Goodbye Huayna Potosi, never climbing your west side again

10 July 2019


Never say never ... to an ascent at least

I would have never thought that the idea to try again the ascent of the Huayna Potosi’s west side would have come back to my mind. I did it in 2011 and I wasn’t counting on doing it again. It was done, end of story. But Hugo started to speak about it. This west side, no one had ever filmed it. Milton was rubbing it in … that effectively would be nice to have some nice shots of this mythic wall for the documentary he wanted to make about my andinist experience.

Doing the west side without knowing in what you are putting yourself in is a thing. In 2011, I went for the ascent recklessly. Of course, that wall of a thousand meters in elevation scared me at the time, but I didn’t realized it well. This time, I knew very well what was awaiting me and that was another story to decide to throw myself upon this terrible wall. I did not really have the choice. The idea was obvious to me. Looking at everybody’s enthusiasm, I couldn’t refuse. Hugo was planning to go early July.

But finally, mid-June, the great cold had arrived and the walls started to turn into ice. We couldn’t wait anymore. It was necessary to go there immediately, right now in few days … that’s when I started to panic. I was seeing myself on the wall. It is vertical, endless, I had suffered on the last distances. Conditions changed a lot since 2011, the glaciers melted, the huge serac in the middle seems to have reduced by half, rocks are more visible and slopes are turning in sharp ice.  I began to look at pictures of the wall. I got shivers. I was aware of what I was going to do. I was older. And what if I had to stop in the middle of the wall. Ten days earlier, a friend killed himself doing the «straight line» of the Pequeño  Alpamayo. He fell from 189 meters because of a big mistake. He launched himself too self-confident and did not secure well his ascent. For me, Didac’s death was a big shock and above all I realized once more that you can kill yourself in the mountains. I think it was the first time I realized it so clearly and strongly.

The departure was planned for next Sunday. I wasn’t sleeping anymore at night. I was remembering my previous ascent upon this wall, its hazardous nature. I couldn’t find sleep anymore. I was trying to reason myself and reassure about the fact that I would be surrounded by two really good experts and we were going to do the ascent with utmost safety … but nothing helped. Three days before the great departure, an intense diarrhea laid me low … on the wall it must not happen. I even believed I had to cancel. But no, everything was ready, we were determined and I was taking medicines to feel better.

Time has come for my second ascent of the Huayna Potosi’s west side

On Sunday, we left, Hugo and Ignacio, Milton the cineaste as well and Cecilio another really competent guide who had to wait for us under the summit, on a sloping ledge dominating the wall. We would have some gorgeous views!

I finally felt more relaxed. Here we were. The wall was right here. I reasoned myself, I already did it once, and anyway I trained a lot for a year. I was feeling fitter now than some years ago. That should compensate the few more years I gained!! The atmosphere was relaxed, we were laughing. Hugo and Ignacio were anyways scanning the wall.

The night was really short. I couldn’t sleep … and I wasn’t the only one. Everyone was deep in thought and finally, relieved when the alarm clock rang. It was better to keep moving than wait in anxiety.

Here we go. I was feeling good, despite the lack of sleep. We started the approach walk calmly. By moonlight, I saw vertical walls shining under the light … and that gave me shivers. So really, we had to cross sharp ice walls, I didn’t know how I would react. We began to climb up step by step. Slopes are easier at the beginning and were raising gradually as we progressed. I was really focused on my steps, my own progress. We were alternating between excellent conditions and icy passages. But slopes weren’t really steep yet and I was crossing without any problem. I always looked at the shining walls above my head with anxiety. I remembered we had climbed peacefully during the night. There were some avalanche marks because we were under the serac.

At daylight, we crossed the bergschrund at the level of a huge crevasse.

When doubt settles and danger won’t leave you during the Huayna Potosi ascent ...

The first event was a huge avalanche triggered by a serac falling just under our feet. We were at 5600 meters a.s.l. First a muffled sound, just like a detonation … I first thought it was a plane passing by … then I saw a snow cloud beneath us and I could feel the fear in Hugo’s eyes. It was an avalanche that fell upon the path we just took.

Woooow !!! The reality of a possible death caught me up. The danger is palpable, for the first time I can feel the fear of falling down and the omnipresence of death. We followed the ascent to the top. The way out to the bottom took a pending danger look. The hours passed. We were progressing slowly. Ignacio was placing 5 or 6 belays every 50 meters length. That was better. Then we went in diagonal to the right to reach the last corridor leading to the summit and to the place where was Cecilio, just under the summit. In many occasions, I felt Ignacio reluctant. He was ahead. Ignacio is an excellent guide, the best physically, a kind of «risk-taker». I never saw him being afraid. He always laughs and makes jokes, no matter the conditions. But this time, I saw him climbing up with hesitation, the expression on his face speaks for itself sometimes. He was placing a lot of ice pins and snow stakes, more than usual. I really saw the fear in his look once. The noise provoked by his ice axe made me think a whole ice patch was going to fall down. The second ice axe hit confirmed the noise and the doubt. He started to doubt a lot, tried to secure the passage with a snow stake and followed ahead !! At that very moment, Hugo got scared as well. I believe I wasn’t the only one to feel this omnipresent fear anymore. We were then at 5700 meters above sea level.

We followed our progress in diagonal. Cecilio started to lose patience on his mirador. He couldn’t see us. He was calling us by radio. We had to go out in the last corridor,  along huge serac in order to allow him to catch sight of us. And to do so, we had to reach the 5900 meters above sea level. It must have been midday or 1PM, the sun finally reached us, and I enjoyed the heat provided by the sunbeams ! We decided to go as far to the right as possible, along the serac, because the rocks above our heads were not reassuring.

Before reaching the corridor, an ice patch was blocking the way. There was no escape. We had to cross it. Ignacio passed, slightly hesitant and trembling. Hugo passed more calmly because he was roped to the others… but I saw him panicking when he thought about me, needing to cross as well. Indeed, I wanted to go but I turned back. It was terrifying. The ice axe didn’t hang. I had to cross with only the two crampons points, all in tension … I was sure I was going to slipper. Hugo was convinced too. Ignacio was shouting that I had to cross immediately and, that anyways the rope will catch me. But, It could hurt me badly as well, even dragging the whole rope party away with me. I was focused, took my breath and crossed really tight, without breathing, to join Hugo in one go to the other side. He was overjoyed and really impressed. I was impressed myself. We joined Ignacio to the corridor entrance at around 5900 meters a.s.l.

Getting out alive from the death corridor of the Huayna Potosi

I started to be tired. The 10 last meters of each length were a real nightmare. My calfs were on fire and tight on the wall. But soon, we were going to arrive to the corridor and see Cecilio and the summit. 130 meters above, Cecilio was waiting for us impatiently and 50 meters more was the real summit. When we were about to get back in movement, a muffled sound made us jump, not as strong as the morning avalanche sound, but similar. Right in front of us, astounded, an avalanche blew the corridor away. A fragment of serac came away. There was a long moment of silence. We could have been there at this precise moment. Luckily, It took me a while to do that ice passage. I was petrified, I was looking simultaneously at Hugo and Ignacio, who stayed silent. Cecilio must have been asking himself if we were safe. I was thinking about going back down.

Too dangerous to enter this corridor … but the guys were still not speaking. I knew that going down that 900 meters we just climbed was going to be even harder, longer and as dangerous. It would be better to ascent the remaining 180 meters. At that very moment, I panicked, I couldn’t see more that verticality, I had to leave this wall and pull away the danger. We had a sword of Damocles above our heads. At any moment, we could be swept away, and fall down to the bottom with a certain death. I had a pit in my stomach and I wanted to be safe. Ignacio then said «let’s go» and we launched ourselves in the corridor.

I was looking up, we were progressing between scattered rocks and suddenly, I clearly saw Cecilio and the summit. Cecilio dropped a rope from his headland. We decided not to exit through the real summit, that was 50 meters above, but to escape the wall danger by the headland where Cecilio was waiting for us. At that moment, I started to cry until I arrived to the headland. Those icy last meters to get away from the wall were a real torture. I couldn’t believe we were back to the horizontal world, without any pending danger … I could admire the landscapes. This exit through the French path collar was splendid … we spent 15 hours on the wall. We still had 5 more hours to go until we could reach the car. But I didn’t care much. I was alive, we were all alive !