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[TR] Cotopaxi, Ecuador - Standard 11/18/2009

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Trip: Cotopaxi, Ecuador - Standard


Date: 11/18/2009


Trip Report:

I was fortunate to tag along with my fiancé as her work sent her to Ecuador (she works for an adventure travel company – tough life, eh?). After two weeks exploring the Galapagos Islands and the highlands of Ecuador she flew south to Peru to continue her trip and I was left in Quito with a couple days before returning to Seattle.


I had doubts regarding my ability to climb Cotopaxi; the summit is 19,347 ft. after all. I brought my gear down but wasn’t fully committed yet. The whole trip came about on short notice leaving little time to hit the gym before leaving. I also became terribly sick in the week prior to the trip eliminating any possibility of good last chance workouts. Additionally, snorkeling with sea turtles in the Galapagos and enjoying plentiful cervezas followed by hot springs and gorgeous haciendas didn’t provide for ideal acclimatization either.


I managed to get in a great hike/run up to 15k ft. I felt strong and decided to make a go for Cotopaxi. After running around the Mariscal area of Quito I secured a guide for that very night. I made the two hour drive from Quito up the endless cobblestone road to Cotopaxi with some college friends who happened to be in Quito on their four month drive from Colorado to Ushuaia in a VW camper van ( Here is their blog ).


My friends and I hiked up to the refuge (15,748 ft), dropped off my gear, and continued to the glacier where the rest of my group was practicing ice climbing on the seracs. The concerns I had about my ability were quickly replaced with doubts that any of the group would make it. The group consisted of a couple from London and one Aussie, for all of whom this was their first time on crampons.


My Colorado friends said goodbye and we wished each other luck on our respective adventures. I laid out my gear, ate dinner, and crawled into the sleeping bag around 8:00 for a midnight start time. Sleep was difficult to achieve in the stack of bunks that accommodates around a hundred people. The thin air made sleep difficult and the stench of cigarette smoke wafting up from the guides in the dining area below didn’t help matters.


The anxiety level in my group of rookies was palpable as we geared up and snagged a quick breakfast. While envious of the anticipation in the group of mountaineering virgins, I relished in the routine of lacing up my plastic boots and putting on my harness.


We ascended loose scree for an hour before reaching the glacier. The head lamps of ten other teams zigzagged back and forth in the darkness behind us. The group soon had their crampons on and I tied in at the back of the rope, behind the Aussie and our guide, Pablo.


It immediately became alarmingly apparent that rope management and glacier travel were NOT skills discussed yesterday afternoon. Pablo insisted we not hold the hope in our spare hand which led the Aussie to trip frequently as his crampons snagged the rope. I pleaded with the Aussie to ignore the guide’s instruction and to loosely grab the rope to prevent tripping and prevent a dangerous fall. Also, no one comprehended that piercing a climbing rope with a sharp crampon point should be avoided(!!!). Every break was accompanied by commands from me of “Watch the rope!” to both the Aussie AND the guide as they stumbled around with the rope uncoiled between them. I even had to teach the Aussie how to use the ice axe.


Despite my frustrations and concern, the ascent progressed smoothly and quickly as we leapfrogged with other rope teams. There were some steep sections on solid ice that I was happy to be roped on. The crevasses were easily avoided or jumped. A fresh dusting of snow over night added to the beauty as we meandered around seracs and the various pitches of the glacier.


We reached the summit (oh, did I mention it’s 19,347 ft!) just after sunrise. Scattered clouds above and fog in all the valleys made for a beautiful view. The summit platform dropped steeply down to the crater where steam was swirling about; Cotopaxi is the second highest active volcano in the world.


After nearly an hour on the summit taking pictures and congratulating other teams, we began the descent. Had I noticed the deteriorating condition of the Aussie we would have began the descent much sooner. He struggled with the ascent but appeared to recover fully at the summit. Within minutes of leaving the summit he was exhausted, nauseous, and uncoordinated. Descending at a snail’s pace, he would frequently collapse in the snow midstep. I reassured him that he would begin to feel better with every decrease in elevation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case as his condition continued to deteriorate. He was soon stumbling dangerously and dry heaving. He neglected to mention until hours later on the descent that he was out of water. I gave him nearly all of my remaining Nuun water. Hopefully his body absorbed some of it before the next round of dry heaving.


Never a fan of the descent, I was ready to be down and pushed him to carry on every time he collapsed with the reassurance that he would feel better as we got lower.


We finally made it back to the refuge, packed up our gear and descended to the waiting Land Cruiser. The Aussie’s recovery didn’t occur as I expected and the two hour drive back to Quito was interrupted with frequent emergency stops. It wasn’t until later that evening back in Quito that he recovered sufficiently for a celebratory beer.


I was ecstatic with my accomplishment! 19,347 ft! While not the hardest or most technical of climbs, I was still proud. Despite my frustration with the guide and the altitude sickness of my ropemate, it was awesome to share in their enthusiasm. All three of the virgins swore off mountain climbing after this, but I hope once the pain subsides and they look through their pictures they will find the desire to don crampons and begin the long arduous journey to another summit.









Gear Notes:

Standard glacier travel gear (I did meet two Czechs who climbed unroped, but didn't recommend it)

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Glad you made it! Sounds like quite the adventure. I sure wouldn't want to be roped to inexperienced folks on a glaciated peak! Did you try the Cui (not sure of spelling)? That was the only thing that made me sick down there. Whole roast guinea pig is pretty greasy stuff! Glad also the Aussie with HACE symptoms was okay. In my experience even the sickest Aussie will recover for beer.

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Wow! Interesting to see how much the crater has melted out since I was last down there in 1999. Good TR. I watched one of our fellow CC'ers snowboard down from the summit on that trip (CK) and showed why he would soon win the Khan Tengri race, as he started about 3 hours behind our group from the hut and passed us heading up the steeps before the summit like we were standing still.



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Yea, I did have some Cui, along with other weird stuff like cows feet soup. My stomach was definitely in rough shape during the climb, just to add to the excitement of it all.

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