June 30, 2007
Huayna Potosi Climb Part II Day 3
I got up at 1:00 AM along with everyone else at high camp and quietly started preparing to leave. I rented all of my climbing gear, but there was still a question of whether I'd be warm enough in the -10 degree Celsius conditions. I had on my thermals, a couple of fleece jackets, a windbreaker, a pair of Bolivian clown pants that are all the rage in backpacker fashion at the moment, and a pair of rain pants, basically a potpourri of all of my clothing that made me look more ready to join the circus than to climb a mountain. But warmth is more important than fashion, right?
It was hard to tell faces in the middle of the night while wearing our winter gear, but a couple people at the lodge didn't look familiar. They were two French Canadians who had only shown up an hour earlier straight from La Paz for their summit attempt. On top of that, they were going to attempt the French Route, which is much more difficult than the Normal Route everyone else would be doing. They explained that they were trying for a one-day summit because it would be much easier for them not to have to carry any camping gear or extra food to the high camp.
Everyone left within half an hour of each other, and Roque and I started out near the end of the pack. The moon was only one day away from being full, so I quickly realized that I didn't even need my headlamp. We slowly made our way up the hill and passed most of the other groups along the way. We never really stopped long enough for me to get cold.
Before long we were at the mountain's only crevasse, about halfway up. Pedro the Spanish firefighter and Teo were the only people in front of us. There was no need for a belay as we went around the crevasse and the steep hill that followed. The four of us took a longer break because we were on pace to summit far before sunrise. Pedro called his friend in Spain and explained that he was at 5700 meters.
Pedro then asked if I had a digital camera, explaining that he only had a cell phone camera and a film one. I didn't have my camera with me because Nicolas and I agreed that because we'd have to carry so much gear with us that we'd only take his camera because it was lighter. He took it back to La Paz with him yesterday. When we were ready to start walking again, the next group caught up with us and none of them had a digital camera with them either. D'oh!
The four of us walked together the rest of the way. It was a steady, easy climb until we made it to the final summit push: A 200-meter wall with a fifty-degree slope. We had a long break until my fingers and toes were beginning to freeze, then began our ascent. Roque went first and stayed several meters ahead of me the entire time. I used two ice axes and slowly picked my way up. The climb normally wouldn't have been too difficult, but at this altitude, I was out of breath after every step. I didn't remember the summit push being so hard last year. I must have blocked that part out of my mind.
It took nearly an hour of exhausting climbing, but finally I reached the summit. The view from the top was just as good as, if not better than, last year. About ten minutes after I got to the summit, the moon made its final descent behind the horizon of the altiplano to the west, and directly opposite above the yungas in the east, the golden sun began bathing me with its flames and bringing back the feeling to my fingers and toes. Besides the yungas and the altiplano, I could see the whole Cordillera Real, Lake Titicaca, El Alto, and even Sajama, the tallest mountain in Bolivia, which was 100 miles distant. I didn't have a camera with me, but that picture will be burned in my mind forever.
Other people started making the summit about twenty minutes later. Pedro struggled his way to the top along the same path I had taken. It was weird seeing him so close, a distance that would normally be walkable in ten seconds, yet knowing that it took every ounce of strength he had in him to move another inch. Yet I knew exactly what he was going through. Some of the other Bolivians began summiting next, opting to get a full fifty meters ahead of their clients to set up a safe belay system at the top.
The summit began getting crowded after half an hour, and it was time to go back down. Roque and Teo used two snow stakes to set up a rappel system for Pedro and I, who were both put on the same rope. We quickly made our way down the hill, stopping every sixty meters so our guides could set up their anchors again. I'm sure this section would have been very difficult if it were just Nicolas and I, but with the guides doing all the work it was a piece of cake.
After a quick break, we walked the rest of the way down. The only time we had to stop was at the crevasse, where Roque pushed his ax into the snow, wrapped the rope around it a few times for safety, and let me climb down first. I almost could have run the rest of the way down. We were back at high camp by 9:30.
The Canadians attempting the French Route had just gotten back as well. They didn't make the summit because of the waist-deep snow they encountered near the top. They still seemed quite happy with their near-success, and vowed to come back for another attempt next year.
I envied the ten or so other climbers who turned back before the summit and were already fast asleep in their sleeping bags. I desperately wanted some sleep, yet I knew that my ride would be waiting for me at the bottom, and if I laid down, it would be for at least a few hours. Instead I peeled off layer after sweaty layer, stuffed everything into my backpack, had a quick lunch and headed back down.
The rest of the walk was tough in my plastic boots and heavy backpack, but I made it down with no dramas in less than an hour. Miguel was waiting for me, this time with the owner of my hostel and a different vehicle. He told me that the tires in the other car were fixed, and I decided not to ask any questions. Despite the horribly potholed gravel road, I slept most of the way back.
Several people at the hostel that I thought would be gone by the time I got back were still there. I found out that the reason was because the miners of Potosi had blocked the main road leading out of town in protest. Everyone had been stuck for about three days. I thanked my lucky stars that I wouldn't be leaving La Paz until the road would be open again. Little did I know of events yet to come.
Despite all of the setbacks, climbing Huayna Potosi for the second time was still an amazing experience. Nothing in the world matters when you are standing on top of it.