Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Mount Huayna Potosi, La Paz: Attempting a 6000m mountain

Situated about 25km north of La Paz is Huayna Potosi, a 6088m mountain in the Cordillera Real, one of the more popular options to try and scale a 6000m plus mountain. There are plenty of tour agencies in La Paz that offer trips to the summit: three day/two night and two day /one night summit assaults. My choice was to end up being my downfall.

I went for the shorter option, purely because I thought I could handle the altitude and manage it in a shorter time. La Paz is some 3600m above sea level so I am already slightly acclimatised but you really need to do the three day tour as it gives you an extra day to acclimatise at 5200m. Should have known this, wasn't thinking straight though, probably the altitude.

Once you are picked up at the hostel you are driven up to the El Alto area toward the mountain where you are dropped off at around 4800m. This stage of the trek requires you to carry your pack with all the necessary cold weather gear that will be required for the second stage. After crossing a river the trail angles towards the face of the mountain and after paying a 10 Boliviano entry fee the final hour or so is a steep assault up the rock face and scrambling over lose rocks. Once this section is over, you have reached the upper base camp at 5130m where a hot meal and rest is to be had.

Getting up at midnight to start the assault of the peak is not my idea of fun, having been sent to bed at 5pm you have seven hours of rest after dinner. The problem here is I couldn't sleep, when was the last time you went to bed at 5pm? Therefore, after squirming around in the dark, cold attic with 20 other people, we were up and getting ourselves suited and booted. Temperatures get as low as -15 around the top so it was important to dress appropriately, this included the following: two pairs of socks, snow/walking boots, crampons, thermals, trekking pants, plenty of upper body layers, cold weather pants and jacket, hat, scarf, helmet and ice axe. Quite the load.

As soon as you walk out of the building you realise that all the gear you have on is not overkill and that you'll need every last stitch of clothing you have as it is only going to get colder the higher you get. Although I hadn't slept and breakfast was a measly portion of bread and jam, I felt pretty good and thought I had a good chance of reaching the top. With a success rate of 60%, I was hoping I was capable of getting there.

Once the crampons are on, it is pretty much straight uphill with the gradient never letting up, not a bit of level ground to catch your breath at all. People are paired up with a guide and roped together in case someone falls. Groups are never more than three as it is only possible to fit three on the very peak of the mountain, small groups also ensures a higher safety rate, or so I assume.

Pretty soon after starting I realised this was going to be difficult, who was I kidding. I have one sober evening in three months and think I am prepared for a 6000m mountain, not the most prudent planning. By the time my group reached 5400m, I was seriously struggling to breathe and my body was not moving very fast, it wasn't long before my partner transferred to a less infirm group. I refused to give up though, and carried on until the hardest part which is basically a section that has a ridiculous 60 degree angle (the guide said 45 but I refuse to believe that for one second so I will happily exaggerate). I was literally hyperventilating and putting every last bit of strength into every attempt at getting my axe into the ice wall, it may have been only a hundred metres or so of ice but without a doubt the most difficult physical thing I can ever remember doing.

As soon as you crest this section the wind hits you, a repetitive wet slap in the face as by this stage there is hail coming in at the most obnoxious angle and your body is just been buffeted by the wind as you are out in the open. I knew I was on my last legs by this stage but refused to quit mentally, however, it wasn't long til my body had had enough and I literally sank to my knees and braced myself with the axe at 5725m. All this time my guide had been giving me words of encouragement and never once suggested turning around, a real trouper, but I bet he was only more than relieved when I said I had to turn back.

Getting back was just as difficult as getting to where my body capitulated, don't let that downhill gradient fool you. First of all, I had to navigate that 60, maybe even 70 degree section again, only this time I couldn't see anything below me which was a bit scary considering I was completely void of all energy. Next came the slow slog down the mountain face which was excruciatingly slow as I had to slop every couple steps just to get my breath back, I really couldn't breathe at all by this stage.

By the time I reached the bottom, even taking my crampons off left me close to fainting, all I wanted to do was pass out somewhere and catch my breath.. However, once inside the base camp, a cup of coca tea and a hot bowl of soup restored some pallor to my cheeks and by the time other people stumbled in I could almost string a sentence together without pausing for breath, thankfully I wasn't the only one who didn't make it, but hats off to those who did.

In hindsight, the two day/one night trip was always a bad idea as it really didn't leave me with enough time to acclimatise and I should have known this considering last year I fell apart at 4900m in India. The smart money would be on doing the three day/two night hike instead. This allows your body time to recover from the initial walk up to base camp and additional time to get  your body used to the increased elevation. This is one of the easier 6000m mountain's to summit, and with a bit more cop on I feel I could have been successful, unfortunately not this time round. Perhaps next time.