On Wednesday morning I set out to ascend the snowy ridge of Volcán Cotopaxi and smell the earth’s sulfurous insides at 5,897 meters. Though not a technical climb, scaling Ecuador’s tallest active volcano means hiking up a glacier, so ropes, crampons, ice axes and a heckuva lot of clothes are required. A few years ago a Canadian woman died on the trek, so now you have to hire a local guide through a tourist agency, and that’s how I found myself in a 4×4 bouncing out of Quito with three Ecuadorean guys and three recent graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy.
We made camp in the attic of an A-frame building that had all the amenities you might expect of a deer lease, and then headed to a nearby lake for a walk to help acclimate ourselves to the altitude. A rainbow — I had never seen bands of color so low — curved over a valley of wild horses with the white capped volcano looming on the background. One of the recent grads, Walt, said it looked angry.
We all posed for a picture and I said, “This is gonna be a weird pic if one of us doesn’t make it back.”
“We’ll have to start Xing people out,” he replied.
After an early dinner of locro de papa soup and a quick lesson in how to attach the spikes to our snow boots and walk uphill (likes ducks, unless it’s too steep, then sideways and crisscrossed), we tried to sleep at 6 p.m so we could begin the trek at 11 p.m. This would give us time to reach the summit at sunrise and make our way back down before the snow started melting and the conditions became dangerous.
After what was probably an hour of actual sleep, we breakfasted at 10:30 p.m., and as we sipped coffee by headlamp, I thought, This is legit. And that it was, especially once we started trudging uphill. Sleet slapped our faces and wind buffeted our ears. I kept up with the Naval grads — good guys and devout Christians who never cussed — although I did have a freak-out moment about an hour into the trek when I looked away from the footprints in front of me and down the white slope into blackness. Thankfully my guide came up on my side, pointed forcefully at the footsteps ahead and told me to keep moving. Even though he spoke some English, my Spanish was refreshed after traveling for two months, so that was the language of our interactions, and we communicated well. (He of course might have a different opinion.)
The three guides, Alberto, Juan Carlos and Christian, joking and informative till then, switched to all business once we reached the foot of the glacier and strapped our boots atop the crampons’ metallic teeth. Alberto tied himself to Dan and Justin, aka Juice, while Juan Carlos paired up with Walt. Christian was emphatic that I shouldn’t leave any slack in the rope binding the two of us, and I nodded, already aware of the jerking principle from chain-towing many a used car to the mechanic.
Such a difference walking on ice makes. Each duck-step sapped a gallon of energy, and I soon was lagging behind the other two groups. We had been instructed to walk slowly and stop when needed, and that I did. Having run a couple trail marathons, I knew sitting down on a rock doesn’t mean you’re done, and you often pop back up more invigorated than ever, but the thin air of that altitude wasn’t as nourishing as deep, sea-level breaths in California, and the toughness of the going increased. In Bogotá (2,625 meters), I had headaches for four days, but Medellín (1,500), Salento (1,895) and Quito (2,850) had posed no difficulties, so I had hoped I was acclimated before the trek. But any mathematician will tell you 5,000 is larger than 2,850, and I soon found myself feeling sleepy.
“Look, you can see Quito,” Christian said, pointing to a break in the clouds. The city lights twinkled between two ridges far below us. It was horrifying. I love hiking. I love looking at an outcrop far in the distance and hours later, with my chest heaving, looking from it. But I decided then, surrounded by white and black, and there, with the sleet pelting my cheeks, this would be the last time I undertook anything requiring an ice axe. We trudged on and I could see the lights of Walt and Juan Carlos up ahead, and the other group of three headlamps way above them.
“What altitude now?” I asked, and Christian pulled up his sleeve and read 5,160 meters on his watch. “It’s obvious I’m not going to make the summit,” I said, “but let’s go for 5,200 meters.” In my mind I knew we’d already crossed the three-mile mark, but I wanted to get closer to the magic number of 5,280, since that’s how many feet are in a mile, though that number seemed interminable, so I settled on 5,200 as my goal. Such was my wet, cold logic as I took another step.
I wanted to die.
“What altitude now?”
“OK, we go back now.”
“Congratulations. 5,171 meters.”
I felt anything but pride as I led us back down. Several times I fell on my hind and felt the reassuring tug of the rope. The ice axe seemed more a hindrance than a help, as if I was carrying the sharp metal just so I could tumble and impale myself on it. My head began grinding, if that’s the word. I imagined rivers of sand running through the tiny canyons of my biological brain. When we descended the glacier and stopped to take off the crampons, I rolled over on my side and vomited.
The early morning light brightened our final steps, and I stripped off my wet clothes and crawled under a sleeping bag in the back seat of the 4×4. All that I thought awaited me was deep sleep and shame when the others returned from a successful summit. But the story was not done.
I awoke when two Germans from another group, also unsuccessful in their ascent, piled into the 4×4 to combine our warmth. Their guide sat in the front seat with Christian and turned on the car intermittently to activate the heater. A large, ragged fox patrolled the mud parking lot.
My bladder was full but I chose pained sleep over cold relief, and I awoke again when the Germans and their guide left an hour later. Soon thereafter Walt and Juan Carlos came tromping towards the vehicle.
“You make it?” I asked Walt.
“He turned us around about an hour from the top because of the weather.”
Juan Carlos conferred with Christian and came around the back to load their gear. “Alberto and the others aren’t here,” he told Walt, and I could tell by their faces this was not good news. There were two paths down from the summit, and with visibility nil, they had assumed Alberto, Dan and Juice passed them on the other route. But the three were still up there, in the middle of the storm. It was somewhere around 8 in the morning. Walt and I ate chocolates and slept.
By 11 Juan Carlos was cursing Alberto. Repeatedly. By noon other tourist groups were arriving for day hikes and snapping pictures of the fox. I had a hard time positioning myself so I could pee downwind without facing them. At 1 Juan Carlos turned to us and said he and Christian were going back up. This felt active, but it also left Walt and me alone in the vehicle with worry in place of any means of outside communication.
An hour later a park ranger rapped on the window and asked if we were part of the group that was trapped on the mountain. I have nothing but love for park rangers, even when one walked up on a group of us camping at the Trona Pinnacles last year with his hand on his gun, so I was stoked to learn help had arrived. That the competency of this help was not up to previous standards would become evident soon enough. The first park ranger, a woman, gave up on my Spanish the second I asked her to slow down and handed us off to another, who spoke English. He told us Alberto had managed to make a call at 11 and that help was on the way. Also, he needed our car.
“I’m going to drive you down to the ranger station and bring the car back.”
“But our other two guides are up there too.”
Walt was suspicious of handing over the keys, and we both wanted to stay put, but the ranger was emphatic. He was working hard to convince us he was a good guy, but that came across as sketchy, especially when all he had to say was, “Look, you’re in my park and I’m saying you have to go to a lower altitude for your own protection.”
As he drove us down he said a group of expert climbers was already on the road from Quito. He was going to leave us at the restaurant by our A-frame house, and he would call the woman who worked there whenever he had news. Then he moved to small talk.
“So how do you like Cotopaxi?”
“Um, it’s beautiful, except our friends are stuck on top of a mountain in a freezing storm.”
He promised they would be OK. We don’t want anyone to die here, he said. The embassies get angry, and it’s very sad for their families.
Sure, I thought. “You mean like that Canadian woman?” I asked.
Back at the restaurant, we were fed more locro de papa and told to wait there for news. The ranger sipped coffee and I asked if he should go back up in case Christian and Juan Carlos came back down and couldn’t find the car. It’s OK, he said. Walt asked for his phone number and he gave us two. Then Walt asked for the number of the head ranger, the woman who had initially rapped on our window, and he said he didn’t know it, and we couldn’t call her anyway because the restaurant didn’t have a phone. The interaction had a strong whiff of damage control, which was especially frustrating because I don’t think Walt nor I had felt any of the responsibility should’ve been borne by the park. We were climbing up a glacier at 5,000 meters. We knew the risks.
Before leaving, the ranger promised our friends were OK, and I said, “You don’t know that.” He rattled off the names of our guides to prove his people had talked to Alberto that morning, but that was hours earlier and didn’t mean they were still alive up there on the icy ridge. It only proved he was not a charlatan dressed up in a fake ranger uniform, and that was never the issue.
The rivers of sand were still running through my head, so around 5 p.m. we went back to the attic to rest. Walt and I talked religion and writing, and he shared a Ben Franklin quote I had never heard: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” He asked me to send him anything I published about the experience, and I said I would. (Hi, Walt.)
“Two hours” became the vanishing point of future updates. We kept hearing the others were OK, they were being treated for hypothermia, they were already down, they would be down soon, we would see them in two hours, always two hours. We saw Christian at the restaurant and he told us they had made it halfway up before hitting the storm and turning back. They had expected to see Alberto and the others coming down, just as they had expected to see the car when they returned. He was heading back up to the parking lot with food, but don’t worry, they’d all return in two hours.
At 11:30 that evening we were roused and told to pack our things, the guys were in the car, and we were going back to Quito. And there they were, in the back seat of our 4×4, looking windburned but altogether in a decent mood. Juice was the more worn out (and generally less loquacious) of the two, so Dan related what had happened:
As they neared the summit under sheets of sleet, neither of the Naval grads thought he could make it, but Alberto cajoled them to the goal. There was no clear moment of victory, only the declaration from the guide that they were there. They paused for a miserable picture and stood back up to work their way down. They trudged one way and another, but the path was gone. The storm would not relent, and Dan fell into a small crevasse, dragging the other two with him.
“I did a backflip,” Juice said, then Dan continued:
They crawled back up and kept looking for the path, with no luck. Juice prayed for Alberto’s cell phone to work, and Alberto’s cell phone worked. They were told the rescue team would be there in two hours, so Alberto dug a trench in the snow and they waited. Two hours passed, then two and a half, then three, then three and a half. The wind and sleet slapped their faces. They gave up on the rescue team and started looking for the path again. They could not find the path. Life or death. They decided to wait till 10 o’clock that night, when they’d be able to spot the headlamps of the next wave of hikers and find their way back down.
Salvation came a few hours later in the form of a b.a. named Frank, who had scaled the backside of the volcano alone. Juice held out his hand for peanuts and Frank shoved them straight into his mouth. Frank pulled out ropes and carabiners, strapped everyone together and led them all down through the storm. He lived for rescuing hikers. Whether he was part of the team from Quito was not clear. But he brought them all the way down to a waiting ambulance, where medics stripped off their clothes and checked their vitals, which were solid.
Alberto, Dan and Juice were then taken to a big gathering of smiling, dining rangers and rescuers. There’s always a party when they rescue someone, Dan said, and Walt and I shared a confused look. The guys had wanted to get back to us but first they sat through two hours of revelry in a daze. Everyone was laughing and having a good time, Dan said, before closing his eyes and bobbing his head to the pace of the road.
Our nylon gear made whisking sounds as we balled ourselves up to sleep. Everything smelled wet. The 4×4 rolled downhill towards the lights of Quito, far closer than the night before.