This snow bridge looks sketchy. I`m gazing up at a thin sheet of steep, snow covered ice that crosses an enormous cravasse. The bootpack leads over the bridge. Deep footprints, holes where footprints should be, puncture wounds from ice axes that struck nothing but air. We are surrounded by bottomless blue fractures, Tyler and I, standing twelve meters apart, a few knots in the rope between us. The summit is no more than thirty feet above us. We are so close. We are the only climbers on the whole mountain. Paused beneath the final obstacle, we contemplate the risk.
Sixteen hours earlier, I was annoyed. We were supposed to meet here, in this park, at about 1:00pm. It was almost 3 o`clock and there was no sign of Tyler and Nuria. Was I in the right park? I asked some lazing Ecuadorians if there were any other parks around. A ten minute walk brought me to a tiny piece of grass beside a busy street. No. I returned to the original park. In the distance, on the edge of a filthy pond, sitting on a white bench, there was a couple. As I approached, Tyler`s red mountaineering boots reflected the sun back at me.
“What happened?” I ask, arms outstretched.
“What do you mean,” says Tyler.
“I mean I`ve been here since 1.”
Tyler laughs, then, “So have we.”
“Shut up. Are you serious?”
“Yeah, we got here just after 1. Have you been here too?”
“You`re lying. I`ve been scanning the park for like two hours.”
“We`ve been sitting right here.”
“No. Impossible. I don`t believe you.”
For the sake of getting on with our adventure, I finally accepted their lies. We found a comioneta, but there was only room for two people in the cab. One of us would have to sit in the back. The drive to the refugio at Cayambe is about two hours on extremely rough, dusty roads. Sitting in the unpadded bed of a truck would not be fun. We asked if he had any friends with an extended cab. No. But he did have a friend who drove a taxi. Apparently, the taxi could handle the roads, but we were skeptical. We spent almost half an hour talking over our options. It was already late in the day. The ride would cost us $70. We would be climbing the mountain that night, meaning that we would have almost no time to rest after setting up camp and eating dinner. If we weren`t going to climb, there was no point in paying the money to go. Dark clouds shielded the mountain from our sight. I think it was Tyler who finally found the guts to say, “let`s go for it.” We tied our backpacks to the roof of the taxi.
The driver did not know how to ascend a hill. Tyler and I were pushing with all our might and just when the car gained momentum he would let his foot off the gas. Gravel struck my shins. Tyler was enraged. “Maybe if the fucking government didn`t subsudize gasoline then everyone and their mother wouldn`t be a taxi driver. Only good drivers could do it.” It was not long before we reached a ditch that the car could not pass. Volcanic stones filled a muddy rut. Short tires, one wheel spinning, reverse. We took our backpacks from the roof and told him we would meet him there tomorrow. We trudged up the road through dense mist, talking about Obama`s proposed budget.
After about an hour hike, we reached the refugio. We set our backpacks down, groaning. Why did I bring my 700 page book on Incan history? I wouldn`t have time to read a single word. We tried to fill our water bottles in the bathroom. The caretaker confronted us and said that we had to pay five dollars each to use the sinks. He wanted us to pay him to even enter the vicinity of the building.
“Where can we get water then?” I asked in Spanish.
“There is a lagoon,” he said, pointing up the slope.
“Yeah, an hour hike towards the mountain,” said Tyler, exasperated.
The caretaker didn`t reply. The only place in Ecuador that I have felt unwelcome is at the climbing refugios. There is absolutely no logical reason for this. The rudeness and resentment with which we have been treated is appaling. I left with only one of my bottles full, glaring at the caretaker as I passed by him.
We set up camp in a shallow valley on the other side of a ridge. Rusty stones, hard earth, the sound of dripping water. I discovered a hose that was emptying into a massive basin above the refugio. Darkness surrounded us. Only a few stars were visible. I turned off my headlamp because I didn`t want the caretaker to see me through the window. Stealthily, I put my bottle underneath the dripping hose. I was a theif, a water robber, but I felt no guilt at all. A pot boiled on the stove. Tyler added noodles and seasoning. We ate ravenously, tried to sleep.
My eyes were shut for maybe an hour before I heard the alarm go off. It was 11:30, time to start the climb. I put my bare feet into my boots and stood outside the tent in my longjohns. Flashes of lightning strobed our conversation. We heard no thunder. The stars were barely visible behind a cloudy curtain.
“What do you think?” asked Tyler.
“Well, its not the best, but its not that bad either.”
“Yeah, the lightning is definitely scary. It seems kinda stupid to climb into a lightning storm.”
“No shit, but it seems far off too. We can`t hear anything. It could move in quickly though.”
“I mean we can see the summit, so this cloud cover must be really high up.”
“But that could change at any moment,” I said, glancing in all directions.
“Right, and this wouldn`t be a good mountain to get caught in a whiteout on. The glacier is just huge, wide open.”
“Yeah, I hear that. We don`t have any wands either.”
“Nope. But we are here, and the weather at the moment is definitely doable.”
“That`s also true. How long do we have to hike on the moraine before we get to the glacier?”
“About an hour, I think.”
“So we could just go for it and see what the weather does,” said Tyler, his upturned face illuminated by a far off flash.
“We could do that.”
“We should just be really conservative with our decisions. If we feel crappy or if the clouds roll in, we should turn around.”
“Yeah, alright, sounds good. I`ll start to get ready.”
We hiked slowly over the grey sand that filled the void between volcanic boulders. Balls of white energy exploded on the horizon. There was lightning in all directions. Each compass point electrified. The summit was absolutely clear and it looked so close. When we reached the glacier we found an obvious boottrack leading left along a shoulder of snow. We were no longer worried about the weather. The flashes had become less frequent and there was still no thunder within earshot. If any clouds moved in we felt confident that we would be able to follow the boottrack home. We decided to continue our unlikely climb.
Cayambe, at 5,790 meters (18,996 ft), is Ecuadors third highest peak. It also holds the destinction of being the highest point in the world at a latitude of 0 dgrees, exactly on the equator. Most guide books and Ecuadorians will tell you that Cayambe is a much harder climb than Cotopaxi. It is supposed to be more technically difficult and more dangerous due to the high number of cravasses on the mountain. As a result, the climb is far less popular. We were the only people on the mountain, but we were climbing like it was a race. Big, obvious cravasses that were easy to avoid. Steep snow slopes. A ridge of pumice sand that cushioned our crampons. For the first time in his life, Tyler felt good above 5400 meters. We were climbing too quickly, and slowed our pace for fear of reaching the summit before sunrise. There was not a breath of wind. The only sound was of our crampons gripping the ice, our rhythmic breathing, the rustle of our synthetic clothes. The music of our motion continued for hours upon hours. The sky lightened. A pale terquoise mixed with the meat of a lemon. We were close.
“I just don`t have a good feeling about this,” says Tyler, looking up at me as I scan the snow bridge for the safest route. There isn`t a safe route. We must cross the bridge one way or another. From where he is planted, Tyler can see the vast maw of the cravasse. The ice and snow that covers this gullet is just skin. The slope is steep, the fissure impossible to jump across. We don`t have any snow pickets, nothing to create anchors, no way to call for help, no one to help us. We are literally thirty feet from the summit and we have come to a dillema.
I know that if we attempt to cross the bridge it is likely that one of us will fall in; if not on the ascent then on the descent for sure. Without anchors it would be almost impossible for one of us to extract the other from the cravasse, that is if we didn`t both get pulled in together. It would be a dangerous risk of life, something that could kill us both, but, still, I hesitate. The summit is so close and we have come through so much adversity to get here. I cannot say I have climbed this mountain unless I make it to the true summit. I may never have another chance to climb it.
There is a reason why we climb with a partner. With a few confidant words, Tyler saves my life. I don`t remember what he says, but there is no question that it wakes me up, makes me realize the risks involved, destroys my reckless ambition. On past climbs, I have played the role of conservative companion. Now Tyler returns the favor. We make an unbeatable team. Our characters are complimentary, our skills usefully diverse, our strength equal. As I turn away from the summit and begin descending, I realize how lucky I am to be climbing with him. The moment that my feet point downhill, I know that we have made the correct decision and it is almost a better feeling than actually having climbed the mountain. Sometimes, there are bridges that should not be crossed. Knowing when to turn around is a skill in itself. And it is this skill that will, hopefully, keep me alive and climbing for many years to come.
We reach the tents in sunshine. Tuna, mayonaise, cheese, bread. Our staples. Nuria makes the sandwiches for us. We are grateful. The sunshine bakes our relaxing bodies. Groups of Ecuadorians with their families walk by and ask us how long the climb took. We say that it took nine hours. It was more like eleven in reality. Tyler and I get in an enormous argument about the qualities of Prana versus Patagonia. We are acting as if we haven`t slept in days. We haven`t. It takes us a few hours to pack up and walk down the road to meet the taxi. He is there and has brought his wife. I don`t have enough energy to speak Spanish. I act as if I`m sleeping, but the road is way too bumpy for me to actually do so. He drops us off at a restaurant where we order lunch. Tyler talks about bribing the chefs to give us other people`s plates that are closer to being ready. We eat salsa with spoons. After lunch we have to say goodbye. We hug, knowing we won`t see each other again for at least a month. Maybe in April I will go visit them. They walk one way, I walk the other. I cross the busy street carefully and wait on the corner for a bus.