Friday, October 28, 2011

Because it my way

Look a mountain--let's climb it...Cotopaxi as seen from our hostel in Latacunga
When asked why he climbed Everest, George Mallory famously replied, "Because it is there." Well I call poppycock on that. I have just climbed the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi (at 19,347 feet or 5,897 meters), and can now say that I will be very excited to climb another mountain like it...if I can't go around it. It was a phenomenal experience, but not one I feel the need to replicate. It's kinda like my wedding, which was an awesome, huge, fun party that I never, ever want to have again.

This is not to say that I think mountaineering is a waste of time. Mountains are incredible challenges to those drawn to such challenge. I, however--and I know many who know me will be shocked, shocked, at this--am not. We all need our mountains, whether literal or figurative, and a great way to find out which is for you is to climb one, literally or figuratively. And so that I can stop repeating the phrase "literally or figuratively," I thought I should at least take literal off the list of potentials. And now I know that my mountains will be things like starting successful businesses or charity work or getting my kids to eat their lunch.

So here's how this incredible, once-in-a-lifetime (I hope) experience went down:

Cotopaxi Ritz
Anna, Teddy, and I got geared up on Monday morning at the guide's shop (High Andes Guides, whom we highly recommend) and departed at 11 towards Cotopaxi. The parking lot, at 14,764 (4,500m), is higher than any mountain in Colorado. From there it's a 45-minute hike up to the refuge at 15,748 feet (4,800 meters) where we would relax for the afternoon, eat dinner and (try to) go to sleep at 7pm.

This relaxing at the refuge was actually a highlight of the trip, as the relative altitude of Cotopaxi to its surrounds is already remarkable; volcanoes tend to stand out and away from other mountains. It already feels like the top of the world, and there are wild foxes hovering around waiting for scraps from the refuge and seagulls...seagulls!... soaring overhead (man, those flying rats can get around). know I'm missing Monday Night Football for this.

End of the earth

There's very little oxygen up there
Doesn't look so bad...

So close you could almost touch it

The sleeping was short-lived restive--as we spent five hours trying to ignore our small headaches and inability to breathe--before waking at midnight for a last-chance force feeding of energy, through we weren't very hungry. We departed at 1a.m. with a slow and steady pace like a penitent dragging a cross. The refuge is about at the lower snow line, but it's possible to thread the gaps in the snowfields for a ways--we guessed about 1,500 feet--before strapping on crampons and ice ax for the rest of the snowy ascent.

The slogging pace makes you think this will be a cakewalk, but it ends up being a bit like Chinese water torture, where each drop or step becomes a pounding effort. But maybe had we not added these occasional little ascents up walls of ice we wouldn't have sapped our strength. Nah, probably Teddy and I would have struggled at the top as we did either way. The pitch averages 45 degrees and is sometimes as high as 70 (not counting climbing walls of ice). Even if the snow were good for it, it would be a pretty serious ski down on many of these pitches (which, we heard, some have done).

Oh yes we did cross this flimsy board over a gaping chasm

Though we were the last of the teams going that day, we still managed five and a half hours to summit, less than our target time. Anna was alone with her guide (Teddy and I were roped together with another guide) and beat us by 30 minutes (I did mention, didn't I, that she's an Olympic gold medal rower?). But it felt to us like an entire day, and both Teddy and I had thoughts (or maybe just fantasies) of turning around, even when we were close to the summit. It was really, really difficult. Really.

Anna wins "closest to the sun"

A little sulfur stinky, but no action

Descent is only a two-hour affair, but nothing else on this adventure wore out any particular part of our bodies like it; our knees nearly ceased to function by the time we were down. And after that whole ordeal we had packed back up, descended back to the parking lot, done the 90-minute drive back to Latacunga, and were ready for lunch at 11:30 in the morning--a mere 24 hours round trip.

I remain heartily impressed with real mountaineers for whom this is a warm-up for real mountains. (Chimborazo is nearby and has the distinction of the closest point on the earth to the sun.) But there are really only two kinds of stories like this: you summited a mountain despite particular challenges, or you didn't because of particular challenges. And now that I think of it, that's just one story with two different endings. So why are mountaineers drawn to the same story again and again? I think it's because the narrative is a personal one, but no different from a captain of industry or an olympic athlete or a chess champion, all of whom have chosen their figurative mountains to climb (last time I'll say figurative, I swear).

Some people think mountaineering for its own sake is a waste of time, but I think the only waste of time is a life spent without finding your own Everest...because it is there.

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