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 constant 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 acknowledgment 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- degree bag and several times checked to make sure that it’s 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 supposed sleep time.
The full moon created just enough light inside the three-man dome tent for me to see the shapes of the other two people, 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 seemed cramped and stuffy before, especially I remembered when we were down in the jungle in Costa Rica.
I pulled my arms out from the warmth of the bag to free them up to check my watch. Eventually, I pushed the light button on the Casio and saw that it was 4:00 am, which meant that it was finally time to get the climb underway. Our plan was to be roped up and moving toward the 20,000 foot summit by 5:00.
Summit days are busy. There was a lot to do, 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 talk as everyone began to stir. Before making a concerted push to get things actually rolling, I spent one last moment mentally organizing how the preparations would unfold. And that’s when it hit me like a rock, and I realized that there just wasn’t going to be enough time for me to have my morning coffee. I thought through the various ramifications of what that meant, and the result that I came up with sent me into uncharted emotional territory. 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 be untrue. With sadness and confusion, I ultimately vowed to delay having my morning coffee until the afternoon, but would at least 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 and fill our water bottles. 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, filling our water bottles, and nothing else. Once breakfast was finished, we all went right back to work at getting geared up. We’d assembled our climbing packs the night before, so at least we didn’t have to worry with that. Working on things from inside my sleeping bag, with a concerted effort, I was finally able to get my fleece pants on correctly.
After dealing with that, I semi sat up and pulled a lightweight fleece pullover on over my expedition weight long underwear top. Then, I counted to three and jumped utterly 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. Once their suspenders were correctly positioned over my shoulders, I stuck my arms into my fleece and pulled it on over the top of them. The final piece of the 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 a silk face mask on over my head, which I’d done gloveless, and thus, open to the cold for several minutes. I realized the potential problem with doing that, and so before my fingers had time to figure out what was happening, I pulled my inner gloves on over them. Then, I sat back down and put my outer plastic boot shells on over the more flexible inner boots. Finally, I pulled mitten shells on over the gloves and was by that time about as well dressed as I could be.
Once I finished getting properly clothed, it was then time to go outside and get roped/geared up for the climbing part. Two of the nice things about being at that particular High Camp were the relative lack of crevasses and the general predictability of snow conditions in the area. Our early start would assure that the snow (and our walking surface) would be frozen into a solid mass, at least until later in the day as temperatures rose. And so, for the moment at least, conditions were prime for moving efficiently.
I unzipped the door to the tent and prepared to crawl out, but the path was blocked by our stove and an empty pot. I shone my headlamp down at it to negotiate the move, which sent my thoughts once again back to the lack of coffee situation. For a time, the getting dressed process had dominated my thinking, but the sight of the empty pot brought the whole thing back to 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 once again 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. The Southern Cross appeared almost as if it were electrified. I was compelled by the sight of it all just to stand and soak it 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 we were there. We left the camp set up, planning to pack it up and haul it all down with the help of the 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 past the headwall and we’d reach the top by 9:00 am or so.
Initially, we moved out into the darkness of an early morning 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 100- 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 off to the east as we moved along the top of the relatively broad 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, and the first group arrived on top, just after 8:15. By a little before 9:00, almost as planned, everyone in the entire group was snapping summit photos and contemplating the truly wild Amazon lowlands that could be seen down to the north.
After a prolonged time on the summit, made possible by remarkably pleasant 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, roof, 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 while heading down, a dull headache began to take hold. By the time we stopped at the top of the steep section to set up anchors and start the tedious process of lowering climbers, 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 the 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. 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 did manage 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, 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 empty pot, filled it with snow, lit the stove and put it on top of the flame 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 which allowed me to hang back with the porters and 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 brewing cone on top of the cup, pulled out a filter, and stuck it into the cone. Then, I filled it 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 never to 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 aspect didn’t happen, the brewing did.
I took a sip and felt the headache immediately go into retreat. The second one really took the edge off, 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. 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 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 it off to another who tried it and then 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 the five of them turned to tackle their task at hand.