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CLIMBING THE NECK OF THE MOON
VOLCÁN COTOPAXI

Text and Photos by Julian Smith

I lifted one plastic boot and planted its steel crampons into the snow with a styrofoam crunch. I took a deep breath. Fourteen. Eleven more steps and I could rest again.

It was dark, the air was thin, and Billie Holiday crooned through the ice-coated wires of my headphones about what a little moonlight can do.

The night clouds parted and the snowy flank of Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world, was bathed in a spectral light.

I was almost exactly on the equator, three miles high in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes, with three thousand feet to climb before dawn.

Ecuador is slowly gaining fame as a high-altitude playground where mountaineers can cut their teeth on peaks up to 20,000 feet with relatively little expense or effort. Many of the climbs are not technically difficult, but up here a world away from the country’s sweltering rainforests and Pacific beaches, even a walk in the snow is nothing to be taken lightly.

We had met the day before in Quito, which at 9,375 feet is the second-highest capital in Latin America. There were four climbers—my friend Jeff and I, quiet David from England, in Ecuador to adopt a daughter, and Adam, a talkative chemical engineer—and two guides: copper-skinned Ramiro, who owned the climbing company, and Juanito, who had a Wile E. Coyote doll strapped to his backpack.

The perfect snow-capped cone of Cotopaxi poked above a layer of clouds as we left the city smog for the Avenue of the Volcanoes, Ecuador’s knobby Andean spine.

At 19,400 feet, Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador, and by far the most popular to climb. Its name means "Neck of the Moon" in Quechua, the language of the Incas, Ecuador’s first inhabitants.

One of the most destructive on the continent, Cotopaxi has a rap sheet of over a dozen recorded eruptions. It last blew its top in 1877, which was recent enough for it to be considered the highest active volcano in the world.

A rough cobbled track led toward the north side of the mountain past cows and half-wild horses grazing in the intense equatorial sun. We parked above the treeline and gasped our way up a gravel slope to the climber’s refuge at 16,000 feet. The stone building that smelled of exertion and starchy food.

Ramiro took Jeff and I out onto the glacier for a short course in traveling over ice and snow. He showed us how to walk diagonally to keep from shredding our calves with the spikes of our crampons, and demonstrated how to stop a sliding fall.

"If you fall, get your head uphill and dig in with your ice axe, like this." As I practiced, I wondered if I’d have the presence of mind to do that as I careened down an icy slope in the darkness with a brain starved for oxygen.

Back at the refuge we ate dinner amid an Indiana Jones atmosphere of candlelight and a murmur of languages. The plan was to leave at 2 a.m., in time to be well up the mountain before the sun started to soften the snow.

I fell asleep hoping I had what it took—mostly determination and luck—to be one of the one in ten that made the summit. I woke what seemed like every few minutes gasping for breath, my mouth so dry my tongue split.

We dressed in the darkness, stuffed down a quick breakfast, and assembled on the flagstone patio for a final gear check. Ramiro tied Jeff and I to his rope and set off up the slope. I put on my headphones and listened to Billie Holiday sing of starts falling on Alabama as the headlamps of other groups bobbed uphill in the darkness.

We hit the snowline within an hour and strapped on our crampons. David had turned back mysteriously just above the refuge, but the rest of us still felt strong.

The sky began to lighten to the east as we cut endless switchbacks up the northern route pioneered in 1882 by Edward Whymper, the first man to climb the Matterhorn. Robin’s-egg blue gave birth to strips of lava, then half a skyful of flaming feather clouds.

Soon our guides’ slow but steady pace began to take its toll. We were closing in on 18,000 feet, where the air holds half as much oxygen as it does at sea level. I had the advantage of a month in Ecuador already, but the rest had arrived more recently and hadn’t had much time to acclimatize.

Jeff switched to Juanito’s rope and I turned up the volume on McCoy Tyner playing the piano like a man with twelve fingers. I let the swinging chords fill my mind and drown out all thoughts of stopping.

On non-technical ascents like this, climbing is a much a mental challenge as a physical one. The trick becomes knowing when to listen to the inner voice begging you to stop, and when to ignore it and push higher.

Ramiro and I stepped over crevasses that fell into blackness and climbed past ice caves glowing blue in the sun. The world was nothing but snow and sky, purple shadows and the yellow dot of Ramiro’s parka.

The incline grew steeper the higher we climbed and the summit seemed to recede into the wind-whipped air. Existence had narrowed to a simple rhythm. Step. Gulp air. Plant ice axe. Repeat.

My head pounded. I would have given anything to sit down in the snow and stop, and probably would if I could hear my inner voice more clearly. I turned up the volume.

Suddenly the slope flattened and the trail ended at the lip of a vast crater filled with clouds. Ramiro turned and grinned and congratulated me for being the first person on top this fine morning.

I looked around in a daze, grinning through my frozen beard.

My mouth didn’t seem to work quite right, but I almost laughed when Ramiro pulled out his cell phone to call the office and tell them we had made it. This was his 143rd time on top.

The wind whipped the clouds apart to reveal peaks in every direction as we snapped photos of each other, axes raised. Then we turned and started down.

The descent took less than two hours. The sun, still rising toward noon, softened the snow and inspired us to strip off layer after layer of clothing. Wonderful oxygen filled the air.

We slid the last thousand feet to the refuge on the seats of our pants, whooping like cowboys.

TRIP ESSENTIALS

Cotopaxi is 50 km southeast of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, in the center of a national park of the same name. It isn’t a technically difficult climb, but it’s not for the inexperienced or unprepared. Basic mountaineering gear is essential, along with moderate climbing experience or the services of a trained guide.

The best months for climbing are December and January, followed by August and September. You should definitely acclimatize with a week or two in Quito (at 9,400 feet, the second highest capital in the Americas) or higher before attempting the ascent. Ecuador has plenty of smaller mountains for training climbs: try Atacazo, Corazón, Guagua Pichincha, Ilaló, Imbabura, or Pasachoa.

It costs $10 per person to enter the park and another $10 to spend the night at the José Ribas refuge, which is administered by Alta Montaña in Quito (tel. 02-2254-798 aventurag@ch.pro.ec). The two-story shelter has 70 bunk beds, lockers, cooking facilities, running water, and snacks and water for sale.

There are dozens of climbing companies in Quito that can take you to the summit for $150-200 pp, all inclusive. Two of the best are Ramiro Donoso’s Ecuadorian Alpine Institute at Ramirez Dávalos 136 and Amazonas, tel. 011-593-2-565-465, fax 011-593-2-568-949, EAI@ecuadorexplorer.com, www.ecuadorexplorer.com/eai, and Safari Tours at Calama 380 and Juan León Mera, tel./fax (800) 434-8182, 011-593-2-220-426, fax 011-593-2-223-381, admin@safari.com.ec, www.safari.com.ec.

The best guidebook to the country, of course, is my own Ecuador Handbook (Avalon Travel Publishing, $16.95), which was fully updated in 2000 to include the country’s recent switch to the U.S. dollar.

Yossi Brain’s Ecuador: A Climbing Guide ($16.95) and Mark Thurber and Rob Rachowiecki's Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador are available from The Mountaineers Books: www.mountaineersbooks.org.

 
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