Lower Latitudes, Higher Altitudes: High-altitude Mountaineering in the Bolivian Andes, Part 2

Peter Bronski
Posted July 18th, 2008

The author at 19,974 feet, the summit of Huayna Potosi.
Editor’s note: Last month the author took us to La Paz, Bolivia, where he and his wife, Kelli, made final arrangements to climb three peaks in the Bolivian Andes. The first was Pequeño Alpamayo. This month, we learn about the second, Huayna Potosi.
Huayna Potosi has been called the easiest 6,000 meter peak in the world. There’s no doubt that it’s accessible—the trailhead for the approach to high camp lies just two hours outside of downtown La Paz. But to suggest that Potosi is easy belies its extreme altitude. The peak stands 6,088 meters tall, or 19,974 feet. Then take into account a significant bergschrund (a crevasse that forms where the moving glacier ice separates from the stagnant ice above) that can form on the normal route, and crux pitches that in 2007 approached 60 degrees. Easy, I suppose, is all relative.
One day, after reaching the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo, Kelli and I lounged in our hotel in La Paz. To climb a 5,000 or 6,000-meter peak and that same night be in a warm bed with a restaurant meal in your stomachs is simply incredible. We rested our bodies for 24 hours before waking at 5:30 a.m. to pack for our trip to Huayna Potosi. For Potosi, we’ve taken a lesson from other climbers, and rather than lug all of our own gear, as we did to base camp for Pequeño Alpamayo, we’ve contracted the services of Antonio, a 52-year-old porter, who will help carry some of our equipment to high camp.
The three of us and our driver rumbled over the Altiplano and then past Chacaltaya, the highest lift-served ski area in the world (in jeopardy, due to glacial retreat, thanks to global climate change). Soon, we arrived at Zongo Pass, the starting point for our trek to high camp. From Zongo Pass, at around 15,000 feet, it usually takes around two hours to hike up to high camp at 17,000 feet. Antonio says there’s no rush, and we’ll take our time on the hike, arriving in 2.5 hours or so. But as he sets off, Kelli and I struggle to keep up. “If this is taking it easy, I’d hate to see Antonio in a hurry,” I thought. Much too soon, we arrive at high camp … in one hour and twenty minutes. Antonio looks at us: “You’re strong climbers,” he says in Spanish through a wry smile.
High camp is a combination of flat tent platforms on the rocks, a stone hut, and a large cook tent where many of the Bolivian guides stay and socialize with one another. Kelli and I pitched our tent in a cleft in a rocky ridge, near Steve and Stu, two Aussies who just came down from the summit. As Kelli and I sat at our camp stove, cooking dinner and melting snow for drinking water, we watched as the snow and ice of Potosi’s upper east face gets bathed in the late-day orange of alpenglow. Then we turned in for the night.
Around 12:15 a.m. I awoke to the sounds of the first guides and clients leaving high camp for the summit. Kelli and I planned to wake at 1:00 a.m. and leave camp by 2:00. It was a perfectly clear night—the reputation of the Bolivian winter for stable weather and blue skies holds true. The locals are truly spoiled. If it’s even partly cloudy they refer to it as “mal tiempo”—bad weather.
Our route ascended a massive glacier, while a bitterly cold wind rushed down the mountain. We shrank into our down parkas, trying to stay warm. Kelli and I were both wracked with stomach pain—we suspected food poisoning for me, but later learned that for Kelli, it was the early onset of a bout with amoebic dysentery. As we neared the base of the east face, we passed a group of climbers already on the descent. “Are you okay?” I ask in Spanish. “How are you?” The lead climber looked up at me: “Muy malo”—very bad. And they continued their descent.
Soon, Kelli and I tackled the first of two cruxes. We surmounted the bergschrund and climbed up to the crest of the Polish Ridge. Following the ridge, we arrived beneath the base of the summit face as the sun rose over the Amazon, bathing Potosi in a pink light. I stripped off my parka and soaked up the welcome rays of sun. Approaching the summit face—the second of the route’s two cruxes—I could see one of the most bewildering climbing scenes. The entire summit face seemed strewn with climbers in self-arrest position. Nearing the face, I could see what was happening: guides would build a snow anchor, lower their clients the length of the rope, have the clients get into self-arrest position, down-climb to the clients, and repeat the process.
Kelli and I stashed her pack at the base of the climb, leaving any unnecessary equipment behind, while we tackled the last 800 vertical feet of the route, all above 19,000 feet. It’s a calf-burner of sustained 55-degree snow. The descending guides and clients passed us by, including Youev, an Israeli we met at the stone hut at high camp the night before. He was a first-time mountaineer, trekking through South America. “How was it?” I ask, congratulating him on his first summit. “I hated every minute of it,” he said in all seriousness.
At 8:30 a.m., Kelli and I topped out on the summit ridge, a 40-foot-long knife-edge that leads to a miniscule, corniced summit. We peered down the sheer, 1,000-meter west face. The sun was shining, the wind was calm, and best of all, despite the flood of people we saw descending the mountain, at this moment, we had the summit to ourselves. For both of us, it was the first successful summit of a 6,000-meter peak, and, we hoped, not the last.
Peter Bronski (peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer and regular contributor to Vermont Sports. His book, At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York’s Adirondacks, came out in March.

Peter Bronski

Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer, avid backcountry skier, and frequent contributor to Vermont Sports.