Climbing Huayna Potosi, Bolivia

I didn’t want to be ‘that girl.’ It was pitch black and I was tied to my friend.  I was cold. I was tired. I could barely move, barely breathe. The pain was excruciating. A sharp metal implement lay near us and a masked man stood watching over us.

We were in the middle of nowhere.  Few people ventured this far and of those that did, only 50% made it. Now I knew why. I could see torchlight flickering in the distance and all I could think was – “If only we can get over there.”

‘There’ was the summit. Hamish and I were slumped, about to give up only 500 metres from the top. I was convinced my lungs were bleeding – each breath felt like a thousand tiny knives scraping my insides. To move even five metres took several minutes followed by another collapse into knee-deep snow. It was 3am on day three of our ice climb.

Our challenge: To scale Huayna Potosi in Bolivia. At 6,088 metres, the summit is higher than Everest Base Camp, higher than Kilimanjaro and two kilometres higher than Mt Blanc. At that altitude there is only 50% of the oxygen at sea level. It’s the vertical limit of human habitation.  In other words, it is almost impossible to breathe. We were headed to the top.

We had set off two days earlier. It was my idea. I wanted to go snowboarding on a ski field near La Paz but due to global warming it ceased to exist.  Instead, we were offered a mountain climb with ice picks and crampons – a real explorer-style adventure.

I convinced Mark to do it with me. We’d met on a Bolivian Salt Flats tour and had ventured into the claustrophobic silver mines of Potosi together. Mark was a competitive, tough bloke and wasn’t going to chicken out of something a girl dared to try.  Together we recruited friends  – (another) Marc and Hamish and our tour operator introduced us to the final two climbers of our group – Darryl and Jose.

Preparation for the climb was nil. We’d been backpacking, partying and relaxing. Our over-worked livers were tender; La Paz is fun place especially if you’re staying at an Irish-run hostel with cheap beer. The last time we had done any exercise was three months prior at the Brazilian Mardi Gras, dancing amongst the sensuous, energetic crowds. Fit or not, everyone felt the effects of altitude just walking about La Paz.

 

The climb is staged over three days. Day one is a 25 kilometre off-road drive from the Altiplano above La Paz to the first mountain hut.  We arrived at lunchtime to acclimatise to 4,700 metres and were introduced to our unfriendly guides who didn’t speak English: nor we Spanish. Whilst eating we met weary trekkers on their way back. Few had made it to the top. 5,600 metres was the height that turned them around. We boasted amongst ourselves – we would make it.

Being in Bolivia, safety regulations weren’t up to Australian standards. Whereas this trek would take months of training back home, that afternoon we had 30 minutes to learn how use our crampons and ice picks. This involved walking in circles on ice before testing our new skills with a ten metre vertical ascent on a glacier wall. An ice pick in each hand and it’s ‘kick, kick, pick, pick’ and up you go. We abseiled back down. Apparently one practice run was enough. We were ready for the real thing.

On day two we left after breakfast and ascended 500 metres up the rocky path carrying our bulky equipment. It took longer than expected.  The altitude was already slowing us but we arrived at the tiny mountain refuge by lunch.  We were instructed to relax.  Easier said than done when you know you have to wake at midnight to face the cold unknown. The day was sublime, as was the view of snow covered mountains and a turqoise lake below so we lazed on rocks basking in the sunshine and drinking coca leaf tea to combat the altitude.

That evening the refugio was full: our group of six and our three guides plus a few solo trekkers and their guides. We wrestled for room on the loft floor and when we went to bed around 7pm I was flanked cosily on either side.  A fitful sleep ensued caused by nerves, altitude and occasionally copping a face full of spit as fluey Hamish coughed.

We woke at midnight and by 1 am were trudging up a steep snowy slope. Other than a sprinkle of light from the full moon, the night engulfed us. Dark shadows of the jagged peaks were barely distinguishable against the sky.

Time was of the essence to see sunrise from the summit and be down before sun-softened snow threatened avalanches. The two Marks had raced to be the first and by 3am had left us for dead.  Their faint torch beams almost out of reach far ahead. Jose and Darryl were behind.

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After four hours of climbing I needed to stop every few steps. A snail would have beaten us at this pace. Surprisingly the easiest part was the vertical ascents – ice picking and kicking our way up a few storeys.  Apart from the lack of oxygen and painful breathing it was the relentless incline through soft powder that was the killer.

“P Dizzle – come on – you can do it!” I loved the nickname Hamish had given me. It was endearing and it helped. We were buddied up – tied to each other on a 5-metre stretch of rope and to our ninja-like guide in case we slipped down the mountain or into a crevasse. We couldn’t see the ninja’s face – it was covered by a woollen balaclava to protect him from the cold. We looked identical. We had on a million under-layers, red snow protector overalls and jacket, plastic boots fitted with crampons, gloves, beanies, balaclavas, a head torch and our ice picks.

I was close to telling Hamish I couldn’t do it but my exit would mean his. It was a safety rule. He was stuck with me, ‘the girl’, because he was sick and weak (like a girl). Despite his flu, his energy levels were holding up and at 5,600 metres I was becoming ‘that girl’: the only girl in the group and the only one who couldn’t make it. I didn’t want to do it to him, but mostly I didn’t want to do it to myself. I wanted to prove that I was as capable as the boys.

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A little further on I had been sitting for about 5 minutes. Our guide impatiently tugged the rope as if we were packhorses he needed to giddy up. I plunged the icepick into the snow and Hamish hauled me up. We rounded a corner and the glow of daylight hovered upon the horizon. It revealed the ridge we were walking on with a steep drop on either side. Instead of being paralysed by exhaustion I was now paralysed by fear. Thankfully it also revealed the summit where the two Marks were started shrieking with joy less than 100 metres away.  We had made it. I wasn’t that girl.