Ecuador Mountaineering - January 2007

Cotopaxi - 19,347 ft

Trip theme: "Why am I so freaking cold?" or "Just tell me if you want to go down"


Note: Pictures with the blue background were taken by Ed as I was collapsed back at the Refugio fighting off the virus

Someone spent a lot of time meticulously manicuring the gardens at La Estacion de Machachi La Estacion de Machachi didn't look like much from the outside, but it was probably the nicest place that we stayed at in Ecuador. The grounds were very meticulous kept with a wide variety of bushes, flowers and trees. Greg and Ed who had already been in horticulture heaven on this trip so far, were very happy to putter around the grounds discussing the identification of the various plants. I on the other hand declared it was pretty. In addition to the gardens, the place had a church, a nice lounge area, and also the nicest dining area we saw in country. The rooms were pretty good too, albeit fairly small. We had passed through a small town on the way to La Estacion from the main road. The others really wanted to go back down to the town and explore, I on the other hand felt like resting a bit and just wanted to stay behind and read. So that's what we did. They hitch hiked a couple of miles back down to the town and I worked on finishing off my book. Apparently I missed a Lawyer's office that Ed mistook for a brothel and a really cool looking cemetery. I wish I had seen the cemetery as the pictures make it look pretty interesting. Once everyone was back at La Estacion, we played Heart's like crazy. I seem to recall attempting to shoot the moon on at least every other hand if not more often than that. Our game was only broken up by a most excellent dinner.

Late that night I woke up and something was not right at all. I had a bad pain in my stomach/abdomen and I was very cold. My first thought was that I had ate or drank something that didn't agree with me but I couldn't force anything to come out either end so I was more than a little confused. Making matters worse was the road that was directly underneath my window. You would think that a dirt road in the middle of the night would be deserted. Think again. Some sort of vehicle would pass underneath my window about every 15 minutes making a loud racket as it screeched to a stop to make the turn. And this is from 2am to 5am! Something I haven't touched on yet is the Ecuadorian style of driving. Essentially it is whoever had the most mass wins. A truck is bigger than a car, is bigger than a person, etc. There were very few stop signs or street lights to go around, so the common practice was to honk the horn at all intersections, whenever you went to pass someone, or whenever a person was on the side of the road. Well guess what all these vehicles did every time they went around the corner, they honked their horn. So I'm lying there in misery, shivering, and surely can't go back to sleep with all the road noise. Somewhere around 5am, someone in a dump truck showed up looking for his buddy, except it would seem he didn't know where the fellow lived. So the man in the dump truck proceeds to drive all around La Estacion repeatedly honking his horn. Just for good measure he spent a couple of minutes directly underneath my window honking his horn in case his buddy might be sleeping in my room. Finally it was time to get up and I bummed some Pepto Bismol hoping that it would settle my stomach but it didn't. I found out during our morning Yoga just how bad off I was. After just a minute or two of stretching I was lying flat on the floor, dizzy and gasping for breath. We were only at 9,000 ft so it wasn't the altitude after we had already been at 16,000 ft with no problem. I was sick. I made some attempts to extricate the offending bug from my system but the well was dry. That morning over breakfast I could barely eat and was shivering at the table while wearing my jacket and a hat. After eating I went back to the room and collapsed on the bed. Ed threw all of the blankets on top of me and I tried to sleep. At some point I scared the hell out of the maid when she came in to make up the room and was extremely surprised when she pulled the covers off and I was underneath. Later that morning Javier and Diego showed up to take us to Cotopaxi. Javier was concerned about my condition and suggested that perhaps I should not go to the Refugio but rather should stay down much lower at a different Refugio and wait there while everyone else climbed. I said I was there to climb and come hell or high water I was going to give it my all before I admitted defeat.

The drive to Cotopaxi was much nicer than Cayambe. The roads were mostly gentle grades and in much better shape. The main excitement of the trip was our bags on top of the truck. I had been carefully inspecting our bags to make sure that they weren't going to fly off the top at some inopportune moment, but apparently I didn't do a good job that morning. As we are driving along I noticed what appeared to be Jim's backpack hanging a little low off the side. I mentioned it to Javier and he pretty much blew me off. A short distance later it was lower, then lower, then lower. I kept a running commentary on how Jim's backpack was going to fall off at any minute when Javier finally turned around and cried, AH! Jim's gear intact we set off once again. We made a stop for lunch at a "acclimatization center" along the way, Tambopaxi. They were kind enough (although they got their $$ in the end) to watch all of the gear we would not be taking up on the mountain. This was a nice place to stop on the way, eat lunch and relax. I was feeling a little better by this point, I think I declared myself to be at 75%. After Tambopaxi we loaded back up in the truck and set off for the Refugio at 15,800 ft. Unfortunately you cannot drive directly to the Refugio, you have to park at 15,300 ft and hike up the rest of the way. The hike would tell me a lot about my current state of affairs as I would carry about 30 lbs. We jumped out of the truck to a stiff wind and a bunch of mist, ack. Loaded up we set off up the trail. I wasn't able to keep up with Ed and Greg, but I wasn't far behind either. I felt a little down on energy but all things considered I felt pretty good once we got up to the Refugio. All of that would change in a matter of hours. As we played cards I found myself getting colder and colder. I kept going back to get more clothes until finally I was wearing every article of clothing I had, including my down jacket and was still cold. Javier was rightly concerned about me. However he was convinced that a combination of Diamox and dehydration were to blame. So he had me drinking water like crazy to hydrate. I had zero success in explaining to him that it was not dehydration or altitude, but rather that I had some sort of virus. He offered me some home remedy of herbs, and some other climber offered me cocoa leaves to chew on (I didn't partake). After dinner we talked as a group and he asked me if I wanted to go down, I wasn't really sure so I said I'd differ to what the group thought. The group was a little hesitant to suggest I go down but finally that was the decision. So I said, "yes I want to go down". To which he replied, "you need to tell me what you want to do". Huh? So I said, "I want to go down". To which he replied, "Mark, you need to tell me if you want to go down". Come again? It was like an Abbot and Costello routine. Finally after debating who's on 1st a few more times, he suggests that I try and sleep for a bit and that if I don't warm up in an hour I should come and get him and we would (might?) go down. Well the sleeping bag did the trick, or maybe the virus just switched from chills to sweats, and an hour later I was baking in my bag. I went down and told Javier that I was warm now and that I would stay the night. I would not however leave for the summit at midnight. Jim was not feeling particularly well either so the plan was for the two of us to set out at first light and just climb as far as we could before we would be forced to turn around. Ed and Greg would leave with Diego at midnight as planned. So started one of the worst nights of my life.

It's not easy to sleep at altitude. It's not easy to sleep when you go to bed at 8PM. It's not easy to sleep in a dormitory. It's not easy to sleep when you're sick. It's not easy to sleep when you're anxious. It's impossible to sleep when you have all of the above. Shortly after I lied back down the pain in my stomach/abdomen returned. I spent the entire night awake in my sleeping bag trying to ignore the pains in my gut and thinking about how Cotopaxi was my main goal for the trip and that I wasn't even going to make a serious attempt. I'm not which pain was worse, my gut or the pain of defeat. It was without a doubt one of the longest and worst nights of my life. It was very weird just lying there while most everyone else got up at various times, packed up and started up the mountain. There was one silver lining to the night though. After drinking a ton of water at Javier's request, I had to pee numerous times. One time when I went out to pee I saw these two large fuzzy shapes in the southern sky. Even at 15,800 ft I knew exactly what they were. They were the Large and Small Magellenic Clouds. I had never seen these before in my life so I stood out there freezing to death for minutes on end just staring at the sky. I had ample opportunity to view them over my next several pee trips. The silver lining was that I probably never would have seen the clouds had I been climbing as I would have been focused on the mountain and not on the sky. Once the sky mercifully started to brighten I got up and Jim and I got ready to climb as high as we could. I really wasn't thinking too clearly or I would have only taken about half of my gear so as to lighten my load for a half day, but after not sleeping all night I was a little loopy. We set off for the foot of the glacier and it became very obvious that I wasn't going to get very far. Whereas yesterday I felt OK coming up to the Refugio, I was a dead man walking this morning. I was completely exhausted and it was all I could do to get to the glacier 10 minutes behind Jim and admit defeat. I had zero thoughts of continuing. I had Jim take a picture of me as I turned back to the Refugio. This was the bitter taste of defeat #2.

I went back to the deserted Refugio and waited for everyone else to come back. Jim climbed up to the top of the first ridge and was back first. Ed and Greg however both summited! All of the pictures on the left of the summit are from Ed's camera. I was very happy for Ed and Greg to have gotten to the top. At least somebody from our group would get a summit on this trip. It sounds like they had absolutely perfect weather and thoroughly enjoyed the climb. I'm ashamed to admit that I was jealous of their success. Jealousy isn't usually one of the seven deadly sins that I succumb to but in this case it happened. Cotopaxi was my main goal for the trip and I was taken out by some Ecuadorian virus. At least I'm pretty darn sure it was a virus as I had some other symptoms, as you will see below, that seem to confirm this. The most troubling part of the whole thing is I know in my heart if I was healthy I could have made the top. I was so strong just a couple of days earlier but so weak now. Once everyone got back to the Refugio we could thankfully head back down to the truck. Ed was complaining about how tired he was but he still had more energy than I did. We loaded up all our stuff and hiked back down to the truck. For some reason Ed and I got there way before everyone else and we wound up waiting for 15 minutes or so for the others to catch up, meanwhile I sat on some rocks feeling lousy. Once we all got there we drove back to Tambopaxi to retrieve our gear we left behind. Here's where Tambopaxi got their due for holding our bags. We decided to purchase lunch there. The food was OK, but the bill was extraordinary. This was the most expensive meal we had in Ecuador by far. Granted we bought our guides lunch as well, but we were well over $10 a person which is very high for the area. I'm not entirely certain but I think our guides were getting some sort of kickback from the owner to bring clients through who would spend money. After Tambopaxi we went out the other entrance to the park and drove south towards La Cienega.

La Cienega was similar to the other places we had stayed. Nice rooms and well manicured gardens. Ed was absolutely fascinated by a duck house and the pool. In fact I had to come back with him to see the standby electric generator by the pool. He was also taken by a local fedora wearing grandmother who was nursing her grandson. Yea that's right, nursing her grandson. Hey who are we to judge. The rest of the day was filled with touring the gardens and of course Hearts. At dinner I sat in front of the fireplace and it felt really good. That night I went to bed feeling a little better. Sometime in the middle of the night though I woke up with massive bed sweats, like the kind you get when you have a really high fever. I had soaked the sheets and the bed completely through. I'm guessing that my immune system was suppressed from the altitude at 16,000 ft, but once I got back to 9,000 ft my body was revved up and looking for a fight. I spent several hours lying awake on top of the covers trying to cool off to no avail. By morning the bed sweats had gone and I was slightly chilled again, but I felt much stronger. Today was gratefully a rest day and the gang wanted to go into the nearest town and see what their was to see. The nearest town was Latacunga. We had the desk call us a cab (aka, relative) to drive us to town. He dropped us off in what appeared to be the main shopping square of town. The area was filled with tents and people selling their wares. We told the driver to pick us up in a few hours and we went off to explore the city. Latacunga seemed like a smaller Quito. Narrow streets lined with stores selling anything from plasma TV's to chickens. I found an Internet cafe and ducked in to tell Christy that I was still alive, albeit wounded. We moved from town square to town square through the city. At the last square I was taken with how they had done the architecture. Or rather how they had just built new stuff around the old stuff. I was somewhat concerned about us not being able to find out way back to the square where we started but it turned out to be not a problem at all. Near the original square we found a pizza place for lunch that actually served pretty decent pizza. Either that or we were so starved for some American food that anything would taste good. I think it was the former. Our driver was a little late in picking us up but finally showed up and took us back to La Cienega.

Another interesting part of our stay here was the disparity between our rooms. Ed and I were in the smallest, most spartan room we had been in so far. But Greg and Jim were in the luxury suite. They had a large sitting area and even a bidet! I was telling Jim how I had tried to use a bidet once in Taiwan but had only succeeded in shooting water up to the ceiling. Not being one to be out done, Jim decided to investigate the bidet. His experience was not shooting water up to the ceiling, but rather shooting it in his face. Damn those French people and their bidets. Our next immediate problem was who the heck was going to be our guides for Chimborazo. We knew at this point that Javier and Diego would not be with us any longer. Calls to Jean were met with vague assurances that somebody would be picking us up and subsequently guiding us up the mountain. The next day we would find out.
Greg and Ed are beside themselves with glee over the local fauna
Our spacious accommodations at La Estacion
Ecuadorian graveyard
Hey look, they have room in case one of us needs it
Getting ready to head out for Cotopaxi. How come I'm the only one not smiling?
Seriously Javier, Jim's bag is about to fly off the top of the truck
Gorgeous views every where you look
Entering Cotopaxi National Park. Ed bought some free park maps here
Check out the Ecuadorians putting solar panels on the top of one of their buildings
The main lodge at Tambopaxi
Yikes, the weather's a little funky here
Ready for the climb up to the Cotopaxi Refugio
You'd think we were going all the way to the summit as opposed to only 500 ft higher
You have to wedge the rocks under your tires to make sure your vehicle is there when you get back
High on the mountain? Nope. Right outside the door to the Refugio.
The green bag is where I spent one of the worst nights of my life
I'm wearing my down jacket and I still can't get rid of the chills
Running on empty. This is as far as I got the next morning, 16,100 ft. This is NOT my happy face
View from my "high point"
The Cotopaxi summit crater
Looking out towards Antisana (right) and Cayambe (left)
Greg and Diego on the summit of Cotopaxi
Looking out towards Chimborazo
Ed on the summit of Cotopaxi
I hear Antisana is pretty easy too
Oh darn, my precious prunes are frozen
Summit group shot
Heading down off the summit
You mean I have to go down over that cliff?
You guys want to climb this too?
Cool looking cornice
The obligatory shot showing the steepness of the slope
Greg owes Diego a beer for stepping on the rope
The Cotopaxi Refugio at about 16,000 ft
Ed's ready to go for it two times in one day
The successful summiteers
My last good look at Cotopaxi. Damn Ecuadorian virus! I'm coming back to settle the score
The grounds at La Cienega
A local wearing a fedora and carrying her grand son
The main entrance to La Cienega
I was still cold over 24 hours later
The central market in the city of Latacunga
Vicente Leon square
San Francisco square
I thought the merging of different architectures here was really neat
La Tourista
Is that a little Ecuadorian child. No its Ed! Could you imagine if he did this at an elementary school in the US?
Are you sure this is the way back to where we are meeting our ride?
Ed has some pretty short bunny ears
Want some left over pizza?
This would be why you never want to eat any fruit you didn't peel yourself
Look out Ed. You're a lot smaller than the Land Cruiser
We got the Motel 6 room at La Cienega
While Jim and Greg got the luxury suite
They even had a bidet!
I'm feeling good. Let's get the heck outta here and tackle the last mountain


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