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South America, Bolivia, Cordillera Real, Huayna Potosi (6,088m), East Face, Summit or Die

Huayna Potosi (6,088m), east face, Summit or Die. Coming up the road from tropical, mosquito-infested Zongo Valley, I saw the possibility for a new route on the east side of Huayna Potosi, far north of the normal route. In June I accessed the face by walking along the outer retaining wall of the aqueduct that runs north from Zongo Dam. It got narrower, and at one point I was looking down a steep rock face 400m high. It was preferable not to lose one’s balance, easier said than done with a big pack. By the time I left the aqueduct for the glacier below the face, it was almost dark. I walked for two hours by headlamp and camped at the start of the glacier.

I should have stayed at this campsite for a day, to examine the face in light, but I had a guiding engagement in Chile. I don’t normally climb into the unknown, but next day I made an exception. The first 200m of the face were easy, and at dawn I had arrived below the crux. Swinging axes I gained height, into a complete mess. Steep, unstable ice blocks were everywhere: I got nervous, but it was too late to go back. Succumbing to time pressure is the worst of all mistakes in alpinism. I concentrated fully; the ice was not quite vertical, but I could not trust the blocks. Finally I reached easier terrain and took a deep breath. “Done, you bastard of a wall,” I said to myself. The silence was wonderful, but I knew I’d never come back to this face again.

I climbed slopes of 55°, often covered with powder snow. It was still a long way to the top. After a long, rising traverse left, I finally reached the normal route and followed a one-and-half- meter-wide track to the summit. I was soon following the track down, reaching the Casablanca Hut where I’d left the car.

At the Casablanca Hut I saw a guy in a T-shirt that said, “Summit or Die.” He didn’t look fit, or ready for suicide. He probably survived without summiting. It seemed a fitting route name. Summit or Die (1,100m) has a crux pitch of 60m, up to 85°. It’s probably the most significant first ascent in this region for 20 years.

Robert Rauch, rauchrobert@hotmail.com, Bolivia