Summiting Bolivia’s 6,088 Meter Mountain: Guide to Climbing Huayna Potosí

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Huayna Potosí is a mountain just outside La Paz, Bolivia. With a summit at 6,088 meters, it is probably the highest place on Earth that my feet will ever touch ground. It’s not the most technical or difficult mountain to climb in terms of the terrain but the altitude is what makes this climb a challenge. I had already spent several months travelling in Chile and Bolivia at reasonably high altitude and although I was more aclimbatised than most, I still found this climb difficult! 

This article is based on my experience climbing Huayna Potosí in the month of July. This isn’t a step by step guide… the fun, frustration and surprise of finding your own way is what makes an adventure and I wouldn’t want to ruin the best part of travel for you. All of the photography and videography in this article is either my own or was shared with me by my climbing partner Andras – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!

What is Huayna Potosí?

Me with Huayna Potosí Mountain in the Background, La Paz, Bolivia
Me with Huayna Potosí Mountain in the Background, La Paz, Bolivia

Huayna Potosí is a mountain in the Bolivian Andes. The name is of the Aymara language and translates to English as ‘The Thunderous Youth’.

It has an elevation of 6,088 m above sea level and a prominence of 1,128 m. Categorised as a ‘Basic Snow/Ice Climb’, it’s not the most technical or difficult mountain to climb but the climb takes place at a very high altitude. To put this in context, the summit of Huayna Potosí is 724 m above the level of Everest Base Camp in Tibet (5,364 m).

So it’s not not one of the tallest or most difficult mountains to climb in the world, but it’s definitely high and can be a tough battle with altitude. You don’t need to be a climbing expert or incredibly athletic, but a reasonable level of fitness is needed and It makes for a great challenge for a casual climber.

The Best Tour Operator for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Tour Guide, Descending to Rock Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Tour Guide, Descending to Rock Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

I’ve read that this mountain can be climbed without a tour operator but for most people, the only way to climb it is with a tour operator. A guide is essential because in a lot of parts there isn’t any signage or visible trail due to the snow. Also, I’ve walked by the deep crevasses with parts covered by snow so I know that a wrong step could result in a fatal fall!

There are various tour operators and some have better reviews than others. However, whether your experience is a good one or not, will most likely depend on who your guide is. If you have a good guide, it will be a great experience, whereas if you have a bad guide, it could be a disaster!

I climbed Huayna Potosí with High Camp Lodge. I wasn’t totally happy with the quality of some of the equipment and the rushed boot fitting process on the morning of the first day. However, our guide, Eucebio, was really great which was the most important thing.

So try to do some research using TripAdvisor and even better, listen to word of mouth recommendations from other travellers that you’ve met. However, like most tour operators around South America, tour guides seem to work independently across several tour operators and even promised guides are subject to last minute change… so it’s sometimes just down to luck.

How Much Does It Cost to Climb Huayna Potosí?

It should cost about 1,000 BOB (€131 / $145) for a guided 3 day / 2 night tour. There is also a 2 day / 1 night tour which should be cheaper but the 3 day tour is recommended so that you have one day at Base Camp to acclimatise and get some practice done with the equipment. This will include most things including the essential equipment, meals, transport and accommodation.

Some tour operators include more than others, and some will offer extra items to rent. You might also want to tip your guide at the end. Either way, you will probably need to rent or buy some other things to bring with you which I’ve listed below in the next section.

What You Need to Pack for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Myself & my Climbing Partner Andras on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Myself & my Climbing Partner Andras on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

The essential gear and equipment is provided by the tour operator but you will also have to rent or buy some other items if you don’t already have them.

ItemProvided by Tour Operator?
CramponsYes
HarnessYes
Ice AxeYes
Snow BootsYes
Windproof JacketYes
Windproof PantsYes
Fleece JacketYes
Fleece PantsYes
GaitersYes
HelmetYes
GlovesYes
BalaclavaYes
Sleeping Bag (-5°C)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
Head Lamp (3 u. Batteries AAA)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
Backpack (50 Litres Minimum)Not Included but can be Rented at Extra Cost or Negotiated to be Included in the Price
LeggingsNo – Bring It Yourself
Additional Fleece JacketNo – Bring It Yourself
Socks (3 Pairs, 1 Thick)No – Bring It Yourself
Snack for Summit AttemptNo – Bring It Yourself
Cash (20 BOB for Mountain Entrance & Tip for the Guide)No – Bring It Yourself
SunglassesNo – Bring It Yourself
SunblockNo – Bring It Yourself
Water (2 Litres)No – Bring It Yourself
Personal MedicationNo – Bring It Yourself
Glove LinerNo – Bring It Yourself
Beanie / Wool HatNo – Bring It Yourself
Toilet PaperNo – Bring It Yourself
Hiking ShoesNo – Bring It Yourself
Wind Proof / Down JacketNo – Bring It Yourself
Thermal Underwear (Top & Bottom)No – Bring It Yourself
Small Backpack (for Summit Attempt)No – Bring It Yourself

How to Get to Huayna Potosí

Where is Huayna Potosí?

Huayna Potosí is located in the Cordillera Real mountain range in the La Paz region of Bolivia. It is 40km and about 1 hours drive from the city of La Paz.

Getting to Huayna Potosí

Your tour operator should provide transport from La Paz to Base Camp at Zongo Pass, most likely by minibus.

Tour Schedule for Climbing Huayna Potosí

Mining Complex & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Mining Complex & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

Each guide takes a pair of climbers so if you’re alone, you’ll probably be matched up with someone. Just be aware that because you’re sharing a guide, if yourself or your partner can’t make it to the top, due to altitude sickness or any other reason, both of you will have to go down together. Just imagine how disappointing it would be to pay for the tour and go to all of the effort of climbing halfway to the top only to have to turn back because of another person on your tour. I met my partner, Andras, at the tour operator office the day before our ascent.

Although we had just met, I was happy to be his partner because as a Swiss man, he most likely had excellent mountaineering skills! Although I’m not sure if he was fully confident in my climbing ability! To avoid any risk in the event that one of us couldn’t make it, we had talked about getting a second guide for a slight increase in the price. However on the day, we only got one… so the stakes were high. Any quitting would be letting down your partner!

Day 1: Training at Base Camp

  • Altitude Gain: 1,060 m from La Paz (3,640 m) to Base Camp (4,700 m) by Bus
  • Duration: 1-2 Hours (Bus from La Paz) & 2-3 Hours (Training)

On the morning of the first day, you meet at the tour operator’s office where they take you to another location to fit boots before leaving La Paz for the mountain. The minibus will take you to Base Camp at Zongo Pass, at 4,700 meters above sea level, where you will meet your guide and maybe also some other groups who are climbing the mountain. Lunch will be served and then you’ll go to try out the boots with crampons to practice walking and climbing techniques on a little glacier.

Apart from trying to climb an ice wall with ice axes, which was really hard, there wasn’t much else challenging on this day but it was good to get acclimatised and get used to the equipment. The training day is optional and you won’t do this if you choose a 2 day / 1 night trip but I’d definitely recommend doing it unless you’re experienced with this type of mountain and altitude. The more time that you spend at high altitude in the lead up to the ascent, the better.

Day 2: Ascent to Rock Camp

  • Altitude Gain: 430 m from Base Camp (4,700 m) to Rock Camp (5,130 m)
  • Activity: Climbing (on rock, snow and ice)
  • Duration: 2-3 Hours

After breakfast on the morning of the second day, the ascent from Base Camp to High Camp (Rock Camp) begins. This is only about 2-3 hours but I thought that it was quite difficult, and maybe even the most painful part of the whole climb, just because of the incredibly heavy backpack full of climbing equipment. I’d consider myself a ‘seasoned backpacker’ but maybe it’s because I’m used to travelling light! Anyway, it’s tough but it’s only for a few hours. At about halfway, there’s a little building where you have to pay a park entrance fee and switch from hiking shoes to climbing boots and crampons.

Base Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Base Camp, Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

At 5,130 meters above sea level, you’ll arrive at Rock Camp where you’ll have dinner. You can drink some coca tea to help with the high altitude and get ready for the next day’s climb to the summit. Our guide told us to get to sleep at 6 pm because we’d be waking up at 12 am (midnight) to prepare for our early start at 1 am… this is early I know! However, to get to the summit for sunrise between 5:30-6 am, it’s standard for all tours to leave at this time.

Day 3: Climbing the Summit

  • Altitude Gain: 958 m from Rock Camp (5,130 m) to Summit (6,088 m)
  • Activity: Climbing (on rock, snow and ice)
  • Duration: 5-6 Hours (Rock Camp to Summit), 1-2 Hours (Summit to Base Camp), 1-2 Hours (Bus to La Paz)

After waking up at midnight, I didn’t really remember sleeping at all. I think that I got 1 hour of sleep at most. A mix of excitement and the altitude having strange effects on the body made it hard to sleep. Anyway, we were here to climb a mountain, so we went out into the cold snowy wind and pitch black darkness of the Andes to begin our climb to the top.

It was a long, hard slog and a test of endurance to take each little step for hours on end. My headlamp was shining on our guide ahead and just watching his slow steps, along with the surrounding darkness, helped me to focus on the task of timing my breathing and steps. I remember thinking “I want him to tell us that we’re taking a break…” but I didn’t want to ask for it. We took a few breaks on the way but we kept a good pace.

The worst parts were a few sections where you walk up along the top of a steep ridge. I remember one part in particular where I was finding it hard to find the strength, or at least I lacked technique, to properly dig the crampons’ spikes into the steep slope of ice and compressed snow.

Finding it hard to keep my footing was making me think that I might not make it to the top and I even heard the guide mention to another guide that he was worried about me. I just had to focus on my getting my technique with the crampons right. Looking back on it now, I had already gotten past the most difficult part, although it didn’t know that at the time. At least the darkness made it a bit easier because being able to see over a meter’s distance might have made the death defying drops a bit scarier!

Andras & I at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Andras & I at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at the Summit of Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

As we got higher on the mountain, the sun began to rise which I think helped to lift our spirits and keep us going. There were some very steep drops along the ridges on the lead up to the summit but I didn’t feel unsafe at that stage and I felt more in control. Finally, we made it to the summit which was a huge relief! We were under complete cloud cover at that stage and although I was a little bit disappointed that we couldn’t see any views of the lights of the El Alto neighbourhood of La Paz… I was just grateful that we made it to the top!

We stayed at the top but only for about 15 minutes because there wasn’t much to see with the cloud. So we started our descent.

Sure enough, on the way down, just below the summit at about 6,000 meters the higher clouds at our altitude began to clear.

Me at Sunrise on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Me at Sunrise on Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

So we had an amazing view above a sheet of clouds that stretched across the horizon. It was really a great surprise after thinking that we wouldn’t get any view at all!

Walking down large wide slopes and along crevasses, we got down the mountain to Rock Camp very fast. There we took off some layers and changed our boots and crampons for hiking shoes. From there, it didn’t take much longer to get all the way down to Base Camp, probably because I paid one of the other guides who was cleaning up Rock Camp to take my big backpack down for me… lazy I know but the best decision I ever made!

Accommodation: Where to Stay at Huayna Potosí

There’s no choosing with accommodation if you take a tour. It’ll all depend on the tour operator that you go with. For the first night you’ll stay at Base Camp (only one building for all tours as far as I know). The accommodation is basic with no heating but there’s electricity to charge phones and cameras.

On the second night you’ll stay at one of the high camps. There are several camps and some are slightly further up than others. Which one you’ll stay at will depend on the tour operator you choose. 

The bathrooms at both Base Camp and Rock Camp are in outhouses so you have to go outside to get to them… not so nice if you need to go to the bathroom late at night!

Seasons: When to Climb Huayna Potosí

The Sun Rising at Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia
The Sun Rising at Huayna Potosí, La Paz, Bolivia

The best time of the year to climb Huayna Potosí is in peak climbing season from May to September when the weather is predictable and there’s little chance of rain which can make conditions dangerous.

Things to Watch Out For when Climbing Huayna Potosí

Miner's Graveyard & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia
Miner's Graveyard & Huayna Potosí Mountain, La Paz, Bolivia

Remember that Altitude Sickness can kill. The first record of people that tried to summit Huayna Potosí was back in 1877 where a group of 6 Germans all died, probably from altitude sickness or low temperatures. So just be aware of this and make sure to turn back and get to lower altitude if you are feeling any serious effects.

Altitude medication prescribed by your doctor can help to mitigate the risk but it has to be taken in advance of the climb. Medication won’t remedy Altitude Sickness if it has already started, it will only prevent it from happening if taken in advance. I’m not a doctor so don’t rely on this article and always get medical advice from a doctor before you go on your trip!

Anyway, if you’re climbing Huayna Potosí… even if it’s tough, try to enjoy it!