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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Biking Down Death Road, the World’s Most Dangerous Road

I blazed down the steep, curvy road at top speed. Inside the cloud, I could barely see a few feet in front of me. The red shirt of the biker ahead of me murked in and out of vision. Water assaulted my face and covered my eyes, to the point where, even with eyes wide opened, I could not see my hand in front of my face. Taking one hand off the speeding bike, I hastily wiped the water from my eyes…just in time to see an approaching turn backed by a 15,000+ ft (4500+ m) drop. Without braking, I turned my bike down the curve as a car a rolled down inches by me. This marked the start of my 11,500 ft (3500 m) descent down Death Road.

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The clouds enveloped us as we began our descent on Death Road.

Death Road. The name says it all. Located near La Paz, Bolivia’s capital, Death Road is infamous for the death toll of the bus occupants, car passengers, and mountain bikers that dare take on the road. This predominantly unpaved road has just enough space for one vehicle at a time despite serving as the only two-way street for the small towns along its 50 mile (80 km) length. Sandwiched between mountainsides and sheer cliffs, the windy road run for long stretches at a time without railings to keep vehicles or bikers from dropping into the 15,000 ft (4500 m) high abyss. Death Road’s notoriety has attracted daredevils and adrenaline junkies from all over the world to bike 11,500 ft (3500 m) in elevation down the narrow road.

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The two-way road sandwiched between a mountainside and a sheer cliff.

I had originally intended to skip Death Road, too fond of life to risk plummeting to my death. However, upon talking to other travelers who had completed the ride and insisted that the road was perfectly safe for bikers, I decided to give it a shot. After all, as long as bikers do not do anything stupid, like go too fast down a turn or take selfies while biking, it was perfectly safe.

Cue my descent down the world’s most dangerous road. No, I left my selfie stick at the store where I never bought it. My offense was the speed factor. Having biked since the tender age of five down the hilly streets of Queens, New York, I had always been very comfortable on bikes. So when I started the Death Road tour with my group of 16, I made sure to position myself at the very front of the group, behind another speedster and the guide.

We took off under ominous clouds that soon enveloped us. The guide, having raced down the trail hundreds if not thousands of times, blazed ahead, not bothering to brake along the curves and turns that populated the asphalt road. While the biker in front of me and I were right on his tail initially, a few curved accompanied with pouring rain brought us further and further behind him. At some point, due to the low visibility within the clouds, I found myself completely alone on the road. Nervous about being alone on this vehicle-heavy road, I focused on catching up with the two roadrunners ahead of me. The brakes were ornaments to me at this point. As I made turns in the downpour without slowing down, I thought to myself, This is really dangerous.

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The asphalt portion of the road was surprisingly well-trafficked.

When I finally caught up with the red blob biking ahead of me, a wave of relief washed over me (or maybe that was just more rain). While nothing about the situation had changed, except now there were two fools riding way too fast on a surprisingly well-trafficked, slippery road, I felt comforted in knowing that at least I was not the only fool in danger. We continued down at breakneck speed until, suddenly, out of the fog that paved the way, appeared our guide, waving his hands emphatically in the air. It was our cue to stop. Unfortunately, we were both going too fast and careened past the guide before screeching to a halt. After we dismounted, we bonded over our invigorating though terrifying experiences for a full two minutes before the next biker from our group appeared through the fog.

After our entire group arrived, we continued onto the unpaved portion of the trip – the part that got the road its name. Railing-less narrow roads, steep turns, a 11,500 ft (3500 m) drop, and the occasional car made this the most dangerous part of the ride. Luckily, by this point, the rain had subsided a bit, so lack of visibility was no longer an issue. Unfortunately, the increased visibility did nothing to help me navigate some turns.

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On one of the most dangerous sections of Death Road, our bus illustrates how easy it is for vehicles to fall into the abyss on this two-way road.

My first crash resulted from me, once again, forgetting about the brakes. I was speeding down a steep section at top speed. As the bottom of the hill approached me, it suddenly weaved left, more than I had anticipated. With my hands hovering above the brakes, I had just enough time to think, I’m not going to make this turn without braking, before crashing hard into a ditch on the mountain side of the road. Shaken, but hard of learning, I jumped back on the bike and sped past all the bikers who overtook me during the collision.

Forty-five minutes later, I approached the site of my second crash. Once again, I raced down a steep section at top speed. After nearly an hour of practice, I was prepared for the curvy turn that greeted me at the bottom and rolled down the hill without touching the brakes. What I was not prepared for was the car that appeared last minute at the start of the blind turn. Panicked, I slammed on the brakes and veered my steering wheel towards the bushes to avoid the approaching car. My crash this time met me more gently than the first and I was once again able to hop back on the bike to complete the ride.

The end of the ride felt like a completely different day. We started the day at a cold 4650 m, soaked through within heavy storm clouds and ended at a hot 1750 m, completely dry under the beating sun and beautiful blue skies.

 

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We ended our ride under beautiful blue skies.

I rode away (in a bus this time) from Death Road feeling proud to have survived unscathed. I had heard stories about other travelers who walked away with battle scars and was happy to escape intact despite my two crashes. It wasn’t until that night, as I was climbing up to the top bunk of my bed in the hostel that I noticed my bruised and swollen ankle…just in time for the start of a 20,000 ft (6,088 m) mountain ascent the next morning.