It was cold and restless sleep at our high camp on Bolivia’s 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’d gone out into it briefly, 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 that the sleeping bag hood was cinched tightly down around my head. That checking and tightening, along with a persistent need to go outside and relieve myself, periodic dozing off, and a 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 tent for me to see the shapes of the other two guys, sprawled out to either side of me. How were they sleeping so soundly, I kept wondering? I was amazed by how separated, space-wise, we each seemed to be and by how roomy our tent sleeping quarters were. That same kind of tent had always been cramped and stuffy before, especially I remembered, when we were down in the jungle 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 that it was 4 am. It was time to get going. Our plan was to be roped up and moving toward the 20,000 foot summit by 5.
Summit days are busy. 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’d 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 people 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 enough time for me to have my morning coffee. It took a while for the ramifications of that to lay themselves bare, but it all sent me into uncharted mental territory, when my projection began to become real. I’d concluded a few years before that a decent cup of coffee could be had on any given morning, anywhere in the world and now, that premise was proving to not necessarily be true. With sadness and confusion, I ultimately vowed to delay having my morning cup of coffee until the afternoon, but would 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.
We were able to melt snow and pull together just enough water to prepare breakfast. Once bubbles began to form in the somewhat pure water, 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 our limited amount of 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 have to worry with that. Working on things from inside my sleeping bag, I was finally able to get my fleece pants on correctly. An interesting note about that—once before, under similar circumstances, I’d somehow gotten my pant legs crisscrossed and then forced them onto my body, backwards, which ultimately created something of a confusing 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 of my bag. Once in the clear, I turned around and sat back down, on top of the bag this time, and pulled my bibs on over it all. 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’d slept in my fleece cap, but once I’d begun to get dressed for the climb, had pulled my silk face mask on over my head, which I’d done glovelessly and thus, open to the cold for several minutes. I realized the potential problem which that could lead to, and so before my fingers had time to realize what was happening, I pulled my inner gloves on over them. Then, I sat back down, in the vestibule doorway 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 by 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 was the relative lack of crevasses and the general predictability of snow conditions in the area. Our early start would essentially insure that the snow (and our walking surface) would be frozen into a stable mass, at least until later in the day as temperatures rose and the Sun had plenty of time to do its work. And so, 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 returned my thoughts once again to the lack of coffee situation. For a time, the getting dressed process had dominated my thinking, but the sight of the empty pot had brought the whole thing back into the forefront, at least for that moment.
I shrugged off the renewed 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 the city smog. I felt an urge to reach up and touch the stars and the Southern Cross appeared 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.
After only a few minutes, we were roped up into our teams of 4 and began moving toward the summit. 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’d reach the top by 9 am or so.
Initially, we moved out into darkness with headlamps lighting the way. We reached the notorious Huayna Potosi headwall within an hour and our pace slowed as things became steeper and more technical. By first light, all 4 rope teams were on top of the hundred foot tall wall of steep snow and we once again began moving at a faster pace. As anticipated, the Sun rose above the distant smaller peaks and the lowlands to the east as we 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 methodically placed snow pickets for anchors as we ascended, with subsequent teams using them as well. The process ultimately sped things up for the total of the four teams, and the first one arrived on top, just after 8:15. By a little before 9, almost as planned, everyone in the entire group 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 toward going down. We reorganized ourselves and gear and within a few minutes began the long descent, back to the wooden walls, windows, roof, bunks, bathroom, kitchen (and stove for heating water) and fireplace at the Refugio Huayna Potosi.
The excitement of the climb and summit along with the relatively early hour had me energized, even considering the high 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 safely 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 real belay or protection.
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 just jumping down the hundred or so feet to the bottom, but thought better of it and so, just slowly and methodically worked my way down, downclimbing. At the bottom, I rejoined the others and we once again reorganized gear before moving on 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 kept finding my thoughts returning ever more frequently to the empty pot back at High Camp, which was most certainly awaiting our return. I even began thinking that I could smell the aroma of coffee being freshly ground. In short, I was losing it.
We moved quickly and efficiently from that point on back to High Camp, although I would’ve liked for it to have been faster. As soon as I walked into the bounds of the camp, I went straight to the awaiting, lonely and empty pot, loaded it with snow, lit the stove, put it on top of it and thus, 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 semi-hot showers, Pringles and a flush toilet awaited 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 the crippling effects of my situation up to that point, but was not sure how much longer I could continue. And so, I’d reached a deal with a Bolivian guide to switch places with me on my rope for the final return to the hut. That, in turn, allowed me to hang back with the porters and thus, finish brewing my coffee.
I tried to explain to the five Bolivians why I’d done that and was still there, when everything had been packed up (except for the stove) and the others had taken off. They eventually came to understand that it was about coffee and were obviously intrigued by the stature suddenly attached to the hot liquid. The whole concept had never been on their radar before. The five of them huddled around and watched as I placed my cone on top of the cup, pulled out a filter, and placed it into the cone. Then, I filled the cone and filter with an almost sweet blend of nicely ground Sumatra beans with hints of smoke and began carefully drizzling boiling water over the top. For the adding water part, I knew it was best to use water heated to a temperature slightly below the boiling point and to never rush the pouring. But with the confusion of trying to quantify or understand the boiling temperature at altitude, the very limitations of where we were and combined with the ever-encroaching debilitating effects of my headache, I rushed the water part. And so, while maybe the perfect part didn’t happen, the brewing did.
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. By this time, they’d become seriously curious. The bravest of the group said that he wanted to try it. I was excited that they’d witnessed what real coffee was all about. After several trips to their country through the years, I’d never really come across an exceptional cup of coffee down there. 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 the man 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 subsequently 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 changed his demeanor back to one of seriousness and then carefully handed it back to me. And with his lip quivering in a smiling sort of way, he just said “fuerte, muy fuerte” as they all turned to tackle their task at hand.