Anthony on the Gringo Trail 2005 travel blog

Cotopaxi from Valhalla's roof

Cotopaxi at sunset

Closer to Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi and the climbers'refuge

Me and the Danes at 4800 metres

One of the glaciers

Well that didn't go according to plan, ending in a kind of emergency evacuation a few hours before I was due to do the final push for the summit.

I did a final bit of shopping in Quito, got my glasses mended, and then got a bus down the Pan American highway to Valhalla. A mad drive, but through incredibly beautiful landscape, a huge valley bordered by volcanoes and mountains called...the Valley of the Volcanoes. The Valhalla Hostel is well situated with Cotopaxi towering over it doing a very good impersonation of Mount Fuji, and surrounded by pine forests and steep green vallies. I have a large dorm room of a dozen beds to myself, and the other people here are a group of Danish climbers, who are very nice, but make me feel like a complete amateur and slob. They do Cotopaxi the day after me. I spend the rest of the day admiring the fabulous views in every direction from the roof while learning more Spanish, and join the Danes for dinner.

13 Sep I sleep well and wake up feeling fit for the first time since I got here. We all drive off towards Cotopaxi and where the Danes are sleeping tonight, and sort out all our gear. I am wearing mountain boots, which are basically two pairs of boots and very heavy, two pairs of socks, two pairs of trousers as well as heavy waterproof trousers, three shirts, my heavy and very warm alpaca wool jumper, my heavy waterproof coat, two pairs of gloves, balaclava, headlamp, crampons and ice axe. This weighs a lot, believe me. And I am carrying food and drink for a couple of days, as well as various things like my camera, etc.

Then we drive again to the trailhead, and toil up this long steep slope of volcanic ash to the climbers refuge where we are to have lunch and I am staying part of the night. It was worse than climbing sand dunes, and I was really struggling with the weight and shortness of breath, and getting further and further behind the others, who were carrying little of what I was, as they were only going up for glacier training. In the end the very nice Danish tour guide ended up copming back down again and taking my rucksacks off me. I was fucked by the time I got to the refuge. How I am going to do the rest, God only knows. I have only slept four nights over 3,000 metres in the last week, perhaps not enough. Great views though, as we are now at 4,700 metres.

So we all go and do some glacier training, basically a bit more of what I had done already in Iceland, but with an added emphasis on how to stop yourself sliding down the glacier and into a crevasse or off a cliff. The difference between these glaciers and the only one I have been on before is that Icelandic one was broadly level, whereas this is most definitely not. All glaciers go up and down a lot, but Cotopaxi appears to have great long steep slopes of ice, often ending in something nasty, like thin air. So we practice throwing ourselves down ice slopes and digging the ice axe in pronto. There is an amusing bit where we are learning how to turn round fast when standing on a cliff face, which involves my guide Pato showing us the salsa way of doing this and shouting at us to dance. While this is undeniably good fun, I am finding it very hard work, and keep having to stop for a breather, which does not bode well. Plus Pato is a bit of a bastard. After a while Pato considers me adequately trained and I leave the glacier to go back to the refuge alone, which involves lots of admiring the glaciers and the views on the way. The Danes are doing some kind of qualification as well, so have to do a lot more than me.

I was now even more exhausted, and coughing in a not very nice way and generally feeling completely wasted. I could not imagine how I was going to do the rest. I was the only climber in the refuge that night, so the plan was that Pato and I would sleep for a few hours, and then up at 11.30 to start climbing by midnight. About an hour of rock, then six or seven hours of ice, most of it very steep, and then mostly snow for the last hour or so to the summit. We do most of the climb in the dark, as by midday the ice is dangerous. And Pato emphasises how coming down may be quicker at only three hours or so, but is harder and it is very important to concentrate. We will be roped, and I have confidence in him, as he does this about six times a week. I finally got him to recognise how fucked I was, and we agreed to just see what we could do, perhaps only climb until dawn and to take pictures. The Danes go, and I try to get some sleep, about 6 pm.

I am feeling worse and worse though, and to cap it all, a ferocious gale has got up and the temperature has dropped radically. I can not seem to get warm, my head is pounding, I keep being a little sick, and I am beginning to shake feverishly. The more I think about it, the more I can not imagine being able to get any distance at all up the mountain, I could barely get up the stairs to my bed. Eventually about 8 pm, I realise I am going to have to bail out, and better now when at least we can get back to Valhalla at a decent time. I do not see things improving in the next few hours, indeed, they looked like they were getting worse. I get up and go and find Pato. He takes one look at me, goes ay, ay, ay! this is not good, we must go, now! and runs around packing up all our stuff, going not good, not good! all the time, while I struggle to do up my boot laces I am so ill by now. And so in the dark we set off down the ash hill again, me deliriously sliding down it while Pato carries both the big rucksacks. The wind is howling, and it is all quite surreal by our headlamps and seems to take for ever, though at least gravity is on my side. And then finally we get back to his 4WD and drive down as fast as we can. Within about an hour of leaving the refuge I feel out of trouble, back to Valhalla and merciful sleep.

All in all this was quite an adventure, albeit not the one that was planned. I thought about it a lot, and learnt some stuff, as they say. I do tend to think that I can do anything if I put my mind to it, and it is useful to be reminded of my limits, and I am probably neither fit enough nor young enough for these extreme activities any more.

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