The Only Option

Great tunes, a bottle of Nicaraguan rum and a rooftop view of La Paz.

Great tunes, a bottle of Nicaraguan rum and a rooftop view of La Paz.

Alas the time had come to part with my two travel mates. They were headed south to bang out the last two weeks of their Sud America travels before heading back to wallaby-land, and so we bid adieu on Monday. Parting is such sweet sorrow…and with all the wonderful places and all the wonderful people one meets, travel can be true heartbreak. C’est la vie- I ditched the memory of the two wankers* like yesterday’s news (kidding- everyone knows I am the Queen of Nostalgia) and decided to climb Huyana Potosi (elevation 6,088 meters).

“It’s a lot harder than most people think and many don’t make it,” Hans, a Belgian Petit Prince, had warned me of the three-day hike, “Some people in my group only had 180 meters left and just gave up”. Well when someone presents something to you like that, the only option is to confront the challenge and smash* it.

*phrases learned from Aussies.

So I became determined to climb the icy glaciers of Huyana Potosi not in 3 days, but in 2 (which required fibbing to the travel agency that I was an experienced ice-climber and that I had been in La Paz for a consecutive week to acclimate to the altitude).

Day 1: We arrived at the basecamp in the morning and chowed down on chicken bones, rice, and boiled potatoes- Bolivia’s signature dish- before loading our packs with cramp-ons, snow boots, ice axes, harnesses, balaclavas, gaiters and the like. The first day was relatively easy, climbing with our loaded packs to the High Camp where the rocky landscape becomes a snowy wonderland.

First day of the climb. Don't I look happy. Little did I know what was to come...

First day of the climb. Don't I look happy. Little did I know what was to come...

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We arrived in the late afternoon and drank cocoa leaf tea in the refugio to help with the altitude. The refugio walls were graffitied with messages and advice from those who had made it to the summit. I noticed there were only 2 female names and only one U.S. flag drawing.

Chillin at the refugio at high camp. Left to right we have Yvan, a French-Greek diving instructor/outdoorsman, Scott of England who I was to climb with, me (apparently Huayna Potosi is not a popular activity for females), and a world-champion mountain climber from the Pyrenees. We spoke Franco-Spanglish, my favorite language.

Chillin at the refugio at high camp. Left to right we have Yvan, a French-Greek diving instructor/outdoorsman, Scott of England who I was to climb with, me (apparently Huayna Potosi is not a popular activity for females), and a world-champion mountain climber from the Pyrenees. We spoke Franco-Spanglish, my favorite language.

I never am able to sleep when a daunting expedition lies ahead and trying to fall asleep at 6 p.m. that evening was no exception. It also didn’t help that we were freezing in our -15 degree sleeping bags, packed like sardines on wooden beams in the attic of the refuge. The other option was to camp out in the mountains as Scott chose.

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Day 2: I was woken by my guide at the stroke of midnight to begin the 6-8 ice-climb to the summit. Avalanche risk begins at 8 a.m. so it was imperative that we begin the climb in the middle of the night. We strapped our cramp-ons, grabbed our ice axes and the guide harnessed me to himself and Scott, the English bloke whom I was climbing with. Although I hadn’t slept, my body was feeling strong and my mind determined.

Andres, my guide, cramps on my cramp-ons before we head up the snowy mountain

Andres, my guide, cramps on my cramp-ons before we head up the snowy mountain

Is that me or some weird Sesame Street character?

Is that me or some weird Sesame Street character?

Problems started around 3 a.m., at about 5,400 meters. Scott began wheezing and tripping over the harness rope every ten steps. Selfishly, I wanted the guide to tell him to go back down because he was slowing our pace and was also using my energy to pull himself up the mountain. I started freaking out, too, because if Scott headed back, the guide would have to go with him and I would not have been able to continue the journey alone. Luckily, aside from a world-champion mountain climber from the Pyrenees and ourselves, there was a French couple also climbing the mountain that night. At about 5,500 meters, our guide insisted Scott head back and raced me up to meet the couple so that I could continue.

I continued with the couple at a steady, even pace, concentrating on my yoga deep-breathing techniques. We were extremely lucky that night, as the near full moon provided warmth and a soft halo that brightened the beautiful, clear sky. We were surrounded only by tremendous white peaks and glaciers, dwarfing us human beings into naught. Above us the night sky was pitch black, making clear every constellation visible from the Cordillera Real mountain range. Feeling like one of the only three people in this vast landscape combined with the feeling of utter insignificance on earth was intensely spiritual and more meditative than any yoga class I’ve ever taken.  Each random thought that passed through my brain would clear out in a matter of seconds and my mind would be completely empty again.

I was ecstatic that I was going to make it to the top. Though the couple was traveling without a guide, Yvan was a born outdoorsman and taught me the proper method of using the ice-axes and strategies for crossing 50-meter deep crevices. My body was feeling relatively good (meaning that I didn’t feel like I was going to pass out at any moment) and I had a steady rhythm going with each meditative step. I was that I could keep up wit these lifetime climbers, and felt like making it to the summit was “meant to be”. I couldn’t wait to brag to Hans.

Losing balance and missing just one step could mean falling into one of these deep ice crevices

Losing balance and missing just one step could mean falling into one of these deep ice crevices

Around 5,800 meters up, however, Lisanne began feeling faint. Yvan, as determined as I was to make it to the summit, attempted to carry her on his back. But try ice-climbing with a human on your back and no matter how fit you are, the feat is nearly impossible, especially in thin, freezing air. Lisanne held out for a bit longer and just as we reached the Ponte Sud, about 100 meters from the summit, she collapsed in the snow. My brain and entire body was frozen at this point and my only thoughts were making it to the top. I was silently cursing because I knew I could continue to the summit, but there was no way we could have left Lisanne alone, fainted in frigidity. Then I started crying. Bawling and howling like a little baby, maybe the first time I cried so hard since Leonardo DiCaprio died in “Titanic”. It was a rush of so many undefinable emotions and I just couldn’t stop. Poor Yvan, with Lisanne passed out and me sobbing uncontrollably at 5 a.m. in air we could hardly breathe in, frostbitten to the bone, only 100 meters from the summit. Then amidst my tears, it hit me: I was being an insensitive asshole. Here we have this girl near death, and all I could think about was how it was preventing me from making it to the top.

The thought of climbing the last 100 m alone crossed my mind. But this would have been a suicide mission. I was freezing and tired, thus prone to accidents, and if anything were to happen, no one would know. Even the most experienced ice-climbers do not go alone and are often harnessed to one another. It’s a problem of mine that if I set out to do something, I become so determined to finish and achieve my goal that I become immensely disappointed in myself if I don’t. It makes me into an extreme risk taker for better or for worse and ultimately can lead to bad decisions. In this case, the devastation of not making the summit was insurmountable- essentially all because of Ego- because I knew I could have done it. But the only option I had was to head back. “I am so, so sorry,” Yvan kept apologizing, “trust me, I wanted to make it to the top so badly too…but there is no way I can leave her here like this.” I felt like a piece of selfish shit.

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Lisanne was still passed out as the sun was rising, and we had to get back soon as the avalanche risk was increasing. My grievance suddenly turned into desperation as to whether we would make it back in time. Yvan located a syringe of adrenaline in his first aid kit that brought her back to life just long enough to make it back down. “I am so, so sorry…” Lisanne apologized faintly. I told her to shut up. I realized that if it hadn’t been for them, I probably would have had to turn around when Scott headed back. “You could have done it, you were so close and you were doing well” Yvan said, “You should just tell people you made it to the summit.” I’m not a big fan of bragging about something I didn’t do and we all know that my lying skills are not exactly first-rate. I had to confront my ego and my own personal control issues and just settle on the fact that making it to the summit was not meant to be. I started crying again, though. My physical, emotional, and mental states were all in overdrive and I just didn’t know how to handle it.

Thankfully we all made it down safely, with only a few stumbles, but nothing fatal. Lisanne was strong and brave- I probably would have just wanted to die after collapsing. We were alive and okay and I guess that’s all that matters.

Huayna Potosi, you win

Huayna Potosi, you win

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~ by ceciliabien on January 15, 2009.

One Response to “The Only Option”

  1. i remember this quote while reading about everest: “any determined moron can make it up everest, what’s difficult is making it down.”
    80% of all mountaineering accidents occur on the way down. indeed, the near-disaster on nevado pisco in peru was probably exacerbated by 3 pretty egoistic guys all wanting to make it to the top. the experienced austrian duo who set out before us and passed us on the way up didn’t bother making it to the summit. but i know the disappointment, especially when you realize you could have done it and someone was holding you back. xo cedric

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