...and my first experience of real altitude sickness
02.02.2013 - 03.02.2013 -10 °C
Forward left foot, forward right foot, lift and smack in ice axe, blink to regain orientation, forward left foot, forward right foot, resist the urge to vomit, move and re-insert ice axe, squeeze fingers and toes, left foot, right foot, I feel pretty hellish, keep going, blink, forward left, forward right and so on.......I certainly struggled on my first climb of this type. I have been living over 3000m for quite some time and didn`t think altitude sickness would get at me. It did and I never made the summit. I made it down though, thankfully. I learned some lessons on the way, that`s for sure.
Me and Tyler booked our climb from "World Bikes" on Pinto and Amazonas in Quito. The staff were very friendly and helped us get fitted for all the gear we would need, including ice picks and crampons. We returned to our hostel for a good sleep, due to leave for Cotopaxi National Park at 8:30 the following morning in a 4x4. We slept in the middle of the Mariscal party zone, untz, untz, untz, probably not such a great idea ahead of the climb. A gaggle of little french kids insisted on running up and down the stairs beside my bed at intervals as I was trying to go asleep. Helpfully, there was a little hole in the wall just above my head; I could see their noisy little feet beating away my sleep. It was a slow nod-off.
We loaded all our gear into the 4x4 the following morning and set out with our guide Gustavo and another climber, Stefan from Switzerland.
View of Quito on the way to Cotopaxi
In typical South American style our guide cheerfully told us the trip to Cotopaxi National Park would take about and hour and half. Our 4x4`s top speed was actually 30mph, unless we were wheeling down a hill, at which it topped out closer to 40mph. I felt like we were travelling in a wheeled turtle. We picked up another guide, Jaime (to climb a guide per two clients is needed). We arrived to Cotopaxi Park after about 4 hours. Even allowing for a sandwich stop and picking up another guide, that was a new estimation/deception error order of magitude. The deception is delivered cheerfully, so I don`t mind much.
We traversed Cotopaxi National Park and drove to the carpark at the foot of the mountain, some 4500 metres up. We unloaded all the gear and trekked up to the refuge at 4800m.
On route to refuge
It was slow going, you can feel the thiness of the air up there. After a cup of flavoured water (real caffeine tea probably wouldn`t be a good idea at this altitude) we trekked up another 200m to the glacier start point for some practice with our ice picks, tethering ropes, and crampons. We practised for an underwhelming fifteen minutes before it was time to go back down to the refuge as it was getting dark and dinner was to be served at 6pm. The guide informed me that the glacier is getting higher and higher up the mountain each year so it is a longer trek to the training glacier. Yes global warming is a fact and so is your slow car, Gus. I was glad to return to the refuge however, to conserve energy for the main climb. We would be climbing over 1000m vertical. Not. going. to. be. easy. Ate a spaguetti bolognese and slept for about three hours.
Refuge sleeping area
We were meant to get up at 11pm, but we didn`t, not one of the forty or so climbers seemed to get getting up. I woke up with a splitting headache and sort of wanted to just stay in bed, cosy and curled up. Moving felt like equalling vomiting. The wind was howling outside, buffeting the refuge. Maybe tonight the weather would be too bad and the guides would call it off, I half hoped to myself. They didn`t and woke us a short while later. Ouch, I felt really rough. I was dizzy, nauseous, and had that throbbing headache. This is not a good start. I checked with the others - some touches of headaches but otherwise not too bad. I sat at the table wanting to eat. I ate a few spoonfuls of cereal but couldn`t eat any more, my head was swimming. The irony of not being able to eat nice breakfast cereal when I am craving it so much these days. Not to fault Rhiannon porridge. I think I have eaten every concievable mixture, form, and flavouring of porridge there is at this stage. I still feel indifferent to the stuff. Getting on my gear was a challenge, a bit like an unpleasant reverse drunk undressing.
We went outside into the cold night a little after twelve. One of the first things I saw as we set out was a big chap throwing up on the pavement outside the refuge. A great comfort he was. We set out at a slow clip, carefully measuring out pace with the guides, breathing relaxed and steadily. As we climbed up ftom the refuge short lines of bobbing lights could be seen above and below where we were as the climbers began to take to the slopes. I was quite ill, dizzy and felt like vomiting. I elected to go a bit slower with Gustavo. Tyler and Stefan went ahead with the other guide, Jaime. After about two and a half hours, me and Gustavo made it to the ice line, about 300m up from the refuge. We (I) were making slower progress than most.
It took quite a while for Gustavo to put on my crampons. They didnt really fit my boots, but he did a great job in the cold, snowing conditions. I helped a bit but couldn`t reach the bottom of my feet very well with all the gear I had on about my waist. We put some extra string/rope around the crampons for South American style, "extra security". In fairness I must say I felt safe with Gustavo, he kept talking to me and guiding me as I climbed; he was solid. The next two hours were a bit blurry, we climbed up pretty hefty ice faces and walked across some crevasses.
I had just finished reading Joe Simpson`s "Touching the Void", crevasses take on a whole new meaning after that book. We tethered ourselves on either side of a crevasse when we had to cross one, then took the proverbial `leap of faith`step across, praying that the ice would remain for you, just another climber. The scale of the mountain up close at this altitude was impressive, a total ice jungle. Impersonal and no doubt deadly in the wrong circumstances.
We met Tyler and Stefan coming back down with their guide, Jaime. Stefan was suffering and wanted off. Tyler had at this stage descended 200m with Stefan and Jaime (guide must descend if a climber wants, climbers without training or qualifications have to descend with the guide) and was not feeling like ascending those 200 vertical metres again with me and Gustavo. That may not sound very far, but it seems like a lot when you are up there, climbing all night. They had reached about 5500m. Gustavo and I pressed on. I felt quite a bit stronger at this stage, even well. We passed about ten other climbers descending, having turned back for home. We kept on moving up, crossing crevasses, climbing up a roped ice wall, and hugging a one foot wide path round a blind corner to name a few bits. I kept mentioning to Gustavo I would like to make the summit, he kept replying "yes, yes, a little bit further then we can see how we are". The guides like to summit before the sun is out beating too strong as the ice on the way down would become more dangerous, particularly those crevasses.
After another hour or so I was told we wouldn`t be making the summit. From early on Gustavo knew we were never going to make the summit, but to his total credit he kept climbing with me, pushing me to where I could go that night. He could easily have told me much earlier that we weren`t going to make and turn around for home, sure the money was the same for him. He brought me as far as I could have gone that night. A mental shift happened very soon after I was told we wouldn`t be going to the summit. The motivation that kept me going through the sickness vanished. I just wanted off. My hands and feet were freezing, snot was frozen solid on my face, and my nausea was returning. I looked up at all the ice above us. An imprisoned character in the Count of Monti Cristo digs for years through rock and finally gets somewhere; he ends up at another prison cell. This moment felt a bit like that. We walked up a little further and I told him "I`ve had enough buddy". We made it to a bit over 5500m. It was a very humbling moment.
The walk down took over an hour and a half, probably two. Although I am not sure. Seeing the sun rise, standing there above the clouds surrounded by all that ice and geometry was amazing.
Taking photos was pretty far from my mind as I was concentrating on the climb and my hands did not want to come out of their gloves one bit. At the end of the ice on the descent we could see the refuge quite clearly. It looked so close. It was deceptively far. A long scramble down the scree slope was left. I was consciously aware I looked like a drunk man walking down the slope.
Legs flopping everywhere. We made it back after eight sometime, where I had a spaced out chat with Tyler and collapsed into bed for a while. We were ready to leave. As Tyler so succinctly put it "Let`s get in the car and drive the f%$k away from this climate". De acuerdo.
I learned some lessons, pretty basic stuff I am sure:
Don`t dream of climbing something like this without a guide if you don`t have the experience.
Bring big thick woolly socks. Not that shitty thin ones I had.
Fingerless gloves are not enough, even when covered with thick mittens.
Don`t choose the lightest boots, mine were no use. Heavy warmer ones are better.
Acclimatise as much as possible, I really suffered with the altitude.
Be careful not to over extend yourself and make sure your guide is looking out for what is best for you, even when you don`t know it yourself. Get a good guide.