Although Huyana Potosi is 6088 meters high (that’s more than 6 kilometres straight up into the atmosphere), it is considered to be an easy 6000m mountain for novice climbers. So, without realising what I was letting myself in for, I joined five other intrepid novices and headed to the 4750m basecamp of the Huyana Potosi Agency, run by the genial but slightly bonkers Dr. Hugo Berrios – a mountain legend in these parts.
After lunch we headed out to the ‘old’ glacier for an afternoon of ice walking and climbing to prepare us for our attempt on Huyana Potosi; returning for an early night in preparation for going up to the refugio at the high camp, located 5100m up Huyana Potosi.
The refugio was pretty basic, but dramatically located overlooking the valley below, and also featured what must count as one of the coldest toilets on planet earth.
Our group consisted of three Brits, a Brazilian, an American and a Spaniard, plus three Bolivian mountain guides (three groups of three), and as we went to bed in the freezing cold refugio we were in high spirits. We would have to set off for the top of Huyana Potosi at 1.30am, so we were early to bed, although I don’t think many people got much sleep.
The first signs of ‘trouble’ came at 9.30pm when I braved the freezing cold to go to the toilet, only to be confronted by a snowstorm. Not unusual, but not very welcome all the same. By the time we set off at 1.30am there was about 6 – 8 inches of snow on the ground, which not only covered over the trail to the summit, but also made walking much more difficult and energy sapping.
There is something weird about walking up a mountain in the dark. You have no idea of the landscape you are walking through and you can’t see where you are going – which, given how far we had to walk and how steep some of sections were, was probably for the best. The altitude was difficult to deal with and we needed fairly regular breaks.
The climb to the base of the summit took approximately 5 hours, and we were pretty tired by the time we reached the final, dramatic climb to the summit. This started with our guide giving us the warning that this section was “very, very dangerous”. Now you tell us!
Then we were off, climbing up a narrow ice ‘bridge’ at an angle of about 50 degrees with nothing but 1000m drops on either side. At the top of the ice bridge was a narrow ledge of ice and fresh snow which stretched for about 200 meters to the top of the mountain – at some points the ledge was no more than 4 – 6 inches wide, with nothing but vertical drops either side. My ice boots were at least 4 inches wide, leaving little room for error.
It was terrifying, but we edged along the ledge putting our faith in our crampons and ice axes, and trying (in my case) to think of what would drive a nominally sane human being to be edging along an ice ledge at 6000m at 6am with certain death just one slip away. In part this question was answered when we reached the top just as the sun was rising, but the adrenalin was pumping so hard around my brain that it was pretty difficult to grasp the beauty of our surroundings for a few minutes.
Once the sun was up, the true beauty of where we were became apparent…and, despite the fact that we were balanced precariously on a lump of ice and snow 6088m in the sky, it really was amazing. To the bottom left of the photo below is the narrow ice ledge that we had just walked up, and which we’d have to go back down again.
After catching our breath for a few minutes on the summit, we started our descent of the ice ledge, which was even more terrifying than the ascent, and then the three hour trek back down the mountain to the high camp. With the sun rising in the sky, we could finally see what we had walked up to reach the summit, and it revealed an amazing landscape of ice and snow.