One step at a time. I am physically and mentally drained but I will not give up on those last 150 meters – be it a 45-degree wall of compressed snow. I am going to reach Huayna Potosi’s summit.
Huayna Potosi Day 1 – Getting to Base Camp (4,720m)
My 3-day adventure begins at 9:15 am in Huayna Potosi Agency‘s office. I meet my other two fellow travelers, Georgina from London, and Fergus from New Zealand, along with one of our two mountain guides, Eduardo. We first stop off at the agency’s equipment store to try out and pick up the gear we’ll need for the climb: plastic boots, jackets, trousers, etc
Then after 2 hours or so driving we arrive at the Refugio, also known as the Base Camp, which resides at 4.720m (15,485 feet). The cook Lilly is already there and serves us with a very tasty lunch.
In the afternoon, we head off to the lower glacier to get used to the equipment, learn how to properly hike using crampons and an ice ax.
We spend the evening drinking coco leaf tea and playing card games. Around 11pm, we all go to sleep in our cozy shared room made of 3 bunk beds, happy to have made it smoothly to the end of day 1!
Huayna Potosi Day 2 – Hiking up to High Camp (5,300m)
After breakfast, the plan for the morning is to rest. Happy to do so, we spend a few hours chatting and chilling in the sun before an early lunch. We then start our 5-hour hike to High Camp.
The first part of the hike is on a rough track and over loose stones. The scenery is stunning with views across valleys. To make the hike even more enjoyable, we meet plenty of llamas along the way!
The second part of the hike is steeper. My back, shoulders, and hips hurt. Today we have to carry all our gear – crampons, plastic boots, jackets – it is pretty heavy! I try to adjust my backpack but it doesn’t help much. I feel a bit like a loser because I walk at a slower pace than the other two who don’t seem to struggle at all.
We eventually arrive in the late afternoon at High Camp with sits at 5,300m (17,400 feet). Hanging off the edge, it is right behind a massive glacier and offers outstanding views. High Camp consists of 3 lodges, one for climbers with mattresses squashed together for sleeping, one for the guides, and one for eating. There is also a small toilet a few steps away.
We have an early dinner with soup and noodles. Our guides explain the plan for tomorrow, what we need to bring, and decide on timing. We have a strong group so we will leave camp at 1.30am. According to our guides, early starts are always advisable as, from 8 am onward, the snow becomes less stable, increasing the risk of an avalanche.
After getting our gear organized, we go to sleep around 6pm. It’s not even dark yet and with all the excitement about tomorrow, we are all agitated and struggle to fall asleep.
Huayna Potosi Summit Night – The ascent (6,088m)
The 12.30 am wake up call comes very quickly. After getting into our many layers of clothing, we eat a light breakfast, put our crampons on, and ice axe in hand. It’s 1.30am, it’s go time! There is a certain sort of madness required to step out on to a dark, cold mountain at 1:30 am. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. I know it’s going to be extremely demanding but I cherish the challenge. As the Daila Lama puts it, “The suffering is what makes you appreciate the joy”!
With headlamp on, my view consists of a yellowish circle of about 10 feet across. I’m tethered to our guide Eduardo and Georgina the entire way. Eduardo first, then Georgina, then me. Fergus is tied to the other guide, Jose. For the next few hours, it’s pitch black. This is probably better because some parts are really, really steep. In some sections, the trails are only about 18-inches wide. We have to jump over crevasses, climb a 30-meter ice wall, and trudge up super steep hills.
I start feeling the fatigue. We are going faster than what I would like to. One of the challenges is we’re tied together to a cord and all need to walk at the same speed. If I go too slow, the rope goes tight and the people in front of me have to stop. We decide to put me in the second position so that I can better set up the pace for the whole group. I don’t like being the slow one but try my best not to care about it.
The higher up we are, the harder it is to breathe. I’m going even slower. One step at a time. Focused on my breathing. Staying calm. Keeping my willpower strong. I am looking forward to the next pause, every 15 minutes or so, for water and chocolate. When it’s time to take a break, I sit like a mess on the snow. I’m warm and cold, I am so exhausted that I have no desire to talk at all. I try to save all my energy and focus on the goal: reach the summit.
It’s a long, slow and grueling hike. There is way too much time to think about how exhausted I am, how hard every step is. I try to practice mindfulness, keep a positive mindset and remind myself that I am not a quitter. That I will not just turn around and go back. Damn, staying in control of thoughts in such a demanding situation is hard! I still manage to see the humor in the situation. I am on a cold, dark mountain at 4 am with crampons and an ice axe because I choose to! Silly me.
The final push
The final and hardest 2-hour part consists of tackling a 45-degree wall of compressed snow. This section starts at 5,850m altitude and finishes at the 6,088m summit. The path is very narrow and daunting. It does not look like too big a slip would be safe. It is a challenging section and a true test to my determination.
Finally, we make it to the top, in a bit less than 5 hours. We had a pretty good pace! We arrive right at the beginning of the sunrise. The view is spectacular. Although I am exhausted and emotionally drained, I feel wonderful and relieved that the hardest part is behind me.
Huayna Posoti Day 3 – The descent back to base camp
After enjoying the view for about 20 minutes or so, we start hiking down. During that part, we take our time to admire the wonderful landscapes and take pictures. We also realize the amazing glacier we just crossed in the dark!
Around 8.30 am, we arrive at High Camp where we rest for half an hour, drinking hot tea with some cookies. Then we head off again and arrive at the Base Camp 2 hours later where we have a copious lunch. We drive back to La Paz in the afternoon where I enjoy a long hot shower in my hostel.
Health and Physical condition
Though often referred to as the easiest 6,000-meter mountain in the world, climbing Huayna Potosi is certainly no easy feat. You don’t need any prior mountaineering experience but should have a decent level of fitness, be free from any respiratory or heart conditions, and have a lot of determination and willpower.
Furthermore, proper acclimatization is essential. Spend at least a 3-6 days in La Paz prior to climbing Huayna Potosi. Everyone reacts differently to altitude. It can hit during the ascent but also the descent. Drink plenty of coca tea as coca leaves provide notable relief from altitude sickness.
When to climb Huayna Potosi
Although it is possible to climb Huayna Potosi all year round, the best time is during the winter, from May to September, when days are sunny and dry.
Outside this period, inclement weather with wet and cloudy days makes climbs more dangerous, unpleasant. It also decreases your chances of breathtaking views.
Choosing a tour operator
There are many climbing agencies offering to organize the trip, but be careful, because the companies and the quality of the services are not equal.
I had a great experience with Huayna Potosi Agency. They have very good facilities and serve delicious food. Their base camp is a pretty comfy house and their High Camp is the highest of all camps, saving you some crucial energy on the summit night! There will also be no other group ahead of you which is pretty nice. On both nights, they provided me with extra blankets so I wasn’t cold, which was a huge plus. They also provide high-quality equipment and let you pick what you like at their store, which is nice. Climbing Bolivia, Climbing South America, and Andean Ascents also have solid reputations.
I also recommend choosing the 3-day option over the 2-day one. The price is almost the same and it gives you an extra day for acclimatization and ice-climbing training.
Tour prices vary between $150 and $300 depending on the quality and length of the tour. Most companies include the following in the tour price:
- private transport to and from Huayna Potosi
- qualified mountain guide
- equipment – climbing boots, crampons, ice axe, mountain jacket and trousers, harness, rope etc
- meals & accommodation
You will also have the option to rent any additional gear that is not included in the price (sleeping bag, backpack, etc).
- Spend 3-6 days in and around La Paz before the climb to acclimatize
- Drink plenty of coca leaf tea in the mornings and evenings and lots of water throughout the climb
- Take ibuprofen and altitude sickness medication with you
- The hike to the High Camp is pretty steep and you will need to carry all your gear. Leave any non-crucial stuff at the Base Camp
- If you’re sensitive to the cold as I am, ask for extra blankets and keep layers at night. I was actually already wearing my clothes for the following day so that I didn’t have to dress up and face the cold in the morning.
- On the summit night, I wore: 3 layers of socks (2 thin, 1 thick), 4 layers of pants (1 legging, 1 thermal pant, 1 hiking pant, 1 ski pant), 1 shirts, 3 jackets (3 thermal sweater, 1 ski jacket), 2 pairs of gloves (1 line glove 1 ski gloves), 1 balaclava, 1 beanie. I put all the clothes I had on me from the start and didn’t feel the need to remove any layer before the descent.
Was it worth it?
Definitely! Huayna Potosi is a unique and memorable experience; a must-do for avid adventurers passing through Bolivia. You will be rewarded with stunning views of the Cordillera Real, Lake Titicaca (3810m) and the Altiplano (4000m), along with a sense of achievement you will never forget.
One of the great things about Huayna Potosi is that you can easily fit it into your short schedule and travel budget. It’s only two hours away from La Paz and is the only 6,000-meter mountain on earth that can be done in 2 or 3 days and for less than $200! On top of that, the climb is very easy to book and accessible to beginners.
Per comparison, Mt Kilimanjaro (5,895 m), the highest mountain in Africa, takes five to nine days and costs at least $1,200m. Mt Elbrus (5,642m), the highest mountain in Europe, takes about eight days and costs at least US $2,500. Mt Dinali (6,194m), the highest mountain in North America, takes two to three weeks and costs at least US $6.500. Aconcagua (6,962m), the highest mountain in South America, takes two to three weeks and costs at least US $5,000.
Have an experience of a lifetime, climb a 6,000-meter mountain and book your Huayna Potosi climb! It is definitely one of the most memorable and rewarding things you can do in Bolivia.