Sunday, 27 July 2008

Snow holiday

When I first flew into Ecuador it was such a clear morning that I was able to take phorographs of the mountains from the plane window. One of them was Cotopaxi, the third highest active volcanic mountain in the world, at just under 6,000m.

After having lots of practice hiking the muddy trails of Bilsa, a while ago Felicia and I decided that to climb the mountain would be a fitting achievment to seal our time in Ecuador. This became the primary goal of our travels together. Everything else was flexible, but making this climb was a detirmination, and so yesterday was the last opportunity to head to the mountain.

The altitude got to me straight away. We had driven up to the last access point and hiked an hour up to the refuge. My breath was thin and laboured throughout, and I was weak and light headed when we arrived. I put it down to the fact that we had not had chance to get breakfast before meeting our guide at 7am, and any worries seemed to clear that afternoon after we had had some lunch and gone out into the snow for an hour to learn how to walk in crampons.

After dinner we went to bed at 6pm. Felicia had a headache and was given some coca tea by our guide, and I sipped what she didn´t want more out of curiosity of trying the coca than as a precaution. I was relieved that I seemed to have gotten over that strange patch earlier.

But I was confident too soon. Between 7 and 11pm, while the forty or so other people in the room relaxed before the climb, and while I could hear Felicia sleep in the bunk next to me, I fought with a new headache and a weight on my chest that felt like my lungs were crushed to a third of their size. My heart raced like it was about to flutter its last. I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, trying to find a balance between maintaining some body heat and being able to breathe.

I slept for maybe 20 minutes before it was time to don our gear and eat a little midnight breakfast. I told the guide about my chest pains, and he said that I needed to decide whether I would be able to make it or not. After a few minutes I decided that the headache had retreated enough, and I didn´t want to give up at this point.

So we went out onto the cold midnight mountain. We went slowly, and though I was tired my chest felt alright so I was happy to continue. And so we did, for four hours.

And so it was that I was to be found at 4am this morning, crying weak tears of frustration and exhaustion on a dark and windy mountain, as my guide clipped my harness onto another couple heading back down to the refuge, so that he and Felicia could continue to the summit without me.

I didn´t look back.

Being led by a rope down a mountain, stumbling in the snow like a toddler on reins, I was relieved to see the train of headlamps down the mountain ahead of me, of people who also couldn´t make it throught the cold and wind, and who had turned back even before I did. I had made it to 5,400m before my jelly legs could lift no more, and am happy that I made it that far.

What a fool I was to compare mountain climbing to hiking in the jungle, and to underestimate the effects of altitude on the body*. Jungle hiking has its own challenges, of course, but for me they are overriden by the benefits of being able to watch the wildlife and smell the flora. Lugging myself up the mountain in the dark, only able to see the snow directly in front of me and to smell my own laboured breath inside my balaclava, there were times that I really did wonder why people bothered to put themselves through this, for a hobby? Of course the mountain was beautiful when it could be seen, and when Felicia returned to the refuge later that morning with photos from after the sun had risen, I was so pleased that she at least got to see the true magnificance of the mountain.

But I know that it is not the climate for me. The jungle beckons.

* As a measure of how the mountain messes with your body, one American girl who came down before me was taken to hospital from the refuge because of all the fainting and nose bleeding, and a Swiss woman from our group (who had already climbed Ecuador´s other peaks), came down from the summit without her sight. When we last saw her she could see light and bright colours, but no definition. Hopefully it will be better in the next day or so.

So I feel no shame that I didn´t make it, just really proud that Felicia managed to hoik herself all the way to the top without doing herself an injury.

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