Cordillera Real – The Second Chance

At 19,974 feet, Huayna Potosí (19,974 feet) was a chance to avenge my Cotopaxi (19,347 feet) failure in Ecuador in December 2021. I put a lot of pressure on myself last year to summit that volcano, but I shouldn’t have. It was 3,000 feet higher than I’d ever gone before, plus I’d never done serious glacier hiking. On top of that, I had been injured for a lot of 2021 – physically with knee problems and a foot injury, and emotionally from my dog dying. It was a shit year. I wanted to summit Cotopaxi to feel like I’d actually done something, but I failed.

I should have taken it as a learning experience and not been so concerned about summiting. I recognized that later on, and I put myself to the task of really being prepared this year.

  • I have my clothing and gear dialed in this year.
  • I’m taking Diamox for altitude sickness.
  • I am in way, way, way better shape than I was last year.
  • I’m living in La Paz, which is 2,500 feet higher than Quito.

Nevertheless, when I got to base camp at 15,600 feet, my Garmin told me I needed to calm down because my stress level was unusually high. We hadn’t even started and I was so nervous about failing again. Based on my speed and condition on my warm-up hikes, plus an additional week in La Paz to acclimate, my guides told me I would have no problem on Huayna Potosí. But you never really know. If you are less experienced or need more time to acclimate, you can make this a three-day trip and spend the first night as base camp, but I had no need to do that.

Saturday mid-day we hiked up to high camp at 16,800 in 1 hour 25 minutes. There were six of us in my group – myself and my guide, another woman and her guide, a porter, and José, who had been with me on the warm up hikes and would cook, organize, and keep things moving. The porter was a nice surprise! I did not have that at Cotopaxi, even though I had also paid for a private tour that time. I fully expected to have to carry all my own things, as all the other people who were in larger groups did.

We arrived around 1:30pm and after lunch, I laid down for about two hours to get some rest. Another difference between this and my Cotopaxi hike is that Huayna Potosí has five refuges instead of one. We stopped at the lowest one and had it all to ourselves, meaning it was much more quiet than the one at Cotopaxi with the massive dorms. Our refuge did become the hangout for the guides after they dropped their large groups off at the upper refuges. I enjoyed listening to them tell tales and chat. There was even a film student up from La Paz interviewing some of them for a school project. And the greenhouse type roof meant the refuge was really warm during the day, so it was pleasant to hang out. This style roof is common on buildings throughout La Paz so people can enjoy rooftops in the colder, high-elevation area.

A third difference from Cotopaxi is that the guides carried in all our food at Huayna Potosí. There is no one up there permanently running a kitchen. So the food was less fancy, but it was still delicious and exactly what we needed. Beef and rice for lunch, chicken and pasta for dinner. Protein and carbs! It’s kind of strange having these highly skilled mountaineering professionals cooking and cleaning for us. Like flight attendants appearing to be glorified waitresses when in fact they are skilled in a number of safety and other skills. But, on the other hand, I’m on vacation and it was great to have my meals made for me!

It is super important to go with qualified guides though. In any country this is true, but especially in Bolivia. There is a small rescue team, but their resources are limited and they will only come out for deadly serious emergencies. For the most part, if something happens to you, you are entirely dependent on your guide to get you out of there, and then you are going to have a very long, difficult ride back to La Paz or whatever city you are closest to for medical attention. Just something to keep in mind.

I had a 1 AM wake-up call (much better than my 11pm Cotopaxi wake up!) and I actually slept really well, so I felt ready to rock by the time we headed out at 1:50. It didn’t take us long to pass the other refuges and reach the edge of the glacier where we put our crampons on and roped up. And then we started hiking. The biggest crevasse came first. For Julio and his long legs, it was probably just a huge step, but for my shorter legs bundled in snow pants, it was a nerve-wracking leap. At least the rest of the crevasses we went over were much more like large steps for me too.

We also crossed over a gulf by means of an ice bridge, but because we were in the dark, I didn’t really realize on the way up how sketchy it was. But on the way back down as the hot sun was rapidly melting the edges and I could see the chasm to my left, I certainly realized then.

After more hiking, we came to the ice wall. Again, because this was in the dark, and I was behind Julio just plodding along wherever he went, to suddenly realize we were face-to-face with a wall and had nowhere to go was a little jarring. But even though it’s nearly-vertical, so many people do this hike that there were plenty of dents already kicked into the wall where I could slam my crampon into and get a good grip. Then I had to whack my ice axe into the wall and hoist myself up.

It was tough because of the elevation – just shy of 18,000 – but I thought it was a good introduction to what it would be like to really scale a wall like that. I tried to take a picture on the way down, but the perspective is a little difficult. The guy at the top is on the sloped approach, and you can see the helmet of the guy below where the wall really gets vertical. You can also see where the trail goes off below. I’d estimate the wall to be about 50 feet high.

Shortly after the wall, we surpassed my Cotopaxi turn-around point (18,100 feet) and I still felt fine. Though I was tired from the exertion and lack of oxygen, I didn’t feel any sickness. And I felt pumped because I knew whatever happened from that point on, I’d be higher than I’d ever gone before. Although we were on a ridge at that point, the lack of wind on Huayna Potosí was also contributing to my success. The wind on Cotopaxi had been horrible.

But finally, I did start to feel sick around 19,200, right before the final, super steep 700 foot summit push. I stopped, let my stomach calm down, took three steps and had to stop right away again because I thought I was going to vomit. It was awful to see the summit and think that I possibly wasn’t going to make it. Julio and I talked it over, and I decided to push on, much more slowly to see what I could do. I also popped a Diamox. You have to start taking those 24 hours before your ascent, so I don’t know if they are really a fast-acting kind of solution, but it worked. Either that, or the fact that we did slow way, way down, just like everyone else going up this last slog.

It was so steep that I had to stop after every 10 steps or so to rest. And every fourth or fifth stop, I had to actually sit down. We did pass one other person, still, and we caught up to the other woman who had come with us (who left 50 minutes before us), so I guess I was doing okay. There was one dry patch of rock between snow sections – a very easy scramble, easier than most scrambles I’ve done in Colorado. But elevation makes all the difference. I had to stop and let my heart beat calm down every few moves. What would have taken me two minutes at 10,000 feet in Colorado, took me over ten minutes at 19,500 and I had to sit and rest when it was done before getting back on the snow, but what a view of the sunrise!

I finally made it to the summit, even though I stopped three times in the last 100 foot push! It was really that hard. All in, it took me 4 hours and 40 minutes to ascend the 3,041 feet from high camp to the summit. In the picture below is Julio, my guide. According to several of the other guides, Julio is the best of the best in Bolivia. And I believe it! He was really great.

With the sun up and reflecting off all the snow, it got super hot on the way back down. We made it back to high camp in 2.5 hours, and then I rested for about an hour while we waited for the other woman to descend. After she arrived, we packed up, hiked down to base camp, and drove back to La Paz. And I couldn’t stop smiling the whole way!

I will say that in the afternoon, back in my apartment, my body hurt in ways it’s never hurt before. It wasn’t like the good hurt of having done something hard, but an inescapable inner pain. My organs hurt. My pee was at IPA level on the runners urine color chart. This hike was tough. But it didn’t take me long to bounce back. I felt tired most of Monday, but not in pain anymore, and on Tuesday I felt completely normal again. And ready to push myself for the next peak. Stay tuned!

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