It’s 12am, and with a throbbing altitude sickness headache for company I’ve tumbled down a staircase in the dark, in a hut that clings onto a mountain at over 4,000 meters in Ecuador.
Cotapaxi, the world's highest active volcano
A vicious storm makes opening the hut’s heavy wooden front door hard – and I need to get outside to pee, or else I’ll have wet pants to add to the general misery list.
When I stagger back inside, a torch beam rudely shines in my face, and in my stupor on the roof of the world, I feel disoriented, like I’m suddenly on some gruelling SAS survival-type TV show.
Through the shrill noise of my drilling headache, I barely hear what the grim figure says, but it sounds like “time to go.”
And shockingly, it is indeed that awful time when we must attempt to scale the world’s highest active volcano, the perfectly cone-shaped, snow covered summit that is Ecuador’s Cotopaxi.
We’re here to end our four month travel adventure on a high. Having visited one of the lowest points on Earth (Death Valley), we’re now set to scale one of the highest. Through our adventures, we have progressively exposed ourselves to more and more risk – and this climb certainly represents one of the biggest risks for us to date.
The objective: a dark terror
In Spanish, it’s name means “smooth neck of the moon” and in Quechua, “mass of fire”. This snow-topped fiery monster has also been worshipped since pre-Incan times as the ‘rain sender.’ None of which conveys the fear the actual climb can inspire.
Indeed, to me, it’s a brutal 9 hour return climb (although we hear, more accurately, that it takes complete novices around 12-13 hours), from over 4,000 meters (around half the height of Everest) to around 5,800 meters through dangerous weather (snow storm with gale force winds), clawing up shifting gravel before climbing onto a glacier, and picking a perilous path to the top with crampons and an ice axe in a race against time to beat melting ice bridges. And, oh yeah, in the dark.
We had decided to climb Cotopaxi without any experience because we wanted to end our adventure with a big mental and physical risk. We had invested a large amount of money, muscle and mental graft just to get to the refuge, or mountain hut, from where we begin our ascent.
Our only preparation was a crucial, but exhausting acclimatisation walk at altitude – the muscle tearingly-tough 5000m+ (over 16,500 feet) peak of Illiniza (South). Backing out would render all investment so far pointless. Yet pushing on to the summit would push us to breaking point.
Fear and dread
Earlier, I ascended to the refuge (mountain hut) – a tough little ascent – with little incident. Sure, there was some mild soroche – altitude sickness, low energy levels and mild exhaustion – however I had felt surprisingly up for the summit attempt, if I could just get some rest and, importantly, sleep between 7pm-11.30pm.
Seeking refuge - Scot grabs a breather en route to Cotopaxi's refuge at 4000m+
During the evening, however, my nerves jangled inside my sleeping bag, as fear and dread gnawed nastily away at my pluck and optimism. Indeed, by the time the mountain guide’s wake-up beam smashes into my face, I already have prepared a list of excuses not to climb. At midnight, in response to my protestations, Hernan – who is such a good climber, incidentally, that he summited Cotopaxi 45 times in one week for a competition – merely laughs at me and lopes off somewhere into the darkness.
Hewn from rock
Our Ecuadorian mountain guide, Hernan, was born at over 2,500m. He came into this world a spent his entire childhood at an altitude far higher than Britain’s biggest peak, and now, as a man, he has a physique like a spider.
Having scaled some of the world’s highest peaks, and surely holding the record for speed ascents of Ecuador’s biggest mountains, he’s as adept a climber as I’ve ever met. He’s scaling Everest next May.
His face looks like it was hewn from Cotopaxi’s rock: the ridged Ecuadorian nose; sharp, high cheekbones; angular jaws; and sunken cheeks covered in a stubborn stubble like mountainside gorse.
He wears a long, pleated pony tail, which, like a monkey tail, is maybe useful for balance in knife-edge situations. While nimble ascents are his strong point, guiding beginners is surely his weak spot.
For he really lacks empathy with struggling beginners, does not give clear briefings, won’t teach any climbing techniques, and sometimes forgets key pieces of equipment. He makes you feel confident that he’ll ascend – and fast, but nervous that you won’t make it along with him.
Wishing we were there - looking downhill into the valley from Cotopaxi's refuge
Freakish and fidgety with soroche
The freakish and fidgety last 6 hours before Hernan’s rude wake-up call went something like this: eat barely digestible pasta before the sunset (i.e., before available light ran out), put on all seven available layers of clothing, wriggle into a stinking borrowed sleeping bag and clamber into a tiny bunk in the dark, inside a hut with no heating or light, and feel so bone-cold the entire time so as to never stop shivering night-long.
Gamely I attempt to get to sleep but between altitude sickness and noise – people constantly clump about in heavy climbing boots, and loudly snore, fart and shake pill bottles open to combat the brain-splitting symptoms of soroche – worryingly, I can’t get a single wink.
Instead, a migraine hammers away inside my head, nausea rails me, and my guts loll around on puke duty. So I’m hardly in peak condition. On top of this, our acclimatisation climb the day before had left me severely weak. So when I hear the grim words ‘time to go’, I’m honestly on the verge of bailing out.
Yet, somehow, a little voice deep inside me offers a spark of resistance. Part of me still wants to fight through it, wants to do it. Another part of me has a morbid fascination with how the twisted scenario will turn out – what kind of pathetic figure will I cut, will I be hospitalised?
In effect, despite my sick feelings and protestations, by 12.45am, I grimly hike into the dark night with H and Hernan, our party of 3, for the summit. Just one problem: Hernan has forgotten our head torches – we’ll have to climb with one flashlight between three.
Outside, we’re greeted by a stunning sight – a skyfull of shining stars, studded with more distant glittering suns than I’ve ever seen in one place, and far brighter, too. There’s a reason for this – we’re straddling the equator so there are two constellations, from both the northern and southern hemisphere. And being so high up and so far away from any light pollution means that you feel close enough to reach out and touch these sweet diamonds.
The delight doesn’t last, however, as the worsening weather rears up in the west and storms in with renewed vigour. Later, when we’ll leave the mountain, we’ll see the aftermath – a landscape covered in ice and snow, all the way down to 3,000 meters.
Left foot in, right foot out
The first hour is seriously strange, with body and mind trying to win the argument for going back to bed. That’s the normal thing to do, it’s the middle of the night after all. All I try to do is put one foot in front of the other. Left foot down breathe in, right foot down breathe out. This is all I do for an hour. Altitude sickness even subsides for a little while.
Heart like a hummingbird’s
The next thirty minutes is hard, but doable. Then it gets truly tough. Being higher than we have ever been, the upturn in altitude brings the soroche back in full force. With only 60% oxygen in the air (compared to 100% at normal level), the muscles burn a thousand burns on this hellish, shifting staircase. The ground underfoot is loose gravel, trying to swallow our feet and throw us off balance with every step.
All I can do is numbly put one foot in front of another, fragilely breath one breath with each step, stupefying pause when soroche makes my heart beat as fast as a hummingbird’s, or makes me swoon with dizziness, or creates flashing head pains.
Join the dark side
By 3am, it’s a truly agonising climb, with wind battering us, ice solidifying our outer shell of clothing. Snow blasts us in the dark. Looking at my watch is alarming – time is moving as slowly as a glacier. What seems like hours passing turns out to be mere minutes. Don’t look at your watch. I try to empty my head and think of nothing, nothing but one foot in front of the other; breathe in, breathe out‘ Then it happens. A seed of negative thought, you can’t you do this climb without a flashlight.
Rapidly, it starts spawning other negative ideas. What kind of idiot sets off on a dangerous climb without a torch? How are three of you going to ice-climb a glacier? Why didn’t you get glacier training like the others? Do you even know how to use crampons? Before long, I have practically joined the dark side – negativity dominates my thinking. Given that you have to climb exhausted and in pain anyway, mental strength is absolutely mission-critical.
I try my best to forge upward. Now gravity seems to have joined soroche, exhaustion and negativity as a blocking force. Gravity seems annoyed at me, for some reason, and angrily tries to push me down. It makes my legs feel pulpy and my feet feel embedded in quick drying cement. Left foot down – breathe in, right foot down – breathe out, seems harder than ever.
At 5,000 meters, negative thoughts are toying with me so much I feel like Darth Vader’s just told me he’s my father. Overwhelmed and defeated, the nagging annoyance of no torch beam thought somehow opened the floodgates. A torrent of negative self-abuse has flooded my thinking and telling me that a no-good failure. Then a spark of light penetrates the inky blackness.
Then it happens. H finds mind strength for both of us – and how. Her trick is smart yet straightforward – with her English stoicism, she simply pretends that everything’s fine and dandy. Bombs could be dropping to each side of us – she’d pretend they were helping to prepare the ground for flowers. So instead of climbing terror, she sends little messages of love to me like laughing birds flying easily over these spiteful obstacles.
She cajoles, sets small targets, urges us on, treats all setbacks with laughing disdain, playfully knocks my stiff, frozen clothing and generally chivvies me up. Ah, it’s more magical than the stars.
She even screams above the wind – indeed, the wind momentarily acts sheepish, embarrassed at H having to shout so loud above it – at Hernan, telling him to slow down and stop to let us rest more frequently. Aye, what a woman, what a climber!
Hitting the wall
And somehow we make it. Well, to the glacier, at least, or to 5,200 meters, or not far off 18,000 feet. Here, in the worst weather we have ever been out in, at 3.45am, a weird euphoria grips us and hugs us and spins us around and dances with us.
What feelings of joy and release after such agonies! What a sense of accomplishment for us two! Even making this ‘summit’ feels like achieving the impossible. And, for absolute beginners with no experience of real mountain climbing, and minimal acclimatisation, it really is.
And, so it goes, this wall is to be our final objective. With the wind, and the equipment, we’re not going to summit Cotopaxi. The peak is only 600 meters away, but the conditions today are just too dangerous for beginners like us, and this current ‘summit’ is more than enough for us.
Glacier minted - serious elation back at the lodge as I realise we're heading down instead of up from here on in
We’re certainly ready to head down hill, race down in fact, to lower ground, hotter weather, warm showers, big breakfasts and soft hotel beds for hours of golden sleep.
Risk and ambition
When we decided to do this climb, it was a purely impulsive decision. The risk and ambition of it blew our hair back. Unfortunately, we learned from our acclimatisation climb on Illiniza that we had possibly made a dangerous move – we were taking a serious health risk, and we weren’t experienced enough for such a stiff challenge as Cotopaxi.
Yet, despite the overall a shock to the central nervous system, we feel good about our attempt. Still think it was a crazy, possibly stupid thing to attempt, but we’re glad we did it. We drew on much more physical and mental strength than we ever knew we had, and we’re confident about embrace more risk and ambition in our day-to-day lives.
We’re not, however, ready to tackle another mountain climb on this scale. Indeed, as I type, we’re headed to cosier climes – surfing in Florida to be exact. And back to sea level – that’s an altitude that’ll do for now. Cocoa Beach here we come.