The porters were way up ahead. They were responsible for pots, pans, food, boots, picks and rope. It was probably more weight than our loads. The boy carried his share in a western backpack, but the father consolidated his load into a meshed plastic material slung behind his shoulders. They were at work and they were as serious about their responsibilities as we were about making it to the top of the mountain. We kept pace for the first hour. Eventually, though, they were just two points crawling up Bolivia’s second highest peak. This was Illimani. This was their mountain.

My pack started to rub my shoulders raw. Kateri had developed blisters on her heels. The thin atmosphere shortened our breath and did little to diffuse the sun’s radiation. Every chance we had, we would re-apply sunscreen, knowing that the thin atmosphere could not protect us. We hadn’t even reached the glaciers yet, and we already didn’t belong. The goal was to show the mountain that we were not as pathetic as we may seem.

We skirted around the foothills for most of the morning, getting a sense of what we were up
against. Then, we went up. The climb transformed dramatically into a steep scramble. My hands gripped the sides of boulders to steady my progress. My backpack became a hazard as I creeped over and around the jagged rock formations. The footpath was gone.

“Is that high camp up on there?” Kateri asked hopefully.

“No,” our guide said, resisting an urge to laugh.

Despite the extreme terrain we were pleased with our progress. We would reach high camp in the mid-afternoon - plenty of time to practice ice climbing on the glacier and get a long nap in before waking up at midnight to launch our final ascent. Our breaks were nothing more than a splash of water and sunscreen. Our rhythm was consistent. We caught up to the porters.

Father and son relaxed in the sunshine. Leaning on the backpack, the father had his eyes
closed, though we could tell he was clearly awake. He rested as efficiently as the sun-blasted ridge would allow. The son was snacking on a potato, too anxious to lie down and close his eyes.

“Are you tired?” I asked him.

He smiled. I still hadn’t heard him say anything. The father had chatted with us during breakfast. He tried to teach us some Aymara and we made him laugh with our pronunciation. He had a fun sense of humor and an open attitude towards foreigners on his mountain. The boy probably shared these characteristics, but hadn’t learned how to express them yet. We tossed them a few granola bars to complement their potatoes before pushing ahead. Although we wouldn’t be in front of the porters for long, we had proved our competence.

Most of the year, our porters are in fact potato farmers. Actually, their livelihood depends on oca, a tuber similar to the potato. With no llamas or pigs to diversify the family’s economy, they rely on mountaineers for supplemental income. They farm and they carry equipment up their mountain.

We had each paid several hundred dollars for the cost of this expedition, but I had no idea how much of it was going to the porters. Was the money just enough to afford some extra protein or did it make them relatively wealthy compared to the other villagers? I hoped that they liked hiking. I hoped that as they walked up carrying our stuff, they would glance around and let the grandeur take their breaths away. I hoped that this wasn’t just another day at the office for them.

Either way, I decided, carrying our equipment up a mountain had to be better than harvesting potatoes. They probably thought we were weird for giving ourselves up to the mercy of the mighty Illimani, but they would definitely have thought it weirder if foreigners showed up and paid 100 dollars to hoe a field of oca.

I occupied my thoughts calculating the risks and rewards of the porters’ efforts and soon the bottoms of the glaciers were resting below our exposed ridge. They groaned under the weight of the afternoon sun. Breaks and crevices in the crumbling ice looked up at us menacingly. I wished I could apologize to Illimani for the damage that climate change is causing. I tried to imagine the valleys full of healthy flowing glaciers like they had been fifty years ago.

With a couple of hours still to go on the ridge until high camp our bodies demanded a break. Despite a sharp rock poking into my back, I had no problem lying down. I felt too exhausted to make myself comfortable. Kateri and our guide did the same. I slipped out of consciousness for a little while, exploring my fears of tomorrow without really falling asleep.

The cold will creep up my limbs.

The altitude will strangle me.

The sun will burn my neck and its reflection on the snow will blind me.

I will trip.

I will fall into a massive crack in the ice.

My eyes flicked open. “We should keep walking,” I said.

The porters were ahead of us again. They must have walked right over us. We didn’t notice though. The mountain was wearing on them too, and they weren’t in the mood for distractions. The father’s pace had slowed down, but the son was pushing further up. Before long, the treacherous incline in front of us hid him from our view.

I wondered how the boy had felt when he had to wake up to the cold early this morning to climb a mountain. He probably hadn’t complained, but I can’t imagine that he had been too excited either. Maybe the high altitude life had already dulled his emotions. He never got too excited or too sad or too angry. The callous mountain had showed him that this was the best way to overcome drought, hunger, cold, tragedy and death. You do what needs to be done.

In a similar vein, we had to maintain our focus despite our aching muscles. I tried my best to keep my eyes trained on the placement of each step. I dared not look down at the deadly drops on either side of me. I had one objective: arrive at high camp. I focused so hard on this feat that the goal of reaching the summit faded. With each step, I felt the summit get further and further away. It started to sink into an imaginary world.

Yet there was still so much left to do once we finally reached high camp. We would need to train on the ice to get used to the picks and crampons. We would need to wake up at midnight. We would need to climb for six hours on the glacier towards the summit. Finally, we would need to climb all the way back down the entire mountain.

There was no way I would have enough energy. A wrong step could kill me, and I wasn’t going to be feeling strong and confident. I let the fear in for a second to see what it felt like. Then, I forced it out by focusing again on each of my steps. Indeed, the next day we would come up short of the summit. Cold, exhaustion, and deep snow would force us to turn around. Standing on the summit of Illimani would remain nothing more than a dream.

“This is the toilet. If you need to go, you go here,” the guide spoke the magic words. Above the bathroom, the terrain flattened out. This was high camp.

It wasn’t much. It was flat, the only flat area I had seen since base camp. The ice above the camp was smooth and uniform. It was perfect. Below us, on either side, the glaciers crashed steeply into two icefalls, frozen chaos where blocks of ice the size of houses waited for the body of an unfortunate climber. Avalanches shook the mountain frequently, reminding us of our insignificance at 19,000 feet. There were a few signs of human presence. Lingering bits of toilet paper creeped in between the rocks, hiding from the wind. Tents had made the area unnaturally smooth. Larger rocks formed geometric shapes, arranged by previous campers. Lined up against the uphill side of high camp were several crosses, commemorating fallen mountaineers. Beyond high camp, humanity ended.

We could finally fully admire the scale of the Bolivian Andes. Illimani was the biggest thing I had ever seen. It stretched for several miles with a couple of secondary summits. Kateri got her camera out to try and capture our isolation, and, to my surprise, so did the porter. The son positioned himself in front of the looming summit and his father kneeled down to snap pictures of him with his cell phone.

“Is this your first time here?” I asked the teenager.

“He made a few trips up last year and this is his second time this year,” his father answered for him. “Next year maybe he can porter by himself. It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?”

“It’s unreal,” I replied.

“Here, let’s get a picture of all of us,” said the father.

He was proud of his mountain and eager to share its power with those who could appreciate it. He was especially happy to share it with his son. Without a high school or college nearby, Illimani would be his teacher. They hung out for a little bit, admiring the views and measuring our reaction. They didn’t overindulge though. After a matter of minutes it was time for their descent.

“Don’t you want to stay for dinner? Don’t you want to try and climb to the summit with us?” we asked.

“We need to go back to his mom for dinner,” the father explained. “And I’ve already been to the summit. We’ll be back tomorrow to carry things back down for you.”

And with that, they left us on their mountain.

Contact Matthew