Climbing a summit 6 088 m high, a challenge that is simply impossible in Europe… but a dream that came true in Bolivia. If Huayna Potosi is not the highest summit in the country, it is one of the most accessible and most chosen for a first climb. An adventure that was as demanding as amazing, but most of all, absolutely unforgettable.
Tuesday 26th and Wednesday 27th June 2018
Two days in La Paz to get some rest and prepare ourselves with Juan: we booked the tour at the agency, bought some snacks and other necessary sweets to survive, prepared our bags… and slept a lot to put the odds on our sides!
Heading to Huayna Potosi
Thursday 28th June 2018
D-day! After so much time speaking about it, it was now well and truly concrete. We ate a plate of noodles early in the morning, packed our bags and left to the agency that we had chosen, Hiking Bolivia. There we met Francisco and David, two of our guides, as well as Tomas, Teresa, Martin and Monika, four Czech friends with who we would share the adventure.
We took all our equipment, our guides bought the necessary food for the three days and we head to Huayna Potosi. We arrived at the base camp at the end of the morning, a refuge located 4 800 m high. We had our lunch, met our third guide, Célestino, and put on our equipment for our first hike: jacket and trousers, gloves, helmet, boots… we would just have to add the ice cleats and axe once in the snow.
First trip on the ice
Once all ready, we walked in the direction of a small glacier located close to the refuge, which is ideal to get used to the equipment and the boots. I had the impression to go skiing with these heavy and rigid shoes, but I would have to get used to them to walk for three days with them! The landscapes were already amazing; snowy summits and lagoons in which the mountains were reflecting surrounded us.
As we got closer to the glacier, we put on our cleats, took the ropes and axe out and started climbing in the snow, while our guides (one per “couple”) were explaining us the different technics to remember. We got to a small ice wall where we did our first ice climbing. We would not have to climb like this during the ascent of the summit but it was at least the occasion to discover these sensations.
Pop-corn and relax
We came back to the refuge by the end of the afternoon, where a great tea break was waiting for us, with warm popcorn, biscuits and infusions. We played cards with our Czech friends while the guides were preparing our dinner, which was served early (18.30) so to go to bed quickly.
We went to bed indeed quite early, at 8.00 p.m., but it was better like this given the program of the two coming days!
Towards the Alto Campo
Friday 29th June 2018
After a good 12h-night sleep, we had a quiet morning: breakfast, bags preparation, early lunch (11 a.m.) and then let’s get ready! This time we left with our big bags towards the highest base camp, a refuge located 5 200 m high.
We climbed in about 2h, again through amazing landscapes. Unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to take pictures but I would have to get used to it, as it is one of the problems with this kind of hikes in groups.
We were starting to struggle in the snow with our big slippery boots, so much that we ended up putting on the cleats, which made the climb then much easier. Only Juan went without the cleats and had a lot of fun, respect!
The view once at the refuge was breath taking. We had our tea break in the sun while two of our guides were climbing with their skis to enjoy a freestyle descent. We watched them both with envy and admiration and then went to prepare our stuff and get some rest for the ascent. We had a soup at 6 p.m. and went straight to bed, as the alarm would wake us up early, very early!
Full moon climbing
Saturday 30th June 2018
We woke up at 1.30 p.m. after a difficult night (excitation and altitude didn’t really help us to fall asleep peacefully!), had a quick breakfast and then put on all our equipment to brave the cold (about -8°). We left around 2.45 a.m., each couple with its guide.
The ascent started slowly; I was feeling so good that I was stamping and even asked to Célestino to go ahead our teammates. However he told me to be patient… here the rule is to start like grandparents and finish like children, and I would soon understand how right he was!
We had the chance to be walking at almost full moon, which enabled us to climb without using our forehead lights. The ice was sparkling and the mountains all around us were enlightened, which was truly superb. On the top of that could be seen the lights of El Alto (huge city overlooking La Paz) far away, which was the occasion to see how big it is.
In the middle of the ascent, we had one first hard part, which was particularly steep. My left arm was struggling from using so much the axe; one piece of chocolate was more than welcome when we finished it.
We went on at this slow but regular pace, until we arrived at the foot of the last part before the summit, around 5 900 m high. I had to empty part of my bottle of water to lighten a bit my bag, as I was starting to feel its weight with the altitude. We took some coca to boost us and let’s go!
We made it
This last ascent was both demanding and sublime. On our right were the colours of dawn progressively enlightening the horizon with delicate pink / orange colours, and face to us was proudly standing the summit. The air was lacking, the slope was steep and I was getting a bit weak with hunger, the cold in my hands and feet… but I went on and on, feeling overwhelmed to live this unique adventure with such scenery.
We arrived shortly before 7 a.m., as the sun was just coming out of the clouds. We could not have had a better timing! Moreover we climbed it all together, without having anyone sick in the group; so we could be proud. The time on the summit was unfortunately too short to my taste: just some time to take a few pictures of the group, pull out my camera battery from the bottom of my pocket (so that it doesn’t freeze during the night), take a few pictures and it was already time to go down! I almost didn’t have time to admire the 360° panorama and was feeling quite frustrated not to have lived this moment as I would have liked…
From 6 088 m to 4 800 m high
We had to go down quickly because the snow melts rapidly once the sun is out, which then makes the descent more complicated. It was steep and hard for the knees but we could now discover all the landscapes we had been walking through at night, and it was so beautiful! Once again, I would have loved to stop more to take photos, but all I could do was filling my eyes with these amazing pictures.
We arrived two hours later at the refuge, where we had a well-deserved soup and got some rest. We still had to go down to the first basecamp but needed to gather some strength beforehand!
We left again around 10.30 a.m. for this last step. Our legs were tired and the bags were feeling heavy but we finally arrived at the refuge, still on a cloud nine after this unbelievable adventure. We gave our equipment back to the guides and then left to La Paz, where we arrived at the beginning of the afternoon.
Conclusion about this adventure
I will always keep a special memory of this first ascent. I am very happy not to have been sick and am aware that we did it in ideal conditions (full moon, no wind, wonderful sunrise…). Our guides were patients, took care very well of us, and we had an homogeneous team, so it could not have been better!
I am also thankful to our guides to have forced us to start slowly, which definitely contributed to the success of our climb. The saying “slow and steady wins the race” has never been so true, and even more given the number of groups that we have crossed, who were going down without reaching the summit as they were too sick to make it.
The last ascent will remain as a stronger moment for me than the time on the summit, which was too quick to my taste, even though I understand the reasons. As for the impossibility to take as many pictures as I would have liked to, it is part of the limit in trekking with groups, and these pictures will always remain in my memory… which is the most important!
To be continued…
3-day trek with Hiking Bolivia : 990 BOB – 122€ for 3 days and 2 nights in refuges. Meals and tea-breaks included, and my vegetarian diet was respected.
The climb can be done in two days but the success rate is largely inferior (around 50% only). Three days give more time to get used to the altitude and the material, and to climb with more tranquillity.
The agency is specialized in treks and climbing, with more than 15 years of experience. We were warmly welcomed, the guides are excellent, and all the material is of good quality (helmet, hood, jacket, trousers, gloves, spats, boots, ice cleats and axe). Definitely recommended!