June 6th-7th, 2016
Ever since my mountain buddies brothers Alan and Darren Farley came back from Bolivia and told me they had skied Huayna Potosi I’ve been dreaming of doing it. Alan has a photo stuck to the roof of his own camper of him hiking the exposed summit ridge decked out in gear from the 80’s that they had rented in La Paz. Alan and I first philosophized about the camper life back in 2012 when I had just graduated from the University of British Columbia. We had some pretty serious plans to buy a camper and spend a season skiing the best spots in Canada and the United States. Unfortunately our timing never quite clicked. Alan bought the camper and I got a job at an engineering firm in Vancouver. Having just graduated I didn’t have any money anyway. Two years later Jessa and I bought our rig and set our sights for the Panamerican highway. At about the same time Alan got a job working in commercial real estate in Calgary. He still owns the camper though, and he’s still a dirt bag at heart.
Recently I reached out to Alan to see if he wanted to join up and ski in Patagonia for a few weeks. Stiff resistance quickly collapsed and tickets were booked. Sadly in the end work got in the way and tickets were cancelled. Another friend was also super keen to come down. Another victim of low oil prices and the resulting stagnant Calgary economy, he had some time off. In the end he pulled out in the interest of making his money stretch a little farther before looking for work again. One buddy can’t make it because he has a job, the other because he doesn’t. I fully understand and respect their decisions. I think it just goes to show that making the decision to go traveling is all about priorities. A lot of people tell me they wish they could do it. There’s a family of 5 doing it in a van powered by vegetable oil. There are people doing it with significant handicaps. There are people all over the world doing it against seemingly insurmountable odds. “It” doesn’t need to be driving the Panamerican Highway or even traveling. “It” is different for everyone.
I’m reminded of a quote from the book “The Humans” by Matt Haig, spoken by an alien describing the human race he has recently encountered.
“I mean, this was a species whose main excuse for not doing something was ‘if only I had more time’. Perfectly valid until you realised that they did have more time. Not eternity, granted, but they had tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. In fact, I would have to write ‘the day after’ thirty thousand times before a final ‘tomorrow’ in order to illustrate the amount of time on a human’s hands.”
And so we return to our regularly scheduled program. Having finished 10 days at elevation on the Cordillera Real trek we were well acclimatized to go for Huayna Potosi. We took a few days to “recuperate” in La Paz. I was still feeling the effects of our foray into the city’s nightlife when we arrived at base camp. With something like 4 huts at slightly different altitudes, there are many options to make camp on Huayna Potosi. We chose the first one and collapsed into the comfy brand new bunks after a quick dinner to get as much rest as possible before the next morning’s alpine start.
Starting from the low hut we scrambled up to the glacier in the dark. There we ran into none other than the group of Swiss from Condoriri basecamp on the Cordillera Real trek. We said a brief hello, but everyone was more or less in business mode. From there we dawned crampons and started walking up the glacier. Route finding was easy because the mountain is so frequently climbed that there is a well-trodden trail in the ice. We made good time and reached the snow line in about an hour. This was welcome news for our hopes at a fun ski descent. The mountain gets more and more interesting as you climb with spectacular relief on the upper parts of the glacier. The sun rose just as we reached the bottom of the summit face. In the past the summit was gained by walking a famously exposed ridge, something that had been lurking in the back of my mind the whole morning. I was both dissappointed and relieved to see that the route had changed and went straight up the face. Much less aesthetic and a lot less spicy. I don’t know why it changed. Perhaps there isn’t good enough snow coverage on the ridge anymore.
We left our skis behind as the face was covered in icy cone like protrusions formed by the sun. From there we ascended the bizarre trail to the summit. Passing us on the way down were zombielike clients leashed to indifferent Bolivian guides. Many people make the summit push without proper, or really any acclimatisation. Hence the numerous puke stains we saw lining the trail on the way up. The top section was steep and icy. We clipped into ice screws left by the Swiss group ahead of us, saving our own for later. The summit of Huayna Potosi is knife-edged and reaching the top was exciting. As I carefully leaned over the edge I was met with a butterfly inducing 2000m drop to the valley below where our campsite on the last night of the Cordillera Real trek had been. We traversed the side of the ridge to the true summit, an exciting crash course for Rachel in negotiating steep terrain in crampons. After a bit of congestion with the Swiss coming the other way we enjoyed a scenic summit break before making our own way down.
Returning to our stashed equipment, we prepared for the most anticipated part of the day, skiing down. Darren and Rachel had rented the same ancient equipment from the same guy as Darren and his brother had done two years previous. The gear was humorously inadequate, better suited for display in a museum than skiing a 6000er. The boots didn’t fit Darren or Rachel’s feet, nor did they really fit in the bindings on the skis they were riding. Rachel lugged her heavy rear entry ski boots all the way up in her pack. None of this stopped them from shredding HP like superstars straight out of the classic 80’s ski film “Hotdog”.
The skiing itself was heinous. We turned out to be a bit early and the sun had not had time to soften the hard wind and sun affected snow. Two years ago Darren and Alan had been able to ski almost the whole way to the bottom of the glacier. We had to settle for two icy sections, and walking the last few hundred meters. Nevertheless it was a great experience, and I got to check off a long time dream of mine.
We arrived at the parking lot something like 6 hours late. Miraculously our prearranged ride was still there, dutifully waiting for us. Without a word of complaint the man cheerfully helped load our gear and whisked us back to La Paz. We left him about the best tip I’ve ever given anyone.