Huayna Potosi Summit, BoliviaJune 27, 2017 in Bolivia
The hardest night of my life.
I got three hours sleep, which was good going given the altitude and the cold and the blustery wind which threatened to rip the lid right off the hut. I also needed to pee from all the tea and there was no way in hell I was getting out of my sleeping bag and going outside to do so.
Eventually the light came on and we crawled out of bed and began the gear up process. We again struggled to get much fuel on board; two pieces of cake and a tea were all I could stomach at this hour and I think I was leading the charge. Not a good start.
It felt like forever to gear up at this time in the morning and we didn't end up leaving until after 1am for the summit attempt. (The early start of course, to beat the heat of the sun to the precarious snow on the summit.) We left the hut in the snow and frosty temperatures, lashed together, two people per guide.
The stars were incredible! As were the distant city lights of El Alto. The cold was kept at bay with three layers on the legs, four on top and two pairs of gloves and the pace was slow enough for me to actually enjoy the start. Cat however, was battling. She was already into a really heavy pant and struggling to keep her feet going.
About two hours in, the altitude was beginning to take it's toll. I lost my enjoyment and began to feel the work. Cat was periodically stumbling out of line and the Frenchman Guilleme collapsed on the snow beside us unable to continue. He descended with the guide and we adopted Ana, who appeared to be in a similar state to Cat. Shortly after I left the girls team and lashed myself to the other two boys and Mario, our guide. Lennart was in good shape but Luiz was on struggle street, big time. The whole affair had begun to look like a disaster.
The boys set a slightly faster pace than the girls and began to develop a small lead. 'Faster' is a misleading description in this case. A toddler could have crawled faster. Our feet weren't breaking overlap and at one point I estimated my step length to be about two inches. We had nine hundred metres to ascend before light and I physically couldn't see how this would be achieved at a pace so slow it would have made a three legged turtle walking backwards look like a blur.
About four hours in I started feeling really bad. I had barely eaten or drank and the night had got so cold it was difficult to rest even for a moment without being uncomfortably cold. I felt like vomiting and my legs and back felt weak so I asked Mario for a stop. Then my nose started gushing blood. It was horrible. Luiz too was in a bad place, barely able to take his backpack off for water and panting so hard I was beginning to think he might blow a lung. The fufu valve was well and truely blown. It would only take one of us to quit and we would all have to follow.
With still about two hours of the steepest climbing left, we needed to switch on. I donned my last layer (puffer jacket - thanks mum), forced down water, chocolate and nuts and as if by magic, some hot coca tea from Mario's backback. It changed all of our moods. I'm not sure if it was the magic trick, the tea or just the warmth but we were new men. My energy returned and although I still felt sick and my nose was still bleeding, we were back.
At least temporarily. Luiz was pushing himself way beyond what he should have. We were breaking every 15 or 20 minutes for him to catch his breath which was beneficial for all of us to keep the symptoms at bay.
The top would never come. Walking in the circle of a spotlight for six hours was beginning to drive us crazy, but then, finally, there was light. Daylight. A glorious flaming orange sky preluded the sun and gave us a glimpse of the top. It was close.
We regrouped at the base of the summit. It was steep (read: ice climbing) and looked like a knife edge in cross section. Mario, clearly worried about our abilities in technical terrain given our physical status, busted out the coca tea one last time.
It worked. Or it was adrenaline. But we hauled ourselves and Luiz (who looked like he was about to die - "estoy muriendo" he kept saying) up the ice face and onto the knife edge. All that remained was a hundred or so metres along a precarious ice edge. But Luiz was spent. We needed 15 minutes to reach to summit and we had 15 minutes before the sun. Mario fixed us to the ice and we broke. We watched the sun rise from the ridge just metres from the summit. It didn't matter. It was glorious. So good that Luiz got back up and proceeded to stagger along the ridge at everybody's concern. It was barely a foot wide with a sheer drop each side.
Finally we cleared the danger, staggered up the last slope to the summit and all collapsed. Mario fixed us to the snow and we celebrated with a half arsed high five and lie down. At that time, it was undoubtedly the hardest six hours of my life. I still felt sick, my energy was drained, I couldn't stop puffing and my digits were well and truely numb but my blood nose had finally stopped so I focused on that. We'd done it.
Meanwhile, Cat and Ana were still some 200-300m in altitude behind. Their pace had slowed to the point their guide had said he couldn't physically go any slower and they were similarly absolutely spent. Both girls taking turns to collapse in a puffing fit, to give the other a break. The 200m was about two hours climbing which would have put them in danger of unstable snow, even if they could summon the energy to ascend it. Their sunrise was equally as brilliant from the less precarious slopes just below the summit. Both of them were equally as gutted and relieved to be heading down as each other - at long last. Given the state I left Cat in, I was amazed at the effort she put in and especially that she never gave up. Well done!
Our stop at the top was brief. The view was spectacular and the sun was warm so spirits were lifted. Our photos are an absolute hash because we were tied to the snow, had frozen fingers and had the mental awareness of a rag. Plus Mario was keen to get us down quick smart to avoid any unnecessary risk. We axed our way back to the base of the summit with some pretty awful coordination. Luiz collapsed, he'd been running on empty for a while and the thought of the descent (which we could now see disappearing into the gullies) was too much. We got about as close as you get to dragging him down, breaking all the time despite the apparent infinite ease of descending. There was one reverse climb remaining and I honestly thought he would give up when he got into a tricky situation on that section. Lennart (who never really showed any sign of struggle) and I were doing our best to help him but as you can imagine by now it was all too much.
We finally made high camp some three hours later (I think) and collapsed on the rocks at the front door. We'd been the worst off of the five or so groups who made the summit and it showed. A smidge more experience, fitness and acclimatisation might have made that an enjoyable experience but we were just satisfied with the result. Glad too, to see the rest of the group and hear their stories. All that remained now was the hour and a half descent to base camp. We had soup, packed our backs and quietly descended - all under pack except Luiz who paid the guide to carry his bag. Lennart and I are both indebted to him for unselfishly continuing way beyond his ability to avoid letting us down. Thanks mate.
A large quantity of Coke (cola) at base camp was enough sustenance to fuel the pack up and see a weary group leave the mountain in the same van in which we ascended. Our levels of satisfaction and fatigue varied but that was one hell of a challenge we won't be forgetting anytime soon. Upon returning to La Paz we were practically all asleep before the door to our room closed. I did however take a shower because the stench from my three day old clothes was borderline toxic and that would be a sad end to this story. We woke only for beer and an excessive quantity of pizza before returning straight back to bed. Job done.Read more