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6,100 metres up in the Bolivian Andes

In the summer of 2009, two university classmates and I went climbing Huayna Potosi, a 19,974-foot peak (6,100 m) in Bolivia. I was doing an internship in La Paz at a high altitude and was better acclimatized than M. & A., who came straight from the US.

We started climbing from the base camp (located at 5,200 m altitude) at 1 am with two local guides. This was the only way to reach the top of the peak around sunrise, as one had to get back down quickly thereafter in the early morning to avoid stepping into the crevasses that start opening up in the glaciers under the heat of the sun.

Around 3:00 am, M. started running out of breath, with still some 2,000 feet (altitude) to go before the peak. The guides seized on this and tried to persuade him to go back. The rule up on the mountain was one guide always had to accompany a climber going down. And it so happened that the two guides were father and son so I got suspicious that they were trying to save the effort of climbing the peak for at least one of them.

I was quite indignant. Instead of encouraging M. to do his best, they kept repeating to him: “You should give up.” We sat down for a break and the guides started again talking about M’s return. I said one thing: “Vamos juntos” (we are going together). They kept reasoning with M. that the best approach was to head back. I kept repeating "Vamos juntos", with a more and more resolute voice. I said it more than 5 times and at the end I was shouting "Vamos juntos" at them.

This was as much aimed at the guides, as it was to give encouragement to M., who was under great psychological pressure to give up. As a result, he went on for another 1,500 feet of altitude. He eventually gave up just below the steepest last part of the climb. But that was his own decision (and the right one, given the risk for his health). A. and I made it to the top with one of the guides.

And that was the dawn of my 30th birthday.

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Themes in story:
  • Huayna Potosi
  • La Paz
  • US
  • get back
  • the sun
  • feet
  • father and son
  • shouting
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