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Tuesday, 12 February 2008

"Whine" Potosi

Written by Sarit Reizin
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While traveling, you end up doing many things that are exciting and fun only in recollection. After the wounds have been licked shut and the pain in your lungs does not feel like a knife through the chest anymore - only then can you say with a straight face that you would do it all over again.


In Bolivia, having just cycled the famous Death Road, we were not exactly in the lets-do-it-again mood.  Still, the adrenalin of hurtling down a steep mountain road dotted by shrines commemorating those who fell off the perilous path, with nothing but the brakes of our rental bikes to stop us from going over the edge of a cliff and into the harrowing depths of a canyon swimming in murky clouds was still with us, as were our sore muscles, bruised bottoms, and the soaking wet shoes. In retrospect, all that could have been more or less bearable and fixable if only we did not decide to tackle a nearby 6,088m peak the very next day.

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness

Originally, we didn't plan to do any extreme climbing until Kilimanjaro in Africa (5,895m high), but when we heard that Huayna Potosi, a 6,088m mountain near La Paz, takes only three days and requires no experience, we were hooked. Actually, to both our surprise, I was even more enthusiastic than my husband Alex. I don't know what got into me, but I kept thinking about the ice axe and crampons that we would get to use, and how cool would it be to conquer a 6,088m summit. I was like a little girl about to use her new tea-set for the very first time.


Alex was not against climbing either. He did keep asking me over and over if I was sure, surprised I felt so passionate about such a demanding physical task, but the fact that this would be an extremely cool experience that would cost us less then Kilimanjaro, eventually won both of us over, and we booked a guide to lead us up the day after we did the Death Road. If only we knew how we would feel after finally getting off our bikes, we might have taken a day off to take it easy for twenty four hours. Alas, the trip was booked, and we were not the only people in the group going up; so we wore plastic bags over our spare socks, put on our still soaking wet shoes, and set off for the mountain.

In the van to the first of two camps we met the third member of our expedition. Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sicknessJulian was a 22 year-old Frenchman who traveled whenever possible and always in the most extreme of ways. Since neither of us had any experience in ice climbing, the original plan was to get to the first camp (4700m) by car, and spend the day on a nearby glacier practicing technical skills for our two day climb to the peak.


Next, we would spend the night at the same place, and the next morning head out to high camp. There we would eat lunch and go to sleep at about 5pm in order to wake up at about midnight and climb in the dark for the next seven hours to the peak. The reason the final climb is done at night is because it is now summer time here, and the hot Bolivian summer sun softens the snow and increases the risk of an avalanche. Unfortunately, when we reached the camp, the weather was already so bad that a group of men we met coming back from high camp said they didn't even attempt the peak since the risk of an avalanche was too great.



Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sicknessCautiously, that day our guide decided to not even take us out for training. Instead, we spent the whole day playing the card game “Asshole” in a tiny room behind a little house belonging to the hydro-electric plant guard. To be honest, it was alright with us. We had a chance to dry off our very wet shoes and rest our sore muscles. Actually, I'm pretty sure we were not even supposed to be there at all - we were allowed to use the bathroom only if there was nobody else near the house; and then, right before we went to sleep, and I went to brush my teeth, I was literally shoved back into the room by the guard because, as he apologetically explained later, the Sheriff was outside the door.


Things started to look brighter the next morning. There was only a slight change in plans as we still needed to do our ice climbing exercise. It was decided that we have more than enough time, and we will do it all next to the high camp (5,150m) and still have enough hours to catch some rest before we do the night climb. Perfect. That morning I felt as hyper as I usually do when we are headed towards something well beyond my abilities. We were going to climb about 450m, trekking on thin ridges and jagged rocks, and so as soon as we geared up I was the first one out the door.


Sadly, it took me all of twenty meters to realize my lungs were not in the same cheery mood as I was. With every step I could feel my chest constricting and my legs becoming heavier and heavier. I shall not lie, I hated it. I knew I wasn't the strongest member of the group, but I really didn't want to be a burden on Julian and, even more importantly, on Alex. I knew that if I were to quit, he wouldn't leave me behind just as I wouldn’t continue without him.

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness About the same time I started feeling the hardships of altitude, we met another group coming down from high camp and they didn’t have good news. They were a group of experienced climbers who arrived at low camp the same day we did, but since they had experience they could tackle the peak right away in two days. The sad thing was, though, that they too had to turn back due to the risk of avalanche. Moreover, the only girl in their group got so sick from altitude, she had to stay in high camp while the guys had their unsuccessful stab at the peak. That’s the thing with altitude, everybody has their own barrier which, when crossed, hits you like a ton of bricks. I guess my barrier was around 4,750m even though I thought we had acclimatized more than enough in
La Paz. Nonetheless, the way to high camp was up, and this is exactly where we went.

Lunch was almost ready when we reached camp. The two guides, Miguel and Juan along with the driver who, we later learned, never goes above high camp, set us up in their big permanent tent with blue tarp walls and two heavy off-the-ground beds with wooden frames. We sat down to have lunch, but even though the climb up was very hard, and I wasted quite a bit of energy getting here, I had absolutely no desire to replenish my strength. The boys did not seem to have the same problem. Alex and Julian gobbled up everything in sight and were ready for whatever Miguel had in store for us. Can't say I shared their enthusiasm at that point, but I have to admit it was quite contagious. I finally managed to shove some food into myself, and we all set out to a nearby glacier for some much needed training.

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness

I don't know if it was the food, the guide, or the snow, but I was finally having a great time. Just a half hour prior I was miserable and gasping for air, and now I was piercing the frozen snow with my ice axe, digging my crampons into the steep glacier, and practicing rappelling. If this is how the real thing goes, I just might go all the way to the peak, I thought to myself.

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness A few hours of practice, and we came back to the camp to get some sleep before the big climb. No doubt, I felt about 100 percent better, but I still could not look at food. This time, Alex seemed to share my disposition. He too was not thrilled about consuming something that just might want to come right back up. In addition, it appeared that the cold weather was not doing my bladder any favors. Between our
five o'clock early dinner, and the midnight when we needed to get up, I was forced to run out to pee about seven times. To say the least, in time for our very early breakfast I was less than rested and rejuvenated. The boys didn't look good either. They both admitted they had headaches and their stomachs seamed to have their own parties to which they were not invited. I felt the same. All things considered, it was clear that going to sleep was not such a good idea. Later we learned that sleeping actually increases the symptoms of altitude sickness.

In pitch darkness, armed with head lamps, crampons and wielding axes, we set out for the peak. Once again, the guides' original plan was spoiled, but this time not by the weather, but by us. Miguel, the more experienced 40 year-old guide and avid climber, was planning to take the boys on one line and climb at a quicker pace, while Juan, the less experienced twenty one year old guide, who frankly seemed bored by the whole expedition, would be the one to take me on the other line and go at my pace. However, since Alex was not feeling too well when we woke up, and we both were less than thrilled about splitting up, we asked to go on the same line. Right away we could see Juan wasn't happy, and soon enough we found out why.


As we started climbing, Miguel and Julian quickly disappeared in the dark in front of us and not 100m into the climb Juan started showing his true face and whine: "You are going too slow," he kept saying pulling on my rope like I was some stubborn mule. "At this pace we would get to the peak tomorrow morning. What's the point, maybe we should go back?" I kept shaking my head “No,” and disappointed he kept climbing, pulling, and whining. Honestly, I was doing the best I could. It was so dark, the only thing I could see were my feet trying to step into Juan's footprints in the snow. More often than I hoped, I had to stop and catch my breath. A couple seconds of rest in one place would make me feel I could go the next mile in one go, but as soon as I would start walking the strength would get drained from my body as if somebody pulled a cork out of me.


We kept going, and Juan kept coming up with new excuses to turn back. "You are running out of energy," he would tell me in an accusing tone. "If you loose consciousness or get too exhausted, I would have to carry you down and it will be hard for me." Clearly, Juan thought Miguel would be doing all the work on this trip, taking the two guys on his line, and then he wouldn't have to go too far up with me, because it will be easy enough to talk me into going back. Actually, he might have been right, if only Alex wasn't behind me. The last thing I wanted to do was to disappoint him by showing lack of willpower and that, for the most part, was what kept me going. Another little thing to consider was my actual wellbeing.

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness

I was determined to squeeze every ounce of energy available to get as far as possible, but I was also realizing no one would be proud of me for damaging my lungs or getting frostbitten. For an hour now I could feel a piercing pain in my chest. I was so starved for air that I took off the fleece layer that was covering up my mouth and greedily swallowed freezing air. Soon I began feeling my knees buckle, and now I was no longer stopping for rest, I was simply falling down whenever my legs would fail me. Finally, when I was absolutely sure I could not possibly go on I turned to Alex and said: "You know what? I think I'm going to save you the cost of a funeral."



That was at about 5,350m and after a few minutes rest and a brief deliberation he convinced me that we should at least try and get up to a nice round number, like 5,500m, on the GPS, which also happened to be the altitude of camp Argentina. Juan wasn't very happy about that. He kept climbing at our request, but that didn't stop him from whining. "You know something about camp Argentina...," he said, and we hoped he finally decided to change the subject, "...three month ago an avalanche killed a group of climbers who camped there."


Well... at least he changed his tactics from bitching to scaring. The more we kept climbing, the more creative Juan's insults became: "See that vertical wall?" he would say pointing at a nearby cliff "For me, no problem! Shuh-shuh-shuh," he made stabbing motions with his ice axe, "But for you, no way, you would die!" Seriously, if I didn't have better ways of utilizing my energy at that point, I would have told him exactly who would have died and where.

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness 5,500m. We got there and we have the
GPS to prove it. It's not the peak, but it is still my personal best. We backtracked back to camp following our own footsteps, caught some sleep, ate, and waited for Julian and Miguel. We got a bit worried when they did not show up, but Juan assured us that Miguel is a great guide with twenty years of experience and we have nothing to worry about. And true, in a few more hours Miguel showed up with a very exhausted and hungry Julian who, to our surprise, told us he didn't reach the peak either.


Between you and me, I am ashamed to admit I felt a bit better when I heard that. "I got to about 5,988m," he said. "I could not go any further even though the summit was only 100m away. Even so, I only got as far as I have solely thanks to Miguel's guidance and motivation. He kept pushing me until I could not go any further. 5,988m is still good. I'm just going to say I got to 6,000 and then turned back. Who's gonna know?"

Huayna Potosi, 6,088m mountain near La Paz, ice climbing, adventure travel Bolivia, adventure travel south america, altitude sickness

©Sarit Reizin

You can find more of Sarit’s stories in her website:

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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