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Ecuador: Cotopaxi, A Beast of Nature (Day 7)

Cotopaxi....the big one. My first volcano, and my first real climb. I've been fighting altitude sickness since the day I landed, lack of sleep and diet issues. Suddenly jumping to 15,000 feet to begin the climb isn't the smartest thing to do at this point. You are suppose to take a few weeks to fully acclimatize yourself to this type of altitude if you are used to sea level like I am (born and raised in NYC)

The drive started to Cotopaxi National Park from Latacunga at 10am at 8900 feet. 2 hours through rough terrain will make your stomach queasy if you get motion sickness easily. After getting off the Pan American highway, the roads were completely unpaved and filled with cracks from the shifting terrain.

Our first rest stop was at the entrance to the park...or what is to be the entrance, you'd think with this much tourism here....oh wait, never mind, most people aren't dumb enough to climb an active volcano in the middle of the night! Or should I say adventurous enough? There were some small items for sale but nothing of real interest. I later realized that most trinkets in Ecuador repeat them selves from town to town.

A few more miles down the road was an official rest area. You are suppose to be able to see Cotopaxi from Latacunga, but the cloud cover was too great this time of year (rainy season). At the rest stop however, we could see a bit of her as the clouds passed by. This was the first time I'd seen the volcano it self. Aside from flying over her on the way to Guayaquil.

Some breakfast, corn and...coca leaves???? Not sure if thats coca as in chocolate, or coca as in cocaine... I've never seen this until I got to this rest stop. It was a refreshing tea none the less.

Of course an obligatory eating pic! The driver and our guide in the background.

This was a random mailbox that I sent a postcard out from. I really didn't trust that it would even get to a real post office. The guy said it would take 5 days to get there, and I eventually got word that it took about 15 days to get to Staten Island New York. This mailbox was literally in the middle of no where. I guess its the thought that counts!

We changed into our hiking gear and got ready to drive up to the parking lot where we would begin our trek. On the way to the parking lot was through wide open flatlands that were littered with volcanic rocks from millions of years of eruptions. Our next stop was the parking lot to the Jose Rivas Refuge. The parking lot is 1 hour from the refuge. Unless you had a crazy 4x4 that could make it up the hill, otherwise you'd need to hike it.

Heres our driver with his little car that could. This car has probably been in service for more than 10 years! Surprised it has lasted this long!

Once we made it to the parking lot, we had to hike it to the refuge. The hike sucked because we brought so much crap with us. Its just uphill for 1 kilometer. You can see my wolf ear hats. By the time I reached the Jose Rivas Refuge, my hat was frozen solid from the dew that was developing and sub zero temperatures. Of course I was sweating bullets from all the insulation I was wearing.

After an hour of hiking, we got sight of the refuge with the yellow roof.

I sent out a post card with the image of the refuge camp, this is the little yellow roof thats in that postcard. If you look at photos of the jose rivas refuge, this is where the climbing begins. But we will spend the next few hours eating and sleeping.

The welcome sign at the door

steaming off the sweat.

We were fed 3 meals in 3 hours to pack us full of energy for the climb that begins at midnight. Our guide cooked us some Ecuadorian Lo Mein with brocolli (a vegetable that I would never see again in Ecuador).

I had such a huge headache by the time we reached the refuge that I spent as much time sleeping as I could, which really wasn't much time. The altitude was causing so much pain in my inner ear and eyes. I would fall asleep on the dinner table every few minutes and wake up in immense pain. This whole altitude thing can really compound on you if you are sensitive or unprepared to the pressure changes. I was hoping the pain would subside if I went to bed.

I went to sleep around 7pm and woke up several times with massive headaches. I don't think I've ever wanted to be at sea level more than that instance. At one point I was trying to walk to the bathroom, but I kept stumbling and tripping over myself because I was so unbalanced. The bathroom was an out house about 50 ft away and getting out of bed, down the stairs to the outhouse nearly resulted in me falling off the volcano just because I tripped and fell several times. If no one was looking, I might of shed some tears! Its okay for grown men to cry! Just not in the company of others!

I didnt manage to sleep and most everyone woke up between 11 and midnight preparing their pack for the climb.

Breakfast was just some bologna and cheese with bread and hot tea.

I know I should of spent more time taking pics, but I honestly couldn't even think straight. My headache was getting somewhat better, though in reality I think it was just the fact that I was getting used to being in pain. I looked like I was drunk the whole time. Which is how cristhian described the whole time I was there. Id take 2 steps and trip. Get up and repeat.

The moon and Orion's belt with Betelgeuse in a fashionable red hue right before we begin our accent into frozen hell.

Our guide checking Cristians gear and a steam coming of a hot jug of water in the foreground.

We began our accent at midnight making our way up slowly. As we go up, the snow begins to turn into hard chunks of frozen snow, and slowly into full ice. To help us climb in these conditions, we wear things called cramp ons, which are basically chain spikes that we strap to our boots.

In this picture our guide is helping Cristhan strap his cramp ons onto his boot.

Here is another group of people doing the same.

After an hour of climbing I began to really run out of breathe. I hadn't spend much time prepping for this considering how poor my sleep and diet has been in the past several days. Compounded with really bad altitude sickness and increasing altitude and high physical exertion, I didn't give myself long before I really had to give up. But I pressed on for as long as I could. Wobbling and tripping the whole way up.

After another hour, I was really at the point where I couldn't do it anymore. The guide said that I wouldn't last much longer because the air just gets thinner and thinner. If I continue at this pace, I would never make it to the top. So in the best interest of the group, I turned around. If it was up to me, I would of let them pressed forward and continued on my own pace. I knew I would of never made it to the top, but I'd at least get to watch the sunrise. But that thought never occurred to me since the headache was getting worst and I was in a robot mode where i did what the guide told me and headed down.

This is where I stopped. About 17,000 feet

I can't even begin to describe how disappointed I was when I turned around.. Its hard to describe the feeling you get when you know that you could of done it if you spent more time preparing for it. But in the end, I wasn't ready. I made it 1/3 of the way up before losing out.

But that wasn't the end of that story for me. I have a knack for getting into sketchy situations.
I was following the moon light back down, tracing our tracks. But as we ascended a snow storm must of came by because the tracks suddenly stopped and disappeared. The refuge was definitely down there somewhere so I continued on, but one bad stepped led to me losing my footing and next thing I know it I'm sliding down the side of a mountain that has a slope over 45 degrees. I don't know how long or fast I slid, but I couldn't stop. I dug my ice pick into the snow and stuck my boot into the shoe, but the snow was too soft to stop me, so I couldn't do anything but enjoy the ride down.

When I finally stopped, I snapped this pic. It is a no BS pic of how steep the volcano really was.

And then here I am stuck somewhere lost with no idea where I am on the side of a volcano. No lights to guide me, no beacons to tell me where I am in reference to the refuge.

I spent the next hour or so trying to figure out where I was. I either slide passed the refuge camp, or I had not yet reached it. I wasn't sure and there wasn't enough light to figure it out. I remembered I snapped some photos earlier on with the GPS information (my camera has built in GPS for lat and long coordinates) so I decided to tag this photo with the GPS coordinates and then compare them to my earlier photos. But strangely, the GPS coordinates were't saved with the old photo, just the altitude (thanks techonolgy!) and even more unfortunate was that the altimeter is based on local air pressure which kept changing because of moving wind systems.

With a heavy fog coming in (or really because we were so damn high, its just clouds at this point) and howling -10 degree winds, I sat there trying to figure out what to do. So I did the first thing that came to mind. I broke out my food and had a nice little meal of chocolate, nuts and some Gatorade. I didn't bring a fire starting kit. It wasn't like there was anything to burn anyway.

I was already tired as hell from being constantly out of breathe from the altitude, so it didn't help that I was lost in the middle of a huge patch of snow with a insanely steep cliff and no one around to help me. What a crappy way to end a night! Luckily I'm a hot body, so I wasn't cold. And the Jose Rivas Refuge had a bright yellow roof, so one of my options was to just wait till the sun rise and ill make my way there. Not that big of a deal. Then I saw several people making their way down. More than hour had already passed and I guess this is where most people gave in. I waited to see their headlamps and which way they went hoping that I would know if the camp is below me, or above me. All the lights disappeared behind a giant rock, so I thought making it up hill was the right call. The giant rock was probably the refuge. I spent an hour trying to reach the refuge, but I had a hunch that I was going the wrong way.

This is all I could really see the whole time.

Then I remember I had a green flash light on me so I started flashing it at people. Eventually my guide noticed it from several thousand feet high and took all but 5 minutes to come rushing down what took nearly 4 hours for him to climb. Turns out I made the wrong choice and was heading the wrong way. The refuge was still below us. We eventually made our way to the camp, Cristian linked up with another group and was still up on the mountain about 3 hours from the summit but he ended up turning around as well.

So congrats to Cristian for making it as high as he did, and here is a pic of him near the summit. Jealousy ensues!

Of all the people in the camp, I only know about 5 people who said they made it to the top, considering there were probably 30-40 people at the refuge to begin with, its not a lot. Most of those who made it up were people who were used to the altitude (people from the mountains in Norway, Switzerland, or the french alps).

On the way back down that morning and finally a clean shot of the volcano on top

The guide and myself on the way down

and my freezing ass in the parking lot

and by some random lagoon with another mountain in the background.

In the end, the refuge camp was at 15,500 feet, the summit was at 19,000 feet. I stopped at 17,000 feet and I think Cristian was at 18,000 feet. The last 1,000 feet is suppose to be the most difficult.

This was definitely the most challenging thing I've ever even attempted to do and it will stay at the top of the list until I decide to go back and finish it. And I definitely will come back with more physical training to finish this and then perhaps the 3 other volcanoes in this area.

In this case, determination and will power can only get you so far. You still need to take that extra step to really make something you want, happen. So Cotopaxi, I will be back for you! I feel a bit ashamed that I didn't train harder for this because I'm usually the guy who is over prepared. The altitude is what ultimately killed me. My body isn't as efficient with oxygen usage as I thought, so that just means that I need to really step up my gym training and get that endurance up before I attempt this again. However the challenging aspect of it is something I really enjoy so I will definitely plan some climbs back home in New York because you give 110% when you are up there. You dig so deep to really figure out who you are, and nothing can really push your limits until you try to conquer mother nature her self.

My eyes, hands, head, feet, legs...quite literally every part of my body was aching. While I was up there, every time my heart pumped, I could see the blood vessels in my vision swelling.

There are a lot of things I wished I did or didn't do. But in the end what happened happened. I don't leave business unfinished, especially something of this magnitude. But for now, I will have to say I was defeated and need to come back with a new strategy to conquer Cotopaxi.

This is a picture back at 11,000 feet. Feeling somewhat human again from a lesser headache, and lesser pain overall.