Bolivian mountain challenge: Huayna Potosi

My last two days in Bolivia would offer up one of the biggest physical challenges of my life: climbing Huanya Potosi which is 6,088m above sea level. To put this in perspective the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis, is 1,334m; the highest in Europe, Mont Blanc, is 4,810m and the highest in Africa, Kilimanjaro, is 5,895m. Obviously no-where near Everest, at 8,848m.

Huanya Potosi:

Ok so I wasn’t going to climb from sea level but the effects of altitude when you get above 4,000m are astounding. You never really feel comfortable, and just walking along the flat street gets you breathing heavily and the heart pumping. Any sort of incline and you find yourself needing to stop for breath.

The trip starts with getting your equipment: crampons, mountain boots, ice-axe, helmet, outer jacket and trousers, outer mits, second thermal layers and winter sleeping bag. I then procured an Alpaca hat, gloves and socks as I hadn’t factored much cold weather when I packed my bag for the year. As well I stocked 4 litres of water, coca leaves and 8 choccy bars. After leaving the rest of my luggage in storage in the hostel I packed up my back-pack and with the rest of the group (7 of us) was shipped up to 4,700m for a lunch of frankfurters and rice.

Testing out the equipment with Mark at the bottom:

After lunch I had to schlep all my kit up to base camp of 5,100m. This was the first taste of ascent at altitude and it was tough stuff. The bag probably weighed 20kg with all the kit and soon weighed more as I started to shed layers in the afternoon sun. Arriving exhausted, disoriented and panting at base camp we met up with another group of 4 doing the climb the next day. When one of our group commented on how tough the first bit of the trek had been, there was an unappreciated comment from one guy from Denver, Colorado from the other group – “humpff…not really that tough”. This guy obviously thought he was the muts nuts.

After soup and Bolognese and a fair few cups of coca tea we took ourselves to bed about 6.30pm. The bedroom for all of us consisted of a thin layer of mattresses and our sleeping bags. I didn’t think there was a chance of me sleeping as I was fully clothed, including hat, and the sleeping bag cord pulled tightly around my face so only my nose/mouth was showing. I am a big fan of the duvet where I can regulate my temperature and mummy-like in the restrictive sleeping bag I was uncomfortable and knew at some stage I would be too hot or too cold. In addition the air is so thin your mouth is constantly dry and breathing through the nose doesn’t supply enough oxygen. Somehow I got to sleep and luckily only had to wake once to remove a few layers. I was relieved to have got about 5 hours good sleep, especially when Will reported on only sleeping for about 30 minutes. (I felt his pain when he told me that he had to smack Mark to stop the snoring).

Bit of pre-bed reading (Will Self – My Idea of Fun, for those interested):

Me and Mark.  All smiles before facing the serious matter of getting some sleep:

So up at midnight we sorted our equipment and ate a light breakfast of bread and tea. We were instructed to have 5 layers on top, and three layers on our legs, in addition to balaclava, two pairs of gloves and socks. As I had managed a fairly good pace the day before they put me and my guide as the last group out of the 11 tourists and 6 guides and I set off connected by rope to Sylvio (guide).

We started on the snow-ice sheet just after 1 am and the punishment began. I was no longer than about 10 minutes in before I was out-of-breath and desperately wanted someone to press the fast-forward button and for my to be at the top 5 hours later. It wasn’t that bad that I felt like I wanted to turn back, but I just didn’t like being out-of-breath and trudging up the hill in the dark. I tried to put the thought of the rest of the climb out of my mind and just marched on, taking breaks every now and then to have a choccy bar or water.

During a break, early on:

A combination of wanting the ordeal over; my competitiveness; and maybe my genetic disposition for mountaineering, got me to the head of the pack (and ahead of mister-big-shot-mountaineer-from-Colorado) with a couple of hundred metres to go and the sky lightening. By this stage the stops were every hundred or so steps and hyperventilation was becoming a regular occurrence. As we neared the summit the terrain got a lot steeper and the ice-axe was employed to haul myself up the more severe gradients. 80M from the top you hit the ridge which is the final stretch, and this is the really hairy bit. As you reach the ridge you peer over the back-side of it to see a sheer 1,000m drop, and the other side is not much better dropping 200m.

Nearly there, the sky started to lighten to reveal some breathe-taking views:

After the final push I found myself at the summit with about 5 minutes before the sun came up over the horizon. It was a great feeling but after catching my breath for 15 minutes or so and taking pictures my mind turned to the way down, which up until that point had been absent from my thoughts.


Top of the world (kind of):

Bad-ass ridge:

The sun starting to light up the view:

Exhausted, I set off on the way down and now the fast-forward button was as ever-present as it had ever been – I wanted off the mountain, some food and to sleep! I hadn’t figured the way down would be as tough but with the sun beating down, the snow softening and the relentless pounding on the knees and thighs I found myself more out-of-breath than the way up.

There were some stunning views on the way down but this ice-bridge was one of the only ones I took as my mind was focused purely on getting down!

The guide made me take this photo next to a wall of massive icicles but I was really not in the mood:

Stumbles turned into falls and by the time I was 30m away from the hut and with the finish line in sight I was positively pooped! I had to stop 3 times in those last 30m despite knowing that my sleeping bag and a bowl of soup was waiting. My pace on the way up and down had been fairly good and this afforded me a good 2 hour sleep before the rest of the group arrived, so I could regain my strength for the trek back to the bottom with my big bag full of equipment.

At base camp. Paggered:

By 12pm we were back at the bottom, where I lay strewn out on some very uncomfortable rocks, unable to move, waiting for the minibus back to La Paz to show up. I was knackered.

Treated to a sighting of a Condor:

Although it had been a real struggle for me, I felt lucky compared to Mark and Will. Both had suffered in the altitude and their stomachs were at sea: each having to stop a couple of times to empty their bowels; and Mark throwing up the much-needed contents of his stomach, in the sub-zero temperatures of the pitch-black mountain!

We had a night bus booked to Arequipa, Peru at 4.30pm and after scarfing down our last Bolivian food we were super-relived to be on the cama bus and the welcoming fully reclining seats. It would be a few days before I physically recovered and I expect a much longer time before I would consider a similar expedition!


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. JB
    Nov 01, 2011 @ 16:05:17

    Boothdogg – this is your most awesome post to date (apart from that 6-1 thrashing you were discussing last week, obviously). I am very jealous, and hate you. I am at my desk and it sucks balls. Boooo. Jack (Alpha) x


  2. mum
    Nov 03, 2011 @ 09:29:50

    a trace of climbing genes Dom, your dad always want to go back for more!!!!!!! – well done, resolute genes, can’t believe the descent and the single mindedness, incredible focus. Would you do another climb, have you been inspired, do you want to do Mount Aspiring with Dad and Joe in NZ????????????????

    loving your blogs, Mum xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


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