I made it back to Quito safely for beers with the translator. Over the next two days we climbed Pichinca Rucu (15,413') and checked out Pasachoa National Refuge. That afternoon it was time to make a move towards Cotopaxi. We parted ways at the bus stop in Amanguana. High fives and thanks. That CBrown is a good one.
I hired a pick-up to drive me to Papagayo Hostel in Machachi. Papagayo is rad; they have a petting zoo, puppies, white linen dining, a hot tub, internet, TV, and dollar beers. This runs $20 a night. Meals are in the $3-$7 range.
The next morning I met my guide, Fernando. Fernando lives at the base of the mountain and stopped counting Cotopaxi summits last year when he hit 200. He also has climbed in Peru and the Alps. This was a good sign. I was outfitted with mountaineering boots and clamp-ons and we hit the road for the park.
From Papagayo it is about 30 minutes to the park entrance and another 30 to the high parking lot. We raided a small grocer on the way for supplies. There are no ClifBars, no trail mix, no Goo, no Blox, just candy bars, doughnuts, and Coca Cola. I like this place.
Park Entrance (Fee $10)
We parked at 14,700' and hiked with full packs to the Refugio P. Jose Ribas de Reina at 15,800'. It felt good. The refuge can hold about 100 people and I hear it fills up for a rocking party on New Years. Pounding booze at 15,800? Well, that wouldn't even be close to the dumbest thing I have ever done. Tonight there were only 7: 3 guides, 4 clients. The refuge has bunks stacked 3 high with thin mattresses; bring a sleeping bag. The kitchen is communal with a propane stove. There are plenty of pots, pans, plates, cups, etc.
Fernando whipped up an awesome chicken cacccitore pasta which is no small feat considering water boils at 175 ˚F. He laid out the plan: hit the sheets at 7:30 PM, get up at midnight, hiking by 1:00 AM, summit by dawn. Copy.
In Ecuador the sun rises at 6, is directly above you at noon, and then sets at 6 everyday of the year. And when it sets, it is dropping straight down; not much time between sunset and dark. What dusk lacks in duration, it makes up for in intensity.
Midnight finally arrived. I spent the short night tossing and turning. We hit the trail at 12:53 AM. There's one group ahead of us, but that won't stand. The 1st 1,200' vert is loose gravel. Its like trying to climb a sand-dune. Each step pays 6" but then is promptly fined 3". I struggled unsuccessfully to find better purchase. This is more work than anticipated.
Fernando said it would take an hour to reach the ice. After exactly one hour we reach the ice. I wanted to beat his estimate, but it was not to be. Getting the clamp-ons affixed to the boots allowed for a bit of a breather and a chance to admire the stars. Many stars. Quito stretched out to the North and seemed to sprawl on forever. I tied in and we started in on the ice. The hard ice made me nervous, but after about 10 minutes we were on snow and feeling comfortable.
Cotopaxi is climbed often. The trail is beat into the snow and is about 2' wide with no side hill action. It is not that steep, but traverses some steep faces with consequences. I check my grip on my axe often. The ascent is just a slow march. Large amorphous shapes loom all around. Black chasms close just before the trail and open wide on the other side.
At 18,000', Fernando informed me that the ice bridge has melted out. Route-finding ate up about 30 minutes. The crux of the detour ended with Fernando sending it over a snow bridge and booting up a 50˚ slope for about 6 steps in 5 seconds flat. Fast and loose. Nice! This guy was getting it done. I repeated the Skier Boyz mantra and went for it.
Back to the grind. Foot step after foot step. One minute I was done, the next I found my wind. My head was starting to hurt. My muscles weren't tired, but I just couldn't muster the energy. We were traversing above something big and I was getting the dizzies.
"Not here, 100 more meters."
We were through and took our first break. Ten minutes later Fernando was moving. OK, OK. More of the same, but then the trail narrowed and then narrowed again. It traversed a steep slope and disappeared around a corner. Cotopaxi is a very symmetrical cone. There are no major ridges. The route is a series of traversing faces and getting on short minor ridges and repeat. This latest traverse got about boot wide. I was having trouble getting my inside foot in front of my outside foot. It was light enough to see around us, but I chose not to look.
"Nothing's gonna happen"
"Nada va a occurrir."
Mercifully, the ledge rolled into a ridge which quickly transformed into a climbing narrow traverse across a face. Boot wide again, but it felt narrower. Fernando was around the corner, keeping a tight belay. I really better not look at whatever this is. Getting my inside foot around was becoming a problem, so I tried a technique from a popular movie. It worked.
And again back to a ridge, but this one was different. It started to roll over. I could see low spots on the crater rim. The sun had just risen and pink light was dotting the landscape. I could smell sulfur wafting over us from the crater. Minutes later there was nothing left to climb.
After 15 minutes the 2nd team made the summit. Smiles and high fives and exhaustion. The sun was heading straight up and warming things quickly. We couldn't linger. Snow bridges would soften, ice would fall. We made quick time. The large dark shapes from the hike up revealed themselves in the light. Generally things looked beautiful and terrifying, but our little trail snaked to and fro avoiding all of the obstacles.
We hit the refugio after 2.5 hours for some rest. My head was killing me. I finished my water and chocolate. The other team of 3 wasn't fast enough and had to turn back because of softening snow. You really have to hit it and quit to make the summit. A good guide is a wise move especially if there is new snow. Call Papagayo and ask for Fernando. Months of training was critical to my success. Without the help of hiking parter DBass and altitude coach CBrown, the summit would have been elusive.
And since you read this far, I will answer the only question you care about:
The snow is ass; leave the skis at home.
- Doyle Hargraves