2004-10-05 Volcan Cotopaxi, Ecuador
I met my guide James (he was introduced to me a James Bond 007) at the tour agency, shortly after which we loaded all of the gear into the van and took off for Park National Cotopaxi. At the entrance to the park we rendezvoused with Mark (28 year old of entrepreneur), changed into the gear and continued hauling the food, ice axes, ropes, etc on foot to the Jose Rivas Refuge (at 4800m). The plan was to have dinner at the refuge, get a bit of sleep and then start climbing at 1:00am next morning.
At the refuge we met two more climbers, who were going to tackle Cotopaxi tomorrow as well. We had a wonderful time spending a few hours together, as it felt like being in a sacred place where only a few brave individuals risk to set foot. Not to mention that we had a mind numbing view of the valley below us, complete with a lake and silhouette of smaller mountains.
After dinner I crawled into my sleeping bag but was not able to fall a sleep. The altitude sickness was causing a really painful headache, plus the food did not go well with my stomach. So I spent the night massaging my stomach while trying to keep my hart beat down by not thinking about tomorrows climb.
At about 12:30am the guides woke all of us up, but we were sad to find Mark with a severe altitude sickness. My headache had eased up, but I also wasn't feeling 100%. After assessing the situation, Mark decided to say in bed but I pushed myself to at least try climbing a little bit. So I got dressed into 3 layers of pants, 4 layers of shirts, my trusty rain-jacket, the 2 pairs of gloves, harness, headlamp, and mountaineering boots. By about 1:15am, the first group, composed of two climbers that I met last night and their guide, left the premises and about 15 minutes later James and I headed out as well.
My plan was to keep a slow pace so as not to run out of energy - we had 6 to 7 hours of climbing ahead of us, plus the journey back. At first everything was going fine - my headache was in check (mainly masked by the stomach ache), the sky was clear and the moon was so bright that we did not even need to turn on the headlamps. In about an hour, we traversed the rocky approach to the glacier, where we found the first group putting on the crampons. James and I hurried with taking out the crampons as well and tying ourselves to each other by a rope. James gave me brief instructions on how to walk with these bulky things and soon we were on our way.
But the weather soon changed, bringing gusty winds and covering us in thick clouds. At about that time we caught up with the first group and all 5 of use continued up, carefully making a step after step. I have no idea how the guides were orienting themselves, as they had may be 10 meters of visibility, illuminated only by the headlamps. Never the less, every once in a while we would come access of a marker, indicating to us that we are on the right track.
I am not sure how much time it had passed but the first group had gone ahead and I could only see rare flashed of their headlamps up above us. We were slowly making our way up and I kept telling myself not to worry about the other group and only concentrate on my next step. My headlamp was revealing only couple of meters in front of me and that's where my universe ended. When I looked up, I could see James and sheer darkness ahead. There was an itch in me to ask how much more we have left, but I decided against it and just assumed that we are far far away from the top. My legs were already tired and I gave up on breathing through my nose - there was just not enough oxygen and all I could do was try to keep my heart rate down and use as little energy on each step as possible. But every once in a while I would find myself stumbling and not being able to properly plant my feet. Yet James was reluctant to take breaks. He was clearly in way better shape than I was, as he climbed this mountain for 8 years, 3 to 4 times a week, so I had to resort to asking for breaks. But even then, we would never stop for more than a minute of two.
At some point (I had lost the track of time by now) we caught up to the first group. I did not realize what is happening at the moment but one of the climbers asked me to take some photos if I make it. I was too tired to reply and continued without stopping. That was the last of us seeing them.
Step, step, ... step. I was taking a breath each time before I moved a leg. Most of the time we were moving sideways, planting the foot over the other. There were long switchback sections which meant that one of the legs was getting more tired than the other. Though at this point, I couldn't really tell which of my legs was closer to exhaustion. I shifted my weight and hoped that the proper foot would follow. My throat was dry as the Camel-pack tube froze and I could no longer sip Gatorade. Since the breaks were too short to open the backpack, undo the hose and drink from the pack itself (not to mention that I did not want to spend the effort on the whole procedure), I was just watering my mouth with snow. But not having sugar going into my system was a mistake. I was feeling tired and at this point I was taking two breaths for each step.
It was getting lighter and soon I was able to make up the silhouettes of giant ice blocks, teetered in icicles. For that matter, there were icicles hanging off of my eyebrows, eyelashes and my beard was fully solid. But somehow, it wasn't too cold. Since we kept moving, there was never time for the body to cool down. A few times we had to jump over cracks in the glaciers. They typically would not be more than a foot in width but, even with James tied to me, I was scared to image what would happen if I were to fall into one of them. So I just kept on stepping over, assuming that the crampons will hold.
I was asking for a break about every 100 steps when the terrain drastically changed. Instead of a path etched on a side of a slope, all of a sudden there was a creator, followed by sharp drops with narrow passages in between. "We must be close to the top!", I said to myself, adding to the pace, thanks to self induced adrenalin rush. We were going around the creators with no more than a half of a meter space for planting a foot. One slip would have spelled death to both of us, but the crampons dug into ice and held on. Step, step, step, yet I could not see the top... One false peak followed another and at this point there was nothing left in me to keep me going. I collapsed, asking myself how bad do I want to reach the top. After a minute of breading into the snow, I got up, determined to reach the peak.
I started counting off steps to keep my mind focused on making the next step, but before I could reach 20 I collapsed again. I wanted to reach the top but I just did not have the energy to do it. "How much more?" I asked. "Only 10 more minutes", replied James. But I could not get back on my feet... Using the ice axe I started to crawl. James was walking ahead of me and for a while I was keeping up. But then I collapsed again. It wasn't the matter of using different muscles. I just had no energy left...
The night before, James was explaining that if we do not reach the peak by 8:00am, we'll have to turn around because the sun will be changing the ice conditions, making it too dangerous to climb. Also, he has the power to abandon the climb if at any point he feels that a climber is too weak to continue.
I did not know what time it was but, I was fearing that James my decide to stop the climb since there was still the way back that we needed to worry about. Still on my hands and knees I begged him to give me 5 minutes to eat some chocolate. I knew that the sugar isn't going to come into play instantaneously, but I was hoping that the placebo effect will get me going again. And it did, for the next 5 steps but then my face was hit the snow. Even though reaching to top would have been nice, I realized that it's not going to happen... What was worse was that I did not have the energy to go back down either. Then James started yelling at me, reminding me about Mark being sick in the refuge and that we have to get back soon in order to get him down to a lower altitude. "You lied to me!" he said. "You should have told me that you are tired and not able to continue! But I brought you up here and now you have to stick to your end of the bargain". There was a bunch of other stuff that he was saying, but I could not understand most of it. But in the end, what came across is that I am to continue up. With my face half frozen I started my crawl. Axe down, left hand, right foot, left foot... Axe down, left hand, right foot, left foot...
I don't know how many steps it was to the top, but I was there, too tired to stand up and look around. Finally I got up to give a hand shake, which turned into a hug. We were both standing at 5898 meters. With our clothes encrusted in ice and the wind hurtling white clouds all around us, we stood there knowing that there is no spot on the planet like this one.
This photo is not mine... The ones I took will be posted later.