The wind is whipping at my face. My nose has frozen; I can’t feel my toes. The crunch of crampons on the snow is the only sound above the howling wind; the suffocating darkness around me is broken only by the tiny glimmering lights of the group up ahead and the red shimmering cloud of La Paz’s streetlights far away to the left. I feel my foot step through the ice. I’m falling, crumbling; the rope around my waist goes taut. I hear the guide yelling at me. It sounds as though he’s a long way away. The crevasse into which I’ve fallen is only half a meter deep, but I remain where I am. My strength is gone. The guide is shouting, pulling at me. I’m broken.
It had begun as a drunken whim at the bar of the Wild Rover hostel in La Paz, Bolivia. After a week of delirious revelry in what must be one of the hardest-partying cities in South America, we were full of Dutch courage and ready to take on a new challenge.
Jeff, a friendly New Zealander I’d known for two days, suggested that we take on Huayna Potosi, a 6,088m (19,973ft) peak lying only 25km (15 miles) from the city. Four of us were silly enough to agree – apart from Jeff and me, two Australians, Adam and Sarah, also signed on. None of us had ever climbed a mountain before, but Huayna Potosi has a reputation as being the easiest 6,000m mountain to climb in the world. As we were to discover, there is a yawning gulf between the terms “easiest 6,000m mountain” and simply “easy”.
The first day of the trip was spent at base camp, acclimatizing to the altitude and practicing our ice climbing skills on a nearby glacier – an outrageously fun activity that served only to boost our already dangerous level of overconfidence as we drove our crampons forcefully into the thick ice, wielding our picks with what – to us – appeared to be consummate skill.
The climb proper began the next day with a five hundred meter ascent to high camp at 5200m (17,060ft). These six hours spent scrabbling over loose rock with the weight of our boots, crampons and picks lashed to our backs – this was the first step in our disillusionment. For the last hour we trudged through fields of glittering snow, breathless with the altitude, unable to look up and appreciate where we found ourselves. Somewhere deep within us, doubts began to bubble up.
We did our best to lull our aching bodies into sleep before the 1 a.m. start, but between the altitude, the nerves, and the guides whispering and giggling over their mobile ringtones, sleep was just not an option. At the call of the guides we arose to darkness and chaos as everyone scrambled to find their own gear in the cramped, unlit room.
Outside in the snow, I tied my crampons to my boots, wrapped the strap of my pick around my wrist, and waited as our guide, Mario, roped himself to Sarah and me, so that in the event of a fall we could either save each other or, presumably, perish together.
We climbed. The wind howled. We wheezed. The lights of La Paz glittered faraway. I was gazing at the huge high moon when I fell into a crevasse, and was hauled out by a furious Mario. Resolute, we pushed on.
But resolution can be pushed only so far. Two hours later, having climbed one wall of ice, we found ourselves standing at the bottom of another, broken, frozen and totally devoid of willpower. Mario turned to us.
“It’s time to go back, amigos.”
Sarah and I turned around and began our slow, painful descent. Jeff turned back minutes afterward, and Adam, an hour later, having reached the 6,000m (19,685ft) mark. None of us would make the summit.
Back at high camp, Mario cocked his head and regarded me curiously. “You foreigners, you come here, you want to climb the mountains. Now you know, amigo. The mountains are not a joke. Not a tick on a list. They are something real. They’re not here for your enjoyment.”
The sun was coming up in a clear blue sky; the valley, so far below, glistened with light. Maybe it was the altitude, but I nodded without really listening.
Lachie Prior is the lead writer on the Latin American travel video blog Planet Kapow, and has previously written the South-East Asian travel blog The Juicy Pop. Having only left his native Australia for the first time at the ripe old age of nineteen, he has so far visited twenty-seven countries across Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Americas. He is currently twelve months into an epic fifteen-month overland journey from Los Angeles to Patagonia – an experience that has taught him how to dance (sort of), how to surf (kind of), how to be outrageously obscene in Spanish (perfectly), and how to fall in love with the world all over again.