High Altitude ´fun´

Trip Start Jan 25, 2007
Trip End Jan 25, 2008

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

I had to spend a few days around Cotapaxi to acclimatise to the high altitude. The problem with high altitude is that you canīt do much training for it, you just need to spend some time at high altitude and hope that yiu get acclimatised. I was staying in a hostel owned by the company organising the tour and it was really out in the middle of nowhere. I spent one day hiking around to try and get used to the lower oxygen levels.
Walking at a fast pace would very quickly have you panting for breath, a lot different to sea level. Nevertheless the altitude didnīt seem to be affecting me too much although sleeping at night was more difficult and breathing was not natural.
There were four other people doing the ascent with me , two from Holland , one from the US and one from Canada along with three guides. The first day we drove up to the car park at Cotapaxi which was about 300m below the mountain refuge where we spend the night. We had to hike the remaining 300m with all our gear and everyone was feeling the altitude. Starting at about 4500m this was the highest altitude Iīd ever been at outside of an airplane.
Once we got to the refuge we had a quick lunch and then it was out to the glacier for a bit of training.
Iīd worn crampons before in New Zealand but this time we had to also learn other stuff such as how to stop ourselve with the ice axe if we fell. The altitude was really a factor at this point and I was taking it as easy as I could all the time. What I didnīt realise was that although the guides were telling us to take it easy they were also evaluating us. If Iīd know this I would have opushed myself a lot harder rather than save my energy for the ascent.
After the training session it was back to the refuge for dinner and then although it was only seven oīclock it was bed time. We would have to get up at midnight to beging the ascent!
I donīt think anyone was able to sleep that night, everyone was finding it hard to breathe as we were at an altitude of about 4800m. Heavybreathing could be heard throughout the night. I also had a bad headache which Iīd had for a few hours. I drank as much water as I could and this seemed to the the trick. Although I didnīt manage to get any sleep my headach was gone by the time we were īwokenī up at midnight.
After a quick breakfast wer put all our gear on, grabbed our day packs and began the ascent. Almost instantly my headtorch failed. Apparently the cold can affect battereies and I had forgotten to get some spare ones. Luckily one of the guides had a spare torch and I was able top keep going. Trudging up the hill in the dark apart from the torches was a slow procession of about thirty people, panting their way up the mountainside. Initially iwas was just roped in wit my guide, the two Dutch were with one guide and the two North Americans with the other. My guide had me off to a slow start based on the previous days evaluation but I was seeon able to persuade him to go faster. This soon had us over taking the North Americans and I weas feeling fine. Then probably the definging moment of the ascent, word came from the back that one of the Dutch was struggling and we had to wait ten minutes for the other Dutch guy to come up and tie himself in with us. In the meantgime the American and Canadian had overtaken us and I was now tied in with someone else, someone who was less used to hiking and with no more guides, someone who would also have to make it to the top if I was to make it.
Straight away I could see it was going to be a struggle, he wasnīt used to hiking at all ( Are there any hills in Holland?) and the pace dropped significantly. After about an hour he was really starting to struggle and soon started to slip and fall in the snow every few steps. He would then pant heavily for about thirty seconds before getting up again and continuing on. This was annoying me a lot ( a side effect of high altitude is increased irritability) but after a while I had to admire his heart. Although he clearly wasnīt in good shape he kept getting up and continuing and you could see it was really tough for him. I tried to encourage him as much as I could as I knew if I was to make it to the top h ewould have to be with me but the slow pace and stop start nature of it was starting to take itīs toll on me too. Wioth altitude although you canīt go too fast, you canīt goo too slow either as a lot of the altitude affects take about half an hour to kick in.
This process of falling, heaving breathing for thirty seconds, getting up and walking for five steps before repeating continued for about four hours and I was alternating between putting my ice axe in his back and admiring his determination. If we were toi reach the top we only had a short window in which to do it. Once the sun came up, the snow would start to becomne softer and after a few hours make for as treachearous descent. So the pressure was on. As we got to abbout 5300m the altitude began to affect me and I started to feel a bit nauseous with a slight headache. The lack of sleep was also taking itīs toll and I was starting to get tired. I began to think that the oportunity had been lost and now I wouldnīt be able go ono much further either. Eventually about 100m from the top the decision was made to stop and go on no further. This led ot a mix of emotions for me. Obviously I was disappointed we hadnīt made the top, I felt that on my own I would have made it but I would never know for sure. I would have preferred to have failed by myself rather than having failed because someone I had only met the previous day had failed. Still I had to admire how far he had come and the views from where we were were spectacular. We were far above the clouds and could see snow peaked mountains in every direction. It had been a gruelling few hours and it was a relief to stop even if it was short of our goal.
Due to the nausea I wasnīt able to eat much during the break we had there although I drank as much water as I could. We watched with some jealousie as the American and Canadian passed us on their descent after reaching the top. How different could it have been if I had been tied in with them ?
We were the last to begin the descent and was we were quite late it was starting to get quite warm from the sun and the snow was getting a lot softer. This made conditions under foot a lot more difficult and as we were pretty exhausted at this stage we stgarted to slip and fall a lot. This was where the training came in and I was able ot use my ice axe to arrest my falls. As we were all tied in to each other this would also catch our falls. Going down was getting more and more difficult as the sun went higher and tempers were getting short. Soon the ice axe had a new potential target, our guide who was obviously keen to get down before the sun was too high insisted on shorter and shorter breaks and a faster pace. īKeep going chicosī would keep saying. Although I knew why he was saying it the ice axe was ready anyway :). Although every step was a challenge one thing we could feel was that with every step down was an extra bit of oxygen, the opposite to the ascent.
Finally we made it back down to the refuge at about ten thirty, we had been up and walking for about nine and a half hours at high altitude and with no sleep the night before. Although we hadnīt made it to the top it was still a great feeling of acheivement although slightly tinged with disappointment. I suppose when I go for Everest I need to pick my own climbing partner or else go on my own ...
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