Huayna Potosi - 19974' - East face
My apologies it's been awhile since I posted about last years 4 month South America journey, but alas, I have the time to write once again!
After climbing Pequenyo Alpamayo, I took a small break from climbing and signed up for the inclusive bike tour down the famous "Death Road" (North Yungas Road) while Elaine opted for a more relaxing day and stayed in La Paz. We roamed around town that evening after returning to La Paz, took one of the public transportation gondolas to El Alto and watched the sunset over Huayna Potosi and Illimani (which would be our final objective). The view of the mountains from La Paz truly is stunning. This city really grew on me in the time I was there. The gondolas for one, were only 3 Bolivianos (50 cents!) I figured we had to do it haha! Early in the morning, I hopped on their shuttle which picked me up right from my hostel (I signed up the night before) and we drove to the top of the pass above the city on Bolivia National Highway 3, at an elevation of 4650 meters. Here we stopped, unloaded all the bikes and donned the windbreaker jackets they provided us (it was pretty chilly at this elevation) and the guides gave us a safety briefing. The mountain bikes we were provided with were ok at best...at least the brakes worked! Since the entire ride was downhill, the gear shifters didn't work
I was told the end of our ride would be at an elevation of 1000 meters, a drop of 3650 meters!!! (12,000 feet)
We started the ride on the paved road heading down from the top of the pass under a beautiful clear morning, where we whizzed smoothly down the winding switchbacks as the terrain around us grew higher and higher. After maybe an hour or so, we stopped at a small roadside shack for a snack and we loaded up the bikes for a short stretch of uphill to where the unpaved, official start of the death road broke off to the right from the newer, paved highway. We would soon find out that a rockslide had blocked most of the new paved road further down, which meant that people would be driving on the death road once again (it was officially closed to vehicles when the new alternative route 3 was completed in 2006). But as the Bolivians have always been, they were not afraid to zoom down the death road to avoid a potential traffic jam on the main highway. Their efforts would prove futile however, read on to find out
We all saddled up once again and I convinced our guide to give me a bigger bike with full suspension since the one I had was too small. Down we went, and the guides didn't force us to stay together so we were all free to bomb down at our own pace so a few Aussies and I charged out in front, passing other guided groups ahead of us. The famous spot where the road is carved out of an overhanging cliff we all stopped for some photos. By this point it was downright hot out and I removed my pants and shirt, knowing now I definitely could not fall!
We continued on, and soon came to realize why the road really was the death road. A huge traffic jam was the first thing we noticed, at which point our guides planned to separate, and we would have to leave our support van behind, since it didn't look like vehicles were going to be able to move for a long time. As we biked, weaving through the parked cars and buses we came upon the culprit. A truck carrying a ton of wood had fallen off the road and into the ravine, partially blocking the road. Two large buses going opposite directions were the first vehicles in the lineup going both ways and unable to pass around. It was amazing the truck didn't fall completely over the cliff, and the driver surely was lucky. People with sledgehammers were working tirelessly pounding away at the rock cliffs on the uphill side of the road trying to widen it just enough for the buses to pass by!
I snapped a few photos and we continued on. We passed by many cyclists, pedestrians (who were in the lineup of cars) and other locals all congregating in the area. After we passed by the lineup of cars going the other way we were smooth cycling again and we continued, the Aussies and I along with a Brit way out in front until we reached a nice shaded cover where many others were resting. The 5 of us or so decided to wait here for the rest of our group since it was getting very hot now. Once our guides eventually arrived with some of our other group members, they went behind a bush and came out with bottles of water! which we were happy to have. The rest of the ride down to the paved Highway 3 was smooth, but since our support vans were still stuck in the traffic jam, we had to ride an additional unplanned 4 flat miles to our final destination. The extra miles were well worth it once we saw where we would have our dinner.
We cooled off in the lovely pool and had an awesome buffet style dinner, which alone was worth the $40 they charged for the complete trip. By late afternoon we all piled in the vans (which had eventually arrived) and started the long drive back to La Paz. I returned to the hostel to find Elaine chatting with some other Canadians who randomly came in that day. We then started planning out our logistics for climbing Huayna Potosi, and took the next day to speak with one of the agencies about transportation to Zongo Pass, and buying food.
The next morning, we were up early to finish packing up whatever we needed for the next 3 days, and our ride picked us up along with a few others in the van going up for a guided climb. By late morning we arrived at Zongo Pass (elev 4760m), and took a few minutes to check out the hut where all the guided parties stay their first night. It was pretty cool inside actually with lots of climbing photos and articles. I looked around for the rock climbing walls I knew were around, and saw what I thought was a couple of them and noted the climbing looked awesome, however it was too cold and moist to try and pursue anything. We then started walking up the trail towards the high camp. We came up to a local man carrying lumber on his shoulders, walking up the trail in sandals! Holy smokes these people are tough.
The skies were a bit overcast as we hiked up, and even snowed a little just as we reached the 2/3 point where the fee collector was sitting in a small shack. We paid the nominal $10ish fee to enter the national park and continued up the now steeper trail. We were by this point fairly well acclimated to the 5600-5800 meter elevation range so hiking up to the high camp at 5200 meters was no problem. As we ascended we saw a gorgeous emerald lake below us at the toe of the glacier, and even saw some people practicing ice climbing on the seracs. There are 4 huts in the 5150-5250 meter elevation range on the ridgecrest just as the glacier starts. We chose the 3rd one because the guy carrying the lumber was the owner of that one and invited us to stay. Usually the guided groups pay these hut owners a cut for them and their clients to sleep and have dinner, but the hut owners are also happy to take independent parties. It was a sweet setup he had, a cook house, and a guest house with room to comfortably sleep 16 people. A guided group of 4 came in shortly after we arrived and we chatted with them for a while, which they were even nice enough to share their dinner with us.
It's worth noting the owner of the hut built the whole thing himself, carrying up all the materials on his back! What a task. Elaine and I discussed our primary route of choice, which was the French Route, which from afar looked like it was in good condition. Since we had came all the way from La Paz to the high camp in one day, and the weather the following day didn't look so good, we decided to take a full rest day at the hut and climb the day after. Our new friends continued on at 2am the next morning while we relaxed and made a short 150 meter ascent up the start of the glacier to try and scout out the best way to cross the glacier to the start of the French Route. I located the best route and started stepping in some tracks for us to get a good heading the following morning in the dark. Our friends returned by early afternoon with success stories which they were very stoked about! The summit ridge apparently was wildly exposed...we were getting excited. They left and started down, but shortly before dinnertime, another group arrived giving us more people to chat with. They wanted to start really early so they set their alarms for 12am, while we agreed the 2am wake up time was sufficient. The sun came out that day on our short hike and we finally saw the entire mountain. The views at sunset were glorious...the next day was going to be awesome!
We were one of the last ones to start up the glacier that morning but that didn't matter to us. We started up the same route as everyone else and soon left the hoards of people who seems to multiply out of the other huts! We made a beeline for the base of the French Route, which heads up the direct SE face of the mountain. As we crossed the bergschrund guarding the lower part of the face, we started sinking past our knees in loose powdery snow. This is what I was dreading, and looking up the slope, it didn't appear to get much steeper beyond 50 degrees until much higher so I worried about slogging the whole way up rather than actually climbing up (plus the avalanche danger was much higher if so unconsolidated). We made the unfortunate decision to bail on the route, and cut back over to the standard "trail". By this point everyone else (perhaps 50 people) were on the upper glacier on the west side of the mountain. I led us through a maze of huge crevasses as we veered back over to the normal route, then eventually made it back and ascended up over the ridge again. By this point it was still pitch dark and we were along in our location, which was a little eerie despite knowing ~50 people were a short ways ahead of us. Just as dawn was approaching, we were at 5900 meters with less than 200 to go. We amazingly passed a couple parties on the way up to the final summit ridge which was indeed wildly exposed! It was beautiful actually, however since so many people are on it every day there were two narrow flat paths cut into the otherwise very steep slope leading down both sides. Just a few moments before we took the final steps to the summit the sun rose, lighting up the summit ridge in a beautiful red glow. It was magical, despite having to work around other people going up and down the narrow ridge.
Apparently it's widely common practice for the Bolivian guides that if a client falls off the summit ridge, the guide will jump off the opposite side keeping them both from falling
As we reached the top, we were at a personal elevation record for both of us at this point, and this was believe it or not my first mountain over 6000m. It was very cold and taking really good photos was tough. We ended up on the summit for just 10 minutes or so before heading back down. We had a relaxing descent back to the hut where our accommodating host was curious about our ascent since not many people likely try for the french direct. After explaining the conditions we saw, he mentioned that the lower third to half of the route is normally unconsolidated, but turns to good ice up higher. Meh, all I could think of was oh well, we still had fun, and made the summit so all was good. We packed up, said our goodbyes and thanked our host. The hike back to Zongo Pass was quick and painless, but unfortunately we had to wait for over an hour for our ride to show up to take us back to La Paz. That night we enjoyed a great meal on the streets, with probably the best tacos I've ever had.