The wind howls as if it is trying to rip the roof off the 15,750' Jose Ribas hut, I think of the "Three Little Pigs." We lay there, trying to sleep but mostly having a mix of dreamlike thoughts pierced by moments of actual sleep. Nothing to be nervous about I tell Jessica, it doesn't look like the mountain is going to give us a chance anyway.
Relative calm before the storm...
It's midnight, our guide Segundo wakes us to the news we'd been expecting and dreading at the same time.
"Weather is not good, very rainy and windy, we sleep for another hour and hopefully it clears," he says. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about, it's part of the game," I reply, before rolling over to try to get some more 'sleep.'
I start doing the math, wake up at 1 a.m. an hour to get ready, leave at 2 a.m., the guides already know we won't summit. They've seen Cotopaxi's temper and know how nasty she can be.
The hour goes by fast and Segundo is back.
"The weather, it's a little better," he kindly lies to us.
We donn our Gore-Tex suits of armor and go downstairs for breakfast. I'm surprisingly hungry considering the elevation, and the fruit salad, yogurt and corn flakes is actually quite good. A trip outside to the bathroom reveals the nastiness that awaits us. I don't know if you could call it rain really, but the wind is whipping wet, sleety, snowish, precipitation every possible direction. This is what it feels like to be in a storm cloud.
Wild horses in Cotopaxi National Park
We set off by headlamp up the trail toward the glacier, the rainy sleetiness slapping us in the face with a constant sting. Screaming barfies I think to myself. The mountain doesn't want to play. I pull up my Buff to cover some of the sting and trudge upward, right behind Jessica so I can keep an eye on her. Within minutes our bodies are covered in a layer of water that is quickly turning to ice. We are Popsicles. Our clothing does its job well though and it isn't that cold. We are easily the best equipped on the mountain today to handle such weather. Thanks to my luck as a gear tester for Gore and Backpacker we could afford what would be the thousands of dollars in backpacks, jackets and pants we have on.
It's all a show I think, the guides want us to have an experience, but there won't be a summit today, time ran out before we even woke up. Just enjoy these moments I tell myself.
Eventually we reach the snowline where the angle increases and our crampons go on. Segundo helps Jessica get hers squared away, we take the ice axes off of our packs and begin what feels like the real climb. After a few feet the other group and guide with us stop to rope up, Segundo asks if we want to.
"Only if there are crevasses," I tell him. "We are fine climbing snow."
He seems surprised, maybe impressed. This is a testament to the inexperience of most people he brings up more than it is a testament to our experience. We are very comfortable on snow, and this slope is mild, 25-35 degrees at best.
A fall here wouldn't go anywhere. We wait to pull out the rope.
I focus on my technique, holding the axe properly and using French technique (basically walking like a duck) to take advantage of as many of the points my 12-point crampons offer. I remind Jessica to keep her feet apart so she doesn't catch her crampons on her pants.
We move slow and eventually the other group overtakes us. This is fine, our style is to move slow and steady, generally without breaks. I feel great but know the weather is dangerous. If we weren't with a guide we would have turned around already as the featureless snow slope would be easy to get lost on without GPS or diligent map and compass use. There is no track to follow today, not enough people have been up the route recently to put one down. Segundo knows exactly where we are and where to go though, even with his sunglasses on through the night.
Before long the snow begins forming sculptures as the glacier crashes into the earth at its terminus. I try to take a mental picture, it's like nothing I've ever seen.
Our first real glimpse of Cotopaxi, from Mitud del Mundo
We move to the left of the slowly crawling ice sculptures and continue up. Jessica is beginning to struggle with the weather and her shoulder hurts thanks to our recent car accident.
After a couple hundred feet of elevation gain Segundo stops, Jessica is about ready to turn around. He tells us what we've assumed since before leaving the hut.
"The summit no es possible today, the weather is very bad," Segundo says. "We can go a little higher if you want."
Jessica is done, I am proud of her for coming this far, this wouldn't be easy for most people in ideal conditions. Later Segundo will tell me how impressed he is with her effort, "She's very strong."
Jessica arriving at the Jose Ribas Hut, 15,750'
"Will Iban (the other guide) continue?" I ask.
Segundo gets in touch with him on their radio after several tries. I'm amazed that Iban could hear it in the constant wind.
"Yes," Segundo tells me. "They will go a little further."
They are out of sight, somewhere not too far above but hidden by the cloud we are climbing through.
I'm drawn to the siren song of the summit, luring me to continue. We are around 17,000' and I couldn't feel better, I even like this weather -- this is truly the alpine.
"Can I climb up and meet them and you take her down?" I ask Segundo.
I want to continue but I don't want to make Jessica carry on any further. I'm confident in my ability to climb above and catch the other group, I can move much faster than we have been.
"Excuse me, but we all climb together and then I bring her down," Segundo says in his broken English.
A look over at Jessica confirms she isn't ready to go higher, although I'm sure if I'd asked she would have for me.
I take a minute to think.
"It's okay," I say. "Let's all go down."
Today isn't about a summit, especially one that is not likely possible. Plus, the group above is made up of two very amateur climbers (if you can call them climbers at all, I don't mean this offensively, it is objectively true) and a guide. I don't know if I want to be on that rope anyway.
I snap a few pictures of Jessica, trying to capture the brutalness of the moment. Our bodies are literally covered in ice. My axe has a ring of ice around it, my backpack, everything. There is nothing like this in Colorado, it just isn't wet enough.
Jessica shows off her smile near 17,000'
This is closer to how she really feels...
We turn around.
The trip down is uneventful, just how descents should be. Arriving at the hut we can do nothing but laugh at the amount of ice covering us. Jessica's hood has a ring of ice sculpted around her helmet. Two helmets we joke. We hang our suits of armor up and crawl back into our sleeping bags to warm up.
My ice axe gets icy...
A few hours later the other group returns.
"El cumbre (the summit)?" I ask.
"No," they tell me.
I find some selfish satisfaction in this. I'm not happy they didn't make the summit, I'm happy that I didn't miss my chance to though. We put our still ice covered clothes back on and get ready to hike down to the car. The weather hasn't improved with the light of day. I look up toward the glacier in a vain attempt to catch one last glimpse but Cotopaxi isn't lifting her skirt of clouds today, she already gave us a peek and that's all she's in the mood for this trip. Perhaps I'll bring wine next time...
As we hump our way back down to the car I ask Segundo if he would ever summit in those conditions, he tells me no.
My icy backpack
From our boots to our crampons to our jackets, Segundo repeatedly tells me how nice our gear is. I try explaining that I've gotten most of it for free as a gear tester. He thinks I said "three" as in $300.
When we stop to change out of our clothes into relatively dry ones I point to the Arc'teryx pants Jessica wore.
"Are these your size?" I ask Segundo.
They are. I ask him if he wants them, instead of a tip. He doesn't understand.
"How much?" he asks. "I don't have much money with me."
"Por gracias (for thanks)," I tell him.
His face lights up, they are $400 pants. They cost me nothing though and we almost never use them in Colorado, Land of the Softshell. It's not about what they were worth or what they cost me though, it was about what they meant to him.
"You are the best person," he says.
I know this isn't true but it sure feels good to hear. He tells Jessica the same thing, a much truer statement in this case.
"You'll use them much more than we would in Colorado," I say. "You'll take them to the summit and think of us."
He's shocked at the gift.
"Of course I will," he tells me.
The look on his face would have been worth it even if we'd paid full price for the pants, the fact that he will use them way more than we ever could and that he'll have some of the nicest pants of any Ecuadorian mountain guide only adds to it.
I am glad for the experience, I am glad to have met Segundo and Iban and I'm glad I turned around with Jessica. Not just because the summit wasn't possible that day, but because it wasn't about the summit, it was about experiencing these unique moments together and building our love and trust for each other. Cotopaxi is still there, further and further away as our flight takes us back to the States and I write this, but she's there, and I know she isn't going anywhere.
An Andean Condor from our hike of Rucu Pichincha
View from La Basilica
For a full slideshow of pictures from our trip to Ecuador click on the video above...
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