Touching down in Quito, none of us really knew what to expect. We had never attempted a trip of this scale, and as we began our acclimatisation process in the second highest capital city in the world our comfort zones were continually tested.
We were here with one purpose; to summit Mount Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world. That attempt was some two weeks away, and the meantime was spent exploring the city and trekking over some smaller peaks to allow our bodies to get used to the altitude. The peaks of Pasochoa and Pichincha were first (4,200m and 4,784m respectively) and the relatively easy hikes were completed with enthusiasm and blissful naivety.
Nights were deprived of sleep and intermingled with vivid dreams. A side affect of the altitude, I regularly couldn’t distinguish reality from the work of my subconscious and fitful sleeps were just par for the course in the build up to our main peaks. I had lost my appetite too, and although nausea and headaches evaded me, I became increasingly dependent on residual stamina and light snacks to get me through the strenuous build up to Cotopaxi.
The acclimatisation had begun to take affect by the time we were at the foot of Cayambe. We began our climb at 11pm to utilise the best of the snow conditions, but as we set off the weather was far from ideal. As the first morsel of light pierced the line of clear sky hiding underneath the bank of morning cloud, my mind was oblivious to the scene. All I sensed was cold, lonely noise that left every other sense behind. The wind was strong, ice crystals impacted my cheeks and I pulled up my Buff to cover the last of my exposed skin. We were turning back. The mountain had won.
Huddled beneath a rocky outcrop a few hundred vertical metres short of the summit, our goal was not in fact to reach the top of the volcano. This was high altitude training for our main peak in a few days time, yet I still felt defeated.
Cayambe lies exactly on the line of the equator; the only place at this latitude with a permanent snow cap. As we descended the conditions improved, the beauty of the scene becoming apparent in the softer light of dawn. Wind-blown ice crystals flickered as they caught the sun and the intricate patterns of undisturbed snow showed the force and exposure of nature up here. Quito lay still asleep beneath us, a featureless conical silhouette on the horizon reminds us of our final goal. We paused, mentally noting the vastness of our view across to Cotopaxi. It seems distant at that moment, intangible, but in less than a week we dreamed of standing atop that silhouette; on top of the world.
My body reminded me to breathe, lungs burning both from exertion and the altitude. I could still not escape the deflation of the descent; a disappointment unlike any other I had felt previously. My mind refocused, we skirted the glacier and dropped to the mountain refuge below. The atmosphere was boisterous; a mixture of delirious achievement and exhaustion. I forced a smile, removed my snow and sweat soaked layers and found a spot alone to reflect. Looking to the horizon in the colder blue light of day, I mentally reset ready for the task ahead.
Our final climb was a similar in structure to Cayambe. We set off at 11pm from the comfort of the mountain refuge and the first hours of walking were fairly simple now the team had fully acclimatised to the thin air. It wasn’t until well into the climb that fatigue began to set in. As I unclipped myself from the rope, the eery silence descended once more. It was pitch black all around and deathly still. The vastness of the space around us felt claustrophobic, like a black sheet cloaking any vision. Disorientated and tired I knelt to my pack, fumbling for my water bottle. Shaking it to break the ice cap on top, a few swigs later and it was that time again.
Struggling to open my bag once more, the altitude was really getting to me now. This was the final struggle, the final test. Ahead lay the ice wall, a technical challenge at ground level let alone at 18,500ft. It was now 5.30am and the sun sat tantalisingly close to the horizon; a luring, deep indigo the only sign it existed.
“This is good,” I breathed; we should summit at dawn.
Just 50m of vertical height below the summit my legs rebelled from the dictatorship of my brain. Crawling up the final ridge to the crater, we could finally see it. The second closest point to the sun on the earth and the highest active volcano on the planet, the summit of Cotopaxi was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Bathed in a cool morning glow, the few clouds reflected the breaking light perfectly, and the other peaks protruded from an otherwise flat, expansive landscape.
The Andes are beautiful; a jagged scar running through the entire west of South America. At nearly 6,000m, Cotopaxi is not the highest nor the most challenging of mountains, but right now, it was ours. Over 12 months of preparation had us on top of this mountain. The weather was perfect with only a slight breeze and a temperature of about minus ten degrees. The air was so clear we could make out every detail on the horizon. That feeling is practically indescribable, a mixture of relief and ecstasy. I felt on top of the world, above all else, looking down on the vast expanse of Ecuador’s beautiful countryside. It is emotional climbing a big mountain, especially your first. I was tired, thirsty and nauseous, but had never felt better. Every time I look back on this experience I smile. Every memory is as clear as the air was that morning.
We descended in the surprising warmth of the morning, stripping to just a t-shirt by the time we caught sight of the mountain hut. Our journey was over, our goal completed. I urge every one of you who has an adventurous streak to task yourself with climbing a big peak. It doesn’t have to be on the other side of the world, it can even be just down the road, but the physical and mental reward when you stand on top of that mountain is unique. Pick up a map, find your mountain, and get out there for the climb.