Monday, May 11, 2009

6,088m in pictures

So, let's say you get to La Paz, Bolivia, altitude: a breath-taking 3,500m above sea level. What do you do there? Well, first and foremost, you go to a company that'll give you a mountain bike and let you ride it down what they call the World's Most Dangerous Road. Done! And I lived to tell about it (apparently not being Israeli helps as of the 21 tourists that have died on the road since it being opened to tourists some 15 years ago, a full 1/3 have been Israeli). Ok, how do you trump that? Well, it's Bolivia, it's got lots of big mountains (the tallest just over 6,500m), including a 6,088m one, called Huayna Potosi, that's a mere 2 hour drive from La Paz along some bumpy, unpaved, Bolivian roads. The base camp is at 4,500m, the top is 6,088m - you only have to actually climb a little over 1,500m to reach the top, it is generally considered the most reacheable 6,000m peak in the world. How could I say no!? Altitude sickness is always a concern, but a week in La Paz and about a full month well above sea level had me feeling pretty confident. As had conquering the 5,100m Salkantay Pass in Peru a few weeks ago. And the helpful Bolivian tour agencies will send you up to the nearly stratospheric 6,088m, all gear, meals, and accomodations included, on a 3-day trek, culminating at the peak (in time for sunrise), all for less than $150! BTW, if you ever are in Bolivia, I would happily recommend the Huayna Potosi travel agency...

Pictures are worth a thousand words, so we'll just go with pictures from here:

Friday morning, we are leaving La Paz. Nice overview of the city from this spot, a big mountain flanking it - not the one we'd be climbing.

Two hours later we arrived at the Huayna Potosi refugio, with beautiful sunlit views of the mountain.

Climbing this mountain isn't all that easy - you need equipment and some basic training, so later that afternoon, we met Mario, our guide, grabbed out crampons, ice axes and other accessories and headed off to a nearby glacier for a bit of training

Views of the surrounding mountains on the way down. The refugio sits on the shores of a large lake, subjugated for hydro-electricity.

There's not a whole lot to do up here, so we were in bed around 9 Friday night. Up about 8:30AM Saturday morning, and by 1 in the afternoon, were all geared up and ready to trek up to the high camp: 5,300m. Lake in the background. Our team: just two people - myself and Ira, and Israeli traveling around South America for a year. He has a lot of motivation to make the peak as his [younger] sister had made it a year ago and will never let him live it down if he fails.

Now, the highest I've ever been in my life up until now was 5,196 in Gorak Shep, Nepal. So, getting to the rarified air of 5,300 was a bit tiring (about 2 and 3/4 hrs). On the bright side, you just walk up here, not much snow to speak of. On the downside, you have to carry all that snow equipment with you as from here, it's all snow and ice.

The clouds were gathering in the late afternoon, making for some spectacular views of the mountains and the high alpine lakes

A brief interlude from the photos, seeing how at about 6PM we went to bed (there's really nothing to do up here. I tried reading my book for a bit, but the sun was completely gone by 6:30 and not wanting to read with my headlamp, I tried going to bed too. Not sure if I actually got any sleep - sleeping at 5,300m takes some? a lot of getting used to... From here, the night ruled, so not a lot of pictures for a while:
1:15AM - Mario is up, indicating that we should be getting up to. My brain refuses to comprehend Spanish at 1:15 in the morning at 5,300m above sea level, but the message is pretty clear... We had actually been promised a 1AM sharp wake up.
1:30 - breakfast consists of coca tea (coca leaves are magical for altitude!), and some crackers. These take care of my the headache, which my brain was clearly trying to summon in protest
2:25 - we are all geared up and off to go! It's a clear moon-lit sky, with the path easily visible even without the headlamps
3:30 - we cross our first crevasse (of two). You just step across, so it's not much of a challenge really. Simultaneous breating, walking, and chewing coca leaves is a bit of a challenge, I find solace in the fact that I am still able to regain my breath quite quickly during our brief stops.
4:00 - our first climb, using the ice axe and everything. You get out of breath a lot quicker up here than you did back at the low glacier yesterday!
4:30 - we are now just trudging along, following Mario. You do start to feel a bit like cattle - walking in a line, tethered together by a rope (safety line in case somebody falls into, say, a crevasse), without a particularly clear understanding of where you are going or how you are getting there.
5:00 - we're passing 6,000m. I am getting tired, but my brain has gone fully into 'achievable goals' mode: we've made it this far, no signs of altitude sickness for either of us (for safety reasons, you can't just send one person back, so if one starts feeling sick, both of us would have to abandon and go back), I can see the top, we will make it no matter what! The small matter of the final 200m being mostly straight up will just have to take care of itself.
6:15 - that last part was a bitch, just steep enough to make walking difficult, but not steep enough to make the ice axe fully useful. And then there's the bit where a recent avalanche had taken out the path, making the traverse a little more uncertain... But we've made it! Quite early, and thus quickly too! You can see the sky just starting to turn bright on the Eastern horizon. Full-fledged sunrise is arount 6:45.

Now that we've got light again, back to pictures:

Just enough light now to celebrate our accomplishment: 6,088m above sea level!

The sun slowly coming up bright red behind the clouds.

All these cool sights we missed in the dark on the way up!

We are walking above the clouds

Now that the sun is out, the perfect snowy valleys make me miss my snowboard! Not that I'd have any desire whatsoever to carry it up here...

Heading down the bit that was our first ice axe climb. Now that it's light, and we're heading down, we just walk.

And so, that was my 6,088 excursion, quite succesful, not to mention gratifying, I must add. And the lack of sleep made it a hell of a lot easier to sleep on the overnight bus to Potosi that evening. Some other random commentary on Bolivia:
- what's with the breast feeding? Not only does every woman above age 18 appear to have a kid strapped to her back, but they all seem to want to breastfeed in public. As I was typing this up, at a crowded internet cafe, a woman sat down next to me, baby bundle in hand, and proceeded to play solitaire for 20 minutes. Now, I did a very thorough job of averting my eyes, but judging by the noises, there's only thing the baby could've been doing the whole time. Is there really no place just a little more private than an internet cafe?
- I'm now in Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4,200m above sea level. Getting here involves an overnight bus, which is something I've experienced many a time before in South America. Apparently, however, I have not experienced a Bolivian bus going over a 4,000m+ pass - somebody forgot to turn on the heater! The lack of sleep the night before did ensure I got plenty of sleep anyway, but I kept waking up, just being cold. The guy sitting next to me bringing a blanket on board was the first sign of trouble...
- This morning in Potosi, I went to the Silver Mines, Potosi's primary claim to fame. These aren't regulated by the government, so nobody knows just how close they are to collapsing, but tour groups get to go into the 'safer' areas anyway. The working conditions down there are pretty depressing, but everyone is self-employed, mining their very own silver ore, and seems pretty content...

Dressed for a mining excursion!

Working in the dark confines of the mine. I was ready to leave after our 2 hour trip. These guys work for over 20 years. Then generally die in their mid-forties, due to all the dust they breathe in... but, hey, it pays better than farming? And it's better than the Spanish that killed some 8 million Indian and African slaves in the mine over a few centuries of colonial rule...

1 comment:

Mathilde said...

Whaouh I really love yout mining outfit! Where can I get one in BsAs? Lol
More seriously it's amazing what you have done. In Humahuace, 3000m above sea, I couldn't climb the stairs! As you said, you have more practice than those altitudes than me but still... chapeau (like they said in France, it means litterarly "hat" = I'm impressed). xox