we'd arrived in the modest mountain dwelling of Tuni: three huts, four people and fifteen llamas quietly existing 4448 metres above sea level.
“If you fall, slam the axe hard into the ice” yelled my guide Alesio from the
bottom of the glacier.
“Try now – go!”
Taking as deep a breath as you can at over 5000 metres, I pulled my feet from the ice and instantly shot downward; using all my strength, I hammered the axe at the glacier. Unfortunately, after three days’ of high-altitude trekking and sporadic sleeping in below-freezing temperatures, all my strength was not nearly sufficient to secure 8 stone of person to a wall of ice with one hit, and I was soon dangling from my safety harness like a rag doll.
Half way up a glacier in Bolivia’s Cordillera Real mountain range, I was learning the basics of ice climbing in preparation for a night-time ascent of 6088-metre peak Huayna Potosi; my hardy Bolivian guide Alesio and I had trekked for several days to get there, and I was knackered.
After a bumpy hour-and-a-half jeep ride from the haphazard cacophony of La Paz, we’d arrived in the modest mountain dwelling of Tuni: three huts, four people and fifteen llamas quietly existing 4448 metres above sea level.
With the steep slate-coloured slopes of the Cordillera Real layering off into the distance, our first day’s trek was a surprisingly gentle plod over undulating grasslands surrounding two large lakes. Around midday, Alesio produced two lukewarm plastic boxes stuffed with chicken, rice and fried banana. Taking a spot amid an unfazed cluster of llamas and alpacas, we chomped our fare while he pointed out the dark shell of a former gold mine scarring a neighbouring hillside.
“The mountains might look grey, but beneath us is all kinds of treasure” he said, profoundly, before ladling the last chunk of fried banana into his mouth and leaning back for a post-lunch snooze.
At dusk, we set up camp by a pair of mud huts. Mules led by a small man, whose face was nearly entirely covered by a thick woollen balaclava, dropped off our sleeping and cooking essentials, and Alesio swiftly assembled my home for the night – a small and decidedly unauthentic North Face tent.
Huddled in the yellow dome, my breath billowed around me, and I could no longer feel my feet. In a bid to maintain any remaining body heat, I put on everything in my rucksack – three T-shirts, four pairs of socks, long johns, two pairs of trousers, hoody, fleece, and a bobble hat – and waddled over to join Alesio in a steaming bowl of vegetable soup. Looking out into the darkness, I asked what, other than llamas and alpacas, lives in this high and inhospitable landscape? “Puma.” “…Pumas?” “Si.” Right.
Back in my tent, still bundled up in all my clothes, ears pricking at any scuffle that could possibly resemble the nocturnal movements of a hungry wildcat, I drifted into a light sleep.
The exuberant morning call of a nearby donkey woke me up at 5.30am, and I was pleased to discover that, other than feeling rather chilly, I was in one piece. After breakfasting on bread rolls and thick peach jam, we headed off. And by off, I mean up.
Our route traversed a 5000-metre peak, and before long I was wincing at the strain in my thighs, bashing my knees on sharp rocks and gulping in the thin air. From the windswept pass at the top two things were startlingly clear: the first was the sprawling azure mass of Lake Titicaca, over 100 km away. The second was the fact that, amid this hard beauty of coarse granite and imposing peaks, we were the only human life for miles.
Down the other side, we refuelled with rice and chunks of beef, and squished through a valley of plump emerald marshland that was being frantically munched by alpacas. A dusty track weaving through the foothills took us on several more kilometres, until we reached a steep rocky slope entirely carpeted with llamas.
These animals were being kept in line by an energetic figure swathed in purple, who Alesio told me was Maria Lloca – an 85-year-old lady living alone in the mountains, who spends from dawn til dusk, every day of the year, tending to her 100-strong herd.
Bounding down the mountainside, and greeting us in the indigenous Andean language Aymara, the animated octogenarian showed us around her huts, in which we could shelter from the night’s elements for 10 Bolivianos. Each was a simple construction of walls, door and roof, but any solid barrier between the pumas and me was most welcome. As with the day before, all our sleeping essentials soon materialised on mule-back, and we pitched up for the night.
Alesio banged the top of the tent. It was 6.15am, and we had a morning’s upwards hike to Huayna Potosi Base Camp to get on with, followed by an afternoon of learning to ice climb on a nearby glacier. Dazed from a restless night – sleeping at this altitude was seeming increasingly impossible – and cold to the bone (I was still wearing all my clothes), I hastily packed, stuffed half a bread roll into my mouth, and stepped out from the mud hut into the morning mist.
After several hours’ scrambling up sheets of soil, sinking ankle-deep in the thick, powdery terrain, we made our way down a steep rocky valley, and up a second short-but-lung-burningly-sharp ascent, until the large and most welcome form of the Hyuana Potosi Base Camp materialised.
The axe went in easily, but the ice by my feet was rock-solid - all attempts to jam my crampons in were barely making a scratch.
Ruth-Ellen Davis is freelance writer and editor and has previously worked for Time Out and Columbus Travel Media. She can be contacted at [email protected]
Long dining tables covered with bright Bolivian textiles filled the downstairs, posters of the world’s most famous mountains plastered the walls, and a small counter offered vastly over-priced but highly attractive beer and chocolate. In the corner, a steel ladder led up to a mattress-strewn communal sleeping space. Luxury.
Taking up a dining table was a group of worryingly athletic-looking English and American lads who’d just arrived in a jeep from La Paz. They were joining me for the afternoon ice climbing lesson at a glacier an hour’s trek away.
A twenty-minute nap and 1-hour trek later, and I was staring up at a giant wall of ice. Kitted out with crampons, gaiters, gloves, waterproof trousers, a harness and an axe, we were tutored in basic ice climbing technique: hold axe in strongest arm, reach as far out as possible and ram it into ice; jab crampon-clad left foot into ice, then do same with right foot a little higher up, hoist yourself up, then move left hand alongside the axe. Repeat until you reach the top - and try not to fall off.
Shimmying effortlessly up the glacier, Alesio secured the safety rope that was attached to my harness to the top. He beckoned me up. The axe went in easily, but the ice by my feet was rock-solid - all attempts to jam my crampons in were barely making a scratch. As I kicked the glacier repeatedly, a steady stream of people shot past me on either side. Giving the ice an almighty boot, I found my grip, and, after a few expletives and great deal of panting, I was clutching at the top, victorious. Wiping an ice chip off my numb cheek, I looked out at the valley panning out below: glowing ice, rock and snow-capped peaks as far as the eye could see.
But, rather than adhering to my elated, if rather breathy calls of “again! again!” Alesio, now at the bottom, was demanding I feign a fall to practice the safety stop. And moments later there I was, arms flailing and with all glory vanished, suspended 10 metres or so in the air from my harness.
The four-hour trek to High Camp the next morning was a slow one. Mules don’t venture here, so we carried all essentials. A brief evening doze, and we trod out into the freezing 1am air, stars and headtorches lighting the way. Even disregarding the fact that I was still wearing my entire clothing contingent underneath the substantial bulk of climbing gear, every limb felt like it was made of lead.
At first, the final climb seemed impossible. My legs were dead weights, and the air was now so thin my lungs felt as though they’d shrunk to the size of almonds. But with Alesio leading the way, me attached to him by rope, we inched our way to the summit.
Somehow, we’d made it - squinting through sunglasses, the dawn searingly bright on the fresh snow, we surveyed our reward: symphony-worthy views across jagged peaks and dipping valleys.
Ripping off his balaclava, a grinning Alesio cracked open a beer from his backpack and handed it to me. A quick gulp, and I sunk to the floor, gazing out at this far-reaching spectacle. I sat there transfixed, determined to spend as many moments as possible drinking in our privileged position, before allowing my brain to even begin contemplating how on earth I was going to get down.