The Man-Eating Mountain: What 6,088 m (20,000 ft) of Mountain Has to Say About Life

My ankle ached in the large ice climbing boots. Each crampon-weighted step up the icy incline pressed on my bruised and swollen ankle. I ignored the pain and continued. This was just a short practice session to learn how to ice climb. I can handle that. 

My mountaineering expedition up Huayna Potosi was one of the hardest things I had ever done in my life. My struggle at altitude, tossed with inadequate fitness, and sprinkled with an injured ankle showed me what it was like to hit the limits of my abilities. However, while the challenge physically devastated me, it also gave me a new perspective on the challenges in life.

The first day, we practiced mountaineering techniques by base camp. It was necessary preparation for the big summit up Huayna Potosi, the “easiest” 6000+ m (19,685+ ft) summit in Bolivia. The next day would be the serious hike. The next day, we would hike up, and only up, to high camp. There, we would get a few hours’ rest before waking up at midnight to hike up to the snow-clad peak by sunrise.

After 2 hours of practice with crampons and ice picks, we marched back towards the snowy base camp at 4,700 m. My right leg limped along with each step. In the silence, I thought to myself, Maybe I shouldn’t go up tomorrow. I don’t want to have a permanent injury if this is actually sprained. But after we arrived in base camp and relaxed for a few hours, I reconsidered. I’ll just see how it feels tomorrow, I thought.

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The route by base camp. 

The next day greeted us with a leisurely morning followed by an early lunch. After lunch, I put on my regular hiking boots and walked around the nearby area, testing my injured foot. Surprisingly, it felt okay. In my regular hiking boots, I did not have the issue of heavy, hard plastic pressing on my bruised and swollen ankle with each step. Not wanting to miss out on my first 6,000+ meter mountain attempt, I decided to forge ahead. I was going to high camp that afternoon. 

Even disregarding the injured ankle, the hike was tough as hell. At 5000 meters, the air was thin. Oxygen was scarce and our bodies were not accustomed to it. They rebelled in the form of headaches, stomach aches, shortness of breath, and the feeling of the heart exploding out of the chest. I struggled up the ascent only trail, dragged down by a backpack filled with heavy gear for the technical climb. 

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Stopping to breathe and enjoy the view with a pack full of gear.

At the halfway point, I thought to myself, No turning back now. I would have to walk the same distance to go up or down. Propelled forward by thought of reaching high camp after almost foregoing the hike, I placed one foot in front of the other and snailed on. 

We reached high camp exhausted, but elated to experience sunset surrounded by  snow-capped mountains. After a quick dinner, we headed off to bed at 7 PM in preparation for our early wake up at midnight. 

The night flew by too quickly and my vibrating alarm jerked me out of sleep. My group dragged ourselves out of bed and geared up for the big day  with layers and layers of clothing, snow boots, crampons, helmet, and ice pick.  After eating a quick, small breakfast, we set off. 

The hike was so much worse than I had imagined. Starting at 5,200 m, the altitude was already beating us down. At -10° C (14° F), the cold nipped at us even through layers of clothing and the company-provided snow coats. On top of that, the climb was a relentless, steep ascent up to the summit for the following 5 hours. With nothing but our headlights to pierce the night, we were enveloped in a demotivating darkness.

I started withering. A blaring headache, stomach pains, an aching ankle, and the feeling of nausea hammered at me, but I forced myself to keep going. One foot in front of the other. Weight heavily placed on my ice pick. Sleepiness blanketing my every move.

Slowly, but surely, my strength and speed faded. Before long, the rope attaching me to my partner and the guide began tugging me forward. After a few more moments like this, I gasped out for a break. “Can we stop for a minute?” I managed. “Just a little more,” responded the guide in Spanish. “We’re stopping up ahead there,” he said, pointing vaguely at the homogenous slope. So I continued on, forcing my feet in front and up, focusing on singing the chorus of Despacito over and over again in my mind. 

At 5,600 m (18,370 ft), the rest stop finally arrived. I collapsed to the ground. I had spent the past however many minutes fighting nausea, on the verge of throwing up with every few steps. As I laid there in the relief of the soft, snow-covered ground, I knew I would not make it up. If I continued, I would barely manage a snail’s pace. And inevitably paint my vomit across the pure, untrodden snow. With great sadness, I told the guide that I wanted to turn around. He consented, unclipping my partner from our rope and tying him to the other team’s rope. As we left the group to return down to high camp, tears slowly escaped my eyes and soon ran rivers down my face. I felt like I had failed, even though I knew it was the right decision. 

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The group waddling back from the mountain in full gear.

I did not make it to the top that day, but I had no regrets. I pushed myself to the brink of my perceived limits and then some. That difficulty, that hard hike, set the foundation for all my future hikes and endeavors to come. The next hike I did, which ended at 5,200 m, was incredibly difficult, but felt easy by comparison. By then, I knew what it felt like to have your heart and lungs scream from effort. And until I reached that point, I knew I had more in me.

This applies not only to hiking goals, but to goals in general. From traveling the world to learning new skills to writing a book, I will work until I feel like I cannot go on any further. I plan on summiting, but even if I don’t, I would sure as hell be proud of reaching that 5,600 meters.

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