Have you ever wanted to lie down and die? To give up and fall theatrically to your bruised knees right where you stand because you have absolutely no strength left, everything hurts and it would just be easier to give up. That is how I felt...ready to down tools and succumb to the brutal elements because certain death seemed like a way better option than continuing on up the 6088m mountain that stood mockingly before me.
"Stop being such a wimp and keep moving - this was your stupid idea in the first place" I told myself as I cursed the friend who recommended this god forsaken activity to me for around the 300th time in as many minutes. I had no one to blame but myself - I had ignorantly suggested we take on this challenge immediately after the over indulgence associated with Christmas in La Paz to my two friends who were both way more energetic, finer specimens of fitness than me. I had nonchalantly signed my name on the dotted line and opted to don the ugliest kit possible, still damp with the sweat of past lunatics, in order to scale a mountain higher than Mount Kilimanjaro. What was I thinking?
What follows is an account of the psychological and physical challenges that I faced climbing Huayna Potosi in Bolivia...
Feelings experienced: positivity, nonchalance, hangover.
Ah day one...back when I had absolutely no clue that what I was about to do would be akin to walking into the depths of hell and back. Poor, silly, giggling me...the Amy who naively thought that the ice axe she was given was just for show and excellent photo opportunities. Even as we approached the mountain by car and I was unable to see the peak as it was shrouded in snow clouds, I just glimpsed at it, shrugged and then went back to sleep. Huayna Potosi didn't intimidate me in the slightest. What an absolute pie-faced idiot I was back then.
Day one involved arriving at base camp, practicing walking with crampons and learning - I thought just for shits and giggles - how to utilise an ice axe should I fall down. We were also given the challenge of scaling a 15m ice wall with just the use of two ice axes and our crampons.
"Will we actually have to do this? I worriedly asked our guide, Herman as I watched muscular male travellers grunt and groan up the icy wall.
"No of course not" Herman smiled back.
Thank goodness because even after mustering up all of the meagre upper body strength that I possessed, I still only managed to drag myself up about 8m before fire ripped through my whole body and I had to lie down for 10 minutes to recuperate.
It was only that night as I lay in bed fighting for breath and against a rising feeling of nausea that I actually started to consider what lay ahead of me. Climbing this mountain was going to be no small task - this would require fitness and determination. Two things that sadly wouldn't make it anywhere near my Top 10 attributes.
Feelings experienced: hatred, fear, nausea, serious anger.
A surge of vomit rushing up my throat awoke me from my fitful, freezing, oxygen-light sleep and forced me to run to the bathroom. Running at altitude is not advised - especially when you are already fighting for breath and when you have zero energy as your appetite has been completely obliterated alongside any conversational skills that you once possessed. As I popped open the altitude sickness tablets at the breakfast table ready to neck four or five the owner of the company, who was also a doctor, informed me that I should only take them if I felt really bad as there was a chance "my eyeballs might deflate".
Perfect - just the words of encouragement I was seeking.
On Day Two we were to pack up all of our gear, load it onto our backs and walk up to high camp which is precariously perched on the mountainside at 5380m. Sounds relatively easy going - after all, it's just a short hike to high camp, four hours of beautiful scenery - I could handle that. What I stupidly hadn't factored in was the fact that it would all be uphill, that there would be very little glorious oxygen and that with every step you would risk falling from said mountainside or snapping an ankle on the uneven terrain.
To say that I was miserable was an understatement. Breathing is something I cherish and when every step leaves you gasping for air, you quickly get bored of climbing higher and higher. I also don't particularly relish being rubbish at stuff and in this instance, I was clearly the weak link in this chain of happy hikers. My comrades were quick to offer an encouragment every time I huffed and puffed that I was "bored of walking" despite the fact that we had only been going for 25 minutes or to feed me chocolate when I childishly insisted that I couldn't walk another step.
Tensions heightened when I was forced to traverse a slippery, snow-covered cliffside which looked down onto a dagger-like landscape below. My nimble and seemingly-fearless friends hopped around it like they were popping to the corner shop. I on the other hand was convinced that I was going to die. Rocks were falling into the abyss before my eyes, I was not attached to anything and I don't have good balance at the best of times. The only solution? Sit down and progress forwards at a snails pace on my bottom. Perhaps not the coolest way of hiking but undoubtedly the safest. As I took my sweet time bum-shuffling to safety, my constant claims that I was about to leave the world were batted away by my friend who told me that should anything happen, a helicopter would rescue me. I was onto her lies though...the air was too thin up there for any helicopter. Idiot. Safely at the other side, she came forward for a hug, which I took as an attempt to push me from the cliff...as you can tell, I had lost the plot somewhat. I blame the altitude.
Just when I thought that I was going to lie down and let the elements have their wicked way with me - base camp came into sight. I had survived. I flung my backpack to the floor, donned all of my warm clothing and sulked in the corner until the time came to feast upon a dinner of dry instant noodles and tinned frankfurters. Yes, I had paid for this opportunity. I had parted with a significant amount of my earth pounds to be put through living hell. Despite my general moodiness - I knew that I had no choice but to go on. I had no other way of finding my way back to the seedy, yet comfortable streets of La Paz. Herman was my leader and he was heading for the summit. If I had any chance of living, it was by his side. Fortunately at this stage I didn't yet completely hate him - that emotion would come later...
Feelings experienced: Severe, deep-seated rage and complete and utter exhaustion.
Allow me to sum up the walk to the summit - it was horrific. You try walking in knee deep snow across sweeping uphill valleys that stretch for miles. You try constantly being told you are going too slow and having someone shake their head at you in disgust every time you stop to catch your breath. In short, I became like a gigantic toddler - complete with foot stamping and repeatedly asking whether we were there yet. Every time I spotted some kind of peak in the murky distance I would shout to Herman "Is that it?" to which he would laugh and reply that we had two, three, four hours still to go. How could the number not be going down? Oh right, because I was barely moving.
And then things took a sinister turn for the worse. I fell down a crevasse. One minute I was head down shuffling forward wasting time plotting how to seek revenge on my friend back home, the next I was down a massive hole. Somehow I managed to utilise the ice axe in time to hook on and then Herman and my friend were called upon to heave me to safety. If I hadn't been enjoying it up until that stage (understatement) now, on top of that, I feared for my life as well. I moved on with a mantra of "This is how i'm going to die, this is how i'm going to die" circulating around in my head.
You might wonder what was the next obstacle? The answer - a 30m high ice wall that we needed to climb in order to continue forward. Herman had lied. He had looked into my innocent green eyes and told me that we would not be climbing any ice walls. I glared at him for a good three minutes willing him to apologise but it's safe to say that he didn't give a monkeys. In fact, I think that this was entertainment to him. He thought we were going to fail. Well I would show him. I would show him just how much I wasn't going to fail by hauling myself up the ice wall, crying the whole time and shouting at him that I hated him. It was an emotional 20 minutes.
I learnt an important life lesson during the climb to the summit - I learnt that there is a specific type of resentment that can be bred between a guide who wants you to go faster and a pathetic female who physically can't. Did Herman not understand that of course I would like to have travelled faster - I would have loved to have sprinted the whole thing just so that the monstrous debacle could come to an end and I could get on with living the unhealthy life that I had become accustomed to. So that I could brush the frost from my eyelashes and the snot from my nose and file this away under "Good life experiences only to be partaken in once". However, my lungs were on the verge of imploding and what muscle I had possessed before the start of this living nightmare had all been atrophied away by sheer exertion and unfaltering negativity.
Then of course there was the fact that he had lied about the ice wall. I was a woman scorned. I motivated myself by deciding to teach Herman a lesson for lying - I stopped every 20 steps, doubled over and gasped for air until he was forced to pull me forward by the rope that attached us. I chose to seek petty, petty revenge by means of impossibly slow walking, sulking and lots of frowning. I would ignore him cheerfully pointing out spectacular sights. No I didn't want to look at that amazing ice cave over there to my left. Why? Because that would involve utilising my neck muscles and couldn't he see that I was already using them to look suitably downtrodden!
Finally we reached the approach to the summit. We had maybe 10 minutes left of this nightmare before I could turn to Herman and laugh in his stupid face. Climbing to the summit involved a path so narrow that only one human could pass along it at one time. Over each side lay two terrifyingly sheer drops. Although this sounds rather spectacular, when the snow is melting around you and you haven't quite grasped the use of crampons - death was a real risk. However, I had a personal vendetta against my guide and his lack of faith in my abilities and it turns out that hatred is a strong driving force my friends!
We made it to the top where I collapsed in a heap and cried once again. Not because I was pleased with my success but because I knew that I had to get down again and I knew that that would take at least six more hours of my life. Six more hours of my life that I didn't want to give. Genuinely the worst three days of my life.
This blog originally appeared on No Fixed Plans Travel.