Monday, October 29, 2012

Climbing Cotopaxi Volcano, Equador

I can tend to be a bit too romantic sometimes.  Reading about all these mountaineers, circumnavigators, arctic explorers, etc.....gets me dreaming and yearning to do the same.  Sometimes I find I am a pretty good fit for the chosen adventure, if not too extreme, and sometimes I find that I better move on to the next one.  I had been backpacking most of my life, and I like it, a lot.  And I feel like I am pretty good at it.  I would almost call myself a competent backpacker, if there is such a thing.  So, I'm thinking mountaineering would be the next step.  And I should be good at it too, since I have done well at the prerequisite course of backpacking.

The chance came up to try some mountaineering in Ecuador, and I took it.  The goal was the Cotopaxi Volcano at around 20000 feet high.  I had never done any high altitude climbing.  The highest I had been before this trip was around 14000 feet.  But I was sure I could handle this.  Right?

The climbing team at 15000 feet on our acclimatization hike just out of Quito.
We landed in Quito and got settled in our hotel.  We met up with a friend that lives there and he had recruited a local guide to take us up our first assent.  The next day we made a warmup hike up the foothills that surround Quito.  We reached a high altitude of just over 15000 feet.  So far so good.  We loaded up the rental car with our climbing gear and would travel to the Cotopaxi National Park the next day and stay in a cabin at around 12000 feet.

 Loading the car up with climbing gear

Our first look at Cotopaxi Volcano

Unloading our gear at our "base camp" at 12000 feet

Getting situated in our high altitude home.

Watching the sun set 

Hanging out  and relaxing before our trip to the mountain.
After getting situated at "base camp", which lies on a ridge overlooking an incredible scene with Cotopaxi dominating the western skyline, we relax and talk of our plans for the next several days.  We are at 12000 feet and will drive up to another hut "camp ll" at 15000 feet to get ready for the summit attempt.  I did not like this plan.  It was going to be too high, too fast for me.  I knew this from past experience.  I wanted to hike from base camp to camp ll, even if we had to spend the night out on the way.  This way we would have more time to adjust on our slower assent.  But the plan was to drive and drive we did.

It is about 10 miles from base camp to camp ll.  The next morning we loaded up the truck and headed toward the mountain.
We are about to walk from the parking lot to base camp ll at 15000 feet.
We would reach a parking lot at 14500 feet the next day and from there hike up to camp ll.  You can see the hut, camp ll, in the picture above.  The hike from the parking lot to camp ll would prove to me that this was not the best way to do things.  My body was really feeling the affects of the rapid altitude gain.

Hiking up to Camp ll from the parking lot

Looking back towards the parking lot on our way to camp ll.
After reaching camp ll, we rested and ate, and talked about taking a quick warmup hike for tomorrow.  We then went over rescue techniques and other safety issues and practiced some of the techniques on the sides of the buildings and on the snow slopes above the camp.  That evening we talked about our route up the mountain.  There was an established route that went up a smooth snow slope towards the summit, but the guide wanted to establish a new route up an icefall, with snow bridges, hidden crevasses, and other hazards.  I quickly protested and reminded everyone we were all new to this type of climbing and we should stay on the establish route the first time up.  I lost the argument and I was not happy about the decision but what can you do.

The next day, after sleeping very little, we loaded up our gear and headed up for our warmup hike.  The weather quickly turned bad with snow and white out conditions.  We were going to peek into the icefall and see if we could determine a starting point for our summit attempt.  The effects of our quick altitude gains over the past few days had really taken a toll on me.  I was feeling bad but I had to pay attention.
On the start of our warmup hike the weather turns bad quickly

As we get closer to the icefall we start searching for the best route up

As we enter the icefall we place protection for hidden crevasses.

Working our way up higher into the icefall as the weather continues to worsen.
We placed protection as we worked up the ice field.  The weather was near white out conditions.  This was turning out to be one hell of a warmup climb.  At one point I fell through a hidden crevasse and caught myself at waist level.  We were going to do this at night in 12 hours.  I was a bit nervous to say the least.

Working out our route up through the icefall.
We made our way back to camp ll and rested, ate, and prepared our gear for the summit attempt coming up at midnight.  I was feeling bad with severe headache, nausea, and diarrhea.  I was hoping a little nights sleep would take care of it.  The problem was that I didn't sleep a minute that evening and got up at 11:00 pm for the summit attempt feeling worse than ever.  We sat in the kitchen and tried to eat and talked about the climb.  I felt so bad I knew I shouldn't go and just rest but I made a poor decision and decided to try it.  At around midnight we were moving slowly up the mountain towards the ice field.

In the ice field early in the morning of our summit attempt.
The early morning climbing was like climbing in a maze.  We were constantly moving forward, then back, right, then left trying to find our way through it.  It was time consuming and exhausting.  I continued to feel worse as we climbed.  I kept telling myself I had to concentrate.
Balancing across one of the many snow bridges.
The sun was coming up as we were making our way out of the ice field and onto the smooth snow slope leading higher up the mountain.  The mountain started to moan with erie sounds emanating from the snow under our feet.  I was feeling as bad as I have ever felt in my life.  It was a struggle to stay focused on what I was doing and stay on my feet.  About 10 minutes after exiting the ice field, I lost consciousness for a second a woke up with my face in the snow.  It was brief, and I kept my footing, but I knew then I was in real trouble.  I got a shot of adrenaline but I was so sapped that it provided me with no reserve energy.  I knew I was in a fight and thought of my family and every ounce of energy went into getting my self back down.

The extent of exhaustion is hard to describe.  I guess it could be similar to driving 48 hours or more without sleep.  Even though you are on a steep snow slope and a fall could kill you, all you want to do is go to sleep. It's a fight to stay awake even in the presence of danger.

Everyone else seemed to be doing ok.  They didn't have any idea how bad I was and we kept moving up.  They didn't realize what had just happened.  I was going to tell them I was heading down as soon as we stopped to rest.
Out of the ice field and onto a smooth snow slope nearing 17000 feet.

Stopped by a huge crevasse, we rest on a ridge at just over 17000 feet.
About 20 minutes after I blacked out we reached a large crevasse that blocked our way.  We rested while our guide searched for a place to cross.  This was a real obstacle for me in my current condition.   I had very little energy left to get myself across this crevasse.  I was worried.  
Bruce looking strong at 17000 feet.

The altitude is starting to have an impact on some of the other climbers.

Self portrait just before crossing the large crevasse.

Working our way out of the crevasse

You can see our tracks on the downhill side of the crevasse just right of center of this photo.
After making our way through the crevasse, we had another couple of hundred vertical feet before reaching the established trail.  I had decided this is the point I turn around and head down.  We stopped to rest after reaching the established trail.  I told them that I had to head back down.  They tried to convince me that I could do it.  They really had no idea how bad I felt.  I told them that I think I could make it down alone and that they could continue their assent.  But they insisted that if I go down, everyone goes down.  I hated that I ended their attempt, but I was also relieved I would have rope protection on the way down.  I was so weak on the decent that I stumbled many times and I was thankful the other climbers had me on the rope team.  I don't think I could have safely descended without them.

The view of the mountain after our summit attempt.  Just below the rock outcropping near the top is the ice field that we climbed through(it is highlighted by a circle of sunlight).  Just to the lower right of the rock outcropping in the shadows you can see a horizontal line.  That is the crevasse that slowed our progress.

After our climb, we packed up the next morning and headed back to Quito.  We toured the city that day and relaxed.  The next couple of days we were headed into the countryside to climb.

We then did a side trip to Cayambe for a climb.  We drove through some beautiful country and arrived at the hut at the base of Cayambe.  We ate lunch at the hut and talked about the climb.  There were really bad snow conditions on the mountain and the locals told us some very experienced climbers had just came and left after looking at the conditions.  We decided to follow their lead and do the same.  We headed back down the mountain and headed back towards Quito.  We stopped at a very nice resort with hot springs baths and soaked in the springs for the afternoon before returning to Quito.  
A view of Cayambe Volcano

Our next trek would be to the Illinizas mountains just south of Quito.  We were going to climb there and try to get stronger for another attempt at Cotopaxi.  We arrived in a small town just east of the Illinizas and stayed in a very interesting hut in town that caters to climbers.  We sat around the fireplace, ate,talked and played guitar.  It was a good time.  

We ordered chicken soup at this eatery and watched them catch and kill the chicken we were about to eat.  Doesn't get much fresher than that. 

Hanging out in town before the Illinizas climb
The next day we loaded up the truck and headed for the Illinizas.  It was a very rough and muddy road but the views were great.  The roads got so bad we could not make it to the end of the road at the foot of the mountain so we had a long hike to the base.  This was good for me.  The slower assent always helps me.  I had a good climb feeling good the entire trip.  We reached an altitude of close to 16000 feet.  I was feeling stronger.  The weather turned us around before we reached the top and headed back down.
Near the end of our climb on the Illinizas due to weather.

Climbing on the Illinizas.

Headed back down on the Illinizas.
Heading down with the Illinizas behind us.

After a good climb on the Illinizas I was feeling much better about my chances on our next attempt of Cotopaxi.  We left the Illinizas for Cotopaxi the next morning and got situated at camp II on Cotopaxi. We were going to take the established route up Cotopaxi this time and I led the team the first several hours.  Below are pictures of our assent in the early morning.

Views of Cotopaxi as the sun rises.
After making it to around 17000 feet, one of the climbers got ill and we had to retreat.  I was disappointed but that is the nature of climbing.  We headed down.  The following photos were taken as we headed down the mountain.

Heading down Cotopaxi.
We spent the night on the mountain for another attempt the next morning.  I had gotten a stomach bug during the night and woke up feeling bad.  I was not going to make the same mistake I made earlier in the trip and made the decision not to attempt the climb.  Another team member and I stayed up most of the night and kept radio contact with the climbers.  The next day, as they approached camp II on the way down, I carried several bottles of water up a couple hundred vertical feet and met them on the trail.  They were very tired and dehydrated and welcomed the drink.

Below are pictures of the other climbers going for their 3rd and final attempt of Cotopaxi.  They made it very high on the mountain nearing 19000 feet but had to turn around because of the bad snow conditions.

Feeling the effects of climbing high on Cotopaxi.

I ran across a rock climber in the Wind River Range while hiking in 2003 who worked for Mountain Madness Guide Service, founded by the late Scott Fisher.  He told me, "Put a plastic bag over your head and then crawl into a freezer with a hammer and hit your head and knees over and over with the hammer, If you like that, you will like high altitude mountaineering".  As far as my experience goes, I think he was about right.