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 outside 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 its 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 to see my two tentmate’s silhouettes. How were they sleeping so soundly, I kept wondering? I was amazed by how separated, space-wise, we each were and how roomy the tent was. I was interested that that same kind of tent had always seemed cramped and stuffy before, especially when we were in the jungle.
I pulled my arms out of the warmth of the bag so that I could 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 commence the climb. Our plan was to be roped up and moving toward the 20,000′ summit by 5:00.
Summit days are busy. There was a lot to do, and with only an hour set aside for doing it, 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 I was ready in many respects.
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. That’s when it hit me just like a rock, and I realized that there wasn’t enough time for me to have my morning coffee. I thought through the ramifications of what that meant, and my conclusion sent me into uncharted emotional territory. A few years before, I’d concluded 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 I determined to make that particular cup, an especially exceptional one. For the moment, I decided that I needed to 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 melted snow and came up with barely enough water to prepare breakfast and fill our water bottles. After eating our instant oatmeal, we all went to work at getting geared up. Since we’d assembled our climbing packs the night before, we didn’t have to worry about that.
But getting dressed was not all that simple. Working on things from inside my sleeping bag, and 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 the top of 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 put on and closed up tightly all around my upper torso.
I’d slept in my fleece cap, but I put a silk face mask/cap on underneath it once I began to get dressed. To do so, I took my gloves off, which meant my hands were open to the cold for several minutes. I realized the potential problem with doing that. So before my fingers had time to figure out what was happening, I pulled my inner gloves on. 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 then 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 area snow conditions. 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 tent’s door and prepared to crawl out, but the path was blocked by our stove and the 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 free 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 to stand still 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 on our way back that afternoon. If all went according to plan, the sun would be rising above the eastern horizon as we moved along the summit ridge, and we’d reach the top by 9:00 am or so.
Initially, we moved out into the early morning 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 100- foot tall wall of steep snow, and we once again began moving faster. As anticipated, the sun rose above the distant smaller peaks and the lowlands off to the east. By the time we reached the steeper and somewhat more imposing summit pyramid, we were in full daylight. The first team leader 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 began going down.
Both the excitement of the climb and the relatively early hour kept me energized for a time. But then on our way down, 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 start the tedious process of lowering climbers, my head was beginning to throb, and the coffee deprivation situation was becoming profound.
At that point, no one but me knew what I was going through. As something of a crowning blow, since I was the leader, I got to go down that steep pitch last, which meant without a real belay or protection.
Once alone, I removed the 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 slowly and methodically climbed 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. It was all I could do to stay focused on the climbing technicalities of what we were doing. And all the while, my thoughts kept returning ever more frequently to my special pound of Dark Roast that was waiting patiently back at camp to be brewed. In short, I was losing it.
We began moving quickly and efficiently, although I would’ve liked for it to have been faster. As soon as I walked into 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, I began making hot water. As the stove purred, the group disassembled and packed away the camp for the final few hours of descent. I, however, had more pressing concerns and couldn’t be bothered with any of that. Eventually, the packing was 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 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 unsure how much longer I could do so. And so, I’d reached a deal with a Bolivian guide to trade places with me on my rope for the final return to the hut, which would allow me to hang back with the porters and 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 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 roast of nicely ground Sumatra beans with hints of smoke and began carefully drizzling boiling water over the top. I knew it was best to freshly grind the beans right before using them, but because of our situation had already relented to the reality of where we were. I knew it was best to use water heated to a temperature slightly below the boiling point and never rush the pouring. But between trying to understand the boiling temperature at altitude, the 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. After a second one, the edge began to melt away. Finally, after only 1/3 of the cup, I began to regain my senses. By this time, the Bolivians had 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 and seemed to want to know more. After several previous trips to their country, I’d never had an exceptional cup of coffee. Now, I thought, they’ll be amazed by what they’re about to taste.
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 it off to another 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 changed his demeanor 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.