It’s certainly not the glamorous part of scaling summits or long distance trekking, but without it, neither of the former would happen. And so with the close of a holiday season that unfortunately held as much in the way of work as it did gift giving and merriment, it is time to jump back on the training horse and start to ride. OK, that may not be an apt analogy but you get the picture.
I’ve been scraping by with a 5K here or there and a few sets of weightless stair climbs in my building over the last few weeks. Yoga fell by the wayside entirely. So wrong. You’d think after as many years as I’ve been doing this I’d know better. But it’s hard to get your head into the necessary place even to start to exercise when the world is swirling around you with demands on every aspect of life – from family to social to work.
In fact, for inspiration today I even found myself changing my Facebook profile picture to one of me sitting on our front porch after a five mile run with a look of what I thought showed grim determination. But after one of my friends commented that it looked like I was saying “get off my lawn!” I decided I better swap it out.
So, with Nepal and Everest Base Camp beckoning – and some deadlines now met – it’s time to take that proverbial deep breath and just start. (Note I resisted the “Just do it” slogan.) Due to some changes in yoga class times I’m going to have to revamp last year’s schedule. I figure if I can write up a five page work to do list, surely I can assemble a seven day training schedule.
I’ll take any inspiration I can get. Right now those Tibetan prayer flags are helping. Just under four months.
What goes up must come down. And after our guide R put the kabosh on my secret plan to snail my way ever so slowly up the glacier to the top, timing be damned, the down is what faced us. We started off at a good clip. Ever since my way too long climb down Mt. Elbrus in 2014, I’ve focused on descents, with some modicum of success. R put me at the front of the rope on the way down the canalone – it’s certainly the safest place to be, but it’s also the spot where you get to pick out the route and match all the mixed up steps in front of you to create some semblance of a path down. I could tell I hadn’t acclimatized well because as I descended I felt more and more energetic – and we moved much better as a team than we had at any point on the way up.
We finally made our way back to the scree field, and R went on ahead of us. J and I managed to pick our on way down, albeit with some wrong turns that increased the difficulty of the route. At one point we found ourselves on an 18 inch ledge with a sheer drop on one side. I’m sure that is not exactly the trail we were supposed to be taking. But at least the 18 inch ledge didn’t coincide with the increasingly high wind gusts. Two separate times I was literally knocked off my feet. There was a steady 30 plus mile an hour wind with gusts blowing harder. I didn’t slip – I was simply slapped down.
Finally we made it back to the strange stone aqueduct that led to the hut. Apparently at one point there had been a grandiose plan to work with water and drainage on Orizaba, leading to the construction of a now defunct aqueduct feature that forms the first part of the trail up the mountain.
And, how, you may wonder, were the other teams doing? Well, as mentioned, the Italian hadn’t even made it to the glacier before altitude overcame him. When we left the edge of the glacier, we could see three teams of two each inching their way up its stark white. They were no more than little black doodles on a white sheet of paper. It was hard to tell who was who, and it wasn’t until we were back at the hut and the two Russian teams showed back up without reaching the summit that we realized the top most team battling the high high winds was our own teammate G and our guide D!
I wanted to wait to greet them when they returned, hopefully after a successful summit, but after we’d packed up and they still weren’t down, it was clear it was going to be a lot longer. We’d already been climbing for about 8 or 9 hours, and the green of the forest below was starting to seem inviting.
And this is where the people part of the trip became bizarre enough to rival the uniqueness of our natural surroundings. We’d heard rumors that the Russian team included a high ranking politician and others – but how high ranking we didn’t realize until R arranged for us to hitch a ride down the mountain to the village in their two jeeps while he waited for G and D. There was one free spot in each van. J went with the politician and his fiancée; she hadn’t climbed but still looked pretty wind blown. When we say high ranking, we are talking cabinet level. I know; I figured out names and Googled everyone. Google images helped confirm I’d locate the right bios. Who expects to spend a night sleeping in the freezing cold on wooden platforms in a hut in remotest Mexico with government officials from Russia.
My jeep mates were equally illustrious in Russian political and academic ranks. Perhaps even more so for a would be mountaineer, as one of them had been a professional climber who had summited Everest in 1992 (where he and Scott Fisher of Mountain Madness fame had argued about placement of fixed ropes) and climbed K2 in 1996. He was also a snow leopard – meaning he had summited all of the highest peaks in Russia, no mean feat. (I found that last bit out through Google.) Anyway, we had a fascinating conversation on the way down, and it certainly added an international flair to the trip.
Back at the hostel, we read and had a very late lunch. Eventually G and D showed up, with the glow of the summit still surrounding them and only a few bruises and battle scars to show. They had battled unbelievably high winds, and even though they couldn’t even stand upright on the summit, had the glory of being the only two climbers to make it to the the top that day. I just kept hoping a little of that karma would wear off on me.
We had one more night in the hostel. A whirlwind of Mexico City comes next.
Pico de Orizaba. From the steep scree slope that starts the climb to the glacier to our multi-national companions in the Piedra Grande refuge – this trip had enough twists and turns for any best selling novel.
After our day of rest at the Hacienda Santa Barbara, we packed up and drove a couple of hours through farmland and small villages into the heart of rural Mexico. We were aiming for the Orizaba Mountain Guides hostel, located in, I believe, Tlachichuca. It’s a very small village. One gigantic house, protected by an elaborate gate and wall, dominates the streetscape. We understood it to be a vacation house owned by people from Mexico City. Corn was drying on the rooves of many of the village houses, which a couple of days later was being fed into a machine that stripped off the kernels. A lot of houses had large gates leading into courtyards not visible from the road. Again, I was struck by the interior nature of life here – little looks out on the street. Everything is directed toward the private family life behind the walls.
G, our team mate, husband J and I had a room with two sets of bunk beds, perfectly adequate, but cold. My light weight down jacket was practically glued to my body by then. We all went out and took a look at the mountain when it appeared between clouds – and it looked steep! No two ways around it.
Lunch was late – and filling. Pasta with a cheese sauce, followed by chicken breasts stuffed with ham and cheese. I decided we were just carbo loading. The afternoon was for rest and a few hours later it was time to eat again – this time steak. My mountain reading this trip was the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan novels quartet, and My Brilliant Friend was a good companion in the freezing room.
Next morning we changed vehicles from the van to a beat up 4 wheel drive jeep that is de rigueur for the drive up to the mountain hut. Through an old growth forest to the tree line, continuing on a rutted road to the hut at about 14,000 feet. We were well aware that the wind forecast was very high.
The hut contained three levels of simple wood platforms and two counters for cooking and meal preparation for whatever teams had shown up. The outhouses were rivalled those at Mt. Elbrus in the Cacausus Mountains in Russia. These had even fewer walls, but an equally commanding view. We commandeered a lower level platform as soon as we arrived, and immediately afterwards were sent up on an acclimatization hike to high camp. We’d had a lot of conversation beforehand about whether to spend the night at high camp – which would have meant starting off with heavy packs and trying to sleep in tents – or whether to have a day with more altitude gain – but sleep in the hut and be better rested for summit day. In light of the wind forecast, we opted for the acclimatization hike to high camp and sleeping in the hut.
Our guide, R, decided to take everyone’s pulse ox (measures oxygen saturation) in the hut. Except for one time on Kilimanjaro at 16,000 feet, I’ve never had that done before. It’s not really clear what the measurements mean, and it can freak you out a bit. As it did me. G, our ironman companion, was well in the 90s; J was about 89; and I registered a whopping 84. Nope; not acclimatized.
But after our acclimatization hike scrambling up the scree field to high camp for a couple of hours, I could tell I was breathing better and better the more elevation I gained. Sure enough, by the the time we descended and were eating dinner and ready for our paltry hours of sleep before summit attempt, I was back up to 90. I think even our guides were surprised. But the fact is, I think the extra days of altitude I’d had in in Ecuador really helped me Eachieve that Cotopaxi summit.
Here are the players in the hut: our team: G, whom you’ve already met through this blog – Ironman triathlete and corporate executive, J, me, and our guides D and R. Next was an Italian climber, athletic, into snow boarding, with a Mexican guide. He read a paperback novel much of the afternoon before our summit attempt. A German woman with her American friend who walked from the hostel to the hut, arriving in late afternoon. We’d helped out by taking their wheeled suitcases from the hostel in our jeep and they were going for the summit the day after us. Possibly the first wheeled suitcases the hut had ever seen. I kept envisioning them pulling the suitcases up that rutted road. Then there was the group of Russians and their guides. More on them later. For you mountaineers out there – suffice it to say – Snow Leopard.
We had whatever hours of sleep could be snatched between the howls of the wind and arose at 2 am. You sleep pretty much in what you’re going to climb in so base layers were already on. For some reason, R thought we should hold off on putting on our climbing harnesses until we needed them higher up – never again will I do that. I’ve always put my harness on before starting a climb and that’s a lot easier than fighting with it in the side of a mountain.
It was unbelievably windy as we started, and the night stars glowed like sparklers. We headed up the same steep scree slope we’d just climbed that afternoon. But it felt even steeper and more exposed at night, and I also quickly realized that my resistance to putting new batteries in my headlamp (they were fine in Malinche? they are lithium?) was just dumb. It was definitely dimmer than everyone else’s and that makes a difference on a mountain, at night.
It was clear from the start that we were at a different pace than G, and not long after we began he and D, one of our two guides, took off up the mountain.
Finally, trudging away, we passed high camp, where we’d been just a few hours before, and kept going along a slightly less steep area to the canalone (spelling unknown), fighting wind every inch of the way. We knew in advance we weren’t going to attempt the Labyrinth, a steep outcropping of rock. It was too icy, and the canalone, a smooth flow of snow, was accessible. Only at that point did I start to feel that smooth movement where you are just putting one foot in front of the other and your breathing falls into rhythm.
By then we’d roped up and were in crampons – and I had been way too over confident in my ability to don crampons without practice, relying only on my success in July with them. Some things you just need to do over and over. At some point the Italian climber and his guide headed down. Apparently he’d had altitude issues and didn’t make it to the top of the canalone. The smooth slope up of the canalone quickly changed and we were back to rock and ice and deep steep snow up toward the glacier.
By then the winds were increasing even beyond what they had been, and it was pretty clear a summit attempt was not a realistic possibility. We were just too slow. I wasn’t properly acclimatized, and while small steps were manageable and I could get a rhythm, each time big step up required a real effort that then wiped me out for the next few steps. The wind was blowing; the sun glinting.
But you know, I probably would have kept plowing away forever, at whatever snail’s pace I was going. And I think R, our guide, realized that, because when we finally reached the glacier at about 16,000 feet he simply announced that was all for the day. I think he thought otherwise I would just keep putting one foot in front of the other, however many hours it was going to take. The glacier was beautiful. A steep field of snow, the summit peering down. Way up on that steep white meadow we could see the others on the mountain who’d passed us. There was G and D, from our team, and two groups of the Russians. All in all, we had reached the glacier, the Italian team had returned, and there were six climbers left on the mountain.
Next up – how we battled winds on the way down, hitching a ride to the village, and who got to the top of the mountain.
According to one of our guides, the mountain of Malinche, officially 14,636 feet but higher when measured by GPS, is home to one of the world’s highest forests. It’s a mix of tree and rocky trail, shielded forest glades and exposed ridges. Almost a metaphor for our entire trip to Mexico. The name given he mountains by the Tlaxcaltecs was Matlalcueyetl, which means “lady of the green skirts,” a goddess of rain and wind.
After our visit to the Teotihuacan pyramids, we drove several hours further, southeast toward Malinche, located in the state of Tlaxcala. On the way, stopped for lunch at restaurant where lamb tacos and rabbit were high on the list of menu choices. Venturing further and further into rural Mexico was a time machine experience. We soon left behind the truck stops – rows and rows of non chain cafes (except for the ubiquitous Oxxo – the Mexican version of 7-11) – and were driving through fields of nopales – the cactus that is the base for incredible salads.
There wasn’t a tractor to be seen. Men were plowing the land with horses and donkeys. Each small village had several shrines on the side of the road occupied by ornately dressed saints. And there were similar smaller shrines adorning the gates of many houses.
Eventually we reached the IMSS cabins in the park surrounding Malinche, at an altitude of about 10,000 feet. As I understand it, they are operated by the ministry of health or some other equally unlikely branch of government. They are two room cabins with a bathroom, nice tile but some unusual features. A refrigerator, but no stove? The bathroom leading off of the bedroom, railroad car style? One electrical outlet? No heat of course, and we were all wearing our lightweight down jackets (which had become like a second skin by the end of the trip).
We had quesadillas made with Oaxaca cheese for dinner, and went to bed early in preparation for a before dawn start up Malinche.
We started walking about 6, accompanied by three dogs who were our travel companions all the way to the summit. They clearly did this everyday, and seemed to be in excellent shape, so their presence didn’t cause my animal loving heart any angst. The first part of the Malinche hike is through beautiful forest that we could just make out by the glow of our headlamps. As the sun rose, the trail got progressively steeper. There had been frost, and drops of water sparkled on the grasses and bluebells still blooming here and there.
Eventually we reached the tree line, crossed a brief grassy section and moved onto steep rock and scree. Close to the top, you traverse a ridge, narrow in some points, and finally up a steep rocky section to the summit.
The wind died down just a bit so we, together with our dog companions and a couple of other climbers, could enjoy the partial views we got when the sun briefly appeared. It was surprisingly comfortable in the grey cloud at the summit – as if we were in a nest of cotton, safe at the top of our mountaintop tree. The dogs scratched the snow away and made beds for themselves on the warmer dirt. They were getting ready for the long trek down.
It took us about 5 hours to reach the summit – appoximately 4500 feet of elevation gain. We came down fast, running at times, in just under three hours.
Once down, we drove a short distance to the Hacienda Santa Barbara. Built in the 1600s, the hacienda is huge, yet only a few rooms are available for guests. J and I were in a large room, high ceilings and a small bathroom inserted into one corner. Heated by only a very small stove, we definitely needed all the blankets from the two beds. The floor was stone, and the window – which locked by way of a giant beam that slid across it – looked out in more ruins of outbuildings. Meals were in a dining room occupied by one large long table. And in the morning we had atole, as well as coffee, a hot drink made from corn and tasting like chocolate. Dinner was chiles rellenos, hot enough to warm us up even in that frigid dining room.
It was now Tuesday night. We knew Pico de Orizaba awaited.
Over the last few months I’ve been publishing posts that refer to Pico de Orizaba, our next climbing destination, as though it’s a location at the forefront of everyone’s personal geography. That certainly can’t be the case – this particular mountain wasn’t close to the forefront of my mind until we started to try to find a big mountain that could be climbed in winter and in under seven days. When you live in Florida, the choices are limited.
So after looking at our options, we settled on the Orizaba Express trip, again through Mountain Madness, the company that has successfully and safely led us up Mt. Elbrus in Russia and Cotopaxi, Illiniza Norte and Cayambe in Ecuador.
Pico de Orizaba is a strato volcano 120 miles outside of Mexico City, on the border of Veracruz and Puebla, by the town of Orizaba. According to Wikipedia, fount of all knowledge, it has gone by a number of names. Non-Nahuatl speakers in the area call it Istaktepetl or “White Mountain.” During the Pre-Columbian Era it was referred to as Poyautécatl, which means “the ground that reaches the clouds.”
My favorite of its names is Citlaltépetlas, which is what it was called in the Náhuatl language when the Spanish arrived in this part of the world, and means “Star Mountain.”
During the colonial era, the mountain was known by the rather boring appellation, Cerro de San Andrés, due to the nearby settlement of San Andrés Chalchicomula at its base.
It is the third highest mountain in North America (behind Denali and Mt. Logan), one of the volcanic Seven Summits, and the second most prominent volcano in the world, after Kilimanjaro. Pico de Orizaba measures 18,491 feet high, a statistic I find particularly notable because one of our teammates on Mt. Elbrus was part of the group that measured the mountain using GPS some years ago.
After arriving on AeroMexico, according to our trip itinerary, we will start acclimatizing in Mexico City, around 7,341 feet. From there we journey to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, and the next day climb Malinche, 14,640 feet. After that we travel to Tlachichuca, and – somewhat ominously – “transfer to four wheel drive” for the trip to the hut at Piedra Grande (13,972′). Our final acclimatization hike is to the toe of the Jamapa glacier at about 16,000′ and back down to the hut. Summit day involves elevation gain of about 4,500′ – which is a lot, and may be one of the biggest elevation gains we will have done in one day. To reach the summit, you traverse a rocky section named after one of my favorite words, the Labyrinth. The section right below the caldera looks really quite steep – definitely an area for ice axes. If it’s anything like Cotopaxi, I anticipate collapsing at the top – assuming the gods bless us with good weather and the mountain lets us summit.
We’ll have a night in Tlachichuca and one final night in Mexico City – and then it will be back to Orlando on an airline I had never even heard of until yesterday, Volaris. I realized one of the reasons it’s so cheap is that you have to pay to select seats – but they let you have a free checked bag!
I’ve been looking for free images of the Labyrinth, but couldn’t locate any. Perhaps a testament to the comparative obscurity of this mountain. But I love that it’s a mountain of many names. As I said above, and as many a mountain guide has told me – you don’t climb a mountain; it lets you climb it. And I hope that Pico de Orizaba will look favorably on us in just a few weeks.
I’ve been practicing yoga on Wednesday nights now for at least ten years. Each time I enter the yoga studio at 7:30 I’m struck by the feeling that now I know I’ll make it through the rest of the week. That old “it’s all downhill from here” saying. (Of course, climbing down a mountain can be the hardest part, but somehow that’s not true for surviving Thursdays and Fridays.)
That hour and 15 minute carve out on Wednesdays marks having reached the summit of the week. And it’s interesting how time has a way of recreating those mountain patterns for us, peaks and valleys and traverses – even when we’re not aware of it.
Yesterday I went to go buy a new pair of running shoes. When the very nice person at the store looked me up on the computer he did a double take – it was exactly one year ago to the day since I’d bought my last pair of running shoes. I had no idea. It must have been some internal clock thing. (Or just really worn out shoes.) I can prove it was a year ago too – just look at https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/11/02/training-and-the-power-of-the-shoe/ , published on this blog on November 2, 2014! A lot of miles on those shoes, and a lot of highs and lows.
I also managed to find a Bikram yoga class to go to yesterday – the first in several months since the studio closed. And you know where it was? In the very same location where I took my very first Bikram class some 10 or so years ago. That was before the new fancy studio, back in the somewhat dingy location down by the expressway, in a terribly humid room – but oh how good the class felt. It almost felt like a full circle….
And finally, another ritual that marks the pattern of time – dear friends whom we met in Lamaze classes (we regarded ourselves as the only normal people in the class!) have been spending Halloween with us for at least the last 22 or 23 years. The four children between us have now moved on, but the Halloween tradition remains, marking the point each year that starts us up the steep incline toward the holidays.
It’s reassuring to sense those patterns. One thing about mountains is that they are predictable in one way. There’s always an up and there’s always a down. As I train for Pico de Orizaba the first week in January 2016, I keep thinking about that.
Lots of times on the way up a mountain it’s pitch dark. And even if you’re lucky and the path is lit by thousands of silver stars and perhaps the glow of a brilliant white moon, it’s pretty difficult to look around you to take it all in as you trudge up, all senses aimed at planting your feet so as not to take a tumble down hundreds of meters of snow, ignominiously ending up on a pile of rock.
Even in daytime it’s not always easy to take the extra moments to look about. By then you’re worried that the snow is softening, avalanche and rock fall risk getting greater, and you still have to clamber back down.
The last few weeks have presented just enough strange little coincidences that remind me, though, that sometimes it is worth taking those extra moments and noticing those connections you might otherwise miss. One thing about running as part of training – it gives you a lot of time just to observe – and basically to try and focus on anything other than how sore you feel.
I wrote about the first such coincidence a couple of weeks ago. That is, ordering a glass of Malbec at two restaurants over 1000 miles apart, two nights in a row – and being informed at each that was the last Malbec – not of the bottle but at the entire establishment!
This past week, I learned via Facebook on the same day that two unrelated people I know, one through work and one an old college friend, were both making their standup comedy debuts in a very far apart states on exactly the same night. I had not hitherto thought of stand up comedy as something hordes of people were lining up to do.
And just recently, while engaging in some unexpected dialogue about the poet W.S. Merwin, again on Facebook, of all places, a friend mentioned her love of his book, Vixen. Back in 1996 or so, I cut that poem out of The New Yorker when it was first published, and it’s been on my work bulletin board ever since. (Somehow I just add to the bulletin board. I never take anything off. It has an archeological feel by now.)
Now, any two things can look strangely connected if you examine them hard enough. And it certainly makes life more interesting to do so. But the reality is that there are an awful lot of fun things to look at out there that can liven up any part of a journey.
There was the incredible wild orchid I saw in Ecuador in our hike to see the hummingbirds. And on Friday when I walked home from work I was delighted to find an Italian restaurant that featured Hawaiian pizza and gyros. And as close as my own backyard are some tiny basil plants springing up volunteer. We’ll see how long they last in our Florida “winter.”
We have just over two months before we attempt Pico de Orizaba. There will be a lot to look at before then.
Mysteries surround Puzzle Mountain, which was the site of last weekend’s Maine adventure.
After a successful rampage through the L.L. Bean clearance facility, we started the journey northeast to the weekend home of N’s parents. It’s a lovely old farmhouse near the Appalachian Trail. And on the way – the mysteries begin.
9. How does Google maps pick its prescribed route from point A to point B? Somehow we found ourselves taking a one lane road dotted with potholes through multiple small towns. Extremely scenic, but I’m sure there was a more direct route.
8. What’s a bean supper? Every small town in Maine seems to have one on Saturday night.
7. What are confederate flags doing in Maine? That was a really weird one to me. Here in the south, we spend a lot of time working to take them down, but they seem to be going strong up north.
6. How many ways can you cook apples? Daughter A is an expert pie maker (a skill she did not inherit from her beloved mother) and brought a delicious apple pie up to Maine, which she somehow carried on an Uber ride to a train station, on a train to Portland, and on our trip in N’s Previa up to Northwest Maine. She returned to Boston with another two bags of apples, picked fresh off the tree. Unclear what can be done with a hundred or more apples.
5. What mountain ranges can you see from Puzzle Mountain? We set off fairly early on Sunday for our trek up the mountain. It was a short drive to the trailhead, and the leaves were at their peak color. The trail climbs fairly steeply in sections, but is interspersed with enough flat sections to keep it interesting. The first part was all birch forest, pale yellow leaves set off against the peeling white bark of the somewhat spindly trunks. Finally, we came to an opening in the woods and could see across the patchwork valley to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and other unnamed ridges.
4. Where were all the people? It was Columbus Day weekend (or more correctly, Indigenous People’s weekend), and I would have expected at least some other hikers, if not the raging crowds we’d faced on Mt. Washington last year. But except for one other group who only made it to the first peak of the mountain, we saw absolutely no one.
3. Where did the blue blazes go? Most of the trail is nicely maintained. But after we reached the second and highest peak (a whopping 3100 feet), we took a loop trail down that was considerably overgrown. At one point, coming out onto a rock outcropping, it simply petered out into a tree. Although there were some remnants of blue paint on the rock, and a very misleading cairn, it turned out the real trail was in a completely different direction. And it turns out that daughter A’s belief that always going left was the right answer did not work.
2. Which way is down? Now, this seems like a question with an obvious answer. But not so. The descending trail seemed to have as many uphill parts as down, and at one point I was convinced we were corkscrewing ourselves around the mountain.
1. Where is Puzzle Mountain? Some mysteries are best left unsolved. And I promised our hosts that I’d help keep it hidden!
Some of you may remember that one reason we ended up in Ecuador instead of the Grand Teton was our conclusion that we preferred mountaineering to rock climbing. (See “Cotopaxi, Ecuador – 180 Degree Turns.”) So it was somewhat inexplicable that I nonetheless found myself on July 1 hanging on for dear life to an ice encrusted basalt wall with my left hand, ski pole in my right and nothing but an almost vertical drop of rocks below. Oh, and this was at about 16,000 feet. And did I mention no ropes?
Illiniza Norte is one of the two Illiniza peaks (the other, obviously, is Sud), and is a common acclimatization hike in preparation for Cotopaxi. It reaches about 16,500 feet, and is the taller of the two forked peaks in the right in the photo. Its sister peak, on the left, is much more technical and is covered in snow.
It was about a three hour hike to the mountain hut where we were to stay for our ascent of Illiniza Norte so we left in early morning. After fighting through Quito traffic, we followed modern highways for a while until we abruptly turned off to cobble stone roads, still in the same condition as in the 1940s when Ossy thought they were originally built. Jaw breaking and winding is an understatement. More on that later. We passed through several small villages, stopping at one to drop off things we wouldn’t need on the hike. Once we parked the car near the trailhead, we met up with the two men who took our supplies up to the hut on horses. Each day the horses plod up to the hut with full loads and bring trash back. Despite the routine, they seem quite content with their rather proletariat role in life.
The mountain hut is primitive – but there are flushing toilets, even if you do have to go outside to get to them. There’s a series of about four bunk beds, going up to a triple level, a small eating area and a tiny kitchen. No electricity. We were the only people there, and, in fact, the only climbers on the mountain the next day. That night we were treated to a spectacular sunset with a full moon. The entire Avenue of Volcanoes was visible, including the white capped isosceles triangle of Cotopaxi.
We got up at 5 for an early morning departure. The weather cleared as we hiked. There was more snow than normal, and many of the rocks were encrusted with icicles. I was glad of my climbing helmet since I hit my head several times on wide swathes of ice sticking out from the rocks I was trying to hold on to.
There are several sections of rock, the most difficult probably the one right below the summit. We climbed up through a chimney, along exposed ledges – and all without ropes. Ossy very carefully instructed where to place hands and feet and how to balance – and ultimately we did make it to the summit which is marked by a metal cross. But that wasn’t before a bowling ball sized rock hurtled down from the top in J’s general direction, followed by a smaller one in his more specific direction. Fortunately, no injuries. We now know the best way to react to rockfall (besides not experiencing it in the first place!) is to make yourself as small as possible. Sort of an airline crash position.
Coming down was exhausting and Ossy roped me in after I slipped twice. I think I’d burned up a lot of nervous energy on the ascent – not to mention physical. And we not only had to descend and get back to the hut – there was still the three hour hike back to the parking lot ahead of us, and then a couple of hours to drive to our next stop, the Hacienda Chilcabamba, outside Cotopaxi National Park.
For someone who actually froze on the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and who still has recurring dreams about being stuck on the old swinging bridge on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, reaching this summit was huge. But it also reminded me that figuring out how to get down from summits is just as important as going up them.
Mountains do not rise up from the earth like isosceles triangles. And most things in life don’t have that perfect equilibrium either. Like this week – everything just a little off.
It started when I unpacked a gigantic box containing a keyboard that had belonged to an uncle and now had wended its way to Central Florida. In reaching down into the thousands of styrofoam peanuts that surrounded said keyboard in order to ensure we had located all its bits and pieces, the husband pulled out a carefully wrapped plastic package. I cut it open, expecting a plug or some similar piece of equipment, only to find – a string of pearls! A visit to the jeweler the next day confirmed they weren’t real, but now I still face the task of contacting UPS to see if they there is any report of missing pearls in peanuts.
That set the tone for the rest of the week.
One of our elderly Westies continues to be profoundly deaf and is proving not very capable of learning sign language. His brother has decided he can only eat dry dog food if scattered on the floor outside of his bowl. And the ancient cat continues to believe he is a mountain lion and to attack dogs.
My dearly beloved ten year old car blew the same fuse for the second time in six weeks. Who knew the same fuse that controls the radio controls the ignition. But combined with a very leaky convertible top, the prospect of having to change fuses on the side of the interstate while driving to an out of town meeting on Monday was enough to cause us to finally buy a new car.
At least events of tomorrow should determine my schedule sufficiently that we can actually book our Cotopaxi trip. At yoga last Wednesday night the moon was full but for a slice off one side, teetering against the black sky. I’m hoping that this next week – with the next summit firmly chosen and set – restores equipoise.