We left the Cayambe region with high spirits but also really hoping for better weather and a chance to climb. Cotopaxi is the picture-perfect mountain of Ecuador; itâ€™s got the classic Andes snow line about 2/3 way up the mountain, and that perfect conical shape that defines the classic volcano. Luckily for us, it also usually has better weather than Cayambe, although it would be a bit steeper and higher (the summit is around 19,300 ft.) than our previous objective.
Before leaving Cayambe, though, we had a very interesting stop to make: the Quitsato Equator Monument. This 52 m. sun dial marks the true latitude of zero degrees, exactly on the Equator. A separate monument exists just outside Quito, but it incorrectly identifies the line. While the Europeans erred in their measurements, indigenous Ecuadorians measured it correctly as early as 1500 years ago; after all, their crop seasons depended on the sun! You might notice the similarity between Ecuadorâ€™s name and the word Equator; it got this name from the French who came here because the mountainous landscape provided landmarks for mapping the line; neither Brazilâ€™s Amazon or African countries on the same parallel offered such good markers. The young man I am blatantly plagiarizing explained all this in about five minutes before telling us how the sun dial works and where the sun would shine during each solstice or equinox. He noted that traditional maps may be incorrectly alignedâ€”north to south assumes we are on the sun; they should be oriented east to west (like the sunâ€™s path) because we are on the earth, which rotates around the unmoving sun. He added that the word north actually comes from a Latin word meaning left. I thought it was an interesting viewpoint and would make a great hook for a lesson in perspective when I get back to the classroom next year.
Our entrance into the Cotopaxi region that afternoon was a little dishearteningâ€”pouring rain! I guess thatâ€™s common in the mid-late afternoon, though. By the time we got to our nightâ€™s destination, Tambopaxi Lodge (12, 162 ft.), it stopped raining; however, it was hard to be excited with the mountain hiding behind the clouds. The park around Cotopaxi is somewhat barren, or at least open and rocky. Considering Cotopaxi is an active volcano that erupted as recently as 2015, I guess that shouldnâ€™t have surprised me. Tambopaxi is an eco-lodge with bunkhouse style lodging and a nice restaurant, so we continued to sleep and eat well in preparation for potential climbs!
The following afternoon, we took our bus partway up to the mountain hut before hiking the last 500 ft. or so with full packs. Jose was impressed with our time of 35 minutes, and we found ourselves feeling strong at 15,700 ft. The hut was pretty coolâ€”flags signed by climbers from different countries adorned the walls, and it even had a small indoor bouldering wall (Sarah immediately traversed the whole thing). After lunchâ€”complete with the worldâ€™s best hot chocolateâ€”we took naps, only to wake up to freshly falling snow! I think it dropped about 3â€ before fizzling out that evening, but we were happy with what we couldnâ€™t hearâ€”there were no winds!
Our attempt started with a wake-up call at 11:00, but snow sliding off the roof outside the window by my bunk had kept my attention by a couple of hours by then. We set off around midnight, zig-zagging our way up a gradually steep snow field to reach the glacier. After roping up, we made a long rising traverse up a mellow glacier until the climb became more technical. In this section, we had to navigate through several crevassesâ€”one of them quite largeâ€”with snow bridges of varying conditions. We were through here early in the morning, but one of the bridges looked pretty thin.
By now, we were probably halfway on the climb; weâ€™d made it to the point where the steeper â€œHeartbreakâ€ route joined the main climberâ€™s path weâ€™d taken. Our team was moving well and making good time. As long as I ate a little and drank a bit each hour, I continued to feel strong as we climbed higher and higher, and our guides continued to keep a great pace. It wasnâ€™t as cold or windy as Iâ€™d feared, and the sky was starting to show hints of glorious morning light.
After another long, fairly non-descript traverse, we began climbing more steeply. There was some backup among parties (this was the busiest mountain we climbed), the fresh snow was a little slick, and inexperienced climbers around us kept blowing out the steps made by others. These factors probably made this section more tedious than necessary. Sarah started feeling the altitude and dealing with some calf cramps, but she just dug down in that way she sometimes does and found a way to get it done!
The morning light was on us now, and the sky was clear above us. We were now above the clouds, and the views across the glacier were awesome! The path to the summit alternated between steep and gradual switchbacks, and soon we found ourselves at 19,300 ft! Cotopaxiâ€™s summit was a new elevation best for Sarah and the 2nd highest Iâ€™d ever been! Our entire team summitedâ€¦just the win weâ€™d been hoping for the past few days. While I tend to do okay ascending high elevation climbs, I often get pressure headaches on the way down; I could feel one coming on at the summit, but that didnâ€™t lessen my excitement! As I sometimes do on our crazier adventures, I teared up right before summitingâ€¦what did I do to deserve this beautiful place and amazing experience with my wife and friends?
We made our descent quite rapidly, which was fine with me considering the hot sun now blazed over us to shine on fresh snow from the previous afternoon. That iffy looking snow bridge wasnâ€™t exactly calling our names. I was glad to find that the guides planned to take us down the Heartbreak route instead; it was steep snow but avoided the worse crevasses. Sarah and I were positioned fairly close together on our rope, so it was challenging to descend without pulling her. We did pretty well, though, and made it down the steep slow without any falls and only a plunged ice ax or two serving as the emergency brake. I think our time to the summit was about 7 hours, while our descent took only 2!
Back at the hut, we did our best to stomach a snack despite low post-climb appetites; luckily, they gave us more of that delicious hot chocolate! I donâ€™t think any of us were excited about hefting full packs back to the bus, but we were happy to discover a short cut from the day before. Showers, a good lunch, and well-earned naps awaited us at Tambopaxi. This trip would have been a success without summitting a big mountain, but climbing Cotopaxi was still a great moment for our team!
Our final objective was also the highest and most remote; Chimborazo is over 20,000 ft. high, and it has the special characteristic of being the furthest point from the center of the Earth. It was just a tad more technical than Cotopaxi, which is why weâ€™d practiced some crampon techniques for steep snow the previous week. For the moment the morning after our climb, though, we were putting that out of mind because Cotopaxi was out in full force above Tambopaxi Lodge. What a stunning mountain!
Unfortunately, on the 3-hour drive between regions, Sarah started to feel quite sick; she had a fever and was developing a bad cough. By the time we reached our destination for the day, Urbina Lodge, she crawled right into bed. The nap didnâ€™t seem to help much, though, and it looked like she would be out for climbing Chimborazo. She made sure that I knew that she expected me to climb without herâ€¦not my favorite plan, but I also knew sheâ€™d probably feel better without having me around to bug her while she tried to get better the next couple of days. I also appreciated the way she supported me when she probably felt disappointment herself.
Urbina Lodge, like all the other places we stayed, had its own cool vibe going. A former train station, the lodge is small and rustic with cool black and white photos of the station and Chimborazo. They have an indigenous house behind it and a small workshop/store full of nice homemade crafts. The interior has interesting murals and paintings, including one of Alpine Jesus relaxing in a lounge chair with a post-climb brewski! More importantly, they have a llama that seemed to make a very special connection with Mac. The views of Chimborazo around sunset were pretty okay, as well.
We headed up to the mountain late the next morning; Sarah was going to ride with us to the base of the climb before continuing down to the thermal-springs town of Banos (remember, the word means baths not bathrooms), where weâ€™d meet her after our climb. Mac had also fallen ill overnight and would be going with her. The timing was bad for catching colds, and I was glad that weâ€™d been successful on Cotopaxi before anyone got too sick to climb. For the record, the last time I climbed something without Sarah was July 2018, so I was going to miss her on Chimborazo.
The Chimborazo park area is home to 3,000 Vicuna (like skinny miniature llamas), and a good number of them were out as we approached the mountain. They were the main entertainment for the drive because the mountain was hiding behind the thick clouds weâ€™d come to expect. Well, we had another fun moment picking up a very confused European hitchhiker who seemed unsure when Jose told him we were heading to the beach and also looked hesitant when I asked him if he was hunting Vicunas like we were. The fun couldnâ€™t last forever, so we dropped him off near the hut and said goodbye to Sarah and Mac before grabbing our big packs and hiking up to our high camp.
Our high camp consisted of a few large tents at 17,400 ft. It was maybe an hour and a half above where the bus dropped us, and we werenâ€™t far along the talus ridge before the weather turned. While it was technically snow, the pellets were hard and small. All our high elevation exercise over the past couple of weeks paid off, though, and we made steady progress towards camp. Not long after piling into our large tents for a quick nap before dinner, a thunderstorm hit along with a couple of inches of fresh snow. When I got up to go to the bathroom before dinner, it felt like the ice pellets falling from the sky were stabbing the back of my head! That didnâ€™t make sense because I had on multiple layers. A.T. figured out we were getting shocked with electricity! Needless to say, we didnâ€™t spend too much time outside at this point, although we got some nice viewsâ€”sans shocksâ€”after dinner.
We awoke at 11:00 PM once again, but our numbers had dwindled. Linda had suffered from a bad cough for several days by now, and it got worse as the night went on. Our guide Mauricio had also been sick for the entire week and decided to stay back once weâ€™d determined our team would be so small. Iâ€™d be climbing with Pepe, while A.T. and Sophie were to climb with Jose. I noticed I was also getting a bad cough, and I hoped that I could beat the cold to the summit, for lack of a better term.
Our first section was up a tame ridge that seemed like it would normally be scree this time of year but had a thin layer of fresh snow from the afternoon. We donned crampons almost immediately above camp. After what seemed like quick work through this section, we continued to make a rising traverse along the ridgeâ€”now snowâ€”until we came to the short, steep mixed climbing section weâ€™d practiced for last week. It required a couple of pick points from our axes, front pointing from our crampons, and an easy rock move or two. After the fun little mini-pitch here, our rope teams took a break. Luigi the Cook, who had borrowed gear from Linda and Mauricio, caught up to us at this point and jumped on my rope teamâ€”apparently, he felt like climbing too, and I canâ€™t say I blamed him! So far conditions were warm and calm, but above the ridge, it was about to get windy and quite cold.
Based on our final ascent time, I think we probably moved efficiently throughout the night, but the next hill seemed to take forever! Not only was it long and somewhat steepâ€”I donâ€™t think we encountered much more snow less than 40-45 degrees below the false summitâ€”but no one had climbed the route in several days. It seemed like there was at least a foot of new snow that we had to break trail though. As we climbed higher, I really appreciated Jose and Pepeâ€™s efforts to reduce both the angle and avalanche potential through their careful choices.
Finally atop the giant hill, I was happy to find that my legs still felt strong. However, I was starting to hack more and more, and my nose had become a non-stop snot dispenser. I couldnâ€™t breathe with my buff covering my mouth, but climbing without was very cold. Jose told us we had three more hills to climb before reaching the final false summit.
These three hills became increasingly windswept, and our guides took turns kicking in a switchbacking trail, trying to find the best angle and snowpack. As great as their steps were, Gordo Nino (yours truly) outweighed everyone else significantly, so I repeatedly found myself post-holing from a few inches up to my downhill buttock! Over time, this was absolutely exhausting, and I donâ€™t know that Iâ€™d ever struggled to breathe like that at high altitude. For me, the climb had definitely switched to type-2 fun.
Once we reached the false summit, however, I knew we were in a special place! The dayâ€™s first light emerged all around us with the actual sunrise beaming from beyond the summit (which seemed deceptively far away). It was gorgeous, and we were going to have it to ourselves because none of the parties who started at the hut below us had continued to climb above the glacier.
The path to the summit was flat for a bit before steepening as our rope teams began to be more plodding. A.T. and Sophie had a moment of â€œCan I do this?â€ that instantly became â€œLetâ€™s get this done!â€ I needed that little bit of fire as well because the last few meters up to the summit felt very steep, and I was pretty frickinâ€™ tired of sinking in up to my butt! Pepe let Luigiâ€”who is really, really strongâ€”take the lead, and he began to literally pull me up to the summit. I pulled up several times, leaning over my ice ax and coughing up a lung, before realizing that I better just try to keep up for the remaining five minutes to the summit.
What a magnificent panorama we enjoyed in the early morning sun! It seemed that every mountain around us came out to congratulate our team, with Cotopaxi front and center, and at least one other mountain (Antisana, I think) releasing a plume of steam. We took summit photos and tried to take care of ourselves before descending after a few minutesâ€”our hands were cold, and the sun was only going to get stronger on the soft snow! It was a bittersweet moment without half of our team, but I was proud of myself and happy to be there with new friends. At 20,690 ft., this was the highest Iâ€™d ever been.
We descended quite rapidly, and I got a chance to use some of those new crampon techniques in the soft, steep snow. I couldnâ€™t remember the last time I felt this wiped out after a climbâ€¦not just tired, but absolutely no appetite either (if you know me, your jaw may have just dropped). What I didnâ€™t fully realize is I was getting a full-on case of the flu. Back at camp, Luigi somehow conjured up some pan pizzas, which may have been the only food on earth I could scarf down at that point, before we packed our bags and hobble-sprinted down to the bus.
A few hours later we found ourselves in Banos with Mac and Sarah, who were both feeling better. It was Saturday night, and Banos loves to partyâ€”what a great place to celebrate! We all went out to a nice steak dinner, but I could barely eat. I went directly to bed after we finished dinner, but the rest of the crew joined our guides for some salsa dancing late into the night! The next morning, Sarah joined the others for some hot spring therapy, but I took a little nap. The flu really sucks, and this was a bad one that stuck with both Sarah and I for a week, but I wouldnâ€™t take back the climb for anything.
As I reflect a few weeks after the expedition, Iâ€™d say that our time in Kalymnos last fall is still my favorite single thing from the Still Mooninâ€™ Tour, but this climbing trip was also everything that we wanted it to beâ€”we were successful on three peaks, every experience with Andean Face was amazing, we saw a ton of beautiful places in Ecuador, and our group was one-of-a-kind awesome! Sarah and I have been talking a lot recently about just how lucky we are, and our time climbing in Ecuador is an experience that neither of us will soon forget!