My eyes are bone dry, my eyelids heavy. It takes genuine effort to keep them open. Every blink is long and drawn out. I let the fatigue wash over me. It feels good to rest. Every part of me yearns for sleep, but I don't imagine the owners of this restaurant would appreciate that. You can empathise with me though right? We've been up since before midnight after all. They call that an alpine start.
As we feast on pizza and take big gulps of cold beer I finally get the chance to absorb what we've just accomplished. It was just 8 hours ago that we stood at 6088m on the summit of Huayna Potosi. That's the highest I've ever been. I can't help but feel extremely proud of the both of us.
It all started 3 days ago with a fairly innocuous idea. We'd been recommended to do a mountaineering trip in Bolivia by one of our friends back in Canada. While wandering the streets on our first day in La Paz we saw a poster advertising exactly that, so we decided to pop in for some more information. Before we knew it, and in classic South American style really, we were negotiating a price for something we weren't even sure we wanted. We aren't mountaineers. Sure we like trekking in high places, even on glaciers sometimes, but we do so with a healthy fear of heights and awareness of our lack of technical skills. With that in mind, we finally managed to extricate ourselves from the agency office. We promised emptily to return after we had discussed the idea. We spent the rest of the morning doing more wandering, tasting exotic food, admiring the bizarre witch market and planning our time in and around La Paz. We had lots of ideas; a visit to the Amazon, biking the death road, and maybe a trek in the Yungas. In fact, come the afternoon we had all but forgotten the idea of climbing a mountain.
In one of those uncanny twists of fate we happened to run into Juan, the guide from our morning chat. He recognised us immediately. Honestly, it was as if he had been looking for us in this city of a million people and had actually found us. How tour operators manage to do this throughout South America is a constant source of bamboozlement for me. Juan wanted a decision: "I give you special price! 1100 Bolivianos!". We looked at each other and shrugged indifferently. "Okay how much you pay?" he pressed. "I dunno" I shrugged again not really thinking "Maybe like 800?". "Okay then!" He said enthusiastically, shaking my hand. "You meet me at the office tomorrow morning at 8am. Don't be late!". I could hardly believe it. I turned to Lauren as Juan disappeared up the street. "Well, I guess we're climbing a mountain tomorrow..."
The next morning we are handing over cash, signing our lives away and speeding out of La Paz towards the Cordillera Real. Huayna Potosi is located barely an hour from the city centre and we catch our first glimpse as we pass the city limits. Believe or not I'm actually not intimidated, from this distance the mountain doesn't look too steep and the majority of its glacier is hidden. I feel only excitement and anticipation. After a quick photo session we are dropped off at a refugio at the very base of the mountain. The van turns around and speeds off in a cloud of dust. We dump our bags in a ramshackle dorm style room and sit down for lunch.
Thus begins our acclimatization. It is essentially a coca tea drinking extravaganza. We drink tea, eat, drink more tea and wait for our bodies to become used to the altitude. There is nothing to do but wait. We are at 4500masl. After a few hours of conversation we are summoned by our guide for a glacier travel training session. We get kitted up in our stiff plastic boots and rain gear, strap our crampons to my backpack and set off up the mountain for the first time. My breath is labored and my boots are stiff and dreadfully uncomfortable but the excitement of being out on the mountain is undeniable. We are a group of five: Lauren and I, Julien and Clement from France and Derek from Quebec. We spend the afternoon on a low reaching section of glacier learning proper technique for walking and climbing on ice. Its all great fun but only serves to add to the sense of anticipation within the group. After a couple of hours we head back to our Base Camp. We drink more tea, eat dinner and turn in early. Tomorrow we start the climb.
Just because we'd never participated in mountaineering, doesn't mean we haven't read about it. Here's a couple of our favourite books on the subject.
- Touching the Void: Joe Simpsons legendary escape from Siula Grande was made popular by this book and the subsequent film. Its a truly amazing story that embodies suffering and mans drive for survival.
- Into Thin Air: John Krakauer's account of the 1998 Everest disaster is personal, political, exhilarating and devastating.
We all awake bright and early the next day. I'm absolutely raring to go but our guide has other plans. So we wait and wait and drink more tea and wait. Some time in the late morning a few people begin to trickle into the refugio and collapse on the couches looking absolutely rinsed. They're returning from the mountain. Some have made it to the top, others haven't, but all are absolutely destroyed. Strangely it only makes me want to get going more. I want to be challenged like that. I want to push myself and see where my limits are. My patience wears thin as morning turns to afternoon and there is no sign that we are leaving any time soon. Our bags were packed and ready hours ago. Still we wait. My body relishes the time, my mind grows restless. Just when mutiny is being plotted among our group (Derek threatens to start walking up by himself) we get the go ahead.
The climb to Base Camp Two goes by without incident. We move slow and steady. No need to waste our precious energy. Everyone in our group is singularly focused on the goal. We bond well, there are plenty of "You doing alright?"s thrown around. We climb the 800m in a surprisingly short time. We have 8 hours to rest before the second push.
We drink more coca tea and try to get some sleep but its no use. Who can sleep at 5 in the afternoon anyway? Lauren and I decide to take a walk. Its bloody freezing as the sun goes down but it's the scene we witness to that sends shivers down my spine. Clouds roll up the valley leaving only the surrounding peaks floating like islands in the sky. It feels like we have entered a new alpine world. When we return to the refugio I'm more excited than ever. Sleep comes slowly.
I am awoken by an armada of alarms at 11:30pm. I rug up in all the warm clothes I have, slurp down one last cup of tea for good luck, and walk out the door into the night. The quietness is amazing. There isn't so much as a breath of wind. Only darkness and stars. After final checks we walk fast and in silence towards the toe of the main glacier. The crisp air is noticeably thinner and I am out of breath by the time we arrive half an hour later. Still, I feel good and strong. Everyone does. Already 2 members of the other group have turned around. Lauren and I rope up with our guide Super Mario, fit our crampons to our boots, and set out on the glacier.
Its amazing and beautiful and thrilling. To be walking on a glacier among deep crevasses with only the light of my head torch and the stars is an experience I'll take to the grave. Adrenaline carries me for 4 hours like this. The going is easy. The gradient pretty minimal. We both feel good and comment to Super Mario that we must be making good time. He responds "Oh yes! Only 3 more hours to go!". I feel my adrenaline bubble pop. And things are only now about to get tough.
Its my stomach kicks first. I knew after the first bite of dinner that something wasn't right. Llama meat. I pushed it to the side of my plate and left it. Too little too late. It starts as little jabs of pain but now its cramping. Plus its also getting colder as we ascend. We're not moving as fast now, forcibly slowed by the need for oxygen. The cold grips my hands first and it spreads quickly with every necessary break. Then there is the fatigue. Every step at this altitude is a noticeably greater effort than the last. I lose my breath faster, the breaks become more frequent, the cold takes hold. We have ourselves a downward spiral. Off in the distance a storm swells. We start to question ourselves.
At 6am we sit in the deep snow at the base of the final stretch to the summit. In the pre-dawn darkness it looks terrifyingly steep. My stomach cramps have me doubled over in pain. I have also lost all feeling in my hands and they throb with the pain of it. But more than anything I'm just really freaking tired. Beyond tired. I've never felt this... this... exhausted. Lauren reduces our situation to the most base of questions: "This is miserable. What's the point?". Its a question that's too dangerous to answer at this point. We stand up and press on in silence as her words lingers in the cold, still air.
The summit push is brutal. Step, breathe, step, breathe. A mistake here would result in seemingly certain death. I push those thoughts from my mind, keep my head down and just keep the rhythm. Step, breathe, step, breathe. So cold. My hands are causing me intense pain. Step, breathe, step, breathe. I lift my head and can hardly believe my eyes. The summit is barely 100m away. We're gonna make it.
Minutes later we stand on the summit of the 6088m Huayna Potosi. We may as well be on top of the world. The sun rise is so beautiful even now I can't find the words to explain it. We can see all the way to Lake Titicaca, down to the Amazon basin and across the stunning skyline of the Cordillera Real. But our oxygen deprived brains can't fully comprehend the grandness of scale. We spend half an hour taking photos, staring off into the distance and discussing in muted disbelief as to how we're going to make it back down. Sure enough, before we're ready, it's time to start the descent.
Though infinitely faster than the way up, the way down is brutally exhausting in its own right. I stop to take photos as a strategy to slow down our guide who is dead keen to be down in time for god knows what. Its a magical morning and I want to make the most of it. Still, I'm overwhelmed with relief as we step off the glacier 2 hours later. Still no time to rest though. We make it back to the second base camp and are finally allowed to sit down for a cup of tea. I try to sneak away for a cheeky nap but our guide knocks on the door. "Down, we go down now." Reluctantly we stuff everything into our packs and start off again. Two hours later we all collapse into a waiting van at base camp and are whisked away. There is no time to reflect on what we have done. There is only tiredness.
Its not until that pizza restaurant in La Paz that we finally get a chance to properly debrief. We bask in our blissful exhaustion, we're undeniably happy to be done with the trip. Yet there are definitely hints of nostalgia. We have a taste of how alpinists put themselves through this and much, much worse on a regular basis. There is nothing like a bit of suffering to jerk you into 'the moment'. And so despite being plainly aware that the experience was brutally tough, I know all too well that I will romanticize it soon. I force myself to remember the following: sure, mountaineering is not all pain and suffering, but that does account for most of it.