Huayna Potosi: Ascending a mountain and surmounting self-doubt in Bolivia
Friday, March 21, 2003
Huayna Potosi, Bolivia
I am awake in my tent, comfortably wrapped in my bag, listening to the pelting of freezing snow against my tent.
The high-altitude headache I suffered when climbing up to the high camp at 17,500 feet is gone now, but I am suffering a different ailment: a gut fear and anxiety, questioning my judgment.
Why is it that my dreams for adventure always seem to exceed my ability to endure or even to survive? But then, what is life if not living your dreams?
I shake off my self reproach and doubt and try to sleep. But dreams don’t come. At 1:30 a.m. Juan shakes my tent and calls: “Desayuno”! I struggle out of my bag, stick my head out of the tent and peer into the dense snow fog. Juan is more determined than I to make this climb. While I am sipping tea of coca leaves and nibbling on dry crackers, he cheerfully advises that snow and fog at 17,500 feet often mean that skies will be clear at 19,000 feet, and therefore the climb is on.
Who am I to argue? So, armed with my headlamp, I stumble around to put on my climbing bibs, harness, boots and crampons.
I decide to go light, wearing only one layer of fleece under my bibs; I will be forced to keep on climbing in order stay warm. Good discipline. In my pack I carry a bologna sandwich plus toffees for snacks and lunch and two quarts of water in insulated bottles, plus a down jacket for truly desperate situations.
At 2:30 a.m. we are ready. I am third on the rope behind Juan and with Nemisio (Nemo) in the lead. Trying to get a sure footing with our crampons we follow faintly visible tracks of earlier climbers and slowly snake up the glacier through darkness and fog. Distances on mountains mean nothing so I keep track of our progress by occasionally checking the altitude on my watch/altimeter.
The greatest thing about climbing these high mountains is that life is distilled down to its purest essence, and that is the will to survive! To do so I grant myself small incentives and rewards: I take a 10-second stop after every 100 steps and call for a five-minute water break every 500 feet of elevation gain. Juan and Nemo are happy to indulge me, especially since at 61, I am the oldest guy they ever hauled up this mountain.
At 19,000 feet, just below Paso Palo, we meet our first technical challenge, a 100-foot, 70-degree wall of ice and snow traversed by an ugly crevasse. Since Juan is pleased with our rate of progress so far, he decides against putting in ice screws for protection. Instead we climb the wall with our ropes taut between us to protect against a possible crevasse fall.
We take a short but sweet break on top of Paso Palo. Although we now have less that 1,000 vertical feet to climb, Juan says that the summit is still three hours away. I am skeptical but shut up: 1,000 feet in three hours – we can surely do better that that?
By now we have fallen into a slow, mechanical, but sustainable climbing rhythm. I am able to synchronize my steps with my breathing; to save energy I place my feet carefully in Juan and Nemo’s tracks. Even though I am straining every fiber of my body and exhaust the capacity of my heart and lungs with every step, I am enjoying this very much. I am gaining on the summit and I am surviving. This is living large!
Dawn is invading the darkness with a gleaming pink and red. As the moon is giving way to the rising sun it becomes clear that Juan was right: Above 19,000 feet it is a brilliant, cloudless morning. I am elated as I look around and below me; I feel like I escaped from the cloudy, stormy world below!
On the horizon are the massive and jagged shapes of Huayna’s neighbors, Illimani, Mururata and Condorriri, and far off to the north the reigning monarch, Illiampu. What a day to be alive. Thank God for dreams and Juan for pushing me to make them real.
As we are approaching 20,000 feet (as per my altimeter), my euphoria is shattered by the towering 70-degree and 400-foot summit wall of Huayna’s south face. We stop for our last pre-summit break as Juan lays out the summit strategy.
Time and sunshine are now working against us: Within an hour the hard, frozen snow of the summit wall will turn into mush under Bolivia’s relentless, scorching equatorial sun. So Juan and Nemo rig up a running belay designed to get all of us to the summit and down in shortest order. I am now in the middle of our rope team with about 80 feet of rope between each of us.
My God, what stuff are these Bolivians made of? I watch with awe as Nemo literally runs the full 80 feet up the mountain, rhythmically, tools swinging, and securely placing his ice tools into the steep wall for protection as he moves up. His strength and coordination are incredible.
After he has run out the full 80 feet he sets up a belay and yells at me to start climbing. I go forward, not looking back, knowing full well that there is at least 2,000 feet of non-stop falling below me. Inspired, I overrule my protesting heart and lungs and give it all I have left.
I am not even halfway up to Nemo, when Juan is racing past me, breezing up the wall on to the next belay spot 80 feet above Nemo. We repeat this process three times. By now my will and muscles are becoming disconnected.
I continue to make feeble steps upwards, but barely move, when I hear Nemo’s excited scream: “CUMBRE.” He is all of 15 feet above me. That’s the shot I needed. I lumber up the final steps and join him on the summit at 20,088 feet.
In fact we are “above” the summit, as we are standing on a precarious 20-feet monster cornice that overhangs the bottomless abyss of Huayna’s north face. I drop my pack to get my camera to have a summit picture taken in T-shirt with the bold peace sign in a silent, symbolic protest against our war with Iraq.
Juan tells me not to move one step for fear that the cornice might collapse. Pics are taken and hands are shaken. Abrazos follow and we begin our descent, reversing the running belay procedure down the south face.
As we reach the gentler slopes below the summit, I am elated but exhausted. It is now past 8 a.m. and the now-soft and sticky snow is collapsing under my feet, forming huge clumps under my crampons, making walking extremely difficult and hazardous.
About every 10 steps we stop and try to knock the sticky stuff off our crampons with our ice axes and then lumber on for another 10 steps. My mantra is: “Be careful, most accidents happen on the way down.”
After we descend the wall below Paso Palo, we take our crampons off and stamp-step or at times glissade down the glacier toward the safety of our high camp. We finally arrive there at 10:30 a.m. I collapse in my tent, exhausted, miserable, nauseous, but utterly happy: “Yes, you can make your dreams happen.”
Gerry Vanderbeek is a resident of Glenwood Springs.
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