Well D-Day has arrived, we’re off to have a crack at Volcano Cotopaxi, and we’re a little excited to say the least. At 2pm we drive up to 3800m, the refuge where we’ll spend the afternoon. It is only the afternoon mind you, we’ll be up at 10pm to get dressed and start climbing, yes 10pm. This ungodly and challenging time slot gives the chance to catch the sunrise as well as the necessity to descend before the sun melts the snow crust making it a safety issue. Descent must begin by 7:30 so we’re in for 7 or so hours of pain/ fun. The challenge ahead is falling heavily upon us as we sum up a quantity of gear more befitting the years travel we’re on, not a few hours of hiking. With a quick delicious meal in our bellies we settle down and pretend like we have a chance of sleeping.
At 10pm the call goes out and none too soon, thank god we’re under way. We scoff down a quick breakfast and off we go, up to the starting point; a mere 4600m. This whole preparation is happening at a fairly hectic pace, we were at 2800m just eight hours ago, and with the pulse thumping and more than just a little bit of adrenalin we take a first moment to take a breath, as challenging as that is up here. We gaze out from our perch, strangely on top of the world and still beneath it all, Cotopaxi rears unapologetically into yet another layer of clouds barely showing the first tapering of its girth. From here we can see clearly over a range of impressive peaks little more than silhouette monsters under the bed; in a star and snow-lit ambience the lights of Latacunga and even distant Quito blaze the layers of cloud beneath us, an amber glow opposing our frozen paradise. This perspective in itself is a little bit breathtaking (pardon the pun), encompassing all the grandeur that mountains have a want to do.
But the fleeting moment of grace is over before appreciation can take hold, we have to walk. This is by far the most serious hike I’ve ever undertaken and the sense of beauty is quickly replaced by that of competitive challenge. Unlike activities such as scuba diving, the more genuine end of the mountain stick is not one for passivity, the atmosphere of challenge and conquest is invasive. We make it just a small way up to the refuge at 4800m and we’re doing well, keeping a good steady pace ahead of the other groups. Even as I write this I find the constant repetition of altitudes intrusive but that’s the world we’re climbing into. Gone are thoughts of food, comfort, safety, money: Here the basic needs model is replace by a monolithic purpose, where am I? A magic number defines every corner of what you’re trying to do, achieve, be.
It’s about 1am and we reach the glacier that represents, in some ways, the true beginning. We’re around 5000m and we put on our crampons, huge spikes attached to your boots that, with an ice axe, help you navigate your snow journey upward, and we’re already well over my previous highest altitude. With an ebbing of the excitement and settling into the routine, we’re feeling good, ready for the six more hours of trudging up into the glowing night. Roped together in a line of three with our guide, we’re in lock step for the remainder of the trip. Here, a rare opportunity to soak up the place we find ourselves: The rhythmic crunch of snow underfoot, the ‘thunk’ of the ice axe breaching snowy crust, the glowing darkness, the deafening silence. Yes, we are carried away, a frozen dream.
But dreams precede an awakening. I get a bit of a weird feeling in my stomach, probably at about 5100m. This is not good, feeling ill and headaches are a common sign of altitude sickness. We stall for a bit to take a moment to readjust and take on some chocolate before we push off. It’s pretty slow going here, with a small headache forming I’m feeling a little worried, altitude shouldn’t be kicking in just yet, I stop regularly and attempt to manage my way through it, this dreamy landscape slipping into a darker apparition as the minutes tick by.
Lengthy linguistic description evades me now, all that encompasses my world is two or so hours of feeling ill, with a headache. Not to mention slowly coming to terms with the fact that, being roped together, I’m probably making the summit impossible for the two others of my current ‘family’ and possibly putting us all in some degree of danger. I feel defeated and bizarrely quite ashamed, I refuse to admit that I’m probably succumbing to altitude and convince myself of all the reasons I’ll be fine. It’s 3am and the night glows with promise, or mockery, I can’t tell. After slipping further into altitude sickness torment. The only way I can describe this is being helpless. My legs feel fine and strong, no aching at all, my heart is barely pumping but my head is burdened with not only a strong headache but a disproportionately immense sense of failure and shame. It’s the dead of night, after 4am and about five hours of climbing, it just hurts.
I’m writing this now with a clear head but these feelings are still so clear to me, I’m not accustomed to this sort of physical ineptitude. One thought I recall that was with me for about the last half an hour is that I feel more helpless now than when I fractured my back.
Holding tears of shame back I query the guide for advice on altitude. He makes it pretty clear that it’s gotten me but still leaves me the decision to continue or not, he won’t give my supplicant ego the escape of a decision. On we go, we must push. Four or so steps later I keel over again. There’s no mitigating way out of this, emotions of failure, shame, regret and insignificance load five feeble words, ‘I have to go down’. There it is, the last slick of integrity scraped off the gutter of the space my self esteem used to be. As we turn the view down is frightening. We’re so high, hundreds of metres of glacier sprawl below us and further below that a distant world that seems so far away, foreign. It’s beautiful beyond measure.
That was then, this is now.
It’s a day later now and my headspace is clearer and I’m retrospectively stunned at my feelings and state after the attempt at Cotopaxi. I’d count myself as a fairly level tempered person, not prone to irrational emotional swings. With ascension more than 500m above my previous highest and a fairly uncontrollable catch stopping my progress I should be happy with the experience, pushing myself into somewhere new. I’m feeling some of that now. What amazes me is the bodily disobedience over a physical and mental space I often govern quite firmly. For a short time I became a depressed, self-hating saboteur, far from the person I know myself to be.
To make things worse, Charlie was doing it easy and to his credit was overwhelmingly supportive, a gift he’ll never know the enormity of. I wanted a challenge, and I got one. Whether I want to try this again I’m yet to decide, I can’t say I’m entirely back to myself yet, but that’s what mountains can do I guess. I’ve loved the experience of humility that volcanos bring, the appreciation for their power, that humility temporarily turned to defeat and with it I am left with a greater appreciation than the already significant awe I had before.
Cotopaxi, I can’t feel any love for you right now, but in time I’m sure I will feel it, if not love, at least appreciation. Until next time, you win.