Huayna Potosi – Day 1

Sunday 18th October 2015

In the morning we did some last minute shopping, walking up and down the streets around the agency. Passed in a street where a market was going on. Woman selling fruits.

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Woman selling newspapers

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The street leading to San Francisco´s church that we can see in the background

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8.30am – 9am we were in the car, drove to El Alto where our to-be guide Theo bought some food for lunch, chicken, salad, rice, potatoes, all ready-to-be-eaten soon meal, nice. Then off we went in the direction of Huayna Potosi. We stopped to take a picture of it. Yep, that mountain, right here, which summits at 6,088 meters. There are about a dozen mountains which are above 6,000 meters high in South America and Huayna Potosi is supposed to be the most accessible for beginners who do not have any experience in mountaineering.

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Man and his llama herd, with La Paz in the background.

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I was really interested in this mountain, it fascinated me. I guess anyone who is thinking to get to the summit of that mountain looks at it differently when getting closer to it. Thinking, hey, I am going to be walking up the snow there during this night and trying to get to that top, there.

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On the way to Huayna Potosi lower basecamp, we passed this red laguna on our left. In front of us, the road on which we were driving.

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The red laguna, seen fully.

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Another laguna, also red, but smaller.

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We arrived at this cemetery. Theo our guide joked that these were all the people who tried to make it to the summit of Huayna Potosi but died. Mmmm. Gloups.

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We got out of the car to take a few photos while the guide was at the checkpoint.

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Another laguna, to the right.

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The cemetery, seen from another angle.

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Some buildings of some people working in this area.

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Zoom on the summit of Huayna Potosi.

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The blue laguna

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We arrived at the Huayna Potosi lower basecamp at 4,700 meters high. As Lluis and me had both been staying above 2,400 meters and mostly around 3,500 meters the past three weeks, that altitude didn`t bother us too much. To the left, another lake with grey water and a dam.

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Theo gave us all the climbing equipment that we would carry. Here it was, a helmet, an ice axe, snow boots, crampons, a harness and a third pair of socks. In my backpack I put all this but also the snow pant and the extra fleece and thermal hoodie they had given me. In addition of a 2 liters bottle water, it was about 15 to 20 kilos in the bag. Oh yes and the -10 degrees sleeping bag that took quite a lot of space!!

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We had lunch and drunk a lot of mate de coca which is supposed to help with the altitude but I still haven`t really felt the difference with not drinking it or not chewing the leaves when hiking in altitude. But who knows.

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I could cram in my 70 litre bag everything except the ice axe. Theo showed me how to fix it outside of the bag.

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And off we went, walking for a few hours to 5,100 meters. It was about 12pm when we started walking up. We started by taking the little bridge right of the lake. The weather was really foggy.

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View to the left when going up.

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Going up.

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Walking on the pipe and then along it.

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We saw lots of these little bushes with frozen ice on. Pretty beautiful.

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Zooming in.

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Walking on the edge. Hold on, where are Theo and Lluis? Ooops.

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Ah yes, can see them.

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We stopped a little bit at this hut where a woman was with a register to collect the park entry fee of 10 bolivianos per person. It was 1.10pm and Theo said we were half-way. There was another guy with a guide who had started after us but had caught up, he was pretty fast.

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Continuing to go up.

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At some point, we ran into this group of maybe thirty Bolivians from La Paz who had just gone to 5,100 meters for the day and were coming back. All of them wanted photos with us, we had to pose for 20 minutes probably, but that was fun!

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Finally made it to the top! It was 2.22pm. Took about 2 hours and 22 minutes then. Well, remember that I am slow. I think Theo and Lluis arrived a bit before me, and they would hae arrived even faster if they didn´t have to wait for me. Anyway! The good thing was that I didn`t have any headache! Yeah!!

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Seen from the front. Welcome to Huayna Potosi basecamp at 5,100 meters!

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I remember how tired and cold I was when I got inside. Theo said that the first thing we had to do was to empty our bags and put the hiking materials under the table. But I was tired and cold. I just wanted a bloody tea. I stayed there completely apathic not able to do anything, not even just open my bag. I was upset actually. I told Lluis that I found that stupid. That the first thing they should do when you pass the door is to hand over to you a warm mate de coca and tell you to sit and relax and drink it. Who cares if you haven`t put yet your materials under the table, seriously? I had a pretty angry voice I think and one of the other guide felt my despair and talked to Theo who brought me a tea. I sat and drunk that tea. Lluis explained to me that this was not a rule just in here, but in anywhere in the world in any mountain refuge. Well, I said, sorry, but I still find that super super stupid. When you get to 5,100 meters after hiking 2 hours from 4,700 meters in the cold with about 20 kilos on your back, the last thing you wanna do when you get to the top is to unpack your bag and lift those heavy material stuff to organise them. At least, I don`t. Or maybe I am not fit enough again to have that extra bit of energy to do that first. Anyway…So after that tea, we unpacked our bags, setup the materials under the table, and went to the other room where there were tables and beds, and each got a bed. I took out the sleeping bag and opened it and spread it on the bed and organised a bit the stuff. Then went to toilets outside.

Then with Lluis and Theo, we put the snow pant, snow boots and took the crampons and ice axe and went for some practicing. The others who were already here were on a 3-day trek so they had done the practice the day before when sleeping at the lower basecamp the first night at 4,700 meters high. I honestly would have preferred to do it in 3 days and I know that Lluis also would have preferred that too, but the forecast was pretty clear that if we had done that, we would get a snow storm on the Monday night and tons of heavy snowfall on the Tuesday morning, so it was no for us.

So we went outside, walked a bit on the rocks and then got to the beginning of the snow trail where we would be walking. Theo showed us how to put the crampons. Lluis had already done some walking on the snow going to summits in the Pyrenees so he knew all this already. For me was the first time in my life I was putting crampons under snow boots! We took the ice axe and Theo showed us how to use it. You go up the mountain, then if the upper part of it is to your right, you have the ice axe in your right hand. You put it into the snow and then you put left foot, right foot (or right foot, then left foot, this order doesn`t matter) with your crampons that need to be ALL into the snow, including the tip of the toes. And you start again. Ice axe, foot, foot. Ice axe, foot, foot. And so on. Now, as we go up in zigzag, if you are about to turn then you have to plant your ice axe fully in the snow and hold with your two hands and put your feet like a duck, like a V facing the mountain. Then you change the ice axe from right hand to left hand. And you are ready to start again. The upper part of the mountain is on your left, so you have the ice axe in your left hand and again ice axe, foot, foot, ice axe, foot, foot and so on. In some areas where it is pretty flat though, no bother planting the ice axe, just walking with the crampons, making sure they go well into the snow to make sure you can`t slide.

Another thing he explained to us is that if we removed a glove to take a photo, open the bag to grab water, anything, we should not put the glove between our leg or on the floor as it could slide or some wind could blow it away. Best was to open our upper layer of the coat, and put the glove inside it next to the chest. It would ensure that we would not loose it but also keep it warm.

It was really fun actually to walk on the snow with an ice axe and crampons and I thought that no matter what, just having come to do see those 3 beautiful lagunas on the way, see Huayna Potosi from closer, and walked up from 4,700 meters to 5,100 meters and learn how to put crampons and use an ice axe and walk on the snow was just already worth coming!!!

So people, if you think of going to Huayna Potosi as something not for you because you don`t want to go to the summit, at least come for the experience of crampons and ice axe and being there. It is worth it!!!

Then when we came back, I spent some time in the entrance room reading lots of the messages people had left the past few years when coming to hike to the summit of Huayna Potosi. Some were pretty cool, some funny, some inspiring, some daunting. It seemed like people from the entire world had come, from Belgium, Ireland, Bavaria, Japan, Israel, France, Switzerland, Germany, United States and so many other places in the world. Those messages were nice to read to put yourself into the atmosphere of climbing Huayna Potosi! Here is a mosaic of a few of these messages.

After that, dinner was being served, it was 5pm already. I counted that there were 20 beds but we seemed to be 17 around the table, although all beds looked taken. Anyway! Interesting to think that every night at base camp, you can currently have only 20 people. I wonder if it gets sometimes so popular that people have to wait weeks to go try hike to the summit?

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The beds to the right. The orange sleeping bag is where my bed is.

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After dinner, we had a briefing around 5.45pm. We were to go to bed around 6pm, better get our small backpack ready. In there 6 things to put: the extra layer of thermal (the sixth layer), the thermal hood, chocolates, sun cream, sun glasses, 1.5 liters of water. Voila. We would clip our head torch onto the helmet in the morning. Wake up call was at midnight. Some little breakfast and mate de coca would be available at 00:30am. Then we would start climbing at 1am. Now the deal is that we had to be at the top at sunrise. Some people took 5 hours some others could take 6h30 but it was not possible to climb in more time than that because if we reached the top later than 6.30am then the snow will melt with the sun and it would get dangerous to get down too late. We would stay at the top around 20 to 30 minute and then we would hike back down to basecamp which should take 4 hours roughly. It was important to be quick going down and not stop over too often because again with the sun rising, the sun melting would make the conditions more dangerous. Alright, got it.

Now, talking with Annabel who had booked with Inca Land Tours, the same agency as us, she told me she was slow and we asked the two guides we had if we could go with one and wake up at 11.30pm to have brekky at midnight and start walking at 00:30am, half hour before everyone else, so that we could walk a bit in advance as they would catch us up later. Theo was ok to be our guide of Annabel and me and Lluis would go with her guide.

We got our bags ready, last stop at the toilets outside. The fog was invading the night. And then we went to sleep. But I couldn`t sleep during all this “night”. I kept turning and turning in my bed, very sadly for the German guy who was sleeping in the bed under mine who probably suffered from me moving and shaking this wooden bunk bed, sorry buddy…I also experienced something really new, the sleep apnea you get at this altitude. You breathe in but…your body forgets to breathe out. And you feel stuck suddenly. And you have to breathe out very very heavily. That kept preventing me from sleeping. Breathing when lying was sooo hard. I wasn´t too cold otherwise. Had a mild headache so took an Aspro. No, just that breathing thing. And everyone seemed also to keep taking turns going to toilets. I actually had to get out of the bed around 8.30pm and go again to toilets too. So not much sleep that night sadly.

And before we knew it…It was already time to “wake up” and go for it! 11.30pm!!!