Monday, January 02, 2006

THE MOUNTAIN – Huayna Potosi 6,088m

PREPARATION - On entering Bolivia I had the slightly crazy ambition of climbing a 5,000m peak. On returning from the jungle Dave, Mik, Arnie and myself were in a almost certainly overly adventurous mood and signed up for not a 5,000m but instead a 6,088m mountain Huayna Potosi (circa 20,000ft). This seemed like a great idea at the time and so it proved only after putting ourselves to the point of utter exhaustion. To give you an idea of just how stupidly high that is, the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis, is 1,344m and the mighty Everest is 8,848m.

I think we first had a real idea of what we were plunging ourselves into when we were shown our equipment - full on thermal under layers, gloves, balaclavas, snowsuits, what looked like ski boots, crampons, ice-axes etc. After that there was a bit more agitation over what we were attempting in the forthcoming days.

We woke up early, but late, the next day and embarked on the journey up to base at 4,700m. I believe altitude sickness can affect you from as little as 2,000m, so at this altitude you can already have significant problems. Here we spent the day learning our trade. We hiked up to 4,820m to the imposing 27km long glacier that plunges down from the summit. Here we strapped on our crampons, took our ice-axes firmly in hand and practiced different styles of ascent and descent in the conditions. The highlight was a climb up a sheer ice-wall. All I can say is that thank God we were on ropes or all four of us would have had a bit of a nasty fall - this climbing lark is not that easy. Oh and a small bit of advice for any future would be climbers - try not to hit yourself in the head with an ice-axe, if you do it hurts and you bleed.

It was clear that at this altitude Arnie was struggling, so after a night where we all had stomach problems (and in his case rather more) Arnie decided to head back to La Paz instead of attempt the top. I think that this was a very sensible decision as it is dangerous to attempt things like this when you are not fully up for it or committed. So the three of us slapped our packs on our back (approx 14kg) and undertook the first ascent.

STAGE 1 - The ascent up to Camp Alto is a three hour hike over mainly crumbling rock terrain up to the snow level at 5,130m. Even with the packs this trek is not too tiring as long as one takes plenty of breaks necessitated by the the rapidly thinning air. There were a few hairy bits, such as climbing up a crumbling rock face with water tumbling down from the excess snow and rain fall, but we all made it in one piece and rather content. Most of the time we were ascending through cloudy, misty and snowy conditions but at the 5,000m level it momentarily cleared and we were blessed with some stunning views of the valleys way below and the glacier from up above.

Camp Alto is quite a grand name for a small stone building with open holes for windows and doors. I think all three of us found it bitterly cold at this altitude but Mik had it worst as being an Aussie he has barely even heard of minus conditions. Chewing altitude pills a plenty, the afternoon and evening were spent in thick sleeping bags stuffing ourselves with food, having stomach problems and trying to chill out before the final ascent. I think I had it best getting around three hours sleep, but Dave definitely had it worst with an ever worsening throat and chest infection. I have rarely seen someone sounding so bad but he was determined to soldier on.

THE FINAL ASCENT - At midnight we were woken and in the blistering cold (I believe about minus 7 at this point) took our time preparing for what lay ahead. Two sets of under thermals, two fleeces, thick socks, gloves, balaclava, beanie, hood, climbing boots, crampons, gloves, ice-axe, sun-cream, sunnies, vaseline (very important at cold high altitude), and full snowsuit were worn and readied.

It was pitch black outside when we set off at 1.15 am and it had been snowing all night. The day before none of the climbers had made it to the top. Large amounts of snow meant that the ascent was far more dangerous, as crevaces were hidden, and slower, which meant a higher risk of avalanches on the way back down as the day went on. This was not therefore good news. At other times of the year the snow can be quite thin, but right now it often went up to your knees or deeper - a long, hard trudge lay ahead.

We roped up together and began to climb the first steep ascent. Mik and I were attached to Miguel (the main guide) and Dave to Michael (the other much friendlier guide). This was all quite a surreal experience in the pitch black snowing conditions and only a small flashlight to guide your way. Up and over this first climb lay a long arduous section that varied from slight slope to steep slope and lasted several hours. It was a slow trudge step by step by step as we slowly made our way higher and higher. There were increasing amounts of crevaces as we went up from little hidden ones that your feet fall through to huge chasms I guess 100´s of feet deep. I found it best to ignore the potential consequences of these traps while obviously trying to avoid them. Miguel up front has the hardest job as he would have to test every step to choose a safe and easy as possible path for the rest of us. Even staying in his foot prints you often sunk deep in to the cold stuff and it drained your energy just that little bit more to wrench yourself up and continue.

After I guess about 3.5 hours we reached a steep ascent that sapped all the energy, just to be confronted at the top with one of the craziest craziest tasks I have ever attempted. Behind us was a breathtaking view of La Paz lit up miles and miles in the distance - really rather dream like. In front of us loomed a 30m high ice wall with a large chasm opening at its base. Only in one place did it truly get sheer but at around 80 degrees it was no joke. Our guide climbed up, stuck a few pegs in and waited at the top for us, bracing the rope. It now, as it did then, seems utterly crazy that only his brace was stopping us from falling into that chasm with just a small slip. Mik started climbing and I followed (as is the way when you are attached). It was a case of whacking your ice-axe in, hauling a leg up, kicking the crampon into the ice until semi-secure and then starting the whole process again with the other leg. At 5,700m this is knackering but we climbed (and here climbed is definitely an apt word) at a good pace while in my case trying to put out of my mind the reality of my situation - crazy.

After a necessary breather at the top we continued on, up and over a ridge. In the torchlight you could just make out a very steep slope a couple of feet to your right and a sheer cliff to your left - ah, this is what the travel agent was saying about needing good balance. Just the thought of the terrain to either side of you puts a shiver down your spine - what a thrill - I was beginning to understand why such activities are additive.

Despite the altitude and arduousness of the task, I was doing pretty well for the next hour or so until IT struck. At the bottom of the ridge with our first proper sight of the imposing summit came a sharp jab in my stomach. The next two hours were almost certainly the most physically painful and mentally tough of my life. During a long steep ascent the pains got worse and worse, spreading to both sides of my stomach. I am not sure exactly what it was, but my guess is a severe stitch caused by the altitude mixed with the aforementioned stomach problems. During the next long steep ascent, I spent most of the time with gritted teeth just wanting to crawl up into a ball. Every so often I had to stop and spend a few minutes bent double until the pain receded.

Eventually we reached 5,900m and had a good rest. The first rays of light were breaking over the scenary before us and we were treated to a simply magnificent vista of cloud and mountain stretching off into the distance. Below us another large crevace kept our wits close to the surface. I was too busy bent double trying to rehydrate to really appreciate this. Dave deserves more than a mention here for continuing in a condition in which he would have found it difficult to breath at sea level, let alone at a point approaching 6 km vertical. Mik was also doing well with words of encouragement and that incredibly cheeky grin occasionally showing itself despite the self-imposed hardship.

During the next hour or so to the foot of the final climb, I think I was in my worst state, having to stop every couple of minutes bend over my ice-axe and cringe. We transversed a particularly precarious steep slope with a rather intimidating crevace awaiting any who slipped. Then up, over and across a slowly ascending section with a few more hidden crevaces for added enjoyment.

And there we were, with only the stupidly steep 88m high final ascent to go. The smallest part of me was tempted to stay with a British guy who decided that 6,000m was sufficient and just enjoy the very special view. The rest of me has a tendency to be a stubborn, self competitive, slightly masochistic bugger and despite my stomach feeling like it was going to rip open there was zero option of stopping there. Part of what has drawn me to the other two is that they have the same sort of streak in them and hence we all set off sun-creamed up to the pico.

Dig the ice-axe in (long end), claw a foot up and shove it into the snow and ice, then again the axe and then other foot. A vertical 88m ascent may not sound like much but at that altitude, with deep snow, and about a 70 degree incline it is bloody tiring. Luckily the steepness worked to my advantage and lessened the pain - at any rate adrenaline surges were blanketing out other emotions. We climbed for about an hour avoiding a final crevace and then up to our final goal. The peak is a sight for sore eyes... it manages to remain just beyond your reach... a final stop just a few metres from the summit for a final clasp of breath and then... RELIEF.

It was an absolutely knackering 7 hour climb but we had done it!!! Looks of joy, exhaustion, but most of all that relief word again flashed across our faces. I can not fully describe the sensations, but one thing I am sure about is that we did not have enough time to take it all in. A full panoramic of monstrous mountains and cloud below you, and us - magnificent. A strange feeling of being in awe of the situation, what has just been done, but most fundamentally feeling privileged to perch on this wondrous colossus. Achievement but total INSIGNIFICANCE!

THE DESCENT - Miguel was becoming agitated at the avalanche risk. It was turning into a hot day and from about 10am the risk becomes all too significant, so he hurried us down from the peak. I found this section positively fun, jumping down backwards. The importance of the rope was illustrated with Mik taking a couple of unplanned slips. There was predictably another crevace at the bottom of this final slope to gobble down any who fall. Back down at 6,000m we took some time to take in the whole situation and I can genuinely say I was mentally as well as geographically on top of the world for the next hour or so of descent. The sun was shining strongly, lighting up scenery from a dream. I led the remnant of our way down to the ice cliff, past many a crevace . Mik was feeling similarly to me, despite some frustration at the guides own agitationvamos¨ rings round the head). Dave was increasingly struggling to breath, wheezing, coughing blood and at times not sounding far off from an asthma attack - not good at all.

The mountain and glacier broke through the mist and I was a taken aback by just how huge the chunk of rock looked. Clipped in, I was really getting into all this whole climbing thing on the way down the ice wall and made it to the bottom with no hazard. Mik was doing likewise until the final steepest part when he slipped.... and fell off the side towards the deep chasm. Only the clipped in rope and my brace stopped him hurtling into the darkness. On further reflection I have realised that the rope from above would probably have been sufficient to stop him from an unenviable fate and that it was really my own arse I saved with the brace. If my crampons had not been dug in, his momentum would have dragged me past him and deep into the crevace - not a nice thought but all part of the buzz I suppose.

Despite Dave not being able to speak, I believe we were all satisfied with our nights work and did not think too much of the couple of hours descent below us beyond the possibility of avalanches (Dave has been caught in two during skiing seasons and has a perfectly rationally heightened fear of the buggers). We were wrong. The next two hours drudging through the deep snow in the hot sun were not far from the hardest of the whole experience. Leading the way, I was increasingly just putting one foot in front of the other and stumbling forward. Adrenaline supplies were exhausted and it took every concentrational power I had to avoid the series of crevaces as we slowly, ever so slowly, made our way towards Camp Alto.

We all fell a few times. Once my leg went down and through into a hole that let us just say Mik could not see the bottom of. Dave for his pains soldiered to the last, but Michael had to literally pick him up a couple of times.

EXHAUSTED - There it was in all its glory - Camp Alto. At that moment I have to admit that little windblown shack looked better than the summit. Practically crawling up the final rocky hill, we all collapsed head first into our tent and ignored Miguel´s requests to pack up for the trek down to base. I know I can say for all of us that we were more physically exhausted after the 12 hour final climb then at any time we could recollect in our lives. Every muscle ached, lungs and eyes burned, stomach cramped and mentally done in. We lay there for a good hour darkly sniggering at the situation (I can not use the word laugh - we were too shattered to laugh), doing our best to convalesce. The prospect of two more hours scrambling down slippery rock faces with a heavy pack on the back frankly pissed me off. I would have paid a huge lump of money for teleportation device!

Awakened from our vegetation by some hot team, we scrambled around falling this way and that putting our stuff together. The final descent was tiring, but in truth not all that bad below the snowline. The situation was asking for a slip and a broken leg, but we got down in one piece. Eventually crossing the large dam we made it back to the bus that was waiting to bumble (buses in Bolivia generally do not and can not rush) us back to the relative comfort of La Paz.

So what did we do aching and bloodshot - we checked into the Hotel Rosario and spent the next 24 hours in bed sleeping and having a marathon movie session accompanied by Pizza and coca-cola. A suitable ending to one of the hardest things we have ever done. The human being is a funny old thing - when we crashed into those beds there was a solid agreement on never again - by the time we got up for New Years the idea of a 7,000m seemed strangely appealing!!!
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