Uphill Madness

Uphill Madness

I hunkered down, silently admiring the curvaceous flanks of the alabaster temptress who loomed above me. She stared back stonily, daring me to attempt to scale her peak. Her name was Huayna Potosi, and if I was to conquer her, I would require all the power at my disposal.

Real mountaineer at last!

 Being just outside La Paz, Bolivia, a short taxi ride had sufficed to bring my guide and me to the rocky observatory which served as the trailhead. We’d reached our snowline basecamp after just one hour of hiking, and already I’d carried an ice axe in the appropriate strap on my rucksack - that genuine achievement was almost worth the $100 fee alone! However, the real work would not start until 1am.

 We needed to be up and down before the warm morning sun softened the snow too much. Right now though, I had more immediate concerns. My crouched position was not a feeble attempt to evade the fabled Furious Snow Badger, but rather an aid to evacuating any residual fluid from my colon.

 This grim condition had been brought about by a hair raising 16-hour bus ride, from the steaming bowels (pun intended) of the lowland jungle around Rurrenabaque (199m) up to the world’s highest capital (3632m). This involved the bus reversing often down the narrow, deteriorating track and out onto a passing place, teetering hundreds of metres above the mangled wreckage of earlier buses which littered the valley floor … but that’s another story. I’d survived the notorious ‘road of death’ only to succumb to the sudden change in altitude which sent my intestines into spasm.

 Having booked the trip, I’d spent a sleepless night dashing back and forth to the unsavoury facilities in the hostel. With only three days until Christmas, I couldn’t delay and risk missing the last bus to Sorata, where a big traveller group was gathering. But could I make it with my legs crossed and my eyelids propped open, all the time gaining altitude? There was nothing for it but to swing by a chemist for Imodium and rehydration salts, grit my teeth, clench my sphincter and do it!

 As I squatted, soiling the pristine snow, I gazed up at Huayna Potosi with determination. I was no longer in top form, but I would give it my best shot. A long lazy slumber in my down sleeping bag would be perfect, but was sadly impossible due to the biting cold at 4720m.

Ice formations on Huayna Potosi

 Another sleep-free night, but at least the chemical plug I’d metaphorically rammed up my backside seemed to be working. My guide roused me at the witching hour. ‘Dressing’ was swift (I had already been wearing everything I had) and excitement overcame drowsiness as I got into my plastic boots and fastened on the crampons. With the mittens, goggles and axe, I looked the business. Behind us, the only other climbers were a small team of three Israelis and their guide, who were similarly preparing as we crunched onto the first snow.

 The night was gorgeously clear and bright. The moon shone onto each individual white crystal, weaving them into a shimmering carpet more precious than any red velvet. The rocks and cliffs were pure black against this sparkling landscape, and white dissolved into deep shades of grey where we passed immaculately sculpted crevasses - each a beautiful and enticing doorway to grisly death in the heart of the mountain. Rather late, I enquired, “Is this dangerous?”. “Poco” came the reply. A little. Hmm.

 Presently we arrived at a short vertical snow face - time for some real action! We’d been roped together from the start, and now I received a very brief briefing on scaling this obstacle using my new tools. Chik! - in with the axe. Heave up and Tuk! Tuk! - bury in the tips of the crampons. Chik, heave, tuk, tuk, repeat. “Be very careful here”, I heard, as a deep void yawned away to my left. Erm … thanks. I wasn’t worried though, I was thrilled to bits! All those emails I’d sent detailing prior escapades: “Today we climbed Pungent Volcano”; or “I just scaled Mount Flange!” Pffft! Those had just been steep walks. Now I was really climbing, and it was fabulous.

 Next came plenty of uphill trudging. The stars were gradually fading while my lungs were gradually failing. We were making good time but my burning breath and shaking legs were slowing us down. Even climbing stairs in La Paz leaves you wheezing, but when you need to rest every three steps to hyperventilate you know the atmosphere is pretty thin.

 We persevered; it was a slog, but it was the most stunning slog in the world. As day broke, we were at the foot of the final push - a 50m, 70° cliff of smooth, cold, compacted snow. This was a long stretch for my tired limbs, and stopping en route to heave like a drowning walrus was inadvisable. Despite having to chase every oxygen molecule, with Israelis snapping at my heels and that damn gravity still acting on me, I crawled onto the apex at last.

Just a few steps from victory...

Magnificent! The Cordillera Real rolled away beneath us in all directions. At 6088m - higher than Kilimanjaro - I could easily imagine myself astride the summit of Everest. It couldn’t be far different from this. I shook hands with my trusty ‘Sherpa’, threw snowballs at my adversaries and posed for heroic pictures - ice axe over shoulder, gazing into middle distance.

 Sadly, we had to descend before avalanches threatened, and the return journey was not a pretty sight. I stumbled often as fatigue finally overcame me, repeatedly finding myself face down in a drift, nodding off. I all but tumbled back to base camp. But that’s not important right now; the main thing is that if I never strap on the crampons again, I can take pride in the fact that once upon a time, on the faraway Altiplano, I was a bona fide mountaineer!

Happy mountaineers on the summit of Huayna Potosi—with a finger Santa!