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CLIMBING BOLIVIA'SHUAYNA POTOSIMOUNTAIN

Story and Photos by Jo Logan

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The air was thin at 6088 meters above sea level and I was still catching my breath. It was freezing too; – 20 degrees celsius in fact and I pulled my jacket higher around my neck. I couldn’t believe it. Here I am alone on the other side of the world in Bolivia, South America, and I just climbed to the summit of a 6088-meter mountain, Huayna Potosi.

Originally, this adventure of climbing Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi was going to be a shared one with my two new friends, Megan and Simone. However, both had developed doubts about the climb and whether not it was safe. I mean, when you read about needing ice axes and crampons you know it won’t be a walk in the park. There are blogs of horror stories too; how the tour is underestimated by many people, posts about avalanche risk, and sheer drops.

For a while, I doubted I could do it and decided to give it a miss too. However, over the next few days I couldn’t shake the burning desire to test myself. Could little old me get to the top of that stonking great big mountain? I could certainly try it! I booked it.

Day OneHuayna Potosi Base Campand Ice Climbing

16°17′15″S 68°07′47.6″W

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On the morning of day one, I bumped into some people in my hostel who were climbing with the same company Climbing South America. Like me, they had experience of hiking but nothing serious like Huayna Potosi. There were meant to be five of us in the group, but two had postponed for a day. You can do the climb in three days (allowing time to acclimate) or go straight for it in two days. The three of us had opted to acclimatise.

Bas from the Netherlands and Jason from Canada had known each other for a few days and welcomed me into their friendship readily. We laughed and joked on the drive to base camp, and all felt excited at what was to come. Base camp Refugio was baltic. At 4700 meters, we were well and truly in the mountains and surrounded by snow-capped peaks and the crunchy white stuff underneath.

Our home for the night was a little wooden cabin with tables covered in traditional patterned table cloths and bunk beds squeezed in tight. It was just us, our guides, and a cook for the night. After a hot lunch, we donned warm clothes, crampons, harnesses, hard hats, and an ice axe each. None of us knew how to attach the crampons; the lessons were already beginning.

Led by our guides, Miguel and Patricio, we hiked an hour to a glacier and positioned ourselves beneath an ice wall. The skies were white as paper and blended with the snow to create a blank canvass all around. After some basic technical training for travelling up and downhill in snow, it was time to ice climb.

Technically, Huayna Potosi is a very basic climb, which is why it’s open to tourists and beginner climbers. However, I would find out on day three, just how useful this training would be.

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Patricio climbed to the top of the four-meter wall and threw a rope down. Miguel tied in a belay (I’m guessing the terminology here, sorry!). Miguel demonstrated ice climbing, jamming two axes in and then kicking his feet into the ice before repeating. Effortlessly, he climbed a couple of meters and returned to us. I went second. Feeling unsure what to expect, I just repeated what I had been shown and gradually got the hang of it. Jamming the ice axes in was easy enough, despite my dodgy arm, and I soon learned to trust the crampons too. Within a few minutes, I reached the top, tired but happy. A short abseil back down and my feet were back on the snow. We all enjoyed the experience and excitedly returned to camp. I thought excitedly about the possibility of Adam and I ice climbing together in the future.

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Returning to camp, it felt even colder than earlier. I wore all my layers at once. With gloves on and three pairs of socks on my feet, I gripped hot cups of tea and coffee, trying to stay warm. We had time to kill; the late afternoon and evening were designated for resting and acclimatising. We huddled together to watch a film on Bas’ phone. Then we climbed fully clothed (including down jacket and woollen hat) into our own sleeping bags.

Day TwoBase camp toHigh Camp

16°16′32″S 68°08′16.6″W

We woke around 7am. I didn’t move for a while; just watched my breath evaporating in the cold air, gathering the courage to climb out of my warming cocoon. The bathroom was outside and there was no running water, just a partially frozen water butt for flushing the toilet and no sink for washing hands. I used my Sawyer Squeeze filter to brush my teeth, within seconds, my hands were like ice.

After breakfast and many hot drinks, we started the days’ hike. Last night the guides told us today was an easy day; three hours uphill and then resting all afternoon and evening. I wasn’t convinced it would be as easy as it sounded. For starters, we had to carry our huge backpacks with sleeping bags, hiking boots, clothing, water, personal items, and equipment. I warned the guides and group that I might be a little slow.

The wind was fierce, 80mph, and it whipped my breath away each time I tried to inhale oxygen into my tight lungs. Snow stung my face as it smashed against my frozen cheeks. I struggled to face into the wind and continue. Out of necessity, I kept stopping to catch my breath but was acutely aware that this just extended the experience. The boys continued ahead, unaware that I was finding it so hard. Fortunately, our second guide, Patricio (an absolute legend), came to my rescue.

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I was slipping and sliding all over the place on the icy snow. Patricio quickly strapped my crampons to my boots with bare hands, hardy to the conditions. He grabbed my hand and helped me move forward. The wind wasn’t dropping. The only way out of this nightmare was to continue on to base camp. One foot in front of the other we climbed, but the hike in the snow, plus the weight of the 12kg backpack, did nothing for my lung capacity and, what breath I could get, was whipped away on the wind.

A Bolivian woman in traditional dress was coming up the mountain behind us with rainbow-colored fabric strapped around her shoulders as a makeshift rucksack. She wore plastic bags inside her worn shoes to make them waterproof, had woolly socks up to her knees, and a traditional long skirt almost to her ankles. In her left hand was a long wooden pole, which she drove into the snow for support.

She spoke quickly with my guide and then positioned herself in front of me. We were approaching an exposed ridge while huge gusts of wind threw snow over the ridge with frightening force. With this Bolivian superwoman in front and my reliable guide behind, they safely navigated me and my backpack to the checkpoint. We sat in that little brick hut with a tarpaulin roof for five minutes as the wind continued relentlessly and battered the building. I signed my name in a book and dated it today’s date, hoping it wouldn’t be the last evidence of my existence!

The second half of that climb was much as the first, except the Bolivian lady was long gone, about her daily business. Patricio was patient and encouraged me, in broken English, to keep going.

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When we eventually reached high camp, he gave me a hug and Bas and Jason high fived me. I felt like the weak link. It had taken me four hours to reach high camp and only taken them two and a half. I felt emotional and held back tears, feeling like a bit of a failure, I guess, like I’d bitten off more than I could chew. Plus, wasn’t this the easy day?

I couldn’t breathe properly at high camp, even after resting for ten minutes. I still couldn’t speak without gasping for breath. I knew it was the altitude that concerned me as we were at 5200m and were still to climb another 888 meters tonight. I was exhausted and, after hot soup and lunch, I climbed into my sleeping bag for an hour of sleep. A short while later, I was woken by the sound of someone knocking snow from the roof and ventured outside into what was now a calm and sunny day – typical!!

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Bas was sat on a plastic chair embedded in the snow, looking out at the most stunning view and dancing to the music in his earphones. I joined him to soak in the views and watch the birds circling the skies. Before long, our two group members who had delayed a day arrived at high camp and, to my dismay, revealed that they had managed the trip in less than three hours. I really felt inadequate and mentally prepared myself for failing to reach the summit.

Throughout the evening, another group arrived who were climbing with another company. Two Dutch girls on the tour were struggling to understand their Spanish guide and worrying about their chances of reaching the summit. Most companies have a two clients to one guide rule. I purposefully booked on as a 5th client so that there was capacity for one to one support. If you are in a couple and one wants to go down, the other has to join. I didn’t want to ruin someone else’s chances and nor did I want anyone else to ruin mine.

Knowing I had this one-to-one support, I gradually began to rebuild my confidence regarding the summit climb. I already knew that I had 100% trust in Patricio after my experience in the morning, and that was half the battle. The other half, I reckoned, was psychological. Sure, physical ability comes into it, but the few hours of rest at high camp had already improved my breathing. Plus, all you have to do is keep going, right? Slow and steady. Except, there is a time limit to this hike. The standard plan is to leave camp at 1am and hike five to six hours up to the summit in time for sunrise.

After no more than ten minutes at the – 20c summit, we would need to quickly begin the two-hour descent before the sun made the snow unstable and increased the risk of avalanche. That worried me. I knew I could do it, but would I be quick enough? I spoke to Patricio and asked if he and I could set off at midnight instead. He agreed, “good idea”.

At 7pm, the whole Refugio went to bed to catch a few hours of sleep. I set my alarm, cringing when it flashed up that I would wake in less than four hours. I didn’t really sleep due to a mixture of excitement and nerves. I kept waking up, wondering what on earth I was doing climbing a mountain in the middle of the night.

Day ThreeHigh Camp to The Summitof Huayna Potosi

16°16′32″S 68°08′16.6″W

At 11pm, my alarm sounded. I grabbed my freshly charged head torch, climbed out of my sleeping bag ready-dressed, and braced myself for the outdoors bathroom. I was relieved to find that the air, despite being well below freezing, was relatively still and the skies clear. Perfect for the climb ahead and perfect for the views. A slice of cake and hot tea later, Patricio attached my crampons and tied us together through our harnesses. It was time.

No one else was up yet and the land was silent. The only lights were the stars shining bright against a black sky. The moon was a thin crescent and hidden behind the mountain peaks for the first part of the climb. The snow glittered under the light of my head torch and it felt magical.

We walked in silence for the first 20 minutes, gradually ascending. I felt good, “I can do this” I kept thinking to myself. We passed another camp and people were starting to wake up and prepare for breakfast.

It was strange knowing we were first on the route, but calming too because there was no pressure to keep up or set a pace. Just me and the mountain, plus the man who would hopefully catch me if I fell into a crevasse.

Higher and higher we climbed and I kept looking back to see if others were following yet. There were small dots of light beginning to appear in the distance, headlights of other climbers, but they were a long way off. I kept thinking that I just needed to keep distance between them and myself. The lights of La Paz and El Alto cast an orange glow across the sky and burned like millions of fireflies. Two cities with a combined population of almost two million is a real sight to behold in the middle of the night.

Every so often, I needed to stop and catch my breath. Patricio was walking in front and would feel the rope pull tight when I’d had enough. Silently, he would stop walking and patiently wait until I was ready to move again. A few times, he would tell me to rest and have some water. This was great until my water bottle had frozen and the lifestraw no longer allowed any liquid to travel through it. Drinking water helps with altitude, so I hoped this wouldn’t cause problems. The air was bitter and within moments of removing my gloves, my fingers would be ice cold. At one point, they became so cold that Patricio had to massage them with his bare hands and put my hands in his jacket near his armpits for warmth. It’s odd how, in such a situation, things like that don’t seem weird, it was a necessity.

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As we reached 5600m, a couple of people from the higher camp were upon us and we moved over to let them past. There was a small climb coming up with a sheer drop to one side. Pala Chica is a small ice and snow wall. I would need to use my ice axe to grip and maneuver around the obstacle. I should have felt nervous, but I didn’t. I was so focused on reaching the top. A few times before this point, I’d asked my guide, “are we OK on time?” “Do you think we will reach the top?”. Each time he had responded, “it’s no problem”. I was never entirely sure what this meant but decided to interpret his answer in a positive way.

After this short climb, he told me we were at the halfway point. It was 3:15am and he said we would be on the summit for 6:30am. Knowing we were on track gave me extra energy, so we pushed ahead. Nevertheless, the trail was relentless and the deep snow made every step an effort.

Headlights from below grew closer and eventually, I let a group of eight people pass. The path grew steeper and we began to zig-zag. After one short break, I noticed that my toes were hurting, a pain I’d never experienced before. It was as if they were burning and I realized they were warming up from being frozen. I cannot describe the pain and simply stood there moving on the spot, staring at the ground in agony. My guide clearly knew the drill and gave me space until it passed.

Before long, we reached the final push to the summit. A steep zig-zag of exposed ridge snaking its way up to the peak. It would be another hour yet and the hardest hour at that. The paths were cut into the steep snow slopes and were around 30cm wide. To one side was a slope falling away far below what my headlight would show me, and to the other side, was deep snow in which to plunge my ice axe. I used the techniques we were shown on day one and managed to balance each step with my axe, switching hands as the path turned its way up the mountain. I looked down and saw the distinctive jacket of Jason. He had left an hour after me but had now caught up. However, there was no sign of the other three group members. As Jason reached us, his guide Miguel explained that Bas had struggled with the altitude and reluctantly turned back. The other two had only walked the first two hours before retreating. I couldn’t believe it. I swallowed a lump in my throat. I was going to make it to the summit. It was within reach, I could almost see the top now.

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Forty tough minutes later, I reached the top just behind Jason and we celebrated with our guides. Photographs and selfies were taken quickly in the harsh cold as the horizon burned in various tones of orange and yellow. I couldn’t stop smiling, shocked, and ecstatic to have pushed on and succeeded despite my shaky start. I couldn’t quite believe I’d made it to the top and kept thanking Patricio for his patience.

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Before long, it was clear we needed to get moving as the intense cold starting settling in. Quickly, the sun began to rise as we started to descend. Within what felt like a matter of minutes, the skies were bright and the sun shone onto the crisp white snow. People were still climbing Bolivia’s Huayna Potosi and it felt good to be going downhill. We stopped for photographs along the way, feeling relaxed and happy.

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It was interesting to see the landscape over which we had traveled in darkness hours earlier. Huge crevasses were below our feet and snow-covered mountains towered in every direction. I felt content, knackered but content. It would have been easy to shy away from the challenge, and it would have been easier to quit half way. I’m so glad I didn’t and, upon arriving back in La Paz, I wasted no time booking a trip to the jungle for some warm weather and relaxation.


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Jo Logan is a travel writer and adventurer who loves exploring incredible places, learning new skills, and reading travel stories from around the globe. Jo has had a love of the outdoors at a young age when she would camp and explore the UK with her parents and brothers. Now Jo and her husband, Adam, travel off-grid to develop their Bushcraft skills.

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