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  • Day623

    Cotopaxi Conquered!!!

    January 29, 2018 in Ecuador ⋅ ⛅ 17 °C

    After we geared up in Latacunga and headed straight to Cotopaxi National Park, with Ben in tow. We somehow got Elvis to 4,500 m up a really, really bad dirt road to just below the parking lot. To give you an idea of how steep it was, when stopped looking for a parking spot Elvis started to slowly slide backwards!! I hastily parked, pointing the wheels onto the hill to make sure he was still there when we returned. We all hiked up the steep scree slope to the refugio (mountain hut) and then a few hundred metres on to acclimatise some more (climb high, sleep low).

    A lazy morning followed before our guide picked me & Ben up at lunchtime, Jo nervously waved us off and we drove back to the refugio. Going up the same slope with full climbing gear and a heavy bag was a different proposition, and we then chilled at the refugio, had a nice dinner, and tried to get a few hours sleep. Lying in bed at 7pm with your heart racing at twice its normal rate just from the altitude, let alone the excitement of what was to come, wasn't the most conducive to sleep and I'd just about dropped off when we were woken at 11pm to get ready.

    The summit needs to be attempted at night as during the day the sun makes the ice bridges more dangerous and increases the risk of avalanches. Its a 6-8 hour climb, not to mention getting down again. After a poor breakfast of a piece of dry bread we set off just after midnight. As we were two days before the full moon (officially a super blue blood moon - google it!) it was a very clear night, which meant we didn't really need our headlamps but it was pretty damn cold (I guesstimate about - 10C). We reached the snow line almost immediately and soon hit the glacier where we stopped to put on our crampons and rope up.

    The first couple of hours weren't to bad - damn steep and the air was thin, but we were both feeling strong. Then we hit Rampa Rompecorazones (aka Heartbreak Ramp) - it was 200m vertical climb at over 45 degrees. It may not sound that bad but when the air is that thin and it's that steep you have to stop every 20 or so steps to suck some air into your lungs. Still, at this point we were only under half way and we both still felt fairly good.

    The next bit was a bit more level (i.e. about 30 incline!) up to Yanasacha Spur, alongside a huge blue glacial cliff you could easily see the from the bottom of the mountain. To get around it you traverse up Yanasacha Ramp, and it was back to the 50° slope. At this point we were getting on for 4 hours in and I was really starting to feel it. My drink had frozen and it was so hard to breathe that it was difficult to even try and force a few M&Ms down for energy.

    Once past the ramp and at the top of the cliff you feel like you are close, and you know that there is no way you are not going to make it, but the last 100m climb was so so tough. It think it must have taken us an hour as you can only got a few steps without your lungs crying for mercy. Fatigue was definitely setting in and it was the coldest part of the night, with a vicious wind whipping through your layers.

    Fortunately neither of us were suffering from altitude sickness, but to make you realise the stress you are putting your body under Ben mentioned his eyes were going blury, which was a little worrying and when we got down we realised some blood vessels in his eyes had burst.

    Eventually the summit was in sight and we dragged our bodies to the top. I must admit that rather than euphoria I felt absolutely shattered and soon collapsed in a heap to recouperate. Somehow we had managed to summit in 5 and a half hours, and were only beaten up there by a local guy and his guide. Just then, the first rays of daylight started to shine through and we could see the curvature of the earth and the other majestic peaks pearcing the clouds sitting on the valley far below. With the light we could see the smoldering crater of this active volcano a hundred metres or so below us.

    We hung around for about 45 minutes as the sun rose, and we could really soak it all in. I'd taken my outer mittens off and despite still having two pairs of gloves on my hands were almost completely numb so it was definitely time to start heading down.

    We took a couple of steps and it suddenly dawned on me how hard the descent was going to be. I was absolutely shattered, and I'd taken my body so far into the red getting to the top that I got a little nervous about how long it would take to get down. I decided there was nothing else to do but plod steadily on, and fortunately my body warmed up again plus the thin air doesn't hurt so much on the way down. We still had to take a few longish breaks to get enough energy back to resume, but at least the sun was up now so the bitter cold was abating a bit. The downside to this was you could clearly see the path ahead, and it was pretty scary how steep and treacherous it was.

    The closer the refugio roof became the more you could just push on through and it amazed me that we were down in an hour 45 (as opposed to the usual 2-3). Once we arrived it took the last of our strength to get our boots and outer layers off before we were both comatosed back in our bunks.

    An hour's rest and a cup of hot chocolate did wonders and we felt like human beings again. We still had a vertical 200m down the scree with heavy bags but this was a doddle compared to everything else.

    The scary thing is the hike from the refugio to the top is only 4km, but it's over a 1000m climb, plus the extra 350m from the parking lot. I've done way longer hikes with more gain but the altitude along with everything else makes this the hardest thing I've ever done by a country mile.

    To put this in perspective we were higher than everest base camp, and closer to the sun than anywhere else on earth (except the slightly higher Chimborazo).

    I'm super stoked I made it, but I can definitely say it has not set alight a fire to do anything like this again. Will someone please remind me of that when I inevitably suggest something stupid next time!
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