Ascent of Huayna Potosí on 2011-09-21

Climber: Bo Saunders

Others in Party:Carlos (Guide)
Date:Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:4x4 Vehicle
Peak:Huayna Potosí
    Elevation:19974 ft / 6088 m

Ascent Trip Report

This has to be the best hike I've ever done due to the sheer elevation alone. Did the hike over three days with my guide Carlos. I didn't do much besides sleep for the first 24 hours. It's a short hike to the lower base camp, which sits at 16,076'. I did some ice climbing to pass the time the first day (and sucked at it), and I also did a fair amount of eating, but other than that, I just slept. We had a blizzard roll in on day 2, which delayed our departure for high base camp. I was snowed in with nothing to do. I just hung out in my sleeping bag mostly to keep warm.

Eventually things cleared, we set off for the short hike up to the high base camp, which sits at 16,831'. It is a surreal place. It's so desolate and inhospitable up there. But it was really cool to see all the flags that were hung up inside the hut. I remember one drawing of a guy who appeared to look a lot like Osama Bin Laden - he was holding up his index finger as if making a note. The speech bubble said: "It's a good place to hide."

On the morning of the ascent, we got a very early start - departing at 1:45am. It was a really tough climb. We passed over lots of cravasses and it was so dark I couldn't see anything around me. It was also virtual white-out conditions are various points. So the early start, the altitude, along with total darkness and blinding snow made this the most challenging hike I've ever done. From a physical stand point, I could handle it. I was coming off some long, rugged climbs in Central America. But the altitude gets you. I remember at one point lagging and Carlos had to pull me by the rope like a dog. He told me to eat. I said "I'm not hungry." He said "it's the altitude affecting your appetite - you need to eat."

There was also a fear factor of not really being sure of your surroundings in the tough conditions, but occasionally stepping over a deep crevasse. I recall thinking that any one of those crevasses could become my icy grave. Oh and the ice wall. That's when the Aussie-Kiwi couple turned back. We just hit a wall out of nowhere. It went straight up. It was still dark, dumping snow. They took one look at it and said "nope." Carlos just attacked it. He dug in his crampons and his ax and started climbing. He got about half way up, anchored his ax, looped the rope, and gave me the signal. I went for it. It wasn't bad. Once I was about 10 feet up, there was enough angle to dig in your crampons and lean against it.

The best feeling was when we finally broke the clouds. The snow stopped like someone flipped a switch. The moon lit up the mountainside. And the stars. Unbelievable. It was like I'd reached another dimension. Earth was down below. I was floating above the clouds. There was still a lot more work to do, however. We continued across the glacier and the sun started to rise. This gave me a big boost. I could feel the warmth and finally I could see! Eventually we reached a point just below the final summit push. This was a dicey place. Lots of ice. Narrow foot holds. And plenty more crevasses waiting to claim you. This was the last exit point for the other groups of climbers. I think there may have been two groups that turned back here. It was a bit like navigating a maze to find the way across this patchy stretch that sat just below the main summit block. Not only that but the last bit ran us really close against the rock which had icicles hanging down. So I was picking my foot holds while ducking and dodging hanging slabs of ice from above.

Finally we made it through and started our push for the summit. I'm not an expert on avalanches, but this was a narrow ridge and if any amount of snow cleaved off, it didn't matter whether you went right or left, you weren't coming back. The snow was deep - often coming up above my knee - as we slogged our way up the long narrow spine. It seemed like forever that we scaled that ridge. The fear of falling was only curbed by my focus and determination to cleanly plant one foot in front of the other.

The feeling of reaching that summit was like nothing I'd ever experienced. It was different because of what I'd had to brave to get there. I'd never been anywhere close to that altitude - it felt like I was 10,000 feet above the clouds. I'd never endured a white out on a glacier dotted with crevasses. I'd never been roped in. I'd never scaled an ice wall. And knowing everyone else turned back made it that much sweeter. I finally got a chance to look around and take it all in as Carlos hopped on his cell phone and started making calls. Not to celebrate the accomplishment - I assume he was just talking about what time he'd be home or what the family was going to eat for dinner. Anyway, I got to see Lake Titicaca. I saw the highest summit in Bolivia - Sajama - in the far distance, reaching just a bit higher than me. The summit of my mountain also made a nice shadow that stretched out before me on the earth below. For some reason I couldn't get my heavy SLR to work. The power switch was off, but due to either nerves or a mind frazzled by the soaring heights, I just couldn't get it to work. Luckily I was able to document the moment with my trusty iphone.

Coming down was fun. The snow was so fluffy and soft we could literally leap our way down the mountainside. What took 5 hours to go up, took a mere 1.5 to go back down (to high base camp). I was spent - mentally and physically. And with time to reflect, I was sure that was my last hike on a glaciated mountain. But it won't be. I'll be back. Because no matter what I have to endure to get there, the summits still call out to me.
Route: East Face - Normal Route from Campamento Argentino (high camp)
Depart lower base camp (16,076'): 12:50pm (Sept 20 2011)
Arrive high base camp (16,831'): 2:30pm (Sept 20 2011)
Depart high base camp: ~1:45am (Sept 21 2011)
Summit: 6:45am
Depart summit: 7:00am
Arrive high base camp: 8:30am
Depart high base camp: 9:30am
Arrive lower base camp: 10:45am
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3898 ft / 1188 m
    Round-Trip Distance:7.6 mi / 12.2 km
    Route:East Face
    Trailhead:Lower Base Camp from Zongo Pass  16076 ft / 4899 m
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground, Snow Climb, Glacier Climb, Ice Climb
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Rope, Guide, Hut Camp
    Nights Spent:2 nights away from roads
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Windy, White-out
Snow storm at lower base camp, white out during ascent but cleared above clouds before sunrise, perf
Ascent Statistics
    Time:6 Hours 40 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Time:2 Hours 45 Minutes

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