Sunday, October 2, 2011


I heard about Huayna-Potosi soon after arriving in La Paz, but initially didn’t have any interest in trying to tackle the beast. However, the idea must have sat at the back of my mind fermenting over the next few weeks until eventually I was drunk enough on the possibilities to have a crack at the thing. For those of you not in the know, Huayna-Potosi is a mountain in Bolivia, located about an hour from La Paz. Labelled as “the world’s most accessible 6000m plus mountain” it has become popular with outdoor and adventure sport enthusiasts in recent years. The reason this mountain is so manageable is that you start your climb at up over 4000m and can summit and return to the start point in a couple of days if you want to. Despite this, altitude sickness is a significant factor and the reason that many who try never see the summit.

Huayna-Potosi from the high camp.

Playing mountaineer.
The morning we started I was feeling pretty grim after my night out. Luckily we spent this time getting gear sorted and driving out there. The gear was rented and the guy in charge was a bit touched, seemingly picking boot sizes at random. He took “smaller size” to mean the same or bigger on several occasions. The quality of a lot of the stuff was pretty questionable too; I had left better gear behind thinking it wouldn’t be up to the job. All in all I was feeling pretty sorry for myself when we arrived at low base after the bumpy ride from La Paz.

The guide noticed my lack of enthusiasm and suggested I sit the first day out. I’m a firm believer in doing the time when I commit the crime however, so I headed out with the other lads to the glacier to learn some basic mountaineering skills. The head started feeling good and I really got into the techniques we were learning. We had a quick run through using crampons on steep ice sheets and then threw down a bit of ice-wall climbing before having a test run of being roped together while crossing rough terrain. All in all the times were good and I felt like I would be in good nick for the climb ahead.

 Back at the lodge there was time for a few games of cards before we went to bed. It was a late start the next day so we took this time to get some valuable extra sleep. We lunched at the normal time and then ascended to the high camp. It was basically a steep walk up a rocky hillside with a bit of a snowy climb for the last bit. The walk took a few hours but nothing to really report here except that we saw a kid casually strolling up carrying a bunch of supplies for the high camp in some very haggard shoes, looking like it was the most comfortable thing in the world. It put me well in my place.

 Even though it was about 5 in the evening we forced down some food and tried to hit the hack. High camp is where the altitude generally started to affect people. I was lucky enough to not really suffer any ill effects apart from some general grogginess (and there’s no way to rule out my travelling lifestyle as the cause of that).

The high camp was a pretty basic affair. Imagine a small, badly insulated sheet metal shack of two small rooms. One has some basic cooking gear and one has what looks like a big shelf in it. The shelf is actually the bedding. Needless to say, we were deep in comfort country.

Our pimping digs at high camp.

After a sleep best described as ‘patchy’, the crew set off at about 2am towards the summit. It was dark and exceptionally cold to start with. The headlight I had rented was about three steps below inadequate and I initially battled to see much at all on the way up. Fortunately the terrain was pretty lax to start with and I soon adapted to the poor lighting.

As we headed up summit-ways it soon became clear that, for me at least, the altitude was going to be the hardest part. For the first few hours the gradient didn’t get any worse than ‘a bit steepish’ with the exception of a short section of ‘ice wall’ (more like very sheer slope with handholds) that was easily negotiated. I could feel the effect of altitude taking a small but noticeable toll which I quickly counteracted by chewing coca leaves. These are green leaves of magic at altitude and left me feeling mentally sharpened and focussed on the task at hand, albeit with a slightly numb mouth. For anyone in South America tackling some high elevation, I would thoroughly recommend these little gems.

I was good until about the last 200 vertical metres. Then the altitude started to kick in and the terrain became a lot more uneven with manageable but potentially dangerous sections. It’s no secret that I’m not good around high edges, which only added to my panic in places. All of this added up to me having a bit of a bad time through this last part. It was good to be roped to others, which forced me to go onwards. I was also pleased I was up there with my boy Angus, who was both a source of encouragement and competition. There was no chance I was going to let a dirty Ozzie outdo me.

We got to the summit about 4 hours after we set off, in perfect time to catch the morning sunrise. I was feeling pretty rinsed by the top, and it was great to sit back and enjoy a truly world-class view with some truly world-class people. Huanya-Potosi is in a range of jaw-dropping mountains and also offers views of Lake Titicaca, which makes it a pretty tight place to watch a sunrise. We were lucky enough to be up there on a fairly windless day with minimal cloud: conditions were perfect.


Everyone had been so absorbed with getting to the top we hadn’t really thought about getting back down. This was actually quite an ordeal. It was just steep enough to hurt already weary legs and the worst part was that it just seemed to go on forever. It took about two hours to get back to base camp, about half the time of the ascent, but it was many times more miserable for me.

Eventually we were back at base camp and happy to be there. Lying down heavily seemed to be the order of the day. Marc, our final group member and a Luxembourgian delight, seemed particularly pleased to be done. We all savaged lunch and then it was back to La Paz for some much needed sleep.

Except it didn’t happen. Gus and I were going our ways the next day so we mourned the parting as all good men do: by drinking jugs. I don’t think it was a particularly late night and I do remember us both being massive lightweights after the trials of the days just gone.

Lastly I should throw out some props to our guide, who’s name somehow slips my mind now. He was a cheerful little 19 year old Bolivian fellow who estimated he had done the summit five hundred (500) times. Not only that, when we looked at the other mountains surrounding us, he had scaled most of them at least once. This guy was technically competent and a top lad to boot, and without him the trip wouldn’t have been the same. Our group had the privilege of being his last before he joined the army, and I hope the banter we had gave him fond memories of the job he was so good at.

More pics here.

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