Throughout my five months in Ecuador, Volcan Cotopaxi dominated both the skyline and my imagination. The perfect white cone of the world’s highest active volcano stood out against the green equatorial Andes, visible from most of the country.
Since our arrival, it had been an idle dream for some of the party to climb it, so back in Quito the most keen among us searched the touristy areas of the city looking for a suitable guide who could provide equipment. Our best bet seemed to be an eccentric Swede, who kitted the remainder of us out with everything we would need. Nervous looks were exchanged when the extent of the gear needed became apparent: two layers of gloves, three layers of trousers and five layers on the body. Boots, crampons, ice axes, harnesses, head-torches, balaclavas and snow goggles all weighed us down, and walking around in Quito became a struggle. Sven cheerfully told us that ‘yar, you need all this shit. It gets fucking cold on the mountain at night’. That was also news to us, climbing in darkness? ‘yar, no shit, we climb at night. In the day the snow melts. It’s fucking dangerous to be climbing much during the day’.
On the morning the remaining ten of us left Quito for Cotopaxi, most people were eyeing each other, trying to work out who would reach the top. After two months manual work at high altitude in the north of the country, most of us were pretty fit, and very competitive. Nobody wanted to have come this far and not make it; the cost had been too high, financially as well as mentally. At the car-park we all struggled into the kit we would need to make it to the refugio, 300m above us, panting hard on the hour walking over loose volcanic ash. At the refugio Sven called us together and said, ‘Right, that’s it. Now you go and get some rest – you don’t sleep, it’s too cold and high for that. And if you don’t feel shit from the altitude, you will later. ‘ He was right. Everyone lay on the small, bunks wrapped in everything they owned. It seemed far longer than six hours before we were told to get up again. No-one had been asleep, and everyone felt terrible.
‘So, there is no fucking way all of you will make it to the top. I say maybe four or five will do it. These are the odds.’ It wasn’t greatly encouraging as we stumbled about in the ice and gale force winds at about one in the morning. However, once we started climbing we forgot everything else, just concentrating on keeping moving. The glacier was pocked with beams from torches, but as people spread out these got fainter, until there was nothing but the stark moonlight shadows and my crystallising breath masking the guide and his ropes ahead of me.
The snow and ice got steeper, and my girlfriend, climbing on the same rope as me was slowing. Eventually she succumbed to altitude sickness, unable to continue and throwing up into the snow. Seeing her stumble back down with my guide, while I waited on the slope for the following trio was hard. Sitting at 5000m in -20 degree wind you are truly alone. But the group I hooked onto were moving fast and in good spirits, and soon we were past the early steep section.
By this stage there were seven of us left on the mountain, and as the sun rose in the east opposite the setting moon we all met up. Looking down through the cloud the lights of Quito were going out, miles below us, while the higher Andean peaks pushed through cloud, that was moving in fast. We pushed on – it was too cold to stop for long.
In the back of my mind I remembered Sven discussing a ‘fucking big crevasse’ somewhere in the last ascent, and as we rounded a bend the contorted ice plunged 50m vertically downwards, linked by a steep and narrow path of snow. Crossing it was slow, and proved too much for another two members of the team, they trekked back down, within an hour of the summit.
With five of us left the slope became very steep, requiring constant vigilance and use of the ice axes, especially as the sun had risen and the snow was beginning to melt. Lack of oxygen and temperature were affecting us all, and I only continued by convincing myself that every step I took was the last one needed to reach the summit. In fact during the last 20 minutes I crawled a great deal of the way, sweating profusely despite the cold.
Despite claims after the event, actually summitting Cotopaxi was no different to the rest of the climb. We stood, surrounded by cloud and high wind, waiting while a photo was taken. Everyone felt sick, had splitting headaches, sore limbs and blistered feet. All we thought about was getting back down, through the steep and slushy snow. Several of us now owe our lives to the guides, who looked after us like pets on leads, yanking the ropes to pull us back when we stumbled and slipped, incapable of protecting ourselves. There was no celebration, and no talking; even when we hobbled into the refuge nobody seemed pleased. Collecting gear, getting a drink, warming up all took priority. And we still had to get back to the car park to meet the others who never made it.
Back in Quito the headaches and sickness died down but the five of us who had climbed the 5897m of Cotopaxi were not jubilant – the day afterwards I promised myself that I would never attempt a mountain like that again. However, from my summery room at university it all seems different. You forget the bad parts and remember the good; the photo from the summit is now a treasured possession. But after all that would I do it again? I don’t know… Probably.