Thursday, December 5, 2013

climbing volcans Rumiñawi and Cotopaxi!!

Or alternatively, the story of the tortoise and the hare, mountain style.  But I'm getting ahead of myself again.

Map of Cotopaxi National Park and the two volcanoes I climbed
On Sunday, I arrived back to Quito around noon, and had a relaxing afternoon around my hostel preparing for my trip to Cotopaxi.  As I packed, I started getting more and more nervous.  What was I getting myself into?!?   After over a year of dreaming of the summit, I started to worry that I wasn't going to make it...

A number of people at the school in Cuenca were sick, and I had felt like I had been fighting it off all week.  I had grand plans to run everyday along the creek to keep in shape for the climb, but instead I had slept in every morning, hoping I would at least not get sick.  Returning to Quito at an elevation of a little over 9000 feet, I felt tired even climbing to the reception on the 5th floor of my hostel.  Yikes.

Feeling exhausted, I decided all I could do was get a good nights sleep and hope for the best. After expressing my concern to Jeremy over skype, he helped me remember the big picture.  No matter what happens, it'll will still be an incredible experience!

So I headed to bed early, hoping for a solid 10 hours of sleep.  But between the excitement, anticipation and nerves, I hardly slept a wink.  And when I did sleep, I had disturbing dreams.  Very disturbing.  At one point I was dreaming that I was killing a cat.  I'll spare you the details, but it was gruesome.  Likely a side affect of Diamox, the altitude sickness med I was taking as a precaution.  That and the weird tingling sensations in my hands and feet...

So now really exhausted, I was picked up by my guide's father on Monday morning.  He immediately started saying something about my boots.  My guide had told me he'd have 2 sizes of plastic climbing boots for me to try, so I wasn't sure why this was an issue.  What was he saying?  Does he not have them after all?  I was too tired for Spanish and he was using words that I didn't understand.  Although worried I was going to start the trip off on the wrong foot with no boots (literally- ha!), I was thankful we turned to everyday conversation that I could handle well. 

Fortunately, when I met up with my guide, I realized he was trying to tell me that I should try them on to make sure one of them fits.  Apparently they were in the trunk the entire time.  Ahhhh!  So although my Spanish had gotten to the point where I could have intelligible conversations, clearly there were still many things outside of my limited vocabulary.  I was thankful then that my guide's English was far better than my Spanish.  And it was better than you'd imagine from his emails, which required some interpretation and were often pretty funny.  My favorite being, "please if you have a dude or question."  ?? :)

We headed to Volcan Rumiñawi, a dormant stratovolcano in Cotopaxi National Park that would serve as an altitude acclimation hike.  It was a beautifully clear day, giving me gorgeous views of Cotopaxi for the first time on the trip:

We arrived at Laguna Limpiopungo, a lake between Cotopaxi and Rumiñawi and the starting point for our hike for the day.  However, due to dry conditions there wasn't much left of the lake.  My guide told me it has gotten smaller and smaller every time he visits.  One of the many signs of climate change I would see on this trip. :/

As we hiked toward Rumiñawi, clouds started rolling in and the weather got progressively worse.  I was bummed, because the views of Cotopaxi from Rumiñawi were supposed to be spectacular on a clear day.  My guide just laughed and told me just wait, it might clear up again.  He said that the guides here always say that the weather in the mountains is like a woman: it changes rapidly.  Ha!

By the time we got to the top of the ridge for a lunch break, Cotopaxi had disappeared behind blankets of clouds and snow.

But sure enough, by the time we reached the top of Rumiñawi there was enough of a break in the clouds to get a glimpse of Cotopaxi:

I relaxed for a while, catching my breath and taking in Cotopaxi's captivating beauty.  Despite feeling winded, my guide told me that we made excellent time, knocking over an hour off the usual time to the crater.  That made me feel more encouraged about my physical condition, so I kept my hopes high as I sat dreaming of the summit...

Then my guide and I sat on the side of the crater and watched as the clouds hit the crater walls and swirled up and over us.

The route down the steep crater walls was super fun, and involved basically running down a scree slope of volcanic sand.  It reminded me of the descent of SP crater near Flagstaff AZ, but with less rocks!  And adult, fun-sized mix between a sandbox and a ski slope :)

We finished the hike just as the storm really set in, dumping cold rain all over the valley.

Meanwhile, Cotopaxi was getting pounded with snow, leaving about 12 inches of fresh snow for our climb...

All things considered, we had been really fortunate with the weather for our hike.  My guide joked that I must have made an offering for the good weather.  I was reminded of my horrific dream about the cat.  Huh.  Maybe I was making an offering in my dreams for good weather?!?!

We arrived wet and cold to our lodge, hoping the storm would pass and leave us with a clear day for the summit.  I was thankful to have a warm fire and hornimans to keep me warm...

I went to bed early and slept hard, so hard that when I was woken in the morning to the sound of a herd of cows mooing outside of my window, I thought it was my guide calling me to wake up! ha.
Unfortunately, the clouds still lingered over the valley and hung low over Cotopaxi, completely blocking it from view.

By the time we arrived at the base, the snow had finally stopped, but clouds and fog still lingered.

But I was excited and ready for the big climb nonetheless!

We carried our gear from the parking lot at ~1500 feet to Refugio José Félix Ribas (@ ~15750 feet), our base camp for the climb.

After some much needed hot soup and an hour nap in our sleeping bags on the military style cots and bunkbeds of the refugia, we hiked up to the glacier to practice the technical skills needed for the climb.   Soon after leaving the refuge, the guide pointed to the red rocks on the slopes and told me that the glacier used to end here:
Now, the glacier is almost an hour hike up the slopes from the refuge!  Like other mountain glaciers, the Cotopaxi glacier is receding rapidly. :(  Here is a picture of the start of the glacier up ahead:
At the glacier, he taught me the various techniques for using crampons and ice axe to ascend and descend the glacier, cross crevasses, and stop a fall.  I had never used either before, but I felt like I picked it up pretty quickly and was comfortable by the end of our short lesson.  Good thing...I'd be doing it all again in a few hours in the dark!

At the end of our lesson, he showed me a technique used for climbing very steep slopes, noting that this technique isn't necessary for Cotopaxi.  Thanks to the heavy snowfall the night before, he would eat those words later, so I was very glad he showed me...

We went back to the refuge for hot drinks, trout dinner and laughs with the other climbers and guides.  By that point I had become famous around the refuge as the "un mil novio chica."  ha.  Don't ask how that started, let's just say the guides to a liking to the tall blond haired climbing chick.

And without any other source of entertainment (or warmth), the guides showed off their incredible ability to do pull ups off the paper thin edge of the ceiling...
After bs-ing for probably far too long, we all headed to bed to try to get a least a few hours of sleep.  They had broken the climbers into two shifts, one group that would wake up at 11pm and start climbing by midnight, and another that would get up at 11:30 and start by 12:30 am.  My guide and I were in the second group.  

I hardly slept, and at 11 I was woken to the sound of the first group getting ready to go.  Their plastic boots on the wooden floors sounded like a heard of elephants!  Even if I was sleeping, I certainly wasn't anymore!  Might as well get up and start getting ready too...

When we hit the glacier, we donned our crampons and started the long, slow slog up the mountain.  As I tried to get in the the rhythm, I listened to the sound of my guide in front of me and repeated his words from our practice the day before: piolet, crampon, crampon. Piolet, crampon, crampon.  Piolet, crampon, crampon...
For hours.  At one point, one of my favorite lines from the movie "A Knights Tale" popped in my head: "To trudge: the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of a man who has nothing left in life except the impulse to simply soldier on,"  which made me laugh to myself.  It certainly felt like a trudge, but of a very different sort.  A fun, self-imposed trudge!

But I got into a groove, and suddenly we were at the first break spot, a glacial cirque that provided protection from the wind.  My guide told me it was 3 am and that we were already at 17000 feet meters!  I was feeling great and I was starting to feel optimistic about my chances for the summit.  Although we couldn't see it in the dark, the cirque was beautiful!!  Here is a picture of it on the way down in the daylight (unfortunately none of my videos from the descent turned out because my camera was completely iced over :/):

After this point, it started to get legitimately cold.  At one point we passed another group, and I noticed that their eyelashes and facial hair were covered in icicles! I was starting to loose feeling in my fingers and face, and was regretting not having put on my heavier gloves and balaclava.  By this point, my buff covering my face was wet from the inevitable sweat and runny nose.  Awesome. 

So I was thankful when we arrived at the second cirque at ~18400 feet around 4:15 am and could change to my heavier gear.  However, despite only being there for a few minutes and having my gloves off only a bit, my fingers only got worse.  Soon, the discomfort had turned to pain, and I was having trouble even holding my ice axe. I stopped the guide, and he sweetly rubbed my hands to warm them up and offered me his gloves.  At first the pins and needles feeling was super painful, but I regained feeling to my fingers.  By that point the guide was asking me to call him "mi amor," but I was thankful of his sweet endearment...

At that point, we had less than a thousand feet to go, but he said the last part was steep.  And little did we know, it was going to be even more steep than usual thanks to the snow.  We caught up to the groups of guys who started at midnight and had took off for the races.  They were barely moving, and their guide was barking back at them "recuerda!"  It had become very steep, and required a different technique, and they were struggling with it and falling backwards.

My guide and I slipped passed them, and continued on slowly up the now quite vertical slopes using the pick of our ice axe and tips of our crampons:

So despite being one of the last groups to start, we paved the way to the summit through the fresh snow.  Girl power; tortoise power! ;)

As we crossed the dome of the summit, I was so excited that I could hardly catch my breath and I had tears in my eyes.  After a congratulatory hug from my guide, I explored the summit before everyone else arrived.  I felt like I was on top of the world!

When the next group arrived, the guy just crashed to the ground, exhausted.  We had a good laugh about how I was the only one still with energy.  I thought to myself, slow and steady!  When the rest reached the summit, we all cheered and celebrated our successful summit.  We made it! :)

Here is a video compilation from the summit (sorry for the haze, it had become covered in ice!):

Here I am at the summit, with views of the crater below (and icicles in my hair!)

On top of the world!!! (Ok, well most of the clouds at least!)

 The summit gang!

My guide, Edgar, and I.  If any of you ever want to climb Ecuadorian peaks, I recommend him highly!! (

A trip of a lifetime for sure!!! 

Now which peak should I do next...? ;)


  1. (1) you're amazing.
    (2) dude = duda = doubt (took me the whole post to figure that out!)

  2. Ha, thanks Truebe! Both good things to know how to say