Masters of the Dance

IV. Head in the Clouds

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11 January, 1999 Quito Map
Early this morning, I was picked up from my hotel. As I was walking downstairs with my gear, I tripped and fell down half a flight of stairs, colliding solidly with the wall at the bottom. Not a very auspicious start to this climb.

We went to meet the other two people I was going to be climbing with, Bill (Yank) and Christoff (French) and Gabriel, our guide. From there, we took off for the mountain itself. It was overcast, so we couldn't see a thing, and I was cursing the weather. (I've almost never seen a successful sunrise from the top of any mountain I've climbed.) Once we got there, the scary part began. They were going to drive us in a 4x4 jeep as far up the mountain as they could go. That meant going up these crazy roads, with large washed out sections. We were up on two wheels maybe half the time. Yikes! I left fingerprints in the dashboard when we finally had to disembark. *shiver*

Then, we started walking. Iliniza Norte is 5116m high, and we started at about 3800m. The first day was mainly an uphill slog. And I mean slog. Two steps, stop, catch your breath, and continue. I had the lightest backpack of any of them, but I still had trouble. Then, the weather took a further turn for the worse. Rain, then sleet, then snow! I was drenched to the bone, and so was my pack, as I forget to get a raincover. The other three were the same. By the time we got to the hut, we were all quite miserable and exhausted from the relentless uphill trudge. We couldn't see a thing because of the fog, the clouds, and the wind-whipped snow.

The lodge was absolutely primitive. No running water, an outhouse out back without even a door to close, and only a hole in the floor. No heat in the lodge. I had some severe misgivings, as I was wearing everything I had, and I was still rather freezing. Um. :-/ They fixed us a great supper, but due to the altitude, none of us had much of an appetite. With a quick review of what would happen the next day, we all turned in around 6:30. I slept maybe five hours, but spent the rest of the time listening to others going outside to be sick due to altitude sickness.

12 January, 1999 Quito Map
Up at 3:15. *groan* Every time I do this, I wonder what in hell I was thinking. Then I stepped outside.


The stars! No electricity for miles around, just a perfectly crystal clear sky just full of stars. Shooting stars lit up the heavens with their dying light. The milky way a streak across the sky. Iliniza Norte a dark mass against the sky, Iliniza Sur a whiter mass on the other side.

The Avenue of the Volcanoes at Dawn :: Ecuador
The Avenue of the Volcanoes at Dawn
Bill had a miserable night, and hadn't slept a wink. He was one of the unlucky ones. One of the many. An entire group of Yanks who came up here on a lark decided they wouldn't make it, and lay gasping in their sleeping bags as we left the hut that morning. But Bill still made it out the door.

At about 4:30, we left the hut. Step, step, breath. Step, breath. *gasp!* The thin air rasped in our lungs. Fresh snow crunched underfoot. When we began our ascent, the night was pitch black, only the stars above and the torches in our hands revealing the steep slope we laboured up. On the opposite mountain, we could see dim lights slowly move, as a group of Quebecois made their attempt on the icy peak of Iliniza Sud.

Just as we reached the top of the ridge, the sky suddenly lit up a blinding blue, and a bright streak circled down from the heavens. An exploding satellite? A plane? A UFO? We never found out. I still wonder...

Vulcan Cotopaxi :: Ecuador
Vulcan Cotopaxi
We continued upward. The snow under our feet had that squeaky new sound, as our ice axes kept us from sliding down into the crater beside us. At the top of the ridge, we could see Cotopaxi glowing in the distance, a perfect cone against the brightening sky. Looking up, it looked like we were almost at the top. Yes? Gabriel quickly dashed my hopes with a "Nah." Up, up, up. I was dying from the climb and altitude, but still remembered to look around and enjoy the view. As the sun began to rise, an amazing sight greeted my eyes. Cotopaxi took on color, its snow capped peak against the rosy sky. Cayumbe in the distance humped above the clouds. Distant city lights were a further glow against the sky. There was perfect silence other than the occasional *tink* of an ice axe against a rock or a gasp from one of us trying to catch our breath in the thin air. Rounding the side of the volcano, the trail vanished. Pulling out ropes, the climb suddenly changed face.

Climbing Vulcan Iliniza Norte :: Ecuador
Climbing Vulcan Iliniza Norte
Harnesses on, ice axes strapped away, we clipped in and one by one dropped off the face of the volcano. Nothing too serious, but it was still exhilarating considering the enormous drop beneath us to the valley far below. By the time it was my turn, a certain exuberance overcame me, and I practically dove down the side, snow tumbling around me, rocks rattling down until their sound faded into the distance. This feeling alone was worth all the pain and effort to gain such an altitude.

Summit of Vulcan Iliniza Norte, 5116m :: Ecuador
Summit of Vulcan Iliniza Norte, 5116m
After that little excitement, we had one final steep ascent. The first part was a hard scramble using ice axes to maintain our position. My foot slipped, and I landed on my ax. I felt something give in my chest as a rib broke. Ouch? I was suffering from the altitude too much at this point, and barely felt anything beyond fatigue. Gabriel hadn't noticed, and I didn't mention anything as I struggled to keep up. We were leaving the last of the rock behind. A steep slope of snow disappeared up around the corner above us. Ice axes left behind, we scrabbled on hands and knees up the steep rock, my chest protesting the effort. The snow was just deep enough that our arms sank up above the elbow trying to find a secure handhold underneath. I kept finding myself holding on by a couple fingers and a toe whenever I misjudged a foothold. Add to this the thin air, and I was dying of fatigue. Just when I was about to declare defeat from sheer exhaustion and sun blindness, the others disappeared up over a ridge.

We were at the top! I pulled myself puffing hard up onto the summit and looked around. Incredible views! Iliniza Sud directly in front of us. Choramborazu on the other side, and all the other volcanoes clearly visible in the crisp morning air. Even as we sat there, clouds raced in to cover the view, but it was too late! :-) I finally got my mountaintop sunrise!

Climbing down Vulcan Iliniza Norte :: Ecuador
Climbing down Vulcan Iliniza Norte
The climb down was an exhausting but fun time. Still buzzing from our success, we almost raced down the mountain. Sliding down the steep rocky slopes, leaping up the ropes, then literally skiing down the other side. The snow had almost melted completely away as the sun rose warmly above us, and yet the loose sand left behind acted just like snow, and so we slid on down the volcano.

We limped back to the lodge, absolutely filthy from head to toe, and so exhausted that we just slumped on the stools while Gabriel served us chicken soup and hot tea to recharge our systems.

The day wasn't over yet. We had to pack up our bags, and once more hit the trail. This was a completely different experience than the cold wet climb up. Again, the loose sand let us reach incredible speeds. We made it down from the peak of the mountain all the way to the bottom in maybe 1/3 the time it took us to make it up. Seeing the jeep at the bottom was a very welcome sight to these weary bones.

Once more, we had the crazy jeep ride out to the road, up on two wheels, my fingers leaving permanent dents in the dashboard, and Gabriel insanely laughing the entire way.

Email me at nomad3 @ GoneWalkabout.com

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