| Tres Nevados, No Cumbres: Nevado Uno - Cotopaxi (attempt, to ~17,700‘)
Tres Nevados, No Cumbres: Nevado Uno - Cotopaxi (attempt, to ~17,700')
June 10th - Denver (5,281') to D.C. (313') to Miami (11') to Quito (9,250')
"Susan?" "Yes." The young man knelt in the aisle, in order to meet my eye level, as you would when speaking to a child and ensuring that the words are clearly understood. "I'm afraid that your bags did not make it onto this plane." Huh? My bags? ALL MY GEAR? What? Where are they, if not on the plane? "We don't know. You can file a claim with LAN Ecuador as soon as we arrive in Quito." He moved on down the aisle, stopped again, knelt in front of my friend and climbing partner, Doug. Oh shit.
And so, after thirteen hours of planes and airports, we landed at Quito Mariscal Sucre at 8:20 PM, our passports, cash, and mountaineering boots neatly packed away in our carry-ons - but nothing else.
Three hours later - after Immigration, and Customs, and filing a claim with the woman at LAN, who had no record of our baggage, but told me that I was welcome to call "Monica" at 9 AM the next morning to discuss the matter - we were standing in a Quito hotel room explaining our dilemma to Ismael, a representative from the alpine guide service High Summits.
"So, we have a problem," he said, "tomorrow you are on Cotopaxi. You have no gear. Now it's time to focus on the solution."
At midnight we slept.
June 11th - Quito (9,250') to Jose Rivas refugio (15,750')
"Statistically Cotopaxi has more clear days than any other of Ecuador's Big Ten so you have more chance of appreciating its beauty." -Yossi Brain, Ecuador: A Climbing Guide, p. 136
"Cotopaxi has more clear days than any other peak." -Brain, p. 41
It was snowing. Had been snowing higher up, we heard, all day. And it was getting dark. Franklin, our guide, parked his Land Cruiser in the mud at 4,600 meters (15,000') and we all strapped on our packs and began the slow, mellow hike up to the hut. The trail - if there was one - was now hidden under a soft layer of new snow, but the muddy terrain held well, wasn't too slippery, and was nice and easy on the knees.
It felt good to be at altitude again. Doug and I had been training hard in Colorado, climbing to 4,000 meters and higher every weekend; the final week before departure to Quito we opted to give our legs a break, and instead drove the highest paved road in North America up to the parking lot at 4,300 meters on Mount Evans, where we hung out for an hour or so, enjoying the acclimatization benefits, along with the much-needed recovery time prior to what we knew would be a tough climbing trip. The training plan had worked well - there were no headaches, no sickness, not the faintest hint of any issues with the altitude here - we may as well have been ambling up Barr Trail, if it weren't for the 19,347' active, glaciated volcano lying just ahead.
The hut, or "refugio," holds 70 climbers, and it was packed. Most climbers had already retired upstairs to the sleeping area, resting up for the traditional midnight wake-up. After a quick dinner of potato soup and bread and some hot tea, the tender of the refugio pulled some mattress pads onto the dining area floor for us, and Doug and I laid out our sleeping bags for the night. It was 8PM - in four hours we would be getting up for breakfast.
Pappas sopa, pan and the caliente at the refugio
Sleep was hard to come by, even with earplugs. The loud clopping of mountaineers' boots on hardwood floors, upstairs, and down the steps, then out to the bathroom, was non-stop. During the rare lulls in activity, I was treated to the undulating snorts and growls of Doug snoring passionately, just a few feet from my head. That bastard can sleep anywhere, I thought. Within moments, it seemed, the alarm sounded and it was time to move.
June 12th - Jose Rivas refuge (15,750') to Cotopaxi avalanche slope (17,700') to Hotel Cuello de Luna (10,237')
"The Cotopaxi area is blessed with the highest number of clear days per year in the Ecuadorian Andes, and thus climbs may be attempted year round. Cotopaxi is further west than Cayambe and Antisana, so it experiences the climate of the central highlands rather than of the Oriente. June and July are the driest months..." -Rob Rachowiecki and Mark Thurber, Ecuador Climbing and Hiking Guide, p. 201
"June and July are the driest months." -"Zeke," SummitPost Mountain/Rock Cotopaxi main page (http://www.summitpost.org/mountain/rock/150311/cotopaxi.html)
It was snowing - again. Hard now, nothing gentle about it, and the wind was picking up. Breakfast had been good and hot and plentiful: thick slices of chicken ham, cheese and bread; corn flakes and milk and hot coffee. We had shared a table with a girl from the U.K., who didn't climb at all - although her father "had spent a lot of time in the Alps" - and her Canadian boyfriend, who had never climbed a peak either. Well, I had responded to that, I guess you gotta start somewhere!
Doug and I were the last ones out of the hut, struggling a bit with the unfamiliar gear. That morning, Ismael had taken us to his apartment, opened his closet to us. Now, from helmets to crampons, axes to packs, socks, base layers, Gore-Tex, headlamps and fleece - down to the last carabiner, we were climbing in borrowed gear. I had been genuinely touched by his generosity - business or not; Ismael had reminded us that renting all that gear would be pricey, and we would be forced to purchase some items, such as clothing. He was right, of course, but still - to offer your long underwear to a strange woman, your wool socks to a strange man? You have to respect a person with that kind of heart.
Outfitting us had caused a delay in the schedule, and we were two hours late getting to the Cotopaxi National Park. The gate was locked and chained, and the guard had been determined to keep it that way. I listened as he and Franklin exchanged words, harsh at first, softening as Franklin discovered a common thread: the guard was from a town that Franklin knew, in fact had relatives there. Eventually, the guard accepted the ten dollar entrance fee and let us pass. This was our first glimpse into the importance of negotiation skills, for an ASEGUIM-certified alpine guide.
And so we climbed, at 1:30 AM, marveling at our good fortune, provided by others in the face of adversity: the loaned gear, late admittance, floor space! Our luck would eventually run out.
From the hut, we headed southwest to the base of the scree slope, then followed the bootpack of snow on mud up the steep switchbacks. It was blustery: driving snow, wind, the kind of weather we were accustomed to running into on Colorado peaks, November through March.
One by one, the other climbers began to peel off and head down: the altitude, the pace, the difficulty, the weather - there were as many reasons as there were teams, it seemed. About half an hour after gaining the glacier - at about 17,000' - the remaining teams stopped to rest, and discuss the conditions. There was a lot of concern around the snow: the fresh cover was soft and deep, and was covering the crevasses, making them tough to spot. Within hours they would be more thoroughly hidden, and the rising sun would be warming everything up, softening the snow bridges and adding to the danger on the descent.
Our team, and two others, cramponed up, roped up. The rest descended.
17,000 feet was the turn around point for most.
Twenty minutes later, the larger team turned around, passed us on the way down, wished us good luck. Soon after, the last team - three men, the strongest we had seen all day - came down. Franklin chatted with them a bit. They were now concerned about avalanche danger. After they passed, Franklin spoke to Doug and me.
"So, how are you guys doing?" he asked us. We're fine, we told him. In fact, we were loving it. This was exactly the kind of stuff we thrived on: cold, wind, steep snow, and nobody else on the mountain. It was freaking heavenly. But, we added, you're the expert here. If it's not safe, if you think we need to turn around, say the word. It's dark, and we don't know what's ahead. You do this peak every week. What do you think? Franklin explained his concerns and those of the other guides. Then he added: "OK, there's a slope at 5400 meters. I want to check that out. If it's good, we continue; if not, we come down." It was still only 4 in the morning, we wanted to go higher, and this sounded like as good a plan as any. Neither Doug nor I wanted to quit yet - we eagerly pushed on.
It's 4 AM - do you know where your headlamp is?
From there, we continued straight up the glacier and then began an ascending traverse slightly to the left. The bootpack disappeared, and we were even postholing here and there, occasionally breaking partially through to the crevasses hidden beneath the deep layer. As we summited a narrow ridgecrest, Franklin told us both to stay put for a moment while he checked out the conditions ahead. It was 4:30 in the morning and the snow had quit - the air was still and crisp and crystalline and dark, and it felt cold and good in my lungs. I was happy for the break, for the chance to enjoy the moment.
I swept the slope ahead with my headlamp, right to left - saw the hazy figure of Doug standing to the right, mid-slope - then Franklin, to the left, carefully making his way up onto a step in the ridge. Then, no noise, just a massive billow of whiteness, illuminated in the darkness by the light of a single halogen bulb - the one strapped to my forehead. I stood frozen to the spot, knowing but not wanting to turn away. The blast struck me in the face, knocked me back, and I felt a wild surge of excitement. I staggered a bit, grinning like an idiot, heard someone yelling "Get down, get down," and I was off, running in crampons, back along the tracks that we had just laid. Doug was right behind me, and Franklin, and after a minute or two he yelled for me to stop and I did, and we all stood looking at each other, and he said,"I am sorry. We cannot continue."
That's cool. We want to climb Cotopaxi, not die on Cotopaxi, I said, We understand. Doug agreed. It was time to retreat.
Going down, it started to get light, and we took our time to enjoy the views. Doug explained what he had seen, the slope breaking off, twenty feet across, a foot thick, plunging down toward me. In fact, I was not in the deposition zone at all and the slide had missed me completely - it was only the airborne snow that had peppered me, I told him.
I sure hope someone is on the other end of this rope.
Halo in the snow.
I think they're moving.
They're coming after you Doug.
The slow descent.
Taking an Ecuadorian squat at 17,000 feet.
I have something stuck in my crampon.
The rut, and the hut.
Views of Ruminahui three summits.
Oh yea, now the sun comes out.
We were back at the hut at 7 AM. The place was crawling with climbers, sleeping, eating, pacing the floors.
A young man with a Swedish accent asked: "How high did you go?" 5400 meters, I said. "And you're just getting down now?" Yes, I nodded. "Hmph," he sniffed, "I was down by 3 AM."
That's great, I thought, you scrawny little European prick. You turned around at 5000 meters and rushed off the mountain, and now you've been stomping around this dark smelly hut for four hours, while I was up there, watching the sun rise, marveling at the snow sculptures, seracs, crevasses, and the amazing views of the Cotopaxi skyline. You missed all that. But you definitely beat me off the mountain - by four hours! You definitely beat me...
I studied his face, formulating my response - noticed Doug standing a few feet away, his sad eyes and crumpled smile telling me, Men are so stupid. I apologize for all of them.
I smiled sweetly, told the guy yes - we are just getting down now. We are very slow, you know. He smirked contentedly and strutted on to the kitchen.
North side of the refugio, looking northwest at Ruminahui.
The hike down.
Looking back from the parking lot.
The morning was brilliant and we enjoyed the easy hike back down to the 'Cruiser. Driving out, Franklin pulled up alongside at least half a dozen other vehicles - virtually everyone we met on the road - to talk. I wondered aloud if perhaps he was actually the Mayor of Cotopaxi, he laughed and said that no, it was just that all the guides knew each other up there, and it was a very tight group. They shared beta, stories, opinions. Near the entrance we pulled up alongside another Land Cruiser: windows rolled down, Franklin and the driver chatted a bit.
"He says," Franklin told us, "that everyone is saying that we were the only team to make it to 5400 today." I saw his face in the rearview mirror - smiling to himself, pleased and happy. He had been extremely apologetic - depressed, even - about not getting us to the summit, and I was happy to see him smile again. I smiled too. It did feel good - summit or no summit.
We drove to Cuello de Luna, where Doug and I would rest for a day, before heading to the Whymper refuge, and Chimborazo. We were OK with the missed summit, understood the decision - but we were both still distressed about our lost gear, were perhaps even suffering from separation anxiety. Yes, it's just stuff - but each piece has memories attached, and we were grieving at the loss. Is that silly? We climb every week. I spend more time with my gear than I do my family, or friends. I couldn't think about it - the possibility of it all being lost forever, or stolen.
After a fine lunch of arroz con pollo, pappas fritas, and a pot of the caliente con leche y sucre, I passed out in the room, while Doug opted for a hammock - and cool breeze - out on the deck.
Two hours later there was a soft rap on the door. Who is it? I mumbled, in a dream.
"It's Ismael. I have come from the airport. I have your bags."
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):