Humbled on the Summit of Cotopaxi
Even if you have not heard of the Cotopaxi Volcano, you have likely seen its iconic image in a photo. Standing at 19,347' it is one of the tallest active volcanoes in the world. This is my story about climbing it.
My intention was to acclimatize as quickly as possible so I could summit Cotopaxi, then rest a number of days before I climbed Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador. My friend Tom Smith told me I was crazy, and as I would find out later, he was right.
My trip started after a redeye flight into Quito, Ecuador. Greg Borman, a friend of a mutual friend, picked me up at the airport at about 10am on June 6th. My adventure had begun.
Day 1: Acclimatization on Rucu PichinchaAfter breakfast at 7am, we headed off to Rucu Pichincha. Quito is a huge city with no freeways, so crossing it in heavy traffic took a few hours. After a long drive up a windy road, we parked and took a gondola up to the trailhead. The trail is only six miles and gains 2,400′. It’s the altitude that really kicks you in the gut. Rucu Pichincha is 15,413′ in elevation, so just getting out of the car and doing a moderate hike gets an unacclimatized hiker out of breath fast.
The trail was pretty easy, but I found myself breathless the whole time. “Do you want to take the sand slope or the scrambling route,” Greg asked. “I didn’t come all the way across the world to hike a sand slope – I’m up for some scrambling,” I replied.
I had no idea what this involved, but I was on this trip to get out of my comfort zone.
“I didn’t come all the way across the world to hike a sand slope – I’m up for some scrambling,” I replied.
When we came to the first scrambling section, it didn’t look too bad; my problem was that there was no air. I made three moves up the rock and my lungs were heaving. As we got higher up the pillar we were climbing, I felt a little pinch of fear. I just couldn’t breathe. This would be easy at a lower elevation, but at high elevation, I was slower and less coordinated.
We soon came to a high ridge and then continued to climb similar sections of rock. I started to relax and enjoy it. It was beautiful up there. As we neared the summit, we came to a section called “Pasa De La Muerte,” aka “Step of Death.” I was a little stressed about this going into it, but it looks scarier on the video than it actually was. It will make your butt cheeks pucker if you have any fear of heights, but there were plenty of handholds. It was actually a lot of fun.
We continued to make our way up to the summit and entered the clouds. The weather on Rucu can be unpredictable. Fortunately for us, the weather at the summit was cloudy but otherwise benign. We had some snacks, and I fed a hawk that was up there waiting for his share of the snacks. We were back at the trailhead 90 minutes later. Check the box, my first day of acclimatization was done!
Day 2: More Acclimatization on Guagua PichinchaBreakfast at 7am and off to the summit of another peak. Once again, we made the long commute across Quito and headed up into the mountains. This time we were heading to another peak located along the same crater as Rucu Pichincha, called Guagua Pichincha (pronounced “Wawa”) at an elevation of 15,696′. It’s a very short hike to the summit and you start at high elevation.
We drove up winding mountain cobblestone roads across lush grazing land for an hour once we left the city. About five miles from the summit, we came to a mudslide that made it impossible for us to continue. Luckily, there was a Soviet-era 4WD transport that was taking mountain bikers to the trailhead so they could ride down. They were gracious enough to let us hitch a ride the rest of the way.
Once we arrived at the trailhead, we dismounted and started up the trail. Once again, Greg asked, “Do you want to take the trail or do you want to scramble?” “Scramble, of course!” I replied. Already at 15,000+ feet, we hiked up the steep approach to the rock and began climbing. There was no warmup and my lungs were heaving within minutes once again. As we crested the ridge, I noticed that I had lost all the sensation in my hands from hypoxia.
As we crested the ridge, I noticed that I had lost all the sensation in my hands from hypoxia.
I didn’t like the feeling, but I knew that it would pass and shrugged it off as best I could. We made the summit in about an hour and had some nice views in between the clouds as they passed over the summit. We grabbed some snacks and made our descent, hitching another ride back to our car at the trailhead. Greg left his wallet and his phone sitting on the top of his car and had been stressing about it the entire hike. We jumped out of the back of the pickup – and they were still there! Check the box, my second day of acclimatization was complete. Tomorrow was the big day.
Day 3: Summit Day on Cotopaxi!Summit day was here. Now it was time to do the thing I came for and I had the pre-game jitters. Greg had experienced persistent sharp pain in his knee on Rucu Pichincha that stayed with him on Guagua, and decided to opt out of Cotopaxi. It was too risky for him to be up there with an injury. Kerry and I would have to make our summit bid without him.
After breakfast, Greg and I drove across Quito to pick up Kerry Meehan, then headed out of town for the two-hour journey to Cotopaxi. Kerry is a PE teacher, triathlete, and mountaineer. I think of him as the younger Ecuadorian equivalent of Captain America. This would be his ninth summit of Cotopaxi and my first.
Cotopaxi Quick Facts
The mountain is glaciated, but the glaciers have receded a little following the last eruption. Being near the equator, the mountain generally does not get as cold as mountains in Alaska, Europe, or the Himalayas, making it a popular climbing destination. That said, weather in the region is highly unpredictable. High winds and storms are common all year round, especially in the afternoons.
Once we came to the entrance of the national park, we drove up a cruddy dirt road for an hour, up to about 15,000 feet. A lot of the cars just couldn’t make it, and Greg’s was no exception. The trailhead was just around the corner, so Kerry and I got out, put our packs on, and headed up to the Refuge.
It was hailing slightly and I was pretty wet before I had a chance to get my rain shell on. It was a shock to my system to go from the comfort of the car to walking up a steep trail above 15,000 feet in hail. My lungs were heaving within 90 seconds. Doubts came fast and unrelenting into my mind. Did I acclimatize enough? Do I have what it takes?
Doubts came fast and unrelenting into my mind. Did I acclimatize enough? Do I have what it takes?
Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the Refuge, a large, bright yellow building with accommodations for climbers. Tourists often come up for the day and the place was bustling with them. There were four large rooms upstairs with bunks that would each house 15-20 climbers. Fortunately for us, we got an entire room to ourselves.
We made ourselves comfortable, then went downstairs to the dining area to eat. It was 2pm and we had planned on leaving at midnight for the summit. We ate a huge meal of rice casserole then climbed into our sleeping bags to try to get as much sleep as we could. My clothes slowly dried and it felt great to be warm, full, and snuggled into my warm down bag. I guess real mountaineers wouldn’t use the word “snuggled,” but it’s the most descriptive 🙂
I slept great the first three hours then woke up with a slight headache. Kerry had a headache too. This was expected. For the rest of the night, my head got worse and it became harder and harder to sleep. I’d lie down for an hour, then walk around a bit to try to shake it off. At 8pm I had an idea. I thought to myself, “I’m a pretty hardcore coffee drinker, and I haven’t had any coffee today. Maybe I should have a bit of caffeine.” I did, and my headache stopped in minutes and I drifted to sleep.
The alarm actually woke me up at 11pm. When I sat up, I was surprised at how good I felt. Maybe I could do this after all? We took a few minutes to pack up our gear for the summit, put layers on, and harness up. After a bowl of oatmeal, we headed out into the night. It was 12:15am.
The first segment of our journey took us up loose scree on steep switchbacks for about two hours. It was cold and windy, but the stars were visible. This was a good sign. Our hope was that by sunrise, the clouds would clear and we’d stand on a clear summit watching the sunrise over Cotopaxi’s massive crater. It was hard starting out. “Lord Jesus, please give me the strength. I don’t know if I’ve got enough mojo for this challenge,” I prayed to myself as we climbed.
Why Do Climbers Tie Themselves Together?
The second reason climbers rope up is to protect against the danger of sliding off a steep slope. If a climber falls, he yells “falling!” telling his partners to drop and dig into the snow with their ice axes to arrest the fall. One might joke that roping up like this is a suicide pact. It may be, but it tends to work pretty well most of the time at keeping everyone alive in dangerous places.
We made it to the edge of the glacier about 2am and by then the weather had already started to deteriorate. We put on our crampons and roped up. I stood up to walk, and one of my crampons immediately fell off. “Sh**!”, I blurted. This is not good. I sat back down to work the problem.
I was wearing a new kind of crampon that “clipped” on to my boots and they needed some fine adjusting. There was one problem: I took my gloves off to put my crampons on, and in two minutes of being exposed to the elements, I had lost dexterity and feeling in my hands. It was bitter cold and the winds were gusting up to 50mph.
I took my gloves off to put my crampons on, and in two minutes of being exposed to the elements, I had lost dexterity and feeling in my hands.
Kerry helped me get them adjusted and we started moving again. Over the next 20 minutes, my crampons came off another three times. I was beginning to think that a simple equipment malfunction was going to cost me this trip. It was absolutely maddening. Eventually, we got the adjustment right and they stayed on, but at a cost. My hands ached from the bitter cold.
The wind continued to howl at 40 to 60mph and the ice spray in our faces was constant. It was so bad, it was laughable. At one point, I found myself on all fours with an ice ax in one hand, crawling on my hands and knees up a steep slope because the wind was so strong. I just couldn’t stand up and keep going. It was incredibly demoralizing. “What I am doing here?” I thought to myself.
Kerry, my climbing partner, was suffering with me but seemed unfazed by it all. He is a former a triathlete, and now a semi-pro soccer player in Ecuador, and a mountaineer. He’s been up Cotopaxi eight times now. As I mentioned before, I was basically climbing with Captain America, and his demeanor encouraged me to keep a strong pace.
I found that keeping a rhythm was key. I’d step up with my right foot, count 1 – 2 – 3, then bring my left foot next to it and step higher with my right – then repeat. The wind would often blow me backward and break the rhythm and I’d have to regain it. This worked well for the first four hours of our ascent, but as we got higher, the terrain got steeper, the air got thinner, and the weather got worse.
We’d take breaks periodically to eat and drink. All of my Cliff Bars were frozen solid, so I ended up eating a lot of coffee-infused Cliff Bar blocks, washing them down with ice cold water. I’d feel nausea for at least 20 minutes after eating. We were above 17,500′ and my body wasn’t happy about it.
Step up with my right foot, count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7, then bring my left foot next to it and step higher with my right – then repeat.
The last two hours before the summit was the hardest. I still tried to keep my rhythm, but it was now: Step up with my right foot, count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6 – 7, then bring my left foot next to it and step higher with my right – then repeat. The sun began to rise at 6am, shining a faint orange and red tint around some of the clouds we were in. I still had hopes that the weather would clear. Almost by surprise, I looked up and saw the summit just 500 feet away. I made it!
Walking on to the summit, the wind kicked up so hard I had to brace myself to stand. I could see some of the Cotopaxi crater through the thick clouds, but this was not the scene I had hoped to see. It was all clouds, wind and spindrift. Kerry took some pictures and we agreed to retreat 200 feet down the ramp so we could take cover from the wind behind a rock band. I sat down to rest. Comatose. I had expended all the energy I had fighting wind, ice, hypoxia, and steep slopes. I was done.
We’ve all heard stories about climbers on Everest making the summit and not having enough energy to get down. Sometimes climbers just sit down and die up there. I wasn’t in that place today, but the depth of my exhaustion made me realize how easy it would be to die this way on a big mountain. It’s a sobering thought that I won’t forget.
A Hard Descent
After 10 minutes near the summit, we knew we needed to get down. It was well below zero and the high winds were unrelenting. As we got started, I was surprised at how much energy I needed to make the descent – and I didn’t have it. I kept stopping. “Hey Kerry, can we stop? I just need five minutes,” I’d say. To his credit, he was really patient with me, his high-maintenance partner.
I had to take off my glasses coming up because the ice built up so thick I couldn’t see. Now that the sun had come up I wore my goggles for a while, but they also failed because of the accumulating ice. I took them off in frustration. I didn’t think I needed them because we were socked in with thick fog and freezing rain – the same stuff we had come up in.
Almost imperceptibly at first, I found myself losing my depth perception. I don’t see that well without my glasses, so I assumed this was the reason. It soon got so bad that I had to shorten the rope between us so I could watch Kerry’s feet to know where to step. I was going snow blind and I didn’t even realize it. By the time we made it off the glacier, I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me. I could only see the largest blurry objects. I got back to the Refuge and took a nap, hoping that having my eyes closed for a while would help. It didn’t.
By the time we made it off the glacier, I couldn’t see 10 feet in front of me. I could only see the largest blurry objects.
When I woke up, Kerry helped me pack and we headed down from the Refuge to meet Greg at the trailhead parking lot. I wore sunglasses this time. We got lunch, dropped Kerry off, and arrived home by late afternoon. I took another nap, but my vision was still unchanged when I got up. At that point, I decided to cut my trip short and get myself home. Emotionally, I was done and I knew it.
I was able to change my flight to fly home at 3pm the next day for a few hundred bucks. Done.
Reflections on Mountaineering and the Gift of HumilityMy flight home was long and uneventful. At least I got a window seat on the segment from Panama to LAX. It had only been four days since I had arrived in Ecuador, but I felt a deep fatigue. As we taxied toward the runway, I felt my entire body relax. My thoughts were things like, “I’ll see Bec tonight. I’ll take a hot shower and I’ll sleep well in my own bed. All is right with the world.”
I went on this trip to get outside of my comfort zone – to push my physical limits and break the hold of the subtle fear that limits me both in the wilderness and on the job. I think I did OK. I acclimatized for only three days and climbed to the 19K+ summit of Cotopaxi in 6.5 hours. Most people need a lot longer. The fear I thought I’d encounter never really surfaced. I guess I’ve expanded the sphere of conditions that I can operate in without fear. I sense a new level of resilience in me and it feels good.
But this is only part of the story.
I find that when I push my limits, I tend to feel unstoppable AFTER, but in the moment, I feel emptied and weak. It’s easy to try to forget the empty and weak part, but the most important lessons are found there. It’s good to feel unstoppable, but this is an illusion. When I sat on the summit, completely spent, I was confronted with truth: I am small. Not only am I small, but in this place, my life is tentative and insignificant. It humbles me to think about it.
I will soon return to a world where we are all shaking our fists at one another, full of pride, demanding respect and equality, and asserting our will over others. In contrast, the mountain wants to teach me humility and I chose to receive it for the gift that it is. Up there, the line between life and death is thin. I’m not saying I risked my life up there. It wasn’t really like that. I am saying the one becomes acutely aware of his own mortality in places like this. Big glaciated mountains like Cotopaxi are otherworldly places with massive crevasses, towering seracs, exposed slopes, and weather that’s so fierce it’s hard to comprehend. Everything in that place reminds me that my life is short and fragile – and this knowledge is medicine for my soul.
Everything in that place reminds me that my life is short and fragile – and this knowledge is medicine for my soul.
I am reminded of the words of the Psalmist…
Show me, Lord, my life’s end and the number of my days; let me know how fleeting my life is.
You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you.
Everyone is but a breath, even those who seem secure.
Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be. (Psalm 39: 4-6)
Anyone can revel in achievement, but it always leaves us hungry for more. We can never prove ourselves enough. Achievement becomes an addiction that fuels our pride. Unchecked, this pride turns us into the ugly people we see in politics and on the news feed every day. I don’t want this to be my fate.
In contrast, when we allow ourselves to be humbled, it causes us to transcend this crazy world we live in. It gives us peace. It leads us to open our hands to one another in service, rather than shaking our fists in demand of respect. Climbing Cotopaxi was an experience of a lifetime for me. When I reflect on it years from now, I hope it continues to humble me.