Ever Upward: Climbing 20,000 feet
Aug 1st, 2006
It was 7:00am and maybe 15F. 6000m (19,600ft) above sea level,
I was climbing a 200m foot wall of ice and snow, crampons
and ice axe fixing me on a precarious perch. I'd been
trudging upward since 2am on zero sleep. As the sun
pierced the cloudcover below in a red ball, I had no
idea how to summon the energy for the last 100m to
the snowy summit.
Welcome to Bolivia, where for less than $50 a day,
you can participate in any number of sports that
can kill you. My expedition of choice: mountaineering
on a peak just an hour outside La Paz. Huayna Potosi,
with a snowy twin peak, is rumored to be the decapitated,
relocated head of a young mountain whose pride swelled
too large. It's a much calmer mountain these days.
For the past two days, our international group of 7
(2 Israeli, 2 French, Spanish, Irish, me) had been
acclimatizing in the base camp and high camps. We'd
donned plastic boots (think low-top skiing), crampons,
wielded the trusty piolet (ice axe) and tromped about
on an old glacier that cast a shadow like the tsunami
waves of old Japan. Our guides asked if we'd like to
try something "a little tough" to practice -- that
meant climbing up a fully vertical 30 foot wall of
blue ice. It was a warm-up for the ascent that would
begin in the middle of the night, 30 hours later.
The agency I'd hired is run by a doctor who told me
he gave up doctoring because he didn't want to make
a living on people's pain. They own the refugio
(refuge) at base camp and have well-trained guides
that help people put themselves in pain in the middle
of the night.
Mountaineering is weird that way. Like a religion,
it's complete with pilgrimages, myths of legendary
climbers, and superstitions. Oddly enough, at the
base camp refugio, I met a legend and his pair of
disciples. Alan Burgess and his twin Adrian have
climbed all the biggies: Everest, K2, and the gang.
Jon Krakauer, author of "Into Thin Air", wrote about
the duo in "Eiger Dreams." Sue and Jack are
from San Diego on their 4-week reprieve from
corporate life, guided by and supremely confident
in Alan. They're acclimatizing on hikes above
5000m (16,400ft) to tackle some really big mountains:
6549m Sajama and 6402m Illimani. Both mountains are
both much more "technical" than Huayna Potosi,
meaning that they are better at killing people.
"Cerebral edema, is the really bad one",
Alan explained, "the blood-brain barrier
in your skull breaks down and feels like a metal
band cinched around your head." A nasty variant
of altitude sickness, it can strike and kill
within hours. Most of our group is sitting in
rapt attention around Alan and the refugio fireplace,
silently calculating our potential risks. Altitude
sickness, or soroche, is the original sin of
climbing, smiting those too proud to wait, grasping
too high too fast. We have ascended from the
relatively high La Paz (3600m), but the two Israelis
had been in the jungle before that, essentially sea
level. There was only nervousness and waiting to
see if we were struck down.
As we prepped in the high camp at 5200m, melting
huge hunks of glacier for water and a 5pm dinner
of pasta and hotdogs, I felt confident in my
acclimatization. Nearly a month in Bolivia above
3000m -- surely enough to avoid smiting. But,
between one of the Israelis and the wall, I couldn't
sleep. Despite all my other good works, this
single fact alone almost doomed me.
We had stared up at the trail through the snow
the day before. When the alarm finally keyed
at 12:30, the group was anxious and ready. I'd
heard the wind howling outside and wondered what
we'd gotten ourselves into. Crawling into three
pairs of socks, three pants, and four jackets, we
started into darkness. I was paired with a guide,
and Niamh ("Neev") an Irish gal with a 5900m
Ecuadorian mountain already under her belt.
The trail started almost immediately up a
45-degree incline. I found a rhythm of 3
steps -- right, left, piolet -- and looked
ahead at climbers further up the mountain.
Their headlamps glowed on the dark slope,
like shooting stars recanting their decision.
They were already far above us. It was not
going to be a walk in the park.
Mountaineering is a long walk in the dark
with bad shoes. As Alan had explained, one
must be as efficient as possible. One should
also not lack of philosophic/recovery pauses.
Our guide, Choco, apparently, wasn't of this
school of thought. Despite repeated pleas,
this man, strapped to us by rope and duty,
constantly called out "vamos, vamos" (let's go).
My fatigue reached a pinnacle about the time
my patience hit zero. After marching ever
upward, climbing an ice wall or two, we came
to the last obstacle at 6:15, the 200m wall
separating us from the summit. Dawn was breaking.
We began to crawl up the wall, pausing after each
5 steps for breath. Choco belted out his refrain,
"vamos", and then simply began to climb up without
us. He let out over 100m of rope and scrambled
upward. We cursed at him and decided that summiting
like snails was just fine.
Niamh and I, now on a slack rope, looked down
to see the French couple call it quits as they
reached the wall. One of the Israelis suffered
beneath us, but with a more patient guide.
With perfect clarity, and a fresh sun on my back,
there was no rush. All I remember hearing was
the crunch of my shoes and the ice axe, and my
breath. The morning light felt good as the snow
glinted in micromelt. Summitting was the only
thing worth doing.
We summitted the mountain at 7:45am on a beautiful,
but fragile cornice. 6,088m -- 19,974 feet.
Over the edge, a 300m sheer drop, and all around
us, mountains set as islands in the clouds. Blue
sky intense enough to paint with. But the ecstasy
of mountaineering is temporary. After just 15 minutes
of M&Ms and foolish photos, we began descent.
I'm not sure when I'll return to God's perch up there.
Mountaineers, despite warm laughs, are born in the
cold, above the land where man belongs. I'm going
to steal a Sherpa saying from Alan Burgess' book:
"Maybe true, maybe not true; Better you believe."