A couple days later I showed up at the office at 9 AM. Luckily, they provided me with most of the gear I needed, including ice axe and crampons. All told, the three-day venture only cost $150. After a brief delay while I ran out to get a scarf – the office manager assured me I did would be okay without it, though I decided differently – I met the guide, Felix, and we piled into a van, where a young Scot and Polish pair were already ensconced. We drove to a storehouse, where we collected and fitted our gear, and then we were off in earnest, climbing up, up, and finally over the lip of the canyon to El Alto. Beyond its outskirts, we bounced across the altiplano towards Huayna Potosi, an imposing pyramid of white. When we stopped to take a couple pictures of the mountain and a lake in the foreground, the wind was steady and brisk.
We stopped at a pass between Huayna Potosi and another mountain. Just beyond the high point was a dam, behind which had pooled a lake with the distinctive light-blue tint of glacial sediment, or glacial milk, as it is sometimes called. At the lake’s edge was our first refugio, a cold, lonely building that nonetheless contained a friendly cook who provided us with some hot meals, as well as a relatively comfortable array of bunkbeds.
That afternoon, Felix, David, and Jacob, my Scottish and Polish companions, hiked up to a nearby glacier to practice our technique on the ice. Felix rigged up a belay secured by an ice screw, and we clawed our way up some short, steep pitches of ice, then rappelled down. It was great fun, but it did make me a little nervous about the terrain on the actual mountain. Felix, however, assured us that there would be no technical climbing.
Felix was nowhere to be found in the morning. I wasn’t sure where he’d gone until the cook informed me that he had climbed up to the second refuge, halfway to the summit, after dinner the previous evening. Evidently, he was accompanying other clients to the peak in the wee hours.
After lunch, Felix and the people who made the ascent in the early morning began to trickle down to our refuge, all of them worn out. Only a few had made the summit, some with the assistance of various remedies for the altitude, including, in one case, dexamethasone. Felix was tired but clearly used to the grind. At two, we started up.
Most of the afternoon was simply steady ascent up through fields of rock. It wasn’t particularly interesting hiking, but it was good to be on our way. We were in clouds most of the time, and I began to observe differences in the other two climbers. David, the Scot, was inexperienced but very strong, while Jacob moved more slowly, often coughing. Neither spoke any Spanish, nor did they make much effort to communicate with the guide. I became the de facto translator. Felix moved slowly, effortlessly, not wasting any energy. We were joined by a second guide, Luis, who, like Felix, was short and compact.
Along the way, we came upon a hut made entirely of stone but lacking a roof. Inside of it sat two Aymara women, who collected our fee of 10 bolivianos, as this was the entrance to the National Park. They were quite pleasant and up for a brief chat, but when I asked to take their picture, they declined. David persisted, and they turned away from the lens as he snapped the photo.
At the top of a particularly steep pitch, we came upon the first of the refugios halfway up the mountain. This one was open to the public, but we didn’t stay for long, as we wanted to reach our own, about 100 meters higher up vertically (perhaps half a mile further). At this point, we put on our crampons and got our ice axes out, and we began hiking up a snowfield behind the refugio. At this point, as the fog rolled in, Jacob really started to slow down, feeling the altitude and dismayed that we couldn’t see our destination.
Sleep was elusive. I felt my headache acutely, and the other two, who had been arguing about not feeling the altitude, clearly were susceptible, especially Jacob. I barely slept and tried to decide whether or not to continue on in the morning (or rather, night, as Felix had informed us that we would be waking up at one AM).
It seemed to take ages to reach one o’clock, but evidently I did fall asleep briefly, because my headache had subsided considerably by the time the alarm finally went off. In fact, I felt pretty good, except that I couldn’t keep down a bit of bread I ate with my tea. However, I forced myself to swallow some more, and soon it was time to head off. To my relief, Jacob announced he did not feel up to continuing.
Without Jacob, David and I could each rope up with one guide. I was very pleased to get Felix, with whom I had developed a rapport. As we started up, it was extremely dark—we even lacked starlight, which couldn’t penetrate through the clouds. The two pairs hiked close to each other, headlamps all on. I found it very difficult lacking a sense of how far we needed to travel. I only knew that we had about 700 meters of vertical ascent remaining.
We were on glacier now, and from time to time, Felix would point out crevasses to the right or left. Some were small, while others gaped. One was named “the hotel.” The hiking wasn’t particularly interesting, just plodding along our route, known as the “auto-pista” due to its well-traveled, wide treadway. Below us, we could see a few lights from climbers who had started from the other refugio. Every now and then we would stop for a bit of water and banter. I ate a Snickers bar or two and hoped the tube of my Camelpak wouldn’t freeze (it did, eventually, much to my chagrin, but I at least had a wide-necked Nalgene).
The clouds did eventually clear, and I began to get a sense of the large ridges around us. After a couple hours, I began to tire. My steps were harder, and I took longer breaks. Felix, however, seemed not to feel the altitude at all. I never saw him eat or drink anything during the climb save for coca leaves. Luis had a sip of my water, and that was all. I, in contrast, was constantly thirsty.
Step, step, step, step, rest… This became my rhythm toward the very top. The wind picked up, stinging my face. I had all my clothing on, and we took shelter twice in small dugouts next to the trail. Other climbers caught up and rested with us. The snow, which was soft lower down, became hard, and then shaped in nieves penitentes – formations that look a bit like people at prayer. They are a foot or so high and covered entire slopes.
Then Felix told me we were just below the summit. We climbed a final, steeper pitch, and then to my surprise, we stood atop a knife edge (the Polish Ridge, named for someone who fell off of it). There were serious drops on both sides, not quite vertical, but in the realm of 60-70 degrees. One side, I believe, was Huayna Potosi’s south face, which is a couple of thousand feet long. A small path ran to the official summit, a couple hundred yards away. Several other climbers and their guides were pushing past me to move toward the summit. At this point, I decided I had gone far enough, much to Felix’s disappointment. However, he obeyed my request to stop, and I sat, panting, soaking in the altitude and the sense of the void next to me. It was still dark, but the eastern sky was just beginning to lighten.
Soon, we descended off the ridge and into a bit of shelter, where we rested again. The sun came up, illuminating a cottony landscape of clouds and glacier. A few peaks poked up above the undercast. Then we started down, much more quickly. It was amazing to observe the difference between the effort it took to go up and the ease with which my momentum carried me down.
I didn’t stop to take many pictures; I was thirsty and didn’t want to delay. Now that the landscape was lit, I could take in the glacier and its crevasses in all their detail. It was beautiful, but the light was bright, even with glacier goggles, and I only wanted to get somewhere where I could drink as much water as I could hold.
It only took a bit more than an hour to descend what had taken us four and a half hours to climb up. By the time we reached the refugio, the clouds were lifting and the sun was shining with its full power. The sunlight gave me new energy, and it helped when Felix brewed up a pot of tea. I can’t ever remember being so thirsty, and the liquid going down my throat was an indescribable relief.
I scampered down behind Luis and, as we moved on ahead, got to know him a bit better. It was amazing how quickly we covered ground that had taken us three or four times as long to climb the day before. When we reached the refuge, fatigue finally hit me. I didn’t want to eat anything solid, turned down a steak proffered by the cook, and just lay around after eating a bowl of soup. A minivan arrived at noon, dropping off a new batch of climbers, full of eager energy. I said a warm goodbye to Felix and assuaged his evident worry that I would go off without tipping him (apparently, this was why he had pushed to complete the final hundred yards up top). I was back in La Paz by mid-afternoon, awash in the bustle of the city, while my mind still basked in an alpine glow.