Ambitious Attempt

Part I: Base Camp to High Camp

Today, after a reasonably comfortable night at base camp, we had a leisurely morning before our scheduled departure to high camp. We spent the morning preparing our gear and packing our rented 80L backpacks so we could carry everything we needed for a brief stay at high camp and the ultimate summit attempt.

Unfortunately our friend Mike from England woke up feeling quite sick and made the smart decision to end his quest. Shortly before leaving we were joined by three others, Merijn and Pleun from Holland, and Tom from England. Around noon our group loaded up our packs and headed out into the sleet and snow for our climb to high camp.

I was immediately aware of the extra weight I was carrying, estimated to be 50 lbs. Quite a heavy load to carry up the steep, snow covered trail to high camp sitting at 5,200 meters (17,160)! I can honestly say that the two hour ascent was one of the most physically challenging tthings I’ve done. At about the halfway point we came upon the welcome site of a small shelter at 4,965 meters (16,385’). Once inside we enjoyed a very needed rest and paid the 50 boliviano fee ($7.50) for the summit. Once cleared to proceed we reluctantly shouldered our packs for another hour up the steepest section of the trail.

Toll station to climb Juayna Potosí

The final hour to high camp was crushing, so when we finally stumbled into the shelter, we were physically exhausted (Author’s note: the pevious sentence does not apply to Ronan, our young Scot friend, or Merijin, Pleun, and Tom who all left after us).

We will have a brief stay at high camp, so the rest of the day is intended to rest as much as possible before our scheduled 1:00 am departure for the summit. The refugio, named Rock Camp is quite comfortable for our group of six, and once again we can spread out a bit among the 18 bunks provided. One challenge is the bathroom… it is located in a small hut that is a bit treacherous to reach in the rugged terrain covered by about a foot of new snow. After dinner at 5 pm we all try to get a few hours of sleep for the planned 5 hr climb to the summit in the dark. We are all hoping for the expected break in the weather and maybe an opportunity to see what we are trying to attain.

Part II: Summit Attempt

After 5-6 hours of fitful sleep (at best), or just lying there with eyes closed trying unsuccessfully to sleep (most probable), interrupted by one or more trips to the bathroom outside, we got up at 12:00 am and began our final preps for the summit attempt.

Our six climbers were assigned to their guides. Ronan and Tom had their own guides (Victor and Ovidéo respectively); Merijin and Pleun were guided by Juan; and Ron and I were assigned to William. All of the guides are very professional and highly experienced mountain guides with professional certifications, so we were all in very good hands.

From left: Don, Pleun, Merijin, Ronan, Tom, and Ron

Although the previous evening had cleared up, by the time we left high camp there was a heavy mist in the air. The temperature was mild, but definitely a few degree below freezing. These facts contributed to our first surprise and challenge of the day; a steep rock wall with a narrow rock and snow covered path all covered with a thick coat of rime ice! This section spanning about 200 meters was quite challenging; fortunately there were fixed ropes attached to the wall to aid in our stability,

Imagine this section in the dark with even more ice!

After successfully navigating that treacherous section, we stopped to put on our crampons and get tethered together with our guides for the remainder of the climb on steep snow fields with the occasional crevasse to cross. In several places the route also featured steep drops to the left or right, or both. Hence being harnessed and roped together is an essential mountaineering protocol.

Ron and I are experienced trekkers, but we quickly realized that mountaineering is a whole other ballgame. There are no trails, especially when several feet of new snow had fallen in the days prior to our climb. Additionally the climbing boots are very heavy (I’d estimate 4-5 lbs each, not including crampons!). This made the climbing especially challenging (at least for the two old guys)! Fortunately our group didn’t have trailblazing duty, that fell to some other group that had left before us. Of course everyone who followed helped to further pack down the narrow trail.

The plan was to climb from high camp to the summit, a 958 meter (3,143’) climb at high altitude over a short 3.5 kilometers in 5 hours, then descend back to high camp in 2 hours. For the the casual reader that is a very challenging climbing scenario.

Ron and I quickly realized our trekking experience did not prepare us for true mountaineering. Although we were okay with the elevation, the extra work required to step forward due to the weight and ridgidness of the climbing boot/crampon combination quickly fatigued our legs. We continued to push forward though, but any step out of the narrow compacted trail required even a greater use of our already depleted energy reserves. I found myself focused on the climbing rope that connected me to Ron and William. As we slowly ascended, the slack or tautness of the line dictated the pace to be maintained. If it remained taut for too long it was time to request a short break. Ultimately we made it to the base of the final steep summit push to an elevation of 5,915 meters (19,406’).

Above us, high on the summit ridge Ovidéo, who was climbing had assumed trailblazing duties on the toughest section of the climb, the final 175 meters to the summit on a 45-50 degree slope. He plowed through knee-deep snow all the way to the summit, a truly Herculean effort.

Picture from Ronan’s descent from the summit… scary steep!!

At that point, we could see the summit in the light of the full moon. It loomed high above on the steepest part of the climb. I mentioned to Ron that I didn’t think I could make the summit and still have the energy needed to descend all the way back to high camp, and later base camp. We were both exhausted, and agreed that the right decision was to turn around and begin the descent. Ultimately 3 of our six climbers made it to the summit, Tom (with his guide Ovidéo), followed shortly by Ronan (and his guide Victor), and later Merijin (and his guide Juan). Pluen went a bit farther than Ron and I, then joined up with Victor and Ronan as they descended from the summit).

On the way down the importance of being roped and harnessed together was underscored. While ascending, our guide William was in the lead, Ron center and me at the rear. While descending we went in reverse order. When crossing a 3’ crevasse, William would put tension on the line to assist our momentum while we jumped across.

On the way down, I was in the lead position while William was the anchor. As we were descending the narrow track at a point where the track turned sharply to the right, my left foot sunk into deep snow and I lost my balance. Almost immediately I felt my momentum stop as Ron fell backward so he could dig his crampons into the snow and William provided a strong base to stabilize the situation. Their quick reaction instilled the importance of the rope team working together to protect each other.

William (not pictured) and Ron arresting my fall

Although we were slightly disappointed about not making the summit, we made the right/safe decision for us. The descent was challenging, using up every bit of the little energy we had remaining, but the sun had risen and the views all around us were absolutely stunning! Even though the summit eluded us, it was a phenomenal experience, seeing incredible sights, experiencing new challenges, and sharing it all with incredible and interesting people. All in all a big win!

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