Pain and Train – Getting Ready for Orizaba

Rainbow on Cayambe descent
Rainbow on Cayambe descent

Now that Labor Day has passed, it is time to return to the backbone of any successful summit bid – and that is the long hard slog of training.  I haven’t stopped since Ecuador and our adventures on Cotopaxi, Illiniza Norte and Cayambe, but I have definitely taken it a bit easier.

For example, I treated myself to the luxury of stairs without a 25 pound backpack. I haven’t attempted a seven mile run. And I have not been at all diligent about any weight lifting. It’s been nice.

But, as the Walrus said In Jabberwocky, the time has come. So on Saturday, after much futzing around (you do need to make sure your sunglasses are adjusted just so, headphones properly positioned, etc.), I embarked on a five mile run. I’ve been running four milers, but if we want to have a hope of scaling Mexico’s 18,491 foot Pico de Orizaba in January, I need to be back up there at the seven mile plus level. The run actually felt good. And on Monday, I’m going to reload the pack with the weights from my weight vest and lug it back off to work where my 16 story office building awaits.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading excerpts from a book called Fast After Fifty. It’s aimed at athletes who are trying to maintain or improve after age fifty and emphasizes interval and anaerobic training. But – true confession – I didn’t really do anything particularly athletic until I was almost fifty! So I have some reservations as to how applicable those principles are to me….although that may just be a copout as I have no desire to run as hard as I can for thirty minutes to find my lactic threshold.

At least I can find some inspiration in the movie, Meru, which we saw last night. It’s a documentary based on alpinists Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk’s two attempts to climb Mt. Meru in the Himalayas – 21,000 feet above the headwaters of the Ganges River. It’s the sort of mountain that makes Everest seem like climbing for dummies. Over the course of the three years between the first failed attempt and the second successful one, one of them was in a near fatal snowboard accident, which resulted in a severely fractured skull, and another narrowly survived an avalanche. But they ultimately made it up what is called the Shark Fin – razer like slabs of granite so unstable Chin said he could feel them move under his fingers.

On the first attempt they got within 500 feet of the summit – but ran out of food due to an unexpected four days waiting out a storm in a small tent half way the mountain.

The physical and mental strength it takes to know when to turn around and when to keep going is huge. I may not be headed to the super high mountains of the Himalayas, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my Florida version of training can at least get me ready again for something higher than Mt. Dora. For those of you non-Floridians, that’s what we in Central Florida call a summit – it’s a whopping 184 feet above sea level.

Cayambe Calling

Checking out this route from outside the hut at Cayambe
Checking out the route from outside the hut at Cayambe

Four mountains, including one at 19,347 feet and another at 18,996 feet, in eight days, is a lot. I knew I was in trouble when I started to cough the night before we attempted Cayambe.  And how did we end up at Cayambe in the first place, you ask? You’ll recall the original plan was to follow our Cotopaxi climb  (second highest peak in Ecuador) with Chimborazo, the highest peak and the point on earth closest to the sun.

Well, the worldwide rise in temperatures is affecting Chimborazo as much as the next glacier. Have you seen photos of Kilimanjaro recently? Very different than 2011 when we were there. Warm glaciers create greater risk of avalanches and rock fall (not to mention the difficulties of slushy snow). Chimborazo is also a long drive from Quito and it’s one heckuva big mountain. So, prudence being the better part of valor we decided, with guidance from Ossy, not to let the wax on our wings melt by attempting to fly too close to the sun and instead to try Cayambe, Ecuador’s third highest peak at just under 19,000 feet, as the final mountain of our Ecuador trip.

After our peak (literally) experience on Cotopaxi — even two weeks later I keep re-living it in my head  — Cayambe was a logical choice. It’s just a little lower than Cotopaxi, perhaps steeper in spots (but for shorter sections), and has some rock to climb at the beginning. We had summited Cotopaxi at 9:05 am on July 3. After a rest day in Quito on July 4, we left the next morning to drive to the hut at Cayambe. Unlike the other huts at which we stayed, at Cayambe you can “drive” – if that’s the right word – right to the door of the hut.

Road to Cayambe hut - and this was the good part!
Road to Cayambe hut – and this was the good part!

The road to Cayambe beats about any road I have ever travelled on for ruts, rocks, and steep precipices.  It doesn’t resemble anything on which any self-respecting automobile should drive. We’d all learned our lesson by then about my issues with winding roads and cars, so I sat in the front. Ossy spent a lot of the time sticking his head out the side window to see exactly which snow, mud or ice covered rut would best create traction for the four wheel drive.

Eventually we made our way to the hut and checked in. For the first time during our trip we were sharing the hut with another team, a large group of nine or so climbers with four guides.  All males and considerably physically larger than I. As we settled in at a table in the main room we traded stories  about what we’d been climbing – and I must say it was 100% satisfying to say “yes” when they asked if we’d summited Cotopaxi, which they hadn’t yet attempted, and to be met with some very bemused looks. For a five foot, one and one-half inch woman (that half inch is very important), I felt a certain instant credibility. As Ossy said though, the pressure on all those guys to summit Cotopaxi had just increased immeasurably!

But Cayambe was the summit that was not to be. I still had not  completely recovered from whatever stomach issues had so gravely affected me the night after we climbed Illiniza Norte and had also developed a nagging cough. Plus I think I was still generally burned out from Cotopaxi. I had put my heart and soul into that climb, and I couldn’t help but regard Cayambe as a latecomer to the party.

We followed a similar routine – packed for the next day, went out and looked at the route we’d be taking, ate soup and something  sweet, and were in our bunkbeds by 6:30. I slept a couple of hours and we were up at 11:30 – this time with other climbers also packing up and getting ready to go. It did change the serenity of the moment. But, as the only woman, I got to have the entire women’s bathroom all to myself!

The night was spectacular; the moon had waned only a bit and there was scarcely any wind. But the downside of all that was that it was quite warm – in fact, we all wore a layer less than we’d originally planned. And the snow was soft, meaning  that once we were on the glacier we were sinking in and exerting a lot more energy than desired. Once we had scaled the rock area – which I had spent way too much time worrying about because it wasn’t that hard – we had to traverse through a scree and rock field and finally reached the glacier, where we could put our crampons on.

But as we roped up and took off I just couldn’t attain the same sort of steady rhythm that I’d been able to manage on Cotopaxi. Although at one point we were among the highest teams I made the mistake of looking up and seeing how incredibly steep and seemingly never ending the slopes above me were, and let myself get distracted by what the other climbers on the mountain were doing. All of which added up to a point where I was feeling dizzy and our pace simply was not what it needed to be if we were to summit early enough to avoid the risk of avalanche as the mountain heated up during the day.

Dawn breaking over Cayambe - photo by Oswaldo Freire
Dawn breaking over Cayambe – photo by Oswaldo Freire

Just then, one of the other teams that had passed us turned around after reaching a ridge line about 400 meters from the summit. We decided to go to the same point and then head back down. It turned out two other teams did make the summit but it took them 8 or so hours – an hour and a half longer than usual, due to the hard climbing conditions.

Our descent went well, even though the scree field we were hoping to slide down instead of rock climb was covered with snow. That meant we had to turn around and walk back up an area we had just hiked down – possibly the most dispiriting moment of the whole climb. But I did well on the rock climbing on the way down, no ropes needed.

Descent down Cayambe - photo by Oswaldo Freire
Descent down Cayambe – photo by Oswaldo Freire

And on the way down we were treated to a rainbow. Clearly a promise of future summits. Cayambe is still calling to me. I think we’ll be back.