We drove in silence, too weary to even discuss our destination. We didn’t need to speak, all three of us shared the same torments; legs that felt like jelly from the ascent, throbbing headaches that belittled our worst hangovers, and the tingly feeling that acknowledged warmth finally returning in our bones. Our last meal was breakfast the evening before, and we devoured cookies and Gatorade to tide us over until we could muster up the energy for an actual meal. We pulled off the road and slept for a solid two hours. Only after we woke did we discuss how we felt about the climb and the underlying question on our fatigued minds; “Was it worth it?”
B.C. (Before Cotopaxi)
Robbie and I had decided that to climb Volcan Cotopaxi would be an awesome accomplishment to top off our Panam journey before Christmas. Since my sister, Tara, was going to be travelling with us for a few weeks, we convinced her it would be the highlight of her trip as well. She flew into Quito with a towering backpack of outdoor gear, ready for an adventure. We had booked the Secret Garden Hostel in Machachi, just outside the national park, as our mountain oasis for the week. As we drove, we spotted a circle of buildings nestled in the foothills outside of town, surrounded by fields of cows and llamas. We were greeted with the warmth of a fire, a cup of mulled wine and a binder of potential treks that were offered. Our goal for the next few days was to acclimatize as best we could and gauge how we adjusted while hiking.
The next morning, we woke in the van with the sun warming up our cold noses. The sky was clear and the view was littered with volcanoes. Directly behind us stood the perfect, snow-white cone of Volcan Cotopaxi. To the west was the uninviting Volcan Ruminahui, piercing the sky with three dark, jagged points. This was to be our conquest of the day.
We started on grasslands, with our guide, Darwin, telling us to walk slowly, allowing our lungs to adjust to the thin air. There was really no need for this advice, seeing how neither one of us could walk at a fast pace. Halfway up, our lungs were not holding us back, so we began the rocky climb to the top. We navigated across several narrow ledges, each step slow and calculated and pulled ourselves up rock shelves, as the sky turned grey with mist. We arrived at the top as soon as it started to rain. There was no view, just a menacing drop on either side of our ridge; we avoided looking at it by crouching down immediately after a few photos. Hail began to fall as we scarfed down a snack, so we descended the ridge as fast as possible. By the time we reached the grasslands again, we were soaking wet but in good spirits.
After a quick change into warm clothes, we bundled back into the old 60 series Landcruiser, thinking about the mulled wine and wool socks that waited for us back at the hostel. The drive was slow and muddy, interrupted every few minutes so the steamy windshield could be wiped down. As we bumped along, we had the pleasure of being stuck in a traffic jam of wild horses. There was a fence on either side of the road and not used to being contained, the horses ran around us in graceful circles for quite a while before they discovered an escape route.
The next day, we drove the corrugated road again into the park, this time towards Cotopaxi. We were going to hike to the glacier, above 5000m, and then make a final decision on the summit trek. As we grew nearer, the farmland changed into a rock strewn landscape, and the dusty gravel road turned into a dark charcoal. We stopped several times to marvel at the condors overhead, the largest birds in the world, and to scrutinize the terrain of the volcano.
The base was surrounded by fine black sand, which we shuffled up tediously. The sand turned into red earth as we ascended further, now able to see dark crevasses in the snow above us. We reached the glacier just in time to appreciate the entire landscape below us. A path of lava, now hardened into a deep gorge, cut clearly through each layer of earth, red, black and green, down to the road.
The clouds took over the sky, enveloping the sun and the eminent peak of Cotopaxi, a daily routine of nature. We passed several people at the end of their trek, having reached the summit in the early hours of the morning, before the sun softens the snow. Our chance was the following night and decisions had to be made.
During our descent from the glacier, we discussed all aspects of an attempt at the summit. This discussion would last for the rest of the day and the following morning in phases of excitement, anticipation and apprehension. We weighed all facts, reasoning, fears and desires. We wanted to reach this summit. We were in proper shape to do it, according to our guides from the previous treks. We felt good. However, it was a big expense for budget travelers. What if someone had to turn around; would the others carry on? What if the weather turned and we couldn’t continue? We read and were told it was a fitting introduction to mountaineering. It was something new, unknown….. enticing. The decision was unanimous.
At three o’clock, our guides, Patricio and Jamie, arrived amid a treacherous assault of rain and hail. The thunder rumbled low and rose to sharp, intermittent booms. The lightning cracked and pierced the sky in clear thrusts. In the adobe house, we were told to put on our shoes because of the frequent strikes of lightning. As we reviewed the itinerary, a flash of lightning struck and sparks flew behind Robbie. We all jumped. A mirror had to be removed from the windowsill. We were on edge, already nervous, and the hostile setting wasn’t helping. The guides weren’t troubled though, being used to the unpredictable mountain weather. It had no effect on our schedule, just a common storm. It was “no problemo”, a phrase we would hear often that night. We drove through the storm to Hosteria Tambopaxi, Rambo winding through the twisted muddy track of a road. After an early dinner, we packed our bags and tried to get some sleep before our 10:30pm breakfast and departure. Another bumpy ride followed, this time in the pitch black.
We hit the trail in single file, heeding the advice to go “slowly, slowly”. After an hour of dredging through volcanic sand, we arrived at the glacier. Our brief rest there was enough to allow the increasingly frigid air to penetrate our layers. We were at 5000m altitude and it was time to suit up. After our harnesses and crampons were adjusted, we set off in a tethered line, in a pick-step-step routine. Our inexperience and active minds worked against us, pushing to go faster than our bodies allowed. As the slope increased and the snow deepened, we quickly realized, “slowly, slowly” was the only option. This rhythm set in and we grew accustomed to it as we labored onward.
Being the first group to ascend, our guides were breaking the trail. The fresh layer was soft and unstable. Resting precariously after another hour, we watched rows of bobbing headlamps suspended in the black sky. We were warned there was a steep part ahead of us but wouldn’t last long. After initially stumbling to get a foothold, our ice picks were employed, secure in their sharpness. However persistent our guides were in reassuring and encouraging us, we were nonetheless getting uneasy. This ascent was much steeper than imagined, the view from all sides dropping off into nothing. The difficult section was over soon enough but there were more to come. We were tired and thirsty, our water frozen long ago and I was getting throbbing signs of a progressing headache.
Another pep talk, rest, and confirmation to push forward. Finally, a half hour after our last break and almost 5500m up, I quit. The pit stop had succeeded in chilling me to the bone, despite my bundled layers. The chocolate bar I ate had turned against me, conspiring with the thin air to make me nauseous and light headed. I was shivering and fatigued and I knew I was in no shape to continue. To be honest, I had known all along that if someone was going to get sick, it would be me. We had all resolved that we would push ourselves past comfort and fear, but would accept defeat if our bodies had enough and safety became an issue. There were tears and good lucks, Robbie and Tara would continue on with Jamie, and I would descend with Patricio. I made the right choice. I have never felt such a stomach lurching disappointment and greater sense of relief before. The descent was a blur of passing trekkers, painful steps and slides. I slept the entire rocky ride back to the van and then slept again. I woke with the force of a mind-numbing hangover when Robbie and Tara returned. They had continued on for an hour or so further, to 5700m. They had traversed a narrow section that had left them feeling unsure. Looking ahead of their intended path, the glacier dropped off and the path vanished. As experienced and confident as Jamie was, he was only 150 pounds soaking wet; which meant Robbie far outweighed him and would be a heavy load to arrest if he were to fall. Add on Tara and the odds were definitely stacked against him. It was enough. They agreed simultaneously that the rest was too obscure for them to continue and they began their descent.
The night was clearing by then, the sun’s invisible rays lighting the sky enough to finally view their surroundings. They returned to the van satisfied, giddy and exhausted. We agreed to drive out of the park, to get the brain-rattling road over with. Then we pulled over to get some much deserved sleep.
A.C. (After Cotopaxi)
From now on, every trek we plan, complete or hear of will be compared to that night. We have agreed we’re not mountaineers. Maybe we’ll try another “beginners” mountain again sometime but it will not become a hobby. We now know our individual set of limits, be it comfort, ability or fear.
“Was it worth it?”, we asked each other later. Of course it was. We trekked to a higher altitude than we have before. We pushed ourselves to the limit, tried something new and felt success in our endeavor. We were proud of ourselves and of each other, knowing we possessed different abilities, skills and senses of adventure. Now we can say, “B. C., you got nothing on me!”