big day is coming.

It is not easy to get motivation to fall asleep so early, but eventually almost everybody nestles down in his or hers own sleeping bag by seven in the evening. Falling asleep with bottles of hot water turns out to be a good idea. It is far warmer at night, you do not have to boil hot water before setting forth and the bottle will not freeze during the day.

We get up a few minutes after midnight. Following, we prepare the equipment, dress up and at 1:16 AM we start the summit ascent. So, in the vast expanse of night, bound with ropes in a complete darkness having headlights on, we start to climb to the top.

From time to time I see several hundred meters deep cracks in the ice, just a few meters away from our path. It is bitterly cold, quiet, lonely and monotonous. Intensively walking for about two hours we reach the Campo Argentino at the altitude 5600 meters. This is an empty, flat area covered with eternal snow layer, heavily crevassed around.

In front of me there is a fifty meter high, about 45 degrees steep wall. We climb it belaying in turns each other. Actually, it might be considered the only technical difficulty while climbing Huayna Potosi. All other difficulties come down to challenging your body endurance. Being tied up together with Joseph, a Korean guy, in the course of following hours we keep on falling on our knees, hands, sometimes almost straight on face out of fatigue. The real struggle begins.

From time to time I choke on thin air, to that end, some strong stomach and lungs pain escalates. It feels like I am going to spit out my lungs with blood right on the snow. I am short of breath even though we move at a rate of only 1-2 km per hour. It nearly never happens to me, but this time I’m dead tired. I gradually lose hope and I think that I will have to give up.

On the top of all trauma, a bothering diarrhea occurs to me and at the height of 5700 meters it is a very complicated and time consuming nuisance, especially considering taking off the harness, loosening the fasteners and zippers. Finally we continue.

All the time I wonder what I’m doing here. I’m somewhere in the middle of South America and it is bitterly cold. In less than fifteen degrees below zero all the stereotypes about the hot climate all over the continent are burned down. My hands are frozen, on the verge of first and second degree frostbite. And my super-extra-thick socks made of llama wool barely keep my feet warm.  I can not fasten my jacket up to my chin, because the lock is frozen. So is my overall clothing, completely stiff due to the temperature right-away freezing any moisture released by the body.

The struggle still goes on, every few minutes we take a short break, usually that happens when one of our two falls down on knees due to exhaustion. I do my best and try to endure as much as I can, but my eyes involuntarily fill with tears. These are tears of lost hope and being completely helpless facing the body weakness and merciless, unchangeable rules of nature. Another thought comes to my head “I will go home and never again attempt a trip like this one", I keep repeating it to myself.

It starts to get bright. I can see the summit. This time it is Joseph who goes under a crisis and completely loses his hope, which comes away only as we reach the magical 6000 meter mark. My hard-working heart, which bravely pumps the oxygen-thirsty blood, begins to beat even faster. There is a hope and with the hope comes euphoria and some spare energy.

It is last several vertical meters to the top. I know that I need to get there. It is my mission and my only destination at this time. Every single little step I take is as hard as climbing an entire ladder. We traverse along the narrow ridge with a rocky cliff on the left-hand side and an about one thousand meters deep precipice to the right.

This view and the entire situation does not let you to stay relaxed, but the peak is now at hand. It might be only 150 or 200 meters away.

Someone said that the road to heaven runs right through the middle of hell. I do not believe what is happening now. It is time for all metaphysical experiences to take over. It is a few minutes past seven in the morning local time. I have reached the top of Huayna Potosi. The whole world, everything else is somewhere in the distance. I stand on height of 6088 meters. Euphoria and satisfaction of conquering the fight is unimaginable. My eyes once again fill with tears. These are the tears of utter happiness.

I understood the magic of high mountains. This is the first, single and just a few days long experience which completely changed my attitude. Not even half way back to the base camp, I heard the subconscious whisper, “Huayna Potosi is not the end, it is just the beginning your mountain adventures.”

I should add that I’m not crazy about scoring or beating all sorts of records, but a quick reflection comes straight to my mind: how lucky we are to use the metric system in Europe! The height of 6088 meters sounds much better than 26 feet below another magic figure of 20.000 feet.

January 2012

huayna potosi