Back in La Paz, I made a spontaneous and ridiculous last minute decision – to join Antonin on an attempt to make it to the top of Huayna Potosi – a 6088 metre mountain, which towers over the city.
Antonin had been talking about conquering this mamouth peak for some weeks, but it had never been in my plans to join him.
Sunrise at the peak of Huyana Potosi
For a couple of days, we visited agencies in La Paz, trying to find one which would be suitable to guide Antonin on his ascent. I joked with fellow travellers that Antonin was a little crazy for wanting to do this, claiming I would be chilling out by Lake Titicaca while I waited for him to complete the climb.
But the day before he was due to leave, we visited a tour guide, who claimed to have a hot shower in one of the lodges, and made the climb sound more achievable than I had previoiusly thought. They showed me a photograph of a girl reaching the summit – if she can do it, I thought, then why can`t I?
It turns out only 50% of girls who attempt this climb make it to the top, compared to 70% of boys, but I didn`´t realise this at the time.
Stocking up on coca tea and coca leaves ahead of the climb – these help with altitude!
“Antonin – I`ve decided I´m going to come with you”, I said. “Really?”, Antonin questioned, his face lighting up with a mixture of amusement and amazement. “Yes, why not”, I said. “How hard can it really be?”
Hmmm… famous last words! I should mention my decision was also aided by the fact the road to Lake Titicaca was blocked due to a strike. Since relaxing in the sun by this beautiful lake wasn´t an option, I thought I may as well spend my time getting altitude sickness in -15 degree conditions!
Cemetary under the mountain… (promising start)
That afternoon, we purchased alpaca socks and gloves, and stocked up on coca tea and leaves, which are said to help with the altitude. The next morning came around quickly, and before I could think too much about what I was letting myself in for, we were in a van with a load of strong looking outdorsy types, on our way to the mountain.
As we approached Huayna Potosi, we passed a cemetary, which was a little unnerving. I wondered if any of these graves were those of over-confident backpackers who never made it to the top!
Looking good and ready to take on the ice in our black and orange ensembles!
After arriving at basecamp and having lunch, we got geared up in our fetching black and orange climbing outfits, complete with ice axe and crampons! In order to acclimatise to the altitude and get used to the crampons, we took an hour long walk uphill to a glacier, where we were given a crash course in ice climbing. This was great fun, but physically very challenging. I made it as far as an overhang, where I thought I would have to stop. Somehow I found the strength to hack into the ice with my axe and haul myself up. Abseiling down was just as alarming, given that I have little experience in this area!
Me ice climbing – just after I beat the overhang!
So the first day was exhausting but manageable. I had a bit more confidence after completing the ice climb successfully too. However, at dinner, our guide David warned me he didn´t think I would make it to the summit – well thanks a bunch! He said he had no doubt Antonin would succeed, but that I was a question mark. I found this comment incredibly demotivating and took it quite personally, going to bed in a sulk. What is the point in even trying if the guide thinks I won`t be able to do it?, I thought.
Chewing coca leaves ahead of the climb and already starting to feel nauseous
The next day, we only had a few hours climb ahead of us before we reached high camp at 5130 metres. I had already been drinking lots of coca tea and taking altitude sickness pills as a prevantative measure, but the time had come to start chewing the leaves. All the locals chew coca leaves in these parts and state firmly that ´coca no es droga´. To give myself the best chance of making it, I gave the coca leaves a go, but found the taste so disgusting that I was nearly sick half way up the slope. So much for coca leaves preventing nausea!
As we slowly progressed up the hill, our backpacks weighed down by our ice boots, crampons, axe and helmet, I began to really struggle. I was incredibly short of breath and as the hill got steeper and steeper, I got weaker and weaker, having to stop after every few steps. This was like El Cocuy in Colombia all over again!
Somehow, after several hours of climbing, we made it to the high camp. I had received a last minute piece of motivation when our guide, David informed me, he owned a pair of skis. “Skis!!?” I shreaked! “En serio”? “You have skis here?” I explained my skiing credentials and David offered to carry the skis up for me the next day and let me ski down in some serious Bolivian off piste.
Somehow I made it to rock camp at over 5000 metres!
At 6pm, as the other climbers went to bed ahead of their 12pm wake up call, David made me climb a steep slope behind the lodge to test out the skis. Antonin told me I was surely mad, not going to sleep with the others, but I knew this was an opportunity not to be missed.
The skis were straight out of the 1980s and tied on with a piece of string! They were so thin and the snow so wet and heavy that they ran away ahead of me, and I almost lost my footing. But after I had got a bit more confidence, I was giving the mountain guides tips, as they had been teaching themselves up until now, seemingly with limited success!
Our guide David and the tricky 80`s high mountain skis!
How crazy I thought – here I am over 5000 metres above sea level on a Bolivian mountain, teaching guides how to ski! I am meant to be sleeping ahead of my climb. A keen Swiss mountaneering woman in our group voiced her concerns as I stumbled into bed, saying I may have ruined my chances by wasting my energy!
I think everyone in the lodge struggled to sleep that evening – not only was it very early to go to bed, but the altitude was disorientating and headache- inducing.
Struggling in the dark!
David woke myself and Antonin up an hour earlier than everyone else, having little faith that I would ever make it to the top without a big head start! As we put on our climbing gear in the pitch dark and attached ourselves to David with a rope and harness, I almost decided to give up there and then. Each guide takes two people with him and if one fails to make the summit, the other must turn back too. I didn`t want to ruin Antonin`s chances of making it, but something made me go ahead and take the risk.
The first twenty minutes or so of climbing in crampons up the steep slope felt ok to me. We were going incredibly slowly and I liked this! But then we reached a section with a ledge and I started to feel nervous – I could see the lights of La Paz in the distance but up here in the mountains, it felt so stark and isolated. What on earth was I doing? How could I ever have thought I was up to this challenge? After an hour of walking I had little energy left, and began moaning pathetically.
Our guide, David was constantly agitated by my snail´s pace!
“What is the problem?”, asked David. “You told me yesterday you could do this.” “We have at least another five hours of walking ahead of us, seven at this rate, so if you don´t think you can do it, we should turn back now – it`s dangerous!”
But I couldn`t turn back – despite wanting to desperately. I couldn´t let Antonin down – he was so keen to make the summit. “No – I have to keep going”, I said.
At this point, some of the other climbers caught up and overtook us. We reached a steep section where we had to climb on all fours, using our ice axes for support. It was quite scary, especially with just a head torch to light the way.
We made it – how I will never know!
For the next couple of hours, I was struggling to walk more than a few steps at a time without stopping again, and David was getting increasingly agitated. He wanted us to turn back, but I couldn`t let that happen. “I`m trying as hard as I can”, I said. “It isn`t enough, said Antonin – you are going to have to try harder.” And my favourite quote from Antonin that day – “cry if you have to – just keep walking!”
Finally, we reached the approach to the summit. I found some extra strength from somewhere and began to impress David and Antonin with my stamina. We were forced to use the ice axes again and climb on all fours – the drop below was quite impressive and I was getting scared for my safety once more.
Are we in heaven or hell?
We scrambled to the top and reached the infamous Polish ridge – named after a Polish climber who fell off it once and met his death. I had seen pictures of the ridge, but had I realised quite how steep and petrifying it would be, I would never have gone up there! On each side of the ridge is a huge drop – 1km on the right according to Antonin!
I began to prepare to crawl along it towards the summit, when David informed us we had to stand upright and walk. For about five minutes, David and I had a stand off where I refused to get up. I was scared for my life and kept thinking of how selfish and unfair on my family it would be to die in this way!
The triangular shape in the sky, is the shadow of the mountain we just climbed!
Of course, I was totally overreacting, as David had Antonin and I attached to him by a rope and harness. He later told me that had I fallen off one side of the ridge, he was trained to jump off the other side in order to counterbalance my weight and rescue me!
It took a good twenty minutes walking with tiny steps and extreme concrentration to make it to the summit. Only 60% of the climbers made it up that day. When they did, most people seemed over the moon, but I was mainly shocked, exhausted and terrified of coming back down again! The views and sunrise however were utterly breathtaking. Peering down over the clouds, it looked like we were in heaven (although at -15 degrees centigrade, it felt more like hell!)
We didn´t stay too long at the summit, as it is cold and dangerous. The walk back down along the ridge was as terryfying as the way up. David had left his skis at the midway point. Antonin questioned whether I should be attempting to ski, given that I was so tired, but I just had to give it a go.
The feeling of skiing at somewhere between 5000 – 6000 metres, above the city of La Paz, all alone into the unknown was indescribable. Every time I stopped to wait for Antonin and David, I couldn´t stop laughing in disbelief at what I was doing. It is the wrong season for skiing in South America, so I had never expected to be doing this. I only had one pole, the skis were awful and so was my technique, but it didn´t matter – I was skiing down a Bolivian mountain – woohooo!!!
Skiing down with one pole in ecstasy!
On the wall of the high camp, people had written comments about their climb. One quote summed it up perfectly –
” Huayna Potosi – simultaneously the worst and the best thing I have ever done in my life.”