Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crissy VS. Mount Huayna Potosi, Day 1

            "THE EASIEST WAY TO SUMMIT A 6000 M PEAK!!", read the travel agent´s brochure. That was enough for me, it said easy!! I´d climbed a mountain before...and by climbed I mean walked up... to an altitude of 3128 meters in South Africa. Someone should have told me that "easiest way to climb a 6000m peak" and "easy" were not even close to the same thing.

A Sweedish boy named Nikolas convinced me to do it. We bonded over the survival of Death Road, and he told me about his plans to climb Mount Huayna Potosi over lunch. He asked me what I was doing for the next few days, and I told him I had some Spanish lessons planned, but that was it. He invited me to join him, and with my lack of fondness for the Spanish lessons, I gave it a thought. But I wasn´t sure...could I climb a 6088 meter mountain?? Then he said that line that gets me everytime, ¨well what have you got to lose?¨". I signed up at the travel desk after giving the brochure just a quick glance. Tomorrow I was off to conqure a mountain.

Of course from the begining, I had my doubts. I had arrived in La Paz, Bolivia just a few days before and was not entirely acclimatized to the 3700 m altitude. The travel desk reccomments that you should be in Bolivia for about 7 - 10 days before making the climb. I asked if it was hard, and of course the travel agent slash sales person said no, it was easy and it is the cold that gets most people. Well, being Canadian, and a Winnipegger at that, I told her that -15 C is not really that cold. She said I should have no problem then. I wish I had gotten those words on paper. I guess it also slipped my mind at the time, that I am pretty fat and out of shape right now. Even the hills in the city of La Paz were making me huff and puff. Well, too late, I was off to climb a mountain!!

We drove a rugged, twisty path up to base camp. The altitude here was 4700m. Already, I could feel my breath bcome heavier, just standing still. We ate some lunch, met the other climbers, a German girl, a skinny Brazillian boy, an annoyingly talkative Swiss boy, a couple of Belguim guys who looked like mountaineers, and then Nikolas, the Swede who had convinced me to be here, and me, a fat Canadian girl who hadn´t even seen a mountain until a few years ago. We certainly made an eccentric bunch!

We were shuffled into a little garage area. The guide began to unload his bag, pulling out snow suits, facemasks and elbow length mittens. Next he started pulling out the hard core mountaineering gear. Ropes, harnesses, headlamps, crash helmets, crampons and ice axes. This was my first clue I was in a little over my head. What was I going to need an ice axe for?? I still thought we were just going to be walking up a mountain and that it might be cold.

I was fitted with ski pants, a heavy jacket, a full body harness, a ski mask, plastic mountain boots and had my ice axe in hand. My crampons (metal foot spike things, like cleats on steroids), helment, rope and water were in my backpack, and we were off for some "practice".

Right from the get go, I didn´t know if I was going to make it. The thin, less oxegenated air and  my body loaded with gear, I was gasping for air after just a few steps. On the first gentle incline, my breath was taken away like I had just gotten hit in the stomach with a soccer ball. The huge, snowcapped peak of Huayna Potosi loomed in the background, taunting me. Over loose rocky paths, through streams of fresh mountain water and up steep inclines, we made our way to the glacier part where we were going to learn how to use all of this mountain gear. The whole way there, I was gasping for breath and moving at a snails pace. And this was just practice!! It crossed my mind to quit right there. If I was struggling this much on a practice 1 hour hike, how was I ever going to do the 5 - 8 hours on summit day? But, I am not a quitter. The best things in life are not achieved without a struggle. As long as I could keep putting one foot in front of the other, I was going to keep going.

Finally, we made it to the glacier. It was actually kind of fun to use the cramptons and the ice axe. We got to scale an almost 180 slope, digging our feet in the snow, and hacking into the glacier with the axe. I actually liked to use the ice axe, hacking into the snow and pulling my body upwards. Coming down was hard, and involved a set of muscles that are not commonly used in every day life. My legs and core burned, and one false step or one not so great grip, and you would go sliding down the glacier. I was glad when practice was over, and the hike back to base camp was not as hard as the hike up there. Only 2 hours, and I was exhausted!! That night we slept at base camp. Often throughout the night, I awoke in a panic, gasping for breath. I had to sit up and take a few deep breaths before falling back into a restless sleep. My lungs had still not adapted to the lack of oxygen in the air. The next day, we were climbing to high camp, at 5300 m. It was going to be a 5 hour hike. I needed a good sleep!

Up next, day 2 of Crissy VS. Mount Huayna Potosi; the climb to high camp


  1. Good Luck on the rest of your mountain trek !!!! It sounds so tottaly awesome and I bet the scenery is out of this world !!!

  2. I was holding my breath as I read. Can't wait for more!!!