Posted by: Andy | August 17, 2015

Huayna Potosi – My Mt Everest

Last April, I was sitting in the airport at Uruguay waiting for a flight to Bolivia. I started talking to another traveller who reminded me of myself, albeit about a decade younger version. Tom was a climber, skier, adventurer and now sailor having just stepped off a tall ship in Argentina. We were both heading to Bolivia and conversation quickly turned to attempting to climb Huayna Potosi ‘The easiest 6000m peak in the World”.

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Huayna Potosi – 6088m

Prior to this, my highest peak was probably the mighty Ben Nevis in Scotland which towers above all surrounding mountains, by a few metres, and is a whopping 1344m tall.

Despite Huayna Potosi being bigger in meters than Ben Nevis is in feet ( 6088m Vs 4409feet) they are both mountains and require the same approach. You start at the bottom and you finish at the top. Then you take a photo, turn around and retrace your steps to the car, via the pub for essential rehydration.

I was on a tight schedule, which is not ideal for trying to acclimatise. However, with great determination, (stubbornness and coca leaves) one can achieve almost anything. The international airport is at 4061m and the city itself is 3600m. Having been at sea level a few hours before, and having had no sleep due to overnight flights, we weren’t feeling overly fresh. However, we did manage to find a guide and worked out a plan.

Our acclimatization day was very lazy, it involved driving to Chacaltaya ski resort at 5200m and then hiking to the summit at 5421m. Due to climate change (which obviously doesn’t exist) there isn’t enough snow to ski anymore. When thinking of 5000m peaks, normally the image is of fairly extreme mountaineering. Not so much in Bolivia. Chacaltaya must be the easiest 5000m peak in the World. Here, the order of the day isn’t winter boots, crampons and axes, more trainers and possibly a hat. Despite this, the air is still thin and you must stop regularly to catch your breath. Surely, another 1000m vertical couldn’t be much harder?

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Chacaltaya Ski Resort

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Climbing the ridge to the summit of Chacaltaya, my first 5000m peak

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Highest ski tow in the World

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Huayna Potosi – looks easy!

Back at the low altitudes of La Paz, we stocked up on essentials; coca leaves, coca tea and altitude medication.

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Buying coca leaves (Photo curtest of Thomas Bradshaw-Dickson)

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Mountain essentials – high quality nutrition, caffeine and coca leaves

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Coca leaves, coca tea and altitude medication

The following morning was day one of the adventure. From our relatively luxury lodge we trekked up to a glacier to practice winter climbing techniques. This was when I first started to feel the effects of altitude. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our day and walked back for a night of ‘sleep’ (many of us couldn’t sleep due to the height).

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navigation in Bolivian mountains is easy, just follow the road signs

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Our first nights accommodation

We all know that oxygen is required to function. As you gain height, the air is less dense so the relative oxygen content decreases. Below is a table of relative oxygen content for various altitudes. At 6100m we were operating on 9.7% oxygen which is less than half what is found at sea level. Major effects of altitude include; headaches, insomnia and loss of appetite. These are gentle tell tale signs that the body is not happy, in extreme cases death occurs, but only if you have ignored the signs and not reduced altitude and sought oxygen.

Start of the hike

Start of the hike

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Oxygen Vs altitude table ( borrowed from http://www.higherpeak.com )

Day two involved walking from the lodge to the high altitude hut. I really struggled. There was nothing to do once at the hut so I took it slowly to save energy for the summit push. Completely exhausted, I arrived at our uber luxury dwelling at 5500m. The plan was to eat as much food as possible and then get an early night before the summit attempt. Eating was a major challenge. This is not so good since you then have less energy when you need it most.

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Our high altitude hut for a few hours “sleep” before the summit attempt (Photo curtesy of Thomas Bradshaw-Dickin)

Whilst evading sleep, I stared at the inside of my eyelids and enjoyed another headache. The summit push involves walking across a large snowfield on a relatively steep gradient. It is essential to cross this (on the way up and down) before the sun gets too high. Once the sun is high the snowpack is a lot more avalanche prone.

Putting my headache to the side, I got out of my sleeping bag, got dressed properly and set off with my guide and climbing partner, Tom, at 1am. Crossing the snowfield in the dark was a great experience. We made progress under a starlit sky. Other than the crunch of our boots through the snow and the noise of me struggling to breath, there wasn’t a sound to be heard.

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The start of the summit push

My progress up the mountain was painfully slow. After a while, my footsteps became shorter than my feet and I spent longer catching my breath than walking. However, slowly and surely, the summit got closer. Group after group passed us until one of our own groups passed. Another member was struggling so he swapped with Tom and we continued our slow advance.

The very final push involved climbing up a steep snow and ice face before walking along a very narrow ridge with lethal drops on either side. My guide kept asking if I was ok. Of course I was ok, I had my secret weapon with me, my home made coca/energy juice. A whole bag of coca leaves mixed with coca tea and juice crystals. One small sip and your mouth went numb. One large sip and your entire face went numb. Working along the ridge was tediously slow and involved a splitting headache. I didn’t tell the guide that the rope had turned into a snake (sleep deprivation, altitude and coca do funny things to you!).

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Just add hot water, juice crystals and brace yourself for a numb face!

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The final approach to the summit, we had to wait for the existing climbers to leave the small peak, I can just about being seen slumped in a “power nap” (Photo curtest of Kathryn the Aussie)

Eventually, we made it to the summit of my first 6000m peak. Just as we arrived, the sun rose over the horizon and we were rewarded by the most magnificent views over Laka Titicaca in Peru. Our summit photo shows myself and Meint sitting since we didn’t have the energy to stand.

Summit shot on top of Huayna Potasi, 6088m, in Bolivia, you can see the shadow of the mountain over lake Titicaca in Peru

Summit shot on top of Huyani Potasi, 6088m, in Bolivia, you can see the shadow of the mountain over lake Titicaca in Peru

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Above the clouds at sunrise – always a magical experience

I wont bore you all with the details of our descent but what goes up must go down.

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Team line up after we had all successfully summited

The climb was an experience I will never forget. Quite how people climb Everest is beyond me. Earlier on this year I was out in Nepal and made it to the top of a 5800m peak. This time, having acclimatised properly, it wasn’t too bad.

To date, climbing Huayna Potosi is the hardest physical challenge I have ever done. I would recommend it to all seeking adventure, but please, don’t be as silly as me and acclimatise properly!


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