When Christine and I first decided to travel to Ecuador, one of my must-see destinations was Cotopaxi (5897m / 19347ft). I was always intrigued by Cotopaxi because it's the 3rd highest active volcano in the world, and the mountain is basically a perfectly symmetrical formation. On a clear day you can see Cotopaxi rising above the Andean highlands in the distance from Quito. Since summitting Cotopaxi requires mountaineering gear and neither of us had any previous experience hiking in snow and ice, we only had plans to hike up to the glacier line (5000m / 16400ft).
After settling in Latacunga (about an hour and a half south of Quito) for a couple days and Christine had enough time to recover from summitting Volcan Rucu Pichincha, we decided on Sunday (11/11/12) to walk around town and check out the going rates for a 1-day tour to Cotopaxi. After speaking to a couple of tour agencies, we were told the hike to the summit was an "easy climb" and that all we needed to do was "walk very slowly." When we asked if any previous mountaineering experience was needed, they simply said "no". Because we were already in Ecuador (I mean when are we gonna come back to Ecuador again anyway?) and the climb was supposedly easy, we made a spontaneous but naive decision to do the 2-day summit tour.
The next morning we got our equipment and gear, and soon after headed to Cotopaxi with 2 other climbers (Bruno and Celine) and our 2 tour guides. After grabbing a quick lunch, we drove over to the parking lot. At this point we gathered our belongings and then hiked up to the refugio (4810m / 15780ft), where we spent the night before starting our trek at 12am. We ate dinner at 6pm and then tried to get a few hours of sleep before our 11pm wake-up call.
Alarm goes off, and I didn't get one minute of sleep, probably because of that nervous excitement I get sometimes. I got the same feeling the night before hiking Half Dome the first time many years ago. Or the night before I first hiked Mount Whitney a few years ago. All the expedition teams at the refugio got dressed ASAP before heading downstairs for breakfast. After eating some toast and yogurt, we made sure we were all packed and didn't forget anything.
At 12am sharp tour guide Johnny got Christine and me, and off we went. Bruno, Celine, and the other guide (I think his name is Jose, seriously) started a little before us. The hike up to the glacier line was pretty simple - a constant 45 degree incline, up a winding dirt path. The first hour went by smoothly. All tour groups marched up the dirt path in single file formation. This hike can't be too bad. I mean, all we need to do is to hike slowly and go at our own pace, right?
We arrived at the glacier line around 2am. At this point, Christine decided to head back to the refugio after feeling the effects of the altitude. Celine, who had started trekking on the glacier already, also decided to retreat to the refugio. Guide Johnny accompanied them back down the mountain, while Guide Jose led Bruno and me up the glacier.
I strapped on my crampons, and then the 3 of us got roped together - Jose, me, then Bruno. Come to think about it, I was strategically placed in 2nd position because Jose probably thought I would be the weakest link. Well, he couldn't be more right about that.
After cruising to the glacier line, within 10 minutes of hiking on the glacier, I began to get really tired. You know that kind of tired you get when you sprint uphill, stop, and then proceed to breathe really hard while you hunch over??? Yeah, that was me. Deep breath in, deep breath out. After a water break, I felt all good again. Wrong. Another 10 steps or so go by and I'm hunched over again, trying to catch my breath. Is hiking on snow and ice that much harder than on dirt? It must be that, as well as the damn altitude. At this moment I was at the highest altitude I had ever been. The summit of Half Dome measures in at 2693m (8835ft), Whitney at 4421m (14504ft), while the highest point on the classic, 4-day Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu was only 4205m (13796ft).
It's completely dark outside. The only thing I saw was my exhaled breath. Deep breath in, deep breath out, and more water. This pattern continued for awhile. I looked up at the sky and began to wonder how I got persuaded to do this in the first place. The $40 one-day tour would have been good enough. But now I'm $170 in the hole for the summit tour. Including Christine's share, that's $340! I can't possibly quit now.
On I went. Every 10 or so steps, I embarrassingly requested yet another break in my limited Spanish: "uno momento, per favore." Deep breath in, deep breath out, etc. My 10 pound backpack now felt like 30 pounds of dead weight. The 45 degree incline soon enough became 60+ degree inclines. Gasping for air and unable to maintain balance, I found out it was sometimes easier to crawl up those unforgiving inclines on all fours. When necessary, I would spike my ice axe into the snow to gain leverage. It was around this time when I realized I made another mistake. When I reached to get another swig of water , I discovered the water in the Camelbak tube was now completely frozen. Yeah, my dumb ass left the tube exposed in the frigid air, and when I needed water the most, I had nothing but a 2 liter block of ice. Bruno eventually offered me a bit of his Gatorade. Gatorade never tasted this good in my entire life.
The trail we're on now was only a foot, maybe foot and a half, wide. One misstep and a climber could easily find him/herself sliding down the mountainside, potentially dragging the next climber down and into a crevasse. Oh, did I just say crevasse??? Yeah, not once did any tour coordinator mention that. Christine and I got scammed before (damn those taxi drivers) but never this bad. We were completely misled.
Left foot. Right foot. Ice axe jab. On and on I went, dragging my beatened body up the mountain. Why didn't I just quit? Well, the money was one thing. The other reason? This whole time Bruno was just blazing up the mountain. If I could make a comparison, he was a sports car racing up a mountain in a one lane road but forced to stop because the car in front was dying. I, on the other hand, was a beat up truck in serious need of an oil change. If I had decided to throw in the towel, our guide would be forced to accompany both of us back down and therefore deprive Bruno of his chance to summit. I didn't want to be that guy. It just wouldn't be fair.
As this journey seemingly took forever, Bruno asked the guide how far we were from the summit. Jose indicated about 20 minutes. I looked up and miraculously saw the final incline to the top. As we approached the summit, I saw a guy taking pictures. That was the last bit of motivation I needed. I trudged to the top and without even taking a glance at the view, I collapsed on my back. Beatened and exhausted, I finally reached the summit.
I originally planned on taking tons of pictures but I didn't care for that anymore. We ended up being the 2nd group to summit, taking around 5 and a half hours. Considering we were the last group to step foot on the glacier, I'm not sure how we passed several other groups. I guess I was too busy getting my ass kicked by Cotopaxi. If not for me, Bruno would easily have been the first to summit.
I had just finished the most physically and mentally demanding task in my life, and all I could think of was lying on the beach and doing nothing. Originally, I wanted to do a hike on Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador (6267m / 20561ft). Ugh, yeah, my plans couldn't have changed faster. Baños, thermal baths, and massages....here I come.