The funny thing about tomorrow is, tomorrow you might be climbing a volcano.
From Quito we arrived in Baños, Ecuador, and the quaint town turned out to be a center for outdoor activity, offering hiking, rafting, paragliding, and all the rest. Nestled into the hills, it was basically Ecuador's version of Colombia's San Gil, except with better nightlife.
We stayed in a hostel offering a built-in French bakery that served hard, not-sweet cookies, and the receptionist liked to not buzz guests into the front door until she was done talking on the phone. But our room was light and airy, so this would be a relaxing space in which to stay.
Darren then decided that he should climb a volcano. Great! I figured he can do his thing and I can relax for a day, so I accompanied him to a guide shop and the guide looked at me and, with one look, he said that I could do the climb, too. But here's the thing, I said: I haven't been working out lately, and I've never climbed a volcano. Or even a regular mountain. Internally, I was telling myself that I don't do alpine mountaineering, that I'm just not that kind of guy. But then I felt that twinge that I get on this trip every time I have that thought — "I'm not that kind of person" — and in my gut I knew that I had to do it, in fact in that split second I was already committed. I remembered Ice-T on "F*ck It", saying, "See them mountain climbers? Them mountain climbers is sayin', 'F*ck it.'" The guide then said the climb would be totally tranquilo, which I didn't believe for a second, he said 80% of climbers make it, yeah sure! And I slapped down my cash, I signed the waiver, and I said, "F*ck it."
I became really excited when I found out we would be climbing Chimborazo, the summit of which is farther from the Earth's center than the summit of Everest. (This is due to the Earth bulging at the equator.) Then Darren corrected me and said we'd be climbing Cotopaxi, which doesn't even clear 20,000 feet (elevation: 19,347 ft.), and I was all like, Whatever, let's just climb a f*cking volcano. We would leave the next day, so that night we bought some stuff that we thought we'd need but that we didn't use at all, like tuna.
The next morning we almost missed our bus but didn't, and then we rode for two hours out to Cotopaxi National Park, which was over back by Quito — the volcano itself is actually easily visible from the city. Then we hopped off the bus and caught a pickup truck, a Wingle by the Chinese marque Great Wall. The Wingle made a stop at a store where I bought Snickerses, coca candy, Red Bull, dark chocolate, and other health food. Then I climbed onto the man's Wingle and we made our way to a parking lot about a 1/4 mile distant and 600 vertical feet from El Refugio, the base from which climbers attack the summit. Other people changed into their climbing boots for the hike, but our guide took one look at my Wescos — available now at Stompers Boots! — and he said they'd be fine. The 1/4 mile hike through scree (loose, big gravel) while carrying all my gear took me about an hour. Oh, and El Refugio lies at 15,750 feet and I didn't bother acclimatizing first. But, you know. F*ck it.
Upon arrival, Darren found a newspaper with a photo and a headline concerning the recent hurricane in America's Northeast.
Then we practiced ice maneuvers with our cool equipment — the mountain boots, the harness, rope, the crampons, and the ice axe. On a nearby icy slope, our guide told us that if we fall, we need to dig our ice axe into the ice. Easy! Then he said that, since we are all tied in, if someone else falls, fall down and dig your ice axe into the ice. Also easy! That's just like the first maneuver! Then he told us to always keep the ice axe on the uphill side so you don't fall onto it. No problem! So we practiced falling with the ice axe, which is safer than it sounds, and then we ate and we slept in our clothes in our sleeping bags. The mattresses in our bunks might have been gym mats. It was 6pm.
We awoke at 11pm to eat and prepare and leave at before midnight. Darren had a Real Breakfast, I had a Red Bull and a Snickers. When we left, the moon wasn't full, but it was illuminatory and our headlamps were hardly necessary. The air was cold but the wind was calm. The three of us — me, Darren, guide — made our way up the volcano with our gear. The night was bright and clear, the scree was soft underfoot. I went slowly as I had two concerns. Firstly, I've never been this high before — I'd read about the signs of cerebral and pulmonary edema, which can strike anyone at these heights, and I considered myself a more-likely victim because I didn't care to acclimatize. Secondly, I haven't been working out and I didn't know if I was physically able to do the climb, I have the ability to push myself until I pass out and usually I see spots before this happens but in the white-and-black of the night I wouldn't see this sign. A medical emergency up here could be a real problem, especially since helicopters generally don't go this high (my medevac coverage provides for rescue only up to 14,000 feet).
We paced the hikers behind us for an hour as we ascended to the snow line, where we applied our alpine gear and we tied in to each other. Things were brighter with the reflection of the snow, which was great as we had to cross a few narrow crevasses. These, one emphatically does not want to fall into. The crampons bit reassuringly into the ice, which was easier to walk on than the scree. The ice axe stayed on my uphill side as I habitually switched hands each time we hit a switchback. I thought about how grand it would be to reach the summit, I visualized myself reaching it and checking the altitude on my cellphone and taking a screenshot of the GPS reading and posting it to Facebook. But I also thought of Harry Nilsson's song "Jump Into the Fire", that song from GoodFellas where Ray Liotta's character is being followed by a helicopter. The lyric: "You can climb a mountain... but you'll never be free." A negative thought that I would have written off, but I also thought of an old cartoon I saw in fifth grade, something from Matt Groening's Life in Hell, in which a rabbit goes through many of life's high points only to be berated in the caption of each frame.
What darkness was in me? Did I secretly suspect my attempts at self-actualization to be futile? Is my journey really a flight from myself? And then my darkest worry of all: I promised to return to Victoria in Medellín. What if I push myself too hard and die on the mountain, breaking my promise to her? This I feared most of all. And shouldn't it happen? I've finally got the girl I've been dreaming of, shouldn't the gods strike me down? I feel like Icarus just before his wings melt, I feel like I should be hit by lightning at any moment. Such self-sabotaging thoughts are so hard to banish from one's head! When it happens, and I notice it happens, I have a mantra: "Focus on the task at hand." Pay attention to the slow truck that your moto approaches and the blind curve and the debris just beyond; pay attention to your breathing in the scuba regulator and your buoyancy and your rate of oxygen consumption; pay attention to your speed on the zipline, the approaching platform, and the heat on your brake hand; pay attention to the underground river, the slippery rocks, the people ahead of you, the darkness just outside the scope of your headlamp.
Pay attention to the volcano.
The ice crunches satisfyingly underfoot. My breathing is deep and calm. My ice axe stabs lovingly into the hard snow. My torso is warm, my head is warm, my feet have a chill, my hands feel fine. My legs are fatigued but reliable. I stare down at the snow, step, step, step. I look to the left and notice the trail is narrow, the dropoff steep, a crevasse is about 70 feet down and then who knows what's beyond. Ahead the trail curves right and then becomes steeper, we have to dig the front of our crampons into the ice and use the ice axes to pull ourselves up. Let the pick bite into the ice, use your arms for stability, use your legs to lift yourself. I've seen an episode of How It's Made where they show how they make ice axes. Victoria and I watched an episode of that show the night before I left. If I fail to climb this volcano, then am I not good enough for her?
Focus on the task at hand.
We pass under a strange formation, an ice balcony that cantilevers overhead with many large icicles hanging off. I go quickly through this area as it looks prone to collapse. We continue ascending and the guide pulls on my rope, he's telling me that I need to go faster. I know I can, but only for so long before I risk causing problems. The guide seems to become inpatient and keeps pulling until at one point I almost get pulled off my feet, and I lose my composure, I yell at him: "Hey! Do NOT do that!" Noticing my short fuse, I realize I'm more fatigued than I knew, I've been concentrating on pushing forward, I've been focussed on my breathing and my technique, but it occurs to me that I may be willing myself past my body's limits.
We reach a broad, flat area and the wind picks up, it's colder and we are more exposed. There seems to be an inflection point here where the mountain gets steeper. I get on my knees and rest. It's been 2.5 hours coming up 2300 vertical feet to an altitude of more than 18,000 feet, and I ask my guide how much more there is. He says there's only a thousand more feet. He also says it will take four hours. I'm shocked, Darren can tell I'm shocked. Four more hours?! Yes, he says. I ask if he thinks I'll make it, and he says no. I consider for a minute what to do. This is the decision point. Do we summit or no? I know in my heart that I can make it if I dig deep and give all I have. But then what's left to get back down? If I create a situation on the mountain, that's a danger to everyone. And I made the hard decision, I decided to turn back.
I made it 7000 feet higher than I had ever been before. I didn't bother to acclimatize. I haven't been working out since starting the trip. I flaunted the rules, the preparation that everyone else does, I gave it a shot and now I know what's involved, what's necessary to get there. I don't have it, but I can have it, and one day I will. But still, I felt like I let myself down.
The view was gorgeous on the way down as the sun came up and slowly caressed the hills and the valley.
After returning, I slept all day and then, at night, I ran into our German friend Silke, whom we had run into maybe four or five times before throughout Colombia and Ecuador. We ended up going to a club with some friends and I mentioned that I had attempted Cotopaxi. She said that she had visited El Refugio earlier and had left just before we got there. She said that she had been there for three days to acclimatize but that she didn't attempt to summit. She said that usually only a third of climbers make it.
And right then, I no longer felt like I had let myself down.
Next time: Mountain days in northern Peru