The wind shifted. I’ve always known the wind is important. After all, Mary Poppins arrived with the east wind, and there’s an old saying that if you make a face when the wind changes your face will get stuck that way. But I’d never really experienced just how important a shift in the wind could be until we were right at the lip of the Cotopaxi crater, just below the summit.
After climbing Illiniza Norte, we spent the night at the Hacienda Chilcabamba. I went to bed at 6:30 and slept for about 12 hours – unable to face anything for dinner. I felt about a hundred times better the next day, and we had an easy morning at the hacienda, followed by a large lunch. J and I had a little thatched cottage all to ourselves, with two bedrooms and a sitting area, heated by a wood stove.
We left in early afternoon to drive to the parking lot for the Cotopaxi hut. This time I sat in the front seat to avoid the gastrointestinal dangers associated with the curving cobbled stone roads. From the parking lot we strapped on our backpacks, which contained only what we needed at the hut and for our summit attempt. We were already wearing our base layers, to minimize having to change. The walk up to the hut is about 45 minutes on a steep dirt road – we reached the top, only for Ossy to realize he’d left his phone in the car and had to go down to get it!
The Cotopaxi hut was redone only a few months ago, and although nicely varnished and with new mattresses, it’s really cold and the roof makes an incredible array of noises in the whistling wind. While the Illiniza Norte roof clanged and sounded as though it might blow off, this roof variably screamed, whistled, hooted and howled. Despite all that, after we’d had bowls of quinoa soup, followed by figs, cheese and sweet biscuits, we still managed to sleep a few hours.
We were supposed to awaken at 11:30 pm but slept through the alarm and ended up getting up at midnight. Just as on Illiniza Norte, we were the only people in the hut. And we soon found out there were only two other climbers on the entire mountain, besides us.
We stuffed some food into ourselves and started climbing about 1 am. The first part is a 45 minute walk up a relatively steep scree field. Once at the top, you’re on the glacier, which meant it was time to rope up and put on crampons.
The old “normal” route has been closed for 2 or 3 years after a climber was killed on it – too many crevasses. Instead you now use the Rompe Corazones – the heartbreaker. There’s an extremely long 2 plus hour stretch that simply goes up without any sort of break. And it’s a killer. I was trying hard to stay hydrated, so each hour when we stopped, the routine was water, a handful of trail mix, and more water. As we gained altitude, the trail mix became GU, and Ossy was literally tearing the top of the packages and holding them as I sucked the sticky sweet electrolytes out.
We climbed up one sheer icy patch where we had to use the front points of our crampons – as if we were scaling a vertical wall. Much of the trek up was simple side by side steps, but even there I kept finding my crampons pointing too far uphill, and I quickly realized how much I had to learn in the way of technique.
At one point you traverse a sea of Penitentes – formed by the wind, they are peculiar to the Andes in the summer months. Sometimes they are upright, but these were bent by the wind. They look like a field of praying hands, fingers outstretched in supplication. You can walk between or on them, and if on, each step sounds as though you are stepping on a brittle twig – or finger.
The very last bit of Cotopaxi is steep, steep, steep. As we had to do in a couple of prior areas, we used the picks of our ice axes overhand to dig in and help pull ourselves up (normally you’re using your ice axe in your uphill hand like a very sharp ski pole or walking stick).
But just before we reached that point, we saw the only other two climbers on the mountain turn around, apparently overwhelmed by the sulphur fumes spewing out of the crater. You may recall I mentioned that starting in May or so Cotopaxi had reactivated. It is “degassing” (lovely word) and literally tons of fumes are forming into thick heavy clouds over the crater – which is just below the summit.
Despite the retreat of the other climbers, we kept on going. Although the mountain administered a pretty strong dose of sulphur to us – Ossy and J in their throats and me in my eyes – just at that point….the wind shifted. I heard Ossy say that we might have a window and I kept slogging up the close to vertical slope.
Suddenly I was on a flat area – but surely I couldn’t be there. I was positive there must be another 15 or more minutes of sheer physical and mental pushing left and this was just a fake….but no, I was actually at the summit. There wasn’t anywhere else up to go. I’d seen people on YouTube videos throw themselves down on the ground when they finally arrived, and without even thinking, that’s just what I did too.
We couldn’t stay on the summit for long – just in case the wind shifted again and the crater drenched us with another load of sulphur.
Our descent was noneventful, which is about the best that can be said about descents. We kept up a pretty good pace, with J on the front of the rope, me in the middle, and Ossy bringing up the rear in order to arrest whoever might fall.
It turned out we made it up in 6 hours and 50 minutes, well within the range of normal, and down in 3 hours – also what Ossy wanted us to do.
Once back at the hut the reality of what we had just accomplished finally sank in. All those stairs; all those hot and sweaty runs. The culmination of all of it was that confluence of ice and snow and blue sky. A perfect summit.