Such Great Heights

Monday, March 29, 2010

The jeep bounced and plodded up the rocky road as its prey grew larger in the windshield. In the back, four men sat sideways facing each other but none dared allow one eye to stray from their quarry. Cotopaxi. The highest active volcano in the world. 5897m of fire, ice, and boulders thrown like grains of pepper across a dirty tablecloth. There was Bjorn, a 23-year old Icelandic explorer. To him, volcanoes were a fact of life... but he looked nervous now, playing his index finger across his bottom lip. Next to him sat Paul, a Scottish born Englishman who had been living in Quito for the last four months acclimatising and preparing for this day. His face was placid behind a mask of stubble but the clench in his jaw could not be hidden so easily. Dan, another English gentleman sat next to me and coughed nervously. Of all of us, Dan seemed the most uncertain of what lay before us and also the most confident. His friend had climbed it and shown him photos but thanks to the scattering of cloud above he had never looked Cotopaxi eye to eye. For my part, I had spent several days in Quito climbing viewpoints and volcanoes before coming out to the Secret Garden, Cotopaxi to do some higher altitude trekking. I had even climbed to the bottom of the Cotopaxi glacier to assess my chances against such a monster. I’d left confident but was returning tense and uncertain of my wisdom. Finally, the jeep could go no farther and we abandoned it to walk uphill to the refuge.

The trek really began around 1:00 PM. We left the jeep hiding in the shadow of Cotopaxi and, laden with all our gear including food, sleeping bags, crampons, and climbing equipment, we set off for the refuge. One step forward in the loose red sand was matched by Cotopaxi with a half-step push back down the hill. Fully loaded like this it was a slow and ponderous climb to the refuge, hidden over 1 km below the summit at an altitude of 4800m and the battle between the four men and Cotopaxi waged on but was eventually won in favour of humanity. At the top were other foolish mortals attempting the climb. The refuge smelled of hope, fear, and unlaundered long johns. The top of the refuge was at times three levels deep with bunks and I was surprised to find they were almost all full. A group of 20 Ecuadorians – men and women whom had lived here their whole lives – were going to attempt to climb Cotopaxi that night. We claimed four remaining bunks and suited up in our ice climbing gear. Jose, one of our two guides, had made lunch which was delicious and welcome in light of the work hauling everything up here and then Marco, the other guide, took us up to the glacier to work on drills. We strapped our crampons onto our heavy plastic boots and set foot on the glacier. It wasn’t my first time ice climbing as I’d done some previously in New Zealand, but it was entirely different. We learned how to walk up and down on varied terrain and slopes, how to fall, and how to climb. Marco would brook no nonsense with photography as the things he were teaching us might be the difference between life and death but eventually offered to take our cameras if we did well. We did.

After drills and skills we retreated back to the refuge. Jose now had dinner ready and we were ready for it too. The nerves that had shaken us earlier in the day were forgotten now as the task was upon us – the only thoughts were of eating, getting some rest, and getting up at midnight to set out for the summit. By the time dinner was conquered it was about 7:30 and thanks to the altitude I managed to get a healthy three hours of sleeping in. I woke up at 11 PM as the first of the groups began getting up and setting out. Bjorn never slept, I later discovered, as he was nauseous and already in the throes of altitude sickness. With the number of people climbing, the groups had to be staggered and we had somehow drawn the short straw with a late departure. The reason you leave at midnight is not to catch the sunrise at the top but rather because a melting glacier is a dangerous animal. The goal is to get up to the glacier and be off the summit and heading down to the bottom by 7 AM so that you are not unlucky enough to be swallowed by a crevice or buried by an avalanche. Our departure was slated for 1 AM which meant we’d be one of the last on the summit and would have little time for any diversions.

We had our midnight breakfast, specially designed to release energy immediately as well as delayed for our hike when we’d need it most. Chocolate, pork fats, soup, fish, and cheese awaited. Upstairs it was time to don our gear: A thin and thick pair of socks to both insulate the feet and prevent the build up of heat and sweat. A pair of waterproof pants worn over fleece thermals. A long sleeve thermal top with my alpaca wool sweater on top followed by a fleece jacket and then a waterproof and windproof one. Balaclava. And finally two pairs of gloves – a thin inner pair and a puffy and wind resistant outer pair. My inner pair had, like my sweater, been bought in the Otavalo markets but now one glove had inexplicably gone missing. I searched everything there was to search and the only explanation I can come up with is someone had a similar pair and took mine thinking it his. I was left no choice but to commence the climb short a pair of gloves. And this was only the start of the bad luck. We were behind schedule, it was 1:15 AM and we needed to get going. Up and up and up we climbed in the darkness, the way forward lit by a nearly full moon and our LED headlamps. Looking up was a daunting task not only for the energy exerted by the neck muscles but also because you could see streams of headlamps far higher and far further than you.

The walk was beautiful up the red slopes to the bottom of the glacier. The orange lights of Quito could be seen clearly through patches of cloud lit blue-gray in the moonlight. Further off, a thunderstorm flashed, lighting the mountains around the contained it like a witch’s cauldron. The moon was bright and never seemed more near nor clear. But there was little time to enjoy that. I was out of breath and the pace our guides were setting to catch us up to the others was frankly more than I could handle though I did my best. At last we reached the glacier and I stole a quick two minutes to grab a few photos of Quito not to mention the other groups we’d caught up with staging at the glacier’s edge and securing their crampons like Jaws’ dentures to their boots. Here, we broke our foursome into two groups. Marco took Paul and Bjorn and they left first, while Jose stayed behind with Dan, myself, and the terrible crampons I’d been issued. As Marco had reacted earlier, so too did Jose. “These are yours?” he asked me. “Nope, they’re from you guys,” I replied only to hear a muttered “Que mal” under his breath. How terrible indeed. We at last set off on the glacier and wound our way up steep and narrow tracks in the snow and ice. At what is likely the steepest bit of the whole walk the crampon on my left foot skewed itself off my foot. I managed to climb one footed to a nearby flat point and we refastened that crampon then set off on the steep paths again.

The next malfunction was my other foot not many steps further up the glacier. Jose didn’t bother to conceal his thoughts under his breath and re-fastened the left crampon to my foot on the steep slopes while I concentrated on not sliding down to my doom with only half the usual grip. In all honesty, such a slide would not have been my doom, or at least not probably. We all wore harnesses and were roped together so that there was not much space between Jose, who led us, myself, and Dan at the back of the chain. In the event that someone should slide or fall down a slope of crevasse the other two would hopefully have grip enough to arrest the fall and help get the victim back on track. That is, assuming that the harnesses worked better than my crampons were that evening. It was maybe only thirty minutes more when my left crampon completely fell apart. Somewhere a screw that held the expanding joint in the bridge of the foot together had worked itself out and was nowhere to be found. Dan squatted beside me, no doubt annoyed as much as I was and Jose surveyed the damage. Unlike the last times, he was sad this time. He looked up at us and said, “We can’t go to the top. Not with this. I’m sorry guys”. Dan immediately insisted that we WOULD find a way and we weren’t about to miss going to the top. My brain was hard at work trying to find a way to hold this crampon together but in the end it was Dan and his determination that kept us moving uphill. He removed a shoestring he’d used to insulate his cold metal ice axe and managed to wrangle together a solution.

Jose still looked unhappy. “I’m sorry but even if that holds together, we’re probably too far behind now to make it to the top in time.” This is when I discovered the reason we left at night instead of in the morning. We had a 7 AM curfew. Still, I was determined not to be the cause of failure even if it was the crampons I’d been given and we set out at a pace I doubt I could equal were I to attempt the mountain again with months of training. We made 450 metres more in altitude in so short a time that Jose was impressed and we even overtook another group. This was no easy task and I only managed to draw a full breath every one to two minutes. I had to lobby for 10 seconds here and there to attempt to slow my heart and breathe in and was only greeted with Jose saying “Come on, come on, let’s go” in Spanish and Dan’s more friendly encouragements. My crampon disintegrated again at that marker but we didn’t lose the shoe string. We refastened it yet again with the shoestring but none of us had much faith that it would hold. I took off my camera strap and we used it to help pull the crampon together and reinforce the shoestring and it seemed solid. We made a lot more ground but were racing against the clock – it was looking like we’d just make it to the summit in time when the crampon fell apart again.

Everytime this happened, Dan and I both had fearful but determined looks. We had not gone this far, through so much misery, to be thwarted now. I was at the point of leaning heavily on my ice pick and occasionally even having bouts of dizziness when I didn’t get enough air. Even Dan was tripping over his own crampons (though they held together) from time to time. We managed to resecure the crampon and began our slow step-1-2 step-1-2 pattern onward and upward. The moon had set and it had gone dark but eventually the sky began lightening. In our scenario that was a bad sign as we didn’t have a lot of time after dawn to get to the top. But with more trudging, the end was in sight. We were on the very steepest section of the glacier when the crampon, for one last time, fell apart irreparably. What frustration to be within sight of the top and see others already coming down as we sat what appeared to be 20 minutes from the summit unable to ascend or for that matter descend due to a failed crampon. We tried a thicker string and a sewing kit but there was no hope for it. We were beaten at the last by Cotopaxi. Marco came down with Paul and Bjorn, returning from the summit, and took a look at my crampon before deciding it was worthless. Here I have to credit the guides. It was now most unlikely we’d make the summit by 7 AM (a scant ten minutes away) but instead of insisting we turn and walk down Marco gave me his crampon and descended the whole of the glacier effectively on one foot. Jose led us upward, knowing I’m sure that we had no chance of reaching it by 7.

We didn’t reach it by 7. It was not twenty minutes away but almost 45 minutes away. By the end I was so exhausted by false summits and the strain of the night that I was using my hands and arms to support myself on the snowbanks along the path. Paul had ascended the last 50m on hands and knees. We had passed plenty of others who had not made it to the top. There was nothing easy about this. Still we pressed on and at last I saw the sun hitting the top of the last rise in such a way that it had to be the top. Soon... step, 1, 2, step, 1, 2, we were there. There was nothing above us anywhere, just snow at our feet that melted into cloud as though we were standing on top of some white blanket covering the globe. The sheer exhaustion, the feelings of fighting a losing battle, the frustration with the crampon, and the sheer amount of physical and mental exertion all culminated at once and I felt the feeling that gold medal champions must feel after a long hard season of work against all odds. I was shaking and could scarcely hold it together. I made it to the summit against what felt like all odds and almost collapsed into a sobbing heap of wasted flesh; I was completely overwhelmed and everything I was feeling was threatening to bubble out of me. Soon that emotion was replaced by a smile that grew from one ear to the other and wouldn’t disappear for the next several days. The weather was perfect that morning and Jose gave us plenty of time to get photos and enjoy being at the summit as a result. We arrived as the last group of climbers who’d made it were leaving and had it all to ourselves.

The views from the top were out of this world. The smell of sulphur wafted up from the crater yawning below us, ringed in a donut of white snow. Clouds made up most of the landscape but in the distance other high peaks punctured them to make a really top-of-the-world feeling. There were also breaks and the sheer altitude above the valley where Secret Garden lies was staggering. I have never had vertigo on a mountaintop before but this was the very beginnings of that sensation. Finally, it was time to go and we descended as fast as we could. The descent was dangerous but only getting more dangerous as we waited. Jose wouldn’t allow us to stop for photos but I pulled out my camera and tried to take a few photos on the fly as we walked down – that is, when I could spare a hand from my ice axe. It was a tiresome descent on the legs, especially at the speed we were coming down, and eventually he capitulated and we had a short rest. While I was putting something back in Dan’s backpack, I lost my outer glove to a rogue gust of wind which sent it flying into a chasm. So now I had one hand exposed and had to switch the glove to the hand with the ice pick. We crossed several chasms that had already opened in the warm weather and found ourselves at last over the only one big enough that I had noticed it on the way up. It was a lot more terrifying in the light of day. The bottom could not be seen and a small aluminum ladder was laid across it which is no easy task to walk wearing crampons. Dan went first, took one step and fell straight forward onto the snow opposite. Whew. There he took the rope and wrapped it around the ice pick then drove it into the snow. Next it was my turn.

I got to the edge of the ladder and made a mistake. I looked into the blue abyss of the chasm. Jose quickly snapped at me to look forward and not take my time – the ice was melting and time was of the essence. I stepped on to the first rung. I balanced on one foot and tried to find a place to put my second foot that would be solid and not on crampons then found it and set my foot down. Then the next rung and then I was across. I leaned on my ice axe as I manoeuvred my other foot onto the isthmus of ice. That’s when the ice and snow beneath it gave way and I lost my balance as clumps of ice rattled down the chasm to nothingness. I sprawled forward and landed on solid ice then crawled forward quickly to a thicker part away from the edge. Then I remembered to breathe and found myself shaking as I sat beside Dan looking at the chasm. Again, we had ropes, anchors, and so on, but it was a terrifying experience nonetheless. Jose also helped another group across the dangerous chasm and soon we were all smiling again – another challenge overcome. The rest of the way down was uneventful. Steep, hard, and fast, but uneventful. We arrived back at the refuge looking haggard but successful, packed our stuff, and we were heading for Secret Garden Cotopaxi before we knew it. There, all the people who had been there when we set out on our adventure met us with cheers, hugs, and beer. I looked back over my shoulder at Cotopaxi just in time to watch a cloud hide its face from us. It had nothing to be ashamed of, however; had it not been for the weather, a determined guide and a persistent co-climber, it would have beaten any of us standing there. But the day was ours and I wouldn’t stop smiling for a long time to come.

Cotopaxi Summit Photos

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