Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Its gripped, its sorted, lets climb Cotopaxi!

So into South America. Met a fellow Brit Emily in San Jose airport. She was travelling onto Lima to work on a volunteer project with street kids. We met in a big queue to check in but there were no staff to check anyone in. But made it through eventually. Had a coffee and some food etc and parted ways. I´ve got a mention in her blog though which is a proud moment for me, first of the trip that I know of!

Got through Quito airport (thats in Ecuador for the geographically challenged amongst me) in record time. I could see my bag going round the conveyor while I waited in line at customs. The guide book said that you get a 30, 60 or 90 day stamp depending what mood the customs person is in. Couldn´t seem to tell what mine said but lets hope I´m allowed out when the time comes.

Taxi to the hostel was interesting. Almost crashed twice, I think crossing 4 lanes in one manoeuvre was the record, and almost killed a pedestrian, who for their trouble got shouted at by the driver. But made it to the Secret Garden Hostel. Really good place, very sociable. Instantly got invited to cram onto one single bed with 3 Aussies to watch a DVD (it was raining outside) but 3 was a big enough crush so politely declined. The hostel had good views of Quito from the roof terrace. Everyone sits up there and has dinner together so you meet loads of people.

Ended up drinking and chatting with Chris from Australia and three Irish girls, Jill, Renee and Emey. Turned out Emey worked for Ernst & Young too as a tax accountant. Between me being a Microsoft Excel geek and her tax knowledge we could have had some wild conversations, but as we were amongst polite civilised company - and an Aussie - we managed to stop ourselves. By 1.30am , and not under the influence of as much alcohol as you might think, myself and Chris agreed to go to a Salsa dancing lesson with the Irish girls at 10 the next morning.

At 9.30am this was seeming less clever, but I still went along. Chris had pulled out though, something about having to get a bus to Colombia. I dunno, some people will come up with any excuse. But I went along and it was quite fun. It did provide chilling confirmation of what I already knew - I have no co-ordination. My feet just weren´t meant to move that quick. I ´danced´ with the Ecuadorian instructor, and managed not to break any of her toes with my size 11´s but only because my moves were so out of sync I barely got near her! As you would expect there was a reasonable height difference and when I had to spin her round (she kind of spins under your outstretched arm), I practically lifted her up off the floor. But it was fun and I definitely got better, but had to concentrate so hard, one lapse and I´d mess up.
After the exertions of one hours dancing I was knackered so just had a wander round Quito old town in the afternoon. That evening Guy, a mate from home arrived for a two week holiday.

Next day we just tried to organise a few things and we decided we´d have a shot at climbing Cotopaxi a few days later, a volcano 5,897m high a couple of hours out of Quito. So we got fitted up for climbing boots, and various warm gear. Not having planned my trip properly I hadn´t brought a warm, wind proof coat - I was just planning on wearing layers, all my clothes at once if necessary. I was anticipating buying a decent jacket when I get to Patagonia, as I will be going to the far south of the continent. But having spoken to a few people it became apparent that I would freeze to death long before Patagonia, i.e. in Bolivia, and layering up wasn´t going to cut it. And now climbing a mountain was another reason to get one. Its Ecuador´s finest mountaineering brand apparently.

Next day we set off for Cotopaxi to spend a couple of nights in the Secret Garden hostel there to acclimatise (about 3,800m) before the big climb. It was a great view of the volcano and there would have been some good walking but it was raining so hard we couldn't go anywhere. The rain did abate late in the afternoon and we had a go at walking to a nearby waterfall. We had a to walk along the edge of a stream, and naturally I made a clean sweep of the muppet awards as my foot slipped off the bank and I got a welly full of water. The idea was that you cross the stream, but the water was so high from the rain we had to turn back.

The hostel was nice though. It was very eco-friendly - there was no electric so there was a big fire and we ate by candlelight. The rooms had fires in too. There was even an eco toilet, which was definitely the nicest toilet that was just a hole in a piece of wood I´ve ever seen! It even had a padded seat!

We tried to acclimatize further the next day, so we along with Felicity, an Aussie, and Natalie, a German, who were also doing the climb got a taxi to take us along with some mountain bikes to another nearby peak. We left the bikes at about 4,500m and hiked to about 5000m. It was a beautiful clear day and the views were amazing. It was just so peaceful up there. Was a good lunch spot too. We then headed back to the bikes and cycled downhill to the hostel.

The cycling was, err, interesting. The bike was too small for me, had about 5 working gears out of 21 and had limited braking. Holding both brakes on fully the whole way down was enough to just about control my descent most of the time, but it did get hairy a couple of times. Guy did manage to fall off but no damage done. It was over pretty rough terrain and then cobbles for ages, so was even more uncomfortable, but was fun, and having no brakes did give it a certain edge!

The following day we headed up to the Cotopaxi refuge (4,800m) armed with our climbing gear. Today was about conserving energy, so they just took us up a bit to practice walking with our crampons and ice picks. You actually use it like a walking stick rather than a pick axe, holding the blade end and sticking the handle in the ground. I think using it as a pick is for more technical climbs. Cotopaxi is not a technical climb and you don´t need experience to do it, hence why clowns like me were doing it! We also practiced how to use the pick to stop ourselves if we happen to be sliding face first down a mountain. So we slid down and stopped ourselves!

Dinner at 6pm that night then off to bed at 7.30pm because we had to be up at midnight to start the climb. It is expected to take between 5 and 7 hours to reach the summit so the hope is you can get up and down before the sun melts the snow too much which makes it pretty treacherous. So after a midnight breakfast we set off about 1.30am lit up only by the stars and our head torches. I felt fine at 5,000m the previous day so was optimistic but you never know how altitude will affect you, and 5,900m is certainly a long way up.
We were a group of 7, and you get one guide per two people. I initially had a guide to myself (Guy had unfortunately decided not to do it), but when one girl had to go down another chap, Fabian, joined me. When anyone can´t make it and has to go down a guide goes with them. Fabian ended up having to go down too so I joined another group of two. So there was the Ecuadorian guide, an Englishman, an Irishman and a Slovenian - sure there must be a joke in there somewhere.

The climbing wasn´t too bad mostly. It was steep in places - up to 60 degrees - but was do-able. You had to jam your crampons in forward to get make sure you didn`t slip but this was fine. We were roped to each other but we weren´t attached to the mountain so if one person slips you all do. It was nice climbing in the dark, and the views of the lights stretching for miles was good, and I really enjoyed the first few hours. It then started to get harder as the air thinned and it seemed to stay pretty steep too. It kind of looked a few times like you were at the top but then another hill would appear. Being the sad loser that I am, at some points on the climb I did actually start doing random times tables to see if my brain was still working and whether altitude was affecting me!

Just after 7 we did reach the summit. The feeling was more relief than euphoria in the end. It is so hard climbing at that height. At times we´d take just a few steps and have to rest, completely out of breath. Took some photos when I got to the top, the kind of collapsed in a heap for a few minutes.

It is difficult to describe what it is like doing it because you´re struggling for breath so much and its such hard work. It was similar to the last few km of the marathon I did, where it does become a bit of a mental battle, but I knew I had the energy and my legs felt ok and I felt well enough with the altitude so you just take it steady and push on. At the top I did have a bit of a headache, and a slight urge to be sick or pass out or both, but this it wasn't that bad and I felt largely ok.

The views were pretty amazing across the valleys and into the crater so just about worth the effort in the end!
Getting down wasn´t fun though. The Irish guy was in a bad way with altitude sickness, and he was going off-piste both literally and metaphorically. He could barely put one foot in front of the other and was all over the shop to start with, which is a bit scary when you´re all roped together. Sliding down on our bums didn´t work either - you all have to be going at the same speed because you´re attached to each other, otherwise the harness just crushes your balls. Ouch. Made it down in three hours in the end. We were all getting tired and falling over a lot too. The guide said "going up....good, going down....terrible."

Overall it was good and very glad I did it, and would definitely recommend it. There aren´t many mountains where you can get that high with no technical expertise or experience. And if muppets like your humble narrator can do it, anyone can, although it is a bit pot luck if you can cope with the altitude. Have to say though that I don´t have any great desire to do another any time soon. Not exactly emotionally scarred from the experience but feel quite contented with just having been up Cotopaxi for now.

1 comment:

Burt Rosen said...

Love the narrative. We are thinking about climbing in Ecuador in June and its great to see an honest account. Thanks!