On January 8th, 2011 three Outdoor Leadership Program students from Greenfield Community College traveled to Ecuador to Mount Cotopaxi (19,348’). They were to meet Austin Paulson, Coordinator for the OLP and Owner of Peak Expeditions, a US based mountain guiding business. Chris Rice, also from Peak Expeditions and his father Don also participated in the expedition. The following is an account of the expedition by Jason Smith.
Austin showed up just past nine in the morning on January 8th as we were finishing up our breakfast downstairs at the Magic Bean Restaurant and Hostel. Having acclimated over the past few days in Quito and the surrounding area we were all pretty psyched to officially begin our adventures in the Andes. After we (and by ‘we’ I refer to Sean MacNab, Rich Adamczyk, Chris Rice, his father Don Rice, and myself Jason Smith) met with Austin we quickly decided it would be a lovely idea to talk about the trip, its itinerary, and our gear at a nearby park a few blocks away from the hostel.
The weather was sunny as we proceeded to a quiet space toward the side of the park. The spot chosen provided an interesting view of the residents of Quito as they took in the beautiful Sunday sun. Needless this probably proved a heavy distraction, especially when there was a bike ‘crash’ behind Austin as he rolled onto his gear talk. All in all though we were able to retain most of the information, the most important being our imminent acclimatization ascent of Pinchincha (15,500’) which overlooked the vast city of Quito.
The day was ours after the talk, providing us with ample time to explore around the city, buy trinkets at the local open air market, and have a hearty feast at a Mexican restaurant next to our hostel (we were seduced into eating there by a man wearing a sombrero and trumpeting a bugle). Our afternoon hike was cut off at the neck when a spark storm rolled in an we were forced into the confines of the Bean. Cards pursued and a round of Rummy 500 was initiated. Toward the end of the match Austin arrived from his ‘guide talks’, wrapping up his previous expedition responsibilities. He immediately ordered one of his favorite Mango Smoothies. After some banter and an evening meal we were packed, settled, and ready for the following day’s challenges.
Waking bright and early and quickly devouring breakfast, we made our way via cab toward the Telefarico (a gondola type contraption to ferry people up to a vantage point overlooking the city). Though it took ages to board, we were finally off and zipping up the mountain side. Upon our arrival we set off toward the distant peak which loomed dark and ominous on the horizon. Following a dirt path on foot we passed individuals from the Netherlands, Norway, and even New York (very exotic indeed). After two hours the path split up the trail and we definitely took the road less traveled. This route involved breaking out our harnesses, helmets, and climbing rope.
Leading our climbs were Chris, Rich, and Austin placing a fixed line upon which the rest of the group was able to clip in and traverse with relative ease. Partially up the slope we encountered claps of thunder in the distance and an ominous storm appearing on the horizon. As it grew closer we were pummeled with pea size hail stones making for a slippery climb. Luckily for us the storm abated and sun poked through just as we entered the dreaded ‘Window of Death’.
This section entails a steep drop to a narrow, and by narrow I mean maybe a foot width, knife edge followed by a second ascent over a small crown. Rich lead this spicy section and the rest of us followed with trepidation. We all made it over with nothing but a little rope hassle toward the end as Chris rappelled off the rock face. From there on it was light and easy climbing toward the summit, but unfortunately the storm roll back in on us as the peak neared. On the top quick pictures were taken, but a sizzling noise from the top of the sign headed our rapid decent down the trail.
The trail down was made of volcanic ash which allowed for a running decent on parts of the path and a few wipe-outs by some unfortunate members in the group. We arrived at the Telefarico with plenty of time to spare and the storm truly opened up as we stepped into the gondola. Coming back into the Bean we all glad to be back at 9000 ft. and were anxious for dinner, a shower, and nice warm bed.
The next day we headed out for Cayambe, the 3th highest mountain in Ecuador and the spot for our glacier skills training and further acclimatization. We were transported in a 1980 4 Wheel Drive cargo van formally of the US Embassy in Quito. Our drive took us a good three hours due to a vicious dirt road which lead up toward the hut we would be staying in. Rocks, bumps, trees, and holes littered our path up the mountain and we thus made slow progress. I could defiantly see my sister getting car sick on such a perilous road and many times we were inches from the edge of cliff drops and waterfalls that lined our route. Finally, due to our excellent driver, we made it to the top where we pack in our equipment and food. Before starting on our day hike we prepared a huge pot of chicken noodle soup which we let sit until our return.
As we set out on our hike, the glacier on Cayambe rose up on our right side as we climbed our way above the hut. Some minor rock scrambling ensued as we gained altitude attempting to reach a plateau which would gain us views of the summit. Heavy fog rolled in and when we reach the plateau at 16000 ft. we could only catch glimpses of the peak through the clouds.
After returning to the hut we settled down for dinner which consisted of the soup, chicken, and hearty bread which we bought at the base of the mountain. When everyone was full to the britches we sat down and played some cards before turning in early for the night (another party was attempting a summit the next morning). That night we passed water liberally with Austin, Rich, and Don each making multiple trips to the base of the hut. Around midnight we were roused from sleep by the summiting party who didn’t mind making very loud noises while they assemble their gear for the climb. Our favorite quote from the ordeal was an argument on whether sunscreen should be applied now at the hut or later on the hike (such a trifling issue).
Waking up in the morning we feasted on yogurt, granola, and fruit before booting up and heading out for the glacier. The morning was clear and fresh giving fantastic views of Cotopaxi, the surrounding mountains, and the really huge glacier which was growing larger by the minute as we marched on. Upon reaching its side we strapped on crampons, roped up, and preceded up the ice shelf. Taking every safety precaution necessary Austin lead our group to the edge of a crevasse where we intended to perform crevasse rescues utilizing mechanical advantage systems.
Lowering Don and Sean into the 50’ ice crevasse we used our ropes, prussic loops, and carabineers to a develop 2-1 pull system which would rescue an “injured climber” who had fallen in. Toward the end of our practice a 5-1 system was installed and I was lowered into the crack in the ice. Due to a minor communication error I slipped over the edge early and quickly fell what felt like 30 ft. before being caught by Sean who was managing a belay off the anchor. There is a lot of rope stretch in a skinny rope. People say your life flashes before your eyes, but they are wrong; it all goes way too fast for that.
After that educational part, we decided it would be a great idea to visit some of the ice seracs (towers) which formed higher up on the glacier. On the way up, Sean’s aluminum crampon broke and we decided it would be prudent to descend at this point. Chris lead us on the climb down and in no time we were back at the hut no worse for the wear. Finishing off the soup and yogurt we pack our bags and headed back toward Quito for some thick oxygenated air and to pack our bags in preparation for our drive to Cotopaxi the following day.
Unfortunately due to his respiratory illness, Chris was not able to accompany us to Cotopaxi the following day and we left knowing that the worst was yet to come. We arrived at the hut around noon-time after a brief hike up a few switch backs from the parking lot. Settling in we consumed some hot drinks before settling in for our afternoon nap. Waking up at five for dinner we proceeded downstairs where we were pleasantly surprised to find a well prepared meal waiting for us. Cream of Broccoli soup, pasta, chicken, and fresh vegetable lined our plates as we dug in preparing for our early morning summit bid. Back to bed we went, and most of us drifted uneasily off to sleep.
Waking up at 11:15 pm we roused and headed for the kitchen where we were greeted by breakfast. By midnight we were packed and ready to leave, and on a signal from Austin and our Ecuadorian guide Robinson we proceeded toward the summit. Some rocky switch-backs soon lead us to the snowfields above the hut where we strapped our crampons on. The darkness of the climb brought us all into a monotonous haze where climbing was the only focus and the footing under our headlamps. To make matters worse a stiff breeze arose bringing freezing fog to our bodies and cloths. Some of us who went out with just our soft shells and light downs didn’t realize the forming ice on our bodies until Austin declared it was time to break out our rain shells. Above the snowfields we entered the glacier and roped up into two separate teams, Robinson, Don, Rich and Austin, Sean, and myself. We passed through the glacier, into, over and under crevasses. The trail was clear and we found ourselves above the glacier and proceeding along narrow pathways on the edge of snow cliffs.
It was around 4-5pm when we hit 19,000 ft. and I started feeling the effects of the altitude. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, having trouble breathing, dizzy, and constantly losing my footing (clear signs of High Altitude Cerebral Edema). By this point I was in bad shape and decided it would be better for me and the group if I turned around. We were just 100 vertical meters from the summit. Sean roped up with the other team for the summit as I gingerly made my way back down with Austin’s help. The others summated the peak in less than six hours, a great accomplishment, and had great views of the crater. Unfortunately, they were caught in a brief whiteout coming down but were able to find the trail and proceed on downward.
For myself, it was a hellish type of decent and if it wasn’t for the guidance of Austin it would have probably been tragic. To not draw out a long story, and because I am writing this today; let me say we all got down safely and arrived back in Quito before noon surprising Chris who was about ready to take an exciting trip to the zoo. The rest of the day was spent on recovery and all I can really remember doing is sleeping and eating (isn’t that’s what vacation is all about anyway).
The next day we woke up to a slight drizzle an headed on off to the Papayacta hot spring located in the hills an hour or two away from the city. At the hot springs we enjoyed steam rooms, hot pools, really, really hot pools, and river fed basins. Resting with some of the locals we relaxed the let the toxins run out of our bodies. Red and Dread, the nickname for the duo of Sean MacNab and myself, was established and we were constantly poked at for our antics around the pool. Afterwards we ate some really unsavory hamburgers then left for Quito and the final night of our group. We ended our trip by enjoying a few cold drinks watching the Patriots lay waste to Tim Tebow and the Broncos. Who could ask for a better trip. I would like to thank all members of our team, it was the perfect group for the time and it was nothing but fun