Why I Failed to Summit Huayna Potosi

“This is no hike, no this is a mountaineering expedition,” I mumbled to myself as I strapped on my crampons to my boots.

My Failed Summit Attempt
My Failed Summit Attempt

I was at a rundown warehouse about an hour outside of La Paz, Bolivia, trying on gear. My plan was to climb Huayna Potosi, the easiest 6000er in the world, supposedly. So, I needed to rent an ice ax, crampons, boots, climbing rope, a helmet, snow pants, and a jacket. I hated the idea of used gear, but this was my only option.

Once I had everything I needed, I got in the van, and we made our way to base camp. It was about two hours from the warehouse, so my guide, Mario, took the opportunity to go over the itinerary.

Today, he was going to teach me how to use my ice ax and crampons. And tomorrow we would hike to high camp (5200 meters or 17,060 ft). Then, at midnight, we would start climbing Huayna Potosi whose summit sat at 6088 meters (19,973 ft).

But already knew this.

What I didn’t know was how I was going to make it to 6088 meters (19,973 ft) with all this gear.

“So, I have to carry all this gear from 4700 meters (15,149 ft) to 6088 meters (19,973 ft)?” I asked.

He smiled and said, “Yes, but don’t worry!”

Mario’s enthusiasm was not convincing.

I am more of a hiker than a mountaineer, and I always try to use the lightest gear possible. I hated carrying a heavy backpack. But I was here for a reason. I wanted to reach the 6000-meter mark and Huyana Potosi was one of the few accessible mountains at this height. So, I told myself to suck it up and find a way, no matter what.

After a bumpy ride, we arrived to base camp (4700 meters or 15,149 ft).

I got out of the van, and there in the middle of the Cordillera Real Mountain range stood a small stone hut topped with aluminum siding. This would be our base camp. Inside, there were four rooms: a kitchen, a gear room, a bedroom with ten bunk beds, and a dining room with a table large enough to seat ten people. The temperature inside was the same as outside, zero degrees Celsius. Luckily every bed had at least three handmade wool blankets.

Then there was the bathroom. It was outside next to the stone hut. The walls were made of plastic, and, like the stone hut, the roof was aluminum siding. The toilet itself was a small hole in the ground with a toilet placed on top.

After Mario showed me around, he said we should head out to the glacier before it got too late.

So, I got dressed and gathered my gear, which was more of a project than I anticipated.

I needed to wear three layers. A base layer (aka thermal wear). A mid-layer, which consisted of a fleece jacket and pants. And, finally, an outer layer made up of heavy snow gear. This layer alone weighed 3 kg (6.6 lbs).

And, of course, I had on a warm hat, gloves, a helmet, and high-altitude mountaineering boots.

By the time I finished putting everything on, I could barely move.

The Gear I had to Wear during My Failed Attempt of Huayna Potosi
All My Gear!

We started hiking and within five minutes my feet were in pain. These were the most uncomfortable boots I had ever worn. Not only that but they were heavily used, and the inner boot that was used to cushion my feet against the hard plastic was nearly worn out. It was agonizing to walk. But there they didn’t have any other boots in my size so I had no choice but to continue.

After about 30 minutes we arrived at the foot of the glacier. I kneeled down and touched the edge of the glacier and slowly looked up. There was nothing but snow-covered ice. And it was daunting to think that, tomorrow, I would have to climb this.

Mario and I put on our crampons and we walked into a small crevasse.

As we made our way down the narrow corridor of ice, I had the impression that I was shrinking in comparison to the walls. And at one point we passed another crevasse. It was a crevasse within a crevasse. So, out of curiosity, I looked inside and heard the echo of rushing water. Mario saw my intrigue and warned me not to go any closer. He said the melting ice runs under the glacier and, if you fall in, there’s no way out. I heeded his advice and backed away.

We, eventually, reached a section where climbing ropes were installed. The group before us was leaving and graciously left the ropes for us to use.

Mario explained to me how to use an ice ax and how to climb with it. He, then, scurried up and down the wall in an attempt to give me an example. If anything, it made me less confident.

He helped me with my harness and reminded me not to stab myself in the eye with the ice ax.

I let out a fearful laugh and started climbing.

Stuck on the Wall of Ice during My Failed Attempt of Huayna Potosi
Climbing the Wall of Ice

The first section was easy. But, about halfway up, I stopped. There was a bulge in the wall, and I had no idea how to navigate it. After a few minutes, my hands started to burn. I was holding myself up with the ice axes so there was no way for me to warm my hands.

Jen Ciesielski Freezing Cold on the Wall of Ice during My Failed Attempt of Huayna Potosi
My Hands were Freezing!

I looked at Mario and said, “I need to come down.”

As I rappelled down, I heard a booming sound in the distance, as if something had crashed into the mountain. Both the glacier and the wall trembled, and I held on for dear life. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what it was. Adrenaline shot through my body, but I was paralyzed with fear. I wanted to run but had nowhere to run to.

I panickily looked at Mario, but he was unphased.

I rappelled faster, and, when I reached the bottom, I asked, “What was that?”

“Oh, that was an avalanche. They’re fairly common here,” he said in an unwavering voice.

I could feel my face turn white. I broke into a cool sweat and hesitantly asked, “What if there is an avalanche while we are on the mountain?”

“We will have to lean into the mountain,” he said.

By this point, the thrill of summiting Huayna Potosi and passing the infamous 6000-meter mark had simmered. This was not enjoyable. I hated climbing with an ice ax, hated all the gear I had to wear, and hated the idea of avalanches.

Mario tried to reassure me and said the ice walls on the route to the summit were much smaller. I was, however, not convinced.

We made our way back to base camp where Mario prepared a hearty dinner consisting of chicken, rice, and bread. Shortly after, I went to bed and slept until the alarm sounded at 5 am.

When I woke up, I ate breakfast and got ready to hike to high camp.

We started walking and everything felt heavier than the day before. And to make matters worse it was snowing, which is never a good sign when you’re at such high elevations.

Fresh snow meant a higher risk of avalanches and hidden crevasses.

“Hopefully it stops snowing by tonight or we will have to cancel our summit attempt,” Mario said.

Secretly, I had hoped it would continue snowing. I was not enjoying myself in the slightest.

For the first 30 minutes, the route to high camp was easy. The trail gradually inclined over a well-trodden path, which temporarily eased my anxiety, until we arrived at a rockfall. Before me stood a never-ending wall of snow-covered boulders. The only way to get to high camp was to climb. So, up we went.

About halfway, we stopped for a break. We were, now, at 5120 meters (16,797 ft) and the lack of oxygen in the air was evident. The last 80 meters (262 ft) would be difficult.

I took a swig of water and pushed on. The rock in front of me was half my height, so I grabbed an adjacent boulder while Mario pulled me up. As we moved to climb the next boulder, the one we were standing on wobbled and Mario lost his balance. He started swaying towards the edge and leaned back. I instantly grabbed his arm and pulled him in.

We sat down and took a moment to compose ourselves. He looked at me with the utmost gratitude and said, “Thank you!”

After our nerves settled, we continued climbing.

We didn’t have far to go but the elevation and freezing temperatures made everything more difficult. Then, after 20 minutes, I saw Mario reach his hand out to pull me up. I was so focused that I didn’t realize we had made it to the top.

I let out a huge sigh of relief, looked at Mario, and said, “This is not for me.”

I was not enjoying my time and I hated mountaineering. It was overwhelming and I felt unprepared for what was ahead.

He asked me if I was sure, and, without any hesitation, said, “Yes!”

I took a few pictures, ate a snack, and we headed back to base camp.

View from High Camp during My Failed Attempt of Huayna Potosi
View from High Camp

On the way back I questioned my decision. This was one of the rare times I didn’t finish. And it was like a knife in my side. I despised the feeling. But I wasn’t comfortable with the equipment and I didn’t have enough experience in such conditions. I was gutted, but I knew it was the right thing to do.

Three weeks later I would go on to climb Chachani and bag my first 6000er. But this failed expedition continued to weigh on my mind.

I, eventually, realized that I was going after something that was unattainable. I was inexperienced so I was not able to adjust when I was faced with a challenge. From the start, I was doomed to fail.

Remember that goals should be challenging but within reach. And setting unrealistic goals only leads to failure. If you find yourself in this situation, take a step back, reevaluate, adjust your expectations, and try again. Never dwell on your failures, rather use them as motivation to improve.

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I hope you enjoyed the story of my failed summit attempt. Here are some other hiking articles that I think you might find interesting.

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