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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

15 hours, no. 18 hours, no. How about 24?!

We arrived at the bus terminal only to find out the bus would leave three hours late. After one bus change, two subtitled movies, three bouts of extremely loud music (including singalongs by the rowdies), one foreign film with spanish subtitles, three pit stops, two inspection stations, one border crossing, two attempts to rip us off (one successful), a half dozen banana chocolate chip muffins, three bags of peanuts, four apples, and one cold pizza, we arrived at Mancora Peru.
One rickshaw ride later we heard the sounds of the ocean, arrived at the Laguna Surf Camp, and met up with Josh and Tanis (who had arrived the previous day) a little tired but no worse for ware, and only six or seven hours late ......

Thursday, April 16, 2009

So what´s a measly 79m anyway??

Do not be alarmed. Though we set out a week ago to climb Cotopaxi, we are not, in fact, still on the mountain.

We spent the night in Ecuador's capital City, Quito, on Wednesday night and met the first of our two guides Thursday morning. We packed up all of the supplied gear into our packs along with our personal belongings (beleclava-check, head lamp-check, five upper body layers-check, two lower body layers-check, waterproof jacket-check, waterproof pants-check, glacier goggles-check, gaiters-check, two pairs of socks-check, plastic boots-check, crampons-check, ice axe-check, harness-check,...). Ready to roll!

We stopped off for lunch and picked up our second guide about half way to Cotopaxi National Park. It was at this point that we had to repack our packs under the supervision of Guide #2. Since we had to carry everything up, including food and sleeping bags, from the parking lot to the 'refuge' from where we would begin the actual climb, we were only to bring the necessities. Pyjamas, alternate shoes, and underwear were among the items that did not make the cut.

We arrived at the parking lot (4500m elev.) at about 2:30pm and though we could not make out the refuge through the rain and fog, we got our first glimpse of snow and began our hike toward the mountain's snow-line where shelter awaited.

The hike to the refuge (4800m elev.) took about an hour at a snail's pace and though we all giggled as we followed our guide up the hill at what we thought was a ridiculously slow pace, he obviously knew what he was doing as we were spared any ill effcts from the altitude.

The refuge reminded me a lot of a ski lodge...only without central heating and modern comforts. What we did find though was bunk beds and kitchen facilities. Perfect. We claimed bunks and then headed outside for 'glacier training'. This was basically an opportunity to practice walking in crampons, learn the various ways to ascend and descend on the ice, and practice falling down and using the ice axe to stop from sliding down the mountain.

The plan for the climb itself was this: Get up at midnight, have a light breakfast/snack, get geared up and head out and up at 1am. The climb is done at night for optimum snow conditions, as when the sun heats up the snow during the daytime it gets too soft. We were given a summit time limit of 8am. At this time, if we hadn´t made it, we would have to descend due to snow conditions. Pretty much what I had expected.

What hadn't ever crossed my mind however was the fact that apparently reaching the summit was not a given. It had never even occurred to me that we had come this far and would not necessarily reach the top of the mountain! Why had I not considered this until now? I mean it made sense that a successful climb would depend on snow conditions, the will of the weather gods, our fitness, etc. but I had never really thought about it. That is until the guides laid it out for us so that we would be prepared for anything. Shortly thereafter, two of the three other groups at the refuge decided to turn back as their climbers were already suffering severely from altitude sickness.

We ate supper and crawled into our sleeping bags at around 7pm to get some 'rest' before getting rolling again at midnight. Sleeping at 7pm is easier said than done and though I did fall in and out of sleep praying for clear conditions, Troy laid awake and made trips to and from the bathroom (outside) to pass the time.

At midnight, we jumped out of bed, ate our wheaties (but not before putting on our headlamps apparently), and headed outside where we were welcomed by a clear sky and a full moon (good signs). And so we began...
Though this was not a technical climb, we roped up to each other for safety's sake upon reaching the glacier. The conditions were clear and beautiful and though it was dark out, the moon provided the perfect amount of light to create 'ambience' for the climb. We made steady progress and though some sections were more difficult than others, we all felt great. The conditions were good and to our delight the guides declared that today would be a summit day!

We all felt great that is until we got to the top of a ridge at 4800m elevation, give or take about 79m of elevation from the summit (isn't GPS wonderful), looked over the edge, saw the looks on the guides' faces and then heard their verbal exchange (spoken just fast enough so that we couldn't understand). Leading up to the ridge, the snow was getting a bit soft and 'fragile' and big chunks were breaking away with each step. These conditions made the remaining ascent too dangerous as provoking an avalanche was obviously not worth the risk.

Now one would have thought that this would have been a great disappointment and I think even I was surprised by how Okay I was with not reaching the summit. But I mean really, what's 79m? About 15 minutes under ideal conditions, we were told. After having climbed for nearly six hours, is 15 minutes from the summit really a big deal? I decided it was not far enough away from the summit for me to declare the climb a bust. So, let's be clear, summit or no summit - We climbed Cotopaxi!

And here is the faux summit shot to prove it along with a shot of us descending with the summit visible in the top left of the photo.

Summit or no summit, as is evidenced in this following photo, Troy´s feelings of mountain-man prowess were clearly undamaged. The descent was significantly shorter and it was interesting to see all that we had passed in the night and hadn't even realized (even if sometimes that meant seeing the ridges that our footsteps had followed and/or the drop-offs that our footsteps had narrowly missed).

While the climb was fun in a satisfying-sense-of-accomplishment kind of way, the last part of the descent was definately the most fun in a unadultered-laugh-out-loud kind of way. It was the last part that we got to descend on our butts. No need for toboggans or crazy carpets or cafeteria trays, we slid down (or rather flew down) on the seats of our pants and it was the perfect way to end the day :)

P.S. In case you are curious, here is a picture of Cotopaxi on a clear day (relatively speaking).

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cotopaxi or Bust.

On a clear day, this is the view of Volcan Imbabura from my walk to school.
Though Troy shared our experience climbing this beauty previously, I thought I would post some pictures. (Unfortunately I do not have any pictures of the guide crawling down backwards, though the image is forever engrained in my mind.)

At the beginning, it was nice enough outside, t-shirt weather even. But it wasn´t long before the clouds moved in and the snowy peak (yes that is snow) became more difficult to discern.

The view from the summit was that of a cloudy white-out (whch perhaps should have been one of our first clues that the descent would be....tricky?).

When the clouds briefly cleared, we could make out the general direction of the City below. We did not yet know at this point that we would be required to descend all the way to that City. Had we known, we probably would have given a little more thought to orienteering...

You can barely make out Troy in this next shot descending through the forest in a muddy, slippery stream (though I am sure he is smiling). Every time my feet slipped out from under me and I slid down on my butt, or better yet, every time I had the pleasure of witnessing the same thing happening to Troy or Erin, it reminded me of that scene from Jewel of the Nile, or was it Romancing the Stone (??) when they slide down the river through the jungle...Remember?

Celebrating our victory when we emerged to level ground just before dark. Only another 45 minute walk to go....

This evening we are heading to Quito to climb the glacier that is atop Cotopaxi. We will set out from the base refuge (at about 4600m) at midnight on Thursday and, if all goes according to the well laid plans of our qualified guides (we did better research this time), we will reach the summit at almost 5,900m sometime Friday morning. We have been fitted with all our gear from beleclavas to crampons and are excited to reach a glacier peak!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Futbol anyone?

At Larcacunga, with Fridays come language classes in the morning and physical education (Cultura Fisica) after lunch. The kids all come dressed in their grey sweatpants and sweatshirts, worn over their grey sweatshorts and white t-shirts. An array of footwear is worn and I am constantly amazed at what physical feats a person can accomplish in rubber boots.

As we often find ourselves with no teachers on Fridays due to them being away on 'courses', we, the volunteers, have had to be creative in thinking of fun and interesting activities to entertain 40 kids ranging in age from about five to twelve. Especially since every morning they come in with futbol (soccer) on the brain.

Thinking that playing soccer couldn't possibly involve everyone, as there are varying sizes and abilities of students, and as the girls have never shown an interest in soccer, we try to instead do activities that we think can include and incorporate everyone. These activities have included pretty much every relay, game, or race any of us had ever done at camp, in gym class or that we just plain made up. Ranging from Mini olympics to Rock-tree-bridge, from Knots to Duck duck goose, from Clothes relays to Beanbag tossing, from Sharks and minnows to Freeze tag, and on and on (am open to ideas if you have any...!). Now, picture us trying to get/keep the attention of all of these kids, half of whom have futbol on the brain, explain the rules to a new game (in spanish ofcourse) and execute a 'fun' time for all, all the while controlling the spontaneous dog piles that erupt and often trying to get everyone to keep their hands to themselves as they line up without touching/hitting/bugging each other.

Let me help you with the visualization, I would liken it to herding cats. Although there are usually at least four of us, these days often prove to be challenging and we find ourselves explaining that we could have a lot of fun together, if everyone could just listen... I shudder just a little every time I find myself saying something my teachers used to say, kind of like when you use an expression that only your mom would say. Anyways, we have managed a lot of fun on these days but also ofcourse some frustration and yes, there have been some bandaids and tears too.

So this past Friday, the teachers were not away on course and I was anxious to see how the chaos was organized when the teachers ran the show. I had heard about the orderly way in which the director arranged the children in two rows, boys and girls, shortest to tallest. I had heard about the way that the kids ran in an orderly fashion in patterns around the tarmac, executing drills at her commands, and the way they practiced marching in tedium without so much as poking each other. I had heard about it but I didn't believe it.

And so, on Friday after lunch, in her softspoken fashion, the director asked the children for two rows and rows were formed. There was no hair pulling, no poking, no hitting each other in 'the junk' (why do boys do that?). Two rows formed in front of us, boys and girls, from shortest to tallest, arms length apart measured by touching the person's shoulders in front of you. The older kids helped the younger kids get positioned and they stood, and they waited for the next command. A truly impressive display of discipline!

To their delight, they were told that they would play... soccer! Cheering erupted and they were split into six teams without so much as a whine or complaint about being split up from their friends. Who were these children and what had they done with my students?! haha.

Two teams of older boys,
two teams of little boys,
and two teams of girls.

And yes, that is a basketball.

They rotated in and out playing ten minute games. The girls, who had fooled us into thinking they didn't play soccer, came alive and showed their competitive spirits. We were all impressed by the display of everyone's ball handling skills, obviously learned from a young age. (Well except for the very littlest ones who I thought would most certainly get bowled over as they either chased after the crowd or stood still in the line of fire, but, to my relief, did not).

Those who weren't playing occupied themselves with...whatever they wanted! No organized activity or task required. Period. This is a concept I am working at grasping as I have realized that my OCD personality often thinks that every minute needs to be accounted for in some way.

Some watched from the sidelines,

some showed off the school 'mascot' and some took in the rays,

while others just monkeyed around.

Fun was had by all. While I don't know that we will ever command the respect and discipline that the school director (who incidentally has been in the community for 17 years!) does , I think we learned a valuable lesson. Next time the teachers are away on course...we will play soccer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Birthday Suit!

Happy Birthday to Me,
Happy Birthday to Me,
The Water was really cold,
Happy Birthday to Me.