Huayna Potosí, Cordillera Real, BoliviaThis extract is taken from my book, "Así es la Vida: An Un-structured voyage of discovery in South America", which is available from Amazon and similar sites, as well as directly from Pegasus Publishers (http://pegasuspublishers.com/product_info.php?products_id=639). Having had all our climbing gear stolen earlier in the trip, we arrive in La Paz nonetheless keen to salvage something from our earlier climbing ambitions....
OUR plans for climbing in the Cordillera Real had only been very vague, so we had eventually got used to the idea that it wasn’t going to happen and settled into the carefree traveler mould. Still, passing through the Cordillera Real en route to La Paz had served as a reminder of the original aim of the trip and we decided that there must be a way we could get up one of these peaks. We had spent one day in La Paz investigating the possibilities. Organised tours remained something we liked to avoid if possible, but we had become disheartened by the apparent impossibility of this. We had looked into hiring bikes, just for a day, just to explore some of the surroundings under our own steam. Walking up the steep “Calle” just off Plaza San Francisco that houses nearly all the guiding agencies for mountaineering, mountain biking, trekking and the like, we dropped into a few places and asked:
“Can we hire bikes here?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
Nodding to each other in hopeful approval, we would enter.
“220 Bolivianos,” we were told in one such place. About £15. Hmmm, steep by South American standards, but worth considering.
“Okay, for one day would be good.” But then, always:
“That includes transport to the start, and a guide.”
“So, we can’t just hire bikes and go off on our own?”
Frustratingly and adding to the whole “touristy” vibe, they would always insist on speaking English despite Carson’s Spanish being virtually native.
The mountaineering agencies were similar. Hiring equipment from them was not possible. We found a shop that did hire equipment, but once we’d added up every little bit we’d need, it worked out far more expensive than hiring a guide, which included equipment. I had always been against being guided in the mountains – perhaps put off by French guides in the Alps who step on your ropes and barge past you, mercilessly towing their breathless client behind them in a bid to finish the climb as quickly as possible and get the cable car back down to the valley for a cold beer. There seemed to be no pleasure in it for either of them. I had also long been a fan of the friendly attitude of mountaineers. There seemed always to be a culture of more experienced climbers sometimes teaming up with relative novices, unofficially teaching them new skills and influencing them to climb better and more safely. Several such people had even climbed with me during my first season in the Alps.
“So, you can do ze folluving…” the comically-accented Dutchman running one of the guiding agencies began to explain, proceeding to outline all the different options and prices. He reminded me of the Dutch guy in the third “Austin Powers” movie. I really didn’t like his ruthless, business-like attitude, or the way he explained absolutely everything in a dumbed-down manner, not for one minute thinking we might actually know something about mountaineering. We figured, though, that once we got up on the mountain, all this would be forgotten. It seemed to be the only way. We had to do this, we couldn’t come this close to the biggest mountains we had ever seen and not experience them properly.
Several days later we sat outside the “refugio” at the bottom of Huayna Potosí, with the mountain towering above us, resplendent in vivid white as the mid-day sun dazzled its surrounding glaciers. Eulogio, our guide, cooked us a big lunch of rice, chicken, tomato, cucumber and all sorts. We offered to help him prepare it but he wouldn’t hear of it. This was real luxury mountaineering.
Adding to the “luxury”, Huayna Potosí is regarded as one of the easiest 6,000m peaks in the world. If not that, there cannot be many that are more accessible. An hour-long drive from La Paz to a roadhead, and then a mere 500 metres of height-gain to a newly-built hut at 5,200 metres. The walk was over in just over an hour – we made our way across a dam at the head of a lake, then slogged up a chossy yet well-worn path, feeling remarkably energetic and headache-free at that altitude. Sunbathing at the hut that afternoon (“acclimatising” I should say), it really brought back some of the fear I had felt on that Alps trip two years before. But today, with a mere “snow-plod” ahead of us and the added security of a guide who had – he claimed – climbed the mountain 400 times, all I had to do was relax and enjoy being in this awesome place.
In the morning, after a familiarly unwelcome 1am reveille, I felt that old excitement returning. The essence of Alpine mountaineering was coming right back to me. The ultra-fresh air, the dim light, the ghostly peaks silhouetted all around us, the full moon and stars shining so brightly we didn’t even need a head-torch. I was reminded of the words of Joe Simpson, of “Touching the Void” fame, that had inspired me so much in the past. Alpine climbing, he says in “This Game of Ghosts”:
“Always gave a strangely separate view of life; as if your perspectives had been subtly altered, momentarily frozen into those black and white decisions given to you on the mountain. Things that before had made you worried and anxious, now seemed quite insignificant. Money, bills, future prospects, security – all those things that seemed the route of modern life – were irrelevant... There was far more to life than we had been taught to expect… There was so much to be lost from a moment’s careless mistake but so much to be gained by knowing the value of life.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I almost said aloud. This was life, this was what it was all about. How could I have forgotten?! I would have jumped for joy were I not roped to Carson and Eulogio. We plodded for a hour or so up the “path” that had been created in the snow across the glacier, the faint silhouette of another party looming in the distance, gradually moving closer as we caught them up. I wasn’t just coping with the altitude, this was easy. Adrenaline and high spirits were carrying me forward. There was a short step across a crevasse then up a steeper slope onto a ridge, but otherwise it was straightforward plodding accompanied by the surging euphoria of re-discovery. We were eager to reach the infamous “Pared” – wall – that still stood between us and the summit.
The wall, we had been told, was a 55-degree snow-slope, something winter climbers in Scotland would normally climb un-roped and feel a slight burning in their calves, but little else. But this was at 5,800m, and provided a considerable sting in the tail. Okay, so it seemed I had acclimatised to walking up an almost-flat glacier at that altitude, but as soon as the slope aspect changed, so did my ability to cope with it. On the final few hundred metres of Mont Blanc I had felt a little short of breath, but nothing like his. This was painful. Roughly a third of the way up the “wall” I was already a wreck. I felt as if I’d been running as fast as I could for fifteen minutes, getting completely out of breath, but not being able to stop. Several times I had to rest on my axe and let my head flop onto the snow, coughing and almost hyper-ventilating. “This is what it’s all about...” I had thought further down the mountain. “What what’s all about?!” I now thought. “Medieval torture?!” A few steps. Then rest. Few steps. Lungs exploding. Few steps. Nearly there. Nearly there. Few steps... At the summit I collapsed and lay in the snow for five minutes without even looking at the view.
When I did, though, it was quite unreal, like stepping into some fantasy world. Shades of orange I had never seen before lined the horizon as it started to get light, yet the other peaks still stood out like eerie jet-black fortresses in the dawn’s iridescent glow.
Still struggling for breath, I looked at Carson, who appeared as cool and zen-like as ever.
“Man, I’m totally f***ed, how are you?!”
“Aye, I’m a wee bit tired myself, like,” he replied, as if he’d just walked up the stairs in a hostel.
I would have hit him if I’d had the energy.