Jaza's World Trip

Huayna Potosí: getting back

This morning's climb of Huayna Potosí was very hard. But it turned out that getting to the top was the easy part. Once we reached the summit, we had to climb and hike all the way back through the ice, to the high camp; and then straight away, we had to continue hiking down, all the way to base camp. I was already dead when I reached the top of the mountain; but by the time I'd done the additional 5 hours or so of hiking to get back to base camp, I was semi-human. Mountain climbing lesson number 1: getting to the top is only half the journey. Once you get there, there's no helicopter waiting to take you back down.

The descent back down the 200m wall of the summit was probably the worst part of getting back. Half the way down, I was able to rappel (Issac belayed me from above); but the rest of the way, I had to slowly and carefully make my way down, with crampons and ice-axe. Not fun, and it didn't feel terribly safe, either. Plus, the sun was getting stronger, and the heat and the sun-glare didn't help at all.

Then, it was about 2 hours of very solid hiking, back through the ice, to make the return to high camp. And as any seasoned hiker knows, walking downhill for long distances can actually be harder than walking uphill. It may use a lot of your energy going uphill; but it wears down all sorts of leg muscles going downhill, and it makes you sore for days after. And just to make things worse, Issac barely allowed any time for resting on this return ice hike (whereas we had plenty of breaks on the way there), as he kept insisting that we were "late".

Still, no rest for the wicked! We arrived back at high camp at about 11:30am — where we rendezvoused with Guillaum and Super Mario, who had returned much earlier (since Guillaum turned back long before the finish), and who had been waiting for us for some time — and I had barely ½ an hour to rest at high camp, before we pushed on yet again, endeavouring to cover the remaining distance back to base camp, and to civilisation.

The three hours of hiking back to base camp were the worst for me. By this time, I was suffering from a rising headache, lack of adequate food, aching leg muscles, and very severe exhaustion. I stumbled back the whole way — through rocky descents, slippery sand paths, and cliff-side trails — and it really was a miracle that I didn't pass out, fall flat on my face, and crack my head open along the way. At least, thankfully, I had my regular boots back on, and we were no longer hiking through ice.

By the time we finally reached base camp, I had endured more physical challenge in one day than I ever had before in my life. 12 hours of almost non-stop hiking and climbing; very little food; and at most, ½ an hour of sleep during our night at high camp. Nobody warned me that Huayna Potosí would be this hard, and never in my darkest dreams did I imagine it being so. And a good thing that was, too: otherwise there's no way that I would have tried doing it! Guillaum was just as stuffed as me; but our guides, Issac and Super Mario, didn't seem to be worn out by our ordeal at all.

Upon reaching base camp, we had a quick lunch of tuna sandwiches; we gave all our borrowed equipment back to the guides; we packed all our stuff into the transport taxi waiting to take us home; and then we got into the taxi, and I slept like a baby, all the way back to La Paz.

I really think that the difficulty of my trip to Huayna Potosí was, in large part, the fault of the guides and of the tour company. Basically, they rushed it too much. Hiking / climbing all the way from high camp to the summit, and then from the summit all the way back to base camp, in one single morning, was crazy. We really should have — at the least — spent the rest of the day, and possibly another night, at high camp; and then returned to base camp after that period of rest. That would have been much more sane.

I also really didn't appreciate Issac constantly complaining that we were "late", and "going too slow", on the entire return journey. It wasn't my fault if we were late: it was my first climb; and Huayna Potosí gets lots of first-time climbers; and I did it as fast as I could, in my utterly exhausted condition. The companies that do the Huayna Potosí climbs should be a bit more aware of the fact that they're often taking beginners, and they should allow a bit more time and room for slowness or other incidents, rather than setting aggressive schedules, and pushing their people like mad to stick to them.

Basically, Huayna Potosí was a really incredible experience: I'm very happy and I feel a great sense of accomplishment, that I managed to make it to the top (apparently, only about 80% of people reach the summit); and I don't regret doing it one little bit. However, the climb really did push me to the very edge of my physical endurance limits, and I feel that in large part, the extent of that pushing was unnecessary. A slightly more relaxed climb would have been better. But hey, I guess that's the nature of mountain climbing: it is, after all, a very extreme sport.