The city of La Paz is located at the bottom of a dome-shaped valley, at 3,660 meters of altitude in the west of Bolivia. There, where the bare slopes of the hills, on the ground with a steel shine, calm and exhausted under the gentle tears of the sun, residents imprint a disorderly congregation of buildings stripped of plaster.
Downtown is tight, noisy, and busy. Everything is happening on the streets, which is taken by chaos. Passing cars, people, animals, and overfilled fruit carts; all scurry, mixed, along the raceways. On theside, behind the gutters and along the avenues, stands the commercial life of La Paz. The women squeeze oranges, cook exotic dishes, negotiate teas, ingredients for rituals, clothing, and coins. In addition, while spending the day on the streets, you can observe discussions, laughter, tourists, and homeless people.
Among the narrow streets, these residents — which of the two million inhabitants of this city does not matter —, it is almost always a woman, dressed for the dry cold, small and dark in her rags, with a small shallow hat, crowned by a wavy dome, leveled exactly at the top of the head. A sharply old woman, with a cramped look, as if she were looking at a light source, can be seen with her arm out, begging to pedestrians.
The mountains can also be seen from very far away. And there are many to see — far from the flying shadows of the stone valley, imbedded in the southwest of the country, is the Mount Illimani, with 6,462 meters of altitude. The sacredness of the clouds covering its fragile peak rooted in snow is so perfect that, seen against the sky, it seems a an extremely fragile glass membrane, yearning for the coldest night, when the first stars begin to sprout in space. Its delicacy is so radical that even the clutter of the city is incapable of interfering with its silence.
About 30 kilometers to the northwest of La Paz, the landscape, with its sun of candescent rays, shining in such a way that two-thirds of the eyes remain tight and sore if set too long against the sky, gives place to the Bolivian altiplano. The local inhabitants bring the barbs of the millennial pronunciation of the Aymara language, the nasality of peasant men, and the women, many of them use pleated skirts, bowler hats and awayo — a type of scarf that complements the traditional cholaattire.
The land is arid, and the panoramas are incredibly extensive. Llamas, flocks of sheep, and adobe houses that rise through the walls covered in soot and thatched roofs are visible long before the travelers reach them. The grasslands of the altiplano, in the middle of wide gaps in the map of Bolivia, where there is nothing but silence, when the snow thaws, or after it rains, the cars raise a long dance of thick orange dust that is carried by the air current and creeps into your nostrils, hair, and skin with despicable ease.
We climbed the loose clay up to the northeast of the city, in a kind of truck with a bus body, orange in color and with it many-years-of-life. My traveling companions are Felipe, Willians, and Tiago, as well as a group of adventurers who are, like us, in this expedition to take an ice-climbing course with the guides Maximo Kausch and Pedro Hauck. And, if we have strength, if we are accepted by the mountains, climb the Huayna Potosi, which occupies the eightieth position among the highest peaks of the Andes Mountain Range, with 6,088 meters of altitude.
The heat and the pleasure of traveling softened me and left me drowsy, so I stretched out in the act of observing the landscape, paying little attention to anything, except for the road that runs beneath me. Gradually, over the course of these 30 kilometers of land, very close to the narrow margin of danger, the sun is inclined at 50 degrees to my left, scorching my face and my shoulder.
You must be an expert in geography to understand this place. Every time the world is sinking into a long and short silence, trying to decipher through the blurred windows of the bus, where a fly struggles against the gleaming glass, the flashes of the cold and enigmatic landscape of the mountains while the metallic roar of the bus’s engine raises the meek heads of llamas half a kilometer away.
Once in a while, we stopped at the edge of the road whenever someone wants to urinate. This is because of the four liters of water we drink daily to acclimatize us to the altitude. Less than two miles behind, in a flat field, the earth sank quietly into a lake, Milluni, totally naked in the sun. Further ahead, where our narrow skulls begin to be ruined by the altitude, we smoothly and strangely approach the edges of a gloomy graveyard immersed in the solitude of the altiplano. We slowly stopped the truck, I got out down to where Felipe, Willians, and Tiago were watching it carefully.
Metal sheets of crucifixes hang in the graves, bent, wrinkled from rust, and absurdly edible to time. These graves are all possible sizes, from adults to newborn babies. Some of the largest ones, however, reach the heroic size of 1.5 meters in length, bonded together in a space so tight that they resemble a hive, with less than a meter between each other.
In 1962 a revolution of the miners, affiliated to the Central Obrera Boliviana (COB), exploded in the community of Alto Milluni, and they declared a hunger strike to denounce the prison-like conditions of workers in mines and ask for improvements in socioeconomic conditions. Bolivia wand undergoing the military dictatorship, a right-wing government, commanded by General René Barrientos Ortuño.
In mid 1964, a dramatic conflict between workers and the government began. Soldiers and aircraft of the Bolivian Air Force received orders to bomb the camps in the regions of Trapiche and Viudani, places where the miners made barricades and set up their trenches to face the army troops. The result was a massacre that virtually wiped out the small town. Those who did not survive the Milluni massacre — the first as victims of the government and the second by infirmities and illness of all miners: silicosis, a disease caused by the inhalation of silica — are buried in this cemetery.
Thrown far enough to lose the notion of time and space, we approach a lone house placed at 4,700 meters of altitude in the countryside, the first that we saw in many kilometers. The second floor is located at one end of the house, and on its outer wall stands a yellow band that reads “Huayna Potosi Refuge.” Around us, as far as the eye can see, it all boils down to rock, ice, and mountains filled with snow. One of them, of considerable size, with 5,300 meters of altitude, is Charquinini.
We got out of the bus. Maximo announced: “It is here, folks, the refuge!” while he threw a long bag of climbing equipment on his right shoulder. Maximo was born in Argentina, but he seems Brazilian. Not only for mastering the language, which he learned while he lived with his parents in Brazil, but also because of his sarcastic humor. The guide, at 33 years old, is a man endowed with an excessive energy, wears a deep cherry red jacket, middle-aged, faded and with logos of mountaineering equipment embroidered on his chest, his skin is a bitter gold, confident, rectangular face of healthy appearance.
His friend and partner, Pedro, has a good dose of dark and shallow beard, a square jaw, wears a handkerchief that fits around his head and on his shiny forehead, he has straight hair, big hands and arms that go up to the middle of his thighs. Three years ago, they formed the Gente de Montanha (Mountain People) company, which was born as a way of mirroring the methodical manner of guides to face mountain climbing and even more as a more precise reflex Maximo’s style. For 24 hours, now, in the following days, we would be in their company until the end of the course.
As soon as I open the door of the mansion, out comes the bitter smell of dead fire in the fireplace to meet me, a dry mausoleum aroma. On the right side of the back wall of the room there is a window; another on the left side, of the same size. These windows have thin glass, marked and blurry, on whose top hangs a long piece of old gray curtain, extended at right angles, so as to let a fresh and calm light establish some kind of brightness in the belly of the house. The fireplace, aligned on the imbedded tunnel of the stone chimney, faces the dark kitchen and two long wooden tables that fill half of the room.
I crossed the door of the room and went to the bedroom to leave my backpack. The room is small and dark, but big enough to pile three wooden bunk beds. The little light that exists enters through a window of a meter by a meter and a half, tucked on the right side, between one wall and the other. This provision makes the sun never touch the left side of the small space. In another room, equally lonely and cold, were Willians, Tiago, and Felipe.
I left and went very quietly through the open hallway, passing by the Paulista, Tiago, and continued out, going up a small hill, between the house and the road, to examine the mountain glaciers from looking for something alive, something that moves. The first impression is that the region is devoid of life, even limited and fragile, all glow drowns in the stillness of the mountains of the pale Cordillera Real. As the night progresses, I see the rocky and pale landscape of the Huayna Potosi disappear little by little. So, it’s time to seek the protection of the big house’s faint heat and something to eat.
The food is served on ceramic, deep, cream-colored plates with a line of printed drawings along their rims. The table is always full of water bottles, translucent cups and glasses, some are empty jelly jars. While Willians shapes the food between his molars and cheeks, a small radio plays a repertoire that ranges from Eddie Vedder to several Silverchair songs.
The living room and fireplace are like one room, considerably used in the evening, before dinner or for a few moments soon after it. The Guides Maximo and Pedro sit in front of the fireplace during the empty hours of the morning or during the theoretical course instructions, because only by the fire is there any chance of receiving a breeze of heat.
The stools are sufficient in number for all the guests in the house, but usually there are spots on two sofas in the back of the room, which is too narrow to provide any comfort to those who stick around the table during meals. Either way, these structural niceties impose a unique fragrance, that is rough and old, but bearable, on the place.
Before the 8 pm dinner was ready. We ate the noght’s food in sorted dishes, simple, traditional, which extend to a demand of the day: chicken soup. On the counter near the kitchen, there were a few tea bags of coca leaves. We consumed almost all of them by the end of the night. Two were left over.
Finally, we felt earth and rock on our feet — we were certainly on track to begin practical ice-climbing classes. We headed up, one after another: the Paulistas Willians, Tiago, and Felipe, the guides Pedro and Maximo, plus the group of climbers and me. Each one touched the ground with their feet, trying to discover the varied forms of balance on the slippery ground to only then follow comfortably in areas less exposed to physical decline. Along the entire way the wind increased, raising spirals of dust like magical smoke on a ruined trail whose secrets would have to be learned.
It is a huge effort, a task of Sisyphus, because the earth crumbles beneath your feet and causes you to slip all the time and return to the starting point. Step, lift your leg, compress what is underneath. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat. In a few moments it is full of fine dust and chips of rock, so that your knees are all the time bombarded with small fast jolts. Until we sunk into a hillside and arrived at the glacier.
And it would be this way that, during the following days, afternoons following, we would see each other returning and returning from a comforting routine. Of course, these things are fun: so much fun, God forbid, that they are like simple exercises. They are, however, dangerous activities. The lack of attention to they can put your life at risk, for example, not knowing how to fall correctly on an ice ramp of 40 degrees. To understand its application in high mountain areas should be as basic and important as breathing.
It is certainly not easy. In two hours your knees and elbows are practically covered by bruises the size of onions. At the end of a week you will be choosing which side of the body to use. The trick is to fall, rotate the body, put the ice ax in transverse position on your chest and halt the decline. Yet another trick is, between the dramatic ways of halting a drop in frozen land, falling with your head down, rotating your body 180 degrees and locking the ice axe in the ice. In both the maneuvers never forget to keep your feet facing up, or you would have to work hard not to tear flesh on the ice during the descent.
After trips to and from the glacier, we packed our backpacks to definitely leave for the base camp, having a painful night, crammed into a tent for 10 people, and on the following day, overcome the most difficult sections and get to the top of the Huayna Potosi. The forecast heard by satellite phone that Maximo had obtained was that the day of the attack to the summit would be like so many other previous ones: blue skies without a single cloud. We would leave at dawn.
The whole structure is built of vertical tin leaves, divided into two chambers — the kitchen and the bedroom; with a little less than four meters in length and not more than two in height. Its galvanized material is matte and orange in color. Within the structure, the floor except for the carpet, is made of wood. In one corner is the kitchen, confined and heated primarily by a single gas stove. Outside, there are other two frames, in the shape of igloos, in which I did not go. The three refuges gently rise over the snow, at 5,200 meters of altitude.
No one in these three lodgings will take a long time to fall asleep. I will move with excessive silence and slowness in the sleeping bag to not wake up the others. Before, I eat and tdrink hot tea, without desire, and it brings me a violent and sudden strenuous heat in the pit of my stomach. It is a difficult and repulsive meal before going to sleep, but it is necessary, because with this food I shall climb the icy and steep mountain at dawn. It is late a winter night and the last breath in the light of the day fades, which is so final that it seems reminiscent of the flame of a lit candle. Good night!
I was semi-awake, before Maximo asked: “Awake?” In fact, I had barely slept. During the night, I dealt with a peculiar and diabolical of malaise feeling, a rough and hopeless speculation, a cul-de-sac. I looked at Maximo against the light and said: “I’m in a bit of pain in the stomach and I don’t think I will go with you.” But he did not even confide in my arguments, challenging them: “It’s psychological. Get up!”
But it was not only I who was under the influence of the discomfort of the altitude. Billy, one of the customers of the Mountain People, seemed like a feverish and scared little boy, he had woken up several times during the night, taken by a terrible headache. Maximo approached him and asked, “Hey, Billy,” he said, “Are you ill?” The answer is that seeing Billy get up was like an injection of some narcotic invading my veins, producing a devastating effect: relief and tension. He put on double boots, straightened the chair on his hip, put on the jacket made of goose feathers, drank hot tea and went out.
And now here I am, as I said, inside the sleeping bag. So sick of sleep that I can barely support the head lanterns soaking my eyes in light. But when the roof and the people inside the camp become visible, and they begin to speak without interruption, I can no longer avoid the acute desire to follow with them.
“They are all acclimated,” Pedro said. “Really?” I pondered, desolate, about the effect that produced that incentive. And he completed, emphatic — I have never seen a more determined man: “There is no excuse not to go!” Every word of it sounded sharp, clear, announced with such determination that he had between one letter and another a strict tone, but vigorous, that one could feel the throat that emitted it. In this disturbing situation, I concluded that there was no other way: I would be among the climbers who would climb during the early morning hours to Huayna Potosi.
It took a long time for me to get dressed, put on my boots, clamps, helmet, and gloves. I left the camp almost dragging myself from sleepiness, well behind Billy and the Bolivian guide, lighting the way with the flashlight. We stopped many times to rest, but Billy kept a progressive and steady pace over the snow. I walked a little faster now, but I was catching up to him too slowly for my patience, as he looked at me briefly and impersonally, like a horse in the field.
During the next two hours, we were at a determined pace, crossing hidden cracks under our feet and climbing ice walls of 70 degrees of inclination. Besides that, my hands started to freeze, in an action affecting the tips of the fingers that held the ice axe. I realized that no matter how strong I was, the mind would try to devour every degree of strength that I had left.
In certain sections, the path on the snow was so solid it was slippery; the rest of the time it accepted our feet deeply as if they were their own land and we lifted them every step with three inches of ice hanging from our double boots. I continued in silence, behind Billy and the guide, meditating on the snow, whose need spoke to move forward.
The sun has not risen yet, but the sky over the mountains was all decorated with an orange light, like that of an old kerosene lantern. It seemed that Billy and I were not in any way at ease with each other, but now I felt that I could trust him. As we walked, he candidly glanced back at me. It was just a careful look, not hostile.
his region was new to me, yet completely alone and without direction. The birth of the annihilating daylight, virgin and rigorous, locked between mountains, may have been responsible for this impression. The light from the sun in the early morning, transparent and almost blindly bright, was just passing over the top of the hills.
I looked straight up to the sky, and with a slow look around the submerged landscape I realized that I was just a few meters from the summit. After a few minutes, during which I heard my lungs eagerly taking in the cold morning air and my tired feet dragging, I saw me at the top of Huayna Potosi.
There was so much going on, in such a rich way, that I did not understand the precariousness of my emotional balance at that moment. Then, a cold tear broke out and vaguely stung my face in geometric patterns. All this, all these things were surrounded by so many meanings that I was unable to keep my eyes and writing toward the mountains without thanking God. Thank you!
Photo archive contribution
Fábio Brito, Bruno Norarini, Angela Santos, Felipe Magazoni, Pedro Hauck, Felipe Giongo and Tiago Sem Agá.