To Cotopaxi and back again
“I know somehow that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars”
-Martin Luther King Jr. (“I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech)
“I keep on living to keep from to keep from crying. I keep on dreaming to keep from dying. I keep on trying. I ain’t gonna stop. Get right down to the bottom of the barrel and you flow back on top.”
-Amos Lee, “Bottom of the Barrel”
When I crossed the finish line of the Austin Marathon, I collapsed into the arms of a friendly volunteer and was carried to the medical tent. As I lay there amidst mounds of ice packs, I remember thinking that I had just completed the hardest physical, emotional, and mental strain of my life. But that was before I met Cotopaxi.
The second highest active volcano in the world, Cotopaxi towers at 5,897 meters above sea level (about 18,000 feet), simply majestic to behold…at a comfortable distance. This snow-capped beast known for icy, whipping winds reveals, on a clear morning, a stunning, above-the-clouds view of the mountaintops of Ecuador. It was for this reason, and the bragging rights that accompany a mountain climb, that I decided to take on Cotopaxi.
So, without so much experience as a lesson on attaching snow spikes to the bottom of my boots, I set off for the refuge house at the base of the mountain, joined by Heather, Megan, Johnnie, and our two hardy Swiss friends Patrick and David. The owner of the refuge house, Eduardo, picked us up at Vida Verde in a sturdy SUV and we began the bumpy, pothole-lined gravel ride to the Cotopaxi—we had learned by now that, in Ecuador, every vehicle is an off-roader.
After a couple of hours, Eduardo suddenly slammed on the brakes. “This is where you start hiking,” he declared with a matter of fact grin. We grabbed our waters and watched with glum faces as the SUV bounced onward, toward the refuge, leaving us in a cloud of gravel and dust. I tried to keep pace with the Swiss mountaineers as we bounded up the steep path, pausing occasionally for photos of the beautiful skyline of mountains and treetops.
Approximately three hours later, David, Patrick, and I reached the refuge house, Cotopaxi Cara Sur, a quant entourage of cabins with a main building whose expansive glass windows provide a stunning view of the face of the mountain. Sitting around a gas-powered space heater, we felt like kings and queens of the mountainside, dining on salty popcorn and cradling teacups with our still-numbed fingers. Once everyone else had arrived, we moved to the dinner tables where we slurped potato soup and enjoyed brim-filled glasses of red wine. There were three other travelers at the refuge house, Germans who were on a three-week motorbike tour through Ecuador. Stretching my tired legs, I began to wonder why anyone would hike up a mountain when man’s ingenuity has provided us with such motorized devices.
We went to bed underneath piles of sheets and an unzipped sleeping bag. At dawn, I awakened, unable to sleep longer in the biting cold, and stumbled my way to the main building for some coffee and a warm breakfast. Saturday morning was spent perfectly at ease—reading, playing cards, chatting—and reminded me of Mitch Hedburg’s notion of mountain-climbing: “I want to climb a mountain—not so I can get to the top—cause I want to hang out at base camp. That seems fun. You sleep in a colorful tent, you grow a beard, you drink hot chocolate, you walk around, ‘Hey, you going to the top?’ . . . ‘Soon.’”
Unfortunately, unlike Mitch, our base camp days were over by Saturday afternoon and, with bags stuffed with climbing gear, Heather, Patrick, David, and I began the long trek up to the tiendas, or tents. The incessant rain pounded our heads as we strode up the mountain, accompanied by our two guides (Juan and Pablo) and two sturdy horses that were obviously better acclimated to the incline. After a few hours, chilled and wet, we caught sight of the tiendas, yellow plastic beacons on the rocky slope of Cotopaxi. Inside one tent, our sleeping quarters, lay five wooden boards haphazardly positioned side-by-side. In another, our guides began preparing our dinner of spaghetti and tomato sauce. We used the lingering sunlight to quickly unpack, lie out our sleeping bags, and mummify ourselves in warm clothes.
Around 7PM, after eating the pasta and downing several steaming cups of tea, we went back to our tent and bundled up for a few fitful hours of sleep. At one point, I tried to convince myself that I had just been sleeping when, in fact, I knew I was just as wide-eyed and restless as the rest of my companions. At midnight, Juan and Pablo shook open our tent’s flap and told us to start getting dressed for the climb. Stumbling around with dimly lit headlamps, we pulled on boots, snow pants, jackets, facemasks, gloves, scarves, and hats. Heather, with an unfortunate bout of traveler’s sickness, decided it was best not to climb, so I set off with the two guides and my Swiss companions up the dark Cotopaxi slope.
As if in a dream, we plowed through the rocky crust, our feet digging deep into its gravel like mechanical wheels in slow motion. After an hour or so, we reached the crest of the snow and we paused to attach sharp, heavy spikes to the bottoms of our boots and connect thick ropes between the harnesses around our own waists and those of our guides, tasks I soon learned were not merely precautionary. I devoured half of a chocolate bar and glanced up at the night sky, perfectly clear and plastered with tiny beacons of light.
No time for childish stargazing, however, because we were off once again, this time in snow. After a few minutes of my bumbling about, Juan turned and, yelling above the howling wind, explained that it was necessary to walk sideways up the sleep slope. As I awkwardly and rather painfully grapevined up the mountainside, I began to doubt my stamina and motivation for this climb. Luckily, the darkness was all encompassing and all I could see was the splotch of lighted snow directly in front of my feet; if I had seen the slope, all hope would have been lost.
The wind whipped at our faces, beating us backwards as we continued to baby step up the 60-degree slope. I use “we” quite loosely here, as the Swiss men with their Swiss Alps legs were soon far ahead of my bobbing headlamp. Nevertheless, Juan and I strove onward, performing a strange sort of tug-of-war in which Juan, who was leading, would suddenly feel the rope go taut and would pull back. I the stagnant second party would respond with a fervent shake of the head. Another tug. Another shake. And so on and so forth until I would finally surmise that it was better to keep plodding along behind Juan than to stand there like a bobble head.
It is incredible the thoughts that pass through your head as your body plunges forward in the darkness, pushed to exhaustion for an unseen and seemingly unreachable finale. Self-congratulations on leaving the tent to embrace this adventure. Imagining the people I would impress by reaching the top…and those I would let down if I turned back early. Cursing the mountain, the cold, the wind, and anything else that seemed culpable for my pain. That damn, nasal Mile Sirus song: “It ain’t about how fast you get there. It ain’t about what’s waiting on the other side. It’s the climb.” Desperate prayers. More cursing. Regret. Desperation. Hope. Desolation.
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of darkness, we approached the final slope. Up ahead, I watched as three headlamps cheerily bounced to the top. With victory so clearly in sight, I began bounding up the mountain. A few seconds later, I began another game of tug-and-war with Juan, feeling the full angle of the 80-degree slope, the steepest of the entire mountain. For this portion of the climb, I walked with feet straight ahead, placing my feet and ice pick in the same holes made by my guide to avoid slipping in the ankle-deep snow.
Somehow I found the strength to keep moving and, as I crawled over the final hump, I felt a simultaneous sense of accomplishment and exhaustion. David and Patrick were busy taking photos so I stumbled my way to a large rock and plopped down, utterly unable to move. After a few minutes, the boys managed to get me up for a photo at the cumbre (the top) and we all basked in the pink glow of the rising sun, which illuminated the sea of clouds and mountaintops dotting its surface like tiny glaciers.
After twenty minutes or so, it was time to begin the descent. At this point, my chocolate bars and Gatorade had frozen solid and I was thankful that I had purchased a bottle of 220, the Ecuadorian equivalent of Red Bull, which was miraculously still in liquid form. On the way down, my legs felt like rubber and, though Juan was behind me in case I should slip, I still felt nervous. The sun was fully in the sky now and I could see the steepness of the slope we had scaled up in the darkness. Driven by the necessity to prove my athleticism, I insisted on taking a photograph of the incline. I took off my backpack and placed it in the snow in front of me; however, to my misfortune, as I was removing my gloves to pick up the camera, a huge gust of wind blew past, carrying with it my entire backpack. Around my legs and down, down, down the icy slope of the mountain it flew and, though I pleaded with my guide to pursue it, he protested that it was unsafe to be traipsing around the mountain during the day when the slope was a sleek wall of ice and avalanches were prevalent. Thus, the camera was lost to the mountain, a high price to pay for Cotopaxi, but the only black stain on the whole experience.
At the tents once again, I was given another steamy cup of tea before continuing our downward climb towards the refuge house. The boys and I were internally basking in the glory of the climb, but our external selves were weakened and exhausted. We said farewell to our faithful guides, pilled into the van, and were soon en route to Quito. Upon returning, I learned a new phrase: llegamos sano y salvo, or, we arrived safe and sound. Thank goodness!
The following days passed quickly, the highlights including a Juan Luis Guerra concert, salsa dancing, coffee dates, a stunning theatrical performance by our ChACE group for the whole Vida Verde School, and a delicious farewell dinner from Rosa’s brother who is a chef for the Marriott Hotel. I wish I had the time and space to write a lengthy blog entry about my last few days in Ecuador but considering the hour and my current location—Santiago, Chile—this paragraph and a few accompanying pictures will have to suffice. I will write soon with an update on my newest location but until then, live hard and live strong!