|I slipped out of my pension before dawn, my pack banging the French doors on the way out, my intentions murky. I walked Avenida Ismael Montes right out of La Paz. From the Altiplano, most of Huaina Potosí was buried in clouds, but the summit was still visible. I decided to hitchhike my way toward it, and so in the first light I hopped into the bed of a dusty truck along with a group of Quechua farmers clad in pointed woolen caps and bright woolen sarapes.
By noon we had rumbled into the clouds. Big wet flakes swirled like miniature paratroopers into the bed of the truck. The driver stopped in a muddy mining town. He wanted more money. Being the obvious rich guy, I gave it to him. The road ended only a few miles farther on, at a stone dam holding back a small reservoir of black water. The farmers slung their baskets onto their backs and set off. I couldn't believe there was farming anywhere. All I could see through the falling snow were walls of wet rock. I tiptoed along the half-moon rim of the dam, followed an aqueduct for some distance, and then a snowy trail up to an icy tarn.
There were two tents in the talus. I got my tent up and had just crawled inside when there came a tap at my nylon door. I unzipped the flap and a large, sunburned hand holding a steaming mug of coffee came through the opening.
"Welcome, American," said a Slavic-accented voice.
I stuck my head out. It was almost dark. All I could make out was the figure of a broad-shouldered man. I took a drink of the coffee. It was heavily spiked—half coffee, half vodka.
"Russian?" I asked.
"Ach, you offend me."
"Sorry." I knew better than to make a wild guess.
His name was Petar, and within five minutes I was jammed into his tent along with three of his companions. Two climbers in their team had not yet arrived. In the past few days they had reconned the entire lower portion of the east face. I listened intently, taking mental notes on their descriptions of the seracs, the crevasses, the hanging glaciers.
"But now with this storm," said Petar, shrugging, "the crevasses will be hidden."
It snowed lightly again the next day. We hung out in our tents, swapping tall tales of previous climbs. That night the weather cleared. On the third day we all stayed in camp, giving the snow a chance to settle. I was just getting ready to ask if I could join their gallant team, when the two remaining climbers showed up. Hugs all around and mugfuls of killer coffee. I was introduced.
"Americaner! Slovenes told us. You come to solo east face."
I hadn't said a word to my new Czech friends about this ill-begotten rumor. I'd assumed it had disappeared when I did.
Petar slapped me on the back, grinning. "So, Mark, you have been holding your program from us!" he cried.
"No, no..." I laughed. I faltered.
All I had to do was tell the truth. I might lose face, but at least this house of cards built by my pride would be toppled. I took a big slug of coffee. I was about to explain when Petar made an impromptu toast.
"To your climb!"
"To Mark's climb!" they all shouted.
That night the stars were hard and bright as chips of silver. I lay in my tent, peering up through the open flap. It was going to be a perfect morning. I was acclimatized. I was as strong as I'd ever been in my life. In a few hours I would either have to confess or climb.