“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
With a few blank weeks on the calendar, I (Max) was excited to travel alone for what would be my longest solo adventure to date.
After talking to other travelers, browsing the web, and stopping by a few travel agencies, one option stood out among the rest: climb a mountain.
In walking around the city, hiking its hills, and riding the teleferiko to El Alto, I’d seen the several snow-capped peaks surrounding La Paz many times already. And having been in La Paz at around 12,000 feet for over a week already, I felt well-enough acclimated to attempt a climb. S0, when I heard that one of them, Huayna Potosi, is one of the most accessible 6,000+ meter summits in the world (because of its proximity to one of the higest cities in the world), I was set on doing it.
Two days later, I was up at the crack of dawn watching the street vendors of La Paz set up their booths as I lugged my excessively stuffed backpacks through the streets of La Paz from my hostel to the travel agency’s office. After trying on the snow and climbing gear for sizing, including ski jacket and pants, oversized 5+ pound clunker snow boots which I’d have to make due with, crampons, balaclava, harness, and helmet, we hit the road for our 2 hour drive to base camp.
We arrived at base camp (around 14,000 feet) midday, in time to chill out, eat lunch, and then put on all our snow gear and head to the nearby glacier to practice ice-climbing.
Our guide led us up one hour to ‘Old Glacier,’ where we put on our crampons and practiced scaling a wall of ice.
After becoming comfortable going up-and-down and side-to-side, we put on our harnesses and went to an even more vertical wall, which we climbed top-rope style with an ice pick in each hand.
A couple hours later, we were back at base camp for dinner and an early bedtime.
The next morning, we put all our snow gear in our packs and hiked and scrambled over big chunks of rocks to high camp in our trail gear. Three hours later, we arrived at the second brick building on the mountain, this one just below 17,000 feet.
Everyone tired from scrambling over big rocks with heavy packs on our back, while acclimating to our new elevation, it was nice to finally sit down, drink some coca tea, and eat warm soup when we arrived.
By the end of the soup, I started to feel the altitude more than ever, my head pounding and stomach churning. I wasn’t the only one, and we had been advised to take altitude medicine as soon as we noticed any symptoms, so a half-dozen of us toasted to the climb and popped our pills from the pharmacy.
That night, we hit the hay at 6pm, with alarms set for our wake up call at 12am.
With the difficulty of sleeping in the altitude, no one caught more than a couple hours of ZZZ’s before the watches and cell phones started buzzing and beeping at midnight. No more than a minute later, a flock of guides stormed the room, flicked on the lights, and rallied us out of our beds.
Tea, bread and butter, and changing into our snow gear brought the clocks to 1 am, meaning it was time to turn on our headlamps and walk out onto the dark, freezing mountain, half awake.
The medicine had helped my head, but my stomach was worse than ever. Tied in knots, I felt my intestines pinching, pumping, bloating, and squeezing in a cycle that wouldn’t end until nearly 12 hours later.
A 10 minute walk brought us from the cabin to the start of the snow, where we sat on icy rocks to put our crampons on our snow boots and lace gators over the boots to keep snow from entering the tops of the boots.
The two minutes of sitting on a freezing rock were enough to lose most sensation in my lower body. It was so cold that despite wearing 2 layers of thick wool hiking socks and huge snow boots, my toes were numb within 30 minutes of crunching along the snowy path. Two pairs of gloves weren’t enough to keep feeling in my hands, and my balaclava wasn’t enough to keep my snot from almost freezing to my mustache. I was lucky that at least my core was relatively warm, especially when we were moving.
But as soon as we’d stop for a rest break, my core temperature would quickly drop, my eyelids would grow anvil-heavy, and I’d teeter back and forth as I dozed off, only to wake up to a myoclonic jerk that would remind me I was climbing a mountain.
A couple hours in and it was still pitch black, even colder than before, and the higher elevation we’d reached at that point made each breath an unsatisfying gasp for oxygen. To add to my struggle, my body was pulsing with lactic acid, which I could taste with each movement. Every step became a challenge, and I alternated between thinking about my cold, numb limbs, my extreme fatigue, and my fear of my intestines falling into my pants, which I assumed would freeze before I could even take take my pants off (as this would require taking off two pairs of gloves and 3 pairs of pants with my numb hands that had lost dexterity to the point I could barely even clutch the ice pick I held).
Our group had already lost one of our two guides to one woman in our group who had to turn back, due to exhaustion and cold, so the two other climbers and I were alone with our other guide, who warned us that if any of us needed to turn back before the summit, we’d all have to go back together. So, when one of the other guys started falling over mid-stride and voicing concerns about losing his frozen toes to frostbite, I began to worry that even if I would be able to summon the energy to continue for another few hours to the summit, I may not get the opportunity to try.
Our companion trucked on, but it was obvious that he was losing life-force with each step. At one point, he became unresponsive and he sat down, closed his eyes, and fell into a semi-fetal position. We all looked to each other, brutally aware that we’d have to turn back for the sake of his well-being.
No more than a minute later, just as we were preparing to descend, we were hit with a huge stroke of luck: another group that had been ahead of us had been forced to turn back, and their guide and two other climbers stopped next to us on their way down to ask how we were doing. Although they were with a separate company and protocol dictated that our climber wasn’t supposed to to go with them, our guides talked and decided they’d let it slide so that we could keep going.
In a way, it was harrowing to see that more and more climbers were being ticked off the upclimb, but in another way it was inspiring; I felt privileged to still able to stand up and walk upward, and we had been incredibly fortunate to find another group to take our freezing brother. Infused with a second wind, we marched on.
Time became a blur and despite my suffering, the words of another climber earlier that morning ‘time to turn my mind to zero,’ would occasionally bring me to a meditative state, where I experienced moments of brief, indescribable euphoria during these first few, gruesome hours.
As I trudged along in my zombie-like state, I was caught off-caught when we reached the point where our ice-wall top-roping practice would pay off: a fairly vertical 70 foot ice-bank we had to climb. Juiced with a dose of adrenaline, some extra energy pumped through my mind and body, and I followed the slow-moving body in front of me as we ascended, connected to each other by ropes attached to our harnesses.
After this climb and traversing a hill on the mountain, we stopped for a minute and I turned around to see the lights of La Paz in its valley, dwarfed to the size of a small candle-set on shelf in a large room in a mansion, seen as a flickering dot from the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Or at least that’s the best metaphor my exhausted and delusional mind came up with at the time.
Not long thereafter, the sun began to rise, and the light and warmth it brought were godsends. Never had I appreciated the sun so much, and my mind jumped to the indigenous people of the Andes, like the Incas, who worshiped the sun as their most reverend god, Inti.
After receiving more of Inti’s energy, I was able to unzip my outermost jacket, pull down my balaclava, a breathe just a bit easier. But more tough times were still to come. We still had about 2 hours left, and despite the energizing sunrise, we were challenged by the increasingly thin air as we climbed further from sea-level.
Our guide warned us that we were about an hour behind schedule, and that even though we may get close to the summit, we might have to turn back before reaching its tip if we didn’t pick up our pace. Silenced by this thought, we crunched along the icy glacier and eventually caught and passed a few tiring groups ahead of us.
But by the time we reached them, my stomach was in more pain than it had ever been. I squatted down and curled over, overwhelmed by the nausea.
“How do you feel?” asked our guide for the final time. For the first time, after keeping a smile on my face and not complaining up to this point, I had to admit that I wasn’t feeling great.
“Mas o menos, me duele mucho mi estomago” I said, meaning that I felt OK but my stomach really hurt.
Our guide stepped toward me, lowered his gaze, and told me, “No mas o menos en la montana. Siempre bien en la montana.”
I knew he was trying to say what a privilege it was to be where we were. I took as deep a breathe as possible, looked around and had to agree. I replied, ‘Todo bien, vamanos.” We went on.
The next hour felt like it took two, but it brought us closer yet, and finally the last 200 meter stretch was in sight. It was a narrow ridge with super-steep cliffs on either side. Adrenaline in surplus, I took each step with as much precision and grace as I could.
Seeing other stand triumphantly at the summit, I felt dream-like to think I was about to be there myself. “One step at a time, keep going, keep going, you’re almost there.” I turned my head down and watched my feet land about another 50 times as I traversed the precarious ridge.
Before I knew it, I was there, at the summit, with not another single upward step to take.
“What a slog…” I thought.
I could hardly believe it, and I plopped down to rest my legs as I looked out and took in the most incredible view I’d ever witnessed.
As I looked around, I could see the curvature of the Earth along the horizon.
On one side of the mountain was a seemingly infinite series of other snow capped mountains; on the other side, a vast, flat brown plane, filled with lakes and hills, extending all the way to the highest lake in the world: Lago Titicaca.
The sun directly behind and to the side of the mountain now, it cast on the ground below the largest shadow I’d ever seen.
Warned that we only had another 5 minutes up there because there were others coming and there wasn’t enough room for us all, I made an effort to stand up and pose for a picture with the Bolivian flag before we headed back down.
Compared to the climb, the descent was effortless. With the help of gravity (my worst-enemy turned best friend), our increasing energy as the morning temperature increased, and our submergence into lower altitudes with more oxygen, we flew down the mountain in an hour and a half, less than a quarter the time it took us to go up.
We rested for about an hour at high camp, then continued down to base camp, where we were picked up by the same van that dropped us off.
Looking through the van’s back window at the shrinking mountain we drove away from, it was hard to believe that I’d been on top of that distant white triangle only hours earlier.