First, enjoy this article because it's not every day that I (Romain) decide to write an article!! Ah ah ;-)
You will read in many travel guides that Huayna Potosi is one of the easiest 6000m in the world for climbing, let’s correct it immediately; before attempting the climb, some warned us, this is one of the most "ACCESSIBLE" to people with no knowledge in mountaineering. The summit is actually 6088m and is easily accessible from La Paz.
We had planned to attempt a summit between 5000 and 6000 before embarking on this adventure, but some things happened and we could not achieve this first challenge before arriving in La Paz (cost of excursions, health etc ...) . Finally, we had to wait for the D-day, it's make or break!!
Having in mind to reach Machu Picchu 15 days later by making a trek on our own of 4-5 days, and knowing the fragility of her ankles, Flo decided not to accompany me and to preserve her ankles for this wonder of the world which is expected for a long time. Indeed, many people who climbed Huayna Potosi before us told us that the descent was fast and it was better to have strong legs!!
A first question came: two or three days to reach the top. In both cases, the real ascent will be in two days, but the three days option allows you to acclimate yourself an extra day to the altitude, and to do some climbing with ice axes and crampons on a glacier located near the base camp. After some research and especially with the advice of some friends met during the trip, I was advised to choose only two days for several reasons. The first being that if we stay several days in La Paz (3500-4000m) before climbing at this altitude, then I will be acclimated enough to climb to this altitude (actually it also depends if all the conditions are met the D-day to avoid altitude sickness). Then we were informed that the ascent was not very technical, as most of the time the guides do not make us cross a 15m wall but make us do a detour, this means that the training the day before with the material would not be necessary. Finally, the first day might tire myself unnecessarily, so it would be wiser to keep this energy to reach the final goal!! The only advantage of this first day would be to get a small mountaineering experience and discover new sensations with the equipment that is lent to you.
The second question is: which agency to choose? All the people we met warned us, if we take one of the cheapest agencies, the risk is to end up with a tired guide who works daily, which might during the ascent demotivate you and tell you that you will not reach the top. Worse, he could impose a rhythm that could exhaust you and force you to give up. Some research on the internet will lead you to choose between three agencies (at least, as I have not looked at all reviews ;-)): Climbing South America, Altitud6000 and High Camp Lodge. The first being the most expensive: if you speak Spanish, and you are two, it will 1500Bs for 3 days or 1150Bs for 2 days (the option with English guide being overpriced). The 2nd branch is a bit cheaper, 1100 if you are 2 for two days (1400Bs if you are alone). Our choice will be for the last agency. By chance when we went to the agency, a German guy, Erik, who then became my companion during the ascent, was looking for a single person to share this adventure, so we paid 800Bs each for two days (117USD). This price is almost equivalent to all other small agencies, except that with High Camp Lodge, you will be almost sure that your guide will be good and that he will probably not demotivate you, and that the equipment provided will be of a good quality and you will not miss any equipment.
At the agency, you will then have to try everything before the D-day, shoes suitable for crampons, ski pants, jacket, fleece, over-gloves and helmet. If you do not have a headlamp they can lend you one. You only have to bring shorts or leggings to add a layer to the legs, and one or two additional layers for the top, wool gloves, a hat and good socks. A good sleeping bag, a few snacks for the climb, water, pills against altitude sickness, your camera and you're ready for the D-day!!
We depart at 9am on the first day by minibus, and I have already a knot in my stomach ... 1 hour drive later, we have a first glimpse of our challenge, they did not lie to us, there is a lot of snow on the mountain ; - )
One more hour and we arrive at the first refuge located at 4700m. We are 2 over 8 to have selected the 2 days option. It's time for me and Erik, who will accompany me on the climb: a quick lunch and we have to go for two hours climb to reach the second refuge. First of all we need to load our bags with the equipment lent to us. The temperature is good, as are the conditions of the trek. We will carry on our backs ice axe, crampons, warm clothes, water, sleeping bag, small backpack for day 2 ... etc ... we are not sure, but given our bag during the trip, the 15kgs are largely exceeded.
The climb to the second refuge is done relatively well, part of the way, however, is quite steep and shaped with natural steps made from rocks. You will be rewarded halfway with a small break. The biggest challenge of the climb is to carry this enormous backpack!! We will therefore be both very happy to reach this shelter quickly and leave our bag there, unthinkable for us to climb higher with 15 to 20kgs on the back.
5130m is the altitude of the second refuge. We can see from here the summit of Huayna Potosi and guess the traces of the previous climbers in the snow.
The refuge includes approximately 15 beds and we will be that day 13 including 6 French guys ;-) Perfect to start a few card games with compatriots until dinner which is served at 5pm. The appetite is not really there but it is better to stall the stomach before sleep than eat too much when we wake up before the ascent.
Glad to have brought two hot water bags in the bag, I know I should not be cold to sleep well (we were told that temperatures could descend into negatives within the refuge). At 6pm, everyone go to bed!! The night has not been very good for me, at first it was really hot, I had to sleep shirtless ;-) and I got a headache after a couple of hours that made me unable to sleep up to the expected wake at midnight. Day 2, midnight, it is time to prepare our equipment, take a snack and go.
Departure 1:10 am, we are at 5130m, 6088m is the goal as sunrise is between 6am and 6:30 am. We must put on our crampons from the beginning, something rare in this season because it is not supposed to have snow up to the refuge!! We are the first to go and in the first straight line, my right crampon will go away 2 times, it seems it has aged a lot and the guide will fix it with few metal parts... luckily I have no more worries later with crampons. 1 hour 45 minutes later we make our first break. The climb is relatively easy for the moment, the sensations are good and fatigue is not yet present; reassuring for the future, I start to believe we can make it. The second phase is quite similar, the slope is not too strong, a break is still welcome especially looking at what awaits us in the next minutes. I took the opportunity to make a pee break, although check with the guide to know where to go because we do not know what's beneath our feet. The next step will put us a big blow to the moral and physical. An ascent of a 100m slope over 45°, the rhythm is very low, but every step we do make us consume a lot of energy. The breath is still not a problem and neither of us will feel altitude sickness. It looks like the legs will be the most important factor to reach the top. During the ascent we can see the lights of the city of La Paz in the distance, but also a vacuum of several hundred meters on our left, just 50cms from our feet ... We cannot stumble at this point. Fortunately, as you can imagine, we are roped together with our guide in case anything happens ;-)
Once passed this tough test, quick glance at the altimeter, we are almost halfway, but later will be more exhausting because of accumulated fatigue. We learn that the end wall is as steep but 2 times longer. The pause is once again welcome, but the cold sets in if we remain idle for too long, even worse, the drinking water we carry is very cold ... no real desire to hydrate ourselves ....
To the bottom of the last wall, walking will be very long but technically not very difficult. The guide does not impose a very high rhythm, several groups pass us but we know we're on schedule and it allows us to keep some energy for the end. Many times the eyes close, fatigue is really felt. We have no headache, no legs pains, breath is always good, but the body seems completely exhausted ... On this penultimate stage, we jump a crevasse, few hundred meters deep but only about 50 to 80cm wide, nothing really scaring.
We now see the last wall, 200m, oh yes that's right ... the whole mountain chain around us begins to emerge, the show looks great!! I try to know the feelings of my partner, Erik, try to reassure him with the idea that we can do it. The first 50m will be really horrible, rocky parts, ice, where I nearly lost support several times. Erik really slips down once a meter or two, quite surprising for me because I'm in the middle of the rope and am the first to feel its weight trying to take me away. After that first scare, the guide decides to change the configuration, and we will both be connected to him directly. 150metres to the top and we can already hear the cheers of several groups that have reached it. For us the ordeal is not over, we must give any last energy we have, we cannot give up so close to the end. Many times we will do micro-breaks, but the important thing is to progress very slowly, step by step, in this 45° slope, and icy!! The sun starts to point the tip of his nose, the landscape behind us is beautiful, it is essential to see what happens from a higher point!!
As for the mountain roads, we have several pins, and when the final stretch comes to us, emotion begins crossing my body, what we feel is really strong. The final stretch is endless even if the summit seems very close, a few dozen meters before the end, a huge vacuum appears on our left, you better continue to look straight forward ;-)
Here it is, 6:30am, here we are!!! The previous groups are gone because there is not much room over there. We are 3 with the guide on one of the roofs of the world!! Although secured to a stake, we can finally admire this amazing show: the Cordillera Real, the Altiplano, the city of La Paz and Lake Titicaca are all combined. The emotion is really strong, fatigue is at the highest but what a reward!!
However, we cannot stay long, after a few minutes and pictures, we must go down because once the sun rose, the avalanche risk is increased due to melting. A never-ending descent is waiting for us, especially since we do not have any goals after what we have just seen, but you gotta go. The slopes over 45 ° are relatively complicated to go down, fatigue makes us unbalance multiple times. The final stretch to the refuge is also endless. 2h30 later we descent to the refuge where we slept, it’s time to get quickly a soup and recover our equipment left for the ascent and we start the descent to the first refuge, but this time with big bags ... .1h30 suffering, even more without walking poles ... 4700m ... phew ... no need to go further. Of the 13 who attempted the climb that day only three will not go to the end, which corresponds to 80% success announced by the agencies. Finally, we reach La Paz where Flo stayed ... two hours of siesta and I can get as a reward with Flo, a chocolate fondue and cheese fondue!! ;-)