Mourning Coffee on Huayna Potosi

Descending Huayna Potosi

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 fly out in the frigid, high-altitude night. Sometime in the very early morning, I got up and went outside to relieve myself and, while doing my business, 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. I quickly got chilled, and so, once back in the tent, pushed myself deeply into my minus 25-degree bag and cinched the hood tightly down around my head. Cinching down and tightening the hood, 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 do they keep sleeping so soundly?” I periodically mused.

After endless stirring and only periodic dozing, I pulled my arms out of the warmth of the bag to check my watch. I pushed the light button on the Casio and saw it was 4:00 am, which meant 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.

Besides being stressful, summit days are busy. There was a lot to do, and with only an hour set aside for getting ready, I knew better than to waste any of it. But since I’d been more or less awake much of the night pondering the various things that needed to happen before heading out, I was already somewhat mentally organized and ready.

There wasn’t much talk as everyone began to stir. Before making a concerted push to get things 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 there wasn’t going to be enough time for me to have my morning coffee. I thought through the ramifications of what that meant, and the conclusion sent me into uncharted negative emotional territory. A few years before, I’d decided 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 vowed to delay having my morning coffee until the afternoon. But I determined to make that particular cup an exceptional one. For the moment, I decided to focus all my efforts on getting 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 getting geared up. Since we’d assembled our climbing packs the night before, at least 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 sat up and pulled a lightweight fleece pullover over my long underwear top. Then, I counted to three and jumped out and free of my bag. Once in the clear, I sat back down on top of the bag and pulled my bibs on. Then, I stuck my arms into my fleece and pulled it on over the top. The final piece of the outerwear puzzle was my hooded parka, which I put on and closed up tightly all around my upper torso.

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 ensured us 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 that early morning moment at least, conditions were prime for moving efficiently, and we were almost on the move.

I unzipped the tent’s door and prepared to crawl out, but the path was blocked by our stove and the empty pot. I finally got out with the aid of my headlamp, but the light also highlighted the emptiness of the pot. For a time, the getting dressed process had dominated my thinking, but the sight of the empty pot brought the “lack of coffee” situation back to the forefront.

I shrugged off the renewed realization, 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. There was little in the air at that elevation to dull the picture I was seeing. La Paz was just to the east, but the prevailing winds protected us from the city smog. I felt the 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 soon 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 all the gear down on our way back that afternoon. For the immediate future, 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.

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 markedly as things became steeper and more technical. By first light, all 4 rope teams were on top of the 100-foot tall headwall of steep snow, and we began moving faster once again. Then, as anticipated, the sun rose above the distant smaller peaks and the lowlands off to the east. We were in full daylight when we reached the steeper and somewhat more imposing summit pyramid. 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, sitting on the snow, and contemplating the truly wild Amazon lowlands off to our north. The weather on the summit was remarkably calm and pleasant, and after 15 minutes, we got up and began going down.

Both the excitement of the climb and the relatively early hour had kept me energized and free of de-caf insanity for a while. 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. The coffee deprivation situation was quickly becoming profound.

At that point, no one but me knew what I was going through. As a crowning blow, since I was the leader, I was expected to go down that steep pitch last, which meant without a belay or protection.

Once I was alone as the last person to descend, I removed the anchoring and lowering gear, stuck it in my pack, and approached the edge to begin my 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. As we walked, I no longer pondered the surroundings. Things such as the snow hummocks, the magnificence of the nearby South Face, or the views of Charkini and the mysterious Yungas to the northeast were no longer of interest. 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 the special pound of Dark Roast that was waiting patiently back at camp to be brewed. In short, I was losing it.

Once I caught up we began moving quickly and efficiently, although I would’ve liked it to have been faster. As soon as I walked into the high camp, I went straight to the empty pot, filled it with snow, lit the stove, and put it on the flame. Thus, I began making hot water and the process of brewing a cup of coffee. 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, off they went.

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 struck a deal with a Bolivian guide to trade places and lead my rope for the final return to the hut. Doing so allowed 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 understood that it was about the coffee and were intrigued by the stature I’d attached to the hot liquid. That 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. I knew it was best to use freshly ground beans, but I relented to the reality of our remote situation and used some that was already ground. I heated the water to slightly below the boiling point and was careful not to 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 it didn’t end up being the perfect cup, it did get brewed.

I took a sip and felt the headache immediately go into retreat. Then, 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 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 the young 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. Finally, 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. Finally, it came back around to the first taster, who wiped the smile from his face, assumed a serious demeanor, and handed the half full cup 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 and I stood there bewildered by their reaction, but savoring every remaining drop of the brown liquid.

Practicing ice climbing in Bolivia

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.

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