High-Altitude Experience on Cotopaxi
“I can’t breathe. I need to lie down.” Tracy sputtered through labored breathing, as she slumped to the ground, lying parallel to the frozen surface of the summit of Cotopaxi at 19,347 feet above sea level.
Similar scenes had played their course through by mind in the months leading up to my first high-altitude climbing trip. Void of personal high-altitude experience above 14,400 feet, my role-plays developed heroically, as if altitude sickness were a demon to be crushed on the way to each summit. The real experience was sharply different—it was scary.
From the summit of Cotopaxi, we stared down icy, 50-degree slopes that cascade mercilessly into dark crevasses. Jason, Wynn and I felt solid and strong. We had assumed Tracy felt the same way. She had never spoken to the contrary, and she had kept pace. We reached the summit in less than 5 hours. Yet after 5 minutes of rest on the summit, we fell from our summit-induced euphoria upon seeing Tracy down on the snow, knees to her chest.
Her symptoms were difficulty breathing, excessive cold, burning lungs, confusion, lack of coordination and an overwhelming sensation to sleep. We shortened the ropes to steady her balance, and calmly talked her through our plan to descend quickly. During this descent preparation she laid down twice and stumbled over her crampons. Between us three, no words were necessary, our eyes communicated our emotions. In the eyes of Jason and Wynn I saw concern, yet calm control. I’m not sure what they saw in my eyes, but I can tell you it wasn’t calm and it wasn’t control.
With aspirations to climb big mountains outside the western United States, I had come to Ecuador to gain high-altitude experience, in a non-technical environment, with local friends who had amassed far more high-altitude mountaineering experience than I had. Now immersed in the real battle, I was forcefully reminded that you get what you ask for—high-altitude experience.
Tracy focused her energy and plodded through each step down the chiseled boot track. Boot tracks have a way of making the ascent a bit less adventurous, but on this descent I was grateful for each person who had stomped this track into the snow. After descending 500 vertical feet, Tracy’s mind was clearing and her coordination was returning. After descending 1,000 vertical feet, it was as though nothing had ever happened. Tracy’s memory of the ordeal was surprisingly limited, but ours was not. She didn’t mention the initial symptoms of altitude sickness for fear of ruining our summit; we three agreed that the summit wasn’t worth such an experience!
Quito and Sunfana (13,665 ft)
We spent a day walking Quito and visiting the Equator. The next day involved traveling to our home base, outside the city of Machachi, and hiking a 12-mile loop to the 13,665-foot summit of Sunfana. We labored to finish this summit through a stiff rainstorm and occasional lightning. Just as we reached the top, the cloud cover dissolved to reveal a spectacular sunset reflected on the flanks of Ruminahui and Cotopaxi. Our descent from Sunfana continued into the night where we stumbled upon a small herd of cattle, including a raging mother protecting her young. The cow charged us as we dived through a barbed-wire fence. Wynn snagged his Gore-Tex shell on a barb, but concluded that was a good trade to the alternative of being trampled.
Iliniza Norte (16,818 ft)
I never asked how long the approach to the Iliniza climbing hut would be, nor did I know the elevation gain to get there. The lack of information was a blessing. If I had known the dismal distance we had to travel with bulging 50-pound packs, my mind would have defeated me. Everyone else seemed to cope well with the approach; I, on the other hand, was spent, and my left knee was awkwardly painful.
The night in the cramped, musty environment of the Iliniza climbing hut didn’t offer any solace. Our late-afternoon arrival placed us on a small, upper loft next to an unfriendly Russian couple. In addition, my knee continued to produce sharp, consistent pain. After all my preparation and training was I falling apart on the second mountain? I had all night to think about it because it was impossible to sleep. I climbed down the loft at 1:30 a.m. to chat with some friendly guys from the United States, preparing to climb Iliniza Sur. Finally, the sun rose to reveal the damage from an overnight storm. The snow totaled nearly two inches; yet, the sun was out and the strong winds had calmed. We took it as an invitation to continue!
Iliniza Norte was a blast. The scrambling was easy, although a bit more interesting with the snow cover, and the terrain was stunning as we spotted our friends on Iliniza Sur and viewed the major volcanoes on all sides. We made it up and down quickly, just as clear skies gave way to cloudy ones. I descended back to the parking lot in extremely slow fashion to save my knee further damage.
Cayambe (18,996 ft)
Jason left that afternoon and climbed the first 800 vertical feet of the route to scope the conditions on the glacier. After that, we rested outside as the sun faded into the horizon. Watching the colors of the sunset illuminate the rugged glaciers of Cayambe is an experience I’ll never forget.
That night, sleeplessness ensued. The weather was good, conditions looked fine, but I was anxious—too anxious. Numerous times I awoke, doubled over in pain from the anxiety eating away at my stomach. My concern was the fast-approaching unknown of Cayambe’s terrain. This mountain can require difficult route finding with a large bergshrund crossing at the top. There was also reported to be blue ice. I couldn’t sleep. We prepared at midnight and left a half hour later.
As we walked out the hut door, I felt comfortable enough with my teammates to unveil my emotions and ask Wynn if he ever felt such crippling anxiety. “Yeah.” was the answer. At least I wasn’t alone. My fears proved false as we traveled docile 25-degree ice, 30-45 degree snow, crossed over 8 narrow crevasses, and found the bergschrund to be choked full of snow with a large, stable snow bridge. I can’t imagine this mountain could be found under more favorable conditions.
Sunrise on the summit brought a fierce, bitter wind that coated us in ice, but we were safe and happy. On the summit I felt absolute peace and satisfaction. The surrounding scene was unbelievable in its beauty. What a difference from my overnight anxiety. That experience only sweetened the euphoria of the summit. This was fun!
We visited the bustling Saturday market to meet some of the most colorful and beautiful people I have ever seen. The native dress for the women combines black skirts with white blouses. The edges of the clothing are embroidered in red and gold, with similar belts around their waists. Long, gold necklaces are looped ten to twenty times around their necks, with matching red bracelets on their wrists.
As charming as the clothing was, it was overpowered by the kind eyes, welcoming smiles and deep wrinkles of their faces. These were faces developed in difficulty, but blossoming in simplicity and happiness. You could see it in their eyes. I’ll never forget their eyes.
Cotopaxi (19,347 ft)
We traveled to Cotopaxi in the same pick-up-truck style as before, and we picked a friendly German hitchhiker/climber who was traveling solo. We were stopped at the gates to Cotopaxi, because our driver lacked the proper documentation to enter the National Park. As flashes of the Cayambe transportation difficulties returned, we found a nice man who makes a living off of helpless foreigners that lack the “Hoja de Guia” necessary to enter the park. He was all-to-happy to help and we were all-to-happy to employ. His truck did break down once, but we got to the hut with the minimal huffing required.
As mentioned above, Cotopaxi produced a new form of anxiety as we helped Tracy down from the summit, but in the end, we reveled in the same peaceful satisfaction of a beautiful summit and a brilliant adventure. The terrain of Cotopaxi was steeper and more rugged than Cayambe. I enjoyed the deep crevasses and overarching seracs. The mountain was stunningly wild and beautiful.
Chimborazo (20,561 ft)Having gone four-for-four with our summit attempts thus far, we were feeling good as we made the four-hour trip to the Chimborazo climbing hut. Our only vulnerability appeared to be our narrow time frame. Our return flight was a day away, so the weather had to comply.
As we traveled the Pan American highway to Riobamba, this time in the luxury of a 4-Runner that we knew could make it to the hut, I soaked in the towering foothills covered by checkerboard patterns of agricultural field