It was cold, restless sleep at our high camp on Huayna Potosi. As I think back, it was actually more like quiet time, except for the relentless banging of the tent flap out in the frigid, high altitude night. When I had gone out into it briefly in the middle of the night, I’d marveled at how clear and full of stars the sky was. But that marvel was tempered by my personal acknowledgement that ultimately the clear skies would just mean even colder temperatures. At least, I reasoned, since there was no threat of snow, I wasn’t going to have to get up and shovel any of it away from the tent in the wee hours of the morning. Over and over again, I pushed myself deeper into my minus 25 bag and several times checked to make sure the sleeping bag hood was cinched tightly down on my head. That checking and tightening, along with the persistent need to go outside and relieve myself, periodic dozing off, and mental organization of the rope-up logistics occupied the bulk of my time.
The full moon created just enough light inside the three-man dome for me to see the shapes of the other two, sprawled out to my side. How were they sleeping so soundly, I kept wondering? I was amazed at how separated we were and how roomy our sleeping quarters for the night seemed. The same tents had always been cramped and stuffy before, especially I remembered, when we were down on the Osa in Costa Rica.
I pulled my arms out from the warmth of the bag to free them up in order to check my watch. I pushed the light button on the Casio and saw it was 4 am. It was time to get going. Our plan was to be roped up and moving toward the summit by 5.
There was a lot to do in order to get going and with only an hour set aside to do it all, I knew better than to waste any of it. Of course, I had been more or less awake much of the night pondering the various things that needed to happen before heading out, so in many respects, I was ready.
There wasn’t much talking as we began to stir. Before making a concerted push to actually get things rolling, I spent one last moment working though the math of how the preparations would unfold. And then it hit me– there was not going to be time for me to have my morning coffee. It took a while for the ramifications to lay themselves bare, but it sent me into uncharted mental territory, when my projection began to become real. I had come to the conclusion a few years before that a decent cup of coffee could be had on any given morning, anywhere in the world and now, that was proving to not be the case. With sadness and confusion, I ultimately vowed to delay having my morning cup of coffee until the afternoon, but to make that particular delayed cup, an especially exceptional one. For the moment, I would focus on doing my part to get us all to the top, safely, even if it meant doing so without my morning cup of Joe.
Once the bubbles began to form, we knew that full boil was not far off. Just as it reached the rolling point, each of us sat up, dumped a packet of instant oatmeal into our bowls and topped it off with the hot water. It was too cramped and cold for multi-tasking, so we each focused on eating and nothing else. Once breakfast was finished, we all went right back to work at getting geared up. Our climbing packs had been assembled the night before, so at least we didn’t need to worry with that. Still working on things from inside my sleeping bag, I was able to get my fleece pants on correctly. An interesting note about that—once before, under similar circumstances, I had somehow gotten my pant legs crisscrossed and then forced them onto my body, backwards, which ultimately created something of a mess.
Anyway, back to the story at hand. After dealing with the pants, I semi sat up and pulled my lightweight fleece pullover on over my expedition weight long underwear top. With that accomplished, I counted to three and then essentially jumped completely out and free from my bag. Once clear, I turned around and sat back down, on top of it this time, and pulled my bibs on over the whole mess. Once the suspenders of the bibs were correctly positioned over my shoulders, I stuck my arms into my heavy fleece and pulled it on over the bibs. The final piece of the larger outerwear puzzle was my hooded parka, which I donned, and then after a bit of struggle with the zipper, closed up tightly all around my upper torso.
I had slept in my fleece cap and as soon as I had begun stirring had pulled my silk face mask on over my head, but my hands had been glove-less and open to the cold for several minutes by that time. Before they had time to realize what was happening, I pulled my inner gloves on and then sat back down, in the doorway to the vestibule this time, and put my outer plastic boot shells on over the more flexible inner boots. Finally, I pulled mitten shells on over the gloves, so that at that point, I was about as well dressed as I could be.
Once I was finished up with all of the getting properly clothed part, it was time to go outside and get properly roped/geared up for the technical aspects of the climb. One of the nice things about being at that particular High Camp is the relative lack of crevasses and the predictability of snow conditions in that area. The early start insured that the snow would be frozen into a stable mass, which would change later in the day as temperatures rose and the Sun had plenty of time to do its work. For the moment at least, conditions were prime for moving efficiently.
I unzipped the door to the fly and prepared to crawl out, but the path was blocked by our stove and the empty pot, sitting to its side. I shone my headlamp down at it, in order to negotiate the move, which turned my thoughts back to the lack of coffee. For a time, the getting dressed process had dominated my thinking, but the sight of the almost pot of boiling, hot water, brought the whole thing back into the forefront, at least for the moment.
I shrugged off the thought, cleared the tent exit path and bear-crawled a few feet out onto the snow with glove covered hands. When clear of the tent, I stood up. Standing upright, the full force of the wind pounded on my body. I cinched the parka hood down tighter, as if it made any difference and then looked up at a brilliant, star-filled early morning sky. At that elevation, there was little in the air to dull the picture. La Paz was just to the east, but the prevailing winds protected us from any smog that came from the bustling city. The stars seemed to be almost within reach and the Southern Cross looked almost as if it were electrified. I felt compelled to just stand and soak it all in, but a gust of wind reminded me that we needed to get moving, before the cold set in.
After a few minutes, we were roped up into our teams of 4 and began moving toward the summit of Huayna Potosi. After all, I remembered, that was why were there to begin with. We left the camp set up, planning to pack it up and haul it all down with the help of some Bolivian guides and porters on our way back that afternoon. If all went according to plan, the Sun would rise as we moved along the ridge above the headwall and we would reach the top by 9 or so.
Initially, we moved out into darkness with headlamps lighting the way. We reached the headwall within an hour and the pace slowed as things became steeper and more technical for a while. By first light, everyone was up above it and we once again began moving at a more constant pace. As hoped, the Sun rose above the distant smaller peaks and the lowlands to the east of La Paz as we slowly moved along the top of a relatively wide and flat ridge. By the time we reached the steeper and somewhat more imposing summit pyramid, we were in full daylight. The leader of the first team placed snow pickets as we ascended, with subsequent teams using them as well. The first team arrived at the narrow summit ridge at 8:15. By a little before 9, almost as planned, everyone was snapping summit photos and contemplating the truly wild Amazon lowlands that could be seen down below and to the north.
After a prolonged time on the summit, made possible by remarkably nice weather, we finally got up and made a move. We reorganized ourselves and gear and within a few minutes began the long descent, back to the Refugio Huayna Potosi, with a stop planned along the way to pack up and remove our High Camp.
The excitement of the climb and summit along with the relative early hour up to that point had kept me feeling good, even with the altitude. But then, as we approached the top of the headwall, a dull headache began to take hold. By the time we stopped at the top of the steep section to set up anchors and begin the tedious work of lowering climbers down, my head was beginning to throb and the whole situation was becoming “profound”. Thanks to the other guides who were able to focus on the complexities of what we were doing, we finally got everyone down after about an hour. At that point, no one, but me, knew what I was going through. On top of it all, since I was the leader, I got to go down that steep pitch last, which meant without any sort of belay or protection, other than what I was willing to concoct.
I removed all of anchoring and lowering gear, stuck it in my pack and approached the edge to begin the descent. To speed things up, I considered jumping down the hundred or so feet to the bottom, but thought better of it and just slowly and methodically worked my way down. At the bottom, we all once again reorganized gear and moved out toward High Camp. By that point, I wasn’t interested in the snow hummocks, the magnificence of the South Face looming off to our side or the views of Charkini and the mysterious Yungas to the northeast. Somehow, I was able to stay focused on the climbing technicalities of what we were doing for the short term, but found my thoughts returning more and more frequently to the empty pot back at High Camp and I even began thinking I could smell the aroma of coffee being freshly ground.
We moved quickly and efficiently back to our camp, although I would have liked it to be faster. As soon as I walked into camp, I went straight to the pot and loaded it with snow, lit the stove and began making hot water. As the stove purred, the group disassembled and packed away the camp for the final few hours of descent. I had more pressing concerns and couldn’t be bothered with any of that. Eventually, the packing up part was all done, everyone was standing around looking at each other and it was obviously time to go. There was no holding any of them back, since hot showers, Pringles and a flush toilet waited down below. And so, they took off.
But, I was not about to leave, until the coffee was ready. I’d been able to hold off any sort of crippling effect from my situation up to that point, but was not sure how much longer I could. So, I’d reached a deal with a Bolivian guide to switch places on my rope, which allowed me to hang back with the porters and thus, finish brewing my coffee.
I tried to explain to the five Bolivians why I was still there, when everything had been packed up (except for the stove) and everyone had taken off. They came to understand that it was about coffee, but had apparently never witnessed that sort of stature attached to the hot liquid. The five of them huddled around and watched as I placed my cone on top of the cup, pulled out a filter, placed it into the cone and then filled it with an almost sweet blend of Sumatra beans with hints of smoke, personally ground to perfection and then carefully drizzled boiling water over the top. I knew it was best to use water heated a bit below boiling, but with the confusion of understanding the boiling temperature at altitude, the very limitations of where we were, and the close to becoming debilitating effects of the headache, I just went with it. And so, it happened.
I took a first sip and felt the headache retreat. The second one really took the edge off of it and after only a few more, I was beginning to notice how blue the sky was. And then, it was time for the Bolivians. They were curious. The bravest of the group said he wanted to try it. I was excited that they had witnessed what real coffee was all about. After several trips to their country through the years, I had never really come across an exceptional cup of coffee. In fact, they often used a kind of coffee syrup and then added hot water to it for their morning brew. Now, I thought, they’ll be amazed by something that’s been right there under their noses all along.
I handed him my cup and he carefully raised it to his lips. There was a moment of silence as we all anticipated what would be next. He lowered the cup, and began to laugh. I was confused. He passed the cup off to another man who tried it and then it went around to each person in the group. As they passed it, laughter blurted out, erupting everywhere. Then, it came back to the brave man, who carefully handed it back to me.
And with his lip quivering in a smiling sort of way, he just said “fuerte, muy fuerte”.