Huayna Potosi: The Beginner’s Guide to Climbing Above 6,000m

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At 6,088 metres the snow capped peak of this Andean Giant can be seen beckoning in the distance from Bolivia’s capital La Paz.

The base camp which sits at 4700 metres can be reached by car. The accessibility of the mountain, combined with a relatively non-technical route to the summit, means Potosi is considered an ‘entry level’ 6k+ mountain. 

Three-day tours have a high success rate summiting even novice climbers like myself, though altitude, weather, and sheer exhaustion are always a risk at these heights.

The itinerary starts off gently, allowing plenty of time to get used to the gear and acclimatise before the grueling task of summiting the mountain begins midnight on the final day.

Day One

8:30am We met at the tour agency to get fitted for gear. The gear was well worn but maintained and in working condition.

9:30am We all piled into the collectivo (mini bus) to head toward the mountain. The drive up and out of La Paz is slow but takes you through parts of La Paz you might not get to see hanging around Sagarnaga Street. The drive out is also a great opportunity to get to know your guide(s) and any other climbers you will be making the ascent with. The agency I climbed with, All Transport Tours provides one guide for every two climbers. Another solo climber, also an Australian, Max, had booked the same trip and would be making the ascent with me and our guide Jimmy.

11:30am Arrived at base camp. The simple accommodation consists of a kitchen, dining room, bedroom for guides and bedroom for climbers.

12:00pm A lunch of thin mystery meat breaded and fried was served atop a heaping of rice and two slices of tomatoes for lunch. It’s basic but plenty of food. Coca tea, coffee and chocolate powder are good ways to get some liquids into your body and, importantly, stay hydrated at altitude.

1:00pm After lunch settled, we hiked up and out of base camp for about 45 minutes to reach a large glacier. Here we got a chance to practice walking with crampons on, (pretty straight forward) and using ice axes and crampons to scale a small ice wall. The training lasted for about an hour but made for a nice afternoon in the mountains and a few good pics for the album. Once everyone had had a crack at the ice wall, it was back down to base camp.

Scaling a sheer cliff of ice with ice axes and crampons
My ‘Touching the Void’ moment as we practice with ice axes and crampons

3:00pm With three or four hours to go before dinner, we had some free time. I hadn’t anticipated the down time and was regretting not downloading some movies or podcasts onto my phone. I made do reading and writing.

6.30pm Dinner time – we are served a big bowl of rice soup and a couple of bread rolls. Still a little hungry after my soup and unsure of whether this was a starter or the main course I went to investigate. The kitchen was dark, ‘guess that’s the lot’ I thought. I knocked on the adjoining bedroom. The woman who kept the refugio, bustled out, ‘Mas?’ I enquired hopefully, and she refilled my bowl. After a second bowl of soup I was full to the brim. That’s when Jimmy our guide returned to the room with a huge plate of pasta and meat sauce. Critical error.

7:30pm After finishing my plate of pasta I rolled into the bed and tried to fall asleep. I was eager to fall asleep as soon as possible and wake up early to get in a good rhythm in preparation for our midnight start on day three.

Day Two

5.30am The room in the rufugio was cold and the old mattresses sagged, but the sleeping bag I rented from the tour agency was warm and I slept through, thankfully not affected by the altitude.  Waking up, I was aware that we had a long morning of doing not much ahead of us before we headed up to high camp in the afternoon. After reading and writing for a couple of hours it was time for breakfast.

8:30am Breakfast was simple. Bread, butter, jam, a couple of bananas, cookies and plenty of hot water for drinks. My hiking mate, Max, and I took our time, stretching out breakfast with two coffees and three or four teas. By the time we were done, it was time to start packing.

11:00am Crampons and the boots to fit them, sleeping bags, ice ax, warm clothes and water were chucked into large packs to carry up to the high camp in the afternoon.

12:00pm Lunch. was, again, very simple, pan fried chicken (dripping in oil) and rice. During lunch, a group of three climbers arrived at the base camp having summited that morning. They were exhausted and regaled us with the horror stories of their five hour struggle that morning. By the time we had finished eating, we were starting to regret embarking on this adventure.

1:00pm After lunch another climber, Lucas, a young Italian bloke, who had been hiking the area for two days reached the base camp. He and his guide Gonazles were to accompany Max, Jimmy and I to the high camp and the summit the next day.

2:00pm We set off to high camp. The hike to high camp only takes a couple of hours but rises quickly and requires a degree of fitness. Carrying the gear needed to summit adds another challenge. Unfortunately, my recent indulgence in local cooking did not agree with me and 15 minutes into the hike I began to feel ill, suffering cramps, stomach pains and bloating. After another 30 minutes we reached a small refugio, to my great relief there was a rudimentary outdoor stone toilet. I prayed that this would be the extent of my stomach problems. The short hike had been hellish and summiting would be extremely challenging under these conditions. After relieving myself it was onwards and upwards.

4:00pm We arrive at the high camp. The refugio has a bunk room that can sleep 20 in high season although it would be extremely tight. Thankfully it was just Max, Lucas and I sharing the room tonight. A second and third building serves as a kitchen and guide accommodation. The refugio accommodation has a opaque plastic roof which had warmed during the day despite the cold wind outside. Again the mattresses were old and sagging. We were brought tea, coffee and coca mate, along with crackers and some pastry. After a snack I laid down with a book to rest but didn’t manage to dose off.

6:00pm Dinner was brought out by our guide. A bowl of watery noodle soup was served with pieces of bread fried in oil. It was fine but not flash. I had learned my lesson the night before so I didn’t request a second helping of the first course. Turns out this time this was the only course.

7:00pm I stretched down in my bed and read my book to fall asleep. I was wary that sleeping at altitude would be problematic and the party we had met descending earlier had said they barely slept at all. Thankfully this wasn’t an issue for me and after 20 minutes of reading I dozed off into a comfortable sleep.

10:00pm I woke up needing to go to the bathroom. I fumbled for my boots in the dark and pulled them on hobbling outside in my long johns and a t-shirt. The air was cold but the wind had dropped away. The sky was cloudless the moonlight bounced off the snowy mountains surrounding us. The Milky Way stretched out in every direction above before disappearing behind the hulking shadowy peaks looming up on every side.

Day Three: The Climb

12:30am I woke just before my alarm, alert and excited. I felt prepared and my stomach issues hadn’t come back to haunt me. Over the next ten minutes, the other’s alarms fired up and we slowly pulled ourselves out of sleeping bags and into warm under clothes.

1:00am Breakfast was simple, bread, margarine, some more pastry, hot water for coffee, and teas.

1:30am  I prepared myself mentally as I was rugging-up in long-johns, hiking pants and snow pants over two pairs of socks, undershirt, sweater, fleece and parka on top. We were given balaclavas, but the conditions didn’t require them…yet. Under gloves went beneath warm snow gloves. A beanie under the safety helmets. Crampons and ice axes strapped up to a small pack with extra warm, gear, snacks, water and a plastic bag full of coca leaves for energy. Bundled up we stumbled out into the dark and cold. Clouds had settled back over the mountain and the stars could no longer be seen. I shoved some coca leaves in my mouth some headphones in my ears and off we hiked into the snowy night.

Summiting

1:50am After navigating out of camp for ten or twenty minutes, the trail becomes icy and we stop to attach crampons and to tether ourselves to our guides and one another.

2:30am Trudging steadily up through fresh snow for 40 minutes or so, we stopped for a moment to sip some water and catch our breath. Our guides were keen for us not to idle too long in the freezing cold. After a few minutes, we were off again. And so it is for the next hour. Trudging up, and up and up.

3:30am We came to an ice wall which, while not quite vertical, needs to be scaled with axes. As we slowly inched ourselves up, the wall stretched on for seemingly hundreds and hundreds of metres. We finally pulled ourselves back onto more even ground. I glanced back at our mammoth accomplishment, in actuality, the glacier could not be more than 50 metres.

On we hiked in the darkness. From time to time the clouds cleared either behind us or in front, allowing us glimpses of the spectacular Andes below us, La Paz glittering in the distance, or the intimidating peak in front.

The hike is grueling and the effects of altitude compound as our energy began to wane and the temperature and thin air began to take their toll on us.

4:30am As we got closer to the summit the clouds closed in around us and the wind picked up. Exposed skin stung as icy sleet whips our face.

Our pace slowed as the incline gradually increases. Mental goals, previously focused on 40 minute water breaks, and later 10 minute breathing breaks were reduced to simply walking ten steps.

5:00am We reached our final rest stop before the summit. The last 150 metre ascent to the summit is a sheer 45 degree mountain face with nothing but packed snow and ice to pick your way up. There can be no stopping as the threat of avalanche is serious on this part of the mountain. We slowly zig-zagged our way up. Kicking crampons hard into snow and leaning heavily on the ice axes. Step by step we hauled ourselves slowly up, drawing ragged breath. Concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other, a task that somehow absorbed all my concentration and will.

Eventually, we reached the razor edged mountain ridge that leads to the summit.

Fellow trekkers in the snow
Another group of climbers picking their way along the ridge toward the summit a few minutes after we arrived

Dawn was just beginning to break as our guides announced we had reached the summit. Though if they were telling porkies we would have no way of knowing in the dark and snow. After resting for a few minutes enough grey light filtered through the cloud in that we could take pictures, though the white-out all around us obscured what would probably be a spectacular view.

Group of three boys sitting in the snow after summiting Huayna Potosi
Sheer excitement meets sheer exhaustion

None of us seemed to mind that we couldn’t see the view. We were all just chuffed to have reached the summit. And I was particularly chuffed we didn’t need to hike up any further.

Two guides against the white snow on the summit of Huayna Potosi
Our guides, Jimmy and Gonzales don’t seem to be too fazed

6:30am After a rest and a bit of a photoshoot it was time to start heading back down before we froze to death.

The return trip down the steep glacial face of the summit was tricky. At least an extra foot of snow had amassed on the steep glacier since we climbed up. We carefully picked our way down but the guides were urging us on, quicker and quicker. At one point I stop to draw breath. ‘Keep moving!’ comes the curt order from our guide Gonzales.

At one stage I sidestepped my lower foot down the mountain. My boot failed to find hard ice. Slipping, I found myself suddenly sliding down the sheer glacier. It was my ‘Vertical Limit’ moment. Thankfully I was able to swing my ax into the snow and ice and stop my slide before my safety line went taught and I pulled down Gonzales with me. I clawed myself back onto my feet, panting heavily, my jacket full of ice. On the plus side, I am closer to the bottom of the glacier.

As we neared the bottom of the glacial peak of the mountain and the incline started to flatten off, both our guides began to urge us to start running or at least flat-footedly jog in our crampons down and off the glacier. Finally, the steep ice gave way to a plateau. We were allowed to take a break. Gonzales admitted that with the extra snow that had fallen between us summiting and beginning our descent he was worried about the heightened risk of avalanche on the glacier and hadn’t wanted to wait around. We breathed a collective sigh of relief, pleased that, a) he got us out of the danger zone and b) that he did so without panicking us too much.

We made our back down the mountain. As we descended the snow eased and the clouds cleared a little.

A glimpse of the morning sun under the clouds atop the mountain of Huayna Potosi
We finally drop below the cloud and snow as we make our way down the mountain

8:30am Back at high camp we took the opportunity to drink warm tea, eat chocolates and pastries and chew on some coca leaves. We were conscious not to rest here too long, lest we seize up. We still had to descend to base camp.

9:00am After a short break, and repacking our sleeping bags, crampons and climbing gear into our large packs we began the final descent.

The rocky mountains of Huayna Potosi below the snow line
It’s a blessing to be back down below the snow line

11:00am We were back at base camp. We awaited our transport back to La Paz knowing full well, that, like everything else in La Paz it would be completely hit or miss whether it would be very early, or very late. In the meantime it was our turn to regale arriving hikers with tales of our adventure.

12:00am Shockingly the transport back was just about on time. I was tired enough that I somehow dozed the entire trip back despite the mini-van bouncing around the awful Bolivian roads.

The Aftermath

Back in La Paz, Kelli was waiting at a hostel for me with some lunch, I ate and pass out for the rest of the afternoon. Waking up around 6:00pm I was starving. Surprisingly I feel energetic and we headed out to one of the best meals we ate in La Paz at Mi Chola.

The fall out is fairly minimal. I had some soreness but overall I wasn’t as knocked around as I thought I might be.

The climb was certainly one of the greatest adventures of this trip and a great introduction to technical climbing. That being said, it should not undertaken to lightly. I would recommend the climb for people with some multi-day hiking experience and a good level of fitness.

The benefits of climbing at altitude are far reaching and long lasting. Your body just becomes so much more efficient after spending time in altitude particularly if you are active. This effect seems to last long after I have descended from elevation.

The Nuts and Bolts

How to book

Booking in person once you get to La Paz is highly recommended. Prices online are at least $100 USD more than prices quoted face to face. I recommend speaking with All Transport Tours in the tourist district of La Paz. One thousand Bolivianos ($140 USD) includes transport from the office to the base camp. Three days guided tour (1 guide for every 2 climbers), all meals and all gear including outer hiking clothing and polar fleece. They also have other bits and pieces available for hire if you didn’t travel with hiking gear (trekking shoes, sleeping bags, headlamps etc.)

What to pack

You will need:

  • A sleeping bag
  • Trekking shoes
  • Headlamp
  • Sunglasses or goggles
  • Warm underclothes
  • Jumper (sweater)
  • Warm socks
  • Don’t forget a good book and/or a phone pre-loaded phone with some podcasts, movies or games, there is a surprising amount of downtime.
  • Coca leaves, sold at any market in Bolivia, are a great stimulant to help push through the challenging hike. Chew on some leaves when you need an extra boost. For a real kick, you can chew together with some bi-carb soda.

Connectivity

Zip. Nada. Nothing.

Unsurprisingly there is no mobile or wifi connection out here (there isn’t even electricity).

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