Maybe I should have gone shopping?
I was two months shy of my 65th birthday, cold, exhausted, and panting in the thin air at 17,000 feet on Ecuador’s Mt. Cotopaxi. And, as far as I could see, I was now alone. So, I sat down in the lee of a large outcropping of rock and ice. My thoughts turned to a humorous incident five years earlier: After reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro and safely back in a small hotel in Moshi, Tanzania, I called my wife, bursting with pride that I had “reached the top”. She was overwhelmed with joy – that I had reached the bottom! Now, while I was not in any specific danger, my wife’s perspective took on new meaning.
In my 20’s I had dabbled with rock and ice climbing during the years I lived near New Hampshire’s White Mountains. It was exhilarating and mock-heroic, but never became a passion. So when I moved to the Washington, DC area in the mid-70’s and began my career, even the dabbling became less frequent. Skiing, tennis, racket ball, and occasional backpacking addressed my athletic and outdoor needs. There would always be time later, I rationalized, to return to climbing and other serious adventures. But suddenly, my 60th birthday had loomed, and I was confronted with the reality of the calendar, and that I could no longer postpone the fulfillment of youthful dreams.
After Kilimanjaro, there was a trek to Everest Base Camp, a winter climb of Mt. Washington, snowshoeing high in the Rockies, rock climbing in West Virginia, and assorted other energetic excursions. Now with my 65th birthday approaching, I asked my childhood friend and Kilimanjaro partner to join me for a “Glacier Climbing Program” in Ecuador. Skip had declined earlier ice and snow invitations, observing that he “wasn’t possessed by the same demons” as I was. This time he eagerly agreed. My wife, always tolerant but not fully understanding my demons, rolled her eyes, asked if this was the last one, and promptly made plans for her own trek during my absence -- a “retaliatory” shopping adventure through the canyons of Manhattan.
Having been diagnosed a year earlier with “Moderate-to-severe degenerative joint disease” in both knees, I was no stranger to injections – cortisone, synovial fluid, etc.. So, armed with a new round of shots – knees and toes, just to name a few aching parts – I was ready for the mountains.
An advantage of climbing in Ecuador is the opportunity to “acclimatize” in relative comfort. Quito, the capital, is 9,300 ft above sea level, so acclimatization begins as you walk up the jet-way. And, Quito itself is worth the journey as it has the hemisphere’s best-preserved colonial historic center, nearby national parks that are home to many of the ice and snow capped volcanoes, a wide range of hotels, restaurants, and an active nightlife. So, our plan was to arrive a few days before the start of the glacier school and ease into the high altitude environment taking in the sights of the city while “camping out” in a relatively upscale hotel.
But most importantly, Ecuador is the home of many glaciated mountains, several exceeding 18,000 ft. I had done extensive online research and in contrast to previous adventures, I selected a local mountain guide company. I reasoned that since the US-based companies always engaged the services of local guides anyway, I would cut out the middleman, and leave more of my dollars “in-country”.
In addition, other than a handful of carabineers and related hardware leftover from prior adventures, I would be relying on the local guides to provide most of the technical gear, including double plastic ice climbing boots.