High altitude distress

It laughed at us.

Steve was not a happy camper. He’d been experiencing typical South American intestinal distress, but the plumbing at the 15,000’+ Refugio  in Zongo Pass froze up every night.

For about ten days, we’d been preparing for our assault on Huayna Potosi (HP), a mountain not far from La Paz sometimes described as “the easiest 6000-meter peak in the world.” Depending on what you take as its exact elevation, it works out to just under or just over 20,000′, which, as metrically-impaired Americans, we found more meaningful.

After our trip in the Condoriri, I felt I was ready for anything. I’d achieved elevations higher than 17,000′ without any problem. We met our guides in La Paz for a hike from Chacaltaya to Zongo Pass, the starting point for climbs of HP, just to lock in that acclimatization. Many people climb HP with far less preparation.

Chacaltaya is the ruins of a ski resort close to La Paz that was dependent on the existence of a glacier for the necessary frozen surface. Unfortunately, the glacier has virtually disappeared, due to global warming. It is still possible to ski down about 600′ by carefully following the slim sliver of snow that remains.

We drove to the ski area on a road that seemed precipitous, but we were soon to learn on the “Death Road” what “precipitous” really means. I will describe that in my next post. Once at the ski buildings, we climbed 700 vertical feet to the 17,785′ summit of Chacaltaya, which turned out to be the highest elevation we achieved on the trip.

As the highest place around that’s possible to drive to, Chacaltaya is used as a place to study acclimatization.

After a hike of several hours over a moonscape of arid ridges and past an old mine, we arrived at the Refugio.

Steve is a stoical sort, but his terse responses to the usual conversational babble indicated that he was fading as a result of his inability to keep any food in his system. Bob and I had been spared the wrath of the Digestive Gods, but we’d both started to cough—annoying dry, hacking coughs, the kind that drive nearby people crazy.

Refugio in Zongo Pass

The Refugio had a common area with a fireplace. A bundle of wood stood next to it. We thought we’d have a jolly evening with a roaring fire. After several attempts, we realized the air was too thin for more than a symbolic  fire.

We all felt depleted, so we retired to our bunks. Bob coughed so much that I couldn’t sleep with his hacking next to my ear. Small brown rats scampered around our belongings, looking for M&Ms or cheese or anything that wasn’t encased in cast iron. Early the next morning, we arose for our training trip to the Charquini glacier. There, we’d practice the ice-climbing moves that would help us get to the summit of HP—maybe not all that easy, after all.

Our route to the glacier took us along the top of an aqueduct with a huge dropoff. The guides roped us up for this section. As I made my way along, I felt lightheaded and weak. Was it the altitude? I didn’t think so. I’d already hit higher altitudes with no problem.

By the time we reached the base of the glacier, I felt distinctly unwell, as if I was coming down with the flu. Steve had rallied, but I was fading. I felt so unsteady that I decided I must stay behind while the others practiced their moves.

Approach to the glacier

I sat beside a boulder and waited as the others practiced their climbing.

They reached the lower boundary of the glacier

Steve took a photo of Bob as he ascended the glacier’s steepest part.

Bob proves his mettle

Bob and I had done winter climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where at times (such as the Lions Head Winter Route up Mt. Washington) we’d used crampons and ice axes, but we’d never done technical ice climbing. I felt crappy—psychologically as much as physically—as I realized I was missing out on the opportunity to “take it up to the next level.”

After a few hours, my companions came off the glacier. A vast swath of fog had streamed up from the backside of the mountain—Zongo Pass is a divide between the Pacific and the Amazon Basin, and every day, as things warm up, a vast exchange occurs between the cold dry Altiplano air and the air that comes up from the jungle.

They descended from the glacier in fog

We were supposed to climb the next day to “Campo Argentina” on the slope of HP and then awake around 2:00 a.m. the day after to make the push to the summit. Part of the reason for the early start is that the steep snow slopes become avalanche-prone as the temperatures rise.

But I was a nose-streaming, throat-hacking mess, Bob had dwindled to the same state, and Steve wasn’t exactly at his best. Our preparation for the high altitude had been actually too lengthy. After nearly two weeks in the cold dry Altiplano air, we’d come down with good old ordinary head colds.

Acclimatization is hard to figure out. I’ve gone from sea level to Colorado, climbed a Fourteener with no difficulty within a couple of days, then had problems two days later. Obviously, if you spend a big chunk of time at high altitude, you’re going to be better off. But how you manage that first week or so is a matter of debate. There’s a trade-off between adjusting to the thin air and getting weakened by it.

At any rate, we weren’t up to climbing our 20,000′ mountain. It was a huge disappointment after preparing for it over the past months and traveling all the way to Bolivia to do it.

But being in Bolivia was an adventure in itself. We still had the experience of the “Death Road” ahead of us.

Huayna Potosi

6 responses

    • I can’t afford to go back to places like Bolivia right now. I looked at your website–great stuff–back in my business travel days I did some hiking in the Blue Mountains (I have a funny story about that which I’ll share one of these days). What I do these days is scrambling in the Smoky Mountains (Tennessee-North Carolina). It’s a different kind of challenge. In the Yosemite system, what I do in the Smokies goes only to Class 3, but with a lot of tough vegetation and route-finding involved. That’s what my book is about.

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