I had never held an ice axe, nor had I ever taken a step in a crampon. However, these thoughts quickly left my mind as I slammed the pick of my axe deep into the icy layer in front of me. We were about 17,500 feet up a vertical slope on the side of one of the largest strato-volcanoes in the world, Cotopaxi. It was only 4am and the icy darkness froze our wearing bodies against the glacier. The standard inexperienced mountaineer thoughts raced across my mind, “what was I doing here,” “this is not hiking,” “we’re behind schedule,” “we’re not going to make it.”
At this point our group consisted of 6 people, John, Taylor, our cameraman John, our 2 guides, Raphael and Patricio and myself. Already, our cameraman Kevin and our third guide, Rene, had to turn back due to severe altitude sickness. On our way up from the parking lot the earth had turned from soil, to cooled molten rock, to snow, to ice and now to a turquoise spectacle of unforgiving glacier. It indeed felt like another planet.
We had been hiking for close to 5 hours and I was starting to hallucinate. The lack of oxygen to my brain, coupled with sleep deprivation, and limited food; was a cocktail for disaster. As I continued up the glacier, the night’s sky started to blend into the sparkling snow below my feet. The dizzying effect of vertigo took hold and I fell to my knees.
I gave a helpless glance to Taylor. “Dude, your face is blue.” I gave him a blank stare, not really understanding what he was saying. We sat down for our one and only break; my body yearned for water. At this point my insulated camelback was a frozen mess. John quickly reached for his Nalgene and pressed it into my hands. I poked my fingers through the icy layer, which separated myself from the liquid and pressed my cracked lips against the plastic. I tried to eat part of my half frozen sandwich but could not swallow. Patricio, our guide saw my struggle and threw a packet of power gel at my chest. I squeezed the sweet concentrated goo into my mouth and prayed that it would give me additional strength. After all, we still had a 4 hour trek ahead of us; another 2,000 feet to go.
We pressed on, all of us now in a state of physical and mental exhaustion. Instead of the mountain, it was our thoughts that became the enemy. One foot in front of the other we stepped through the thick white powder, with only our crampons keeping us from falling into the various crevasses. Taylor was humming a song from “Revenge of the Nerds” about one foot in front of the other, but I just assumed he was going crazy. We went from the peak of one slope, only to discover a slope 3 times larger around the next corner. It seemed as though we were climbing endlessly, up and into the stars above us. Every 10 minutes or so, I would drop to my knees unable to go on. More than anything, I wanted to quit. Patricio would yell, “Vamos!!” and yank the rope, which attached the group; raising us from the dead and back into our zombie-like stumble towards the summit.
Eventually the warmth of the sun grazed our frozen cheeks. Now, I could see the faces of John and Taylor. They looked terrible. However, I saw a look of determination in their eyes. This was a pivotal moment for me. It injected a new sense of meaning into my lifeless body. I knew that if I turned back, then we all would be forced to abandon the summit. Summiting had to be done as a team and I did not want to let them down. I knew we had to make it.
We continued and kept up a steady pace, one foot in front of the other, making our way above the clouds. Still we had to drop to our knees periodically and pant until we could muster the strength to stand up. “VAMOS!!!” Patricio would continue to yell. Eventually we made our way to the final vertical ice wall. “Clink!” and step, “clink!” and step. The ice axe held and the spikes from the crampons clung to the snow. Once above the frozen shelf, we stumbled to the flat portion of packed snow ahead.
19, 327 ft above sea level, we had made it. I glanced outwards and watched as the sun ignited the land below us. The valley was covered in golden clouds with various peaks protruding out from the depths below. I looked back at John and Taylor’s faces, whose eyes were wide and completely glazed over. We had pushed ourselves to our absolute edge and summited victoriously. We were together, as a team, as best friends. The feeling of pride and exhaustion overtook my body and tears began to fall against the snow below. I embraced the boys, as well as our guides and smiled. Never before had my soul felt such a sense of accomplishment.