Call me crazy, but I'm doing it again! That's right: almost killing myself climbing Huayna Potosí, two months ago in Bolivia, just wasn't enough. I've got my crampons and my ice-axe at the ready, and I'm off in search of snow-capped peaks once more. This morning, Tony and I set off on our expedition to climb to the top of Volcán Cotopaxi, whose peak is 5,897m asl. A little lower this time (about 200m less than HP), and apparently a little easier too — but still one heck of a challenge.
I did the mountain-guide shopping yesterday, and I had no problem finding an agency with good guides and with good equipment; nor was there a problem booking the trip for today and tomorrow. Since I managed to persuade Tony to come climbing with me, we were a pair, and thus the main obstacle to booking a climbing trip (finding a partner, since it's always one guide per two climbers) was eliminated. I decided (surprise, surprise) to ditch Gulliver's — after all the ditching they did to me recently — and we instead went with Condor Trekk, a great agency that specialises exclusively in climbing and hiking.
Tony and I met at the Condor Trekk office at 9:30am this morning, in time to meet our guide César, to get our clothing and equipment ready, and to head off. We had to borrow a lot of equipment for the climb: windproof jacket / pants / gloves; balaclava; head-lamp; climbing boots (much like ski boots — uncomfortable bricks); crampons; and ice-axes. Fortunately, it was all included at no extra charge, and we managed to find all the items in sizes that fitted us well.
Since this was my second trip (also in a 4WD!) to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi this week, the route that we drove was already familiar to me. On our way out of Quito, César (not just our mountain guide, also our driver — and our cook) stopped at a scenic lookout, from where we had a great view of the entire city of Quito, spread out in all its enormity in the valley below us. It only has about 2 million people, but boy, is it big. The city seems to stretch forever: the Old City and the Mariscal Sucre way up at the northern end of the valley; and an endless sprawl of suburbs, relentlessly marching south (and marching further with each passing year, I might add). On the other side of the valley, we could also see the towering peak of Volcán Pichincha — the active volcano that looks right down on the city below it — and the Teleférico cable-car that runs up its side.
After the lookout, we only had two more stops on our way down to the park. The first was just at a petrol station, to fill up the van, and to get a few snacks. The second was at the town of Machachi, a nice little highland town just outside the park, where César stocked up on food supplies for our trip, and where we had a chance to do a bit more shopping and exploring, if we so desired. Once all that was done, it was into the park — with the same park entrance gate, and the same local women selling their handicrafts, that I remember from Monday.
We arrived at the carpark (the very same one from where I started Monday's bike ride) at about 2pm. Only this time, our destination lay further up, not straight back down. Once again, it was cold, cloudy, and windy at the carpark: but that did not deter us. We changed into all of our climbing gear (except our crampons and ice axes, which went into the backpacks), we hauled our big packs onto our backs, and we began the walk of about 45 minutes, up the path to the climbers' refuge.
As I already know from HP in Bolivia, the climb up to base camp is not something to be taken lightly. Fortunately, however, this climb was nothing like the 3-hour hike through challenging rocks that I did back then: just a few sandy patches, and a few mildly steep bits. Otherwise, the path was almost good enough for a car to drive up, all the way to the refuge.
Once we reached the refuge (where we were to spend the night, or at least a small part of it), we found some free bunk beds to put our bags on, and we found a free table down in the dining area, for having our afternoon tea and our dinner at. We were meant to head out to one of the glaciers near the refuge this afternoon, to practice for the big climb: but César judged that the weather wasn't so good, and that it would be better if we gave the practicing a miss. Not a good omen: but oh well, it gave us a bit more time to rest.
For our short afternoon in the refuge, we had some nice company: a young couple from Upstate New York; a few crazy French climbers; and even a couple of fellow Aussies (a pair of women in their 30s). There was also a big group of about 25 soldiers from the Ecuadorian army, who were doing the climb tonight as part of a training exercise: they took up almost half the refuge. We had time to chat to our fellow climbers, to tuck into some dinner and some hot chocolate, and to have a few games of cards — Tony taught me a great 2-person game, called "Chinese patience". But we had no more time than that, because by 7:30pm, we were tucked into bed, in time to get about 3 hours' sleep to prepare us for our all-night climb.