We´re sitting at this gorgeous restaurant in Baños, eating filet mignon, which is wrapped in bacon(all for $8), drinking loads of water and discussing the itinerary. For Tyler and me, this is our last night here. We leave for Cotopaxi tomorrow, regardless of weather. We are determined to climb something, anything really, but Cotopaxi is no little mountain. If we have time we will then head back to the Illiniza group and again attempt to climb Sur, this time with a more expedition style approach, setting up camps at consecutively higher elevations. Our only worry is the weather, but as we leave the restaurant, packed to the gills with meaty wine-sauce, there are stars and a giant moon in the ebony sky. The Southern Cross guides us home to a balcony below Orion´s Belt, where I sit for a moment and take-in the grandeur of the clear skies at night. It has been a while since I´ve seen them.
I lied a little back there. Just a fib really. The weather was not our ONLY worry. I mean we are mountaineering after all. Weather is just one factor in a vast cornucopia of fruit whose ripeness is sometimes difficult to gauge. Cotopaxi, at 5,897 meters (19,347 ft), is Ecuador´s second highest peak. That is, by far, the highest mountain I will have ever attempted. I mean, I know altitude is in my blood and all (thanks Dad and Mom), but that is fucking high. I have no clue how I´ll react. Is this avacado (technically a fruit) too hard to eat? I guess the only way to find out is to peel it, bite in, and then either swallow with pleasure or spit it out and just make salsa.
The bus drops us off at the entrance to Cotopaxi National Park. From there we hire a camioneta, which takes us along a washboard road that winds through scrublands and floodplains as it gradually climbs towards the base of the mountain. Pasachoa, Sinchulahua, and Corazon duck below the clouds to peek at us as we ride, their faces covered in tan earth and green vegetation. Cotopaxi is more bashful, revealing only it´s snow-covered ankles to our yearning lenses. We reach the parking lot below the mountain and begin the 45-minute hike to the refugio and the base of the glacier where we will make our camp. Our backpacks are heavy with rope, crampons, tents and carabiners. We are already at 4700 meters.
A fox greets us at the campsite, it´s beady eyes glinting in the strengthening sunlight. I interpret this as a good omen and, sure enough, the clouds burn off and the mountain, in all its glory, is revealed. We abandon tent set-up in favor of photography. The light is amazing, our partially constructed tents silhouetted in pink gossamer chains. The mountain looks so close. No problem. Piece of cake. Just a little hike. Tyler and I are waxing confident.
“After this we´ll head straight to Illiniza Sur, climb that, then head to Cayambe, climb that, then Chimborazo for good measure. We have a week,” I say.
Tyler is more conservative. “Let´s stay focused on tonight.” I know he is right, but the sudden reverse in weather has reversed my spirit as well and I´m feeling overly ambitious, anxious, excited.
We head down to the refugio to get water, cook dinner and converse with the other climbers in hopes of gleaning their strategy. The mood we are met with is icier than the glaciated slopes that loom above us. We are hoping to use their stove to cook our ramen noodles because we are short on fuel and it has proved hard to find in Ecuador. Instead, we are told we cannot even enter the premisis of the refuigo unless we are paying customers. $18 a night is a bit much for the use of a stove, and since we will only be sleeping for a few hours tonight, there is absolutely no reason to pay for a mite-infested bunk. I have a zero degree sleeping bag anyway. So, we remain outside and begin cooking behind an avalanche-wall that protects us from the wind. For even being next to the refugio we are rebuked, but now that we have started cooking, there is no way we are moving. The only water available to us comes from a slimy tank behind the building, which is left open so that all the windblown dust settles on the water´s surface, making it impossible to obtain a silt-free portion. We boil the water much too long and in our water bottles we use an extra tablet of iodine for piece of mind.
The tenants of the refugio are just as inhospitable as the building itself. These are the first people I have met in Ecuador who are not extremely kind, helpful and understanding. I think this is probably because many of them are foriegners. Our querries are met with terse responses or none at all. Some of our greetings even go unanswered, are ignored as if they were not heard when clearly they were. However, we manage to discover that most of the groups will begin climbing at around midnight. Not wanting to be the first people on the mountain, but not wanting to be behind the pack either, Tyler and I decide to leave around the same time. We are in our sleeping bags by 9pm. Sleep comes easily for me, even though we are over 400 meters higher than the summit of Mt. Rainier.
Tyler wakes me at around 11:30. The mountain is shrouded in clouds, but as I get dressed and munch on granola the clouds are pushed away by a gentle wind and the summit is illuminated by the moon. It is a perfect night, the best weather we have seen the entire trip. This is our window. This is our chance and we take it.
We are ahead of schedule. We have been passing rope teams along the way. Tyler and I feel great. There are so many teams on the mountain. More than fifty headlamps are scattered about the glacier. Most are guided, some are independent, like Tyler and I, but I am astonished at how many people there are, especially considering that we are the only people camping. Everyone else is staying in the refugio. Maybe that is why we were treated with such disdain, becasue we were outsiders, are outsiders. We are the only ones with enough gumption to sleep in a fucking tent. Now, resentful of our self-sufficiency and secretly ashamed of their own inner tenderness, our companions on the mountain won´t even say hello as we leave them in the icy dust. At least, that is my impression of the whole thing.
And there doen´t seem to be one competent mountaineer among them. Even the guided teams are spaced so closely together that the use of a rope only increases the risk factor, ensuring that if one of the team members fell in a cravasse, the rest would surely follow. There is a team of military personel, clad in camouflage fatigues (how are jungle-colored fatigues going to disguise you on a glacier?), who are climbing with such a nonchalant attitude that their rope is constantly tangled amongst their feet, being stepped on with crampons and actually causing one of them to fall over with a careless giggle. They are dicking around like this is a field trip, are acting as if they are the star characters in a book titled “How to Get Yourself Killed on a Mountain: 1000 Stupid Things to Do.” Tyler and I blow by them, and we don´t look back until we reach 5400 meters and the altitude starts to kick in.
We´re sitting on a bench that someone has carved out of the steep slope. It is perfectly placed, considering our situation, at the point between total, self-destructive commitment and heartwrenching, ego-destroying failure. Unfortunately, we are leaning towards the latter. Tyler has been wretching for a few minutes now, coughing up nothing, then a little something. His insides stain the snow a pale green. I feel like I might fall asleep right there, forever. My head throbs like a nightclub. We are both shivering, our legs shaking beneath not enough layers of merino wool. I mean we´re in Ecuador goddammit. We´re on the goddamned ecuator. I thought this place was tropical. Yeah, and we´re also at 5400 meters you moron. The hose on Tyler´s hydration bladder is frozen solid, preventing us from accessing it´s slushy contents. We share from my Nalgene bottle, which also contains half liquid half solid, the atoms slowing down like we are. Its not looking good.
“Whaddya think?” asks Tyler.
“I think I’m cold man, real cold. And I can´t barely keep my eyes open. How you feelin´?”
He responds by making another deposit in the snowy bedpan at his feet. Our situation is rather hopeless. I know that if I can keep moving, just never stop, that I will probably be able to stay warm enough and awake enough to make it to the summit, but I´m not feeling like Tyler is. I can´t even imagine how he´s feeling. He coughs and wretches and spits every few minutes. I don´t see how he can continue like this. I know I couldn´t.
“Well, should we bag it?” I ask, and I´m ready to do so.
“I just hate to give up,” he says. Ah. Here exists the dillema, the challenge. Here is one of the major reasons why people do these sorts of pointless things like climb mountains: to discover their limits. We put ourselves through hell just to know that we can do it. That it is possible. Of course, there comes a point where the limit is reached and I think we´ve reached it now. But I could be wrong.
“I don´t want to go down,” says Tyler, and as he says this I notice that the horizon has changed its hue. The sky is ever so slightly brighter. The stars no longer have the contrast they recently did.
“Its getting light dude. The sun is coming. The sun,” I say.
“At least we´ll be a bit warmer,” he says.
“This is gonna be our only shot at this. We´re not coming back if we go down now. You know?” But Tyler has already climbed this mountain. He doesn´t have that same motivation. I can´t say what in his soul made him do and say what he did and said next, but it is something that I will always deeply respect.
“Well, let´s keep working,” he says, and rises from his seat as if posessed, and leads off onto the bootpack, the rope uncoiling behind him until it snatches me up and we are climbing again.
The most difficult technical obstacle, also the most dangerous section of the climb, appears in front of us. We decide that it is best if I lead this part, considering that I am feeling better than Tyler at the moment. The route skirts left underneath a hanging bergshrund, a wall of ice covered rock, and ascends a 50-degree ice/snow chute that is about 20 feet long. This chute is followed by a short descent into a large cravasse that contains a sketchy snow bridge, which is crossed to safer ground. I work through the obstacle methodically, making sure to kick deep steps and to plant my axe into a solid bedding of ice. The chute is not as scary as the cravasse with the snow bridge, which seems on the verge of collapse. When we reach a spot that is clear of danger, we rest. We watch with horror and disgust as the teams behind us dilly-dally on the snow bridge, actually taking off their packs and chatting and laughing, all the while completely oblivious to the fact that they could at any moment be falling hundreds of feet to an uncomfortable and idiotic death. We press on.
Tyler and I plod along at a camel´s pace. He stops every few minutes, hangs his head between his knees and wretches. Then, as if revived by the dry heaves, he continues climbing for awhile, unaffected. I am amazed and impressed by his will-power and perseverence. We are getting closer. We are making it. There are teams descending the mountain before the sun has risen. This makes absolutely no sense to me considering one of the other major reasons people climb high mountains: the view. And what an amazing view it is.
The entire Cordillera is visible. Every volcano in the country stares back at us. I´m looking at a map, a full scale relief map of the whole country, complete with weather patterns and everything. We reach the summit at about 7 am. Tears of joy come to my eyes. I´m not kidding. As I hug Tyler and congratulate him and he does the same for me, I am literaly in tears. I mean there are actual droplets of salty liquid being excreted from my grey-blue peepers. I really have no clue why. “I´ll never call you soft again man,” I say to Tyler, “You are one hell of a tough human being.”
We look down into the crater, searching for some sign of an eruption, lava or something, but find only a bit of steam, or is it just fog, and the faint odor of sulpher. Amongst a crowd of smiling, high-fiving climbers, Tyler is puking. The summit of Cotopaxi is stained with his last meal, a beigeish gruel. Its time to descend. We snap a few quick photos, apply sunscreen, and get the hell out of there.
The descent is horribly exhausting. As I´m down-climbing the steep chute, another team descends right on top of me, urged on by their guide. They are sloughing tons of snow on top of me, making it hard to see, and this girl´s crampons are right in my face. I´m annoyed to say the least. Over the course of our descent we stop many times, just sitting down in our tracks and breathing deeply, utterly exhuasted, dehydrated, sun burnt, mal nourished, spent. Eventually, after much groaning and swearing and pain, we make it back to the tents, where we immediatly pass out lying on the volcanic rock with our backpacks still on.
The wind and cold wakes us. Some clouds have moved in and the wind has picked up, covering everything with a film of fine volcanic dust. Tyler wants to break camp. He says he can´t sleep here at 4800 meters. I´m so totaled that the thought of breaking camp, packing everything up and carrying it down to the parking lot, is disturbing. I feel like I can sleep anywhere, must sleep more and eat something before being able to move, but Tyler is determined. He throws me salami and cheese while I´m avoiding doing anything. The consumption of nourishing food immediatly gives me new life. It is astounding how quickly it works. Tyler´s urgings motivate me too. I start to pack up.
A three hour bus ride brings us back to Baños where Nuria is suprised to see us. The thought of a shower, a bed, and a steak are too much to overcome. We need time to recuperate and clean the choking dust from our tents before we attempt another climb.
We are sitting at the same restaurant eating the same filet mignon with bacon, only this time we ask for two fried eggs on the potatos. The waitress, also the owner, is more than happy to oblige. We toast to el cumbre–the summit–with our glasses of water. The food tastes amazing. We are discussing our various scrapes and bruises. Tyler and Nuria are talking about going to the spa tomorrow. I laugh. “Tyler, you´re such a softie,” I say, but I know that nothing could be further from the truth.