Huyana Potosí – The time I tried, and failed, to hike up to 6000 meters

I lift my leg, move it forward and thrust it into the icy ground, letting the spiky crampon get a good grip on the hard snow. Then the other, lift, move forward, thrust. Repeat. Over and over again. I’m gripping the top of my ice ax tightly with my left hand, almost using it as a walking stick, and even though I’m wearing a thick mutton I can feel my fingers going numb with the cold. My heart beats quickly, I’m out of breath, my head is hurting, I really need a break so I stop for a second and soon feel the rope connecting me to the other hiker and our guide in front of us tighten, tugging me on. You can do this, you can do this a voice in my head keeps telling me over and over again so I start walking again. The night is dark, I can’t see how much we’ve been walking, or how much left there is to walk, but yes, I can do this, yes I’m going to do this. One step at a time.

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(La Paz, with Illimani rising in the background)

You have to go to Illimani, then you’d be the world’s coolest sister”. That’s the Facebook-message I received from my younger brother when I told him I was heading into Bolivia. Illimani the big mountain rising majestically behind La Paz, the mountain every school kid in town draws in whenever they are asked to draw a city. 6438 meters of massive stone. Right, like that was ever going to happen. I had been doing a lot of hiking on my trip, even a few multi-day hikes carrying a heavy backpack with tent and food, like in Torres del Paine and Pucón, but going up to 6000 meters, that’s something completely different entirely. If that’s what’s needed for being cool, I’d be fine settling at being a perfectly mediocre sister.

But while I was hanging around in Sucre, learning Spanish, enjoying some unexpected warm weather and trying not to get sick, I found out about Huayna Potosí. Sure, it wasn’t quite Illimani, but still over 6000m, and who knew, if I attained that summit, maybe I’d feel like giving Illimani a try later, there were guides to take you there as well. I was stoked on the idea, a real little mountain adventure seemed like a perfect thing to do at the end of my journey, and if reaching the top of Illimani still seemed way beyond my reach, it definitely seemed closer.asta_skjervoy-bolivia-huyana_potosi-panorama-02
(High camp at 5300 meters)

We have reached a plateau, our first really steep part is behind us, it’s almost flat and it should be easier to walk, but it isn’t. Our shoes are really stiff and hard, they look like and are just as bad for walking as ski boots, the kind you use for downhill skiing – and anyone who’s tried walking with them know how hard that can be. Walking steeply uphill with them was difficult, but almost okay as we used the feet differently, but here on the flatter terrain it is excruciatingly hard. My head keeps throbbing and I feel sick. The wind has increased, and even though I’m covered in layer after layer of wool, I’m cold.

I had barely been in La Paz for an hour when I first met a person who’d been to the top of Huayna Potosí. The cold had already gotten a good grip on my body, I was sitting in a staircase at the hostel trying to let the sun warm me up when a girl sat down next to me and we started talking. To the beautiful trilling tunes from the upstairs piano she told me about her trip. Of the cold, of the altitude, the struggle, and of the wonderful feeling of accomplishment looking down at La Paz and El Alto at sunrise. “I’m not much of a hiker and not in good shape, and if I could do it, so can you”. Even though she said it was the hardest thing she’d done in her life she made it sound so easy. Or as easy as scaling a 6000 meter high mountain can be.

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I feel like I have to throw up” I tell our guide in Spanish as I stop. “Okay, we take a short break here” he says and he and my French walking companion comes to a halt. I try to control my breath, slow my heart-rate. I look around, in front of me we can finally see the glowing lights from El Alto – and a few lights from the highest points of La Paz – contrasting with the dark looming shadow of the peek we are trying to reach. The rest of the group can be seen behind us as small moving dots of lights. How much longer can I keep going? Maybe another 100 meters up, maybe 200, 300. But all the way to the top? I doubt it! My body feels completely void of energy, because of the altitude I haven’t been able to sleep in more than 24 hours, and we are only at 5500m, there’s still more than 500 height meters to ascend. There’s the pretty damn steep ice wall we need to climb, and that’s only 10 of the 500 or so before the top, not to mention getting all the way back down to high camp at 5300m after that.

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I look at my french hiking partner, and then I look back down again at the moving lights of the others, if we keep the tempo we’ve been going at till now they’ll just keep getting further behind, some of them might turn around. If I give up now I can join Jessica who’s alone with her guide and let the others keep going, but if I keep going, and end up throwing in the towel later, I’ll destroy all the chances for my hiking buddy of reaching the top.

I can’t keep going, I want to turn around” I say and as soon as I’ve made the decision I lay down on the hard snow, letting all my muscles rest for a moment, it feels wonderful. I look up into the darkness, there’s a thick layer of clouds between us and the stars. How beautiful it would have been on a clear night. After a short conversation of trying to convince me to keep going our guide starts yelling into the night in Aymara, and his calls are soon answered. “You’ll go back down with Jessica , but first we wait here for a little while”. I get back up, before the snow has time to soak my outer pants, and watch as the lights are slowly getting closer. When they are within a hundred meters he frees me from his rope and send me on my path towards the others.

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I don’t get up to 6000 meters, I don’t get to see La Paz from up high, but 5500m are still the highest I’ve ever been, and the sunrise is beautiful from high camp as well!

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(Practicing ascending steep ice walls)asta_skjervoy-bolivia-huyana_potosi-09

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