| 3 of 4, COTOPAXI
Jen and I were told that Cosme, our Sherpa-height Ecuadorian guide with oxygen-rich Incan blood running through his veins, has a reputation of being somewhat of a rico suave with the ladies. We didn't see it … until we turned off the road toward Cotopaxi.
While waiting for the other team's assistant guide to arrive (to give him a ride to the hut), Cosme happened to notice a young French woman crying on the side of the road. Apparently, the sketchy tour company she hired to take her to the Cotopaxi hut never showed up. So, of course, Cosme offered to give her a ride. This was very nice of him, we thought, but she ended up being a huge mooch.
At first it was just a ride. But by the second day, she was eating her third or fourth free meal, staying at the hut for free, and borrowing boots, gloves and a sleeping bag, among other things. She even used up a whole roll of Pavel's toilet paper. The worst part: She didn't even offer to pay for anything or tip our guide for helping her out. Jen and I concluded that she was either the most unprepared and naïve traveler in the world or she was cunningly manipulative. Either way, she was annoying. But I digress.
Back on topic, here's a photo of a poster from one of our hotels (photo taken 15 years ago, when the crevasses looked much different, so the route has changed since then):
Driving to the parking area:
Hiking to the hut in some fierce wind:
In our bunk area, Cosme set up a rope so we could practice prusiking for crevasse rescue:
By that evening, the Cotopaxi hut, which is at about 15,750 feet, was completely packed. I would estimate that at least 100 of the 120 bunks were filled.
By 1 a.m. the next morning we were starting our slow march up the mountain with a bunch of other headlamps.
At about 16,000 feet, it was difficult to strap on my crampons with my goggles fogging up and the wind pushing my pack from side to side.
I soon found comfort in the rhythm of the climb.
We set a good pace that matched my breathing rate perfectly – left foot inhale, right foot exhale. As we passed one climbing team after another, I looked back and saw a train of headlamps behind us. Altitude-wise, Jen and I were both doing really well.
The mountain didn't really care, though. Conditions continued to deteriorate. Visibility was limited, the winds picked up and the icy snow started to fall harder. It took a great deal of concentration to keep my ski goggles clear of ice, keep my balance on the steep slopes, and manage the rope slack between Cosme in front of me and Jen behind me.
We found temporary relief in a small, Hobbit-like snow cave, which was surprisingly comfortable and quiet.
Beyond that snow cave, things became much more serious. For one, climbing the mountain became an exercise in not falling down a steep slope or into a bottomless crevasse.
Meanwhile, rime ice continued to collect on us, adding a significant amount of weight to carry up the mountain – as if the 7 pounds on my feet (from the plastic boots and crampons) weren't enough. My head, especially, was beginning to feel the weight. It became so encased in ice I couldn't turn my head more than an inch in either direction.
Every 30 seconds or so, I had to scrape the building ice off my ski goggles in order to see. This became extremely frustrating. But even though we were completely socked in, when I tried to go without the goggles, it was blindingly bright and the blowing snow hit my eyes like a sandstorm.
This was about the time Jen expressed her concern about continuing on. I yelled to Cosme and he made his way down to us. "How far is it to the top?" I yelled. He said it was just 100 or 200 meters, so Jen decided she could suck it up and push on.
But after another 30 minutes or so of climbing, Jen was still getting thrashed around in the wind, which was very dangerous for us all, and it didn't seem like we were getting any closer to the top. Once again I asked Cosme how far it was to the top and he said it was an hour and a half. I think Cosme was calculating the round-trip time from our point, but it still sounded too long to continue on safely.
Because we still had to get all the way back down, we made the call to turn back at that point. I signaled to Cosme by cutting my throat with my hand.
We had climbed to about 19,000 feet, just a mere hundreds of feet from the summit, so it was a frustrating decision. But we thought it was a good one, as that last pitch is steep and we had already taken enough risks in going as far as we did.
I'm sorry I don't have more photos. It was just too dangerous to take any. I did, however, manage to snap this quick pic at our turnaround point:
As we slowly made our way back down, I think Jen and I came to the realization that if she had fallen into a crevasse, rescue would be rather challenging. Especially since all of our carabiners and cordelettes were encased in at least an inch of solid ice.
We had climbed for almost five hours and the sun was finally showing a little light through the dense clouds and blowing snow. We could finally see the crevasses and seracs we climbed around on the way up. It was an awesome, unforgiving, alien and otherworldly environment.
With Cosme taking up the rear, up rope, I did my best to follow our faint tracks down the glacier. My fogged-up and iced-up goggles made it difficult, though.
This was about the time I realized how empty the mountain was. A handful of people were still above us, but most groups had gone back down much earlier.
We continued our slog down the icy slope, and everything seemed to be going well. But when I took one particular step, both of my feet sunk 6 inches, as if the ground collapsed beneath me. It scared the living shit out of me, as I thought a snow bridge was collapsing.
It turned out to be OK, but as we worked our way down the volcano's glacier, I continued to hear cracking ice beneath my feet, and I found it a little disturbing.
When I came to a small snow bridge across a deep crevasse, Cosme set up a quick belay with his ice axe and I crossed it very carefully.
Once we got back down to the snow cave, we took a short break from the nasty weather to eat and drink.
And farther down the mountain, I had a chance to snap a few more pics as we took another short break to adjust the rope and take a drink of water:
I really wish I was able to take more photos of the crevasses on the way down, but as I mentioned, it was just too unsafe to do so.
Once back down at the hut, Jen's hair was still frozen:
We spent the next couple hours chopping ice off our equipment and drinking hot tea.
Our next stop was the touristy town of Baños for a couple days of much-needed rest.
We spent most of our free time sightseeing …
Watching a woman chop sugar cane:
Taking a cable car across a river:
Walking across a hanging bridge that said "5 people max":
Witnessing the earth-shaking power of Pailon del Diablo:
And watching Javier and Elke swing on a rope below a bridge (Jen and I passed because we didn't know how often they replaced the climbing ropes after taking so many whippers):
Our hotel in Baños:
Even though it was a little frustrating to not make the very top of Cotopaxi, we were more than OK with our decision to turn around. Had the weather been better, we were sure we could've made it. But no mountain is worth dying for.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):