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Saturday, 27 December 2014

The Last Climb?

Written by Peter J Levine
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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.


Why Ecuador?


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.


The locally sponsored climbing program we selected was centered on four climbs, starting with Pasochoa (13,776 ft) a trek, not really a climb. Then, Pichincha (15,669 ft), a trek with some scrambling near the top. And finally, Cayambe (18,996 ft) and Cotopaxi (19,347 ft), both considered easy technical climbs, but requiring double plastic boots, crampons, climbing harness, carabineers, ice axe, helmet and being tethered to fellow climbers and guide.  Except for episodic knee issues, I was feeling pretty confident of my ability to handle all four climbs.

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The journey from the DC area to Quito was as pain free as international trips go these days. Copa Airlines flies non?stop from Washington to Panama City, a five-hour flight, and then after a brief layover, a two-hour connecting flight to Quito, arriving at 5:30 pm. Same time zone, and no overnight or multi-day flights for a change. Although the US and Ecuador have a somewhat chilly diplomatic relationship as a result of Wikileaks and the current Ecuadorian government’s Chavez?like direction, interestingly the country’s official currency is the US dollar. So, a seven dollar cab ride from the airport brought us to the Hotel Reina Isabel, located in the Mariscal district of the city.


The US State Department and others have issued warnings about crime in Quito, particularly in the Mariscal district, and even the potential for crime on some of the mountain treks. We came prepared:  photocopies of passports and credit cards, and an ankle wallet.


We did not have any problems, however, nor were we aware of other travelers having problems.  Indeed, the Mariscal district, which is filled with restaurants, nightclubs, and upscale shopping, had a very significant police presence. While we are fit for two guys in their mid-60’s, we certainly did not pose a fearsome image to potential assailants as we walked through the neighborhood at night.  Reasonable caution and common sense seemed to work as well in Quito as anywhere else I have traveled.


An Unexpected Visit to a Hospital


We planned to meet our climbing guide on the morning of day three.


When I arrived at breakfast that morning, Skip was sitting at our regular table visibly upset. He had taken a hot bath earlier that morning (which we both were doing to address various aching body parts) and his pulse was still racing. At first I was skeptical –- prolonged immersion in hot water will naturally increase your heart rate -? but I took his pulse, and in fact his “resting pulse” was north of 100 beats a second. I urged him to sit outside and cool down, but he was worried, and wanted to see a doctor. The front desk advised we could wait a few hours for an “American doctor”, or walk a few blocks to Hospital de Clínicas Pichicnha.  We opted for the hospital.


As we walked to the hospital I had images of some developing world hospitals I had visited during my years in biotech: not pretty. But when we reached the hospital it looked reasonably modern, and had a clearly marked entrance “Emergencia”. In we went.


Using my best street-learned Spanish, and pointing to Skip, I said to the receptionist “Mi amigo, corazon”.  Without missing a beat, the receptionist asked for Skip’s passport, and we were ushered into a modern emergency room that appeared as sophisticated as any in the DC metropolitan area. Two nurses immediately guided Skip to a bed and began hooking up the monitoring equipment, loosening clothes, taking off his boots, etc. Two doctors appeared and began asking questions. Once we established our limited Spanish language skills, the senior doctor switched to more than serviceable English.


As I watched the monitors come to life, I saw Skip’s pulse was still racing, at 110 beats per minute, confirming both his concern, and my two-fingers-to-the-wrist estimate. But what was shocking was his blood pressure: 197 over 137. The bottom line was that his long history of untreated high blood pressure, the effects of high altitude, a hot bath, and anxiety about the upcoming climbs had combined to produce his racing pulse and pounding blood pressure. The doctors immediately started him on blood pressure medication.


I was worried, but with Skip’s condition diagnosed and stable, I ducked out of the hospital and returned to the hotel to meet our guide, “Nacho”. I learned from Nacho that Skip and I were the only two climbers who had signed up for the full multi-day program. One more climber would be joining us for the two days on Cayambe, but otherwise our group program had become a semi-private tour.




Our first acclimatization hike, on Pasochoa, started out inauspiciously, with Nacho arriving an hour late without a clear explanation -­ a harbinger of things to come.  Skip was now taking his blood pressure medication and had a semi-green light from the doctors, to proceed with the climbs.


The mountain, an extinct volcano located an hour and half from Quito, at 13,776 ft was a perfect next step to convince our lungs and hearts to get with the program. The hike itself was uneventful except for our guide’s curious habit of sprinting hundreds of yards ahead of us, rather than moving at our pace. For significant periods we could not see or hear him, but the path was well trodden, so we didn’t say anything when we eventually found him on a ledge near the summit having already finished his lunch. A curious and inauspicious beginning for our guide-client relationship.


Day two of our acclimatization began with another harbinger: Skip announced that his pulse was high again and that he wouldn’t be doing the climb of Guagua Pichincha (15,700 ft). I began to think that I had led my oldest friend to a place where he shouldn’t be.  But, he was safe in the hotel a few blocks from the hospital, so I grabbed my gear and joined Nacho.


The immediate area surrounding Guagua Pichincha is very fertile, and in December, when we were there, green and lush. But the mountain itself is an active volcano, having most recently erupted in 2004. So, much of the hike and climb was on volcanic scree.  And the final 1,000 vertical feet was pretty steep, with sliding volcanic ash under foot and occasional outcroppings of hardened magma providing welcome handgrips.


But my private tour became a solo climb as Nacho again sprinted to the top for an early lunch.   Nonetheless, I got to the top without difficulty, though my trekking poles inexplicably slipped off of my day pack and descended into Guagua Pichincha’s crater without me (thankfully). On the descent, my knees began to remind me that there is a limited “window” of pain?free movement between cortisone shots and other injectables used to keep aging body parts functioning. Upon returning to the hotel, I slapped on a “Flector” patch to each knee.


Glacier Training


On the way to our third mountain, Cayambe, we visited the market town of Otavalo, a standard part of most visits to Quito for trekkers, climbers and tourists of all stripes. I had visited the market on a trip to Ecuador many years ago, and much of the indigenous crafts are now available in Quito. But a visit to Otavalo is a chance to see a smaller colonial town and perhaps pick up a bargain or two.


We spent the night in a hacienda near Otavalo.  The morning brought another adjustment to the trip: after a bad night’s sleep, and missing the second acclimatization climb, Skip decided he did not want to attempt the ascent of Cayambe or even take the glacier training, and instead would head home. I tried to dissuade him from leaving, but this was selfish on my part as his high blood pressure was real, and the coming days would bring us at ever higher altitudes, challenging for even younger climbers. The buddy trip was over.


Cayambe, like many of Ecuador’s mountains, has a climbing “hut” or refuge – a dormitory- like structure with triple level bunk beds, kitchen facilities, and more-or-less functioning toilets. A very bumpy ride in a four-wheel drive vehicle brings you to Cayambe’s hut at 15,090 ft. Here, the effects of global warming are clearly apparent: when the hut was built in 1981, it was astride the Glacier Hermoso. Now, climbers must scramble for an hour (or more at my age) up a rocky ridgeline wearing double plastic boots, before donning crampons, and shifting from using hands and/or trekking poles to using an ice axe. 

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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.



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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.

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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.


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.

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We were about 1,000 vertical feet and perhaps a half a mile horizontally from the hut; a relatively easy 30 minute descent. Or not.  Within a few minutes of shedding our crampons – and no longer tethered – Nacho returned to his own pace. Now, rather than following in his footsteps, I was left to chart my own downhill course while looking up occasionally to get a bearing from the distant glow of his headlamp.


At some point in this descent, I became aware that Nacho seemed to be zigzagging down the 40 degree-slope and that we should have already arrived at the hut. Via a series of long-distance shouts, Nacho confirmed what was now just dawning on me: he couldn’t find the hut. I was exhausted, and the wind was picking up, so I looked for the largest upwind outcropping of rock, and sat down. I shouted to Nacho that when he found the hut he should let me know. I was more annoyed than concerned, as I was well equipped, and now in relative shelter from the sub-zero wind chill. The sun would rise in a few hours and then even I could find the hut.


Shortly after I sat down, Nacho’s disembodied voice called out that he had found the hut somewhere below where I was now crouched, drinking my nearly frozen water (it had begun the evening as boiled water poured into my water bottles). So, with some hesitation, I crawled to my feet and stumbled in the general direction of the voice. No hut.


This sequence -- squat, “found the hut”, move, squat -- continued through several iterations spanning an hour or so. As a glow began to appear in the eastern sky, Nacho’s voice called out to me from a ridgeline above and to my left, claiming once again that he had found the hut.


Now, I had to climb up to reach the hut. We had descended to a point well below the hut and a quarter mile to its east. I reluctantly dragged myself up to where Nacho was now actually waiting for me. He offered to take my pack, as he had indeed found the hut and dropped his equipment there. I agreed, but a few minutes later with the sun just peaking through, I realized that I was still facing a 15-20 minute uphill trek, I shouted to him to leave my water bottle. He unceremoniously dumped my backpack on the ground and sprinted toward the now visible hut. After a big gulp of my slush-like, nearly frozen water, I hoisted the backpack and continued upward towards what I hoped was not a mirage, now convinced it was time to return to Quito to head home, leaving Cotopaxi’s summit for another time, with another guide.


Seven hours after picking my backpack off the ground, I was back in Quito calling my wife, announcing without my previous hubris, that “I reached the bottom”.  Maybe next time, if my aging body parts cooperate, and with the right guide, I’ll be able to announce: “I reached the bottom” - after reaching the top. Or, perhaps, I’ll just go shopping with my wife in New York.

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Copyright © 2014 Peter J Levine All rights Reserved




Last modified on Wednesday, 31 December 2014