Up at 07:00 to pack, pay the hostel and stash some bags into storage. I'm at the company's office for 08:30 where my guide is waiting for me. Eliseo (say El-lee-seo) is 24 years old and knows a few more English words than I know Spanish. We get a taxi to their main office on the other side of town where we collect our equipment. For me alone this includes white Long Johns, 4 season plastic boots (Scarpa!), crampons, fleece hat, balaclava, gloves, mittens, wind stopping fleece, leggings, gaiters, over coat, down sleeping bag, roll mat, 2 man tent and miscellaneous climbing gear. Something tells me it's going to get cold! We pile everything back in the taxi and head out to the Cordillera Real mountain range, stopping at several markets en route for food supplies. This gives me a chance to pick up water and a Saltenas breakfast.
An hour down a dirt track and we reach our starting point - a large farm house. These 5 buildings, or village Tuni, is where Eliseo grew up. There's a bright yellow company signpost, sticking out like a sore thumb, telling me I'm at 4,448m. We eat lunch (cold crunchy rice and chicken from a market), ditch our equipment, shoulder our day packs and start walking. A woman is to load up our donkey and follow later. We walk around lake Tuni and head into the hills.
I bump into a Swiss couple walking the other way. "Where you going?" they ask. \
"Huayna Potosí," I answer. "The small mountain." \
"Believe us, it's not that small!" they sneer. \
"Oh, did you climb it?" I muse. \
""Us? No, we're not that stupid!" they laugh. "Oh, and beware of night time," they say admiring my rolled up sleeves. "Temperatures drop below freezing to as much as -10°C" \
"Have fun, bye!" My guide grins knowingly, shrugs and walks on.
3 hours later we round a crystal clear lake to some old building ruins on the other side and wait for our pack donkey to turn up. When it does I pitch tent, crawl in and peacefully doze in the hot afternoon sun for a good ½ hour. I felt really sleepy even though I'd not achieved much that day, I came to and found Eliseo cooking on a little stove in his 2 man tent. The tent had no fly sheet and mainly consisted of ventilation gauze giving way to the harsh elements outside. I comment on it. He nervously gazes up to the stars above and sheepishly says, "Si, no beuno. Es possible para dos en tu camp?" "No." I say apologetically and shake my head. Cruel, aren't I?
The moment the sun dropped below the horizon the temperature followed suit and dropped considerably. We eat dinner in Eliseo's incomplete tent; Vegetable soup followed by beef in tomato salsa &crunchy rice. Pretty good for a camp meal! Water takes forever to boil at this altitude (4,700m), nevertheless dinner is followed by Coca Matte before we both settle into my small, cosy 2 man tent for 19:30! (Yeah, I let him share with me in the end!) Not being that used to the camp environment and the cold I didn't sleep too well. I kept tossing and turning and waking up every few hours to check the temperature. I noted a minimum of -7°C. Still, at least I didn't have to be up until 07:30 in the morning, some 12 hours later!
The guide gets up at 06:30, it's barely daylight and still below freezing. I stay in bed until I'm summoned at 07:30. Breakfast is Coca Matte, Sugar Puffs in strawberry yogurt and bread'n'jam.
There's an old man bumbling about who looks after the campsite (but its in ruins!) and I have to pay him 10 Bs. He needs to borrow my pen to write out the receipt. Only then do I discover I have no change and neither does he. I have 7 Bs or a 50 Bs note. Stalemate. He doesn't just want the 7 and I'm not giving him the 50! Compromise. I give him the 7 Bs plus my bic biro!
We walk up a pass to 5,050 m and at the top I get my first sighting of Huayna Potosí. Woah! She's a big girl and looks cold, steep and technically difficult! We walk back down into the valley to 4,700 m and stop for lunch. It's fried cheese and pasta, still warm and in the pot it was cooked in at 06:30 this morning. All the time Eliseo was clutching his old Nokia mobie, anxious for a call from the office, something about equipment. Despite his worried look he claimed it wasn't important. Just as well because the call never came. I console him with hot sweet coffee from my Thermos that I made at breakfast. I wanted to try chewing some Coca leaves today to see if it did anything but I found I'd mislaid my personal stash last night. Who needs it anyway?
From lunch we ascend to 5,000 m again. Much to Eliseo's dismay I clamber to the top of a steep peek for a look around. He didn't like me racing off on my own. On my return he points out Lake Titicaca} below the horizon - cool! It's my first sighting.
On the way down I had to administer First Aid. My big toes were paining, it felt as if they were rubbing in my hot sweaty boots. Fearing blisters I applied layers of micro-pore tape as a preventative. A trick I remember Brett Jones preaching during our treks in Spain. What can I say other than it seemed to work! But then my knee joints kept giving twinges of pain. I put it down to nerves, being oversensitive and hoped it wouldn't get any worse.
I observe many caterpillars wriggling rapidly around on the grass, relentless in their pursuit of new pastures. Breathing hard and gasping for air myself I can't help but wonder, "Do Insects have lungs?"
We hop over a wall in a small pass that was built to keep Llamas out! Down to 4,700 m again we walk along a dirt track to our next campsite - some long abandoned farm site. Our pack donkey was replaced with a motorcycle which soon overtook us. We set up camp under the towering Huayna Potosí. I note it's getting closer. I got a little concerned when our "auto-donkey" broke down soon after leaving. For a good ½ hour it sat revving in the distance seemingly unable to engage gear. A friendly dog appeared out of nowhere and I didn't see how it could survive the freezing night. Eliseo seemed adamant that my prediction of 3 people and a dog in the 2 man tent wasn't going to happen. He was right, the motorbike magically fixed itself and the dog ran back to it's shelter over the hill.
Eliseo said he's really impressed with the speed of my walking at this altitude. I would usually say he's just being kind but I'm also aware we've not been going slow either! Dinner and bed again for 07:15. Lying in the tent we exchange words from my English / Spanish dictionary. Eliseo is keen to learn English, shame he's unable to say "The"! Bless.
Having become more used to the intricacies of my sleeping bag I sleep much better. Still it must have been much colder last night because the fly sheet was frozen solid. You couldn't roll it back, it had to be folded back like cardboard! After getting up I waited patiently for the first rays of sunshine to appear over Huayna Potosí - instant warmth! Then bizarrely this boy appears out of nowhere asking for 10 Bs camp site fee!? The fee is fine, I just wanted to know where the hell he came from?
I stashed some coca leaves upon my person and chewed them on the way up the pass, back over 5,000m again. On the way down the other side I began to feel a little queasy so when I stopped to iodine more water I spit the leaves out. Further on I spot a building at the top of a hill. "Is that the base camp?" I enquire hopefully. "Yes, but there are two. We go to the second one." "Bloody typical," I muse.
We walk around a large reservoir under the watchful eye of Huayna Potosí to some buildings used by the nearby Hydroelectric station. They kindly let us camp behind them. No toilets or long drops, you just hike up the hill and find some out-of-sight rocks. It's lunch time, 4,700 m, and I'm to rest here for the day so I go walkabout. The reservoir is a dam at the top of a huge drop off into the Zongo valley. It is hugely impressive, like Wow!
There is a red metal fence running along the edge of reservoir and the huge drop next to it. I was a little confused by the fact the fence running along the drop was a lot more flimsier than the one running along the water!? I hole myself up, out of the wind, on the side of the mountain overlooking the hydroelectric station for a few hours and update my journal.
On my return, the camp has been joined by 2 girls. Katrina, a bulky, stereotypical looking East German girl who's here to experience the pain and discomfort of altitude. And Shannon, a cute little Irish surfer girl, who's besotted with her absent boyfriend. She's here because some of her friends climbed Huayna Potosí a few years ago and she's up for the challenge. Like me they each have their own guide and it looks like we'll climb up together. Eliseo joined one of the other guides in his tent leaving me to myself.
Looking up at Huayna Potosí we can see the High Camp that we'll climb to tomorrow morning and from there the tracks leading up high in the snow'n'ice. The only water available at the High Camp is from what ever snow they collect and boil so we fill up what we can now. I take 4 litres. Foolishly I didn't check a "Hot Water Bottle" that a guide filled before chucking it in my sleeping bag along with some clothes. It leaked. Being a down sleeping bag, which doesn't dry well, and knowing how the temperature would soon plummet I was very concerned. Especially as my night clothes also got wet. Ulp! But fear not, an hour with a super absorbent pack towel and hot water bottles dried most of it up! Phew! Bed again for 19:30.
No donkey today, "auto" or otherwise. I'm to stuff it all into my main pack and lug it ½ km up to High Camp resting at 5,200m. I also strap my heavy day pack to the outside using various compression straps. It gives my pack a really awkward weight, I have to lean forward a lot to compensate. The 3 hours is a scramble straight up shingle, rocks and boulders. Eliseo wanted to take some of my awkward weight, fearing I was going to wear myself out, but I was adamant, if I bring it, I carry it. The girls by comparison didn't carry their boots, day packs or any water. Pah!
We pass 8 sturdy, athletic looking Antipodeans coming down. They had attempted to summit that morning. Only 2 out of the 8 made it. The odds look grim.
High camp is a newly built 2 story shelter above the glacier where the snow line starts. Eliseo's favourite saying of the day (well, past few days really) is, "Vamos a la Playa!" or "To the Beach!"
The rest of the day is along the lines of chill, lunch, rest, dinner, sleep, breakfast! There are not many people at the camp, only 8 punters who'll try to summit in the morning. Except for me and the girls they all look athletic and super fit. Amongst them is Sean, a very rich Ecuadorian with an interesting character. It seems he wants to utilise the wealth bestowed upon him to try and address some of the social injustices in his country - but once he's finished travelling of course! To that end he recommends a book called, "[The Open Veins of Latin America]`http://www.amazon.co.uk/Open-Veins-Latin-America-Centuries/dp/1899365133`".
Speaking to Shannon I find out she's a physiotherapist. She gives my gammy bent finger a 30 second diagnosis. It has a ruptured extensor tendon, meaning it will never straighten on it's own until I have an operation. I only hope it won't be too late for it by the time I get back to the UK. She looks at my finger, looks at the mountain and tells me I'm a hero. I always knew it!
It gets dark and we all head upstairs to bed. The upper story is full of loose mattresses. We're getting up at 12:30am to start out on our final ascent (final assualt!?). We're up early partly for the whole summit at dawn thing but mainly because the snow gets too soft during the sunny daylight hours. People have disappeared down the numerous deep crevasses.
Up at 12:30am. I didn't sleep as well as I had hoped, I was too hot! Ended up using my down sleeping bag as a blanket. I pile on clothes and gear and double check the contents of my day pack, it includes a 1st aid kit and map! Brekkie, Coca tea and we all set off into the dark for 01:30.
We trapse awkwardly down to the snow line in our unforgiving 4 season boots where we don our crampons. Eliseo seemed to have trouble fitting his and we set off last, very last. In fact, the others are no-where to be seen. We walk single file, my guide in front, I'm roped to him following behind. Initially I find walking very awkward and extremely tiring but then I find rhythm and settle into a pace. We continue, walking in torch light, for hours. I keep the rhythm but vary the pace (according the to gradient), just like great sex!
We pass the girls, encounter our first wall and have to start climbing. It is exhausting and I gasp for air and oxygen. My guide doesn't let up, "Summit by torch light!" he screams, "Vamos!" I scramble higher, filling my lungs best I can, racking my brains for Spanish for "Stop!" I see Eliseo rise over the lip at the top but he doesn't stop there. He scrambles and runs further on shouting, "Vamos, vamos!" Roped to him I have no choice but to follow, lungs bursting. He stops and sits down in the snow. I collapse down next to him and rip open the zips on my coat and fleece, relieving pressure on my chest in a vein attempt to fill my lungs with more oxygen. The climb was 30 meters, he tells me, the next one is 200 meters! "Despacio!" (slowly) I gasp. He grins and tells me we're making good time.
I look around and take in my surroundings. I can make nothing out beyond the 8m of torch light. I have no incling of where we are going or what we're walking in between. It's just head down and follow the path. I can see the mass of street lights of La Paz below. It is an amazingly clear night and the electric stars above put La Paz to shame, the milky way clearly visible. The night is calm and still. I check the temperature, -10°C. That would explain my frozen Camelbak tube (despite blowing air back in it after each sip). Luckily I also packed my Sigg and Thermos as well! I discover frozen chocolate is difficult to eat.
We plod on, up steep bits, along shallow bits. I keep checking my altimeter. "A new personal best!" I yell reading 5,900 meters. "I'm higher than Kilimanjaro!" Eliseo looks up, unimpressed, "Good, now we climb." I look up also, this is it, the last 200 meter ice climb to the summit. I take a deep breath and sigh, "Despacio." Eliseo grunts and powers on.
It's a different rhythm now. I climb for 5 / 10 steps, shout "Pare!", stop, get some breath back, shout "Vamos!" and climb higher. During one rest I look around and notice that I'm surrounded by the other climbers. I've caught them up. It's the first sparkle of daylight and as I survey my surroundings I'm aware I'm perched on a wall of snow &ice, some 150 meters up, dangling off a rope from my guide a few meters above my head. With only an ice-axe and crampons sticking me to the side of the mountain I feel vulnerable and a slight sense of vertigo. The others are all wheezing hard and lack elegance in their climbing. "Vamos!" yells Eliseo and climbs higher, dragging me with him. I get a feeling it's a race to the top and that he's made bets with the other guides as to who gets there first. I know I'm making it to the summit but I can't breathe and have no driving desire to be first.
Feeling like Spidermen we all crawl up to a small ledge, the summit of Huayna Potosí, 6,088 meters above sea level. I'm the 2nd to summit, missing 1st place by a matter of seconds. Still, I'm happy. I gained some ½ hour on these super fit lads! It pleases me for I never think of myself as particularly fit or athletic. Breathing heavily I grab my hip flask (Bacardi Black Rum) and pass it to Eliseo. He immediately pours it on the ground. I step in to lamp him one but refrain when I remember it's an offering to Pacha Mamma, Mother Earth. Besides, there is still plenty left to offer around. As the sun peaks over the horizon, Huayna Potosí casts a huge funky pyramid shadow over the land and clouds opposite. Huayna Potosí, summit by torch light. Job done.
Eliseo hammers an ice anchor into the ground, I lean back and rappel down the wall. Weeeeee! It takes 3 hours to walk back to high camp. The sun's out, it's hot and it's hard. Trudge, trudge, trudge. The untouched snowy landscapes laid out before me looks fantastic. On my way up I was completely unaware any of it existed.
At high camp it's no sleep and no rest for we need to descend to Base Camp for transportation back to La Paz. I shun all my climbing gear and stuff it back into my main pack. One by one, everyone else returns. Only Katrina didn't summit, she turned around at the bottom of the final 200 meter ice wall. The steep climb down to Base Camp on the loose rocks with a heavy, awkward back pack was very difficult. Being exhausted, progress was slow as I sure footed every step. I didn't want to twist / break anything at this late stage.
Base Camp was full of wide awake, happy, bouncy, Huayna Potosí hopefuls. "How was it?" they enquire. I collapse by the wall opposite looking like a bedraggled picture. I take a swig of water and reply, "Hard. Very hard. Only 2 out of 8 made it yesterday." "Oh." They look shocked, I just burst their bubble. I close my eyes in the midday sun and wait for my taxi.
Back in La Paz I tip Eliseo $20 US, book myself back into the El Solario Hostel and take a well needed shower. The day isn't over yet for I book myself a bus out of La Paz for the morning. It's time I left Bolivia, especially as my 30 day Visa is about to run out. I then taxi it over to my tailors. I dread picking up my Clown suit! But no fear, it's ready and the material looks a million times better than I imagined it to be! (Dark green with lighter woven stripes and a slight blue pin stripe.) Better than that it fits me beautifully! Even the trousers, which I usually have a hard time finding for my short stocky legs! I thank Mendoza for a job well done and head back to the hostel for sleep. It's been a long day.