July 27, 2006
Huayna Potosi Climb Day 3
I barley got any sleep last night. Technically, it was still the middle of the night when I got up at 1:00, but I still barely slept. Shortly after I went to bed, the wind picked up and started whipping through the tent, which was clearly not designed for mountain weather conditions. On top of that, a dog was barking in the middle of the night! In South America, it doesn't matter if you're on the remotest island, in the biggest city, in the smallest town, in the middle of the jungle, or on the highest mountain. The number one rule of the continent is that there will always be a barking dog at night.
When I got up, I couldn't eat anything, but Gervacio was kind enough to heat up some water. I had a cup of coffee for energy and a mate de coca to help with the altitude. While I was drinking my mate, a group of French climbers walked past me and got started up the mountain. Seeing them gave me a surge of adrenaline and my headache instantly went away. I got all of my gear together and was stoked to start climbing.
From the beginning, the pace was painfully slow. When I'm trekking, I like to walk fast, but Gervacio assured me that we'd get to the summit in about five hours (just in time for sunrise) if we kept this pace. I figured he knew what he was talking about and just followed him. Indeed, when we got to the top of the first ridge, we passed a few other people who were resting, so I knew that the slow pace was normal for ascending a mountain.
We kept going up and up in the dark, often using our ice axes for support on the steeper parts. After awhile, we passed the French group, who started about half an hour before us. There was nobody in front of us anymore. We only stopped for short water breaks a few times, so I didn't get too hot or cold during the entire climb.
There was one slightly dangerous climb up a steep cliff where I had to use my ice ax to pull myself up. Gervacio and I were roped together the entire time for safety, so he went up first and we kept the rope taught between us. That way if I fell, he'd hopefully be able to hold me up. After we scampered to the top, we lost sight of the other climbers' head torches for good.
After several more hours of walking, Gervacio announced that we were at the last push, a 200 meter wall before the summit. Dawn hadn't even begun to break yet, so we took a fifteen minute break where I downed some chocolate and lots of water. Once again we kept the rope taught and made an explosive effort to the top. It wasn't a problem for me to find safe footing because my stride is so big. Before I knew it, Gervacio stopped, and when I caught up with him, he announced that we were at the summit.
I couldn't see much at first, but it was obvious we had awhile. I was originally told that I could only stay at the summit for five minutes to allow the next group to get to the top, but the next group was just getting to the bottom of the wall. As the sun started to come up, I began to see El Alto, Illimani, and the rest of the Cordillera Real. Seeing the sun come up over the world was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. There was nothing higher than me to block my view, so I could see forever. We stayed on top for half an hour or so, then began our descent when it got too cold.
From the bottom of the last wall, we watched the others struggle to make it to the top. The sun had been up for about an hour, so I got a clear view of what I just climbed. I'm glad I made it to the top in the dark because the last part seemed like a very difficult task. In fact, Gervacio told me that when a lot of the people he takes on the mountain see what they still have to do to reach the summit, they decide that they can't take anymore and turn back. I had no such worries, though, because I couldn't see anything that was still ahead of me.
The walk back to high camp was long but beautiful. I finally got to see the entire area during the day. Back at high camp, I had lunch and got ready to go the rest of the way down. That's when the fatigue and tiredness from not sleeping last night hit me. The last two hours to the bottom were more difficult for me than the five hours to the top, but I eventually made it. I got one last look at what I had accomplished and jumped into a taxi back to La Paz.
My first mountain climbing experience was a great one. The view from the top made the whole thing worthwhile. Huayna Potosi isn't a very difficult mountain to climb, but the altitude alone keeps a lot of people from reaching the summit. This was a great test for me as I realized that I can handle high altitudes as long as I give myself time to acclimatize. Mountaineering may just become something I do more often in my future travels.
The photo album for this entry is here.