Huayna Potosi is a worthy companion to the magnificent Illimani. Resting as it does to the east of Illimani, the two peaks surround the cities of La Paz and El Alto and stand as gatekeepers to all who would enter the tallest capital city on Earth. Huayna Potosi is not only the most accessible, but also almost certainly, one of the most climbed 6,000m mountains in the world. It is often called the easiest 6000er in the world. However the "easiest" route entails an exposed ridge and sections of moderately steep ice, with a UIAA rating of PD. There are many 6000m mountains that are technically easier to climb. The primary reason for this statement is that the elevation gain from trailhead to summit is less than 1400 m. There is easy access from La Paz. Also, since La Paz lies at 3600 m, climbers have an easier time acclimatizing.
My brother and I left our hotel at 7:30am and drove up to El Alto heading north on the road that takes you to both Chacaltaya and Huayna Potosi. Although I never learned the name of the road and it is not listed on any maps that I have, if you look at a La Paz city map and find highway 3, look to the west and you will find this road running north perpendicular to the airport. Stay on this road until it forks, one branch going to Chacaltaya and the other to Zongo.
The pass into the Zongo Valley, at 4,780m is the highest spot on the road and the point where one finds the first dike of the Zongo Hydroelectric Project and the trailhead to base camp (5,180m). A building called the White House is a very short hike from the parking area. You can use the spot as a place to eat a snack before the long trek to the Las Piedras Camp.
The hike along this well-worn path, which is mostly rock and scree, offers some great views of the lower portions of the Huayna glacier. We crossed a couple of small streams that ran along the foot of the glacier. This first part of the approach to high camp is rather easy and fairly flat. The second part of the approach involves a moderately steep climb to the top of a ridge which heads to the left. We followed the trail for about 10 minutes and then turned right and descended the ridge on the opposite side. The bottom offers a nice place to take a break, have a bite to eat and a little water before the final climb to Las Piedras camp. This final section is a fairly long and steep scramble among large rocks and boulders. It was at this point that Mark and I began to meet lots of folk heading down from base camp. By far, the majority of hikers were from Europe. I think we may have met one or two climbers from the U.S. the whole time we were in Bolivia. The common theme seemed to be that the climb up Potosi was not as easy as they thought it would be.
Late in the afternoon the weather began to deteriorate, clouds moved in, and the cold and wind made it impossible to stay outside. Mark and I went into the hut, had some supper and headed up to the loft for some sleep before our 1:00am departure.
After a night of tossing and turning listening to my neighbor cough and hack his way through the night , Mark and I got up and, with only a frugal breakfast in our stomachs, we set off for the summit. The start of the trail is relatively flat and heads in a northerly direction up the first section of the glacier. We ran into several small crevasses that were easily jumped over as well as a small headwall that was easily climbed. After about two hours, we reached La Playa (The Beach). This is a relatively large flat area that offered Mark and I a little respite from the wind that had been pounding us for the last hour of the climb. The trail from La Playa turns to the left, circling a small knoll and begins a moderate climb through some difficult areas where we had to avoid some crevasses that were scattered through the ice field. At about 5,725m we ran into a nearly vertical wall a few meters high that took us some time to climb. From there on the trail, known as the super highway, is gentler and the consistency of the ice and snow was better.
Finally we reached the wall, the final steep rise which heads directly to the summit via the eastern face, about 200 m in length and about a 60° incline. Our path took to us to the far right end of the wall as people were coming down from the top and we didn’t want to risk getting hit by the loose rock they were walking across. It took us over an hour to get over the wall, the route we chose was definitely not the easiest section and we found ourselves using penitents for steps and our ice tools for more than a walking stick to climb the near vertical face of the last 100 meters. With several rest stops and a significant amount of cursing, yelling, and overall great workout, we reached the very narrow and exposed knife edge that leads to the peak of Huayna Potosi. After seven and a half hours of wonderful climbing, Mark and I peaked out and sat down to enjoy the stunning views that reward you from the top of Huayna Potosi.
To the south one sees snow-capped Illimani and Mururata. To the north you can see the Condoriri and the rest of the Cordillera Real to Illampu. To the east are the steep valleys of the Yungas and to the west one sees Milluni Lagoon, the city of El Alto and all of Lake Titicaca to the horizon. I settled myself on the ridge, took the necessary photographs and spent a moment exulting in being at the summit. What took us almost eight endless hours coming up contrasted with the three we took going down plus another hour and a half to the base, including the time for pictures which could not be done on the way up since it was night.