Cumbre o Muerte

Somewhere in the pitch-black above me our guide Mario is shouting in Spanish while below my friend Julien is trying to give me advice in French and I begin to panic in English. The small, sloped wall of ice which Mario has just scampered up is in reality a minor obstacle but at this moment feels like the greatest challenge of my life. The surrounding darkness is suddenly intimidating, my tiring legs and arms struggle to find a purchase in the snow and I seem to have forgotten everything I had learned in our practice session.

We are north of Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, near an altitude of 5800 metres and trying to reach the summit of Mount Huayna Potosi; regarded as one of the easier '6000ers' and thus accessible to novice climbers such as myself. The journey here has been surprisingly uneventful; more so considering four people died, making the first unofficial summit attempt, a mere two-hundred metres below where I am now momentarily stuck.

Two days before we had driven from the chaotic capital to low-camp in the tranquil Zongo Pass and spent the afternoon practising ice-climbing in heavy double-boots across the foot of the nearby glacier. We had lugged our equipment and supplies to high-camp, up four-hundred metres of scree-covered ridges; before passing the rest of the second day acclimatising and watching birds glide serenely out of the mists which drifted through the peaks and passes of the altiplano.

Despite a heavy overnight snowfall and the disrupting noises of someone suffering with altitude sickness by 1am we had scrambled down a short rocky path back to the glacier, donned all essential gear and roped ourselves together before beginning the laborious but exhilarating zigzagged ascent. Up to that point the most difficult moment for me had been a particularly taxing chess game the day before with one of the guides; as the rest crowded ominously around an iphone to watch Touching the Void – a film about a mountaineering accident.

As we progressed the mountain had remained quiet; the only sounds the crunch of crampons and ice-axes, our clipped breathing, the laughter of the guides and my high-altitude flatulence. Perhaps the hardest struggle had been Julien's, as he endured the climb tied behind and in close proximity to me and my affected stomach. It is now, facing a task that requires skill and upper-body strength, that I begin to wonder what I am doing; clinging to the side of a precipice with solely the point of a blade and spiked-shoes to stop me sliding off.

However, just as a note of hysteria starts to creep in, my flailing axe catches in the ice and I slowly start to haul myself up with Julien following shortly after; our limbs heavy and lungs straining in the thin atmosphere until we wearily reach the spot where Mario lies smiling in the snow. He motions for us to sit and as I turn to collapse onto the frozen ground I see the view for the first time and it stays my breath. A bright red line stretches across the dark horizon; the sun beginning its own ascent behind the curvature of the Earth while the city's vast El Alto district glows tiny and orange in the near distance. The silhouettes of smaller mountain peaks are visible against the fire of twilight and from this resting place on top of the world.

Too soon though, despite the bite of the wind and wet through our clothing, and with a cry of 'Cumbre o Muerte' (Summit or Death) Mario clambers to his feet and we ready ourselves for the final climb. Although we will not reach the top – a snowstorm forcing us to stop seventy-metres short – I turn for one last look and in spite of my still-ragged breathing I feel more than compensated for our efforts. Below, illuminated by our head-torches and those of the groups coming after us, we can see glimpses of the white slope of the mountainside we have just lain upon before it falls away into darkness; an island of ice floating above cresting summits and the tidal light of sunrise.


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