The “Easy” 20,000-Foot Hike

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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.

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