The Sacred Mountain That Stole My Heart

This was supposed to be the one. This mountain was supposed to be my first. My summit cherry was to be popped by Cotopaxi, all 19,347 feet of it. Sometimes life doesn’t go as planned even when preparing until your face turns blue, or red and sweaty in my case. I tried and I “failed”. It wasn’t meant to be, but it’s another story I get to put down on paper and share with those who are awesome enough to read it.

Let me just start out by saying I am new to being on big mountains and mountains in general. How long can I say that before it’s not true…? Anyway, I grew up in Michigan and we don’t have things like Cotopaxi there. At the end of 2016, my fascination with big mountains took me half way around the world to Nepal to trek to THE mountain of ALL mountains, Mt. Everest. I flew past it, trekked to it while it watched over me in the distance, and then I stood in front of it with tears in my eyes, sweat on my brow, and happiness in my healing heart. To see it in person with my own eyes was unforgettable. I remember the way it felt with the warmth of sun on my skin and the coolness of the ice and snow all around me. My body ached and wavered in a weakened state, yet the immeasurable joy my soul felt in those moments helped mend the wounds my heart had suffered while also energizing my body and mind to take in the sights before me.

From there, the love grew exponentially. My confidence and self-love grew and before I knew it, I was hiking around the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges in Washington. The challenge, the suffering, and the pure contentment was a drug that lured me back time and again. I was hooked. I was my own competition and the only thing that ever stood in my way of earning that summit was myself. I also learned quickly that a summit was not my ultimate goal. My goal was that I got off of my ass to attempt it and give it everything I had every single time. So far, my success rate is at 100% in respects to that goal.

Quito was a first in different ways. It was my first time without the support of friends: my mountain mentor, Karl and my mountain side-kick, Josh. Both of these guys had been with me on two life-changing treks within the span of 6 months. They gave me support, love, laughs, hugs, encouragement…whatever I needed from them, they were happy to give it. So now the thought of attempting something like Cotopaxi without them made me sad and uncertain. I could no longer rely on Karl to make arrangements. It was all me. Fortunately, I found an Airbnb host who was a female rock climber. She spoke English well enough and had great connections to find me a certified guide. Arrangements were made for two short mountaineering expeditions, glacier school, two acclimatizing activities, gear rental, transportation, and meals.

Arriving to Quito was another exhausting journey, having to fly from Bogotá to Panama City and then connect to Quito. I arrived in the evening as the sun was setting. I couldn’t reach my AirBnb hosts, so I crossed my fingers that I could get my wifi to work and the vague location of my accommodations could be found by my taxi driver. It was an interesting drive up to Quito from the airport, one that took close to an hour. I was able to narrow the location down a bit more and figure out where I needed to be dropped off. I managed to get in the building and find the apartment I was to spend the next two weeks in. I met my host and her mother, had some tea, and then went to bed.

Over the next few days, I ventured out in Quito…my host put me on a bus to go see one of the many attractions she recommend I visit, but I wasn’t really clear on which one. Buses are a strange thing in Quito…they don’t really ever come to a complete stop unless it’s absolutely necessary. You just hop on and off as it slows. There was the driver and the “cashier” who took payment and gave you a ticket…they’d shout the destinations out of the window as the bus neared the stop and if no one indicated they needed that bus, they’d keep going. So, I rode this bus until I decided it was enough. I got off and decided to walk back for a while. The sun was out, not a cloud in the sky, so I slathered on the sunscreen. You always wear sunscreen since the city sits at 9,350 ft., otherwise you’ll fry. I walked for a ways, making a stop at a market, and then hailed a cab with an orange license plate (I was told those were safer and for the most part honest about fares).

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View from my room in Quito.
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Every morning my hosts prepared me a wonderful breakfast of fresh bread, fruit, eggs, and tea. This was both a blessing and a curse that would alter my path to the Cotopaxi.

The next day my host and I went to El Mitad del Mundo (The Center of the World), the legit one that was found with GPS coordinates. There is another location where the monument is built, but it’s a bit off. It was a long but cheap bus ride. I thought the real one was much more interesting with a museum and activities to participate in. Whether these things were actually indicators of whether you were at the equator or not (most of these activities are debated), I still had a lot of fun that afternoon watching group members lose their balance walking on the equator, trying to balance eggs on nails, watching water drain different ways in different hemispheres, and watching someone magically lose their strength while standing on the equator. Power of suggestion? Could be. OR is it the magic of walking an invisible line?? You be the judge.

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The following day we spent visiting the Virgen de Panecillo, Palacio de Carondelet, and more of the San Blas area. We had fantastic Ecuadorian food at Can Ferran where I had the best meal of my whole trip. Located on the famous Calle la Ronda where everyone goes to party. I had a mountain I was preparing for so I ate and went home. My only regret was that I never tried cuy, which is a guinea pig. I’m adventurous when travel eating, so I’m kind of disappointed that I didn’t check that off of the list.

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Virgen del Panecillo
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View from Panecillo looking north.
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Calle La Ronda
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Courtyard in the Presidential Residence.
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Past presidents of Ecuador.
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View from the second level of the Presidential Residence.
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Mosaic inside of the Presidential Residence.

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Two days before leaving for Cotopoxi, my host took me up into the mountains overlooking Quito for a night of camping and no hiking. We boarded the Teleferico at 10,226 ft. and were taken up to 12,943 ft. We walked a short distance to our campsite and had lunch. Not long after the rain started. It was cold and wet and the stray dogs huddled under our rain fly to keep warm and sort of dry. My host then started dinner, but it was after all of the rain, so nothing would catch fire. After a few hours and LOTS of lighter fluid, she managed to get a little something going. I was so hungry by then and ate well. After taking some photos, we called it a night and went to bed. So, I’m used to being uncomfortable on a mountain. It comes with the territory, but that night there was no reason I should have suffered so much if my host had let me know that she was short a mattress pad. I would have gladly paid to rent one had I known I needed to do that. I instead had half of my body on the pad and the rest of my body was on the cold, hard ground. I was freezing, but eventually fell asleep. I woke a few hours later content and warm initially and then everything went to hell. I got that feeling of uneasiness. Then the jolt of panic. I knew what was going to happen in the next 30 to 60 seconds. I frantically searched for the door zipper on the tent. I resorted to ripping that sucker open, only having time to move my boots before vomiting 3-4 times in a row. One of the strays was still there, cold and hungry…and then he came over and cleaned up my mess. That made me vomit again. I was so disgusted. I then put my boots on and tried getting away to vomit in solitude, but he followed. I felt awful that he was eating it and even now describing this makes me gag. I spent the next 30-60 minutes vomiting and then dry-heaving. Feeling better, I sipped some water and tried to go back to sleep. I was now freezing again, so pissed that I was sleeping on half a mattress pad, and wishing for death (not really, but I was feeling mega dramatic). It is hands down the worst night I have ever spent on a mountain.

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One of many strays I wanted to take home.

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We left early the next morning and my body had nothing left to offer anyone. My host thought I had altitude sickness, but I didn’t really trust her judgement on the subject. She was a rock climber but didn’t have much experience on the mountains. I felt so much better after vomiting, I’ve never had much difficulty with altitude, I had been in Colombia for 3 weeks, and in Quito for four days, so my gut was telling me it was something I ate. Still, I’m not an expert so I called Karl. He was amazing, listening to my story as I walked him through my symptoms. He agreed with me and definitely thought it was something I ate. So, I hopped in bed and stayed there for the rest of the day. I worried my hosts, but honestly I didn’t care. I had an appointment with a mountain that next day and I didn’t have the energy to try and communicate with them when they weren’t trying to hear me.

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The next day we loaded up, got some food and hit the road. It was a beautiful drive and the nerves were definitely setting in. I had no idea how my body was going to perform after being so sick. I was trying to let go of the doubt, but things weren’t feeling right. Arriving to the park was a sight unlike any I’ve seen. The clouds were wrapped around the mountain, keeping her secrets until we got closer. The country was rugged and beautiful. Wild horses ran just ahead of our vehicle. And then she revealed herself. The cloak of clouds rolled away and the sun hovered almost right over Cotopaxi as if it were a spotlight. This stunning, perfectly symmetrical cone stilled me. I was becoming increasingly intimidated. We drove as far as we could in the vehicle we had and ended up parking on the side of the road a bit below the parking lot. It’s pretty amazing how you can drive right up to this mass of earth, snow, and ice. Very rare and my legs definitely appreciated it. I grabbed my pack, got my poles out, pulled my buff over my nose and mouth and set out on the trek up to the refugio. It was fairly short  distance, but my body was still so tired. Once to the refugio, we dropped our things and then headed out for glacier school. Another short distance, but by this point I was so exhausted. I was really excited to get some experience in crampons, in a harness and roped up, while also using my ice axe. That afternoon I learned that I maybe wasn’t in the best of company in regards to my climbing partner. My guide was great, professional, knowledgeable, capable, but this other guy…well, he was immature and a bit reckless. Not a combination I wanted for my first technical climb. Although Cotopaxi falls into the beginner category and is a great way to get started in mountaineering, it is still very high to extreme high altitude. It is still dangerous. It is still important to respect the situation you are putting yourself in. When things go wrong, the difference between a mistake and a fatal mistake lie in the hands of the company you’re in and how knowledgeable you are. I didn’t have a lot of faith in him. I had no choice but to trust him with my life. While practicing the different methods to walk in crampons, switching directions, how to self-arrest, and  simply become comfortable in my gear, I watched a handful of idiots in jeans and tennis shoes try to make it higher than we were in our gear. I also watched as my climbing partner was “practicing” how to self-arrest and nearly put the ice axe through his skull because he was goofing around. Insert eye roll.

We weren’t out there for very long, as conditions started to deteriorate. Weather was moving in quickly and at one point we even heard an avalanche. It was a very sobering moment and all I wanted was for Josh and Karl to be there instead of my current climbing partner and guide. We quickly left for the lodge and my partner realized he left something behind…I can’t remember what it was anymore, but it was something he couldn’t climb without…I think it was either his gloves or ice axe. Insert another eye roll. They went back to get it and I was told to continue down. That made me nervous. I wasn’t familiar with this mountain at all and the trail kind of disappeared in places, at least it did in my eyes. There was a point where things didn’t look familiar anymore, and then maybe they did, and then they definitely didn’t. I started to retrace my steps, but that quickly became really tough with the terrain going up and being very loose. So, I did what anyone should do in that situation. I panicked for a second, then  decided to stay where I was and wait for my guide. I only waited for a few minutes, but it felt much longer. I went through a whole scenario of me being lost on a mountain with bad weather moving in. It was scary, but I knew I wasn’t far from the trail and my team would be within earshot soon. They rounded a corner and came over the top of a hill. I was relieved to say the least.

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Taken at the lodge during dinner about 6 hours before our summit attempt.

We went back to the lodge, got things organized a bit more, and then had dinner. Accommodations were pretty nice, even the so-called “shitty” part of the lodge we were sleeping in. We each got a nice little wooden Cotopaxi key chain souvenir to take home. Dinner came out and was tasty, but I was having trouble eating. I tried to stuff it down, but I was still feeling a bit sick, and as much as I knew I needed to eat and drink a lot, I just couldn’t put down as much as I knew I should. This worried me as well. Would I have enough strength to even attempt Cotopaxi? After being sick, still having waves of feeling off, feeling weak, my confidence was at an all-time low. We returned to the lodge, hopped in bed, and apparently I snored for at least 4-5 hours. It wasn’t great rest, but it was something. I got my things organized and got enough on to get “breakfast”. I slammed a lot of tea and a few rolls, but what they had out was not going to cut it…I had things for eating, but those were more for later that night, once into the climb. I was definitely in my head. I was quiet. Things just weren’t feeling like this was going to happen even though conditions were pretty damn near perfect. The sky was clear, the stars were out, there was very little wind and it looked like things were going to stay that way.

We finished getting things together and headed out. I tried to ignore my fear, my worry, and my uneasiness. I was feeling better than I had felt at dinner, but still wasn’t feeling like myself. We hiked until we hit the snow and then made our first stop to put on crampons. I was proud of myself for getting them on without any help. I watched a trail of headlamps dot the dark mountain and couldn’t believe I was going to be one of them. Our team was now roped into one another. An element of safety and I was trusting these strangers with my life. If I fell, were they going to catch me? I was in the middle as I was the weakest and the slowest. Usually, that would bother me because I’m really competitive, but it made me feel secure. We were supposed to keep the rope between us taut so that we wouldn’t step on the rope or get tangled in it, but my partner didn’t seem to like being last in line or going slow. He started to let it slack, causing me to end up stepping on it a lot and getting yelled at by our guide. He then started rushing ahead and  end up parallel with me at some distance, and then he would sometimes gather the tope in his hands. I was so frustrated with him and his inability to follow instructions. This was not a game, but to me he was treating it that way. Over the next seven hours, I became increasingly frustrated and exhausted. The vertical of this mountain was different. I didn’t have days to climb this. I had one shot, one attempt, one night to do it. I wanted to scream, and att one point, I did. My legs were on fire. My achilles and ankles felt like they were going to burst. I pushed on, but I wasn’t happy about it. I wanted to stop. My guide pushed me. I hated him in those moments, but was grateful, until it became too much and my body really had nothing left to give. I wanted to cry. I just wanted to be off of the mountain, but knew it’d at least be a few more hours before I was down to the lodge. I pushed a bit further and then called it. My body was done. I went for much longer than I thought I could have gone. I gave it more than I thought I had. I was wrecked. We took a break to take some pictures. At this point, I think it was around 6:30am. The clear diamond skies with flashes of lightning from a thunderstorm in the distance had been replaced with a blanket of clouds below and a sun that was sending pinks and oranges through the clouds. Quito’s lights were in the distance and the peaks of the other volcanoes poked through the clouds. This is one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, and I was FREEZING!!! I started out too hot, I sweat a lot, and now all of my sweat was making me insanely cold. I’m not sure it beats out how cold I felt on Aconcagua at Camp 2, but it is damn close. As cold as I was, I couldn’t move until taking some photos, taking in the sight of the rising sun, and memorizing the way the mountain’s shadow cast itself to the horizon. I think a mountain’s shadow reaching out to the horizon will remain as my favorite part of mountaineering, but talk to me after my first summit…that could change. Wink.

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Going down is not something I enjoy doing. It’s harder than going up. Mentally I’m done. Physically I’m done. Jell-o/noodle legs are a thing. I also think going down is crazy scary. I don’t trust my body at this point. I really hope that will change someday. Coming down was also new because of the crampons. I had more confidence this time, but I still had a pure moment of fear when I fell because I’m clumsy and was tired. My guide reacted so quickly, and although he’s a little guy, he had me. We finally got back down to the lodge, and I took a bit of a nap. We then went and had some lunch and stepped outside to see a mushroom plumb of smoke come out of Cotopaxi. The mountain is still awake and had recently been closed for two years due to its activity. I lucked out with it being open about a month before leaving for South America. Although once again disappointed with coming down without a summit, it was an adventure that I was grateful to have. I still can’t figure out if I didn’t prepare myself enough or if it was illness that got the best of me. Would I have made it had I not gotten sick the day before? Was I strong enough to attempt this at all? I honestly can’t say.  It’s frustrating to not know. For now, I continue to train. I’m not always consistent and life has gotten in the way, but I’m trying. My next goal is Rainier. I’m not sure when that will happen since I don’t have time to take off from work and it’s a 3-4 day climb??? I’m not sure I could do it quicker than that.

Anyway, I got back to Quito and ended up getting sick once again a day later. By this point, my relationship with my AirBnb host was strained. She took it upon herself to cancel the rest of our itinerary and I took it upon myself to not pay my balance (I had already paid more than I should have since the rest of the activities were canceled). She was again concerned I had altitude sickness, but I knew without a doubt it was from the food and/or water. I was also kind of done with her mom going into my room and taking my laundry without asking to wash it. It was very kind, yet super intrusive, and in the end I lost items because they got mixed in with their laundry. I decided to move a block down the street to a cute little boutique hotel for my remaining four days. I was able to get some work done, enjoy a free tour of Quito, make a few friends, travel to Otavalo, go on a date, and enjoy an earthquake before leaving. I’m very grateful for my experiences in Quito, but two weeks was more than enough time there for me. Looking forward to writing about my trip to Amsterdam, Germany, and about putting down some roots in Seattle. Later gators!

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