Jaza's World Trip

Cotopaxi climb: a noble defeat

At 1am this morning, Tony and myself — led by our trusty guide César — began our climb up Volcán Cotopaxi. Very quick "breakfast" (well, you gotta call a 12:30am wake-up meal something), and then we were on our way. We did our very best: but sadly, fate did not intend for us to reach the summit today. Close — oh, so tantalisingly close! — but no cigar. Ah well — as we say on Earth: c'est la vie.

Cotopaxi is an easy mountain, as mountains go. Everyone is quick to point out the fact that it's not technical at all, and that it has no "actual climbing". That is, it has no bits where the ascent up through the ice is so steep as to be considered a cliff, and where you need to scale the wall purely with ice-axe and crampons. But as I learned this morning, the lack of "actual climbing" does not in any way mean that Cotopaxi is easy. It's still a daym demanding and difficult climb! Sure, ice-axe climbing is really hard, and really tiring; but reasonably steep slopes of ice that go on forever are still no walk in the park.

So, the three of us switched on our head-lamps, girded ourselves with our axes (not needed for any cliffs, but still essential as walking sticks), and headed off. It was about 20 minutes of walking, through a rocky dirt path, from the climbers' refuge to the start of the ice. Once we reached the ice, it was time to put our crampons on, and to link ourselves together with the safety line and harnesses. You have to be careful when getting the crampons out of your bag: there isn't much to them except metal spikes, so there ain't much on them to hold on to, that won't cut or graze you. Anyway, we fitted the crampons onto the bottoms of our boots, and we were then ready to start the real plod up the mountain.

The first half-hour or so was fairly moderate stuff: not too steep, just the usual tiring walk up the icy path. After that, we hit a fairly long section of more dirt. I think that this section used to be all ice in previous years: but due to the effects of global warming, and humanity's recent rape and pillage of the world's environment, it is ice no longer. It's a well-known fact that the snowline on Cotopaxi, as on most mountains and glaciers worldwide, has receded over the past decade. Nevertheless, César assured us that we could keep our crampons on for this bit, as it was mainly dirt, and not too much rocks.

Following the dirty bit, it was about 3 hours of quite steep uphill, along a path that went straight up the icy slope of the mountain, towards its summit. Little or no rest for the wicked in this section. As I said, it may not have been a cliff, but it was still hard work™. The wind also got progressively stronger as we ascended, and was veritably buffeting us by the time we reached the end. The trick with sections like this — that is, the sections without which it wouldn't be called mountain climbing — is to simply grit your teeth, to put aside all thoughts of pain or fatigue, and to wrench out of yourself every ounce of determination that you possess. It's that, or go back down. And nobody wants to be a quitter, right?

There really wasn't anywhere suitable for resting, during this section. However, it was so tiring that we had to stop somewhere, at sometime. The first time that we stopped, I dropped the cap of my water-bottle, when I was trying to screw it back on. Never saw the cap again: I imagine that it rolled to the bottom of the mountain within about 30 seconds. After that, I had to keep the bottle on the outside of my bag — on one of the bottle-holding pockets on the side — where the capless top quickly froze over.

The second time that we stopped, I dropped the whole bottle. And that was the end of my water supply. Ah, well: I'd drunk enough to last me anyway, and more water was just making me want to pi$$ more. And you don't want to be busting when you're mountain-climbing, as relieving yourself is no easy task up there. I didn't feel the urgent need to drink more after that: but if I had, Tony had plenty more that he could have lent me (including a bottle of Powerade).

By the time we reached the end of the 3-hour straight-up section, the wind on the mountain was virtually gale-force. We were taking one step forward, and getting blown two steps back. We could barely hear each other talk. The cold, combined with the sheer force that was pushing against us, grew unbearable. Finally, at about 5:30am, and with only 200m more to ascend (i.e. at about 5,700m asl), César decided that we could go no further, and we conceded that he was right. We could see the top: but with the wind blowing against us like a vacuum cleaner against a garden ant (and only getting stronger as we continued up), it became clear that la cumbre (lit: "the summit") was simply insurmountable today.

And so thus it was that, with the sun just beginning to appear on the horizon, and with our heads bowed in defeat, we were impelled to turn back, and to begin the return journey to the bottom of the mountain. The wind began dying down immediately upon our descent: we could only hope and pray that the wind was still strong at the top, and that we hadn't turned back exactly at the wrong time. It seemed likely.

As with Huayna Potosí, the return journey was not easy, and it was not pleasant. With the sun up, the views of the icy slopes around us — and of the national park spread out below — were quite spectacular. But I could barely look at them, let alone appreciate them, amidst the fatigue, the muscle weariness, and the titanic headache that were plaguing me. This being the second such mountain-climbing experience for me, I'm now convinced: going down is harder than going up. It's really hard on your knee muscles. It's a more rapid change in altitude (you do it in about a third of the time that you spend going up). And it's after you've already done the hard work of going up, at a time when, what you'd really like — more than anything in the world — is to just catch the chairlift to the bottom.

Or to wait for the chopper to come pick you up.

Or to call a cab from the top (I hear it's unsafe to walk around in the early morning in Ecuador, anyway — always better to take a cab!).

However, in lieu of all of the above, the only way back to civilisation was the same way that we left it: on our own respective pairs of feet. So we plodded back down the mountain, and we arrived back at the refuge at about 8am.

As I discovered previously on the Santa Cruz hike, Coca-Cola is a magical drink for making you feel better, after some difficult high-altitude adventuring. That's why I brought a can of Coke with me on this trip. And when I got back to the refuge, and downed its caffeine-and-sugar-imbued contents, I immediately felt much better. Headache gone. Strength much returned. Muscles ready for more action. Bit of tea and cake helped as well.

Considering that it was his first attempt at mountain-climbing, Tony got through the ordeal remarkably well. He was, of course, also completely knackered: but he was still pumped at the end, and he still wants to do more. He's planning to tackle Chimborazo as well (Ecuador's highest mountain, at 6,258m asl — believed to be the furthest point on land from the Earth's core, and thus arguably the highest place on Earth), during his time in this country. César, of course, was fine.

We had a bit of time to spend in the refuge, to relax and to pack up our gear, since we missed the summit and came down early. Once we were ready, we said goodbye to this cosy little 4,800m retreat, and made the final 15-minute trek, down from the refuge to the carpark. Then it was driving (and, for Tony and myself, sleeping) all the way, until we pulled in to the office of Condor Trekk back in Quito, at about 12:30pm. And from there, back to our beloved Secret Garden.

So we didn't make it to the summit today. Cotopaxi is still an unconquered peak for me. But despite this, I consider the climb to be a success. At the very least, it was a defeat of the noblest possible kind: a Kobayashi Maru, or a "no-win scenario". And no-win it really was: today was the only day this week that nobody reached the top of the mountain (and we most certainly weren't the only people up there this morning). I'm satisfied that we gave it our very best, and that had the weather been more favourable, we would have prevailed to the peak.

And hey, now I have to return some other day, and climb Cotopaxi again!