DemosNews: The Tale of the Ascent of Mt. Potosi (Part I)
The Tale of the Ascent of Mt. Potosi (Part I)
By: Guille de Soho

The tale of my blindness begins with a pair of rucksacks in a little hut in the Andes. I crouched on the floor, rubbing my hands together for warmth, and assessed what I would need: long underwear, fleece, jacket, shell, gloves, hat, scarf, thick socks, hiking boots, crampons, ice-pick, harness, belaying line, headlamp, chocolate bars. Working quickly for the cold, I rifled through our possessions for the needful and shoved them into the left rucksack; the rest I piled by the right.

I grabbed the packed sack and walked outside to where David stood, watching the sun vanish behind the gray fog. It was November, spring in Bolivia, but at 4,500m it froze in a hurry without sun. Huayna Potosí stood somewhere in the gray above.

“Vamos?” asked the guide.

We nodded, and marched toward the snowline. We had done it the day before: past the glacial reservoir that watered the capital, along the great rotten pipes that carried icy rivulets from the mountain, two hours and 700m up to the training ground. We had learned to claw our way up vertical ice, with spikes on our feet and a pick in our hands:

1. slam the pick into the ice as high as possible
2. pull up the body
3. jam the toes into the ice so the crampons supported the body
4. extract the pick
5. repeat

The exercise required energy, and up there, where oxygen thinned, a few minutes of this routine had left us breathless. We moved on, wending our way over boulders, and after another hour reached the little plateau where snow was everywhere: base camp at 5,500m.

We set up a tent, boiled a few execrable hotdogs, which we ate with porridge, and went to bed at 6pm. It had begun to hail, and sleep came easily with the white noise and muscles throbbing from training.

At 1am, we rose. It was snowing lightly but there was very little wind, which pleased our guide. We set out at night to minimize the volatility of the weather, and going to the peak was infinitely easier that way. More porridge, a chocolate bar. We wore our headlamps and all our clothes, walked over to the snow and strapped crampons to our feet, before threading a lifeline through our belts. David weighed 25kg more than I did—probably 40kg more than our guide—and our fates were tied together.

So off we went in the dark. The snow slowed our progress. It mounted steadily and our headlamps poured over the smooth white vastness. (The moon, illuminated or not, hid behind clouds.) Fatigue, the lack of oxygen, and the stomach-wrenching hour made the world unreal as we stubbornly plodded along in snow-muffled silence. From time to time, our guide would tug the lifeline, warning one of us away from an invisible ravine. We did not see them because of the snow. Nothing looked different because of the snow.

Several hours passed like this, as we gradually wound around the north face of the mountain. Twice we had to scale vertically. Five or ten meters—nothing extraordinary—but there was very little oxygen and we had to pause to catch our breath. Finally, the first signs of dawn came. A ruddy smudge in the pitch black, then pink and orange streaks, and light blue sky. The snow had stopped and the clouds had drifted off. Before us stood the peak of Huayna Potosi.

The air was so thin at this point that ascending the shallow snow bank directly before the final climb was painstakingly slow. We waded 20m, stopped for breath, waded another 20m, stopped again, and so forth until we reached the final resting spot at about 6:30am. Chocolate bar.

Then the torture began in earnest. Hand over hand, we hauled ourselves 200m up an 80-degree incline to the peak. It took an hour. Sixty minutes flexing our calves to balance on spikes attached to our toes. Sixty minutes swinging our picks into the ice with enough force to hold our weight. Sixty minutes of pull-ups. Sixty minutes wrestling the pick and crampons from the ice to do it again. Sixty minutes virtually without oxygen, gripping un-insulated metal picks, with a ravine below.

Oh, but what a feeling when we finally straddled the summit, 6,088m (19,974ft) above the sea! There were all the other peaks of the Cordillera Real below us. There was Lake Titicaca, in Peru. There La Paz, the capital. It was a heavenly vantage point, gleaming in all that snow. All that bright, white snow.

“Where are your shades?” asked David.

I shook my head. It had been so bleak the day before… and we had left at night…. They were in the right rucksack. I squinted: it was really quite bright and for all the misery of the ascent it was a glorious, crystal clear day. My face felt swollen, which I attributed to fatigue and the cold. We took a video on the summit, and then rappelled down the face in a few freefall minutes.

What had taken six hours to climb we descended in under three. In testament to the capricious weather, the sun glared everywhere and the half-meter of snow began to melt. We slogged, rolled, fell, and slid down the mountain. I alternately squinted and struggled to keep my eyes open. The ravines, invisible at night and masked by snow, now leered all around: two-feet wide slits that fell for hundreds of meters. The wet snow stuck to our crampons so that with each step we lifted a few kilos of mush. As oxygen returned the air grew thick and heavy. It was horrific.

We reached our tent around 11am and physically collapsed to the protests of our guide. An hour passed. Our bus to the capital was waiting by the hut below. Delirious, we dragged our gear over the pipes, past the reservoir, to the old rucksack. I put on my shades, and we rode toward the capital. I saw a sprawling cemetery. Chocolate bar. Our driver stopped at his cousin’s house to drink coca tea. I rocked in my seat, the colors spinning before me. My skin crawled. An hour passed. The bus moved again, and I found myself before our residence. David and the guide were talking. I mumbled murmur something bye. Stairs. Another ascent. Our door David was smiling we did it buddy yeah and I water to my bed to sleep….

I don’t know how many hours passed but judging from the sounds from the street it was early evening. Something hurt tremendously in my face. My cheeks burned and I felt puffy from my mouth to my forehead. It was pitch-dark. I shifted in my bed and winced. I tried to open my eyes but my face had swollen over them. I grunted, and gingerly I pulled my face from my eyes to look out, and I screamed: “David!”

“Shut up! I’m trying to sleep!”

“David!”

“Shut up!”

“David…. Oh shit, man…. I’m blind!”


Continued in Part II, below.

© 2019 Guille de Soho of DemosNews
The author has voyaged through Bolivia and Peru for many months. He also has voyaged through his native Argentina.

July 23, 2007 at 6:51pm
DemosRating: 5
Hits: 2560

Genre: Away (Tales)
Type: Creative
Tags: Bolivia, mountaineering

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