This weekend was to be the trip of a lifetime to a certain extent: mountaineering with full gear on one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, Cotopaxi. Full gear in this case including harnesses, ropes, ice axes, and crampons (the spikes for the bottom of your boots)—just like the mountaineers use in the Everest Imax. I believed that two weeks living in Quito at 2,800 meters would be sufficient to adjust to the altitude and top the mountain. Well…
egan our trip from the outfitters in Gringolandia, an area of Quito notoriously populated by foreigners and the concomitant hostels, internet cafes, bars and clubs. The drive to the mountain took about 3 hours, much of which was heading south through Quito itself, which seems to stretch on forever. We wound our way through Cotopai National Park on rather dodgy roads to the base on the mountain itself (which is the only attraction, really, and the only place where one can walk around). The parking lot was situated at about 4,500 meters and was the starting locale for the most difficult part of the climb: up to the mountain refuge at 4,800 meters. Most difficult only because we were each carrying a pack of 20 kilos, give or take 5 (the main climb is only with a liter of water and candy bars). We made the refuge, rested, and then climbed 100 meters or so to the glacier in the afternoon to practice using crampons and ice axes. Then went to bed.
About this time (7 pm) I developed a headache, which grew progressively worse as I tried to rest before the climb. I finally fell asleep, only to dream about the intense pain and my head exploding. I awoke around 10 (two hours before we were to get up for the climb) in severe pain. I tossed and turned, pressing against my skull which my fingertips to try, unsuccessfully, to ease the pain. I lay on my back, eyes shut and my stocking cap pulled over my face; every time that someone walked by my bunk—which was frequently—the light from their headlamps caused me sharp pain, even through the layers. My altitude sickness then developed into an intense and severe desire to throw up, as if I had taken 10 shots of tequila too many (one being the minimum to induce nausea for me). I took two ibuprofen and drank some coca tea, then slept, thus ending my climb.
Then rest of my group of 8 from the same company went on, however. Although (depending on your point of view) just as unsuccessfully: none made it closer than 200 meters from the summit at 5,897 meters. In all, of the 25 climbers or so to attempt the summit today, 2 made it. Questions abound: lack of conditioning? Proper gear? Mental focus? A yes could be given for each one. Altitude sickness, however, was the major factor, as most people turned back from a combination of lack of oxygen and extreme nausea. The lesson: even on an "easy" mountain, there remains much out of one's control.