Huayna Potosi is ‘supposedly’ the easiest 6,000+m mountain in the world. I say supposedly because to us that statement carries as much weight as saying that New Zealand is the easiest country to swim to from Australia. It might be technically true, but it doesn’t mean it’s easy at all.
Not that we believed that at the time. As far as we were concerned, Huayna Potosi is the touristy mountain. Yeah it would be hard, but more like a really tough hike than the agonisingly slow shuffle we were reduced to. Our lack of general fitness didn’t worry us too much either. We hadn’t really done any proper exercise in a few months, aside from a run here or there and maybe a quick workout or two. No worries, how hard can it be?
We’d teamed up with Scott’s cousin, Tom, and his mates for the climb. The bus out of the city was filled with the Aussie banter we’d been sorely missing over the past months. After a quick ride to basecamp, we started making our way up to the high camp from which we would start our summit push.
At this point, I should probably mention that my bowel movements had been extremely regular for the past few days. Regular to the point over every five to ten minutes, and it wasn’t showing any sign of changing anytime soon. Some may say that this isn’t the optimal state to climb your first mountain in, but ask any experienced mountaineer and they will tell you that the key to mountain climbing is travelling light. I was just doing my best to keep my weight down.
While succeeding in keeping my weight down, I’d also left myself pretty dehydrated and weak. Arriving at the high camp, we were treated to a 5pm dinner (which most of us struggled to get down due to the altitude), and a 6pm bedtime in preparation for our midnight assault on the summit.
We’d come to Huayna Potosi to conquer our first 6,000m peak, but when we woke in the middle of the night to climb our final 800m, it felt just as likely that the mountain would be conquering us. Fumbling through all our layers to get our crampons on, we eventually started the slow trundle towards the pile of rock and ice that towered above us in the moonlight.
The endless minutes of staring at our feet as we shuffled upwards were interspersed with moments of pure awe. In the light of a full moon, the snow more closely resembled a field of diamonds. Each snowflake glittered, twinkled and shone. Looking further, we saw past the undulating snowfield to the surrounding peaks. Lit up under the moonlight, they took on a life of their own and could easily be mistaken for a scene in Frozen.
We reached the halfway point roughly three hours into the climb, which was more than we had slept the night before. We continued the struggle upwards and sunrise crept closer and closer. At this point, the air we were breathing had half the effective oxygen in it as at sea level. Apparently this didn’t effect Lachie though, as he was ‘born in the mountains’ despite the fact that we were now two and a half time above Australia’s highest point. Regardless of Lachies soaring bullshit factor, he seemed to be the only one of us still capable of enjoying the climb. For the rest of us mere mortals, we’d well and truly entered the type two fun zone.
As the sun finally peaked over the horizon, we faced our final obstacle. Most groups took a steep series of switchbacks up to the summit, but our guide choose to take the path less travelled. It consisted of a near-vertical ice climb and then a 100m tiptoe along an ice ledge almost as small as Scott’s you-know-what. It was a truly spiritual experience to be climbing a sheer ice face, 6,000m meters up in the air with the first golden rays of sunlight bouncing off the rock and snow in front of you. The pure awe inspired by the mountains (and a hefty dose of adrenaline) meant that despite the altitude, we were able to enjoy the final stint and take in the incredible 360 degree sunrise we were being treated to on the summit.
The way down was scarcely easier that the ascent. We were completely drained from lack of sleep, food and the exhaustion of the ascent. Putting one foot in front of another with the promise of chocolate and hot drinks at the bottom was the most we could muster. Less than 24 hours arriving at the base camp, we returned and tumbled into the bus back to La Paz. By the time the wheels started rolling, almost every eye was drooping and head lolling.
We’ve since bumped into a few mountain climbers on our travels, and the majority attest to the same feelings we had during our climb. Somewhere around the half way point, you ask yourself why you’re even doing this. In the progressing hours, you come up with more and more convincing reasons to turn around and never look at another mountain again. The brief summit energy spike is then followed by a truly deep tiredness and yearning to be back at sea level. However, around the halfway point of the decent, life (and air) start to flow back into your body, and by the time you’ve reached camp, you’re already planning the next mountain.
Luckily for us, that won’t be too long as we make our way to Huaraz and the Cordillera Blanca region. This time we’re turning it up a notch and going to get some proper mountaineering experience with a Peruvian mountain guide, and hopefully bag another peak. Wish us luck - Pat