After successfully summiting Pico de’ Orizaba in Mexico, mountain fever took hold and I started to consider greater challenges. Orizaba was a great climb with Chad Stone and it tested my endurance with nearly 10,000 vertical feet in just over 48 hours. But, there was something really cool about meeting that challenge and I wanted more. Soon on the heels of this trip, one of the climbers from another Orizaba team and I struck up a conversation to consider something in South America. After talking with Charley Mace who was one of my connections with the Soldiers to Summits team from Nepal, I was determined on doing Cotopaxi in Ecuador. I have no idea how many times Charley has done Cotopaxi but was intrigued to learn that he was the main guide for the Wharton School of Business MBA team who went to Ecuador to summit Cotopaxi year after year. Perhaps it was overconfidence on my part but I figured if a bunch of students who lived in Pennsylvania could go to Ecuador and summit this giant volcano, I should be able match their accomplishment because I live in Colorado with much easier access to 14,000 ft mountains and overall altitude training.
Charley suggested that we consider Ecuadorian Alpine Institute as a guide service. After contacting them and working out a climbing agenda, arrival and departure times, my new climbing friend from Orizaba, Craig Watson and I set sights on training for our February adventure in Ecuador. Craig worked his butt off to adequately train and worked to overcome the fact that he was living in the panhandle of Florida with an altitude of three feet above sea level. I felt that I was bit more lucky living at 6850 ft above sea level and to train, I could hop in my car and be at the base of Pikes Peak in 30-35 minutes. On most training days, I could knock out 14-20 miles by 10:00 AM and achieve anywhere from 3500-5000 vertical feet. In the months of November 2011 to late January 2012, I recorded over 200 miles on the Pike Peak trails. I never underestimate the training needed.
Once we arrived into Quito on February 18, 2012, Craig and I quickly began to be fully engaged in the process. The main goal that lie before us was to work on our acclimatization with climbs up three mountains; Pasochoa, Pichincha, and Illiniza Norte. Pasochoa and Pichincha are a stone’s throw away from Quito, Ecuador. Quito, formally San Francisco de Quito, is the capital city of Ecuador, and at an elevation of 9,350 feet (2,800 meters above sea level), it is the highest capital city in the world housing the administrative, legislative and judicial functions. We would simply wake up in our hotel room, hop in the 4×4 jeep, toss our gear in the back, go to the trailhead, and trek up the mountain and head back to the hotel after a day of acclimatization. Downright civilized mountaineering!
Pasochoa at 4,200 m (13,780 ft) was pretty uneventful with the goal of making it to the top without getting rained on too much. Toward the end of this climb, storm clouds rolled in and we experienced a few sprinkles.The third mountain was a combination of acclimatization and working on true mountaineering skills. Illiniza Norte required us to drive 2-3 hours away from Quito, stay in a hotel near the base of the mountain, and then hike up to the Illiniza Norte Refugio at 4,600 meters (15,092 ft). Given the fact that our acclimatization had already been underway for three days the climb up to the top of Illiniza at 5,126 m (16,818 ft) should have been relatively easy undertaking. Mother nature had a different plan.
While I spend a lot of time in the Rocky Mountains making my way up 14,000 mountains, these rock piles are mostly for training purposes. Unfortunately, the chance to strap on a pair of crampons, swing an ice axe and experience a rope team can be limited. We just don’t have glaciers of the size and nature that one finds in other countries. The only real option in the continental US is Washington state and the great mountains of the Cascades. I truly enjoy mountaineering as opposed to trekking. Ecuador provides great opportunities for spectacular mountaineering climbing and Illiniza Norte was the first real chance to get onto serious snow.
We woke up early, ate a quick breakfast, threw back some instant Starbucks coffee and proceeded to gear up. With our headlamps and helmets on we departed high camp at about 6:00 AM. Visibility was limited as snow was falling from the onset. Actually, we never saw the top of Illiniza the entire day due to the snow, with the exception of when we summited.
Rope teamwork is a necessity on big mountains. I’m convinced that you can climb big mountains dozens of times and have no incidents on a rope team. But it only takes one surprise slip on a steep slope to create a potentially epic situation. You have to trust your climbing partners. You have to trust your equipment and be prepared for a worst-case scenario on every climb. Lots of folks pay lip service to these things, plenty of books are written these things but there is nothing like the real experience to reinforce these fundamentals.
Illiniza required us to work as a team around some tight spots, blind traverses, short rope when necessary, have the right pace accordingly and climb steep and slippery sections. The snow limited our visibility so it was difficult to see more than 100 feet. We just never knew what was around the next corner as we made our way to the top. While I think it took longer than our guide had wanted, we made it to the top of this inactive cinder pile of a volcano. At the top, we took plenty of pictures with the famous cross serving as the pseudo summit marker. The first part of this climb was a blast.
As we started down the mountain the weather only increased in intensity. Snow had been piling up all day. From what we could see in snow depth, it had been snowing for several days on Illiniza and in certain sections it was deep. After only descending 30 minutes we started a steep traverse that was tricky on the way up but presented and even greater challenge coming down. I was on point headed down and even though I could see remnants of our footsteps on the traverse, as I stepped on the route, something just didn’t feel right under my boots and crampons. So, I turned to Craig and our guide and stated that the snow didn’t feel right and asked them to be on high alert. I took 3-4 more steps and suddenly snow under my feet just gave away as I slid down the side of Illiniza. I didn’t go far as we had taken the precaution of short roping prior to this traverse. Immediately, Craig, our guide and me self-arrested and the slide was halted in a two seconds. That section of snow had a slope nearing 40 degrees for nearly 1000 feet. I had my GoPro camera active and captured a still frame of the self-arrest.
At the risk of sounding insane, my first reaction was to pop my head up and say “wasn’t that fun and an we do that again”? Craig did not share my reaction and neither did the guide. Of course the guide seemed to be mostly indifferent to Craig and I from the start of this trip. The incident seemed to fuel more contempt for both of us. More issues with our less than friendly guide would surface later in the trip, which elicited a “necessary” response.
The rope team worked. The rope team is designed to do exactly what happened which is to save a climber who is falling. It’s pretty simple. A good rope, properly tied knots, quick self arresting with an ice axe prevents someone [like me] from sliding off of a mountain. If one spends much time at all on steep glaciers, self-arresting is eventually going to happen. That’s reality. Candidly, I figured my time would come and it did on Illiniza. The end result was the right result.
It took us a few more hours to descend Illiniza. Going down is always easy for me and I think Craig was glad to have this one behind him. He seemed a bit sore at me my reaction on the self arrest but the closer we got to high camp, the better his mood became. We now had three mountains down and two more to go with good acclimatization under our belt. Our next stop was Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi is a spectacular volcano at just under 19,400 feet. The pictures of the black cone surrounded by snow that falls daily and volcanic steam that seems to constantly vent. Some say that it is the highest active volcano on the plane although I have read other posts that dispute that claim. So much has been written about Cotopaxi and its near perfect conical volcanic summit. Without a doubt it is the most popular of all Ecuadorean volcanoes to climb. We continued our altitude acclimatization by driving up to the parking lot at 4,550 meters/ 14,924 ft. We then hiked up to high camp known as the Jose Rivas Refuge at 4,800 meters/15,744 feet, had a few hot beverages, scoped out the high camp facility which we would be staying at the next day before summiting. I swear the hike from the parking lot to the high camp just about crushed me. I don’t know if I was fatigued or if my body was still figuring out the sweet acclimatization spot but the slog up the terrible loose scree field containing what resembled pea gravel just took so much energy and effort. I felt terrible at high camp and wondered what it was going to be like the next day when we would repeat the same slog but with potentially heavier back packs, five or six hours of fitful rest and then begin our summit push.
After our move to high camp, we descended back to the parking lot and made our way by vehicle to our sleeping quarters for the night in the vast Cotopaxi National Preserve. The next morning we drove back to the parking lot and made our way to the high camp again. This time and after reaching our destination before the summit push, I felt 100 times better. Acclimatization is really something that borders on magical. You can see it or taste it, but you certainly “know it” when it works for you. I felt great at the day before our summit attempt. After determining where we were going to sleep for the night, our guide decided to take us through some basic self-arrest training. Both Craig and I wondered about this as the day before on Illiniza, either one of us could have easily slid off the side of the mountain. Where was the self-arrest training then? It just seemed to be strange to us that we were getting training AFTER a near epic situation. Needless to say our confidence in our guide was decreasing by the hour.
We don’t know for sure but he seemed to disinterested in our questions and often times gave us answers that conflicted with what he would tell me and then tell Craig. On a few occasions he gave us different answers to the same question within 10 minutes. Craig became clearly frustrated by this and over time I came to share his opinion. In the high camp facility our guide was completely disengaged from us. When he did say something to us it was more of a command that was grunted at us. Did he have something against us? Did he think we were stupid? Was it a cultural thing? I don’t really know but what I do know is customer service. There are just some things that you do to be polite to people – especially those folks who have paid a princely sum to be in your country and to those who depend on you for an expert service.
That night in the refuge, which can accommodate over 125 climbers, there was absolutely NO sleep to be found. One of the things that I have never understood about mountaineers is that during the day they can be the kindest people on side of any mountain. I am forever amazed at the camaraderie, the affirmation, willingness to help, coming up or down a mountain by fellow climbers. But at night, it’s a different story. Virtually everyone in the refuge would be summiting early the next morning. Everyone was hoping for at least 3-4 hours of rest before waking at 1:00 AM. Why climbers show up in the high camp at 9:00 or 10:00 at night looking for a bunk bed, I cannot fathom. Stomping around in boots, putting in place a sleeping bag, blowing up air mattresses, unpacking gear, and talking without any attempt to be quiet made it impossible to sleep. There is simply no consideration for other climbers who are already in their sleeping bags.
We awoke before 1:00 AM, pulled together our gear that was already pre-arranged the night before and headed downstairs to get a quick bite and a hot drink before starting up the slope of Cotopaxi. Craig and I were feeling pretty good. I think that we were ready for the great adventure that awaited us. We stepped outside and quickly noted that it was snowing lightly. I saw this as a good omen. The night air wasn’t too cold, the wind wasn’t blowing more than 5 mph as we started our very, very slow methodical march. Our guide was in the lead followed by Craig with me pulling up the rear.
After climbing for only 45 minutes or so, we came to a huge crevasse. Our guide and another guide form another team left us waiting at the edge as they combed laterally a best spot to cross over. The day before we had heard about a snow bridge down in the crevasse that many climbers had been using to cross over. The word from the guides was that this snow bridge had been deteriorating with movement of the glacier and with use by so many climbers. After standing in the same spot for nearly 30 minutes we noticed the cold and had to resort to stomping our feet and pounding our hands together to get some circulation going. We had a front row seat to the activity of the two guides with their headlamps as they traversed up and down, left and right looking for a good spot to cross over. I’m not sure just how long this crevasse was but looking at the pictures that I had taken the day before, I estimate it was probably 2500-3000 feet long along the side of Cotopaxi. It was huge. It was really wide in place and it was very, very deep.
Our guide came back saying that our best option was to cross via the snow bridge that we had heard about the day before. Sometimes, ignorance is truly bliss. We didn’t really know what this entailed. We had to trust our guide. We couldn’t imagine what this would look like and sometimes darkness can be a friend on the side of mountain that has huge obstacles. One can only deal with what they can see and sometimes, seeing the whole picture can be debilitating. With that as the backdrop, we gingerly proceeded down into the crevasse along a narrow route until we reached the snow bridge. As we proceeded down into the crevasse, I would turn to the left and right with my headlamp casting its bright glare to capture glimpses of the deeply colored blue ice both above and below where I was standing. The crevasse was approximately 75 feet across and was hauntingly cold and yet visually beautiful.
Down in the glacier it was absolutely pristine with varying shades of blue ice and fresh white snow. As we approached the narrow snow bridge which was approximately two feet wide our guide decided shared at the moment that the last 2-3 feet of the snow bridge had broken away and to make it to the other side, we were going to have to jump, impale both our crampon front points and ice axe simultaneously into the 70 degree slope wall on the other side and then climb up 3-4 feet to get to more stable and horizontal ice. We had already taken a short rope approach and as we made our way across the snow bridge it was apparent that in some places there was nothing under the snow bridge while other sections were fortified by structural ice. When we reached the last section it was obvious what the guide had said minutes before. In the lead position, he jumped, stuck it hard and climbed out. It looked pretty easy. Craig stepped up to take the jump position and for whatever reason did not impale the opposite wall and slipped approximately a foot down the ice wall until the tight rope stopped his fall. Pretty harrowing for Craig but the rope team effort held and he scrambled up the icy slope onto more solid footing.
There’s something about knowing two guys tethered up to a rope when you jump. I felt good as I slammed my crampon points and ice axe into the wall and wasted no time getting up and out of this precarious spot on the glacier. It occurred to me at the time, that what we had just done was something that few folks [relatively speaking] get to experience. I asked my self what was a 54-year old guy doing on a potentially dangerous snow bridge. Even though I was mentally fully engaged in that moment, I never doubted our ability to get through this and to make it to the other side. In a weird way this was pretty cool, it was truly an adventure and I knew confidently [but not arrogantly] this is what you train for. I will also say, I was really pleased to hear our guide say that we would NOT be coming down the same way.
After the snow bridge exercise, we proceeded slowly up the flank of Cotopaxi resting occasionally for water breaks and a chance to catch our breath as we slow made our way over 19,000 ft. The last 300-400 feet were stunning as we made our way up steep slopes along side of towering ice walls decorated with beautiful gargantuan ice cycles.
By now the sun had peeked up over the eastern horizon while we trekked up the western shadows of Cotopaxi. As we neared the top, there were a few pitches that became even steeper approximating 35-40 degrees. Our legs burned and our lungs were desperately taking in as much oxygen as possible when we crested the final ridge basked in the brilliant sunlight. From start to summit we had been laboring 6.5 hours. Not bad.
At the top of Cotopaxi, we celebrated our summit, quickly took pictures and viewed Cayambe and Chimborazo in the distant horizon. The sun brilliantly bathed the volcanic crater as steam oozed from around the cone melting snow that had fallen earlier in the morning. It was just a picture perfect day at the top, which was abruptly called to a close when our guide stated that we would be leaving in 5 minutes. Total time at the summit was no more than 15 minutes. I was a slightly disappointed that we couldn’t spend more time taking in the views but with clouds moving in at lower elevations, it was understandable.
We rapidly made our way down the mountain with a pace that was unsustainable. The combination of a rapid pace and rising temperatures from warming air of sun reflection off the glacier started to dehydrate me. After about 45 minutes I accidently dropped my walking pole [my bad] and I made an attempt to secure it before it slid down the side of the glacier. Unfortunately I started to slide, had to self-arrest which in turn caused Craig and our guide to have to do the same.
On both Cotopaxi and on Illiniza, our guide insisted that I use a walking pole in one hand with my ice axe in another. I did as instructed but I never felt comfortable with both hands holding something. If we were on sloped requiring two axes, I could understand his rationale but the sloped we were on did not necessitate this. Switching back and forth on slopes with the ice axe and the walking stick was just awkward. I felt as if I needed that free hand in the event that a self-arrest was necessary. But I complied with the grunted commands from the guide and did as told even though I was seething below the surface.
A short time later, I noted that one of the laces in my boots was becoming loose. I shouted to the guide that I needed to stop for a moment to lace up. He was unrelenting and would not stop. I don’t know what his rationale was for this but he just didn’t listen to me. It wasn’t as if we were in a death-defying situation or that there was a looming storm to consider. After five minutes of walking and my boot becoming subsequently looser on my foot, I once again stated that I needed to stop to lace up the boot. His response was some grunted command that we were going to continue. The seething was no longer below the surface as I stopped to share in very specific terms that we were going to stop, I was going to secure my boot and there was no choice in the matter. We shouted at each other. Accusations flew rapidly. Curse words flowed unabated and then silence.
We finished our descent without anyone speaking. I went to my bunk, shed my gear and outerwear and just tried to relax. Candidly, I was at a point where I was done with the trip. I didn’t trust our guide. Craig didn’t trust the guide and probably had a more dim opinion of him than me. It was obvious that there was resentment towards us. It was a terrible situation in a potentially dangerous environment where people must work together. On the way down the mountain Craig was starting to feel physically worse and as we put our gear in the 4×4, his condition seemed to drop off a cliff. On the ride back to the hotel in the national park, conversation seemed to loosen up but there was still so much tension in the air.
Later that day, Craig confirmed his preference was to not climb Chimborazo. We stayed in a nice hotel that evening and were able to get a good nights rest. The next day we dropped Craig off at a hotel on our way to Chimborazo. It would be convenient to pick him up after the last leg of the trip. Once Craig was squared away in the hotel, the guide and I made our way several hours further south to Chimborazo, which is located in an unpopulated part of Ecuador.
We made our way up to Chimborazo Refugio 4800m/14,545ft) where we would make dinner, catch a few hours rest and then make our move for a summit the next day. As luck would have it, there were only four people at high camp, two guides and two climbers including us. It was a very quiet night.
Prior to coming to Ecuador, I had been checking the weather on all of the summits that we were planning to climb. All of them seemed to be fairing pretty well except for Chimborazo. The previous week, according to mountain weather forecast, approximately 100 inches of snow had fallen on the upper reaches of this huge volcano – the tallest mountain in Ecuador at 20,850 ft.
We decided to start earlier than usual given that more snow meant our efforts would likely require more time to summit. A 10:00 PM start with the goal of reaching the summit at 8:00 AM meant a long day was in store for us. As we left the refuge, we were greeted by near white out conditions. Within 30 minutes, we were trudging up moderately steep slopes with snow dept knee height. This was absolutely exhausting. Another 60 minutes later the snow was now above our knees. We continued to move up the mountain. As we reached 18,500 ft and near the shoulder ridge of Chimborazo, we stopped and the guide stated that we needed to reassess our situation. Fresh and deeper snow on even steeper slopes was a perfect recipe for avalanches. We talked about it for 5-10 minutes and made the decision to turn around.
We managed to descend back to the refuge by 1:30 AM while the snowstorm raged on unabated. It was so good to be back in the sleeping bag even though it seemed to take an hour to warm up. By daybreak we were awake, consumed a quick breakfast, loaded up the 4×4 and headed back toward the city where Craig was staying. Occasionally the clouds would lift and we could see Chimborazo in the distance. We could also see sections and gullies where recent avalanches had occurred. My only parting thought was there was unfinished business on this mountain and I hope to come back and successfully summit it one day.
In summary, Ecuador is a beautiful country with a rich and diverse ecological environment. The mountains are spectacular and a great place for mountaineering to gain expertise. I can’t recommend Ecuadorian Alpine Institute [EAI]. The guide was the most-unfriendly person I have ever met on any mountain. The owner of EAI was not very customer service oriented. Once we arrived back into Quito, the owner promised to meet us and provide transportation to the airport the following morning. We received a note at the hotel that a taxi would provide the transportation. No explanation. No thank you. No customer satisfaction survey. Nothing. Nonetheless, I will always remember the great experience with Craig and the subsequent deeper friendship we have. I learned a few things in Ecuador about myself and I was emboldened to climb higher. No regrets. No reserves. No retreats.