Most Memorable Hikes (Part 1) – Climbing Volcano Cotopaxi

I love being outdoors and it’s a lot healthier than being behind a desk. On numerous occasions, I’ve suggested to my boss that we should move our office to the rooftop. Productivity might not necessarily increase but we would certainly solve the Vitamin D deficiencies office workers all seem to suffer from!

Throughout my travels, I’ve hiked some amazing trails from Oberrothron in Zermatt, Switzerland (the highest hiking trail in Europe) to Colca Canyon in Arequipa, Peru to Milford Track in Milford Sound, New Zealand. However in my mind, nothing beats these two hikes I am going to tell you about:

1) Volcano Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador (being the most difficult); and
2) Torres Del Paine in Patagonia, Chile (being the most beautiful).

Volcano Cotopaxi in Quito, Ecuador

IMG_3763

I recall the day before I had to climb Volcano Cotopaxi, the world’s tallest active volcano at 5897 metres, I spent the good part of the night walking on a lonely highway from Otavalo (you can read about why here). Barely awake, I let the tour operator prepare my pack with the necessary hiking gears for the climb (waterproof clothing, flashlight, helmet, crampons, ice axe etc.) while I signed away my right to sue in case of injury or death.

Other members of my group, Rob from Germany and Ubai from Spain, were both experienced hikers with Himalayas and Kilimanjaro under their belts. I, on the other hand, didn’t have much to boast about. The tour operator revealed that only 50% of hikers make it to the summit (something he conveniently left out when I first enquired about the trip), with altitude sickness being the main culprit. According to the Lonely Planet guide however, it is supposed to be a relatively straight forward hike suitable for beginners.

From Quito, it was a good 2.5 hour drive to Cotopaxi National Park and along the way we got an exceptional view of the extinct Volcano Chimborazo (6310m), Ecuador’s highest mountain. Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge, its peak is the furthest point from the center of the earth! How’s that for some cool trivia?

Volcán Chimborazo

Volcán Chimborazo

Photo taken shorter before I dropped my sunnies into the toilet!

Trying to look hip! Photo taken shortly before I dropped my sunnies into the toilet…

From the car park (4600m), we carried our big packs, day packs and a bag of food each up to the José Ribas Refugio situated at 4810m. That in itself was a 45 minutes hike uphill.

Misty hike up to José Ribas Refugio

Misty hike up to José Ribas Refugio

At base camp we met other hikers from Switzerland, Germany, Spain, even three Melbournians! So it was a real international mix though in terms of age, I was the youngest.

The other hikers!

After cups of warm cocoa tea, our guides offered to take us out for a practice session with our crampons and ice axes but it was so misty that everyone voted to stay in and stay dry. I took this opportunity to nap but the unfortunate position of my bed right by the stairs meant that the constant sound of heavy footsteps kept me from falling asleep. High altitude may have also played a part.

My bed by the stairs

My bed by the stairs

Dinner consisted of chicken soup, spaghetti bolognese and a slice of pineapple, followed by a quick briefing and then lights out at 9pm! I had no trouble sleeping this time round because my body was just too exhausted. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was micro-sleeping at the dinner table while drooling into my tea-cup.

The climb usually starts at 1am and people get up around midnight to begin their preparations. I made a special request to start an hour earlier because I knew I’d be slower than the others so at 11pm, I reluctantly hurled myself out of my warm sleeping bag.

I forced down some muesli with yogurt, put on my gears and that’s when I discovered that the tour operator forgot to pack my harness! I triple checked and said the magic word over and over but no harness appeared. There was no way I was going to trek up a heavily glaciated terrain with large crevasses without a harness attaching me to my guide.

After a rather heated discussion with my guide, he agreed to lend me his harness while he used a rope. It wasn’t the ideal situation but he was adamant that we proceed with the climb (because otherwise he wouldn’t get paid) so we compromised. We left the Refugio (30 minutes behind schedule) as the rest of base-camp came to life. The climb to the summit should take around 7 hours.

With the help of headlamps, we slowly navigated our way up the gravel terrain. This part wasn’t difficult, you just have to be careful because it is easy to lose your footing on these small loose rocks when scaling steep inclines. We walked in silence and every time I stopped to sip on my Gatorade, my guide grew more impatient. After about 90 minutes, snow appeared under our feet indicating that it was time to strap on crampons to our mountaineering boots! While waiting for my guide to make a rope harness for himself, I spotted my first ever shooting star. It was très exciting 🙂

Not long after, the rest of the group caught up to us and one team after another (two hikers per guide joined by rope), we proceeded up the glacier. This part was a lot harder. The oxygen got noticeably thinner and our pace changed from a vertical stride to a horizontal crab walk (if that makes any sense)! By then we were only taking baby steps (each step was about half to one-third the length of my regular steps) as a way to use our energy more efficiently.

Freezing cold icicles

Freezing cold icicles

 

There were also lot of crevasses so jumping lightly (and carefully) over them was required. If you misstep and fall into the crevass…well let’s not think about it. At one point, the trail became more dangerous than what I was comfortable with. Picture a very narrow path, only about 20cms in width and sloping at a 60° angle. On the left side you have a wall of ice and on the right is the cliff (= nothing). The only light source is from your small headlamp and you don’t have anything to hold onto (except for your ice axe which is useless in this situation).

Here is a photo I snapped right before I ran up the slope in one swift ninja worthy movement. I almost lost my balance and no amount of sugared water was going to calm my nerves after that (maybe rum would have helped).

The ridiculous scramble.

The ridiculous scramble.

At some point it started snowing and blasts of wind would slap my face and freeze the snot running down my nose. Classy I know. Around the 4 hour mark, my legs were beginning to feel like concrete and I needed a break every 5 minutes to catch my breath. My guide wasn’t impressed and he would constantly tug the rope to signal (or rather force) me to keep moving. I felt like a poor doggie on a leash 😦 Further, the fresh snow made climbing even harder and I couldn’t even drink Gatorade to cheer up because by then it had frozen!

No long after, I felt drowsiness wash over me. Even though I kept walking, I would drift in and out of sleep. My guide must have noticed the change because it was then he told me we had to turn back. High altitude was taking its toll on me and I wasn’t in good condition to reach the summit which was still 3-4 hours away (plus another 2-3 hours to hike back).

Instinctively, I opened my mouth to protest but a little voice inside me told me to shut up and be reasonable. I was already so far out of my comfort zone, unstable on my feet…and the  climb was about to get even harder.

I think one of the most important aspects of climbing is the psychological aspect – you need to believe before you can achieve. At 4am that morning, my determination began to waver and it didn’t take long before I lost the strength to push myself any further. I felt like a failure.

Longy 0 : Cotopaxi 1.

Standing on the glacier with the chilly wind blowing against my frozen cheeks, I did a 360° turn and took it all in. I looked up at the hikers above me moving higher and saw headlights of the hikers beneath me who had already turned back. At 5400m, I filled my lungs with freezing air and turned to my guide: ‘I’m ready to go down.’ In that instance, there was a whirl of emotions from disappointment to resignation to a sense of relief.

The trek down was a lot quicker and I noticed a lot more landscape than before, especially after the break of dawn.

Along the way

Along the way

Along the way

Along the way

Beautiful glaciers

Beautiful glaciers

Close up

Close up

Amazing views

Amazing views

Break of dawn

Break of dawn

Illinizas, a pair of volcanic mountains.

Illinizas, a pair of volcanic mountains

Looking back up

Sunrise

Sunrise and descent

Coming back to the Refugio

I arrived back at the Refugio around 6am and like others before me, I went straight back to bed. Around 9:30am, I was woken up by the return of my fellow hikers. Both of them made it to the summit (YEAH!) and they assert that they have never done such a difficult hike before. Ubia said the last 50 meters to the summit was so steep that he was crying out in desperation as he struggled to crawl up. Apparently it was too cloudy to see anything at the summit and the disappointment on their faces was obvious.

As for me, I´ve been kicking myself every waking moment for going to Otavalo the day before and then consoling myself with the thought that even if I were in tip-top form, I probably wouldn’t have made it to the summit anyway.

On the bright side, not making it up to Cotopaxi means I will just have to come back to Ecuador and attempt it again! P.S. Lessons I learnt from this? Don’t trust the Lonely Planet guide. Beginner’s climb? They should try it themselves 😛

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Most Memorable Hikes where I’ll reminisce about the most beautiful hiking trail found in Patagonia.

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