At the 11th hour, the day before departure, my partner bailed. Something hadn't been right from the beginning—the tone of his voice on the phone, the odd nonchalance toward planning our gear and food. I felt it in my gut, but my head ignored the signals. We almost always know what's really going on; we just don't want to admit it.
I hardly remember the excuse now. A job interview. Or was it his girlfriend, his mother, money? It doesn't matter. An excuse is just that. At the last minute, he wasn't going to Bolivia. The question was, was I?
My plane ticket was in my pocket, pack packed, time carved off the calendar. I could have canceled, but I was itching for another expedition. Besides, I'd told my friends I was off to Bolivia to climb. I boarded the plane early the next morning and ordered two $3 beers to toast my resolve.
In the prideful world of international climbing, South America isn't cool. The Himalayas are cool. They've got cachet. They're celebrity mountains, shiny and famous as Brad Pitt. Say you're off to Nepal or Tibet and you are immediately conferred a certain exaltedness. But you wanna know a secret? In many ways, South America's better. No permits, no peak fees, no porters. No feckless bureaucrats, no avaricious liaison officers, and best of all, no endless weeks of headachy acclimatization just to slog another mile higher in the sky. South America is five times cheaper and five times more accessible; in general, your chances of summiting are higher. You just have to decide whether you're climbing for the sake of climbing or to impress your friends.
I, of course, was climbing for the sake of climbing.
Bolivia is a hard brown landscape beneath a harsh blue sky; La Paz, its capital, a wild city beneath wild peaks. I felt right at home. Every morning I'd do my daily pull-ups on a pipe in the bathroom of my high-ceilinged pension, and then lace on my boots and run from the mercado, at 12,000 feet, up to the 14,000-foot rim of the Altiplano. Past the European buildings with their tiny balconies and tall shutters, up past the whitewashed homes of the middle class and into the shantytown of tin, plywood, and plastic. Atop the Altiplano I'd stop to stare eastward at the Cordillera Real, a white spine of 6,000-meter Andean peaks, and then descend back into the haze of the city, moving fast, working the thighs. Just like running stadium stairs at home. Back at the market I'd put away a half-dozen Quechuan tacos, three bottles of Fanta, and a banana.
In the afternoons I'd traipse from one pension to another looking for a new climbing partner. I was certain I'd find one. Expeditions are always falling apart; illness, injury, or attitude will knock out two or three people and pretty soon the whole trip is in shambles. I figured I'd have my pick of alpinists. But it wasn't so. The few Americans I found were either aimless, dreadlocked pilgrims or eager but inexperienced clients of guided climbs. And all the European teams seemed to have their shit together. A four-man Austrian expedition was heading for 20,873-foot Illampu, their packs so small it looked as if they were on a day hike. Two experienced Spaniards, inseparable partners, were bound for Ancohuma. A Swiss-French team shut the door when I peeked into their room. There was a huge Japanese expedition that filled up two floors of a pension—one floor for all the climbers, the other for their gear. They wanted me to join their team. I declined. Ditto an offer from a three-man Korean team that had spanking-new gear but didn't know how to start its MSR stove. Both teams struck me as overly zealous, so focused on the summit that they might be tempted to take unjustifiable risks.
Down a cobblestone alley in a shabby old hotel I finally found a three-woman, two-man Slovenian team going to 18,531-foot Condoriri to attempt a new route. They were confident and relaxed. They pulled me into their cramped room to drink wine with them while they loaded piles of Russian ice screws into their well-worn packs. Their leader was a tall, svelte, stunning woman named Ada. She wore a tank top and purple tights, and you could see the muscles in her thighs as she moved around. She had flaming auburn hair, prominent cheekbones, and eyes so dark and beautiful that I was too self-conscious to look straight at her.
"So, where is partner?" Ada asked me.
"I came to Bolivia alone."
"Ahhh, I see." She pushed her hair back and lowered her Cleopatra eyes on me. "You come to solo. Very good. Very, very good."
The other four members of her team nodded at me in respect and admiration. One climber, a towering guy who had stringy hair and a nose that had obviously been broken several times, gave me the thumbs up with hands as hard and large as a gorilla's.
"Stefan also solos," said Ada, smirking at her teammate.
I'd never intended to solo anything on this trip. I intended to find a partner, preferably one stronger and more experienced than myself. Although I had soloed mountains in the past, soloing was something that took a stronger head than I had. Soloing required gravitas. No backup, no net, no nada; one mistake and you die. I didn't have the screwed-up childhood or soul-wrenching angst or any other useful twisted motivation for soloing. I also didn't have the cojones. But of course, now that I had this instant reputation, I wasn't about to give it up.
"And what are you going to climb?" Ada continued.
My erstwhile partner and I had talked about a dozen different mountains but hadn't settled on anything. On my morning runs I'd studied the two peaks just outside La Paz, 21,201-foot Illimani and 20,340-foot Huaina Potosí. The trade routes on both were known to be interesting and not too technical.
"Huaina Potosí," I declared.
Ada arched her razor eyebrows, glanced at me and then at her friends. A faint shadow of disappointment crossed their faces.
"The east face direct," I added, and they all broke into toothy grins and shook their heads in approval, and my tin cup was refilled with red wine.
"To your climb," said Ada, winking and batting her long dark eyelashes.
I sometimes think back and wonder if she actually knew, somehow, that I'd made it all up on the spot. Nah, of course not. She was just winking at me because she knew she was beautiful and because beautiful women always like bold mountaineers, particularly beautiful women who are bold mountaineers.
That night I went to a good restaurant, La Carreta, ordered myself a big Argentinean steak, and drank one cold beer after another until I was thoroughly convinced that climbing the east face direct of Huaina Potosí was exactly what I'd come to do. Having no guidebook, no map, and only random comments gleaned from drunk climbers, I had no idea if such a route even existed.