― Fosco Maraini, Secret Tibet
My lips and face started tingling on the way up to the parking lot, my body's first reaction to the altitude. I decided that these signs were harmless and kept my numb lips shut for now. We parked the car and started up an hour-long hike to Refugio Jose Ribas, our base camp for the ascent.
I mention this to say that we were under the impression that LOTS of people come to Ecuador, climb Cotopaxi, and go home with stories of triumph. Our arrival at the refugio would prove no different; climbers between 20 and 40 years old, men and women, clearly tourists, all ready to give the mountain a shot. It was hard not to look around and think, “If that guy can do it…”. Overall, the sight brightened my hopes for the summit, though not enough to completely hide the fact that just the hour-hike up to the refuge had been a challenge. We were now at 4,800m (16,000 ft.).
Unfortunately, I couldn't go into this climb with 100% health - though many of you will observe that I rarely claim perfect health. This wasn't the standard “skinny man's nausea,” as my brother Brad describes it, but rather a real problem with the old digestive system. To avoid details, let's just say that I had the big D, horrible Bs, and putrid Fs. Use your imagination. I mention this only because it shaped much of my journey up Cotopaxi to be quite a terrible one. Thankfully in the back of our 3-person rope team, my putrid Fs were trapped by my head-to-toe waterproof garments, creating in effect a human “dutch oven” (for those who are familiar with the term) that only seemed to release through the opening in the neck of my jacket and into my face. For the first 2-3 hours I hiked up steep gravel breathing my own toxic fumes. Even Lynsey, in front and above me, somehow got wind of them, which makes me certain our guide also had a taste of gringo gas.
I was having a terrible time. Lynsey, however, after one short “I think I have to throw up” moment, rebounded and got into a strong groove. We reached the glaciated section of the climb around 3:30 am and stopped to have our guide put our crampons on, which made me feel a bit like a child being dressed. Though, given my state I said nothing and enjoyed the few minutes of inactivity and quieted pain in my abdomen (the pain flared while moving, mostly). We were roped together and off in short time, kicking our crampon points into the steep icy trail.
I was off my game, and knew it, but could do little to avoid the defeatist chanting in my head, “there is NO way you're getting to the top” and “each step hurts” and “turn back to the refuge where your sleeping bag is…”. Meanwhile, Lynsey seemed great and was trucking along without complaint of fatigue or the snow that had been swirling around us since we left. I didn't yet mention the snow! While we “rested/slept,” sometime between 6 pm and midnight, snow had fallen and continued to drive into us during the entire rocky section of the climb and then onto the glacier. Despite all of my issues, one thing I can say is that I didn't feel cold. Lynsey hadn't mentioned anything either until, finally, the guide practically dragged it out of her that her hands and feet were cold. Can you get a sense of who was being tougher on this particular evening? The guide didn't like the feel of Lynsey's hands and had her put them in the breast pocket of his puffy jacket - a fairly entertaining sight. It helped though, and we continued on until running into a Brit, a German couple, and their guides on their way DOWN…
The Brit's face, bright red from the cold, looked both manic and exhausted. With wild eyes he exclaimed, “NO WAY MAN,” that they were going down, and that he'd hit a point earlier where he couldn't stand up. We didn't ask many questions, as it was clear what condition this guy was in, and with a bound he left down the trail in the kind of hurry that could have easily put him in a crevasse.
As their group passed something immediately shifted in my mind and I felt the greatest sense of relief - the burden of the summit had been lifted. The trip ceased to be about the summit. It took seeing others humbled by Cotopaxi for me to accept my own shortcomings on the mountain. Coincidentally, while stopped to let the group descend we noticed that snow had also stopped (or we had moved above it), and with heads tilted back we saw stars scattered brightly across the dark night sky.
We pushed on to sections of terrifyingly beautiful ice sculpture carved by extreme weather in a harsh landscape. We jumped crevasses, too afraid to look down into the darkness with our headlamps for fear that the dark would have no end. We marched past stalactites, stalagmites, and columns of ice as spectacular as I've seen in any cave. Simply put, were were in awe of the mountain for the first time.