Cotapaxi Climb

Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
1
7
48
Trip End Jun 01, 2012


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Flag of Ecuador  , Pichincha,
Friday, November 25, 2011

So here we were - the highlight of the trip and what all of the preparation had been for. The attempt at climbing Cotapaxi. So for the info bit - Cotopaxi is a volcano (composite or stratovolcano for all you geographers out there).  It is the second highest summit in Ecuador, reaching a height of 5897m (Chimborazo is the highest at 6386m, Kilimanjaro out of interest if 5895m) and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world (last major eruption in 1940).

Cotopaxi has an almost symmetrical cone that rises from a highland plain of about 3,800 metres, with a width at its base of about 23 kilometres It has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, which starts at the height of 5000m.  

According to statistics from Ecuador, the success rate of summit attempts on Cotopaxi is about 70% for those with ice experience prior to their summit attempt and only 30-50% for those without (I was in the 30-50%)

So finally the big day had arrived. I was absolutely petrified by the prospect. I knew we'd had the best possible climatisation so the altitude shouldn’t be too much of a problem. I also knew we had walked up the equivalent height of ascent needed on the Imbabura hike so I had the fitness but there was something really troubling about my mental capability on this one. Was this just too much out of my league? Ok I was a decent enough hill walker who could clamber over the odd rock when needed but this was a whole different ball game, and was little old me really capable of such a thing or was I just biting off far more than I could chew. Then all the fears about the whole trip kicked in. What on earth was I doing quitting my job, selling my house and going off to South America? Liz just doesn’t do things like that, let alone climbing a mountain in full mountaineering gear.

In order to do the climb there would be eight guides and each guide would be with two of us (some on their own). I was really concerned about being roped up to another member of the group because I was suddenly responsible for their success as well. I knew the guides had said that if one of you did have to go down then they would rope the other one up to someone else. But what if there was no-one else nearby? Usually when I do such stupid things it’s only me against the road or mountain but with this there was someone else to consider. In this case it was looking pretty likely that I would be paired up with Lesley. Throughout the previous treks we had been a similar level but I always knew Lesley was just a bit better than I was, she was fitter, a lot less scared on the tricky bits, and in terms of just sheer inner toughness there were few in the group who were going to get anywhere near her.

We had a 2 hour coach trip down south from Quito to the Cotapaxi National Park. When we arrived it wasn’t looking good. The cloud had really come down and we learnt that the night before that another group had not all made it because of the weather. We sat on the coach having lunch desperately looking skywards looking for some kind of sign it might clear. The coach then drove up the track to 4600m where we were dropped off with all of our kit.

We were going to be spending the night (well until midnight) at the Jose Ribas Refuge which is situated 4810m up the volcano.

It was only going to be 200m walk up to the refuge but we had to carry all of our kit – sleeping bags, clothing, mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axes, harnesses and helmets. It was like watching a group of kids on Duke of Edinbugh, with all manner of items hanging off the back of their rucksacks. The refuge is a big yellow building, on two levels. The ground floor has a dining area and then upstairs are situated bunks. The toilets are situated outside (you only go if you really have to!) When we got to the refuge it has started to snow and we couldn’t see a thing. It wasn’t looking good. So we settled  in, sorted out our bunks and had some dinner (well I just moved my stuff around a lot and didn’t really achieve a lot).  We were also told our pairings for the summit attempt. Lesley and I were going to be together with the guide called Mauricio. Then all of a sudden the sky started to clear and Tracy came flying in to tell us would be going that night. Can’t say there was a sudden rush to the door from the rest of the group – I think in the back of our minds there was a bit of a hope of it all being called off due to the weather. However, I donned the down jacket and headed outside  and there was the most amazing sunset views. I then headed off to bed at about 7 having done my usual trick of taking a couple of night nurse. Having not slept hardly at all on Cayambe I knew I really did need some sleep (mostly to make up for that lost on the big clubbing adventure). The night nurse did the trick and when the wake up call came at midnight it took several others in the group to shift me (I was like the night of the living dead). We all got dressed and donned the gear (you must ensure you get in the last minute toilet trip before you put on the harness!), then had a bit of breakfast (well two pieces of dried bread for me). The guides said the weather was looking perfect so at 1am we all trudged out past the toilet block and started heading up a morraine by the side of the refuge.

Usually the first hour or so of the walk is on scree until you get up to the glacier and then it’s time to put on the crampons. However, due to the heavy snowfall in the previous 24 hours we had to put on the crampons before we got to the glacier.

Then after an hour and a half of walking I started to experience circulation problems with my feet and I lost all feeling. This was then followed by pain in my left foot which meant I couldn’t walk on it. I immediately screamed out to the guide and Lesley that I was having problems and Maurisio reacted very quickly by radioing up to Diego to ensure that Lesley would not be put at a disadvantage and for her to go and join up with Tracy’s rope. I was more than happy to let Lesley go as the last thing I wanted was for her to be affected by me and my stupid feet. So Mauricsio dug me a little snow hole and told me to sit in it and he would be back soon. Whilst there I started to try to wriggle my toes and get the circulation in my feet, it seemed to be doing the trick a bit. I also had to do some serious thinking. It was an incredibly surreal experience sat in that hole, on the side of a mountain, in the freezing cold staring out into nowhere withthe stars twinkling above me. I then started to think about how it wouldn’t be so bad to go back down to the refuge. There was a lovely warm sleeping bag, I could get some more sleep, Caroline and Dorota would be there and let’s face it, hardly anybody I knew from back home knew I was climbing Cotapaxi so it would really matter I didn’t manage it. Was nearly there with my decision and then this other stupid voice in my head started (it was the opposite to the naughty bears). "You see the thing is Liz – you just don’t quit. You didn’t quit the marathons, you didn’t quit on Kilimajaro so why are you thinking about it now. I know you’ like to think that you could but let’s face it you won’t will you". And then I remembered that assembly by Sue Cutmore (of all the places to suddenly start thinking about Sue Cutmore!) several years ago when she was giving an impassioned speech to the the kids about motivation and introduced me to the famous quote from Lance Armstrong.

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?”

“Oh for goodness sake” I thought (or something along those lines anyway). “99% of you says go back down, but you need to listen to the 1% don’t you, so basically there is no choice here – you must go on. So get yourself out of this hole, sort out your feet and get on with it you muppett!!! (equally at inspiring as Lance don’t you think? )”. At this stage Mauricio returned and he seemed to think I was heading back down. So  I just told him to rope me back up and that I was heading up that moutain if it killed me. A few minutes later the others were rather surprised when I appeared.

So for the next hour or so I trudged on very slowly roped up to Mauricio trying to make stupid jokes and take my mind off it all. We then arrived in the heart of the glacier and the most amazing surroundings (well what you could make out in the dark anyway). Around us you just make out ice formations and I knew I was in a very special place. Then we came down a slight slope and heard a bit of a ruckus ahead.  I found Tracy and Lesley attempting to jump over this crevasse, which looked at little bit beyond scary. I didn’t recall this being in the trip notes – we weren’t meant to be in the middle of the Khumbu Ice Fall. They went for the slightly girly screaming option to get valiantly across. I went for the aproach of swearing very loudly, then had a bit of a go at Diego and Mauricio for laughing. Then we had a small section of ice climbing, following by a few scary ridge walks (the dark helped no end here – it really wouldn’t have helped to have seen what we were on).

About another hour later the sun started to come up and initially this was met with a sigh of relief. I’d at least made it to morning.  We got to a quite a flat section next to the Yanasacha rock band and sat down for a bit of a rest. Then I realised quite how absolutely shattered I was and Diego told us we still had 200m to go. I then looked at Lesley and Tracy and saw how tired they were too. “God help me I thought – if they are looking like this then what chance do I have here”. All this was closely followed by Sean and Tony appearing from around the corner. It was decided that Sean should be roped up to me and Mauricio and this in the end probably meant I made it to the summit. With Sean behind me I knew I couldn’t quit. This guy had been so amazing over the last week’s walking and I really couldn’t let him down.

At this stage we saw the most amazing sight - the shadow of Cotapaxi (well that's what I thought it was - could have been hallucinating for all I knew)

The next hour was probably the hardest of my entire life. It made the marathons and Kili feel like a little jog round the park. The snow was really deep so the crampons weren’t proving to be much use. Every footstep you took you would just slip back down in the snow and it was completely soul destroying. There were times when it took ten attempts just to progress one footstep. We stopped again at the top of a steep section and I just slumped to the ground unable to speak. Maurico, bless him, had to resort to pouring water into my mouth and shoving in pieces of chocolate. I couldn’t hardly move , I couldn’t speak and I honestly had no idea where I was going to find anything to enable me to continue. Normally I can find that 1%, but I had nothing left at all to give. Somehow I managed to get up and start on the final section. Mauricio said we were very close and there was one last steep bit and then we would be there. Thank heavens the snow played the game and each footstep did actually count. All I could do was focus on step, thinking if I could just manage that one, I could then regroup for a few seconds and contemplate the next. Then the knights in shining armour appeared (well gore tex anyway). Jim, John, Tim, Mark and Lawrence started to walk down from the summit and a hug and a few words of encouragement from each of them gave me that 1% I needed. A few minutes later we came over the crest onto the summit to be met by the very welcome arms of Tracy and Lesley. These two as per usual were amazing and I have no idea what I would have done without their support. Also on the summit were the fabulous John and Anne. We spent about 15 minutes on the summit, congratulating each other, admiring the views, getting the photos taken and in my case having to take a moment and lie down in the snow whilst I recomposed myself. The lovely thing was also that I had got there with Sean. The third summit in a row that Sean had followed me directly onto the summit.

The view was fantastic, for probably as much as 200km in every direction. Cotopaxi stands up by itself, and, unlike in the Alps or the more southerly Andes, is not part of a ridge, so the immediate foreground is way below. We were lucky enough to spot the tops of Antisana, Cayambe and Chimborazo.

Then the nightmare continued – we had to get down. This will go down as my worst ascent ever. I had nothing left to give and was slower than slow. I was also having issues with my crampons as they kept on clogging up with snow and it was like being on a pair of ice skates. Needless to say I’m not Jayne Torvillle (more like Orville the Duck) so I spent a lot of the time on my backside. Poor old Sean and Mauricio had to deal with all this and their patience was incredible (we were all still roped up). In the end I took off my crampons and after realising I wasn’t going to fair much better in just my boots I went for the just sit down and slide down the slope approach. Fortunately I had on waterproof trousers and a fair bit of weight to get myself hurtling down the slip. I was like a terrier on one of the those extendable leads waiting for Maurcio to pull on it and slow me down. It was amazing though to see all of the ice formations we had come through on the way top. Walking through the glacier was a once in a life time experience (I will never have the energy again to). Please take a look at the photos (took lots – great excuse to stop!)

So finally, 11 hours after setting out from the refuge I finally made it back in. Dreaming of a hot drink, sit (actually lie) down, bit of food I was met by the news that a storm was coming in and we needed to ship out promptly. The wonderful Caroline helped with with a quick cup of tea and with sorting out my gear and we all headed back down the slope to the bus.

In total 12 out of the 16 of the group (12 of 13 on summit night) who attempted the climb made it to the summit.  So Ecuadorian authorities take your 30-50% and .....

To be honest I really wasn’t surprised that the others made it (Brian would have made it too had it not be for a horrible cold). The group was made of up a just some really incredible people. We had only been together for less than two weeks but the camaraderie and level of support given to each other was overwhelming. In particular – Tracy, Lesley and Caroline – thank you  so much – you are all complete superstars !!
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Comments

Bill on

What a fantastic lady you are. Did you make this up sitting in a five star with a bottle or two of srew top?

Love Bill

Mum on

That's my girl! You have never been a quitter, and I am really proud that you stuck at it and made it to the top. I certainly didn't realise that you would be a mountaineer as well. Bring on Everest!

Linda Wenzel on

OMG Liz Well done you, I am so proud of you, I love the way you detail everything, I felt like I was with you, especially in your little snow hole, the 1% would have sent me back to my warm sleeping bag. keep up the great reporting xxx

Lesley on

Wow liz, fabulous account of our AMAZING ascent on Cotopaxi!

I laughed, cried and was flattered by your comments!

And I thank you too for the support and friendship you gave to this wee Scottish lassie so far from home and just a little bit scared too!

Will never forget it! xx

KWJ on

OMG Woman!
You are so amazing and I am sooooo jealous!
Love you loads
Kx

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