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Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Last Climb? - Page 5

Written by Peter J Levine
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Food at the hut was surprisingly good, though my appetite decreases proportionately to the increase in altitude. So, after pushing my food around the plate, I retreated to my sleeping bag in hope of catching at least a few hours of sleep before the midnight wake up. Despite the constant rustlings of the other climbers, eventually I fell into a restless semi-sleep. At 12:30 a.m., a little later than planned, Nacho emerged from his private room and announced that it was time to “gear up”, eat a quick breakfast and start climbing.

 

Genuine safety issues dictate that certain summit attempts start in the dark: principal among them is sun’s effect on snow, ice and glaciers.  Whether on Everest at 29,029 ft. or Cotopaxi at 19,347 ft., there can be very wide temperature variations between day and night, and even if the air temperature doesn’t rise above freezing, the sun’s radiant heat has enormous impact. These variations change the very nature of the snow and ice; they can accelerate the movement of glaciers, dislodge seracs, soften snow bridges across crevasses, loosen rocks and boulders previously frozen in place, etc. At night, the freezing temperatures and lack of sun help glue together the ice and snow covered mountain top. In 1996, when the glacier was closer to the hut, a midday avalanche killed thirteen.

 

So, on Cotopaxi, all climbs from the hut begin between midnight and 1 a.m., depending on the strength and speed of the climber. It is important to reach the summit within six to seven hours, and be off the glaciated part of the mountain by mid-morning.

 

Stars above, circle of light below

 

I have seen many magnificent star-filled skies -- from the upper slopes of Kilimanjaro, to cold nights high in the Rockies, to the observatory on Mauna Kea. But I was nonetheless amazed at the three-dimensional appearance of the sky above Cotopaxi as I left the hut.  It was a moonless night and we were very close to the equator, so perhaps those factors combined with the altitude, peeled back yet another layer of the gauze that normally obscures so much of the heavens from view. It was breathtaking, and that was even before I started to move upward.

 

After a minute of stargazing, I adjusted my headlamp, and followed Nacho up the scree-covered slope.  My world was now narrowing to the three-foot diameter of light cast by my headlamp on the slope in front of me, with Nacho, once again sprinting far ahead, visible only by the glow of his headlamp.

 

I was moving slowly.  My still ill-fitting double plastic climbing boots exacerbating the slipping and sliding on the loose scree slope leading to the glacier. As we ascended, there was a small trickle of climbers who had departed earlier in the evening now returning to the hut because of exhaustion or altitude sickness.  This was the last time I would see any other climbers other than as distant orbs of light.

 

After about 90 minutes we reached the glacier and stopped to put on our crampons and add our down jackets to our already heavily-clothed torsos. The wind had picked up, and the temperature had dropped.  Nacho noted that it would be coldest just after sunrise, and of course we would be several thousand feet higher as well. He also observed “we are running late”. We roped up, traded our trekking poles for the ice axes attached to our packs, and started up the glacier.

 

Now that we were roped together, I was the pacesetter. While it was somewhat easier to climb on the ice than on the scree, after about forty-five minutes I was moving even more slowly than I had been when we first left the hut. Boots? Age? Altitude? Attitude? The growing pain in my knee? I was beginning to wonder: Would we make it to the summit by sunrise? Would I have the energy and stable knees to safely descend? And, not surprisingly, did I really trust my guide? We paused for a brief water break, and Nacho addressed the first point. “We are moving too slowly.”

 

I thought long and hard, or so it seemed at the time, and, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, told Nacho that I thought it best to turn around and try again tomorrow. So we did, carefully retracing our steps to the edge of the glacier, each step and ice axe plant making a sharp sound in the still brittle ice, until we stopped at the edge of the glacier once again, detached ourselves from the rope and removed our crampons. It was around 3:30 a.m.

(Page 5 of 6)
Last modified on Wednesday, 31 December 2014

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