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March 15, 2011

Mount Cotopaxi, an active volcano in Ecuador’s central Sierra that towers 5897 meters above sea level, is the second-highest mountain in the country. It’s a popular site for climbing, since you generally don’t need much experience to reach the summit, just as long as you go with a guide who knows the way up (ensuring that you don’t fall into a crevice, among other unsatisfactory outcomes). Knowing this, my partner Julia and I decided it would be our best opportunity to, you know, climb a freakin’ mountain. When else (in the foreseeable future) would we ever get the opportunity to do it?

We found an agency through the brother of my host father in Tena, and made arrangements to go on Saturday, in the last days of our spring break. They agreed to provide everything we needed: warm climbing clothes, boots, headlamps, cramp-ons, ice picks, etc. So late Saturday morning we left their office in Latacunga, reaching the mountainside parking lot at 4500m at about 2 PM. From there, we had to hike through the volcanic ash up to the “refuge” at 4810m, a small mountain lodge for hikers to rest and prepare for their midnight departure up the slope. At this point we were at over twice the altitude we had been all week, and our lungs could feel it. Gasping our way up those first few hundred meters, watching families with children above us climbing with apparent pack-less ease, we wondered how we would ever make it to the top.

After spending a few hours drinking hot chocolate, eating dinner, and passing the time with other people in the lodge (including some fellow gringo college students on a day trip; one of them was wearing shorts!?), we headed upstairs for an unsuccessful attempt at a few hours of sleep. It was 1 AM by the time we got out the door, the second group among some 25 hikers to hit the slope, trailing only a young German woman and her insane German guide. By then the clouds had cleared away, and as we started up the mountainside in the pitch dark I managed to steal a few glimpses of the star-filled sky. At a higher vantage point for stargazing than ever before in my life, I was distracted by the sudden desire to stop and marvel at the unfamiliar constellations visible from the equator. But my vision was obscured by the hood I was wearing, and I had to pay attention to where our guide was leading us.

The first hour and a half passed in silence, following our guide’s mechanically steady pace. Step step, pause. Breathe. Step step… We were the only visible objects on the mountain, illuminated by the tiny cones of light from our headlamps, our guide charting a zig-zagging course through the snow, more by feeling and instinct than by sight.

Then the wind started to pick up. Flakes of snow started to blow off the ground, soon joined by fresh snow from the sky above us. I looked up, around; everything was now obscured by a white haze, the light from my headlamp only reaching out a few meters into the impenetrable darkness. Above us, the two Germans were only visible as tiny, diffuse points of light through the fog.

The wind was blowing furiously now. I had to hold one glove beside my face to protect it against the horizontal bombardment of icy snowflakes, wielding my ice pick in the other hand. We came up to steepest ascent so far, digging the spikes of our cramp-ons deep into the packed snow along the side of a ridge. By the time we reached the top of the ridge we had to stop, resting our hands heavily on our knees and gasping for breath. It was 3:00 AM, and we were at 5200m, the highest elevation we would reach that day, completely at the mercy of the blizzard now raging around us. Our guide motioned for us to huddle under the lip of the ridge while he climbed up to inspect the condition of the route above us. Then, seeing how we were still being battered by the wind, he instructed us to climb back down to the base of the ridge, to wait with another group of hikers at the mouth of an ice cave.

Motionless, sheltered from the brunt of the wind, we huddled together as we felt our body temperatures dropping. After about ten minutes of looking around and consulting with the other group’s guide, ours came back with a verdict that made my stomach sink: we were not going to reach the summit in this weather. The other guide affirmed his decision. “You can’t go adventuring up here,” he said. “You have to respect the mountain.” So without a word we started our careful descent, exhausted and thoroughly disappointed, but at least grateful to get our blood moving again.

The pace was brutal. Our guide was in a hurry to get down and out of the weather, so we marched without pausing. You certainly go faster downhill, but in my opinion it’s just as difficult as going uphill, bent knees constantly holding the full weight of your body as you dig in your cramp-ons and struggle to keep from pitching forward down the mountainside. I caught myself wondering what would happen if I just let myself fall into the snow, how good it would feel to just lie face down and stop worrying about everything. But then even that thought was gone, as I poured all my mental energy into just planning the next step.

And then we got lost. When we were going uphill, I had wondered to myself how our guide knew his way up the featureless mountainside. It wasn’t a straight ascent either, but full of lateral movement, first to the right, then cutting back to the left. When we descended, however, we did so in almost a straight line, at times angling to the right. And visibility was no more than a few meters in any direction.

We came out onto an unfamiliar field of rocks, boots slipping through the ash mixed with fresh snow. At one point we stopped to catch our breath, and our guide left us to continue searching for familiar scenery below us. The other group went with him, fanning out slightly as they descended. We were too exhausted to follow them; without the summit to look forward to, I couldn’t muster the motivation to continue. So we watched them descend, waiting for one of them to turn around and signal that he had figured out where to go. But they didn’t turn around, and then one by one their lights disappeared over the ridge below us.

For a few terrifying moments, we waited for them to reappear, the horizon now total darkness. But they didn’t, so we heaved ourselves up to keep following them, trying to stave off the panic. Sure enough, they were still there ahead of us when we came over the ridge, carefully picking their way through the ash and snow and rocks. Just when caught up to them, the other guide yelled, “We’ve made it to the parking lot!” We had just missed the refuge by no more than 100m, and ended up right where we had started the previous day. Julia and I looked at each other, wondering how we were going to muster the energy to go back up the mountain again. But at least we knew where we were.

And when I finally looked up to see the faint outline of the refuge looming through the fog, I swore to myself it was a far more beautiful sight than any mountaintop sunrise. When we climbed into bed, a quick glance around the lodge showed that all the other hikers had made it back before us. Only the sleeping bags of the two Germans remained empty. Somewhere high above us, they were still fighting their way through the blizzard toward the summit.

After two short hours of sleep, we packed up our things and started the descent back down to the car. The clear skies showed no signs of the furious storm; it had passed as quickly as it came, only the snow-covered mountainside testifying to the danger in which we had found ourselves.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dad permalink
    March 15, 2011 8:00 PM

    Good thing I wasn’t with you. I would probably have said we didn’t need a guide and we should press on and we would have frozen to death.

  2. Isaac Fitzsimmons permalink
    March 15, 2011 8:05 PM

    epic fail, super jealous though bro, we just have to return some day i guess

  3. Tarini permalink
    March 15, 2011 9:20 PM

    I’m sorry you didn’t get to reach the summit, but you did get to hear someone say, “You have to respect the mountain.”

  4. Jenny permalink
    March 20, 2011 8:33 PM

    Holy balls. This is intense.

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