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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).


  1. Way to go Troy and Nic. The pics are awesome. Love Mom

  2. Wow! and double Wow!
    What beautiful scenery...