Huayna Potosi (6088m) is the closest high mountain to La Paz in Bolivia, so me and Nicolas decided to do this as a one day climb from the city. But that actually turned out to be a fairly long night and day with 1500 meters gain of elevation in thin air.
Nicolas had arrived from the lowlands of Canada (Winnipeg) to the highlands of Bolivia just 4-5 days ago, and together we planned to climb the French route (AD+) on Huayna Potosi. A bit too optimistic, we decided to do this as a "day trip" from La Paz. This would obviously reduce the logistics because then we did not need to bring any gear for sleeping a night on the mountain. We got a tourist agency in La Paz to arrange a taxi for us. We agreed that the taxi would pick us up from the hotel in La Paz at 22:00 (Oct 31) and pick us up the next day at Zongo Pass at 12:00 noon (Aug 1). The price for this taxi deal was only 300 Bolivianos (42 USD, ie 21 USD on each of us). Otherwise we had no other expenses to climb a 6000m peak, beat that Nepal !!
The taxi ride to Zongo Pass (4800m) took about an hour in the night, and with our headlamps lit, we started to walk at 23:15. It went fairly quickly up the trail to the refuge (5200m), which we arrived at 0:35. Four small groups stayed in the refuge that night, all of them had their own local guide. We stayed in the refuge for about 1.5 hours so we could eat some food we had brought along and get some rest before we started on the next leg up.
We were off again shortly after two other groups. Just 50 meters beyond the refuge we went out on the glacier and therefore had to put on our crampons and rope. There was a really good track on the glacier and since we initially also followed behind the lights of the other groups, the route finding on the glacier was never an issue. We thought that the other groups were moving way too slowly, so we decided to pass them after a while. As we approached 5500m, we began to look for any tracks that led to the French route. But we saw no evidence of this, besides, it was pitch dark and no moon. We tried to take a few steps outside of the main track, but we immediately fell into the snow nearly to our knees. Thus we lost a bit of motivation to leave the main track, and we had no more desire to move into an unknown territory of crevasses. Beyond the fairly short reach of our headlamps, we could not see any contours of the terrain because of the moonless night. Thus it would have been very difficult to find a (safe) line across the glacier that led to the French route in the southeast face. We started to realize that it was easiest to just stick to the normal route.
Because we now had changed to a substantial shorter route, we feared that we would reach the summit before sunrise, which would be a really cold experience. Around 04:00 o'clock and at about 5600m elevation, I realized a bit late that it was too cold to just wear a thin fleece and Gore-Tex jacket on top. I therefore changed into my down jacket. But in this process I exposed my fingers in the cold too long, among other things, to fix a leakage from a water bottle in my backpack. Some of the contents were already wet, and my naked fingers came in direct contact with the frozen liquid. After nearly 15 minutes, we got going again, but my fingers had become uncomfortably numb and I had no core heat left in my body. The next half hour was awful on my part, especially the pain that came when the blood started to regain lost ground in my limbs. I felt this terrible pain that radiated from my fingers to my shoulders on both arms. I went into a transient period of weakness because of these circumstances.
With two ice axes each, we climbed up a short but very steep section that eventually tops out on a major ridge in about 5700m elevation. The steepest point was almost 70 degrees, but here someone had cut some really good steps in the snow. This short pitch was followed by a less steep glacier, which continued almost endlessly. While I was feeling considerably better now, I noticed that Nicolas was starting to struggle to keep up the pace. But we still had plenty of time, so I told Nicolas to take whatever time he needed. Besides, I was nice and warm in my down jacket, so I had no problems of waiting.
The sunrise never seemed to materialize this morning. There were simply too many clouds in the horizon which blocked the sun from rising. When we eventually arrived the final ridge to the summit, I took a look on my watch, and was surprised to see that the time already was 7:30. Above us we had a sharp ridge that led to the top. This relatively short ridge took a long time because of all the short breaks requested by Nicolas. Actually he seemed more tired (no energy) rather than having any signs of altitude sickness. I was impressed that he had been able to push himself so high after only 4-5 days in La Paz, including a climb of Pequeno Alpamayo (5410m). The other four groups on the mountain however, there were no signs of. We later found out that they all had returned. This was fairly surprisingly since they had a much shorter climb than us, because they started from the refuge, and thus had 400 meters less of elevation gain compared to us.
The summit ridge seemed pretty exposed from below, but we dropped down a bit on the left side and thus avoided both high winds and the very exposed flank of ice and snow on the right side. We arrived at a flat spot on the ridge at 08:00 and continued almost crawling for 5 minutes on a short but very exposed cornice to reach the very highest point of Huayna Potosi (6088m). On this precarious knife edge of snow and ice, we were not going to hang around for a long time, so we quickly returned to the flat spot where we could take a real break. The sun gradually rose above the clouds in the horizon, and we immediately felt more comfortable. We spent more than one hour on top before we started to descend. Both me and Nicolas were naturally quite exhausted after a long night and morning, so we walked slowly down. Having done the exposed ridge and the long flatter section below, we met a smaller group of four people who were still ascending. It turned out that these climbers had started fairly late, which seemed like a very good idea in order to avoid the misery of a cold night.
We arrived the refuge at 12:10 and took plenty of time to drink and repack before we continued on the last leg down. The time was already 13:30 when we finally reached back to our taxi at Zongo Pass. The driver was very happy to see us, and not the least angry that we were 1.5 hours too late. We almost collapsed (fell asleep) in the car back to La Paz after having been more than 14 hours on foot, gained 1500 meters of elevation in thin air and lost an entire night of sleep.
Huayna Potosi at EveryTrail