Huayna Potosi – Climbing a Mountain…Really….
Huayna Potosi – Climbing a Mountain…Really….
My friend Ben and I drove breakfast into ourselves and got into a van that took us to the mountain climbing supplies agency store. I have no idea why I actually signed up for this, but here I was. It was terrible to get the supplies. I guess there have been so many gringos to come through the agency that they do not care and were not much help at all to get me outfitted. Nothing fit me right. The mountain climbing boots were too small and no one cared. The mountain pants were size small and I had to squeeze into them because there were no others even close to my size. Another guy gave me a pair of boots that were far too big. Finally I cornered a guy who supplied me with better fitting boots. I got a feather vest and a winter coat from the agency. They gave me a helmet that was too small and I had to complain to get one that fit me right. Once we loaded all of our gear into the van, they asked us if we needed sleeping bags. They had been told that before, but we had to go back upstairs to get bedding rated for -10 Celsius. Then we had to get headlamps that they forgot to give us. Nothing was right with the company and I wondered if that was a bad omen for what I was getting myself into. I was getting so frustrated at them for doing so little to help me and to get organized. I do not climb mountains every day.
We spent two hours of driving down a very rough dirt mountain aiming for Huayna Potosi that loomed at 6088 meters of altitude in the distance. Looking at that mountain scared me, especially the snow-capped peak. Once we arrived at the base camp of Huayna Potosi, I found out that I was the only person in the group who did not have gators, which are covers for boots/pants to keep the snow out of my boots. That agency made me very angry. Climbing a mountain in a foul mood was not the way I wanted to start. I had to buy my own batteries for the headlamp they gave me. One of the guides who had been at the supply agency told me that there would be people returning from the mountain and I would be able to swap my mountain pants with them, but as we arrived at the base camp, the previous climbers had already packed everything away. I was miserable. I told off the unhelpful guide. Things seemed to be going smoothly for everyone else. My energy was black. I felt like I was in hell.
They fed us lunch at the base camp and I teased a couple of Bolivian queens who were on the trip before we went for a hike in preparation. The base-camp it at 4,700 meters and the oxygen in the atmosphere was very low and it was really hard to breathe. I felt like an 80 year old man with emphysema. Doing anything took a lot of power and it never felt like I could get enough of that light air into my lungs. On top of that, I was not outfitted for the hike, and I now know that Vans shoes are not great for mountain climbing. As we were hiking towards a glacier where we would practice climbing, I wondered why I was going to climb a mountain. My life is about travelling, writing, humour, teasing girls, partying, and rock and roll. In no way does ‘climbing a mountain’ fit into that box. I am not ‘mountain climber.’ Just the hike to get to the glacier was terribly exhausting as I had to climb with a heavy backpack that seemed intent to have my shoulders on the ground below me. Sometimes my body was so starved for oxygen and my heart was pumping so fast that my body would heat and I would get electric flashes while I was trying to unzip layers of clothing.
There were wild lamas hanging out and grazing on the mountain during the walk. I show some of the lamas my gloves and asked if they knew who’s wool it was, but they were not interested in meeting me. I was glad for their existence though, as my hands were very warm in the cold once we arrived at the glacier. I put on my mountaineering boots and crampons, which are shoe soles that have about 5 centimeter spikes sticking out in every direction to make it possible to climb ice. The crampons look dangerous and it took some time to develop confidence in them when ascending or descending the glacier. The slope of the glacier would have made it impossible to walk down had it been made out of dirt and I was only wearing shoes. But, with the crampons, I could walk at angles that were before beyond my imagination. 70° angles suddenly became walkable once my confidence built. I also had an ice axe with me that was very handy to use as a threatening weapon, or else as a tool to smash into the ice to use the handle as a grip to ascend. Climbing a glacier is very tiring. One by one we climbed a glacier that did not look very high from the ground, but certainly felt mountainous from nervous vertical heights as we were attached to our guide’s line below.
We returned to the base camp refuge at dark. We had only climbed an altitude of 150 meters to reach the glacier, but it had felt like we had climbed for hours and 100’s of meters. I was very gassy from whatever Ben and I ate at breakfast, but he had bigger issues. He has the shits and just barely made it back to the camp. He was really worried that he was not going to keep it in on the jaunty walk back, but managed, just, and dashed for the toilet as we entered the building. I told him that trying to become a mountaineer has no place for diarrhoea.
At dinner there were climbing magazines all over the refuge. It was like gentle pornography for mountaineers. ‘We will fill the magazines with hot women climbing mountains. The men will go crazy for it.’ And we did. I assumed that some of those women would be further up the mountain as I climbed. Time would tell.
I went to bed around 10pm and fell asleep for about 30 minutes while listening to a Tool album. Then my body said, “That shall be all you will be doing of that,” and I tossed and turned for hours. Trying to sleep in high altitudes is terrible. Even sleeping in tall cities like Potosi and La Paz is difficult. This sleeping business in Bolivia has been hell, but it was the worst so far on Huayna Potosi at 4,700 meters. I could only sleep on my back, which is how I actually can not, because my lungs hurt so much in any other position. And on top of that, my rehydration system went into overdrive and I had to get out of my warm sleeping bag into the 5° Celsius refuge four different times through the night to pee, waking my three other roommates every time I climbed down from my top bunk. I spent the rest of the night monitoring my breathing with some anxiety as I listened to six different Radiohead albums, a band that I had once been sort of convinced of but I am not so sure of now. There is a lot of shit on those albums. To be fair, my dilerium from an altituded non-sleep was probably not a great factor in helping the band out in my fanhood…
At breakfast the following morning, Ben said that his toilet time had drastically reduced. But, there was some wonk in my stomach, and I had my fingers crossed that it was just air. Two of the four guys in my room spent substantial time on the toilet after their primary mountaineering expedition. I wanted no part of that during my mountain climb…
Our guide, an indigenous Bolivinan man who was 49 asked us if we had marijuana. I asked him, “Te gusta? (You like?)” He said “Mucho!” I could not imagine putting smoke into lungs constantly suffocating me from a lack of oxygen. Our guide had been up the mountain at the highest refuge where he slept last night, returned some gringos in the morning and now we about to set off for the climb again with a new crew. He was in understandably excellent shape. When he looked at our gringo backpacks, he sighed a ‘Wow…’ and re-packed our gringo bags for us and resized our default factory backpack sloppy set-ups. And we were off to climb to the snow ridge.
I found it very important to pay extremely close attention to every step I took. If I looked down at a backpack strap or focused on a strange rock, it was so easy to misstep and that would often mean death from the places we were walking. It took a couple of scares to remind my mind that it needed a serious focus on footstep detail. The mountain was a very rocky face, and it was exhausting to climb. One hour into our climb, we arrived at a small rock hut where a woman waited to charge us 10 Bolivianos as an entrance fee. That woman hikes one hour up a mountain every morning and one hour down every night to charge us about $1.30 U.S. to climb the mountain. Incredible.
Huayna Potosi is taller than any Rocky Mountain except for Mt. McKinley which is 80 meters taller. So, I was climbing a mountain taller than anything in Canada. What a crazy idea this was. I was a little slower than the other three guys in my group. I made a deal with my lungs that if they did not explode we would never do anything like this again. I wore worn Vans to the snow ridge, but it was very dangerous. I have realized how important hiking shoes are for mountains and how skateboarding shoes are not. My backpack was far too heavy for my liking and it took four hours to get from altitude 4,700 meters to 5,300. The degree of slope was far steeper than I would have ever imagined, and until the snow ridge it was only rocks and rock faces with no vegetation anywhere to be found.
From 3,600 meters altitude there is 40% less oxygen to breathe and for every 500 meters of more height, there is 10% less and less. There were 12 of us to sleep in the refuge at 5,300 meters. We all tried to sleep from 7pm on as we were to get up at 1am to continue the hike. It was unbearable to try to sleep at the altitude. Trying to sleep at 5,300 meters is like taking a mind altering drug, where you doze off for four seconds of dream, and at that point your body relaxes enough that your lungs try to breathe as normal, which will not provide you with enough oxygen and you startle awake, breathe deeply and then doze off for another four seconds of a new dream, only to have your body relax and your lungs suffocate and you startle awake again. Over and over and over again, with dozens of dreams, and dozens of suffocations, and dozens of startles awake. It was beyond hell. That was how my entire night went from 7pm to 12:45am when we got up in the middle of the night to continue the climb. I did not want to be climbing a mountain on two consecutive sleepless nights, but my body gave me no other choice.
As 12 men tried to get ready to climb the snow ridge of a mountain not long after midnight, we each had a bun with jam for fuel. Our guides melted and boiled snow so that we would have water for the climb. I was so short on air that I felt exhausted and had to sit still for a while just after tying my boots. It is such an awful feeling to not be able to get a proper amount of oxygen. By 2am, we were tied with rope in groups of two and attached to a guide who lead the climb. It was cold, windy, and snowy on the mountain. My feet were numb in my boots and I had absolutely no energy or power. I had bought Bolivian altitude sickness pills which had caffeine in them that I was consuming. As well, I was eating chocolate at nearly every rest we took just to try to get my power levels up.
We climbed through the dark with our headlamps to help us to see, but there was just never enough oxygen to do anything but walk slowly. It was impossible to walk and talk and the same time due to the lack of oxygen and energy levels as low as possible. The climb was very steep and with all of the factors together that we were up against, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. I certainly have never done anything as physically demanding for so many hours between the hours of 1am and 7am. It was mentally exhausting just to keep my body motivated to continue moving. I found that if I looked further ahead to where other climber’s headlamps could be seen in a much steeper position only a short distance ahead of me, it was so disheartening that it would make me want to quit on the spot. So, I made it my focus to continue to look straight down and watch myself put one foot in front of the other to keep moving to not be de-motivated by other’s success. It was torture and it was hell. But that is how I climbed Huayna Potosi to watch the sunrise at 7am at over 6000 meters of altitude. It was amazing. It was absolutely gorgeous.
The climb back down was also tiring, but it was rewarding to know that the worst was over and higher oxygen levels and less frigid temperatures approached me with ever step I took downwards. We got back to the 5,300 meter refuge where I took off my climbing boots and wore those worn Vans with no grips on them to get to the bottom refuge. That was scary. It was so exhausting to jump down from rock to rock for hours to get down the mountain, but we got to the base camp at about noon. I had extreme altitude sickness and was unable to eat anything. We got into the van and headed back to La Paz. I sat in the front seat afraid that I might vomit on the drive. It turns out that I am in just as good of shape as three 22 year old’s who I was climbing with. Awesome. I do not do anything physical, ever. I wonder how good of shape I would be in if I actually did something regularly…
This expression for when things are hard, ‘It’s like climbing a mountain…’ is a joke. I am going to have a little talk with the next jerk who I hear using this expression. Nothing is like climbing a mountain except climbing a mountain… It is the most demanding thing that a person can really do with their body. It is not just climbing over fallen trees and climbing up ridges like I had imagined. It is a battle far from what my main had considered it might me. And, Altitude, you are I are not meant to be together. I have tried you and I wanted to see if it could work out between us, but it will not. We are just not meant to be. You are too cold, you do not let me breathe properly, and you do not allow me to have any energy. Sea level, I miss you. I love you. I never knew just how much until now…
(See photos above or below)