Huayna Potosi – Who said getting high was fun?

Seeing as I had an initial dislike to La Paz, but 10a.m. on my first day I was already booked into a 3 day trek starting the next day. I was scouring the tour companies in the hopes of doing a 5-6 day trek in the Cordillera Apolobamba, unfortunately it was not a real possibility, as there were no groups scheduled to go at the time. Much like in Arequipa if you want to do one of the more obscure treks you either have to come with a lot of money or 2 or 3 friends, thus forming an instant group. Since I did not think I would get 2 or 3 people off the street nuts enough to do this trek I let Hugo (medical doctor and climbing expert and owner of Huayna Potosi Travel Agency) convince to do the 3 day ice climbing trek to Huayna Potosi. A package complete with ice climbing lessons the first day and then a climb to the peak of Huayna Potosi at 6088m. First though Hugo had to have a chat with me and access my resolve. Normally they require you to be at altitude for 8 days to be fully acclimatized to this trek. Being at the coast for the last week and only staying in Puno for 2 days and just arriving in La Paz I had lost any acclimatization I had acquired while in Ollantaytambo and was well below the required 8 days. However, I threw around my Yanacocha, Lares, Choquequiroa, Salkantay and Annapurna treks which seem to convince him. Along with the fact that I said I was sleeping great, expect for the loud dorm mates. With that I was heading to Huayna Potosi with 4 other tourists around my same age (for once) tomorrow.

So off to explore the city a little and pack my bags with all my warm clothes and sleeping bag.

The next day I was at the tour company’s office at 9a.m. to meet the rest of the group and drive to Refugio I, where we would have our ice climbing lesson and our first night sleep, but not before getting a pair of boots. My boots were a very stylish bright lime green. They were very similar to downhill ski boots. Which frightened me since they were heavy and not easy to walk in, especially for me who hates to wear boots while hiking preferring lighter trail runners. This would be an adjustment.

We loaded up the car with the 5 of us, 3 guides and our bags. But still needed to make one more stop for the rest of our gear. The ever important warm overalls, coat, gloves and fleece apparel. They do equip you well, even if the items don’t fit well and could use a cleaning. The place where we got outfitted was a three story climb and as we all panted our way up, we were all thinking we might be in over our heads. Fortunately, at the top did we not only get geared up but to greet us with the entire lyrics to Gloria Gaynor’s song “I Will Survive”. As this was a theme song of my for ages I was highly amused and took is as a good omen. Even with the fact that I had to run back down to get my camera and back up in order to take a picture of it. Training. I would soon find out, I’d need more than a couple flights of stairs to train for this climb.

Arriving at Refugio I, we had lunch with another group of guys getting ready to hike up to Refugio II. They being a day ahead of us. After which we dressed in our moon boots, overalls, coats and carrying our gloves, crampons and water we walked about an hour and a half over very rocky terrain (extremely difficult in these boots) to the base of the glacier where we would have a 3 hour lesson in ice climbing. Persumably preparing us for the climb later.

I got to say it was tough going. I mean I had no expectation of being any good at this, as my normal rock climbing isn’t the best. So I expected this to be worse and it was. With getting used to walking in the boots and crampons a side the actual picking a kicking into the ice was tough. Plus having 5 people attached to the guide and me being at the end I could not hear the instructions so on the first 80 degree angle climb I fell hard, leaving my pick axe stuck a good two feet our of reach. I freakeda  little. But my nervous quickly left me as the guide just turned around and “Es seguro” “It’s safe”. So I scrambled up until I reached the axe and then picked my way up to the group. Embarrassing.

A little more climbing and rappelling and then sun fell behind the mountain we started to get cold and headed back to Refugio I.

Warmed ourselves by the fire, ate and made it an early night. Although sleep did come easily to any of us, due to the anticipation and altitude.

Refugio II is at 5400m, about 3-4 hour hike away, and not at all pleasant. So we hung around Refugio I, resting, eating, and taking pictures of the dam and the great glacier we would soon climb. After lunch at around 12:30p.m. we dressed and this time packed our ski boots. Making the packs super heavy with the boots, sleeping bag, snacks, crampons and warm clothes, but making the hike up a little easier. Just before departing we saw a group come in from the peak. The looked like hell. This did not bode well.

Within the first hour I was sweating like crazy wrapped up in the overalls and jacket under the blazing afternoon Andean sun. The borrowed jacket and overalls let off a musky scent as I heated it up and my sweat mixed with the sweat of many tourists before me. Consequently, at the first rest stop, right near the catholic cross I peeled off a couple of layers. I was happy I did, because the next two hours were brutal. This being my first time carrying a full pack was hard enough, but at this altitude and on this terrain it was really unbalancing. I kept thinking I should have gotten the guide to carry my boots like the tour guide suggested. But I didn’t want to play the weak woman card.

I kept wondering where the trail was. We were just walking on jagged, shards of rocks. Not the nature trails I off come to love. Then the ice started to cover the already slick rocks making it even more slippery. We finally came across a camp ground. This was only a tease though our rest stop was still 20 minutes up another jagged rock face. This would make tomorrows climb easier though the guide piped up as I moaned.

As I pulled myself up the last rock I could smell Refugio II before I actually spotted the small orange hunt. It smelled of pee. Surprisingly you get used to the smell quite quickly.

Nevertheless, the struggle was over only a mere 3 hours later at the 3:30p.m., and my pack was happily off my back and inside mouldy Refugio II and I was enjoying the view. It was spectacular. With peak upon peak, you couldn’t even count them if you tried, and all magically peaking out from under long, puffy clouds. I sat out for way longer than the colder should have allowed just mesmerized. It was about as hypnotic has a blazing fire, but in a serene sort of way. I know it sounds corny and maybe even a little cliche, but for me there is something so calming about seeing snow and cloud covered mountain peaks. Their majesty is so pure, unfabricated and somehow truthful, putting into perspective how unimportant my (our) everyday issues are and reminding me (us) to enjoy the natural beauty around us. We are here just to enjoy and preserve what is willingly giving by the earth. I sound like Pachamama. Okay enough sap.

After a little hot soup and noodles, I hopped up on to the top level of the bunks, huddled in my sleeping bag and along with 6 other men tried to sleep. Yup, may be the first and last time I sleep in a room with 6 other men. It was only 6p.m. so sleep was hard to come by for most. Surprisingly, even with hollowing wind grating against the metal roof of the Refugio making the sound of a dental drill I managed to get about 3-4 hours before Mario (the guide) yelled “Get up” at 12:30a.m. That’s right! The hike from 5400m to the peak at 6088m had to be done in the early morning hours to avoid melting snow and ice. One of the other guys was a lot slower the other day and had opted for a private guide, so he had set out an hour early. Plus the other girl had stayed down at Refugio II, not wanting to do the peak. So it was me, 2 guys, and 2 guides.

But 1:30a.m. we had our crampons on, pick axes in hand and tied to our guides. Since we had two guides between the 3 of us I had hoped they gave me my own and put the two guys together. This didn’t happen though. I was attached to one of the guys, who was directly attached to the guide. Humph, I thought.

This was to be a 5-6 hour hike up, up, up. Only up, along ice and snow. We managed to do it in 4 hours. And it was probably the most unpleasant 4 hours of my life. Well, it was the most unpleasant one and a half hour of my life, at least. The first couple of hours was wonderfully tranquil, hearing only the crunch of the snow under your crampons and pick axe like metal, the twinkling stars and headlamps of other climbers, and the ghostly silhouette of the peak ahead.

Regardless of getting there so fast, I was going really slow. Especially at around the 5800m mark my feet felt so heavy . It was at this point we saw the guy that had gone earlier heading back. He only made it to 5900m and then decided to call it quits. I was feeling like doing the same and it must have showed because he said he could wait a bit if I wanted to turn back. I made and almost inaudible no and trudged slowly forward. At 5900m I was really dead, only taking about 5 steps before I had to stop. I felt so Romano the tourist attached to me, but I just couldn’t manage to go any faster. I didn’t feel nausea or have a headache. I just really did not want to move. I kept chanting to myself “No peudo, no peudo”. “i can’t. I can’t.” I know I should have been chanting, “You can do it!” But I just wasn’t feeling it. I was very near tears at this point, when I looked up and saw the 100m climb we had to do. I can see why Wolfgang (the other tourist) had turned back. But my tears we sucked back into my sockets just as the rope got taunt from Mario and Romano climbing ahead of me. I just kept thinking I can’t let the other tourist down. If I have to turn back so does he. So gripping my pick axe I hammered it in along with the crampons on my right boot. And this what I thought for the next 100m. Stab. Kick. Pull up. Stab. Kick. Pull up. Stab. Kick. Pull up. It was excruciating. I was miserable.

Resting at the top I was exhausted looking up at the narrow ledge of ice and snow, as wide as the width of the boots that was the last 88m to the top. I was thinking there is just no way. Really no way. You must be thinking , how can you even think of quiting at the point. I don’t know. I think now and I don’t know. But at that moment I just wanted off that damn mountain. I wanted nothing to do with it. I don’t know if that is what altitude does to you. Or whether I was just tired or weak minded, but I just wanted to quit. Bjorn (another tourist part of our group) was coming down from the peak at that time. He said he made it and was heading back. I said, “Great. I can’t.” He looked at me a little shocked and said, “Wanda, come on, you are 5 minutes away.” “I can’t”, I whimpered. He said, “5 minutes, Wanda, you can.” I got up and started to shuffle and Bjorn turned to make his way down.

The three of shuffle along the narrow ridge to the top for the next 10 minutes until we finally reached the peak at 6088m.

It was a anti-climactic though. As most peaks seem to be. It was 5:30a.m. and still pitch black, so we could barely see anything. With 4 other tourists and there guides on the peak you could barely find a place to sit. And standing was out of the question as the peak was really a peak and incredibly narrow. Also, there is no sign announcing your arrival to the altitude. So we snapped two pictures caught out breath and started back down.

The first part of the down was pretty hairy, along the narrow ridge now facing where you may fall. Then climbing down the ice wall. After that though it was quite pleasant. The sun began to rise and you could appreciate the beauty of the glacier and the mountains. Romano was freezing but I kept stopping them so I could take pictures. I thought, heck, I won’t be up here again, here is my shot.

Once we got to Refugio II at around 8a.m., changed our shoes and packed our big packs I was tired again. The early morning rise was catching up to me and I new these last 2 hours would be an unpleasant hike over jagged rocks. With my shoes swinging on the back of my pack I kept loosing my balance and slipping and falling. And although, Mario kept saying take it slow he was speeding ahead I couldn’t find the best route through the quarry. I finally broke down and asked him to take my boots. He was not impressed. So much for the tourist company lady saying that they are happy to take it . I didn’t care.

I was a long slough down to Refugio I. I walked in like the living dead at 10:30a.m. And now understood why those guys looked like hell the other day.

As we sat down to lunch, which none of us could he, we all vowed we would never go that high again.

But ask me in a week, when amnesia sets in and my answer might be different. 🙂

By the way, I found that this is the Paramount Pictures Mountain. So, ma I may not have made it to Hollywood but I climbed the mountain.

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