Huayna Potosí – the mountain that nearly ate me

By Emma. Cliquez ici pour l’article de Damien. Click here for photos of there.

At our Parisian farewell party, somewhere in a fantastic tangle of bunting, streamers and sweets, our French friends clustered around us. An envelope was offered. Mischief glinted. A challenge was made. Cap ou pas cap?

The content of that envelope? A gift-voucher for a three-day climb up Huayna Potosí, a 6,088m snow-capped mountain in the Cordillera Real. An adventure! Thanks friends! Yet, I was wary. Ok, I was petrified – three days of being tethered to a guide trying to hoike myself up the side of a mountain sounded just that little bit too hardcore for recently office-liberated me. And so there it lurked on the periphery of our travel plans, the quietly growing fear of Huayna Potosí.

As we arrived in the chaos of La Paz, I knew there would be no more skirting about. Damien gleefully headed off  to book the climb and I made my first mistake – reading travel blogs. Descriptions of collapsing snow bridges, crevasses and a worrying lack of oxygen littered the interweb and by the time Damien arrived back, beaming and clutching our booking, I had well and truly psyched myself out. The only option now available to me? Not thinking. At all.

We made our way to the offices of Adolfo Andino where our backpacks were laden with ice-axes, mountain boots, crampons, rope, water bottles and sleeping bags. I’m pretty sure my pack weighed in and around as much as I do (gaaah heavy!!!) but, still refusing to think, I slung it on my back and pronounced myself ready to go. Ah the naïvety!

A couple of hours later, past the Sunday morning markets of El Alto, the maze of road blocks, mud-brick huts and bone-rattling dirt roads, we arrived at Base Camp. There, we were due to spend some time acclimatizing to the altitude, practicing with crampons and learning to climb the glacier’s sheer ice wall in preparation for the mountain’s peak. Huayna Potosí was invisible, shrouded in thick layers of cloud and fog. Our guide decided that the conditions were too bad to venture out on the glacier and suggested that we start hiking immediately. Eager to tackle the mountain and hoping to find a clear window in the bad weather, we agreed.  Off we set for High Camp! Rain and sleet lashed down on us as we lumbered up the mountain, bent double under the weight of our packs.

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We could see nothing but clouds and the narrow rocky path ahead. My woolly hat grew that distinct, smothering smell of a wet school uniform. Up the desolate side of the mountain we wound until, in the absolute middle of a grim nowhere, we came across a wizened old Aymara lady huddled under a plastic sheet. Collecting a mountain toll, daily,  she perches there like a character from Grimm’s fairytales.

Signing the guestbook with the lady of the mountain

Signing the guestbook with the lady of the mountain

By the time we reach High Camp at 5,130m, we were soaked through, shivering uncontrollably and gasping trying to drag air into our lungs.That balloon and bell jar science experiment from secondary school floated through my mind – my lungs feeling like sad, shriveled balloons that just won’t inflate!

A change of clothes and some jumping jacks (desperate times…) did nothing to warm me. I was absolutely freezing and before I knew it, I had fled the High Camp hut and was on my hands and knees vomiting into the snow. Lovely! Another group reached the hut and the doctor in their midst promptly diagnosed onset hypothermia and acute altitude sickness. Nooooo, a plan foiler! I buried myself in my sleeping bag and a mound of blankets and hoped that it would go away. It didn’t.

My home on Huayna Potosi - the toilet shack!

My home on Huayna Potosi – the toilet shack!

At 1am, we were woken to continue the climb. It had continued snowing during the night and the fresh layer of powder snow reached past my knees. I had come this far and I desperately wanted to beat the mountain. I stood in the darkness and woozily watched our guide adjusting my crampons and harness and tethering himself to me. It felt like I was hallucinating! Surely, this wasn’t really happening!

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We started the near vertical climb. I concentrated on following the guide’s footprints, lit up by my tiny personal moon of a headlamp. The snowfall had turned into a blizzard. On we trudged, clinging to our ice-axes. I tried to think of nothing else but breathing and not being sick. When roped to two people and clinging for dear life onto an embedded ice-axe, being sick is very inconvenient! At 5,300m, I realised that I wouldn’t have the reserves to make the final climb up the ice wall to the peak. Our guide had warned us that if one turns back, we all turn back.  I didn’t want to ruin Damien’s chance at the peak so I assured the guide that I’d be fine heading back to the hut on my own. I just had to follow the footprints -easy! The two boys continued on and I attempted to pick my way down the darkness of the mountain. 40 minutes later, hysteria started to bubble – the blizzard had partially obscured the prints and I was lost. It was a nightmare!

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Finally, I reached the hovel. I ignored the mice scurrying over the dinner table (it’s funny what you don’t care about at altitude!) and hunkered down in my sleeping bag trying to get warm. I was only back in the cabin an hour before Damien and the guide tumbled back in the door. They had only been able to continue upwards for another half an hour, making it to 5,500m. The snow had covered and hidden the crevasses and it was too dangerous to go on.

Mountain crevasse

Mountain crevasse

The next day, we stumbled down the mountain again. The wind blew, the rain lashed and llamas stared. At the blessed bottom, I turn to look at the mountain that nearly ate me … it still lurks invisible behind the clouds.

Next time, my lovely French friends, I’d prefer a puppy!!

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