I nearly shat myself on the summit of Huayna Potosi (6088m) in Bolivia. No seriously, I almost did. I tried my best to clear my large intestine before making the push for the top but it didn’t work. I tried not to think about it on the way up. But nothing could have prepared me for the difficulties of altitude, extreme cold, and having to hold in a massive poop while scaling a mountain…
It all started yesterday morning at the office of Altitud 6000 in La Paz. I got picked up around 08:30 and taken to the equipment storage office in El Alto to get kitted out: boots, socks, backpack, helmet, thermals, waterproof jacket, fleece, gloves, harness, ice axe, crampons, climbing trousers, gaiters, sleeping bag (-20C). Then we drove for another hour and a half to base camp (4700m). Our cook Edgar raced ahead to high camp (5130m) while my guide Victor and I steadily did the 2.5hr hike up.
We reached high camp just before 13h, had lunch (burger and chips), and chilled out. It was quite cold up there so I kept smashing down coca tea to not only keep me warm, but to help prevent any possible effects of the altitude. At 17h, we had dinner (chicken soup and grilled trout with mash) then attempted to sleep at 18h. The plan was to wake up at midnight, eat breakfast, gear up, and start climbing shortly after 01h to reach the summit by sunrise at 06:30, then back to high camp around 08:45.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t feel the urge to use the toilet before going to bed. So right after waking, I forced myself to take a dump so that I wouldn’t have to go during the 7-8 hour climb. In theory, it was a great idea to try and clear my bowels but in practice it didn’t quite work…
At 01:45 we set off on the trail in the darkness of the night sky. All I could see was the snow in front of me, Victor, the stars, and the glow from other climbers’ head torches. I’ve hiked in the dark before, but never with crampons and an ice axe. Victor talked me through all the tricky bits of the hike, from steep ascents to the near vertical ice climb. I wasn’t expecting to do any ice climbing so it took me as a bit of a surprise but he and a guide from another group encouraged and helped me up. It was exhausting though and I needed over 5 minutes to catch my breath once I got to the top of the ice wall. Thankfully I did some ice climbing in Iceland a few years ago so I had some experience with it.
…the onset of a massive poop that had been building up over the last 24 hours. I clenched my sphincter and carried on.
About an hour and a half into the hike my stomach started rumbling…and it wasn’t due to hunger. It was the onset of a massive poop that had been building up over the last 24 hours. I clenched my sphincter and carried on. As we ascended up past 5800m the fatigue of climbing and clenching combined with the lack of oxygen wracked my body. I had to take a 2-3 minute break for every 10-15 minutes of climbing. Victor was very patient with me and told me that the choice was mine whether to carry on or turn back. He was good either way. He frequently checked me for any signs of altitude sickness, which I thankfully felt no effects of.
We took a longer break on a snowy 5900m plateau to have a snack and some water. Thankfully he was carrying a thermos of hot water which made a big difference. Other climbers also took a break here. With only 188m and a bit over an hour to go, Victor could see the determination in my eyes. He started to gently encourage me onward. “Poco a poco” (little by little) was our motto the rest of the way.
We had to cross a very thin ridge with a vertical 1000m drop on the back side and a near vertical 400m drop on the front side.
With the sun beginning its ascent in the distance I began to question whether I had enough in me to complete my ascent to the top of Huayna Potosi. The final 50 or so metres nearly caused me to turn back. We had to cross a very thin ridge with a vertical 1000m drop on the back side and a near vertical 400m drop on the front side. Just the sight of the ridge almost made me forget to clench. Victor made sure to keep tension on the line and talked me through it all. Ram the ice axe into the snow for every couple of steps. Stay calm, always keep tension in the line. Without him, I definitely wouldn’t have made it. Actually, without him, I wouldn’t have even attempted to cross that ridge.
After crossing the ridge, I mustered the last bit of energy for the final couple of metres to the top. At 06:45 we reached the summit!! The sun rose and illuminated the Amazon plain in the distance. The snow capped peaks of the Cordillera Real took on the brilliant hues of the morning light. My bowels screamed at me to relieve them. My hands began to get their feeling back. My eyes scanned the incredible 360 degree views.
We spent about 10-15 min on the summit before heading down. We ran into a bit of traffic on the way back down on the ridge as some arrogant German climbers plowed their way up and took no heed of the 8 or so people making their way down. Even Victor agreed that what they did was rude.
…it would’ve been a double climax to reach the summit and poop up there but it was far too cold and too dangerous.
At 07:50 we got down to the 5900m plateau. We still had another hour or more till we got back to high camp. From just before reaching the ridge to now my large intestine has been on red alert. I could hold no longer. Thankfully Victor had a few squares of toilet roll. I quickly put down my backpack, used my ice axe to dig a hole in the snow, struggled to get my harness off, squatted down and let loose. It was glorious! Nearly felt as good as reaching the summit. Actually, it would’ve been a double climax to reach the summit and poop up there but it was far too cold and too dangerous.
Feeling light as a feather, we continued down towards high camp. Now that the sun was up, I could have a look around at the frozen landscape which we passed thru in the dark. Huge caves and crevasses pockmarked the mountain’s snow cap. And you know how in cartoons when a little snowball falls down a hill and eventually becomes massive? Well, it’s not true. Saw it with my own eyes, the snowball doesn’t get bigger.
Back at high camp, we rested for a bit, had some awesome chicken soup, packed up our things, then hiked back down to base camp to get a ride back to La Paz. What a morning! It’s one that I’ll never forget.