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BOLIVIA | Sunday, 13 April 2008 | Views [1193] | Comments [6]

Kyle and I and our guide, Andrés, in full gear after finishing the descent to the refugio.

Kyle and I and our guide, Andrés, in full gear after finishing the descent to the refugio.

Location: La Paz, Bolivia, at a mere 11,942 feet

Mood: Relaxed and still in disbelief

Most recent meal: Pancakes! Hallelujah for pancakes!

Well, folks, I have climbed the mountain. Just shy of 20,000 feet (6,088 m), Huayna Potosi is the most easily accessible peak in Bolivia over 6000 m. That does not mean it's an easy climb. Trust me. Here's the story of Kyle's and my 2-day ascent of the magnificent peak:

Day 1: La Paz to High Camp:

Kyle and I gorged ourselves on the free pancake breakfast at our hostel before strapping on our nearly-empty packs and making our way through the hectic streets of La Paz to the trekking company Travel Tracks. There we met Martin, a British guy with five years of travel ahead of him, and Ryan, a Canadian who looks like the Arian ideal of Jesus with pierced ears. Together with our guides, we drove up through the maze of the city onto the altiplano and towards our destiny.

Our first glimpse of the mountain made my pulse race, whether with fear or excitement I am unsure. It rose out of the plains like the head of an ancient beast, covered in snow, shining in the sun. It looked impossibly tall and forbidding. My eyes coursed over its contours, trying to visualize our route to the summit.

At the trailhead, we loaded up our packs with expedition-weight coats and pants, crampons, alpine axes, harnesses, balclavas, mittens, gaiters and hard-shelled mountaineering boots. With our pakcs weighing us down, we climbed a trail through boulders and along ridgelines to High Camp, a stone and wood hut at 16,831 ft (5,130 m). The snowfield and the route to the summit began just on the other side of the hut.

I spent the afternoon hanging around in the sun with my fellow mountaineers. Along with Martin and Ryan there were Bart, Olaf, Don, Jimmy, Tom and two others, from Holland, Australia and Sweden. Together with all our Bolivian guides, it made me the only woman out of 14 men to be attempting the summit! We told stories, chucked rocks at other rocks, drank tea and water, and ate handfuls of chocolate while our guides climbed the snowfield and skied down to the edge of the glaciar. Martin tried out skiing for the first time, performing a set of beautiful faceplants and endos.

After a dinner of soup and rice and beef, we got ready for an early bedtime of 6 pm. Sunset around the hut was magical, with the sun adding pale hues of gold and blue to the clouds swirling round beneath us in the valley. Large rocky mountains poked their faces above the whirling clouds--we were already higher than most of them.

I fell asleep to the lullaby of nine farting men.

Day 2: High Camp to the summit, and back to La Paz:

The lights came on at 12:15 am. It was time to start hiking. I pulled on all my layers of gear, praying that I wouldn't have to pee after donning long underwear, hiking pants, mountaineering pants and a harness. My second pair of gloves, balclava, a few pounds of peanuts and chocolate, two liters of water, and spare AAA batteries went into my pack.

Downstairs, everyone was lively and talkative, excited for the task ahead. We ate bread slathered in butter and drank hot drinks before tying up our boots and stamping out the door. The night was clear and warm and still. There was no moon, only starlight and headlamps to guide our way over the snow. We strapped on our crampons and roped in, with Andrés in the lead, myself in the middle, and Kyle in the rear. Other pairs of climbers roped up with their guides around us, visible only as spheres of light from their headlamps. Leaning on our axes, we began the tortuous 5-hour climb to the summit.

The snow stretched away before us, as black as the night without light to shine upon it. The crests of hills and ridges were visible only as places where stars began, so it was easy to imagine that we were walking into the night-blackened sky itself. Every so often we'd see some dark patch in the snow, indicating some unseen snow formation. Behind and ahead we could see the bobbing train on glowing lights, marking the progress of our friends. About halfway up, the lights of La Paz came into view as a sea of fluttering gold far, far below. We were already 7,000 feet higher than the city.

My progress became medatative. There was no room or energy for thoughts or songs in my head, just the knowledge that we were going higher, making progress, little by little. My legs were tired, and my breath became ragged, but still I felt strong and confident that I would reach the summit. I focused on the sound my ax made as I set it in the snow and picked it up again. Stamp, creeaak...stamp, creeaak... The regularity was soothing.

After a few hours of climbing, Kyle started having a hard time. He called for frequent rests, and collapsed in the snow each time, panting hard and trying to summon more energy. He mentioned waves of nausea, a clear sign of altitude sickness. We scaled the near-vertical face of a berschrund, worked our way along a ridge, walking as slowly as possible. Still, he was losing energy fast. Finally, he collapsed onto his hands and knees and told Andrés he couldn't keep going. It was too hard, and it was becoming unsafe. Andrés told him we had to go a little further so I could rope up with another group, and he and Kyle could descend together. By the time we reached another group, we were at the base of the final pitch. Kyle rallied wonderfully, and decided to go for it. I fed us each a packet of Gu and many large mouthfuls of icy water, and we began the climb from hell.

The base of the final pitch was 320 vertical feet below the summit. The slope itself was at 65º. Almost as soon as I started it, my legs felt weak and unresponsive, and I finally began to feel the altitude. I paced myself as best as I could, willing myself to climb 10, 15, or 20 ax-strokes at a time between breaks. At each rest I would dig my ax in deep, nudge my knees into the wall of snow, and lean into the hill. My breathing was ragged and felt more like panting. My heart pounded so hard at my chest, I though it might burst right on through.

"Why the hell are you doing this?" I asked myself, over and over again. "Why do you think this is fun?" I didn't have an answer. "I don't want to go to the top," I decided. But another, stronger part of me responded by saying, "Yes, you don't want to. But you will."

I pounded out another fifteen paces and rested again with my face inches from the snow. I caught a glimpse of color out of the corner of my eye and turned my head to see the most brilliant shade of orange I had ever seen in my life. The sun was rising to the east, glowing with such fiery fervor as to make all the other sunrises of my life unremarkable in comparison. My breath caught in my throat at the sight of such unrestrained beauty.

I glanced up the still-dark slope at the lights of my friends ahead of me. The hill was nearly vertical. How could I possibly climb that? I glanced down between my legs and saw Kyle directly below me, panting into the snow. I looked at the sunrise again, and felt the promise of sunlight give me the enrgy to continue. Twenty paces, rest, fifteen, rest, twenty more, and the cheers of my friends pulled me over the crest of the summit, where I collapsed in an ungainly heap of exhaustion and pain.

It took me a few minutes to regain enough energy to lift my head and look at the view. It was, without a doubt, the most beautiful sight I have ever seen in my life. To the east spread a sea of clouds so expansive I couldn't wrap my mind around it. I didn't know it was possible to see that far away. The clouds were butter colored, edged in pale tones of blue and gold. The orange band of sunrise was broadening and brightening by the minute, revealing more and more scenery around me.

To the north, a mighty peak rose out of the snow and clouds, a jagged and rugged monolith of stone and ice. And we were so far above that massive entity, so far above everything around us!

More mountains dragged my vision around to the left, out to the flat plains of the altiplano and the shy glimmer of Lake Titicaca in the far, far distance. Pink sunlight began to touch the snow at my feet, bringing me back to my immediate surroundings.

I was shivering, but not as hard as Martin, who was shaking so hard I thought he might start an avalanche. Kyle had me dig out his food and water so he could try to regain some energy for the climb down. During th twenty or so minutes we were on top, he never once stood up. My friends and I exchanged feeble, bemittened hand-clasps of congratulations--it was all we had energy for. I sat and shivered and tried to take it all in. The beauty was so overwhelming that I choked up three seperate times.

When the sun was nearly fully above the horizon, we begand to downclimb that hill of death, with Andrés above us, belaying from a snow piton. Every 100 meters of descent, we would dig into the mountainside and wait for him to rejoin us for the next leg. We craned our heads backwards to stare up that ridiculously steep slope. It was a good thing we hadn't seen it in daylight, or we never would have had the willpower to attempt it.

Thew sun was fully up by the time we reached the toe of the slope. Around us flowed the most pristine, smoothest, whitest landscape imaginable. The snow was immaculate, laying on the mountain in graceful swoops and fields. Throughout the descent from the peak, we kept spying massive formations of ice and snow; caves and potholes and crevasses lined with icecicles. The rocks around us that were too steep and shear to hold snow were the deep, rich brown color of chocolate, shot through with veins of orange iron.

We climbed down slowly, savoring the ease of the descent, and absorbing all the beauty. We took photos and talked about the climb, now that our fingers weren't numb and we had enough air to speak.

Back at the refugio we moaned and groaned in pain and disbelief. Everythyingt ached, but each ache reminded us of the feat we had accomplished. It was a good pain, the pain of grandeur and success.

The day after:

Some of that pain is still with me today, but mostly I'm in disbelief. All of that joy and agony occured less than 24 hours ago, and yet it already seems a little unreal. It was probably the most amazing thing I have accomplished in my life, and I will surely never forget it.



All I can initially say is: OMG, WOW. And Congratulations! But WOW.

Submit this to Outside and other magazines...

  neal Apr 17, 2008 12:56 AM


Wow, choked me up. You must publish your writings.

Miss you.


  lisa Apr 17, 2008 3:47 AM


Sunny! You write so beautifully! I'm so excited for your adventuring, and can't believe you just tackled a mountain!

All the best to both you and Kyle!

  Kate Apr 19, 2008 6:53 AM


HIIII!!!!!!!! i rely miss u and i cant wait 2 see u hopefully soon!

  ashlynn Apr 19, 2008 9:05 AM


Hey everyone, and thanks for the positive comments! Outside Magazine? Really??

Ashlynn--haven't heard from you in ages! How are you? Send me an email! I miss you, too, and can't wait to see you in June!


  alpiner84 Apr 20, 2008 12:52 AM


i like chocolate milk....I MUST SEND U AN EMAIL!!!!!!

  ashlynn Apr 26, 2008 12:45 AM

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