After Ryan’s departure on Saturday morning Tim and I took the morning slowly, physically depleted after hiking for six hours the day before and then dancing for six more that night. Finally we made our way outside of the friendly confines of the hostel in the afternoon, strolling through the popular shopping street so Tim could load up on souvenirs and all the fashionable South American apparel. That evening Tim wanted to treat himself to a nice dinner for his last night in the country, so we took a cab out to Zona del Sur, La Paz’s posh upscale neighborhood. We indulged in a decadent traditional Bolivian meal, featuring multiple kinds of meat and even exploring our taste profiles with a delicious serving of calf tongue, all complemented by a bottle of Chilean Wine.
Then we set off on the hunt for the one thing the two of us do best on Saturdays: watch college football. We navigated our way to the Bolivian equivalent of Buffalo Wild Wings, featuring heaping portions of American food, overindulgent drink sizes, and dozens of flat screen TVs. Unfortunately ESPN Latin America had prioritized the US Open over the Wisconsin vs. Alabama Saturday night showdown, and our search for a dose of American football didn’t prove fruitful.
Intrigued by the upscale shopping mall adjacent to the restaurant, we started exploring the 5 story monstrosity, eventually happening across a bowling alley where Tim promptly kicked my butt on the lanes over a pitcher of beer. By the time I woke up the following morning he was already on a flight back to New York, ending our jaunt through South America.
It turned out to be incredibly lucky that he had such an early flight, because as soon as I stepped outside of the hostel on Sunday I realized something was different. It took me a minute to identify the missing piece: there wasn’t any traffic! Gone were the honking horns, the packed intersections, and the notorious bus attendants leaning out the window yelling their respective destinations. On this day they were replaced by children riding their bikes down the main avenues of the city, families playing games of pickup soccer in the streets, and street vendors hawking goods.
The celebration of the holiday brought a joyous feeling to the entire community of La Paz, interrupted only briefly as I witnessed a man getting violently arrested by no less than seven police officers. With the streets closed to cars it was impossible to get anywhere or do anything, making for an extremely relaxed vibe; I strolled the streets and took in the scene until things started getting shut down in the early evening.
Sunday evening my dutch amigas Stefje and Manon rolled into the Wild Rover, marking the 5th time our paths had crossed since originally meeting in Ecuador. That night the Wild Rover refused to allow the weekend to end, hosting a raucous party that we gleefully reveled in until late into the night.
On Monday the extensive 10 day trip finally caught up with my physical state and I was officially drained. However, after two full weeks living above 3500 meters at Lake Titicaca and in Bolivia, I had never been so well acclimatized in my life and made the decision to book a summit attempt to Huayna Potosi, an ominous peak that looms over the skyline of the city and dwarfs the rest of the surrounding Cordillera Real.
For the next two days I tried to physically prepare myself, sleeping well on Monday night and then trekking up to the Killi Killi Mirador the following day, where we were able to see the other side of La Paz. Skyscrapers dominated the view in front of us and dwarfed the rest of the town with its tiny brick buildings; in the background loomed the monstrous Illimani mountain, its peak covered in glistening white snow.
In the afternoon I got fitted up with my gear for the climb, then Wednesday morning I slept through my alarm three times before eventually reporting to the travel agency just after 9AM to initiate the 3 day trip to Potosi. Picturesque due to its wide base and steep summit ledge, Potosi has long inspired serious mountaineers and travelers alike. At 6088 meters, Potosi is one of the least technically challenging 6000 meter peaks in the world and due to its location in Bolivia is also one of the cheapest. My entire 3 day trip ran me just north of $1,000 Bolivianos, about $145 US Dollars.
At the tourist agency I met Rhio and Eli, an Estonian couple who have been exploiting Australia’s ridiculously high minimum wage to fund their travels for the last three years. The three of us would be attempting the summit together over the course of the next three days. We hopped into a van loaded up with all our gear and set off our of La Paz. Although the city is comparatively modern and certainly has its share of wealth, Bolivian infrastructure is undoubtedly skeptical: just twenty minutes into our drive we were already rolling over huge rocks on the dirt roads that curve through the hills just outside of the city center. Only a few minutes later the snow and glaciers of the mountain range came into view. Directly ahead of us lay the gorgeous Potosi and to our right was the imposing Illimani, a monolith in its own right at 6400 meters.
As we approached the mountain my pulse noticeably quickened. Maybe it was the 1000 meter elevation gain between the city and base camp, but as I was staring at the massive glacier adorning the mountaintop for the first time nerves started to hit me: was I really going to try and climb that? With my own two feet?
Eventually we rolled into the refugio, a bastion of warmth and comfort in the otherwise unforgiving surroundings. It was there that we were united with out guide, Gonzo, and served a hearty lunch to fuel us up for the afternoon’s activity: ice climbing. We pulled on an inordinate amount of layers and strapped up our ice boots for the trek to Potosi’s glacier, about an hour away. Along the way, we were greeted by the ridiculous colors of Pachamama, Mother Earth. Directly ahead of us lay the pristinely white snowpack of the mountain, glistening off the bright afternoon sun. To the left lay an oddly colored laguna, the perfectly clear water of glacier run off mixing in with sediment from the surrounding rocks.
On our right was a massive valley, digging almost 1000 meters down into the mountainside and partitioned by a river, its flow controlled by a massive hydroelectric dam that we walked across on our way towards the ice. Along the hike the entire time we were accompanied by the acoustics of a river roaring by us, fueled by glacier water headed towards the valley. Later, our guide would inform us that in just the last 13 years, they’ve had to retreat the ice climbing training by almost 100 years, as that area that was once a steep icy incline is now nothing but jagged rocks and a muddy stream.
Finally we arrived at the glacier and the three of us strapped on crampons for the first time in our lives. Kind of like tying 8 tiny knives to the bottom of your feet, the crampons made the slippery ice manageable. Soon we found that by kicking hard with each step we could dig out feet into the ice and miraculously walk pretty much straight uphill. Although our guide does it everyday and was understandably nonchalant, the experience of walking up a glacier on the side of a steep mountain was nothing short of exhilarating.
From there we moved on to the day’s main attraction: scaling sheer vertical cliffs of ice. We strapped in to ropes anchored precariously at the top of a slowly melting wall, grabbed a pair of ice axes, and started stabbing our way up the glacier one foot and one hand at a time. Aided by the leverage of having the axes secured into the wall, I actually found the experience much easier than rock climbing and quickly scaled my way to the top.
By 4pm that afternoon we were back at the refugio for a hot cup of tea, with strict orders to do nothing but eat, breath, and relax until the following day. That night we had an early dinner and then I learned some Estonian card games before eventually collapsing for a luxurious 10 hours of sleep. Thursday morning we stared out at the peak looming in front of us, tracing the path as far as we could and searching for climbers making their way towards the summit.
In the afternoon we strapped our packs full of all our gear, including boots, crampons, sleeping bags, and tons of apparel and set off for the high camp, a 500 meter elevation gain that took over two hours. Weighed down by more than 30 pounds, the climb was strenuous and sweaty in the midday heat. By the time the tiny shack perched just below the beginning of the endless ice field came into view, I was completely spent.
In order to reach the summit before the snow starts melting and becoming slippery in the sun, all climbers attempting the summit would wake up at midnight, meaning dinner was an early affair at 5pm. As I stepped outside to brush my teeth before turning in, I saw a beautiful layer of clouds had perched itself directly below our camp site.
Summit Attempt Live Blog
11:45pm - The wind whipping through the shelter wakes me up. Is this the earliest I’ve ever “woken up” in my life?
12:00am - Strap on gear, forget that I should go to the bathroom first, remove gear, go to bathroom, strap on all gear again.
12:30am - For approximately the 28th time in the last 30 days, breakfast consists of bread, butter, marmalade, coffee, and tea.
1:00am - All geared up, bag packed, and ready to go! Then my guide tells me to chill out and we won’t be leaving for another half hour because he’s concerned we’ll reach the summit before dawn. Commence stretching and breathing.
1:45am - Finally depart. We walk for just 2 minutes before having to strap crampons on and begin climbing up a steep icy incline. My guide straps me into a rope around my waist and starts walking, me lurching behind him like a dog on a leash. For the rest of the journey it will be straight ice.
1:50am - Nothing illuminates the night sky except our headlamps and thousands of stars, filling the black void with shimmering light.
2:00am - Thwack, crunch, breathe, thwack, crunch, breathe. There’s nothing to fill my ears except the sounds of crampons crushing snow and stabbing ice.
2:30am - At this point we’ve been steadily climbing uphill for 45 minutes and finally take a break to catch our breath and drink water. Ahead of me lies a chain of headlamps illuminating the glacier face, marking the way up and strung out in equidistant intervals like lampposts. Quickly I learn not to look up, as they indicate how much steeper the route will get. It’s much safer to just stare down at my own two feet and try to put one in front of the other.
3:00am - Arrival at Camp Argentina, elevation 5500 meters, a relatively flat stretch where hikers used to camp before the refugio was built. “Are we halfway?” I ask, as I pull off my pack and collapse into the snow. “HA!” my guide laughs in my face. “A quarter” he responds. Mentally, I begin bracing myself for the slog ahead.
3:15am - Self talk begins: “Matt, did you know you are doing this voluntarily?”
3:20am - In front of me I stupidly look up and see that the headlamps in front of me have started gaining elevation rapidly. We approach a resting point where others are drinking water and eating chocolate. Knowing that my legs will tense up if I stop before the steep incline, I tell my guide to push on.
3:25am - We begin the first of three steep, demanding climbs. The path is so thin and straight uphill that we have to position our feet side by side, “French stepping” one over the other. To my right, the path rapidly disintegrates into a dangerous slope. To my left lies a drop-off so severe that I need to on look at it once before scaring myself straight. Later, I will learn that this ridge in front of me turned back no less than 5 fellow climbers that morning.
3:30am - My decision to go in front of the pack has backfired badly. Every time I lean forward onto my ice ax to breath I can see the rest of them following me and my guide tells me to pick up the pace. My lungs are heaving, my heart rate rising rapidly, and my feet feel like bricks.
3:35am - Next time I am out partying until 3 o’clock in the morning I will remember that at the same exact time, some idiot is trying to climb this same steep ridge.
3:50am - “Why am I doing this?”
4:05am - After 45 minutes straight uphill, we reach a resting point. I collapse into a heap and my guide lies down as well, me breathing heavily and him looking like he hasn’t even started exerting himself yet. In our entire 6 hour journey, he will refuse to eat or drink anything the entire time. “Now we’re halfway” he says.
4:08am - I remove my gloves to eat a snack and quickly realize that I’m losing feeling in my hands. I pull my gloves back on and bunch my fingers into a fist, but it’s already too late. It will be 20 minutes before feeling returns.
4:15am - Under the light of the stars I can see the peak of the mountain right in front of me. Somehow, it looks farther away than it did yesterday morning.
4:25am - The main pack of about 30 climbers approaches a flatter section, enabling everyone to see each other, but the silence is still eery. From the front a French guy who is bringing a Pineapple to the summit (“It has an Instagram”, he informs me later, as if that explains everything) howls like a wolf. For the next 5 minutes the glacial valley is filled with the reverberations of howling and cackling, guides and climbers alike joining in on the fun.
4:35am - We approach another steep hill. At this point I’ve conceded that my body has already decided it wants to quit and the last 400 meters of elevation gain will be entirely mental. With a glint in my eye I tell the guide to pass the others and push on, putting one foot in front of the other and focusing on breathing as deeply as I can in the thin air. As we make the passes fraternal words of encouragement pass down the line, as I exchange fist bumps with others bound for the top.
4:40am - Did you know that the best way to get out of your own head and push yourself up a mountain is to sing to yourself? Snippets and choruses of Pharrell, Disclosure, Passion Pit, and The Grateful Dead pass through my lips, wasting precious breath but keeping my spirit buoyed.
4:45am - We continue passing other climbers and guides until just 2 groups are leading the way far in front of us. The path takes a sharp tick uphill and we come to the second of three notoriously difficult climbs. This time I lean on my ice ax all the way to the top, willing myself to believe that the end is within reach. (It’s not)
5:00am - The steady pace continues on, but the altitude has clearly begun to take a toll on my body. My stomach starts clenching up and after drinking or eating just a few bites nausea sets in, my body rejecting the environment and clearly telling me to turn around. I refuse to oblige.
5:20am - Arrival at the last resting point. In order to see the top I have to crane my neck almost directly upwards, past a long trail of switchbacks built into the steep mountainside. It’s almost 200 meters of straight vertical incline to the summit.
5:25am - No one said it was going to be easy, but I definitely didn’t think it would be this hard!
5:30am - OCD takes over and I start counting my steps aloud, pausing after every 10 and taking a long break after every 50. The going is so steep that at times I use my hands and ice ax, crawling in front of me and gripping into the side of the ice with my crampons.
5:40am - There’s officially nothing left in the tank. These last 200 meters are going to have to be pure willpower.
5:50am - On one of the last zig zags, I pass a Japanese man who must be over the age of 60. He’s miraculously close to the summit but I can see he’s running out of steam and doubled over on his hiking poles, so I give him a vigorous shake in the shoulders, clap him on the back and yell some encouragement.
6:01am - SUMMIT! LA CUMBRE! GLORIOUS VICTORY! For the last two hours I had completely forgotten where I was and what I was doing, but now I remember. After seeing nothing but pitch dark blackness, headlamps, and ice for the entire climb, the first rays of red and yellow sunlight begin to peak over the horizon. My ascent was timed perfectly and the sun starts to illuminate a ridiculous panorama. Even though we started out as the second to last group, I am the second to reach the summit.
On the other side of the mountain there’s nothing but a straight vertical pitch, accessible only if it was a double black diamond on a ski slope. Beyond the mountain the first rays of light hit Lake Titicaca, a monstrosity visible in the distance. Straight ahead lies the beautiful white and black peaks of the entire Cordillera Real, stretching as far as I can see. To my right the rest of the hikers slowly make their way up with the sunrise in the background, but to my left lies the sprawling expanse of La Paz, the only other thing illuminated.
6:15am - After posing for pictures and exchanging high fives with everyone in sight, we immediately set off on the descent, shouting encouragement at others as they pass, their eyes bleary with fatigue.
6:25am - The sun’s orb appears above a sea of clouds that’s been obscuring us, blinding us with light and turning the snow into a dangerously reflective surface.
6:40am - On the way down, the amazing glacier formations that we were passing all day are suddenly illuminated and the views are downright ridiculous. Everywhere I turn there’s another gorgeous outcropping our icy overhang, gleaming white in the morning light.
6:55am - Wait, you mean I jumped over that?
7:15am - The descent is starting to make me really woozy. The combination of the elevation and lack of sleep combined with the adrenaline fading after the summit has started to take its toll, and I start swaying from side to side out of balance on the path.
7:40am - I’m utterly out of gas. My feet are sore, my legs are wobbly, my stomach hurts, and my head is pounding from the elevation change. I pass out in the snow for a few minutes, trying to get my bearings.
7:55am - Return to basecamp. Commence consumption of copious amounts of coca tea. Climbers begin trickling back into camp over the rest of the morning, and I learned that of the six guys in my dorm room, only two of us made it to the top
By 1pm that afternoon I was back in La Paz and that night a group of fellow climbers (and the pineapple! @thepineappaul) united at the Wild Rover bar to talk about our experience and warn others of how difficult it really was. We all agreed that climbing through the snow through the dead of night was an amazing experience that made us feel truly adventurous and alive, but none of us could admit we’d be willing to do it again, at least not yet. For the time being I’m just happy to get some rest and recover from the arduous trip.