Updated: Dec 3, 2018
13th-15th November 2018
The tour agency, Altitud 6000, describes this 3-day tour as suitable for 'Beginners’. IN. WHAT. WORLD?!
I can also describe this tour as bloody brilliant. Sarah and I had picked up some gorgeous friends in Arequipa, so embarked on the trip together as a motley crew of 5: Sophie and Joshua from Australia and Hannah, a fellow Yorkshirewoman.
On the morning of the 13th, we made our merry way to the offices to try on some 'plastic boots’ (snow boots for crampons) then headed to our chief guide's house to get the rest of the gear, which compiled of down jackets, waterproof jackets and treggs, gloves, rucksacks etc. etc.
Our first stop was Base Camp of Huayna Potosi, an hour's drive outside of La Paz, where we settled into very basic accommodation. We headed out to the glacier, about 40 minutes walk away, in our plastic boots. These things have no give whatsoever. Lesson number one of the tour: I have very little balance.
Ice climbing on the glacier was so. Much. Fun. 2 people per guide, we get tied together and learn the ‘basics’: walking uphill, sideways uphill, downhill, across hill… then we had fun climbing vertically and abseiling down a cliff edge (more or less). Lesson number two of the tour: I have no upper body strength or control over my voicebox.
After 3 hours on the ice, we headed back to camp for snacks and hot drinks. Perfection.
We napped for a bit ('Sara', Fleetwood Mac, nice and snug, curled up at the bottom of Sarah's bed <3). Dinner followed shortly after, and sleep followed even sooner after that. The sleeping bags were bloody warm and cosy. It's one of my favourite night's sleep on the trip… almost got a full 12 hours. Bloody oath (Aussie *shout out*).
The next day, we packed our bags with all the gear (12kgs - UGH) and headed to High Camp, 3.5 hours away, up, up, UP into the ice and mountains. The landscape is extraordinary; it's huge, bleak and grey but completely beautiful and intoxicating. High Camp was bang next door to the first leg of the journey to the Summit, and we watched with sadness as 2 of our guides set off up the 'path’ with skis, to ski down (duh) just for fun. It looked like a thankless task.
As the clouds rolled in and obliterated any chance of seeing the guides whizz down, we opted to nap for a few hours before dinner. After we'd eaten, at 5 o'clock, we were told to sleeeeeeep until midnight, which was when we were to have 'breakfast’ (HAHA, GOOD ONE) before setting off to the summit at 1am. I'm crying remembering it.
Needless to say, I had the shortest, shittest sleep ever... EVER. midnight came round, and the crew gathered for a very cake-heavy breakfast. I had been gradually getting more nervous the closer we got to the Summit day, and my hysteria (fuelled by lack of sleep) finally peaked as I ate my piece of dry, crumbly cake, and sang a song about a streamlined fleece that Hannah and I had made up (it's actually really good?).
Stepping outside, however, it was evident what all this was for. The stars were out in full force, there was silent lightning going crazy in the distance and the snow sparkled like there was no tomorrow. It was breathtaking.
We put our crampons on, and set off… on our 5-hour excursion to the 6,088m Summit for sunrise. Holy shit. My only thoughts were: ‘I’m so tired, I can't do this, the snow is so pretty, omg lightning, I can't do this, I'm so fucking tired, wow the stars, I want my bed’. The first half was traumatic to say the least. lesson number three: I shouldn't attempt mountain summits on no sleep. Josh was in a pair behind me and described my walk as that of a zombie, or drunk or both, as I dragged my pick axe through the snow. For our first stop, I was propositioned with a sachet of pure, mint chocolate, viscose sugar and caffeine. I clearly wasn't hiding my fatigue very well, and was concerning both Sarah and Hannah (they told me later).
By the third stop, the sugar had kicked in, and I was smiling more and found the Southern Cross constellation (smug smug). Thoughts changed from 'I can't do this’ to 'I bloody well will do this’. I started enjoying the climb, especially when (Mum stop reading) we ice-picked our way up tiny ridges with vertical slopes and across an enormous crevasse.
My happiness momentarily abated, as looking up, in the light of the distant lightning, the Summit was revealed: steep and big. Not only this, but tiny lights lit the way to the top which was a kick in the goolies. It just seemed so unfathomably far to go. My technique, so far, had been to look down, take baby steps (the guides set a great pace in the first instance) and not ask ANYONE for the time. But the torchlight trail did not help me feel any better.
One hour to go. I couldn't believe it. We were so close! We zigzagged up the final 100m ascent, on more tiny ridges, as the sky caught fire and the sun rose before us. It was beautiful. Summiting Huayna Potosi was unreal as our night's work became apparent and the mountains fell below us.
We didn't stay for long, pretty bloody cold up there, then our short descent to High Camp commenced… Soul-destroying to think it took less than a quarter of the time to get down what we'd just climbed.
The views were spectacular and it was strange to think we'd been walking through this landscape without realising it. My toes screamed pretty much all the way down, and I expected full-on, gushing blood from a gnarled toenail when I took my shoes and socks off.
On taking off my plastic boots for the final time (HUZZAH!) my toe wasn't the nightmare I'd been expecting (it was a bit pink (has since bruised a bit too, ACTUALLY)). We all scrambled back into our sleeping bags at 8am for a quick zizz before we were awoken for soup and told to pack everything up to head to Base Camp... More. Walking. We were shattered, but made it down through the clouds - we'd been so lucky with the weather and smiled optimistically at new groups beginning their ascent.
We bundled into the bus around midday at Base Camp, and headed back to La Paz, each of us astonished at what we had achieved... I still can't believe it.
That afternoon, we napped at the hostel, 3600, before ordering pizza for dinner. We bid an emotional goodbye to Hannah (Iloveyou), and took the Aussies with us on a night bus to Uyuni for a new adventure (that required much less hiking and more off-road driving) across the sparkling Salt Flats...