Tackling Bolivia’s most well-known beast- Huayna Potosi

Coming back from Lago Titicaca I head straight for Calle Sagarnagá with the intention of confirming my booking at a tour agency for a three-day mountain summit to Huayna Potosí. Turns out the tour had been cancelled. Slightly annoyed, I go to a different agency, High Camp Lodge, a few doors down. The company was leaving for Huayna Potosi the very next morning. Turns out, this was the absolutely best annoyance that could have happened.

When booking the Huayna Potosi tour you are given two options. Either you do 2d/1n or 3d/2n. I opted for the latter since it included ice climbing practice and I’m not very experienced in this area.

Day UNO

The trip starts at 08:00 where a van picks us up (we were a total of 8 people doing the trek) and embark on the journey to the very first base camp. I was pretty much the only person in the car who didn’t speak Hebrew so I was forced to pick up a word or two. We arrive at the camp around noon (at 4.800m). The drive there was absolutely stunning with different colored lakes and lagoons at every turn. The company provides us with lunch (though, as I don’t eat meat, my meal consisted of carbs on carbs pretty much. And one fried egg). We then put on all our gear, grampons, ice hacks you name it, to go learn some ice climbing. The hike to the glacier was absolutely gorgeous with changing landscapes left and right. The actual climbing turned out to be much more difficult than it looked. I had figured at first that it couldn’t be much different from rock climbing. Woooooow, was I wrong! Every step required an enormous amount of effort, not just with forcing your feet into the wall but also swinging the ice hacks. It required much more upper body strength than rock climbing. After a few falls I finally get it right.

Back at the camp we all have dinner (again, carbs on carbs) and play some card games until we get shooed to bed by the boss lady of the house. So here’s my best tip for anyone doing this trip: bring two sleeping bags. Okay, I am fully aware I suffer from a I-am-alwyays-freezing-OMG-why-is-it-so-cold-everywhere syndrome, but geeeez! It was cold at night. After much worming around in the bag (to get some heat going) I fall asleep to the sound of two dozen trekkers snoring and one poor fellow vomiting from altitude sickness.

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Me with Huayna Potosi in the background
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Group jumping picture fail

Day DOS

The next morning we start the trek to the second base camp. This was definitely much more challenging than day uno as we were carrying ALL our equipment. I really struggled on this one, but everyone around me helped keeping the mood very light as we were  walking and sharing random fun facts. At one point a cholita in traditional dress even passed us. She was 5473980934 times faster than us. Made me kind of feel oh-not-so-fit. The tricky part is that you want to rest, but when you do, it gets so cold you can feel your muscles tensing up so your best bet is really to keep going. Also , the excitement in seeing all the views proved to function just as well as any pre-workout.

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The second base camp was much smaller than the first, located at about 5,200m. That afternoon, the wind started hitting hard- we could all hear it whistling as we were playing our cambio card game and sipping our mate de coca. Again, I can’t stress this enough. Bring two sleeping bags. This night was even colder than the first and to be honest not even two bags were enough for me. Excruciating cold aside, this camp had some of the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve ever seen. I went out to go to the (outdoor) bathroom and immediately had to rush back in to fetch my camera. Everywhere you looked it was like a photo of a computer desktop background. Absolutely stunning.

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Day TRES

This night, our curfew is at 18:00 only to wake up at 23:00 to start the trek at midnight. With very little food in my belly, I start the climb. Every two people are secured to one guide and the company took extreme care to figure out who to match with who based on trekking pace since if one person wants/ or needs to return to base camp, both have to return with the guide.

The first hour of the trek is definitely the hardest one. I kept thinking to myself how on earth I was going to make it to the top! The first part also consisted of walking on full-on ice which is both mentally and physically exhausting especially when you’re still waking up from only a 2-hour night’s sleep… After a few hours, once you get into your pace it got much easier. It was still very challenging of course. At one point me and the other person I was fastened to were laying in the snow laughing in hysteria. He had asked me to grab some chocolate from his pack and I definitely did not have the energy to do so. So our guide had to both feed us the chocolate and help me put on my second pair of gloves. I felt like a baby. A high baby. After some more walking I get switched around to another guide as our paces changed. Half an hour later, the girl who was also secured to this guide enters a state of complete mania. The altitude really got to her and it was scary to see. She started screaming and crying. The guide eventually had to tackle her down and force her back to the basecamp because she’d refuse to do so. Crazy how the altitude can affect you! I get paired with a different person and keep walking.

A few hours later and one or two ice climbs in the pitch dark where I have a guide screaming at me to “We’re not going to make it if you don’t climb faster! Are you tired? Do you want to go back? “ I feel the exhaustion creeping up on me. Determined to make it to the top, I feel myself depleting all energy sources as I keep going. The ice climbs definitely wore me down and I can feel myself shaking as I pull myself up after completing the second wall. I notice how every step requires a tremendous amount of effort and how I need a break to sit down every 30 seconds. I ask the guide how high up we are “We’re at 5,900m“, he says. The summit is at 6,000m.

OK, so it shouldn’t be that far left then?

Maybe 2-3 more hours.

That’s when I decided it was time for me to turn around. It was a very hard decision to make. When you’ve already come so far it’s not easy to tell your ego no and abort mission. Especially not easy for someone with extreme FOMO.

I get secured to a different person and start trekking back. Still exhausted both mentally and physically I keep walking. Then something happens that always happens to me when i see the sunrise. My tiredness just disappears. Just like that. Magic! No, seriously, seeing the sun rise while at 5,900m is an extraordinary thing. You couldn’t tell the mountains apart from the clouds and the colors that appeared were nothing short of amazing. While taking in the view I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed in myself but that quickly disappears as I get to the last leg of the trek: 1km over slippery rocks. Here, I realized just how little energy my reservoir had. I almost fell over several times. I make it back to base camp at 08:30 and nap for a bit. My heart doesn’t stop racing until two hours later whereupon everyone else who actually made to the top come back and we start the final 4h trek back to the first base camp only to head back to La Paz the same day.

All in all, one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever done but definitely the most challenging. The funny part is that this climb is marketed in Bolivia as being a “beginner climb”. Not so sure about that….

Huayna Potosi must-haves

  • Altitude sickness pills (better safe than sorry!)
  • Head light
  • Your own sleeping bag (that way you can “double bag” it with the one the tour agency gives you… trust me… it gets cold)
  • Snacks and water

 

“Cool story, bro. But how much did it cost?”

High Camp Lodge 3-day trek: 900 Bs

Extra sleeping bag (rented): 20 Bs

Snacks (chocolate, 2 liters of water, peanuts): 20 Bs

Altitude sickness pills: 1 Bs each (I only ended up taking two the first day)

Total: 942 bolivianos

 

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