7/3/2011: Huayna Summit Attempt

The weather was yucky, but we were making a go of it.

Once again, I was about the last one ready. My rope team, Pam and myself, was the slowest one, so we left first. Chris was supposed to be on that rope, but he decided that he was too tired, so he stayed in bed. It was of course dark with falling/blowing snow/sleet.

I started out with just my two tees, my heavy fleece, soft shell jacket, one base layer on my legs, my hard shell pants, thin balaclava, hat, and heavier water resistant mittens.

We were soon passed by two other ropes. There was only one rope behind us, with Sebastian (the guide), Agata, and Elaine. After a half hour or so, Pam complained of an upset stomach. During the break, I put on my Gore-Tex raincoat over the soft shell. A bit later Pam decided that she really had to return to the hut. So we waited a very short time until Sebastian caught up to us.

I joined their rope, and Pam went down with our original guide. I found out later that this was a good move as she ended up vomiting copiously.

I put on my down vest although later I removed everything down to the fleece and put on my down jacket. Back home, I couldn't wear it while hiking without overheating, but due to the altitude I couldn't move fast enough to generate too much heat, so it was fine.

The trail switchbacks up the glacier, sometimes traversing from one side to the other. There was probably 6 to 12 inches of new snow, so it wasn't like going up Tarija (which was hard snow or ice). There were a few places where we had short sections of very steep climbing, which in one case involved using some protection. We stepped over several smaller crevasses, avoided bigger ones, and cross over larger ones on snow bridges.

As usual, I was gasping for air and struggling to keep the pace. A bit higher up we passed Mati coming down (with his guide). He thought he could summit, but he wasn't sure that he could then come down safely, so he had decided to turn back. I made some noises about maybe I should join him, but Sebastian either didn't hear me, ignored me, or told me that I should continue up. In hindsight this was the correct choice. It scared me when Mati continued down, however. This pretty much committed me to the end. The only way I could go down now was to take the whole rope with me.

This was, I think when I switched to the down jacket. It was a real pain working with the backpack, as it was covered with snow, and anything I put back in there was covered with snow also.

At one point we got a good view (looking over our shoulders) of the lights of La Paz, but that was a short-lived aberration.

We plugged on up, and eventually it got light enough that we could turn off our headlamps. I won't say that the sun rose, because everything was white (including the blowing snow/sleet). It was almost a total white out.

I could see large stone blocks covered in ice at the edges of the glaciers. They just seemed to remind me of how much more “up” there was to come, although perhaps mercifully I couldn't see far enough in the gloom to see how far I had to go.

Unfortunately I was too busy and/or tired to take any pictures of the features on the ascent.

I was really expecting us to turn back at some point, due to the weather. I was just hoping that it was high enough to be a new personal height record. But we kept going.

At one point, the guide offered me some “goo”, which I accepted. They had mentioned this on the packing list, but I couldn’t figure out what they meant. I had gotten some powdered drink mix stuff, that hadn’t worked out. The stuff the guide gave me was essentially a packet of “frosting”. It had about that consistency, was rather sweet, and probably full of sugars, carbs, electrolytes, and other nutrients.

We kept going up. Due to the semi-white-out conditions, I really couldn’t see how far we had left to go, nor how far we had come. In some ways it was like climbing up a very steep treadmill. We kept going up and it seemed endless. The difference was that I could see that we were making progress. We passed crevasses. There were rocky outcrops above us to the side which were later below us on the side. Sometimes it would be steeper and sometimes less steep.

At various points, particularly near the top, I think Sebastian was almost pulling me up as I didn't have the oomph to move myself faster.

On the hike up Huayna or Tareja, I tended to have two modes of breathing. At times, I got into a rhythm and would be breathing in time with my steps, often in through the nose and out through the mouth. But sometimes something would happen that would disrupt that rhythm, and I would drop into a mode where I was panting heavily.

Eventually we reached a semi-level area and ran across the other rope taking a break. We had started out with four ropes, but two different individuals went down leaving one rope with three clients  (ours)  and one rope with four.

The people on the other rope were yelling and screaming and congratulating us for being almost there. They were resting just on the nonpeak side of the final ridge.

In many ways the ridge is just like the Knife's Edge in Maine. The main saving grace on Huayna was that because of the bad weather I couldn't really see more than 50 to 100 feet down the slope—much better than seeing the 1000 or 3000 foot drop.

Crossing it was slightly scary—although I couldn’t see it, I knew that there were steep drops right next to us. But this was tempered by being exhausted and not having the energy to be really afraid. I just wanted to get to the summit so that we could stop going “up”.

In places on the ridge, the trail is on one side, with the wall of snow/ice about 4 feet high to the side. Walking along there, I made sure to keep holding my ice ax securely to the “wall” to the extent that my right arm/shoulder was getting sore from the constant strain.

Woo hoo! I just summitted Huayna Potosi, and set a new personal height record!

Self-Portrait at the Summit
The Rest of the Rope Team
“Official” Summit Picture

I would like to say that I felt elated or proud of my accomplishment, but in reality I was just relived that I was at the summit, because then I no longer had to hike further “up”. My main though at that moment was that I just wanted to get down and off of the mountain.

At the end of the ridge, there is a small “platform” before a 10 to 20 foot climb to the true summit. The platform is a good place to take pictures, and to regroup before returning along the ridge. Unfortunately, the pictures aren’t the greatest, as due to conditions it essentially looks like we’re standing in someone’s living room in front of a white sheet.

Many people feel that once you’ve reached the summit, you’ve succeeded and in a sense you are done; but at that point the hike is only half-over. The guides on Mount Rainier have a saying for this situation. They say that the optional part of the hike is over, and the mandatory part begins. That is, you don’t *have to* get to the summit, but you do need to get to the base. While in many ways going down is easier than going up, it is far from easy and in many ways more dangerous. I think more accidents occur on the descent than on the ascent. One primary reason is that you are more tired having already done lots of hard hiking. Also, you tend to be less focused, since you already achieved your objective.

In our case, the mandatory half was just beginning.

The guide always wants to be above the clients in case of a fall accident. So on the way up, the guide leads. On the way down, the last climber (in our case Elaine) led and the guide was in the back. I do not envy her leading the way along that ridge. I thought it was much scarier going back. At one point, the trail was only about a foot wide, with a steeper than 45° slope going off either side, with a strong side wind sandblasting our faces with sleet. Due to the narrowness of the “trail”, and the rate the slope dropped off on either side, you couldn’t really use your ice axe for stability—you had to trust to just your feet and brace yourself against the wind.

It was even more interesting than on the way up as Elaine wasn’t always certain where on the ridge the trail was. But after a scary but fortunately uneventful crossing, we made it back to the main slope.

Shortly after starting down it, we met up with another guide. He had led Mati down, and then come back up. Sebastian gave me to him, and he took his original two clients down. Now I was in the lead on our rope, but I tried to stay right behind Sebastian so that the way down was clear. Between the semi-whiteout and the uniform lighting, I found it very difficult to see the snow and terrain.

Following Sebastian worked until one spot, which was a steep snow slope above (I found out later) a system of small crevasses. Sebastian wanted the girls to down climb the slope, but eventually he belayed the two down before down climbing it himself. Meanwhile my guide and I were waiting just above.

My guide gave me an ice screw to use in one hand, with my ice ax in the other, to down climb the slope. It was while doing this that I realized I was over a small crevasse. At one point my guide (who was not the best English speaker) said that I needed to step wide. Looking down, I saw that I was only about a foot above the other edge of the crevasse, so I assumed that he wanted me to step backwards wide enough to clear the crevasse. So I did so. However as I hung in space momentarily above the crevasse, I realized that the flat lighting had fooled my depth perception. I was more like 5 to 6 feet above the other side!

I'm sure that I surprised my guide who was probably not expecting his client to suddenly leap off the side of the near vertical face! Fortunately with the new snow I was not hurt when I crashed to the ground, although later I found I was missing one of my Nalgene water bottles. I presume that it fell out of the pack when I landed.

I saw from my new vantage point the system of crevasses, and that the proper move was to have climbed left to a trail/ledge over the crevasse until it petered out.

The main problem from my point of view was that between the down climbing and the accident, Sebastian and his team were long gone, so I could no longer follow them.

As the wind/snow/sleet worked to erase their tracks, and as the sun was getting lower, it became harder and harder for me to follow the path. This made me slower, put me further behind them, and which just made matters worse. It didn't help that I was exhausted and getting worse by the minute.

Due to the whiteout conditions I really couldn't read the terrain. I couldn't tell if the trail (disturbed snow) went down, went up, traversed a slope, etc. I could barely see the trail 7 feet ahead of me. Then it dropped to 5 feet and then to 3. Eventually, I couldn't see the trail at all.

I called the guide forward. He took off his sunglasses (I had taken mine off a while back) looked around in several directions, and then took the lead. I really hoped he knew where he was going, as I sure didn't. I could get a better appreciation for mountaineering stories where someone takes the wrong way down from the summit or can't remember which way to descend.

Eventually he led me to the bottom of 100 foot slope. I was beyond exhausted and thought I was going to die (figuratively, not literally). I first thought that he must've taken the wrong route, and that he needed us to climb the slope to get us back on track. But halfway up I saw the outlines of the hut looming above us. It was “up” because it was built on the glacial moraine just below the glacier.

The second half of the trip down was a blur, but that climb up at the end was a nightmare.

Even though we had put our crampons on at the hut entryway, my guide insisted on taking them off 30 feet away from the door. He bent down and undid my straps. I got one off, but when I tried to get the other off, I fell over and just lay there, not wanting to move. He took the other off. I eventually got up and went in, where people congratulated me for looking like death warmed over. Sebastian even offered to use my camera to take my picture to show how shattered I looked.

I was terribly thirsty. I had been for half of the hike down. I lost one water bottles, and the top of the other had frozen. I had used my ice ax to punch a hole in the ice, but it was still difficult to drink from. They were serving soup for dinner, so I got a bowl (and some water), sat on the bench with my back against the wall, and tried to rehydrate myself. I think if not for the wall, I would have fallen over several times. I felt as bad as I had after Tarija.

I had been wondering during my death march down the glacier how we were going to hike down to the base hut with the sun setting. Would we use headlamps? So I was totally surprised to hear someone say that it was 1 PM! The sun had not been setting as I had thought, and this was lunch not dinner.

I would say that this was my hardest hike ever, although Mount Rainier was longer. Here, I had been hiking for just under 11 hours (2:15am to 1pm). On Rainier, we started around 1: 15 and didn't get to the base until about 5 PM. Of course to be fair, I should include the time to go down to base camp, but at least I got an hour to sit down, eat/drink and pack before starting the next leg.

Going up to high camp had taken more like four hours, rather than the specified two, probably due to the cold, storm, and snow covered rocks. Likewise, going down was supposed to take 45 min., but I'm sure it took longer. The slippery snow-covered rocks made things very much slower, harder, and treacherous.

Most of us did not wear crampons on the way down. It was a toss-up. The crampons would be been more secure on the snow, but the would have been more of a pain on the rocks.

When I eventually did get down, I found (surprise, surprise) there was no bus there. It had been stymied earlier by the light snow before at Tarija. Now there was much more snow. So we had three large 4x4 SUVs. It stopped sleeting/snowing just before we got to the SUVs.

I found one and got in. I wanted to take some pictures but my cold camera immediately fogged up. I have no idea how my pictures came out.

Eventually things got packed away, people got organize, and we left. I took some pictures of a strange cemetery, full of what looked like doghouses containing caskets.

Just a very short distance down the dirt road the street became bare, but there was some snow on the sides. Before long, however, there was no snow anywhere. It looked like the storm was pretty much just on the mountain! Or maybe at the lower elevations it had been raining.

We passed a herd of sheep. I didn't see any fences, but they couldn't be wild. That made me wonder if the “wild llamas” I had seen earlier really had been wild.

I had my day pack crammed between my knees, and by the time I got to the hotel, my knees were killing me. When I got out, I could barely walk.

I wanted to take some ibuprofen. Of course I found that I had packed that with the stuff that stayed at the base hut, so I didn't get that for hours. Then at dinner, my face felt tingly. I wonder if the ibuprofen did that. It didn't in the past, but I don't know what else would have done it, except maybe being frozen, sleeted, and then thawed.

Throughout the day, the idea had been growing on me that I didn't really want to do the Illimani extension. The thought of doing another hike like this, but with a higher high camp, in tents, probably on snow, and with a lot longer, colder hike spent gasping for air did not appeal to me. The ascent of Huayna was enough of a victory for me.

After dinner I broached the idea with Gaspar, the lead guide, and unlike Huayna, he didn't try to dissuade me. So that evening I changed my airfare. It would have been cheaper to just stay there in the hotel and return on time, but I didn't want to spend four days just wandering around the city. (I still got one and a half days to play tourist, though).

The downside is that to get a cheaper rate, I had to leave at 10 at night and arrived home at 2 the next afternoon. On the plus side, I didn't have to run for the airport at 3 or 4 AM.

The weird thing is that even though I got little sleep the night before the climb, and had been going since 1 AM, in the hotel at 11:15 at night when I was writing up my diary, I was still going strong. Go figure.

So I had the next day (the pre-Illimani rest day) to wander around, buy gifts, etc., and then the next day they would leave for Illimani, and I would check out (leaving my bags at the hotel). Then after an early dinner, I would take a taxi to the airport and start heading home.

Part of the reason for skipping Illimani was that my left second toe had taken a minor beating, although so far I had been very happy with the plastic boots. They are very warm, even in subfreezing temperatures covered in snow, and usually my feet end up sweating a lot. My right knee was a bit unhappy with me, although that might be more due to the descent from the high hut to the low one more than the climb itself.

I suppose I could have saved the money, gone to Illimani, and then just not climb (like Chris did today), but the thought of eating with a down jacket on, sleeping in a bag in below freezing conditions, and who knows what for a toilet, didn't really thrill me.

Another option would have been to stay at the hotel in La Paz and then go out for day trips with various tour groups. There must have been any number of them that offered tours in English, but I had decided to just head home.

Some final thoughts:

This was the Bolivian winter. It was colder than the summer, but drier. The weather we faced on Huayna was very unusual.

Rainier was a tough hike, although I tend to think these were harder. Or perhaps it may be just that now I am older.

Huayna Potosi ascent timeline:
Leave around 1:30 or 2:00
Reach summit around 9:30
At High Camp around 12:50
At Base Camp around 3:30

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