Last week, I changed my Facebook cover image to a sunset snap of Huayna Potosi (in the Andes), ~25km from La Paz, ~6,088 meters, aka 19,975 feet. What I didn’t mention is that I was mentally preparing to climb to the top of it.
I didn’t want to say anything because I’m no mountain climber. I’ve never used an ice axe and had no idea what a crampon was. I’ve done some pretty grueling hikes but, this was a whole 'nother beast.
Tom was the man with the plan. Derryl, Jonathan and I were just crazy enough to go along with it.
The tour company says the hike is for beginners. And they teach you the ropes before the big attempt. Sounds perfect!
The base camp is about 2 hours from La Paz and resides at ~4720 meters, aka ~15,485 feet. Isn't she a beaut?
First day, you hike up to the glacier for ice climbing training. The guides don’t speak English, but you’d be surprised how much you can learn from a good guide, and limited Spanish.
Training took ~4 hours including the hike out and back. EXHAUSTED. Maybe this is going to be harder than we thought...
But even if we didn't make it to the summit, this place is breathtakingly beautiful!
Second day, the plan is to rest in the am, eat lots of food and then hike up to the high camp, ~5,300 meters, aka ~17,400 feet. We get to high camp in the late afternoon, eat dinner, go to sleep around 6pm, and wake up at midnight to embark on the climb. (You need to set out in the middle of the night because you can’t trek when the sun is out, or the ice will melt. You don’t want that.)
Most people can’t sleep at the High Camp altitude (17,400 feet). You need time to acclimate. It’s hard for me to sleep at midnight, let alone 6pm, but the ice climbing training and the hike to High Camp with the full pack was exhausting. I tossed and turned, but got a few cycles. Unfortunately, Jonathan, Tom and Derryl started having stomach issues and did not sleep much either. Uh oh. Bolivia can be cruel on the ole tummy.
We get up at midnight, prepare our packs, eat some carbs. I hate the cold, so I put on 4 layers of socks, 4 layers of pants, 2 shirts, 2 jackets, 2 pairs of gloves, and a trusty Sox ski hat that my parents gave me.
And, I have just enough time to snap a long exposure of some dim light off in the distance. That's the glacier in the foreground.
Put my crampons on, headlamp on and ice axe in hand. It’s go time. YIKES! The feeling was not unlike preparing for a marathon, or a Ragnar Relay Race. You don't sleep much. You know it’s going to be grueling. But, you cherish the challenge!
You’re tethered up to your guide the entire way. Celestine in front, then myself, then Jonathan. Tom was with Felix, who we called “Gato”.
Our High Camp was the highest of all the camps, and we were the first ones on the trail. Just mentioning because it’s pitch black and no one is ahead of us to show us the way. Trailblazers, we were.
I’m pretty glad it was pitch black, because some of the areas were pretty steep. And by pretty steep, I mean really steep. And the trails were only about 18 inches in some points. We had to jump over crevasses, scale some walls with our ice axe, trudge up super steep hills, and methodically march up moderately steep hills.
One step at a time. Careful. Focused. Stay calm, and try to breathe.
The funny thing about altitude, is that the higher you go up, the harder is to to breathe. A fellow climber told us that around 5,600 meters your vision may start to get blurry.
Altitude is no joke.
Lucky for me, my eyes did NOT blur. My breathing was solid. But, the higher we went up, it just became more exhausting. The wind was blowing wildly. It got reeeeeeally cold. The conditions became fierce.
Celestine never told us much about how far we were to the summit and we didn’t ask. We just followed the leader. But, he did tell us when we got to 5,800 meters, aka 19,030 feet. Wow. That much more to go!?
The last ~150 meters is a 45 degree wall of compressed snow that is unbelievably challenging, and is a true test of your mental toughness. Like the last 6 miles in a marathon: x10.
A little while later, my shoelaces had come undone, and my gaiters were flapping (protective layer that goes over boots). We stopped for a moment for Celestine to fix them for me. Such an awesome guide!
He tells us we have 15 minutes left to the summit. A few climbers were coming up behind us. Jonathan says, “Vamos! Let’s go, we didn’t come this far to come in second!”
One step at a time. WE DID IT! The first human beings to reach the summit on May 11th, 2016. (My parents’ and my sister's wedding anniversary. My late grandmother’s birthday. A special day.)
It took us ~4:20 minutes to climb to the top of Huayna Potosi.
The summit is razor thin, I couldn’t even believe it! The walkway seemed less than 12 inches wide. But, Celestine showed us how to navigate and where to sit. And we followed his orders.
The feeling of getting to the summit is indescribable! 6,088 meters, aka 19,973 feet above sea level. Humans are not meant to be up here. I can’t believe it. WE DID IT!
This was the single hardest thing I have ever done in my entire life, by far and away. Forget marathons, or Ragnars. This was a whole new level.
I am so proud of our tethered team! Celestine was meant to guide me--he is also 38, and a marathon runner. And a GREAT leader. He does this a couple times a week!
And, Jonathan was the most phenomenal teammate! I can’t believe how strong he was, especially with a nasty stomach!!! Poor guy was ill the entire time, but pushed through like a champ.
About 15 people got to the summit that day. We stayed up there for about 15 minutes. It was so cloudy, and foggy. But, it cleared for a moment or two, and I was able to get some pics.
Another guide shared some warm coca tea with us, that made me feel all mushy.
We savored the moment.
But, then I realized. Now we gotta go back down.
It took us another 2+ hours to get back to High Camp. My feet were killing me. I think I will lose both big toenails.
Oh yeah, and then we had to climb back down almost 2 hours from High Camp to Base Camp, with ALL of our gear in our heavy packs. Which was absolutely GRUELING.
But, it didn't matter. Because we conquered Mount Huayna Potosi.