A TNT Travel Writign Awards entry
Author: Catherine Eames
After making friends with a fellow Essex Brit, who happened to be an experienced mountaineer and run his own adventure company, I found myself digging a 4×4 out of the mud on a Sunday morning with a lawyer from the Finish army. As a complete novice to anything remotely larger than an English dale, I knew a trip to Illiniza Norte, the 8th largest peak in Ecuador, was not going to be your average Sunday stroll, but after 6hours out in the elements, with my only protection being a Millets Mac-in-a-pack, I was getting a taste for the mountain air, or the lack of it, as we made it to 4,700m. Whether it was the stunningly wild scenery, or the lung-bursting altitude, something must have gone to my head, as whilst we descended through the brooding Andean countryside I found myself agreeing to attempt an ascent of Cotopaxi – one of the highest peaks in South America.
I therefore find myself a couple of days later with my new climbing colleagues and alien gear – ropes, thermals, ice-axes – escaping the chaotic, smog-filled basin of Quito, as we wind our way through the colourful run-down backstreets of the capital which sprawl up the surrounding mountains. After picking up supplies in the bustling town of Machachi, we drive into the national park, where in amongst the grey lakes and burnt coloured wilderness, Cotopaxi looms, looking like a child’s illustrated vision of a volcano with its snow capped cone and steep rocky slopes. We continue on up to snow level and to what must be one of the world’s highest car parks at 4,600m.
The magnitude of what I have decided to take on starts to creep into my head as we hike to the refuge at 4,800m, over 1km below our target, but already the highest I’ve ever been. As one of the most popular peaks to climb, the refuge which is be our home for the night, well for a few hours before our 1am start anyway, is pretty big as wooden huts go, with around 70 bunk beds and kitchen facilities. Upon arrival we have dinner and a kit check, just in time to see the sky ignite into a breath-taking fiery sunset over the icy blue mountains.
Settling into bed around 7.30pm, sleep is a long way off as the cold seeps in and thoughts of the task ahead run through my mind. At 11.30pm we’re up and first out onto the mountain by 1am. Roped up, crampons on, ice-axe in hand, I can’t help but feel like an explorer setting out into the unknown. However, any pretence of my professionalism is checked by the fact my headlamp fails to work and I’m reduced to using a hand-held wind-up torch.
We start off at a steady pace, climbing gradually up and away from civilisation, but after a couple of hours we get into near vertical slopes that trudge on forever, as every step seems to sink down through the snow, resulting in a feeling of treading water, but at a breathless altitude of over 5,000m. Nevertheless, with a few stops fuelled by a hit of chocolate and sugary coffee, I’m able to distract myself from screaming limbs and gasping lungs, by the sea of stars above me that extends all the way across the mountainous horizon to the jungle, where lightening flashes demonstrate tropical storms.
Just as I’m wondering how much more of this my body can take, I’m informed that we’ve now passed the section where most people turn back. With the sight of the head-torches of the other parties snaking up the mountain below us, I become resolute that I will make it to the summit, no matter how much my lungs and legs are telling me otherwise. As the terrain becomes more varied between sections of steep slopes, more manageable gradients, and tiny paths which demand narrow steps, the aid of an ice-axe for balance, and the avoidance of stabbing yourself in the leg with a crampon spike, I’m starting to envisage the summit. However, as the stars start to be replaced by the pale light of dawn, the mountain gives us one final challenge, a near vertical incline that requires digging our ice-axes into the deep snow and hauling ourselves up on all fours. But just as the sun emerges over the Andean horizon, after 6 hours of climbing, the steaming sulphurous gapping crater of the volcano summit greets us. A welcome sight, despite the knowledge that an eruption is years over-due!
Too exhausted to even smile for the obligatory photos, it’s not until the congratulatory hugs go round and I take in the view of the surrounding mountains poking through the fluffy clouds way below us, it begins to sink in – I’ve made it to 5897m above sea-level and conquered one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. Despite this breathtaking beauty of a 360 degree Andean panorama, it is soon time to start heading down as the cold begins to set in; my fringe freezes solid, fingers numb, nose turning to ice, even my camera can’t cope with these temperatures.
With the benefit of daylight, the descent demonstrates just how arduous the ascent really was, as I inch backwards down a slope, tightly roped up and following guiding instructions, I look down and notice my right foot is just an inch away from a deep and deadly crevasse. The light of day also reveals startling ice formations with gnarled icicle teeth in frosty hues of blue and white, as the clouds which closed in shortly after our departure from summit, part on occasions. Such glistening glimpses make the long trudge down bearable. Then, after nine hours in the elements, a 1km elevation, summiting at nearly 6km above sea-level, and countless blisters, the welcome sight of the refuge greets us by 10am – just another morning’s work in the great adventure that is South America.