A Disasterous Beginning

June 28, 2007
Day 638
Huayna Potosi Climb Part II Day 1

Miguel was a mountain guide who was going to drive in my hostel's car with two clients to Huayna Potosi. He said there would be enough room Nicolas and I in the car, and agreed to take us along for a low price. Unfortunately, both of the other two clients got sick and could no longer go to the mountain. It would have been nice to see how good of a mountain guide Miguel was. That way we'd know if we'd feel comfortable going to Illimani with him later. However, he still agreed to drive us to Huayna Potosi even though the other two weren't going anymore.

The ride to the mountain was bad from the beginning. Miguel could have turned left one block from our hostel to get to the main road in La Paz, but instead he decided to continue going straight for another fifteen minutes. He eventually made it to the main road, but we had to double back all the way to where we started, wasting half an hour in the process.

We had to drive up to El Alto to get out of La Paz. On the way up the hill, Miguel was driving really slowly. Cars and buses were flying around us nonstop. I thought maybe his vision wasn't very good and he was being way too cautious as a result. When I asked if everything was alright, he said that he thought the tires were low on pressure. He stopped in the middle of the highway for a look, but they appeared fine to Nicolas and I. Still, he insisted that the tires needed more air and stopped at the next service station to inflate them more.

Driving through El Alto was problematic. There was lots of traffic, and Miguel didn't appear to see people using turn signals and sticking their hands out the windows as an indication that they were about to change lanes. On more than one occasion, someone shifted over just as we were about to pass them and almost hit us. On top of that, Miguel killed the car at least three times, once because he tried to start from third gear. Most Bolivians drive like maniacs, but Miguel drove like an old lady.

Once we got past El Alto and onto an empty gravel road, the journey ironically got smoother. With no other traffic around, Miguel relaxed and drove better, albeit still at a snail's pace on the bumpy track. Miguel felt so good, he even stopped at one point so we could take pictures of La Paz, Illimani, and Huayna Potosi.

After another hour of driving uphill and away from the city, we stopped at a police checkpoint. Miguel got out of the car and had a surprised look on his face. I got out to see what was wrong, but it's what I heard that surprised me. The front passenger tire was hissing like a cobra as it lost all of its air and went flat before my eyes. Flat tires are so common in Bolivia that it wouldn't have fazed me, but Miguel was still standing on the driver's side of the car, oblivious to the flat that I saw. I walked over to see what he was looking at and discovered that the tire on his side was flat too!

At first this just struck me as a very unfortunate coincidence, but then I remembered that Miguel had insisted on putting more air in the tires only an hour ago. He must have overinflated them, and when we drove up another thousand meters, the reduced air pressure outside caused the tires to expand even further and burst. Miguel claimed the car came from Chile, which somehow meant that the tires were of a poor quality, but that seemed unlikely to me. His lack of competence during the drive put serious doubts in my mind whether I'd want to put my life in his hands while climbing a difficult mountain.

Despite the flats, I still wanted to get to the high camp at a reasonable hour. One option would have been to walk, but the trail head was still at least an hour away by foot. The car actually had a spare tire with air in it, so we put it on one side, but there was still nothing we could do about the other side. One good thing was that, while the driver's tire had a huge hole in the sidewall, rendering it unusable even by the Bolivians, the passenger's tire at least appeared to have only a slow, repairable leak in the tread. Miguel said that when another car came, he could take the tire back to El Alto, get it repaired, and come back to drive us the rest of the way. This would take at least a couple of hours.

A taxi showed up a few minutes later heading toward the mountain, but when the driver got out at the checkpoint, he discovered that he had a flat tire too! Also in the car were a guide named Teo and a Spaniard named Pedro who were set to climb the mountain. We all had a laugh at the latest unfortunate event while the driver put on his own spare tire. They would have taken us the rest of the way to the mountain, but there simply wasn't enough room in the little car for all five of us plus the massive amount of gear we were hauling.

Soon, another taxi showed up, fresh from dropping off a customer a at the mountain. He claimed he was in a hurry to get back to La Paz, but would generously drive us the rest of the way to the mountain for a ridiculous fare. Our choice was either to go with him or wait possibly the rest of the day for Miguel to get his tire fixed, so we just paid the money and got on our way.

We only had to walk up about 400 meters to get to the high camp, but it proved difficult. Nicolas and I were both carrying backpacks with all of our mountaineering and camping gear. There was a refuge at the top, but we had no way of contacting it in advance to see if there was enough room for us to stay there, so I carried my tent, just in case. The path also involved a fair amount of rock scrambling, which isn't very comfortable when you're wearing plastic mountaineering boots. The refuge still had plenty of room for us, but I decided to camp outside anyway, partially because I didn't want the fact that I had brought my tent with me to be in vain, and partially in order to get a good night's sleep because I knew that all of the people sleeping in the refuge would be getting up at 1:00 AM for their summit attempts.

Nicolas wanted to go over several safety techniques with me, but that was problematic. For starters, because of the earlier flat tire delays, we got to the high camp much later than expected. The next problem was that there was no running water at the refuge, so we had to melt ice and filter out the myriad minerals that it contained. It's necessary to consume a lot of water at this altitude, and my stove works at about half the efficiency here that it does at sea level, so this took forever. Before we knew it, it was time to cook dinner, another arduous task.

By the end of the day, Nicolas had only managed to teach me how to tie some knots, but we still had all day tomorrow to practice because we won't be making a summit attempt until the next day. Still Nicolas figured it wouldn't be enough time to teach me everything he wanted to. He suddenly came to the conclusion that he no longer wanted to climb the mountain and would return to La Paz tomorrow. This obviously had me pretty pissed off. I understood his safety concerns, but he admitted to me that he wanted to teach me everything he had learned in several weekends' worth of rescue courses in one day. I thought he was just going to show me a few basic techniques for getting out of crevasses in case of an extreme emergency. I began to wonder why he had invited me in the first place. I know safety is an important issue, but I also happen to know from experience that this mountain has only one crevasse, and it's easily avoided.

Nicolas's decision had been made, so I had to decide what I wanted to do next. I could just go back to La Paz, but I rented all of my gear so I could summit a mountain. I already climbed this mountain a year ago, so doing it again with a guide wouldn't be anything new, but I figured as long as I had already come this far, I might as well go the rest of the way. I decided that I'd try to find a guide willing to take me to the top tomorrow and then put the whole mountaineering thing behind and head off to Peru. Climbing a mountain requires such a large amount of gear and preparation that I'm finding it's not worthwhile to do it while on a trip around the entire continent, especially when I'm traveling all alone.

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