6/29/2011: Tarija Ascent

This was to be an acclimatization hike, sort of a practice climb to help us get ready for the real climbs to follow.

It almost killed me (figuratively). I had never been so absolutely exhausted as I was at the end of that climb. I wrote: That was the hardest climb I've ever done. Harder than Kilimanjaro or Rainier.

We started at 4 AM (I got up at 2:30 but I was still the last one ready). I had liked the Camelbak on the previous hikes, and so I considered just using that, but the guide suggested that I put one liter in the Camelbak and one liter in a Nalgene. This was good advice, as by the time I got to the base of the glacier (i.e. by the time the real climb was about to begin), I found that my Camelbak hose had already frozen, and so I only had the one liter in the Nalgene for the rest of the climb.

 I hiked to the base of the glacier wearing my down jacket, but I found that I was too hot—despite the continued presence of the strong wind from the previous evening. One of the guys forgot his glasses and realized it on the hike to the glacier, so one of the guides ran back to get them, and then joined us on the glacier.

At the glacier, I took the down jacket off, so that all I had on were my two tees, heavy fleece, and soft shell. I was marginally cold while climbing. I had my thin balaclava on.

During the climb, we stepped over small crevasses and bypassed bigger ones. Every 45 to 60 min. we would stop for 5 min. to drink.

I really had no idea how to dress so that I wouldn't be cold, but wouldn’t be hot while climbing. About three quarters of the way up the sun rose, so we stopped to put on sun goop and glacier glasses.

At this point, I was exhausted. But we still had not reached the top. There was more generic “up”. Then we had to climb a narrow rib leading to the summit, which was sort of like a nest or a roost. I felt like I was out of gas and could barely go any further. That rib looked a bit steep and slightly exposed to me, but on the plus side I was too tired to really be afraid.

We stopped for a bit on the summit, and I ate half of my lunch sandwich.

Some of the others were continuing on to a neighboring higher peak (Pequeño Alpamayo). To do this, they had to descend a rocky slope, cross over a narrow rib that angled up steeply, and then climb up some even steeper slopes. In one sense, it didn’t look that bad, but then when you saw the tiny dots that were the climbers on it, and realized the scale of it, not to mention the thin air, you could get a much better appreciation for it. It looked like a short little detour, but it was taking the folks who did it an hour or two to get back to Tarija.

I had barely made it to this summit—I didn’t even consider going on to the other one.

I felt slightly better going down than going up, but only marginally. We stopped at a flat area for a quick lesson on snow anchors, and all I could think about was lying back on the snow in the sun and taking a nap. The rest of the descent was a blur, with my technique steadily fading.

But when we got to the bottom of the glacier, my hiking was not yet finished. I had to take off my glacier gear, pack it up, and then hike the 45 minutes back to camp. Similar to the previous day, I ended up hiking essentially alone. I could not keep up with the people in front of me, and I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to wait for those behind me. I just wanted to get back to my tent.

I was deeply troubled as I staggered back to camp. I felt like I was about to keel over at any moment—and this was just a practice climb? How was I supposed to handle the “real thing”? I also began to ask myself why was I doing this? Was it just so that I could say that I did this? That did not seem like sufficient justification. It certainly wasn’t because I was enjoying the climb. At that point, “fun” was the last thing on my mind.

As I trudged along, I became more and more convinced that this was just not worth it, and that I should call it a trip and skip the following two climbs. That thought sustained me as I tried to follow the trail back to camp.

I had never been so exhausted in my life. At camp, I managed to take off my harness. Then I crawled into the tent with my boots sticking outside and collapsed. I can more appreciate the stories of people collapsing on mountains in storms and lying down and freezing to death rather than trying to go on.

I probably lay there, unmoving, for 20 minutes before I got up the energy to take off my boots, drag my pack in, and close the tent flap. Then I collapsed again. I probably lay there for another 40 minutes before I summoned the wherewithal to take off my extra long johns, put on my hiking boots, and head over to the mess tent to eat and drink a little.

The snowy mountains are very picturesque, but climbing them is darned uncomfortable–between the cold, lack of air, and primitive living conditions. The bathroom at base camp was a stone structure with a thatched roof. There was no mortar between the stones, so the wind just whistled right through, including up your fanny while you were sitting there.

The wind was still with us, and with the tents flapping all over the place, it was like living in a drum. There was dust everywhere from the wind—in the tents, on us, in the mess tent, and on the table. The dust was probably mixed with dried donkey and llama dung.

My right knee was slightly sore, but other than that (and being completely and utterly exhausted), my body wasn’t hurting too much. My fingertips around the nails were a bit sore. I wasn’t sure if that was due to my fingers swelling or for some other reason.

I rested for another hour and then spent an hour reading a little. Everything seemed to me to be colder. I wasn’t sure if it was the temperature or my mood or my exhaustion.

I talked with Gaspar (the head guide) after dinner, and warned him that I was probably going to skip the rest of the climbs. He tried to talk me into Huayna (the first of the two). He described it to me as higher, colder, and longer, which was just what I wanted to hear (NOT). Mentally, I had almost checked out. But as Gaspar said, one should not talk about such things right after a climb. I decided to see how I felt back in La Paz, after a shower. I was certainly not doing this for fun, at least not that day. On the other hand, this was probably my only shot at doing such climbs. It would be nice to succeed at it.

It reminded me of leaving Tanzania. At the end of that trip, I was tired and ready to head home. I passed a group of climbers who had just arrived. They were eager and excited, and I was done. That was sort of how I felt at the end of Tarija.

Up to Bolivia main page

Back to June 28: Tarija 2

Forward to June 30: Tarija to La Paz