Cotopaxi: At the Summit (Part III)

Nicole continues to describe the challenges when they reach the summit in triumph and then trauma comes unannounced …..

“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.

The lights of the rope party ahead of us appear from between the seracs and would give us an indication of how far we still had to go.  When Diego said we only had another 15 minutes to the summit it was hard to believe, it had only taken us six and a half hours. The last 15minutes was only around 10 meters in altitude gain but was so steep we had to use our hands to pull ourselves up and we were reduced to a crawling pace.

We summited, I was proud, I was exhausted and I wanted to cry from relief. The spectacular views I had hoped for were obscured by the whiteout conditions, we couldn’t see into the volcanic crater but we could smell the sulphur. The clouds had lightened so we knew it was now daylight but we didn’t get to see the sun rising from the curve of the earth.  We took a few photos and then turned around to escape the cold.

Covered in rime frost
At the summit, (5897m) covered in rime frost.

I felt the rope tighten on my harness and turned around to see Marelise had slipped, she got up and we walked a few more steps. Marelise slipped again, she was off the path. Diego shouted at her to stay on the path, above the wind I heard her say “I can’t see the path”.  We got to a safer part where we could stand next to each other and I looked at Marelise, her eyes were cloudy/milky.

She had completely lost vision in her right eye and could make out the blurred shape of my red jacket with her left eye, she couldn’t see her feet and she couldn’t follow the trail.  I couldn’t think properly. I have read up extensively on altitude medicine, this doesn’t make sense to me. She is clearly lucid so can’t have high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE), has she had a retinal haemorrhage, she has a family history of glaucoma, could it be that?  Diego is calm, he says we need to descend quickly, the altitude is the problem. He shortens the rope between himself and Marelise and uses it to guide her down.   Remember all the crevasses and narrow ledges we passed on the way up, we now have to go back over them, this time with Marelise blind. I have never been so scared in my life, Marelise is remarkably calm. We know panic is not going to help, we just have to get down.  I trip and my crampon comes loose, Diego tells us to concentrate, we have to get down the glacier fast but safely.

Eventually the wind drops and the sun starts to appear, the views are like nothing I have seen before, seracs the size of houses with icicles hanging off them, it is spectacular. I can’t think of taking pictures, it seems wrong when Marelise can’t see anything.  We stop to drink the last of our mostly frozen water, we are passed the dangerous sections; Diego takes a few photos with his phone.


Three hours later we make it back to the refuge, we quickly pack up our sleeping backs and take the scree slope down to the car. We drive back to Quito where we go straight to an eye hospital, this is a stunning modern private facility. An optical coherence tomography (OCT) scan shows that Marelise has severe corneal oedema, a reversible condition caused by the low oxygen and freezing conditions (altitude blindness). She gets drops to put in her eyes every few hours. Her vision is completely restored 3 days later.

Mountaineering has fascinated me for years and I am very fortunate to be in a position to travel and experience it.  I know that summiting a mountain has no practical value and as we learnt, things can go wrong.  In spite of the altitude blindness, the poor conditions and how physically exhausting it was, I still can’t stop thinking about climbing more mountains.

This adventure taught us that even if you take small steps you will eventually get to the top, as long as you keep going. Thank you to everyone who donated to the Homes to Grow fund, your efforts have given some very special children a chance to reach the top too. May we all keep building towards their futures, one step at a time. Vamos!”

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

Ecuador: Cotopaxi Trip Report (Part I)

In early February we introduced readers to the two intrepid women, Nicole Morse and Marelise Bardenhorst whose goal was to climb high mountains in Ecuador and raise funds for the “Homes to Grow” project.  They have since returned and this is the extraordinary account of their experience: it is a story of grit, determination and courage – for the terrain was challenging and there was drama up there.

High Drama On High Mountains – Part I

By Nicole Morse

“Three continents in 48 hrs was rather hectic but that is what it took to get us to Ecuador, a tiny country on the west coast of South America.  It may be a tiny country but it has some really big mountains.Our objective was Volcan Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. So active that it was closed for climbing up until October last year.

At a height of 5897meters above sea level the oxygen concentration at the Cotopaxi summit is 50% of we breathe at sea level, so acclimatisation was going to be key to our summit bid.  Just landing in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, can be a breathless experience as it is at an altitude of 2800 meters.  It is the second highest capital city in the world and is surrounded by spectacular mountains. In Quito we were met by Diego, who was to be our mountain guide for the next week. Diego has more than 25 years’ experience as a mountain guide and this kept us safe when things went wrong.

Our first acclimatisation hike was the extinct volcano of Pasochoa. An easy trek through farmlands with a bit of a steep scramble to the summit took us to an altitude of 4200m, the highest we had ever been. On this hike, Diego taught us the valuable technique of taking it slow in the high mountains. Slowly, or “lento”in Spanish is a word we would hear often that week.  Though Diego was happy to politely but urgently give us a“vamos”(lets go!) too if we were eating our snacks a bit too leisurely at rest-stops.

Raining on Pasochoa

The following day we climbed Rucu Pichincha an active volcano that dominates the Quito landscape. It last erupted in 1999 and covered Quito in ash. A slightly exposed rock scramble got our heart rates up as we reached the summit at 4696 meters.  The descent was fun with a long scree slope (loose sand and rocks which accumulate from rock falls) allowing us to “ski down” in our hiking boots.

Descending the scree slope of Rucu Pichincha

Next up was Iliniza Norte, this was a 2 day hike with a night in the refuge (mountain hut) to allow us time to acclimatise.  We had a beautiful hike though the nature reserve with the 2 dark rocky peaks of Iliniza North and South occasionally breaking through the clouds and reminding us of what was still to come. When we arrived at the refuge in the late afternoon the temperature started to drop and our down jackets and -18 C sleeping bags were much appreciated. We were in the refuge with another climbing party of New Zealanders and dinner was festive with everyone talking about their mountaineering experiences.  That night the effects of acute mountain sickness (AMS)set in and the altitude of 4700 meters gave me a splitting headache that made sleep impossible.  When sunrise finally arrived we realised that our planned summit bid was not going to happen. Heavy overnight snowfall now covered the once rocky summit and Diego felt that conditions were too dangerous to continue.  Disappointed we packed up and descended back to the car but our minds were already thinking of Cotopaxi.”

The two peaks of Iliniza South and North

Waking up to a blanket of snow on Iliniza.

Continued/………………  Part II