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I Had No Option Other Than to Survive Without Oxygen

Trekking at 6,000m Above Sea Level— a Story by a Wandering Gringo with No Experience Whatsoever

By Phil ThornettPublished 6 years ago 15 min read
Paddington Bear surveying the world at 6,088m

After several weeks in South America traveling south through the mighty Andes mountains, I arrived in the capital of Bolivia, La Paz. Flushed with the cumulative success of hiking Peru’s Colca Canyon, Salkantay Pass, and Macchu Pichu, I had booked a two day expedition with a fellow backpacker, to climb the country’s fifth highest mountain, Huayna Potosi at 6088m, in the Bolivian Cordillera Real.

We used travel agency High Camp Lodge based out of La Paz and paid 800 Bolivianos each (85GBP) with a bit of negotiating to include a sleeping bag, some warm clothes and 50L backpack. The next day our guide, Juan who spoke a couple of words in English and whose features seemed frozen in a dour expression, picked us up in a minibus and drove us to the base camp (4700m) where we ate a quick lunch of local soup Chairo Paceño and a vegetable-filled omelette (tortilla) served with the omnipresent Coca-Cola. The soup contained black Chuño, a freeze-dried potato common in areas with Quechua or Aymara tribal heritage. Juan informed us this type of potato was traditionally made by leaving the potatoes out in the high Andean Altiplano overnight to freeze, before drying them in the sun and then trampling them by foot to remove any residual water. They tasted surprisingly good despite this knowledge.

Then our hike began in the drizzling rain; climbing up a barren, rocky trail through the afternoon, loaded down with all of our mountaineering gear including ice axes, crampons, and rented mountaineering boots to reach the High Camp at 5130m (16,800ft). This camp consisted of a stone and corrugated plastic building with accompanying outhouse, where we would rest up and prepare for the summit attempt.

We sat on a long bench in the corner of a cold, high-ceilinged room containing a table and five or six wooden bunk beds. Coca tea and hot chocolate were used to ward off the chill before dinner. The meal consisted of more soup, this time served with boiled broccoli, carrots, and sweet potato, which I devoured and Sandra nibbled before pulling on our thermal gear and climbing into a sleeping bag on one of the wooden bunks at 18h00 to get some rest for our midnight wake-up.

At this altitude, sleep does not come quickly, the air feels thin and I struggled to control my heart rate. The best one could hope for was a fitful rest. My trekking partner Sandra and I were both frozen to begin with and then too hot by the end as the blankets we stole from neighboring beds did their work. Since we were in a large, cold building, we were caught in a Catch 22 situation; leave your face exposed so you could breathe, but have your eyelids freeze in the cold air, or hide your face in the warm sleeping bag saving your eyes, but risking your lungs. I woke twice from violent nightmares in which I was suffocating only to find myself trapped in the claustrophobic bedding and that really was suffocating. Those moments were spent desperately fighting the sleeping bag and struggling to take in any air to satisfy my lungs at all.

At midnight, Juan woke us with a light before reappearing 10 minutes later with some hot water to make our beverage of choice along with some stale bread and jam. Then we were off. Armed with much lighter packs this time and primed with coffee and manzanilla tea.

The complete absence of light pollution in the neighboring area and the thin sliver of a moon meant that the stars were extremely clear. Some familiar faces loomed in Orion and the Seven Sisters. The wind and cloud from the evening before had disappeared and had left a crystalline dusting of snow on all the surfaces.

Initially we were without crampons as we scrambled amongst jagged boulders and loose stones that moved treacherously underfoot; the oversized plastic mountaineering boots threatening to slip with each step. A series of loosely hung ropes bearing the tell-tale sign of many repairs hung from anchor points on some of the boulders. Given the extent of the fraying, I tested each one thoroughly before putting my full weight on them. Snow appeared in patches waiting to catch the unwary by surprise.

The ropes soon vanished and we continued upwards on slightly easier terrain for another 20 minutes until we reached the edge of the snow line proper. Here we stopped to fit our crampons, get roped up, and detach our ice axes ready for the technical ascent and we received a brief, thirty second demonstration in how to use all of the equipment. The ice axe is used as a crutch or walking pole in the uphill hand until the going requires the use of the blade itself. Where upon the axe leash (exactly the length of the haft) remains over the wrist and the axe is held right at the end so that both your own grip and the leash support its use as it bites deep into the ice to support your weight. With an aluminium shaft, the 60cm long axe is a useful piece of equipment, but a little short for a man just shy of 190cm.

We were also roped up in a three with Juan leading, Sandra in the middle and me bringing up the rear. The rope always remains on the downhill side, which means you need to remember to switch anytime you zig zag or as the terrain around you shifts. The rope gave approximately five metres (16ft) between each of us and you have to maintain enough distance to keep it off the ground and out from under each others' feet in order to minimise any shock loading should one person fall.

With the lesson complete we continued onwards with the snow glowing dully in the starlight and our eyes focussed within the tiny bright circles cast by our head torches.

It hadn’t occurred to me before, but five metres can feel like a long way in the dark. As I ascended I was only aware of the tiny window of a landscape in my small circle of light accompanied by the sound of my own breathing for comfort. Sandra was too far ahead to speak to comfortably, since we were wrapped up warm against the cold and shouting in this landscape was far too dangerous; the risk of avalanches all too real in our exposed position. It’s an ideal time for introspection but it’s also possible that, lost in thought, one can become all too aware of the passage of time and the trials ahead. I told myself, “Losing the battle in your mind means you might as well hang up your boots.” and I determinedly strode on.

My breathe was laboured within the first twenty seconds of walking despite my light pack. I only carried a spare down jacket, gloves, 1.5L of water, five or six snack bars and a small first aid kit. My bag weighed about five kg, but it felt like 20kg in these conditions. Still I was too entranced by the landscape around me to care much for thinking about how difficult this ascent might be. This feeling lasted the first couple of hours as we made our way upwards, ever upwards coming from the shadows behind us, into further darkness ahead. To distract me from the numbing cold in my feet and the pain in my lungs, I kept my mind busy by focussing on the tension of the rope hanging from my harness in front of me. I would adjust the length of my strides to ensure the rope stayed out from under Sandra's feet, but also making sure the tension did not restrict her movement. It became like a little game; my mind was entirely occupied by this task and I was absolutely dedicated to it, using it as a means of ensuring that step-by-step I continued on towards the summit. This rope and the connection to Sandra and Juan I felt through it was the only human contact I had between our breaks, which were rare and provided short-lived respite from the hard work and heavy breathing.

After the first two stops the breaks formed a recognisable pattern; Juan would stop somewhere ahead and continue to collect in the rope which he would tie off once Sandra reached him. I would continue walking until my rope too had been collected and tied off, whereupon Sandra would collapse onto the ground breathing heavily, Juan would snicker and mutter something about "whiskey" and I would remain standing, surprised at my own positivity and lack of pain as I tried to regulate my breathing and paint a bright, motivational picture for Sandra and I to get to the top. This early on in the climb I had no doubt I would make it, but I was very worried about Sandra. She had taken Acetazolamide altitude sickness tablets two nights earlier and had then been sick twice at breakfast before we got the bus to the low camp. She had been robbed of her appetite and plagued with intense pins and needles (a noted side effect of Acetazolamide) in her extremities including her hands, feet and even her cheeks. She was out of sorts and suffering, her character wavering from the usual strong, persevering presence I was used to. I, on the other hand, had been able to consume two pasta meals and a shakshuka breakfast before then wolfing down my own portion and Sandra's leftovers at the lunch and dinner on the expedition so far. If I didn't have enough energy for this, I would be staggered.

The fourth time we stopped only because Sandra had collapsed to vomit at the side of the trail. I heard the retching and raced to close the distance, taking in the rope as I did. She was on her knees spitting the remnants of her stomach contents onto the downhill slope. I supported her shoulder and muttered words of encouragement, trying to bring some levity to the situation to keep her from despair. I noted from Juan's rope that he had stopped, but he stayed his distance and seemed disinterested. We rested for five minutes or so and she said she felt much better, so at Juan's behest we started up again.

It was easy to settle in and think this mountain was just a mental battle as white snow entered the front of my torchlit circle and faded to black at the back of it, but there were occasional vivid reminders of the danger in this land. On several occasions we passed small holes located a foot or two off the main trail which, when I peered into them with my brightest torch beam, seemed to stretch downwards for infinity. A misstep here could easily cost you, and perhaps your connected comrades, a life.

A perilously narrow ledge was the next challenge. The trail rounded a bend and the incline to our right suddenly dropped away. On our left rose an almost sheer wall with a tiny ledge, wide enough for only one foot at a time, stretching into the night. It was still dark as pitch, which was probably for the best as I couldn't see quite how far I would fall if it went wrong. Juan stopped and briefly refreshed us on the correct use of the axe. I must have looked unconvinced, staring between his axe and the soft powdery snow that we had been trudging through, since he caught my eye and then swung his axe hard at the snow wall above us. A smug grin split his face as the axe sliced through four inches of powder and bit deep into the hard ice beneath. "You see" he said, "axe is strong, use it for help." Our pace reduced to little more than a crawl as we got used to the new way of moving. I would swing the axe at almost full reach with my left hand, then take four baby steps on the narrow ledge to bring myself level with it, keeping an eye on the rope tension ahead of me. Then I would wiggle it back and forth to free it from the ice before swinging again to begin the process anew. It was tough going and I had to work hard to ignore the empty space beneath me, but I was soon smiling to myself; this was a real adventure, this was living life on the edge with my body full of adrenaline and thoughts of the summit coming to mind.

Further on we came to a point where the route narrowed to less than a foot as it bridged a crevasse approximately three metres across. In the darkness so far it had been relatively easy to overcome my fear of heights that had occasionally crippled me on treetop walkways or narrow mountain trails in the past. The sky had begun to lighten and here only the tension in the rope kept me moving forwards as my torchlight bounced around and disappeared into the yawning abyss of blue crystal that stretched into the darkness below. I strode with deliberate purpose using the axe to balance as Sandra's steady pace unwittingly pulled me across the gap. Another reminder of our fragility in this frozen, alien landscape.

I had been able to see several other torchbeams bouncing around in the distance for a couple of hours, two of which were getting increasingly close. We eventually came upon them; a Bolivian guide and a Spanish tourist. He looked done for, lying collapsed at the side of the trail with extremely laboured breathing that didn't seem to slow despite his rest. Our guides exchanged words and we nodded our encouragement to this fallen compatriot. However, Juan's pace was relentless so we overtook and soon left them behind. In my head I set the next pair of lights in my sights.

After nearly five hours on the ice dawn was almost breaking and we stopped on a wide, open section of the trail with a gentle slope to turn and admire the view. It was stunning; I have never witnessed a sunrise like it before, the snow stretched away in front of us, with the gentle slope making it seem like an infinity pool looking out onto the clouds way below. Occasional peaks thrust proudly through the cloud in some areas and Juan pointed out one magnificent specimen as Illimani, the second tallest mountain in Bolivia. The cities of La Paz and El Alto could just be seen by the remaining lights some 40 km away. The pink sky turned to yellow and gold as the sun edged closer and we watched as it eventually broke past the horizon, spilling light over the cloud carpet below and illuminating the snow and ice structures around us.

Sunrise Looking Back to the East

We could now see another six people ahead of us in three groups of two. The nearest was only a few hundred metres ahead, whilst the other two groups were on what Juan called the final zig-zag to the summit. Within twenty minutes we rounded a corner to find a girl sat panting at the edge of a boulder field, at this point Juan told us that less than an hour remained until we would each the top. "Nearly there!" I said to the girl as we edged carefully past her and her guide on the rocky path, "We'll see you at the top!" I smiled in what I hoped was an encouraging fashion.

"I don't think so, I don't feel so good." She replied, she was from Chicago.

"No?" I said, "Stay positive, I hope we will see you at the top!" But I could see in her eyes that she had already given up. Sure enough we didn't see her on the trail again.

The rock scramble was especially difficult in crampons, the metal blades scraped and screeched across the stone as we struggled for balance, but we made it across to where the snowline started again and were in for a surprise. Juan had stopped at the bottom of a vertical wall of snow and ice that went up for four or five metres. He briefly demonstrated the ice axe again before starting upwards. Without looking down I waited for the Sandra to make her way up before following and I was surprised again at how well the axe and crampons worked together. I found it relatively tough going to get the axe in deep and then step up the wall, kicking my toes deep into the ice and steadying with my right hand to allow me to free the axe and repeat. Again I was able to concentrate on this task to keep my mind off the consequences of falling and the distance below me. Unfortunately this almost came undone when Sandra collapsed after clambering over the top of the wall for a rest. She was blocking my path and I had no choice but to hang by my axe and crampons waiting for her to get the strength back to move along the path. We had just reached 6,000m (19,700ft) and it was telling. The exertion had me breathing like I had just sprinted a mile as I yelled up, asking her to move. She rolled over and I hauled myself over the top, collapsing into the space she had made for me, fighting for oxygen as the final zig-zag to the summit came into clear view.

This is where the going got seriously tough, the heat of the sun beat down, causing us to sweat under our heavy winter gear and Juan had developed a real sense of urgency. "Sun is dangerous." He said, "Snow melts and slides, more chance of falling now."

The air, which had felt thin before, was even less evident and even standing still took a serious amount of effort. In my head I knew there were only eighty-eighty metres of elevation remaining. Ridiculous comparisons involving Usain Bolt sprinting the distance in 7 seconds came to mind and I knew that it wasn't far, but everything in my limbs and lungs begged for me to stop and rest. With a smile and a high five Sandra picked herself up, and I followed as we made our way up the zig zag.

We stood to one side halfway up the first section as two pairs of hikers, flushed with success, made their way back down past us. I felt a surge of absurd jealousy that they no longer had to worry about ascending and were heading back down to a place where it was no longer a struggle to breathe. I quelled those thoughts and refocused on my task; first one foot, then the other as the biting, dry air ripped my wheezing throat apart with every laboured breath. Juan had shortened our lines to three metres or so and all I could see was the rope, the snow and the back of Sandra's boots. The stunning view around me was just background noise in my internal mental battle for the peak.

Then, after we had changed direction for the third or fourth time, the slope lessened, a ridge developed in front of us with a perilously steep drop on the left hand side and we saw the other side of the mountain for the first time. A minute or so later we reached the end of the ridge, and our final destination, the summit of Huayna Potosi.

The feeling of elation and success is unparalleled. Sandra and I embraced, we shared high fives and backslaps with a grinning Juan and she was almost crying with joy as she lay down in the snow. I remained standing, staring around me at the beautiful scenery. At 6,088 metres, almost 20,000 feet we were higher than some aircraft, clouds spilled out below us like a cotton-wool carpet and snow-capped peaks stretched from the North West to the South East along the line of the Cordillera Real, crowned by the majestic Illimani at 6,438m (21,100ft). To the North East the brown, lower slopes and smaller mountains gave way to green as the jungle took over the hilly landscape with the city of Trinidad somewhere out of view over the horizon. To the West a small break in the clouds hinted at the location of Titicaca; the highest navigable lake in the world. At this height the effective oxygen volume is 9.7% compared with 20.9% at sea level, but nothing could have wiped the smile off my face. I knew immediately that this would not be my last expedition, the reward far outweighed any of the difficulty in getting here and this was something I wanted to do again...

Summit success looking back down the trail with Illimani on the horizon

south america

About the Creator

Phil Thornett

I say yes to opportunities and try to follow through most of them, meeting people, exploring and adventure.

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