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Greg Johnson: Flashback

Greg is an outdoor enthusiast and often enjoys exploring in and around Steamboat Springs for biking
John F. Russell

— Early this winter, when the nights started before the work day ended, I hiked up to the top of the gondola. I stopped to take a couple of deep breaths on Heavenly Daze and gazed over the valley to see the town’s lights shining through a foggy night. I was suddenly struck by a vivid memory, which took me back to Huayna Potosí in the Andes Mountains in Bolivia. On that climb, in the early hours of the morning, I could see the city lights of El Alto as I took in the thin air of the Cordillera Real.

Those faint, glowing lights in the distance from El Alto were a beacon of hope for me. I had a vivid memory at that moment, high up the 6,000-meter mountain. Only this time, it was of hiking up to the top of Thunderhead on Mount Werner, looking back onto the Yampa Valley lights.

That flashback while on Huayna Potosi put my mind at ease. I’d prepared for a high elevation ascent. It was like a hike up to the gondola, Big Agnes, Quandary or any number of hikes I had been through. On these hikes in the Colorado Rockies, I would envision grand peaks you can only dream about from Routt County. I would put myself in the mindset that a simple hike up to the gondola was a monumental task, high up in a distant mountain range.



The whole trip to Huayna Potosi at first seemed far fetched with only three days to fly in to La Paz, get to base camp and summit a huge mountain. I lived just above sea level in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. My teaching friends suggested the climb as a Thanksgiving weekend getaway. From sea level to 6,088 meters (19,974 feet) in two days sounded like a trip of headaches and altitude sickness, not an awesome adventure.

We got lucky enough to add a few more days to our trip when the Bolivian government shut down the country for a census right before Thanksgiving. We would be in the mountains by the time the moratorium on leaving your house started.



With our extra time, we added a four-day trek through the Cordillera Real to adjust to the elevation, enjoy the isolation and take in the spectacular views. With an elevation between 4,300 and 5,350 meters, it was a trip of a lifetime. We hiked up peaks, over passes and through valleys. Our nights were spent on dirt floors in mud huts as we huddled for warmth.

Everyday was a spectacular journey unto itself, but our minds drifted to Huayna Potosi and the ascent ahead of us as we spent our last two days hiking around and then up the massive mountain to our base camp.

We woke up at midnight the day of the summit, put on our gear and started our trek at 1 a.m. Roped up in groups of two and three we hiked upwards, one step after another, into the darkness.

Our group was split between feelings of anxiety and moxie. I was somewhere in between. I had faith I would summit, but there was a feeling in the pit of my stomach I couldn’t shake. Those lights in the distance brought me back home. I wanted this adventure my whole adult life. Any nerves turned into determination and confidence.

When the sun rose we were above the clouds, looking out to other towering peaks of the Andes Mountains. We summited at 8 a.m. as each group had their own moment of emotions. With little time to digest the accomplishment, we boarded a plane that night to teach school lessons the next morning.

I only made the hike up to Thunderhead once this year. That hike brought the journey up Huayna Potosi full circle — dream, a realization and a return to where it all started. It’s amazing what a memory can do for you.

Explore contributor Greg Johnson is from the Chicagoland area and moved to Steamboat in 2007. After two years away, the Yampa Valley Curse has brought him back to Steamboat Springs. Greg enjoys the outdoors and everything that Steamboat and Colorado has to offer.


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