Quito (9,200 ft)
We arrived in Quito around midnight; customs took its usual forever, but we made it thru security without any major hitches. As Tim and I departed the airport, people looked at us quizzically, staring at our trekking packs – gear attached, and our overall rugged demeanor, dissecting our intentions with their imaginations and prospective wonderment. Everyone loves to dream of adventure – they saw that dream in us …
The next morning Tim and I woke-up bright and early to meet and greet our two other team members at a local restaurant and coffee sanctuary, called The Magic Bean, located just a few convenient blocks from our hostel. Our group would consist of four climbers – Dan and Gavin, both from Earth Treks Climbing
, and Tim and me, with Climb for Hope
. Dan was our leader, a well-versed climber and educator in both mountaineering and rock climbing, and just the kind of high-wired, super enthusiastic adventure-life-nut we needed to lead our high octane, and hopefully efficiently performing mountain team. Gavin, the young buck of the bunch and the seemingly quiet leader-type, brought a healthy and contagious eagerness and mountaineering knowledgebase to match his own apparent passion for living life to the fullest and bettering the world by helping those less fortunate around him. Tim I knew and had climbed with before back in 2009 on our first Climb for Hope expedition on Mount Adams. He’s a rock with the beating heart of a lion, and although outwardly concerned with and often comically verbal about his elder age and subsequent crumbling body, Tim’s one dude you wouldn’t trade for anyone when it comes to grit and determination in any endeavor where shit can go bad. Overall, looking around the table that morning at breakfast, and after spending ample time with these three in the days to come, I don’t think we could have asked for a better, more complimentary team of individuals to climb with in the Ecuadorian Andes.
Pasochoa (13,779 ft)
Our first training climb was on a local volcanic mountain, named Pasochoa, located about an hour outside of central Quito. The road-in was wet and weathered, yet surprisingly well kept for its rural surroundings. The traditional trailhead – the one Dan had experience on and the path we had intended on taking, was unexpectedly closed, which caused us to venture a few miles further down the road until we reached a closed iron gate manned by a local woman asking for $20 for the entry of our outfit. We paid the due and entered the site.
For about the first mile or so, we walked along an impressively well-laid stone road with a small drainage gully on our right and farmland to our left. The sporadic bits of rain that dropped and stopped caused us to change into our waterproof attire only a few hundred meters in and walk amongst the elements for the rest of the ascent.
Beyond reaching a point where we had to climb over a makeshift door on the barbed-wire wooden fence boarding the open farmland around us, we began to trek up an oddly robust, lusciously green and growing terrain, no doubt the product of heavy rainfall and the highly fertile, volcanic soil compounds squishing below our feet – a site somewhat new and bizarre considering we were perched at a relatively high altitude.
Fighting thru thick brush and prickly thicket we eventually ascended to a depressed rock formation where we decided to rest and have our first communal snack of the day. The clouds had closed-in upon us, limiting our view to only a few tens of meters, but the surroundings still popped in beauty as we snacked and joked and built upon the blossoming rapport the team was beginning form.
The final few hundred feet mostly consisted of bouldering and simple maneuvering up to Pasochoa’s summit. Once standing upon our first accomplished feat, we posed for a few pictures and exchanged hugs between team members, two constants I’ve come to know and appreciate in my short mountain climbing career.
Rucu Pichincha (15,413 ft)
The following day, the team assembled and headed towards Pichincha, a three-pronged volcano with its eastern slope boarding the city of Quito. Our goal for the day was to reach the summit of Rucu, via the direct route, to an elevation above 15,400 feet. This seemed ideal in that Cotopaxi’s José Ribas mountain hut, which is where we would stay for our climb of Cotopaxi, is at the same altitude further assisting in our acclimatization process before making an attempt at Cotopaxi two days later.
Common access to the trailhead of Pichincha is via the teleférico, a gondola one can take for the roundtrip fee of a few American dollars. The aesthetics on the way up are of the unrealized dreams of Quito’s businessmen who had hoped to expand upon the city’s tourist attractions and undoubtedly exploit the economic boom it would bring. Empty parking lots terraced amongst vacant office buildings run rampant, all centered around an aging, relatively unused amusement park. Yet regardless of the areas failed monetary aspirations, the fifteen-minute ride up is still made scenic by the natural views around you and Quito littering the valley below.
Once up and onto the trail, we hiked for what seemed to be a little more than an hour or so to a point where Class 2 climbing would no longer suffice. While Tim, Gavin and I geared up with harnesses and affixed the rope, Dan free-climbed up the first technical rock formation and tied-in an anchor around fifty meters above our position. One-by-one we climbed up and over the rock ridge, sliding the Prusik knot up along the fixed rope as we negotiated different vertical formations and clipped in and around the anchors Dan was setting ahead of us. Given that this was Tim’s first ever rock climbing experience and my first outside the confines of a climbing gym, the two of us enjoyed the entirety of the experience on an exponential level. Gavin, on the other hand, got his fix when we reached “la ventana del muerte” (i.e., the window of death), which is a point where, when climbing in and amongst the clouds, its name is validated in full. The drop-off had the illusion of an infinite white abyss, but was something we didn’t really recognize or focus on until making it successfully thru. It’s strange sometimes how extreme concentration can blur out the looming dangers perceptibly imminent in your immediate surroundings.
After working thru the more technical sections, the group was able to hike up the remaining portion of the ridge and reach Rucu’s summit for our second successful and efficiently accomplished goal in as many days.
Click Here >>>CLIMBING VIDEO in LA VENTANA DEL MUERTE
Cotopaxi (19,347 ft)
Two days after summiting Rucu Pichincha, we hopped in an old school extended van and headed for Cotopaxi National Park. To say that Tim and I were a bit anxious for the climb would be an understatement. As climbers for Climb for Hope, we both felt the need to reach our goal and fulfill our end of the bargain by doing what we said we’d do and summit the top of this mountain. Hundreds of people had selflessly and generously donated towards a cause in response to solicitations from us; we weren’t about to say thanks for helping us reach our [monetary] goal, but unfortunately we weren’t able to make it to the top of Cotopaxi … but almost. It just wasn’t an option, but in actuality, it was.
Dating back to the first conversation we had with Dan, and from previous firsthand experience, Tim and I were well aware that we had one shot to make the top of this mountain. If it didn’t happen the day/night we were scheduled to climb, then it wasn’t going to happen; at least not on this trip to Ecuador. We had one shot – that was it, and given that we had absolutely no control over the elements, we fretted over the prospect of the unknown and the uncontrollable. So, if weather came in and showed its ugly face, or if avalanche conditions were reported and determined to be too great of a risk to climb, or even if wind gusts were too high for us to stand-up straight or step forward and back, we would have to scratch the climb and head home, head in hands, embarrassed at our inability to succeed, and agonizing at how to tell the people, who had donated thousands, that we had failed. Despite these semi-prevalent pessimistic thoughts, we primarily honed-in on the optimism of just having the opportunity to do something great, and the prospective climb ahead.
We reached the hut in early afternoon, set-up our sleeping areas, and sat down for lunch in the communal area with a fully loaded kitchen, tables and all. The plan was to rest for the remainder of the day, nap a bit during the afternoon, and then hopefully sleep a few hours throughout the night. The next morning we were scheduled to wake-up around six, eat some breakfast and head up onto the snow-covered slope for some rope-work and mountain school training with Dan and our new Ecuadorian guide, Romel. After that, we’d repeat the process of the day prior – eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, and sleep some more – except for this time, on the second night, we’d get up, gear-up and start the ascent.
We woke up at 12:18 am the night of the climb, eighteen minutes after we had planned to, and scurried into the kitchen area for a quick cup of coffee or tea, and some apple strudel compliments of Entenmann. By 1:00 am we were outside, glaring up into the star-filled night sky, looking back at the embers of Quito glow in the distant valley below. After strapping on our crampons and affixing our packs, we began the ascent at 1:10 in the AM.
Romel led with me behind him and Tim behind me. Dan and Gavin followed suit, with a separate, two-man roped team, climbing right behind us. As we worked our way up the slope, switchbacking to decrease the pitch as we worked towards the glacier overhead, we began to pass people who were taking a more direct, straight-up route, in greater and greater frequency. The entire week prior we had preached team efficiency and the idea of “keeping a good pace”. Speed was one thing, endurance another, but the marriage of the two meant pace, and by working together at a doable, efficient clip, we were definitely keeping a good pace. At some point we stopped passing people because there was no one else to pass, which meant we would act as lead climbers, with Romel setting anchors for everyone else to clip-in to, for the steep and icy and highly exposed sections of the climb ahead.
We maneuvered together extremely well and didn’t have to break often for rest or water. Even when we did, the breaks were short, lasting somewhere between two-to-five minutes, which seemed more than enough time considering the wind was whipping around and the body tends to freeze faster when static. Common ailments between the team were shortness of breath, slight exhaustion, and trying to keep all the extremities warm in the frigidness of the night air. I actually felt great, both physically and mentally, up until about thirty or forty feet from summit when out of nowhere I was hit with a full body feeling of dizziness and the cold sweats. It scared me to a degree because at about a thousand feet earlier I began to cough sporadically in fits of two-to-three, and I could taste the blood in my mouth after hacking it up. I had also read and heard of horror stories where extreme altitude had gotten to climbers, even within a few steps of summit, but due to the debilitating qualities associated with HAPE (i.e., altitude sickness) and the fast acting, life threatening extremity of the condition, they had to stop in their tracks and turn back. Physically, there was no way I was not going to make it – that’s for sure, but a thought did cross my mind as to whether I could go on. Thankfully, after what seemed to be longer, but in all actuality probably didn’t last for more than thirty seconds or so, the simultaneous feeling of having to pass out, shit my pants, and throw-up subsided, and I was able to keep moving upward and onward as we reached the summit of Cotopaxi at 5:50 am, just a few minutes later.
We had it to ourselves – summit, sunrise, Romel, Tim, Gavin, Dan and me – what a feeling of personal accomplishment and team unity. All the months of hard work put-in – physically training every day, outside in the stubbornness of winter; mentally growing stronger by becoming one with our body and mind, reaching the goals we set for ourselves; and most importantly, fundraising for breast cancer research and the awesome reception connecting with people positivity brings. In the end, it all paid off. We were alive. We were at 19,347 feet.
Click Here >>>SUMMIT VIDEO