This is Huayna Potosí. Clocking in with a peak of just under 20,000 feet (19,974 feet or 6,088 meters to be exact), it was by the far the tallest mountain I’d attempted to summit. Given that La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, is not only a mere 25 km from the mountain, but is also at an altitude of 12,000 feet, Huayna Potosí is considered the most accessible 6000 meter mountain in the world. But that doesn’t make it easy, and a little less than half of all people trying to summit don’t make it.
That of course meant I had to try to climb it. After a few days in La Paz, I got a guide and off we went.
—- Side note, if any of you are looking at doing this hike in the future, there are bunch of different companies that provide guides. With cheap Bolivian prices, it’s worth it to spend a bit more to make sure you’re going with a trained, experienced guide. The trip can also be done in two or three days, and I would recommend doing it in three days if you have the time. Altitude sickness will affect everyone doing this hike, and with the extra day to acclimatize at base camp, summit rates increase a lot —-
La Paz is a pretty cool city, in that it’s built in a valley. The tourist areas, the financial district, and the government buildings are all in the very center of the city at the lowest elevation. The higher you go, the less centralized it is (and the less tourist-friendly it is) Here’s what I mean:
I took this picture when we stopped at a storage building to pick up crampons and other ice climbing gear.
After a very short drive, the full profile of the mountain came into view.
The first day didn’t have much hiking, as the focus was acclimatization at base camp. At 15,400 feet (4700 meters), the base camp was officially the highest I’d ever been on a mountain. Despite the altitude, I felt fine, and had a relaxing afternoon reading and doing some ice climbing.
That night, I sat down for dinner (provided by my guide Edward), and was surprised to see that the only options were meat-based dishes. Now I haven’t eaten red meat since 5th grade, and was told in La Paz that all meals would be carb and fat heavy, as hiking meals should be. I never, not in my wildest dreams, thought that meant I would be given only meat to eat. I was left with two options: 1) eat the food and hope that my stomach didn’t reject it and that I didn’t get sick (Bolivian meats, fruits, and vegetables are notorious for getting backpackers horribly ill) or 2) deplete my valuable, meager trail mix stores that I needed for the summit attempt.
So for the first time in 10 years, I voluntarily ate red meat. Especially at such ridiculous altitude, there was no way I would have had the energy to climb without eating. It didn’t taste particularly good, but my stomach seemed to manage it alright, and I went to bed excited for the next morning.
The next day, the real hike began. It was absolutely incredible:
That is, until about an hour and a half later, when I started getting nauseous. At first, I attributed it to the altitude, as nausea is a common symptom of altitude sickness. I took this incredible picture right before I called for a break because I thought I was going to throw up:
I managed to not vomit on the hike up, and eventually we made it to Campo Alto at 17,500 feet. At this point I was fully aware that it wasn’t the altitude, as I started to feel faint and sweat profusely despite the fact that we were in freezing temperatures; it was food poisoning. It’s unfortunate that I can’t post videos on wordpress, because there’s one I would have loved to share. I’m doing a panoramic shot of Campo Alto, the summit, and the surrounding mountains, and I end the video by saying “I feel terrible” in the saddest, most pitiful voice ever. It’s actually really funny for me to listen to it now.
***warning: things are about to get gross***
Anyways, about an hour after making it to camp, I staggered to the bathroom (a hole in the ground with walls around it) and proceeded to have explosive diarrhea. Then, I started vomiting everywhere. It was not pleasant…
Loosing so many fluids so quickly at 17,500 feet is kinda disastrous, and I pretty quickly went from feeling a little faint to genuinely struggling to think straight. I’m not sure how I would have felt had I not been at such extreme altitude, but it was really bad.
I knew that I had to start descending, as there was no way I was going to replenish fluids or energy while I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach. So down we went, me pausing to vomit a few times (luckily my body spared me from more diarrhea somehow). While I have very vivid memories of everything up to leaving Campo Alto, from here on all my memories are obscured by a delirious haze. I somehow made it back to my hostel in La Paz, but I couldn’t tell you many specifics of what happened on my descent or ride back.
Over the next three days, I only left my hostel once a day to buy bread and water. I was barely able to eat bread and felt incredibly weak. All the friends I had made in my hostel before starting the climb had left, and I was too sick to make new ones. With terrible wifi that I couldn’t get from my bed, my only human contact was infrequent communication with my parents when I dragged my aching body into the main hallway. I was sick, tired, and alone. I was in a city of millions of people, and yet there was not have a single person around me who cared about me.
But, as is always the case, things got better. I slowly recovered, eventually brought real food back into my diet about a week later, and proceeded to have an incredible next month leading up to the start of my abroad program. The only two really bad experiences of my trip were behind me