La Cumbre o La Muerte in Cotopaxi
Trip Start Jul 19, 2006
22Trip End Sep 19, 2006
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The street was lined with large metal garage doors. You could tell something was alive here, at some point in the past. But now the steely mouths were closed on every establishment, making us feel very unwelcome. The silence was heavy on our shoulders as we approached the large metal garage door underneath the barely visible Residencial Santiago sign. We stooped down to knock on the tiny metal door contained within the much larger garage door. A young boy answered, opening up a door that must've been 3 or 4 feet high, and only after peeping through a tiny slot
We found our room to be pleasing enough. Two beds, cold water. We hung up a clothesline in our room to dry out the clothes that hadn't fully dried in Baņos.
The next morning we woke to breakfast. We met a French couple that seemed to be in their late 20's or early 30's. They had both quit their jobs to travel. Strangely enough, they had been working in England near Oxford, living on the same block that Brett lived on during the past year for his study abroad time. Small world.
Our tour to Cotopaxi was booked through SelvaNieve Tours (JungleSnow Tours). The man at the desk seemed very disinterested in us, and was in a perpetual rush for no reason. He outfitted us with some gear that we would need (crampons, warmer clothing, etc.) and then set us off in a car that he called to pick us up.
The drive had me in a bundle of nervous energy. I didn't quite know what to expect from this trip. I had read a number of descriptions of Cotopaxi with very little convergence in opinion
The car seemed to be moving in reverse. It was a beat up old truck that somehow kept rolling way past its time, like so many cars around here mysteriously do. I took a peek at the speedometer to get a sense for how fast we were going. It read 0km/hour (that's 0mph in units that mean anything). Useless.
When we finally reached the entrance to the Cotopaxi park, we switched trucks for some reason. We were greeted by an old man named Francisco who would be driving a car that was even further beyond the grave than our previous escort. The only points of interest from this drive were the incredible views of Cotopaxi, the 5 or 10 minutes when we were stuck on a hill while Francisco fidgeted with the engine (I wish I knew how cars worked) and then something Francisco told us about the man who was to be our guide to the summit, who also happened to be named Francisco
The car dropped us off partway up the mountain, at a parking lot just below the Refugio where we would be staying Wednesday afternoon and evening to acclimate ourselves to the absurd altitude before attempting our absurd hike. I had read that the Refugio looks like it is only 10 minutes away from the parking lot. This is true. I also read that it is actually over an hour hike to get there from the parking lot. This is also true. We huffed and puffed up the steep incline on an unnecessarily sandy avenue to the Refugio. My knee was killing me. 1 step forward, half a slide back in the sand. Repeat. That's how it went.
We made it to the Refugio, which had an assortment of people who seemed like they were ready to summit the highest volcano in the world. We did not look like these people. They were from all over, and were mostly athletic men who had done at least three acclimation hikes prior to this attempt. What were we doing here?
The Refugio is seated at about 4800 meters (15,748 feet), just below the brim of the cap of this very snow-capped volcano
We returned to the Refugio after about a 3 hour practice. Did I mention the Refugio was freezing? We had a little food consisting of soup and bread, and then set up to sleep in the bunks located on the second floor of the Refugio. We got into bed around 7:30pm and were set to wake up at midnight. You have to leave that early because there is a serious risk of avalanches if you are returning too late into the day when the sun is up. Cute.
If you ever sleep at the Refugio, I recommend finding a bunk that is not right near the staircase. People were moving up and down the stairs all night. I did not sleep at all. At one point, around 11pm, I heard voices in the bed near mine. It was a guide talking with the person in the bed beside me, let's call him JohnWithPainInChest. So apparently JohnWithPainInChest was in a lot of pain, and wanted to return to Quito. The guide was asking him if he wanted to make an attempt and then return to Quito
We had a quick meal before setting off on our hike. I looked across the table at Francisco. He had this look of a man who was aged far faster than he should have been. I asked him how long he had been doing this. Eighteen years. You could see every year pulling on his shoulders, pleading for rest. I asked him another question. "Is there ever anyone who doesn't make it to the summit?" His answer scared me more than anything I had read before. He calmly said that of all the people there in the lodge, only about 20% of them would make it to the summit. What?? So of the 30 people there, only about 6 of them would make it? Yes. Ok, now it's time to sweat.
With all our time preparing and packing, we didn't actually get onto the trail until 1:30am. Thinking back to what I had read somewhere about trying to hike when there is a full moon so you have some light, I asked Francisco if we were close to a full moon. "No moon." Great. Headlamps it is.
We were moving up the rocks and sand at a breakneck pace, making it to the ice in what I have decided is record time
I don't think I can describe this hike to anyone. Imagine walking into a room. Now imagine the floor in that room is actually at a slope of close to 90 degrees. Now imagine it is covered in ice and very cold. I mean very cold. Got it? Good, now take away all the oxygen in that room. And turn off the lights. That's what it was.
I was panting like a dog for almost the entire hike. This is no exaggeration, you can ask Brett. I was literally breathing in and out in repeated succession at a faster pace than I have ever breathed before. I don't know if this got more oxygen into my body or if it just made me think it did. Maybe it just distracted my mind enough to not realize I was dying from the inside out. At one point I collapsed and felt like I was going to throw up. Brett gave me a pep talk and said it would be fine.
At about 5,300 meters, Brett died. He collapsed onto the ice. For about 20 minutes. When he finally raised his head, he said he could not make it. One more step and he would be throwing up. We weren't prepared for this. We couldn't do this. I insisted that we could make it. I knew we could. I felt that we could. The look on his face was pain
I didn't know what to do. Thoughts raced through my head. Had we just climbed halfway up this mountain only to give up and turn back? Were we really not prepared? Is Francisco peeing off the side of the trail there? Yes, he was. I had another thought cross my mind as well. I remembered hiking up Half Dome with Laura two summers ago. We hiked for hours, all day, just to make it to this steep rock dome which required a vertical climb with the aid of a couple of ropes. About halfway up, Laura became too frightened to continue. She had to turn back. I tried to get her to continue, but she insisted. I let her turn back. I made it to the top. To this day, she still says she always wished I had pushed her more to reach the top. I wished I had, too.
"Please Brett, I know we can make it. I wouldn't ask you if I didn't know we could do it. Please, do you think you could try one more time?"
"The last three times I have tried have been for you. Now if you are going to ask me to keep going you are asking me to endanger my health."
What do you do? All of a sudden our fearless Francisco was hovering over us, asking us what was going on
Francisco seemed ready to turn back. Whatever happened to cumbre o muerte? Was muerte that close? Was this going to be a story about an incredible triumph to the peak? Was this story going to end in defeat? The pen was in Brett's hands. We looked at him. He took a step up the slope. Then another. I followed.
I don't know what happened to us, but we became a machine. I was at Brett's heels, panting deeply behind him as we chugged up the mountain. I refused to let any pain into my mind. I would not think about my knee or my lungs. I had to keep going. Brett's motivation was now my motivation.
We made a solid run for what must've been an hour, and then collapsed as the sun was rising in the distance. We were not at the peak, but were hopeful because the scenery had just changed from endless expanse of snow to new formations of peaks and cliffs. I asked how much longer to the peak. We still had hours left to go. For the first time, I felt that this was not possible for us. I looked at Brett. He kept going. I followed.
We reached the summit at 8:27am. I don't know how we did this. Along the way, there were many times when I was ready to turn back. There were far too many slopes that were far too steep and that only led to far too many more slopes, none of which even got us within sight of the summit
I didn't find out until later that Brett didn't actually know the volcano's crater was only about 10 feet behind him as he was sitting down at the top. We were in a cloud. He didn't know I was peering into the crater. He thought we were at a peak from which we could view the crater in clear weather, but not on the actual rim of the crater. For us it wasn't about the view or the crater. It was about accomplishing something that was greater than us. We did it.
The way back was no picnic, and I instantly fell asleep every time we paused to rest. I even was sleep walking down a portion of the trail and collapsed after jumping over an icy crevice that appeared far deeper than I would ever want to fall. We had to hurry to make it down before the risk of avalanche became too great. We pushed down through the icy kingdom that we had conquered. We reached the Refugio at 1:30pm. We had been hiking for 12 hours straight. We were part of the 20%. I never felt so good to make the 20th percentile.
We thanked Francisco for all of his help
Now it's time to go back to Quito to pick up Brett's friend Azalea Kim. Then it's time for a nice jungle adventure to thaw out.
1 Night at Residencial Santiago: $6 per person
SelvaNieve Tour of Cotopaxi: $140, 2 days, 12 hours of hiking
Still alive. Barely.