Huayna Potosí: The Pleasures of Ignorance
WE entered Bolivia as Babes of the Woods. Naked and innocent. There were mountains there, to be sure, but we knew nothing about them. Maybe everything had been climbed, maybe nothing. If there was ice, it might be steel-slick, or the rock crawling with Stone Grunts. The mountains themselves could be nothing more than lumps of mud with spiral brick roads leading to the summits. We had no idea.
It wasn’t our choice to be ignorant about Bolivia. We had laid our plans for climbing elsewhere, in Tierra del Fuego. That trip was washed out by a sudden early winter, and when the three of us met in Buenos Aires, there we were—all dressed up with no place to go. Checking around, it looked as if Bolivia might be the one place on the continent one could find some climbing in May, so we headed north.
Any climbing we did would be fresh, with no preconceptions: a sort of pure, serendipitous exploring. The new freedom that our ignorance in Bolivia gave us felt delicious; we would climb for our own reasons— whatever turned us on. We had only two conditions: it had to be “interesting”, and Ned wanted to get above 20,000 feet.
La Paz, in the center of the country, seemed like a good place to start. We got the names of a couple of mountains at the Club Andino, but little else. Illimani was nearby, somewhere south, probably under that pile of clouds we could see from down town. A couple of days of street-research got us on the right road, jammed in with four dozen Indians on one of the two-ton side-board Toyotas that seem to go everywhere there are roads, or the lumpy dirt tracks they call roads. Two such sorties to the northern end of Illimani showed us there were indeed climbs of interest, and we prepared to go there. But at the last moment, a chance event revealed another peak to us, Huayna Potosi. A postcard we found showed us its intriguing ridges and faces, and a townsman told us it was quite close, to the north. A Toyota again got us there and during a night of full moonlight on a nearby 17,000-foot hilltop we became so involved with Huayna that we decided we had to spend some time on it. Its southeast ridge was a beautiful line, and we fantasized that the awesome east face might just be possible, once we knew conditions up there.
The peak was quite handy to the road, and by carrying extra-heavy loads we freed ourselves of the encumbering porters and mules. Free, too, of sign-ins and -outs, although Club Andino insisted we buy, at U.S. $10.00 a head, their Letter of Permission to climb Bolivian mountains. Since there didn’t seem to be anybody in the whole country likely to Search and Rescue us, we decided to pass it up.
No relays, no fixed stuff; camps at 16,500, 17,500, and 18,500 feet. The ridge had three steep steps in it, deep and loose snow in places, and a storm that kept the summit in doubt until we were in fact there. Even this kind of uncertainty provides freedom of an exciting type: we had no clear signs to go up, or to go down. We were free to commit ourselves to the climb exactly as much as felt right. Over 20,000 feet* and “interesting” climbing every inch. Just what we’d ordered. It may have been a first ascent, but that didn’t matter. What did, was the climbing—and the cloud show: a splendid variety of cloud types and cloud colors rushing through on unsettled May winds.
Resting a day at high camp recharged us to “at least go have a look” at the east face. Crotch-deep snow on the approach nearly discouraged us, but the face was clear of that, down to a dense wind-slab sort of thing with an air space between it and the water ice beneath. The first man made GLONGG GLONGG sounds as he kicked steps in the slab, the second broke the steps out, and the third had knee-deep sugar to contend with, tiring at the steepness (50°–60°) and that altitude (18,500- 20,000 feet). Protection and anchors—we had everything: pickets, dead- men, screws and tubes—were usually doubtful, so we innovated a system that may be questionable, but one that worked that day: the leader would climb to the end of his rope (we had two 200-foot 9mm. ropes) and if he had not found a secure belay, the second would begin climbing, both belayed by the third, thus giving the leader another 200 feet capacity. Solid ice or rock stances were so irregularly spaced that our leads varied from 150 to nearly 400 feet.
Looking back on the climb, we probably should have been scared— it seems likely the whole slope could have slid. However, things were going so well that we chose to ignore those fears and to climb. I don’t remember much awareness of risk, only exhilaration and an immense sense of climbing.
The final pitch was different from the others: rock, covered with ice. A nasty situation improved immensely with the urgency of racing darkness. Things go best when, after preparing yourself as well as you can, you simply forget everything and go all out, acting by some kind of instinct and all of your conditioning, just doing the task.
* * * *
The support of these successes heightened the excitement of discovery and our sense of freedom, at least for Andy and me. We two went to Illimani, more prepared for Bolivian climbing and even more open for serendipitous experience. All the same, two of us seemed ridiculously small against the unmeasured bulk of the mountain. The northeast ridge, hidden to begin with and extremely complex once we got on it, never gave clues as to what lay ahead. Every day, every hour opened new doors in the unknown—rock that appeared treacherous but was, in practice, safe; a labyrinth of ‘impossible’ couloirs that somehow always went; a day on a wall that can be compared only to the Eiger Nordwand; camps in precarious places—each day going beyond where we’d ever dared until finally we fathomed the place beyond which we did not dare, and withdrew. If one of us was able to assemble it all, it would make a story. For myself, I’ll wait until we go back and push that final barrier into a new unknown.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Cordillera Real, Bolivia
Ascents: Huayna Potosí, 19,996 feet, by Southeast Ridge, possibly a new
route, May 15, 1973 (whole party).
Huayna Potosí, by East Face, new route, May 17, 1973 (whole party).
Attempted ascent of Illimani by Northeast Ridge (Daly, Miller). Personnel: Andrew Daly, Ned Gillette, Jack Miller.
* As it turned out, elevations given for Bolivian peaks are in doubt. Other sources, Carter and Echevarría, call Huayna Potosí 19,996 feet. Ned will have to be satisfied with getting head and shoulders above his desired elevation.