May 20 - 22 - Trek to Huayna Potosi SummitEven with some acclimatization from the desert trip, walking the streets of La Paz, Bolivia still made us breathless, and Rob was happy to hang out in the hotel for a few days while I decided to test myself (and the air) on a trek to the summit of 19, 975 foot Huayna Potosi.
My guide, Felix, and I set off with our backpacks full of cold weather gear, and drove up to the the lower hut at 15,500 feet. I got winded there just walking out to the porta-john! That afternoon, we suited up in coat, pants, and thick boots, and walked up to a glacier, where using crampons, ice axe and rope, I learned how to walk on snow and ice, and how to climb and descend the ice as a team.
We slept that night at the lower hut, and then the next day spent a couple of breathless hours ascending to the upper refuge at 17,000 feet, carrying our heavy packs loaded with water, food, and winter gear. It was cold, although the sun was shining, and I spent a while trying to get my feet to warm up in my sleeping bag.
At one in the morning, everyone woke up, filled up on hot chocolate and coffee, and suited up for the summit attempt. Three groups set off just behind us, and by the light of our headlamps and the moonless sky, we made our way slowly up the steep snowfields. It`s hard to imagine how slowly we were going with our oxygen-deprived lungs...I felt like I was 100 years old and trying to run a marathon just after getting out of the hospital with pneumonia...I kid you not. Felix and I were roped closely together, and I followed him with audible hoarse breathing and the fervent desire to turn around and slide back down the hill. He never seemed to need a break although he was the one carrying a backpack, but when he heard the crunch of my footsteps slow and stop, he would patiently let me get my breath back for a few seconds. Then we would continue our slow-motion, short, deliberate steps up the hill.
The higher we climbed, the colder it got, and through layers of socks in my ski boots my toes started getting cold. Still in the darkness, we jumped a few feet over a deep crevasse in the ice, and made it to the first steep section of the day. Steps cut into the snow led almost straight up, and with every step I dug the tip of my axe into the snow above me and determined not to fall backwards. 60 feet higher when it leveled out again, I was breathing like I had finished a sprint and wondering how far was left to go.
Well, the answer was several hours yet, and somehow, with only a few short breaks, we keep plodding on. Stopping just made our toes and fingers too cold to feel, so walking was the answer, even as the sky finally lightened a little, and we jumped another deep, dark crevasse.
The final difficult section was the steep slope to the very ridge of the summit, and every few steps I had to stop and just try to breathe. When we got to the ridge, looked over the other side, and almost fell backwards in sheer fright. The untouched snow dropped off thousands of feet onto the steepest slope I ever hope not to traverse. The packed trail continued along the ridge, but now it was only a foot wide with a sure death from falling to either side. I found a last spurt of energy and we made it to the summit safely. There was just enough room to sit down, but the overhanging cornice of blown snow made looking over the edge a chancy maneuver.
Within minutes of arriving at the summit, the sun rose over the Amazon jungle, and almost immediately started warming our frozen appendages. From our perch, we could see two of the groups, still far below us, stop, turn around, and start going back down the mountain. They told us later that one of them threw up and the other guy just couldn`t breath. Behind us just a little was a couple of French guys, and they arrived on the summit shaking so badly from a fear of heights that I wondered if they could make it back down.
Because what goes up, must go down again. After watching our perfect triangular mountain sunrise shadow retreat over Lake Titicaca to the NW, we started back down the narrow ridge and the steep slope. Breathing wasn`t such a problem going down, but we went slowly to avoid falling, and I was happy to still be roped together. In the daylight, we could now see where we were going, at at the crevasse I stopped and stuck my head over the edge to see just how deep it really was (deep!). Taking pictures gave me a chance to stop and rest a little.
We made it back to the upper refuge in half the time it took to climb up, and in the warm sunshine packed up all of our mountain gear and drank some more hot chocolate. Then we shouldered our packs again, and descended all the way down to the bottom to catch a taxi home to Rob and our plush apartment hotel!