Trip Start Oct 29, 2011
48Trip End Jun 01, 2012
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Cotopaxi has an almost symmetrical cone that rises from a highland plain of about 3,800 metres, with a width at its base of about 23 kilometres It has one of the few equatorial glaciers in the world, which starts at the height of 5000m.
According to statistics from Ecuador, the success rate of summit attempts on Cotopaxi is about 70% for those with ice experience prior to their summit attempt and only 30-50% for those without (I was in the 30-50%)
So finally the big day had arrived
In order to do the climb there would be eight guides and each guide would be with two of us (some on their own). I was really concerned about being roped up to another member of the group because I was suddenly responsible for their success as well. I knew the guides had said that if one of you did have to go down then they would rope the other one up to someone else. But what if there was no-one else nearby? Usually when I do such stupid things it’s only me against the road or mountain but with this there was someone else to consider
We had a 2 ½ hour coach trip down south from Quito to the Cotapaxi National Park. When we arrived it wasn’t looking good. The cloud had really come down and we learnt that the night before that another group had not all made it because of the weather. We sat on the coach having lunch desperately looking skywards looking for some kind of sign it might clear. The coach then drove up the track to 4600m where we were dropped off with all of our kit.
We were going to be spending the night (well until midnight) at the Jose Ribas Refuge which is situated 4810m up the volcano.
It was only going to be 200m walk up to the refuge but we had to carry all of our kit – sleeping bags, clothing, mountaineering boots, crampons, ice axes, harnesses and helmets. It was like watching a group of kids on Duke of Edinbugh, with all manner of items hanging off the back of their rucksacks
Usually the first hour or so of the walk is on scree until you get up to the glacier and then it’s time to put on the crampons. However, due to the heavy snowfall in the previous 24 hours we had to put on the crampons before we got to the glacier.
Then after an hour and a half of walking I started to experience circulation problems with my feet and I lost all feeling. This was then followed by pain in my left foot which meant I couldn’t walk on it. I immediately screamed out to the guide and Lesley that I was having problems and Maurisio reacted very quickly by radioing up to Diego to ensure that Lesley would not be put at a disadvantage and for her to go and join up with Tracy’s rope. I was more than happy to let Lesley go as the last thing I wanted was for her to be affected by me and my stupid feet. So Mauricsio dug me a little snow hole and told me to sit in it and he would be back soon. Whilst there I started to try to wriggle my toes and get the circulation in my feet, it seemed to be doing the trick a bit. I also had to do some serious thinking. It was an incredibly surreal experience sat in that hole, on the side of a mountain, in the freezing cold staring out into nowhere withthe stars twinkling above me
“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever. That surrender, even the smallest act of giving up, stays with me. So when I feel like quitting, I ask myself, which would I rather live with?”
“Oh for goodness sake” I thought (or something along those lines anyway)
So for the next hour or so I trudged on very slowly roped up to Mauricio trying to make stupid jokes and take my mind off it all. We then arrived in the heart of the glacier and the most amazing surroundings (well what you could make out in the dark anyway). Around us you just make out ice formations and I knew I was in a very special place. Then we came down a slight slope and heard a bit of a ruckus ahead. I found Tracy and Lesley attempting to jump over this crevasse, which looked at little bit beyond scary. I didn’t recall this being in the trip notes – we weren’t meant to be in the middle of the Khumbu Ice Fall. They went for the slightly girly screaming option to get valiantly across. I went for the aproach of swearing very loudly, then had a bit of a go at Diego and Mauricio for laughing. Then we had a small section of ice climbing, following by a few scary ridge walks (the dark helped no end here – it really wouldn’t have helped to have seen what we were on)
About another hour later the sun started to come up and initially this was met with a sigh of relief. I’d at least made it to morning. We got to a quite a flat section next to the Yanasacha rock band and sat down for a bit of a rest. Then I realised quite how absolutely shattered I was and Diego told us we still had 200m to go. I then looked at Lesley and Tracy and saw how tired they were too. “God help me I thought – if they are looking like this then what chance do I have here”. All this was closely followed by Sean and Tony appearing from around the corner. It was decided that Sean should be roped up to me and Mauricio and this in the end probably meant I made it to the summit. With Sean behind me I knew I couldn’t quit. This guy had been so amazing over the last week’s walking and I really couldn’t let him down.
At this stage we saw the most amazing sight - the shadow of Cotapaxi (well that's what I thought it was - could have been hallucinating for all I knew)
The next hour was probably the hardest of my entire life. It made the marathons and Kili feel like a little jog round the park
The view was fantastic, for probably as much as 200km in every direction. Cotopaxi stands up by itself, and, unlike in the Alps or the more southerly Andes, is not part of a ridge, so the immediate foreground is way below. We were lucky enough to spot the tops of Antisana, Cayambe and Chimborazo.
Then the nightmare continued – we had to get down. This will go down as my worst ascent ever. I had nothing left to give and was slower than slow. I was also having issues with my crampons as they kept on clogging up with snow and it was like being on a pair of ice skates. Needless to say I’m not Jayne Torvillle (more like Orville the Duck) so I spent a lot of the time on my backside. Poor old Sean and Mauricio had to deal with all this and their patience was incredible (we were all still roped up). In the end I took off my crampons and after realising I wasn’t going to fair much better in just my boots I went for the just sit down and slide down the slope approach
So finally, 11 hours after setting out from the refuge I finally made it back in. Dreaming of a hot drink, sit (actually lie) down, bit of food I was met by the news that a storm was coming in and we needed to ship out promptly. The wonderful Caroline helped with with a quick cup of tea and with sorting out my gear and we all headed back down the slope to the bus.
In total 12 out of the 16 of the group (12 of 13 on summit night) who attempted the climb made it to the summit. So Ecuadorian authorities take your 30-50% and .....
To be honest I really wasn’t surprised that the others made it (Brian would have made it too had it not be for a horrible cold). The group was made of up a just some really incredible people. We had only been together for less than two weeks but the camaraderie and level of support given to each other was overwhelming. In particular – Tracy, Lesley and Caroline – thank you so much – you are all complete superstars !!