I thought of you when I was axe-picking my way up the mountainside of Huanya Potosí last week. You’ve told me of all the adventures you had while living in Ecuador, including a story about climbing Cotopaxi using an ice axe which I’d thought was, let’s say…badass adventurous. Nothing I thought I’d end up doing during my travels.
So it happens that this mountain, Huanya Potosí, part of the Cordillera Real range in Bolivia, with a summit reaching 19,974 feet, appeared as a bit of a surprise in my travel itinerary.
A new traveling friend who is climbing his way down South America had it a part of his itinerary, and he needed a second person to make the tour possible. I don’t think he ever really asked me to go, but at some point while listening to him talk about it, I said, “I’ll go with ya.”
In my mind, I was like, “Why not? I’ve never climbed a mountain.” I’d been stuck in a slightly depressed thinking rut lately after getting sick repeatedly and having to be hospitalized in Cusco. It was time to plunge into something different–and challenging. Climbing a mountain seemed like an excellent way to get my mind on to something radically new.
Peter, my traveling friend, was surprised to hear me I’d come with him, and proceeded to give me the facts: “It’s going to be at a really high altitude. Do you have medicine to take? And you’ll have to use crampons and an ice axe. There might be some crawling and/or climbing toward the top. It’ll be three days—we might be sleeping in tents the second night, at high camp. You OK with all that?”
It’s true, I was in a bit of denial when I shrugged and said, “Sounds fantastic, I’ll do it.” Anyway–isn’t that the way you should go about life? Being open-minded? That IS the way I go about life, and as my older expat friend Claire pointed out to me in her kitchen in Mindo, Ecuador, that means life can bring great highs and great lows—more so than for those who do not take risks at all.
In La Paz, where I was already gasping for air just walking to the tour office, Peter and I met Marcus, a German, as well as Eduardo, our sturdy and soft-spoken guide. Eduardo is from the La Paz area and speaks English, Spanish, and Aymara, an indigenous language of the area. He’s also been doing climbs for over thirty-eight years.
We reached the refugio,an unheated lodge near a dam at the base of the mountain, and settled in for the afternoon while we waited for the sleet and hail to let up. Eduardo was going to take us out to a glacier about a forty minute hike away and teach us how to use our ice axe and crampons. Peter and Marcus had both used them before, but I hadn’t, so I was glad for the lesson.
After we returned we had dinner, which was savory vegetable soup, bread, and a savory pastel de quinoa. The latter was the Andean equivalent of lasagna using quinoa instead of pasta, and it was delicious. We bundled up for the evening in our gear and I went to sleep in my coat and overall snowpants, wondering what the hell I’d signed up for.
The visceral anxiety didn’t really set in until the next day after lunch, when again we waited for the weather to clear, and I compulsively ate cream crackers in my room all morning, not having much else to do, and dozed on and off in my bed, always fighting off a chill, and waiting for Eduardo to call us for the ascent. At some point Peter woke me up and it was time go.
Besides our cook, a round woman who kept her head covered in a knit hat, there had been only men so far on this expedition, including the guides and the other groups staying in the lodge. I was secretly pleased to see a woman named Eva, also from Germany, waiting to come with us. She immediately helped me fasten my ice axe properly to my bag and offered one of her trekking poles for me to use, which I was happy to accept. Then we set off: Peter, Marcus, Eva and I along with Eduardo and his nephew Umberto.
Eating dairy in the morning, my friend, is not recommended before a strenuous high-altitude hike. It took the kind of minute-by-minute marathon running mentality for me to complete the three hours amidst stomach pains and ahem, bloating, up the mountain to the high camp. Once there, Eduardo, stared me down with a concerned, hard look and said, “You must look at your condition. You must see if you can climb in the morning. It is four hours to the summit, but then we must climb all the way down. You must really look at your condition.”
Later, while sitting on the rocks overlooking the clouded mountains that semi-buried the Bolivian Cordillera Real range, I pondered whether I really had the “condition” to climb up to the summit. Was it my indigestion or my fitness causing the problems? My lungs still burned after the hike up. I’ve always been fit, having been a runner for many years, and also someone used to doing yoga and moderate weight lifting; but I had to admit, I felt like crap climbing up that day. Marcus persuaded me that I should at least try a little. He himself was not certain of his ability to get to the summit, and so we decided to pair up in the morning.
“Morning” of course means waking at midnight after a night of labored, shallow breathing and a struggle to stay warm. Climbers from the day before returning to the refugio warned it was nearly impossible to sleep at the altitude—you felt like you were heaving for breath the whole night—and I found this was true for me. Eduardo, over soup, rolls and hot dogs the evening before, told us to simply “rest our bodies”, if possible.
So that’s what I did all night in the orange shed outside of which the gelid wind howled—a familiar sound, given I grew up in Minnesota. I rested and heaved and dozed on and off. At midnight I got up and dressed with the others, because I’d already decided hiking in the snow would be preferable to lying in a dark shed in the clouds unable to sleep for the next five hours.
When we woke at midnight, Eduardo and Umberto heated water and suggested putting in half cold and half warm into our bottles, which we did. We ate some dry bread, had some tea and coffee, and then put on our gear—layers of warm winter wear, including my overall snowpants, crampons, a helmet, a harness for the ropes that would keep my group of three–Umberto, Marcus, and me–together, my backpack with my water bottle. Eduardo roped up with Eva and Peter, the two experienced climbers in the group, and took off; Umberto, who I could tell right away was not excited to be guiding the “slow” group—namely Marcus and I—reminded us to consider our “condition” even after we’d only been trudging the snow in the dark for half an hour. I felt my normal self, actually—my digestive tract having cleared itself of the last of the dairy molecules it could not digest.
What I discovered is that, if you find a slow pace and a rhythm for your breath, you can do just fine. Yes, you feel like you can’t go on sometimes, and your lungs burn and long for dear ol’ oxygen, but for the most part, you just keep moving.
A narrow footpath in the powdery, dark shimmering snow along the slopes led the way, and I was reminded of my time playing in winter as a child—hours upon hours in the same kind of sparking material, even after the sun set. It felt like I was playing again, even though this was much more strenuous.
We used our ice axes to anchor every step, and our pace soon transformed into a walking meditation: sink axe in, left foot forward then right, lift and sink again, left foot forward then right; so on and so forth. For hours in the dark we marched to this beat and as we ascended under a half moon and a spread of stars and their clustered constellations. As we rose higher, La Paz emerged in the south, a deep orange blanket of lights, cradled between the black silhouettes of neighboring mountains.
It took somewhere between four and five hours to reach the summit. We paused often; and each time Umberto asked us if we were tired, and we said yes, and he would ask if we wanted to continue, and we said yes. He would often complain of wanting to sleep, rolling onto his back when we were taking a water break, which I would roll my eyes at. Later I found out that some guides try to tire out or persuade clients to turn around when the hike got tough, so their day was shorter.
The details of the hike and those four hours are somewhat washed away in my mind; however, I do remember hiking up precipitous slopes where we had to sink our axe in well lest we slid down the slope for a very, very long time. At one point my crampon got stuck on the cord of the other foot in one of these precipitous places; Umberto, not understanding I was stuck, kept yanking at the rope uniting us and urging, “Vamos, vamos,” which became the general refrain to both Marcus and me whenever we slowed down.
Somehow we made it the final wall filled with narrow, powdered switchback trails. At several points we had to haul ourselves up around rocks, which really catches your breath and gets your heart pumping; Marcus paused and stared at us with wide eyes for several moments halfway up while Umberto yanked the rope and urged “Vamos, Vamos”; I heard two German women behind us start to wail behind us, asking their guide if they were almost at the top, and when he assured them they were, they still cried and held each other and said, “We must finish!”
We three made it to the summit, and Umberto snapped a few photos of me holding up my ice axe. And we were damn lucky: the sunrise was magnificent, and the sky clear with just a smattering of clouds burying some of the mountains around us. The two German girls stopped crying and began celebrating at the top and before our eyes peeled their shirts off for a topless backside photo op.
I felt victorious: my mind and limbs rejoiced as I paused to take in the splendid view from the summit. I’d never climbed a mountain before.
The way down was quicker but still difficult: our legs were wobbly, and the steep parts caused us to slide and lose our footing. Once, on the only segment that our group agreed was perhaps a little bit tricky, perhaps unsafe due to a steep and very long slope and a few small crevasses, Umberto reminded us to“concentrate” and go “slowly.” For some reason I slipped here immediately, and on impulse threw my axe in the slope above me while Umberto drew up the rope to stop my slide with a snap of his arm. I laughed but Umberto scolded me, asking me why I didn’t listen to him.
“I thought I was concentrating,” I said, laughing because I couldn’t help it, and thereafter I tread carefully down the slope. We reached the final stretch of mountainside that cut horizontally across toward our high camp, and found our crampons filling with melted, crusty snow. Marcus slipped and we held the ropes tight as we slid down onto his belly and took a moment to catch his breath. Again, Umberto yanked the ropes and said, “Vamos, vamos,”. Marcus lay defiantly for several minutes more on his belly, glaring at Umberto, before pulling himself up by his axe onto the path again.
When we made it back to high camp, I tore my crampons off and lay in the sun on a rock laughing deliriously, my body swimming in endorphins and my mind flooded with images of the trail, of the views, of the German girls crying and then ripping their sweaters off at the summit. The morning had been an absolute success.
Hours later we sat for soup and Pringles in the chilly refugio, all of us still a bit stunned at what we’d done that morning. Eva, in her late thirties, told us of her love for mountaineering and climbing. She and I talked briefly about how few women had climbed the mountain that morning, and we couldn’t help but feel proud to have done it.
We rode back in our bus to La Paz in dozy, pensive silence.
Mal, I felt changed in some way after climbing Mount Huayna Potosí; I definitely surprised myself completing the climb, as it was probably the most physically demanding event of my life. The endorphins certainly lasted for days after; and I think all four of us were still in a daze of accomplishment at what we’d done when we went for dinner. Supposedly the climb is not “hard”, and yet I’d say we all felt it was extremely challenging due to the high altitude.
I thought you might be proud of your bookish friend for climbing a mountain.
Lots of xoxo,