Arriving in La Paz, (Bolivia) to streets of carnage, we knew this was going to be an interesting city. Despite 3 months of cycling in South America, which included entering Santiago (Chile) on the direct highway into the centre of the city (on Christmas eve), La Paz added a new level of crazy. With the city being at a height of 3400m but still being a huge drop from El Alto (the smaller, less well known town that sat above) at 4000m, finding our way to a hostel meant meandering down these small side roads, packed with all sorts of vehicles, from scooters to the many vauxhall vans used as public transport for Bolivians to jump on and off at pretty much any point they chose.
La Paz is the adventure capital of Bolivia, and possibly even South America, with 000's of trips and excursions available. Perhaps, most well known for the 'El Camino de la Muerte' or Death Road as better known by Westerners.
"Death Road involves a 15,000ft descent from the top to the bottom over its 56km stretch, with sheer drops off the sides and an approximated 300 deaths a year."
Whilst, Death Road was enjoyed, it definitely wasn’t the stand out adventure in La Paz, having probably cycled in more treacherous conditions on our own bikes prior.
It was the climbing of Huyana Potosi that was an experience that will truly be remembered. The opportunity to climb up a mountain that peaks 6,180m (20,000ft) in height for the cost of only $100 and next to no previous climbing experience was something we mutually decided couldn’t be passed up. In comparison to European countries where you probably would have had to do a week mountaineering course and fall to sleep watching presentations on health & safety regulations, all that was required in Bolivia was the asking price of the tour company and a decent level of fitness (two things that we had available).
At 8am the next day our team of four arrived back at the shop ready to depart on our two day adventure, both excited and a little anxious - this was something none of us had done before. A mutual likening between the guides and our team was quickly formed as we were fed a breakfast of tea, coffee, pastries and toast whilst getting sized up for our gear. With conditions getting down to -15 degree Celsius at the peak of the mountain we were glad to be receiving good quality equipment and clothing from the tour company and not the makeshift equipment that is usually passed off as real in Bolivia.
In the minivan en route to our drop off location we headed up into El Alto, where we took in some spectacular views over the city of La Paz that lay below. It was approximately a 2 hour drive until we reached our drop off point 25km north of La Paz in the Cordillera Real Mountain Range. There was a small hut where we jumped out the van, got rid of any excess equipment we didn’t need, packed our climbing equipment into our trekking bags, and hit the tracks up to base camp. Initially, we thought the tour guides were rather patronising with the bumble of a pace that they set off at. But after less than 100m we realised, 'they weren't! The lower levels of oxygen were making a difference and we weren't even at 5000m yet. The incline of walking wasn’t anything drastic, yet the altitude was definitely having a noticeable effect on our breathing. After 2-3 hours of walking, in the early afternoon we had reached our base camp. Camp Rock sat at 5100m, only 200m lower than Everest Base Camp, and the views surrounding us were spectacular. We were surrounded by white snow and mountains above and views overlooking La Paz below.
For now, we rest. We had 12 hours of rest, food and coco tea to let our bodies acclimatise before the climb would begin 1am the next morning. By 6pm we had been fed numerous hearty meals by our legendary Bolivian tour guides and drank coca tea to our hearts content (with South Americans believing coco leaves are magical and can cure just about anything).
Our alarms went off at 12pm, the time was upon us. We got out of bed, stocked up on food one final time, put as many layers on as we had, left the hut, and entered the darkness.
There was another group of tourists who had set off about 20 minutes before us and as such we could see some dim headlights in the distance up the mountain. With our notable fitness from the last 3 months of cycling it wasn’t long before we had caught up and taken over the groups in front. We ploughed on in our 2 man teams attached to our guides by rope with limited vision of what surrounded us in the darkness. Time passed and we were clueless to how much of a dent we had made on our ascent, with no view of the summit in the early hours of the morning.
After a couple of hours slugging away with slow footsteps through the mountain snow in our heavy hiking boots with crampons, we eventually reached a halt…….We looked ahead to see a vertical ascent of about 25m, we then looked at one another and wondered what the plan was, whether we had taken the wrong route. With little hesitation the guide smiled and exclaimed "let's go"!
With absolutely no prior experience in using crampons or an ice axe we were a little unsure about what was about to happen next. As our guide Edwin pushed on, we followed, and listened to his commands! With each leg we kicked our crampons into the ice, drove the ice axe above our head and used all our might to pull ourselves upwards. With nothing other than brute force we hitched ourselves up and above the wall of ice. What may have usually felt like trying to complete a set of chin ups was turned into a feeling of towing a truck with the lack of oxygen above 5000m. Once both teams of 2 attached to our guides had beat the climb, we sat on the ice for a quick refuel of fluids and snack foods before continuing on our path to the summit.
Despite having spent the last few months cycling above 3000m, the struggle just to walk in a straight line at these new heights was becoming a real struggle.
Light was slowly beginning to join us on the mountains as the sunrise was on its way, but we still couldn’t see the summit through the clouds. No longer were the other teams still around us. We were alone. Just the four of us, our guides, and the mountain. Before we set out on this adventure I believe we all thought it would be a very feasible challenge, but as time went on thoughts entered our heads about whether we would make it to the summit. The challenge was different to anything we had been faced with before. We were used to running, cycling and doing other activities at high intensity, but here we found ourselves at nothing more than a plod. After 4 hours of tramping through the snow after waking up at 1am, our bodies were low on fuel and finding it difficult to find strength at such high altitude. Imagine being in a swimming pool and being told you have to swim another couple of lengths when you are completely out of gas. The breaths increase in an attempt to acquire more oxygen to supply the muscles the haemoglobin they need to contract and keep the body moving.
Just as we wondered if we were ever going to make it to the summit, we looked up to see the peak not so far in the distance. As the clouds began to move and the clarity began to improve we saw that the last push wasn’t going to be an easy one, with a steep gradient to the top. Edwin our trusted guide continued to lead the way, zig-zagging the towards the peak of the mountain. The fact that at no point at all in the ascent did Edwin look neither tired of phased, made you realise just how fit these local Bolivian men were. Taking tour after tour up to such heights was definitely a form of cardiovascular training like no other. On tired legs and bodies we pushed into the ice and shouted with British Jubilance! "We had summited".
Don't get me wrong, this was no Everest, but with less than a days worth of acclimatisation, and a complete lack of climbing experience this definitely felt like an achievement - even after the thousands of miles we had completed on the bike thus far. Both teams perched their bums down on the small ridge at the top of the mountain and spent a couple of minutes to take in the views. We were now above the clouds that were above the clouds, there were levels to this! In the far, far distance we could make out La Paz, as well as being surrounded by the brother and sister mountains of the Cordillera Real range. This was an experience not to be forgotten!
LESSONS TO BE LEARNT
You can climb mountains for extremely cheap in Bolivia
Don’t underestimate the difficulty of physical activity at high altitudes
Having a good team around you can help you push to new heights
Challenge yourself in new ways
The view from the top can be good, but the effort put in to reach it can be what makes something truly memorable.