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Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Last Climb? - Page 4

Written by Peter J Levine
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As counter intuitive as it may seem, it is sometimes easier to climb on ice and snow than crumbling volcanic rock and ash. I was exhausted before we reached the glacier where we would start our training. And, always several hundred feet behind, and often out of sight of my sprinting guide Nacho and his new trainee, a young woman with considerable climbing experience and energy.


While my prior ice and snow climbing experience included ice axe use, climbing with crampons, and proper roping techniques – I had never tried “Prusiking”. The technique is defined as “a method of ascending or descending a rope by means of two loops, each attached to it by a special knot tightening when weight is applied and slackening when it is removed, enabling the loop to be moved along the rope”. Translation: if you fall into a crevasse and find yourself dangling at the end of a 20-30 foot rope, you carefully remove two short sections of rope that are attached to your climbing harness and tie them to the lifeline on which you are now swinging. You then climb the vertical rope, per the “special knot” mechanism until you reach the relative “safety” of the surface from whence you fell.


As I practiced this technique I had two thoughts. First, I was somewhat surprised that I was indeed able to climb up the rope. My second thought was that if I had to do this after actually falling into a crevasse, I would be dangling at the end of the rope for a very, very long time, hoping that my guide would be coming to my rescue.


Our afternoon of instruction came to an early end as clouds began to engulf Cayambe, so we descended to the hut. For most of the untethered portion of the descent, I was alone, while Nacho and his new client scampered down together. As the clouds continued to wrap themselves around the upper third of the mountain, I had to rely on occasional glimpses of the two in order to find my way down. I reached the hut twenty minutes after they did and curled up in my sleeping bag. Based on the day’s experience – my exhaustion, and Nacho’s pattern of leaving me to climb alone unless we were actually tethered -- I was having real misgivings about the summit attempt later that night.  I expressed my concerns to Nacho, and he seemed to acknowledge them. During our driving and non-climbing time together, Nacho was friendly and reasonably accommodating, so I hoped that having finally expressed my misgivings about this aspect of his guiding technique, the next phase of the trip would see an improvement.


All climbing is subject to the mercurial nature of mountain weather. So, at 12 a.m. when we were awakened for the climb, the mountain weather gods decided to send an electrical storm along with the clouds already girdling Cayambe. Our attempt to summit was scrubbed, somewhat to my disappointment and somewhat to my relief. Instead of many hours of climbing in the dark – most likely alone for at least some sections -- it was back to my sleeping bag and bunk bed.



With the Cayambe glacier school segment behind us, once again I had a private expedition as we headed off for the last of the four mountains, Cotopaxi.


Like Cayambe, Cotopaxi has a climber’s hut, the José Ribas mountain hut, located on the north side of the mountain at an altitude of 15,748 ft. But, unlike the bumpy road access to Cayambe, access to the Cotopaxi hut is via a long, soft ash covered slope rising 1,500 vertical feet. One foot forward, three-quarters foot sliding back. Nothing out of the ordinary for volcano climbing, but wearing ill-fitting double plastic climbing boots – my fault for renting and not buying my own pair -- and carrying everything I would need for the night and the summit attempt made for a long slog up to the hut. And, of course, Nacho sprinted ahead, reaching the hut while I was barely beyond the half-way mark. But, this time, at least, I could see the destination.

IMG 3326

The José Ribas mountain hut sleeps 86 climbers.  When I finally arrived and dragged myself up the narrow staircase to the dormitory section, I found a large attic-like space lined with double- and triple-decker bunk beds spread over two sections. Thankfully the rooms were empty, giving me hope that I could grab a few hours of sleep before our 6 pm dinner and another few before our 12 am departure for the summit. Nacho took a bed in a separate room marked “staff”, closed the door and went to sleep. I spread out my sleeping bag and tried to fall asleep. Just as I was entering that grey area between thinking and dreaming, a cacophony of clumping boots, clanking gear and voices in various languages dragged me back to the dormitory. The hut was now nearly full.  So much for the before dinner rest. The after dinner, pre-climb rest now also looked problematic.

(Page 4 of 6)
Last modified on Wednesday, 31 December 2014

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