| There is a thin line lying
between adventurism and sheer lunacy and the day I crossed it was Thursday,
August 28 - the day I set off to climb Huayna Potosi. I've always considered
myself to be an adventurous person - a great taker of risks. And what thrill
can possibly be greater than trying to go where no ordinary person would even
dream to dare. I guess that this is what made the hike up the 6,088 m (19,974
ft.) Huayna Potosi such an alluring destination
The Andes is a
mountaineers Mecca. The only other region in the world that can possibly
compete with its allure are the Himalayas. After reaching 5,300 meters while
trekking in the Himalayas last summer (2002), I set myself a new challenge:
6,000m. So Huayna Potosi was the obvious choice. Located in the heart of the
Cordirella Real overlooking La Paz, it was definitely the most accessible of
Bolivia's six peaks that tower of 6,000 m. and it was also (supposedly) one of
the easiest mountains of this altitude to summit in the world.
|| In a way it was a little crazy
to have even attempted. The omens certainly were not very good. It was winter
down in the southern hemisphere so the temperatures at extreme altitudes can
get quite severe. It is also no lie that I do have an asthmatic problem;
therefore my lungs are not as strong as usual and I can remember having quite a
miserable time in the Himalayas a year previously. To make matters worse, I had
fallen quite sick one week into my trip and was unable to shake off what had
become quite a violent cough the day of departure for Potosi.
the barriers, I was determined to give Huayna Potosi a go. Before leaving San
Francisco, I made a booking with an agency (it is far too dangerous to
attempt this sort of a thing without a qualified mountaineering guide)
called Alaya Bolivia whom I had discovered online. The 2 day / one night hike
cost $125 per person and included everything but your clothes, sleeping bag and
|The agency was ironically located virtually
next door to where my hotel was in La Paz so I stopped by, paid me fees and was
ready to go. We set off for the mountain early the next day, at about 9 am in
the morning. There were four others in my expedition all British: a Welshmen,
an Englishwoman (Helen) and two Englishmen - one of whom was actually a
professional mountaineer. Accompanying us were two guides, a cook and about two
The first day of climbing was a fairly easy
one. We took a very scenic two hour car drive to the base camp (4750 m.) and
had lunch there. From the base camp, we hiked for another couple of hours until
we reached the high camp - which was located right at the foot of the glaciers.
Along the way, we unfortunately we lost one of our group's members who was
having severe stomach problems. At 5,250 m., this was almost the highest I had
ever been and both the altitude and cold began to get to me already. Little did
I know, this was only a prelude of things to come later. After dinner, we had
mountaineering practice in the glaciers themselves. This included walking in
the snow with climbing boots, crampons, ice axe, harness and gaiters.
After a fairly sleepless night, we woke up at 3 am the next morning to climb to
the summit of Huayna Potosi. I must admit, having never seen any of this
equipment before in my life, I had a bit of an arduous time putting everything
on in the dark. Nevertheless, before I knew it we were off.
into two groups; the two Englishmen, who were a little more experienced at this
level, went on ahead with one guide while I soldiered on with Helen and the
other guide. Helen soon turned back however so it turned out to be just the
guide and me. I must admit that the climb was harder than I could have ever
expected it to be! Climbing on rocks on the mountains of the Kashmiri Himalayas
during the summer was one thing, bungling through the deep snow in thin air and
in complete darkness, at -10°c was another matter entirely.
the vexation, I soldiered on - until I reached a state of unbearable
proportions. By this time the combination of the cold, the altitude and illness
had gotten to me. With both hands completely frozen, my head pounding as if it
was stuck inside a vice, unable to breathe and coughing violently, I made the
decision to turn back.
Oddly enough, I had the
summit within my sights but when the guide told me that it would be (at least)
another four hours, I knew it was time to turn back. It seemed like every time
I took four steps, I was out of breath. We were also quite ironically right at
the Polish Ridge - named after a Polish man who had died right at that same
spot! Not wanting to suffer a similar fate and carrying no travel insurance,
descending seemed the inevitable thing to do.
Right: One last look at the mountain
before turning back.
|Up to that point the vacation had been such
an unblemished success, so it was a little disappointing to have ended it with
a failure. Mountain climbing is a metaphor for real life as you set yourself a
goal and complete it, never turning back no matter how badly you want to. I
must admit, as I was taking those last few steps on the ascent, I was
constantly asking myself; "what will I regret more ... coming so close and not
making the top or killing myself trying?"
decided for me however as I don't think I was physically capable of going any
further. With the threat of hypothermia and even worse, the fatal cerebral
edema (extreme altitude sickness) looming, I guess I made the right decision.
In a way I still have regrets that I didn't force it and summit. This is what I
might have done if it hadn't been for the fact that I was flying out the very
In the end I was pretty happy to get down to the base camp,
alive and in one piece. As it turned out no one in our group made it to the
summit. While I was certainly disappointed not to have made it to the top,
reaching a height of 5,800 m (19,000ft.) was definitely quite an accomplishment
and the views I got of the mountain, the surrounding valleys of the Cordillera
Real and La Paz were extraordinary.
|The moral of this story is that
mountaineering is a dangerous and laborious discipline and not something that
should be tried without thorough preparation. I must admit this might have been
my problem as we (my group and I) all agreed that this was not the sort of
thing to simply "tag on" to the end of a two and half week trip - as we had all
done. At the end of the day, I may have been a little out of my league as
Huayna Potosi was perhaps one challenge too far. This was however a valuable
life experience and I can assure you that with this experience behing me, I
will be better prepared the next time I try and climb a 6,000 m