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Cotopaxi

June 17, 2011

I hunched over a pool of my own vomit, viscous gastric juice still clinging to my nose and mouth. I knew that it was snowing and that I should be worried about getting wet again, but my priorities were elsewhere. The stray dog that followed Paul and I up to the Ilinizas Refugio at 15,000 ft greedily licked up my dinner, stealing my precious calories. I wondered how much diamox had been absorbed in to my body in the 20 minutes between ingesting and outgesting those two pills. Probably not that much.

I knew we were being a little ambitious in our altitude gains: two nights at 10,000 ft, and then directly up to 15,000 ft, but I felt strong and capable on the hike up. At 5 am, while throwing up from altitude sickness for the fourth time that night, I felt more humble.

Paul, getting soaked on the way up to the Ilinizas Refugio. Photograph by Jacob B.

The refugio. Photograph by Jacob B.

We had two goals for visiting the Ilinizas: scramble to the summit of Iliniza Norte, and acclimatize for our attempt on Cotopaxi. By the time sun came up and revealed the fresh snowfall, we were ready to abandon Iliniza Norte. It was time to go down, not up. With every step we came closer to sea level, and my nausea slowly abated. We spent the next day and half recuperating in the small town of El Chaupi.

After some rest, relaxation, and Hannah Montana en Espanol, we were ready for Cotopaxi. We left El Chaupi for Cotopaxi National Park with our guide Fausto after lunch. We stopped in the park to drink some coca leaf tea (tastes like grass) and visit the museum.

It looks like Paul's wearing a yellow shirt, but he's really not! Ja ja ja! Photograph by Jacob B.

The road leads to a parking lot at about 15,000 feet. From there, we hiked about 300 meters on a sandy trail. We hiked slowly, enjoying the view and taking great care not to exert ourselves too much.

At the parking lot below the refugio. Fausto is changing in the car. Photograph by Jacob B.

Me, on the path the the refugio. Photograph by Paul J.

Photograph by Jacob B.

We practiced some glacier travel techniques, ate a big dinner, and went to sleep around 7. Even with 15 other climbers sleeping in the same room and the anticipation for the climb, I was able to get a few hours of sleep.

At midnight, Fausto came to wake us up. I already had my boots on. Months of planning, dreaming, training, and preparing were finally over. We geared up, ate breakfast and walked outside. I had been worried about the weather, but the night was beautiful and perfectly clear.

The encouraging sky at 1 am. Photograph by Jacob B.

After 20 minutes of walking in boots on dirt and rock, we obtained the first snowfield. We put on our crampons and got our axes out. A few parties had left before us, so the trail was well worn and easy. Unfortunately, clouds moved in as we climbed. By the time we got to the top of the snowfield and reached the glacier proper, we had passed all the other parties.

We stood at the base of the glacier for several minutes as Fausto contemplated the snow conditions. He didn’t like the fact that the snow was stratified with evidence of recent avalanches. As I watched Fausto think, I felt physically and mentally strong. I was worried he would decide that avy conditions were unacceptable, but then the clouds cleared, the stars became visible again, and we decided to keep pushing forward. We roped up and started through the tumultuous, other-worldly landscape of the glacier. Our headlamps glistened off walls of ice and failed to illuminate the bottomless crevasses.

Paul and Fausto, taking a break in the glacier. Photograph by Jacob B.

We kept a slow but steady pace the entire night, never stopping to rest for more than a minute at a time. At one point, Fausto stopped, pulled me a few feet closer with the rope, and lept across a four foot wide crevasse. My turn. I pulled the some slack from Paul and crossed the void. I saw an entire ice world beneath my feet and then my crampons crunched the snow as I landed safely on the other side.

We left the canyonous glacier and started a left-handed traverse across what seemed to be more stable snow. The snow became steeper and steeper until we stopped traversing and front-pointed up a short section of snow. More steep terrain led us to the bottom of an ice wall. We rested for a second here, as it was somewhat sheltered from the wind, and front-pointed up a steep section to the left of the wall. This is generally regarded as the ‘technical crux’ of the route, but it’s not really technical, or difficult, or even scary. It was like climbing a step ladder, only if you fell from this step ladder you would probably fall for quite a long time.

Soon, terrain became less steep and it was obvious that we were nearing the summit. I hit a wall. After four hours of nonstop movement, we were almost to the top, and I couldn’t take more than three steps at a time. I could tell by the way the rope kept going taut that Paul was in a similar state. 30 more meters and we were there.

We stood on top of Cotopaxi at 19,347 feet just as the sun began to rise. We were the first team up, and spent 15 minutes with the summit all to ourselves. We could see the Ilinizas, Cayambe, and Chimborazo as islands in an otherwise unbroken sea of clouds. After taking pictures and changing a memory card (which turned out to be a two-man task) we packed up and began the descent. We soon passed the second group and gave them some words of encouragement.

Paul and I on the summit, just as the sun started to rise. Photograph by Fausto.

Getting ready to descend. Photograph by Jacob B.

The crater below the summit. Photograph by Jacob B.

Paul. Photograph by Jacob B.

Me, descending a steep section. Photograph by Paul J.

Me, at the bottom of that steep section. The other group is still on their way up. You can see that I have forgotten to turn my headlamp off. Photograph by Paul J.

The descent was easy, but we were tired. The sun rose as we kept a decent pace. The sky turned from black to orange and the view that had be obscured by darkness during our ascent became visible for the first time.

Photograph by Jacob B.

Fausto and Cotopaxi's shadow in the clouds. Photograph by Jacob B.

Cotopaxi at sunrise. Photograph by Jacob B.

Descending the snowfield turned out to be the mental crux. We could see the refuge below us, but it seemed to remain impossibly out of reach. We tried to glissade but the snow texture prevented us from sliding. I had to set goals small goals. Just walk 30 more feet, then you can rest. After one full eternity I stepped and my crampons bit in to mud, not snow. I had to sit down to remove them because I was so fatigued. Soon, we were in our sleeping bags. Exhausted. Happy. Exhausted.

Paul, finally back in bed. Photograph by Jacob B.

We napped for a few hours and when we woke up and walked to the car, there were still several parties on the mountain. We had to push start the car because the battery was dead.

Paul. Photograph by Jacob B.

Had I been less exhausted, I might have contemplated our accomplishment as we drove back to El Chaupi. Or maybe I would have thought about the unbelievable beauty they we had just experienced, or felt a sense of power at finally achieving such a big goal, but instead I just felt happy. I drank Gatorade and ate cookies and just felt happy.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2011 12:26 pm

    Awesome. Jakob. I am proud of you. Great Pics.

  2. June 19, 2011 7:00 am

    First I felt like cheering, then I felt like crying, now my eyes are burning from allergies. AMAZING. You guys kick major ass. So so so so totally stoked for you.

    • June 19, 2011 3:23 pm

      Thanks Sam. I can relate all too well to your burning allergy eyes.

  3. Ang permalink
    June 19, 2011 12:51 pm

    INCREDIBLE!! I enjoyed the intro, I knew from that first line it was going to be great! Well done Jake.
    Also the only picture of Paul smiling is of him in his sleepingbag…did he have a happy time like you did?

  4. Madi permalink
    July 10, 2011 5:29 pm

    Sooo this is why blogs can be so great! Love love love..

  5. July 22, 2011 12:58 pm

    Dear Jake…..
    You’re really good at making me feel like I need to do more with my life in terms of adventures. Thank you. You’re also very good at making me feel out of shape, not only from your in depth descriptions of your exertion and exhaustion, but also contrasting your blog post about climbing a 19,000 ft peak in south america, to mine and Jesse’s (ultimately failed) attempt to summit baldy last week……..

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