Brenda Beatty needed a new challenge this year.
She finds it important to have something to work towards to keep her life interesting.
“I do this every year,” she says.
“I choose a challenge for myself and sometimes it’s more physical or more intellectual or more spiritual, but every year, I need to do something.”
Beatty completed a Masters degree in Library and Information Studies at University of British Columbia a couple years ago, she learned Italian before a trip to Europe, and she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail across the United States of America.
After a ski trip in January, Beatty was inspired to do something involving mountains.
Upon arriving home, she booked a flight to La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, and a guide to take her up Huayna Potosi, a 6,088-metre-high mountain in the Andes.
The city, at 3,640 m, is the highest capital city in the world. Its 790,000 residents go about their daily business at an elevation slightly higher than Mount Assiniboine (3,618 m).
For travellers, it can take a little time to get used to. A simple walk to the grocery store can be draining.
Beatty stayed in the city for about four days before attempting the ascent.
“I didn’t get some of the really horrendous side affects of altitude, like migraines and vomiting or those kinds of dramatic things,” Beatty said.
“But my appetite and my ability to sleep were really suppressed.”
She credits some work on fitness prior to the trip for giving her the fortitude to follow through with the adventure.
“I downhill ski and cross country ski every week in the winter,” she says.
“I also try and do yoga every week and put in a few days in the gym with lots of weights.”
“And it worked!” she adds.
“I got to the mountain and was surprised by how much ease there was in the climbing.
“I thought I would have to be talking myself through it all the time to motivate myself, but those two days were totally smooth.
“It was just one foot in front of the other and breathe.”
A group of 13 summited with her. Including their guides, there were around 20 people on the mountain.
They walked up to high camp on the first day, arriving at noon.
Everyone rested, drank tea and hydrated to get ready for the night hike ahead.
In order to see the sunrise from atop the peak, the group left camp at 12:30 a.m.
As they all moved up the side of the mountain in a line, Beatty says their headlamps looked like a constellation, but as the night progressed, the moon became quite bright and the climbers were able to switch their headlamps off, with the orb and the snow lighting their way.
While focused on the task ahead for much of the climb, Beatty had an instant near the top where the magnitude of what she was doing hit her.
“At the top of the mountain there is this really narrow ridge for probably 300 metres, and right before we started going up to that, I just had this moment where I realized where I was and what I was doing and looked at the clouds and the mountains beside me that looked so tiny,” she says.
“That was a really emotional moment, and I said, ‘You know Brenda, get it together! You can’t weep now because you need all the air that you can get to keep walking.’”
They all walked across a knife edge, where at its thickest, two feet could be squeezed together side-by-side, and arrived at the summit around 5 a.m.
The lead guide had budgeted an extra few hours to get to the top, so they were early.
It was really dark and freezing, so they had a mini celebration and headed down the mountain a little for some shelter and settled for watching the sunrise from a short distance down.
“It was still stunning and beautiful to watch the sun rise over the Amazon and the lowlands, and then just everything lit up and the snow was so bright,” says Beatty.
After the moment of euphoria, there was still an eye-opening descent to do.
“The way down was kind of sketchy because at night, you can’t see what’s beside the trail,” she points out.
“You just see where you’re walking. But on your way down, you realize, ‘Oh! There’s this huge crevasse right here, and another one right there!
“So that must be another reason for doing it at night!”
Beatty has nothing but praise for her guide, who she was roped to for the entire trip. On the way up, he would walk a little ahead, and on the way down, he would walk a little behind, so he could catch her if she slipped at some point.
“He had this great technique,” she recalls.
“He would go really slow and take little breaks and we ended up passing all the other people because they were going faster, so needed to take longer breaks to recover.
“He would periodically say, ‘Pausito?’ meaning little pause or little break, and we would catch our breath for a bit and then keep going really, really slowly.
“But it’s a good technique. All the young guys were the guys that were racing up the mountain, and this guy, who’s probably 60 years old had perfected his technique.”
For anyone interested in following in Beatty’s footsteps, she has a couple of recommendations.
“I would say just be as fit and healthy as possible,” she says.
Most of the country is really high, so the stronger and healthier you are, the better you’ll be able to cope with it.
She also wishes she had earned more of the local tongue.
“I travel lots in the world and there’s always someone who can speak English, but in Bolivia there’s almost nobody who can speak it, so I could have prepared better. This trip was kind of spontaneous so I figured, ‘I’ll just read the guidebook on the way down and I’ll be fine. It’s just like Italian.’ But it’s not.”