Cotopaxi: The Ascent (Part II)

Nicole continues the account, describing the difficult conditions and the all pervasive altitude….

“Cotopaxi is a popular tourist destination with many day visitors hiking up to the José F. Ribas Refuge at an altitude of 4800m (many of them showing signs of AMS). Fortunately a road takes you up to a parking lot at 4600m, this makes for only an hour hike up to the refuge. Only an hour but our very heavy packs and the thin air made it tough. The refuge is a newly renovated double story building, Diego had organised us the smaller dorm room which slept six, and this was our room for the next 2 nights.  We had some tea and then sorted out our gear for our first day of glacier training.

Crampons, double plastic boots and ice axes were completely foreign to us two South Africans who had never seen a glacier before now. So two days of training were needed prior to us attempting the summit.  Diego patiently taught us the different techniques of climbing in crampons, not stabbing oneself in the leg or cutting the rope with the spikes is important to try get right. Equally important is learning how to stop yourself sliding off the glacier should you fall, for this we endlessly practiced the technique of self-arresting with our ice axes.

Glacier training

By now our long acclimatisation process was paying off, neither of us had headaches, we were not short of breath, our appetites were reasonable and that night we slept well.  Sunday morning we woke up and the first of that nights successful summit parties started returning to the refuge around mid-morning. All of them kept telling us that it is just so hard, the exhaustion on their faces showed it. Another round of glacier training then we had an early dinner before getting into bed at 7pm. Our alarms were set for 23h00 but none of us slept, excitement nerves and a howling wind kept us awake.

Midnight is our planned start time, we need to summit and be off the glacier by midmorning, as the sun warms up the glacier the risk of rock falls and avalanches increases.  We get out of our warm sleeping bags, finish getting dressed (we sleep in most of our clothes anyway due to the cold) a quick cup of tea and we fill our thermos flasks with boiling water.  Stepping out of the refuge the freezing wind takes our breath away; we quickly pull our Buffs up over our mouths and noses.

The glaciated ice cap of Cotopaxi used to reach all the way down to the refuge, it now takes us an hour to hike up to the glacier before we need to put on our crampons and take out our ice axes. Global warming has caused the ice cap to recede by 40% in the last 25 years, I find that terrifying.

The next six and a half hours are the most brutally difficult thing I have ever done. I thought I was fit and knew what to expect but I was so wrong. The steepness of the glacier, walking up it awkwardly and sideways in crampons, made our legs burn within minutes.  The lack of oxygen made us slow, my mantra was “ice axe, step, step, breath”.   Our headlamps illuminated a small area in front of us, we concentrated on just putting one foot in front of the other, carefully, don’t slip. Suddenly the ice would just open up next to, or in front of you, when we would come to a crevasse. These deep black holes were intimidating but we knew when must just concentrate and not slip “ice axe, step, step, breathe”.  Edging along a narrow ledge, the steepness of slope was terrifying; the ice just disappeared into blackness next to our feet. If one of us slipped we would drag the two others with us, only our ice axes would have a chance of stopping us.  It was scary but we were calm, probably because of the lack of oxygen making us a bit mentally slow.

Diego had predicted it would take us 8 hours to summit, we had not predicted the howling winds. The temperature was -15C, when we stopped to drink or rest we would start shaking from the cold. We were wearing five layers of thermal clothing; we just couldn’t stop to rest. By now we were in thick clouds and rime frost had completely covered us, my black gloves were white, my hardshell jacket was stiff from ice. Marelise complained that she had something in her right eye, we told her it was the ice in her eyelashes, the wind made it hard to communicate, the altitude made us slow to think.”

Continued/……………………………………………….  Part III