Erik has always had a fascination with mountaineering. When I picture climbing a mountain, I think about horrible snow storms, silent plodding for hours in the dark, gasping for breath and all the deaths that occur each year. For these reasons, when Erik brought up mountaineering in Peru, I mentioned that it might be a good time for me to get some work done and relax while he went on an adventure.
Unfortunately, when the time came for Erik to sign up to climb Pisco near Huaraz, there was neither another person to climb with (meaning: high guide fees), nor was the weather very good (meaning: no summit views). Anxious to make it to Ecuador, as we left he resolved himself to climb one of the very high volcanoes there instead.
Once in Baños, Erik encountered similar problems trying to climb Cotopaxi. At 19,347 ft. it’s the second highest peak in the country, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, and way higher than most people every dream of climbing. It’s almost 2,000 ft higher than Everest Base Camp! This predicament got me to thinking about what was really keeping me from joining him, other than fear? I told myself it was the money, but really fear was about it. Fear of not being strong enough for both of us to summit, fear of physical pain, fear of not being properly acclimatized, and fear of high mountain dangers: storms, crevasses, altitude sickness to name a few. Then, the internal battle began. What a lame reason to not do something amazing with Erik that would really challenge me and that I would probably remember for the rest of my life. Two days later after lunch I told Erik that if he did the dishes, I would try to climb Cotopaxi with him.
Before I could change my mind we immediately signed up to leave the next day and tried on all the extra equipment we would need to borrow: stiff mountaineering boots, waterproof gaiters, thick fleece pants, large over-mittens, ice axe, crampons, climbing harness and a helmet. My anxiety only grew as we gathered stories of all the people who had not been able to summit. I figured my only way out now was if the weather was bad and we had to turn around for that reason.
It was actually somewhat difficult considering the: stiff mountaineering boots that feel a lot like ski boots, the weight of our packs with all of our gear, the altitude and the gravel-like dirt that slid you back a few inches each step.
it was back to our sleeping bags and I must have slipped off because before I knew it Pancho was waking us at 5:30pm for dinner. I was still full from lunch, but I did my best to eat as much as possible to give myself the best chance for our summit bid in a few hours. By 8:00 we were back in our sleeping bags resting again.
This time I didn’t sleep at all due to any number of anxieties, and was fully awake when Pancho came to get us for “breakfast” at 11:30pm.
Still in a daze, we once again tried to eat as much as possible and to stay well hydrated to combat the high altitude. Wearing three layers on the bottom and five on top, I was actually somewhat comfortable when we stepped outside. However, I knew it would become much colder as we ascended into higher altitudes over the next six hours.
The first 30 minutes was easy walking on a trail to the glacier and in front, Pancho set a very slow pace I thought I could keep up forever. This was good since Pancho had explained that we could only stop to rest about once an hour or we would never make it to the top. The air was crisp and the sky was clear displaying thousands of stars and a half moon above us which was the only source of light save for our three headlamps. The illumination created a beautiful effect when we reached the glacier and a glance to either side hinted at shimmering snow that dropped suddenly off into the night.
When we reached the glacier we all attached our crampons to our mountaineering boots. A skill we had practiced in the refugio. Then, I got a three minute crash course on mountaineering technique: use your ice axe handle as a point of contact on the uphill side, step with your entire foot, walk like a duck up the steep wide parts, and in grapevine on the narrow steep parts.
Next, Pancho roped us together with himself in the lead, me in the middle, and Erik in the back and we were off. It seemed that we were in luck and the snow was good. Not too soft to slow us down, but not too hard to make the grip untrustworthy. Slow step after step we followed in Pancho’s footsteps over the lower glacier and some mixed rock and ice which required both concentration and balance.
At some point, I realized that we were not going the same route that any of the other groups had chosen as Pancho kicked steps in new snow with each foot. I’ll admit that I was slightly nervous at losing sight of the other groups. This concern was not eased as Pancho stopped briefly every few minutes to survey the snow which gave the impression that he was looking for crevasses or trying to find a route, neither of which instills confidence in a nervous follower. At this point all I could see was the glittering snow and heels of my guide within the beam of my headlamp. In some sense it was fairly isolating as we plodded upward. We spoke little due to the wind and our own strict breathing rhythms.
One way that mountaineering differs from hiking is that there aren’t really any resting spots. Once you start going up, you’re on a mountain face until the summit. This means that even when we stopped briefly once an hour to drink and catch our breath, I had to perch myself precariously on my angled crampons giving my legs no rest at all. Erik and I were pleased at our lack of headaches and tried to stay hydrated and to keep eating our candy bars, but found that as we climbed higher the sense of nausea while eating was almost unbearable. Forcing myself to eat chocolate is not a common occurrence, and it was somewhat unnerving.
For hours I zoned in and out as I tried to distract myself by saying, “all you have to do is walk. Just walk behind Pancho and at some point you will be on the summit.” The fact that all I had to do was to walk, was somehow reassuring and I continued to take steps until we took a rest near a large ice formation. The wind continued to increase to a bitter cold which left any skin exposed burning and red.
Here, I was beginning to fatigue and was both relieved and anxious when Pancho announced that we would summit in 1.5 hours. Could I make it? If I didn’t Erik would have to turn around with me. I thought about verbalizing my doubts, but in hindsight I’m glad that I kept my mouth shut. We’d agreed not to turn around until someone threw up if we could help it, so after one nauseous bite of chocolate we continued on to the steepest section yet.
This was by far the most difficult section for me. I was having a lot of trouble with the technique and slipped several times, which can be quite a problem when you’re tied to two other people. Our guide was constantly yelling at me to concentrate and to do just as he was. Unfortunately, at this point my legs were not completely obeying me and to use the front point of my crampons to push up was almost more than my calves could handle. In addition, I was having issues mimicking the necessary foot angles to get a sound grip, and had to painfully wrench my ankles around in the hard boots. Every other step pushed through snow to my knee and every other punch with my ice axe dug into the hilt which makes for exhausting work.
At some point the slope was so steep that we had to dig in with the front of our axes and climb/crawl up on all fours. All of which was done at a painfully slow pace alternating between moving and breathing. There might have been times I would have turned back if I’d had the chance, but I think our guide, in all his wisdom knew the recipe for success and simply drilled on without turning around or waiting and we had no choice but to follow.
At one point I glanced off to the side and could see the warm colors of sunrise and knew we had to be close. Unless it was another false summit, this was the last push. Invigorated, I drove through nausea and allowed my breath to increase to a pant to climb through the last few feet of snow. When I came over the ridge, it took me a few seconds to convince myself that this was it, the summit.
Later on Erik and I both admitted to each other that we had to blink back a tear, whether in relief or awe, I’m still not sure. On the one side we had a beautiful view above the clouds with another volcano, Ruminahui in the distance.
But, with a long decent ahead of us we wasted little time and re-roped up in opposite order for the way down. Just as we stepped down over the summit another group was plodding slowly up toward us. Confused, for the first time I realized that we had been the first group to the top for the day.
As we groggily walked/fell down through the snow, we came upon several other groups, some that would make it and some that clearly would not. It’s amazing how many groups have to turn around with the summit crest in sight. Another very different thing about mountaineering when compared to other physical endeavors is your inability to push yourself to the maximum. When you run a race you have a sense of where the end is and you can partition out your energy just so you reach your limit at the finish line. In mountaineering the most physically demanding sections are before the summit, and when you reach the summit you’re not done yet. You must have a reserve to return down the mountain and if you exhaust yourself you can’t just collapse off the track, you can find yourself in potentially a very dangerous situation. Erik and I later admitted that neither of us have this ability and probably left too little for the decent back to the refugio. We were both exhausted and the two hours we went down was much a blur. I had meant to take some pictures now that it was light, but I had neither the energy nor desire to unzip my jacket and expose my hands to the wind. It was a long painful process as both of our knees began to protest soon after we began our downhill stumbling.
We somehow both made it back to the lodge where our guide made us some tea and warned us not to go to sleep and that we would be leaving to go down to the car very shortly. We recovered somewhat with the warm drink, but we both were nursing terrible headaches and Erik was feeling very nauseous. We spoke with a few other climbers who had had to turn back at some point and consoled them with how hard we thought it was and that we now felt horrible.
Somewhat restored after the refugio rest, the walk back to the car was quick and I remember little of the three hour car ride back to Baños as I nodded in and out in the back seat. We were sore and generally tired for the next day, but triumphant. As it turns out, my worrying was for naught, and the climb was actually easier than my worst fears. It was really special that Erik and I were able to persevere together and although I enjoyed the experience and am proud of my accomplishment I’m not sure if I’d make the best regular mountaineer, Erik on the other hand. . .