Huayna Potosi
Credit: Woods Wheatcroft / Getty Images

Huayna Potosi

In the world of mountaineering, 20,000 feet means untamed rock and ice. Summiting one of the 121 peaks around the world that reach this hallowed height is a milestone in an amateur's career. The best bet for a first 20,000-foot ascent sits in Bolivia's Cordillera Real, high above the altiplano some 15 miles north of La Paz. Huayna Potosi is an Andean titan, but you don't have to be a hard-boiled, snake-limbed alpinist to reach her peak (technically at 19,974 feet, but who's counting?) and take in a massive view of South America's jagged core.

The climb is considered "easy" – scare quotes necessary – because it is accessible. When climbers land in La Paz, the world's highest capital city, they're already at nearly 12,000 feet, meaning the process of acclimatizing generally begins in a hotel room. Amateur alpinists can also sign up with any of the outfitters lining Calle Sagaranaga to get jeeped up to the trailhead: From there, it is only 4,593 feet to the top.

The climb can be accomplished in two days, but it is by no means a cakewalk. Though many of the 1,000-plus people who make it to the summit every year are complete novices, the ascent is classified as "AD" (Assez Difficile), a category characterized by such ominous-sounding parts of the mountaineer's lexicon as "many objective hazards," "belayed climbing," and "high exposure."

Day one consists of a steep half-day hike to Campo Alto Roca – effectively base camp – where a simple bunkhouse, its walls scrawled with summit-post graffiti, provides shelter for some oxygen-deprived sleep for anyone preparing for a summit push.

Climbers start the final leg at night, a pragmatic move to exploit the firmer, wind-compacted snow of the early hours – the chance of catching a summit sunrise is an added incentive. For the next few hours, it's a twilight trudge in crampons up a nondescript dome of ice and snow. Only at 18,000 feet – with oxygen at only half of sea level saturation and temperatures hovering around -20°C – does it become clear why the rope and ice axes are necessary.

Anyone who wants to join the 20,000-foot club will need to dig deep if they're to negotiate El Paso de Pala, the 600-foot-high, 50 degree wall of ice that comprises the formidable final stretch. But pain is temporary. Bragging rights are forever.

More information: American Airlines, LAN, and TACA fly regularly from Miami to La Paz, Bolivia.