Edmund Hillary once said “Nobody climbs mountains for scientific reasons. Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but you really climb for the hell of it”. That very much sums up our approach to Huanya Potosi, a popular peak just north of La Paz.
Sir Ed, a remarkably likeable guy, it seems, also said: “You don’t have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things – to compete. You can be just an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated.” This is certainly true of Huayna Potosi, known by some as the “easiest six-thousander in the world”. We’d even heard one woman, blissful in her ignorance, tell us Potosi was easy because “there are no clouds above 4,000”.
But as we battled a fairly convincing snowstorm before dawn at 5,750 meters – just a shade above the mythical “zone of no clouds” – we thought that perhaps Potosi wasn’t as easy as the “been-there-done-that” guys on the backpacker trail liked to make out.
It was cold, but not freezing, and we both felt quite strong despite the altitude. Being in a snowstorm is nothing new for either of us. (I was practically raised to love white outs and blizzards, being strongly encouraged (ie forced) to ski in them as a teenager whose parents made a lot of sacrifices to give us the opportunity to do so).
A few weeks back we’d decided that we really should try Potosi – when else would we have the chance to try such affordable, approachable mountaineering? Yon had done some in northern Pakistan ten years ago, but nothing since, and I’d never tried it despite years of skiing. Above all, though, echoing Hillary and his predecessor George Mallory, we thought we’d do it for the hell of it, because it was right there.
The mountain loomed grey and foreboding as we sped up the valley towards the base camp.
The top, at 6,088 meters above sea level, was not to be seen. The graveyard by the side of the road, by contrast, was all to easily seen! If I was superstitious, I’d have taken this as a dark omen. Luckily, I wasn’t.
Our first task was to learn (or in Yon’s case, refresh on) how to use crampons and an ice-axe. Unlike Yon, I was a genuine newbie.
We started by hiking out into the gloom to a nearby glacier where our excellent guide, Sabino, literally showed us the ropes.
We learned the correct way to walk uphill and downhill in crampons, which side to hold our axe on, and how to keep the safety rope from tangling and twisting in our feet. Then it was time for a bit of good old-fashioned ice-climbing.
Yon raced to the top – she hadn’t forgotten her rock-climbing days at uni. But I found it pretty tough. My brain kept telling me things like “use your legs” and “trust the crampons”, but my body insisted on trying to hold my whole weight, and haul it up the cliff, just with my arms and the two axes. Within about ten minutes I was completely exhausted. But before my brain finally quit and booked a one-way ticket to Thailand, I found the courage to really kick my toes in and use the strength of my thighs to push me up to the top. I humped my sorry butt over the precipice and realised I had no idea how to abseil down. A few shouted instructions later, and some quick thinking it through from first principles, and I was down, ready to rumble on the real climb much higher up.
We had to hike to the high camp first. It was a rocky route that took us far higher than the practice glacier, up into the foggy and snowy reaches above 4,500 meters.
Huayna Potosi gave us a taste of things to come, in true mountain fashion. Not long after the snow flurry that engulfed us on the steep and slippery boulder field, the sun broke out and gave us a great view of the nearby ridges.
Not long later, though, the clouds embraced us again. We arrived at the refuge at high camp in time for lunch, with all afternoon and evening to wait out the weather. This refuge is a fraction lower than Everest Base Camp in Tibet, and about 200 meters lower than Base Camp in Nepal.
Conditions here weren’t as salubrious as the lower camp. I spied at least one mouse crawling around in the dining area, and the toilets were worthy of a Chinese train station. We could only imagine what it’s like in the summer high season when twenty or thirty people stay each night.
Once here, there’s nothing to do but wait, stay warm, and try to sleep.
Despite being fairly well acclimatized, we both quickly developed dull headaches. By midnight, we both had thumping, skull-wrenching migraines befitting a killer night’s drinking or the end of an exam in Evidence Law. Two more experienced French climbers took mercy on us and offered some high-strength headache pills, which we gobbled gratefully. A little piece of graffiti on the refuge wall set the tone for the rest of the night.
And so we set off into the cold, dark night. Sabino hooked us up to his safety rope, and we began the slow but steady climb up the snow towards the summit.
Our hopes were high. Stars shone in the blackness above, there wasn’t a breath of wind, and the snow was crispy-crunchy underfoot, perfect for getting a good grip with crampons.
Our heads were no longer throbbing, and our breathing was easy. I felt that we stood a fair chance of making it to the summit, as long as the weather held out.
In the beam of our headlamps, the landscape was surreal. Far off to the left was the yellow glow of La Paz, its lights below us, giving us the only sensation of height we’d have for a while. Ahead, the narrow white path crunched out by Sabino. From time to time a great dark chasm would reveal itself on one side or the other. Watch your step!
The beauty of snow and ice was widely on display up here. Remarkable icicles, improbably twisted lumps showing where crevasses plunged below the snow, all of it lit eerily by our little lamps.
In a while, we reached a hairy stretch. It called for a climb over an ice ledge, then along a path so narrow we had to hold on with our axes. Up through an ice cave, onto a path one bootwidth across. Double back on yourself, then follow that path across a 45 degree mountain face, above a decent-sized hole below. Sabino bolted a protective steel loop into the ice, but a fall seemed both probable and potentially pretty painful. We both held on tight and whacked the axe in with a little extra gusto. I wondered if this stage looked scarier by torchlight or sunlight. I’d find out soon enough, on the way down.
We were not long into our ascent when the weather turned against us.
The snow started falling when we were somewhere around 5,300 meters. Sabino thought it might pass again, but he wasn’t hopeful, because there was no wind. We plodded along, warm enough as long as we kept moving, and concentrating on one foot after the other.
But by 5,750 above sea level, it was pretty clear that the snow was going to keep falling. Visibility was about thirty meters. Because Potosi is so close to La Paz, it has quite good cellphone reception. Sabino called the guide leading the French guys, who were considerably faster than us. “They are at the summit”, he reported back. “Cannot see anything”.
Decision time. But first a little context. Six thousand meters above sea level is a nice round number. It sounds harder than 5,895 meters. Apart from that, it’s just a number. Knocking off the 8,000ers – that I can understand. There’s only 14 of them, for starters. It took until 1986 for the legendary Reinhold Messner to become the first person to climb them all. Only 20 people have done it since, compared to well over 2,000 who’ve summited Everest, and plenty of people have died up there in the “death zone”. On the other hand, there must be literally thousands of 6,000ers across the planet. There’s more than 100 in the Andes alone, and 700 in Pakistan. A lot of fun, and a good personal challenge it might be, but hitting 6,000 meters in and of itself is nothing special – even if it is true that outside central Asia, only the Andes has any mountains that high.
All that to say: we were here for the view! Not the special importance of standing on a patch of snow at 6,088 meters unable to see beyond our outstretched arms.
Sabino said we still had time to make the summit. Our pace, though slow, was steady enough to bring us to the top. His experience of previous climbers suggested that we’d make it, too. But he said the snow was unlikely to let up, and it would pile up and up, making our descent both slower and more dangerous (we could slip and fall into a crevasse). The fluffy, powdery snow would stick to the bottom of our boots, clogging up the crampons, reducing their bite and making it harder to walk down safely. He asked us what we wanted to do.
It seemed so straightforward to both of us. What’s the point of going on? We won’t be able to see anything. For Yon the decision was even easier – she’d climbed to 6,000 before. Maybe it’s my age, but I have nothing to prove. If I wasn’t going to see a sweeping, magnificent view, I couldn’t see the point in slugging it out in powder snow all the way down.
“Let’s turn around”, we agreed. It seemed so logical, so sound.
On the way down, the sun came up somewhere behind those clouds and gave us a dull blue light to walk by. We saw some of the same features we’d passed on the way up.
I decided that the ice-wall that I described before was probably better climbed at night. That way you couldn’t see the full extent of what awaited you after you slipped.
We had a little rest in the ice cave before heading further down.
All the way down, a little part of my mind was second-guessing the decision to turn back. Even as I had to kick snow out of my crampons more and more frequently, until I was doing it every second or third step, I still poked my head over my shoulder to look at the clouds. What if the wind picked up? What if the summit suddenly cleared, right when we would have reached it?
I revealed my doubts to Yon. She said, with eminent good sense, that we should trust the guide, and our own instincts. Remember, “sometimes the mountain giveth, and sometimes it doesn’t”. She was right. I added, “and sometimes it taketh away”. We made the right decision not to plough ahead into a snow storm, and now we had to stick to it, whatever the mountain chose to do afterwards.
And then, horrors! The sun did come out! The clouds parted faster than the Red Sea, and we took in the expansive view to the south.
Behind us, up at the summit, the clouds reigned. Sabino called the other guide, who was still high up. “Still they see nothing”, he reported. So Potosi wouldn’t give us the summit view, but it had taken a little mercy on us, and offered up this instead. It was beautiful, so we stopped and mucked about in the snow, under Sabino’s watchful eye: “Richy, um, that is a crevasse, maybe can you sit on this side please?”. “Ah, yeah, that’s a good idea”.
The sun lit up the snowy ridges dramatically, and, of course, Yon tried some yoga poses in full climbing gear.
We didn’t get long, though. After fifteen minutes, the clouds swirled around us again, visibility dropped to about 30 meters, and we hit the trail, kicking our feet the whole way down as the snow clogged our crampons.
Back at the high camp, we talked to the French guys about their summit experience and drank some of their home-made genepy, a delicious liquor infused with the alpine flower of the same name, usually only to be found in the French alps. After a quick lunch we climbed back down the rocky valley to the lower camp, carrying all our climbing stuff.
And then we had a weird experience. The next day’s climbers were milling around at the lower camp as we walked in. “Did you summit?”, they asked. “No, we turned back in a snowstorm at 5,750”, I said, but I might as well have said “I am from the Planet Mars, take me to your leader”. All I got was a blank, uncomprehending look that yelled “what kind of a loser would turn back?” I explained my theory about wanting to see the view. “Oh. Well I would have gone just to say I reached 6,000”.
“Well, I don’t care so much about the numbers, and besides, Yon’s already done 6,000, and it was a snow storm…”. Still sounds reasonable, I thought.
“Yes well I would have still pushed on just to say I did it”.
Most disconcertingly, this was the attitude of nearly everyone with whom we discussed the climb. Many of them gave the impression they’d never set foot in the mountains, either, and were ticking the Potosi Box of their Backpacking Bolivia checklist, along with cycling the Death Road and getting slaughtered at the Point in La Paz. Although we are not climbers, we’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, and in snow, and learned to respect them.
Yet by the time we were back in La Paz, we had to convince ourselves over a pizza that we made the right call. We’re both sure we did. But we didn’t talk about it to anyone after that, especially not clueless backpackers!
As we left Bolivia at last, sad but grateful for a wonderful trip, we looked back at what we thought must be Potosi, its summit bright and clear in the yellow sun. We would probably never return, and we made the right call, but it left us with a wistful longing for what might have been.
Postscript: for a really funny take on the adventure from a guy who summitted, and then took an emergency dump on the side of the mountainread this.