From around the next bend in the road, a shriek of metal, a cloud of smoke, and a bus careens at our van head on. We both swerve madly for a near miss. Then I see the accident: a blue truck in pieces. A man lies in the road, very still. Our van squeals to a stop on the shoulder, and our guide asks if anybody has gloves. We all step out. A crowd has gathered. Somebody has covered the man’s face with a bright blue jacket. All I can see is an outstretched hand, lying very still in a pool of darkening blood. I stare hard at the hand, desperately willing it to move, willing it to grab the jacket away, willing the man to rise. He doesn’t. A bystander walks towards us, shaking his head, “There is no suffering here.”
At 10:30 my alarm goes off, rousing me from a fitful sleep. It takes a few seconds to remember where I am: in a bunkhouse, in Ecuador, 16,000 feet above sea level. I crawl out of my sleeping bag. It’s 10:30 at night, but time to get up – I have a mountain to climb.
Bleary eyed I reach for my headlamp and begin to pull on layer after layer of clothing; it’s high summer on the equator but the snow-capped peak outside is nearly 20,000 feet above sea level and it’s frigidly cold up there. Around the bunkhouse, my climbing mates stir and start cocooning themselves in layers of fleece, down and gortex. Nobody talks. We don’t want to disturb others still sleeping, but there’s electricity in the thin air. Excited and nervous, we are about to climb higher than any of us has ever been before – above looms Volcán Cotopaxi – one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.
I linger on the short walk between the bunkhouse and the dining hall. It’s a clear night and the mountain, visible high above camp, is glowing in the moonlight. Cotopaxi is crowned by a smooth, very steep, nearly symmetrical cone of perpetual ice and snow. Located in the Andean mountain chain, southeast of Ecuador’s capitol of Quito, Cotopaxi is among the largest of thousands of volcanoes that circle the Pacific tectonic plate along the Ring of Fire. It is also one of the most active and one of the most deadly. Incan legend has it that the volcano roared to life in 1534 to protest the Spanish invasion, killing scores of conquistadors. Since then the mountain has erupted more than 50 times. The most recent blast in 1903 narrowly spared Quito but strong winds blew tons of searing ash southwards, smothering thousands in nearby Latacunga. Chances are good Cotopaxi will erupt again soon, but probably not tonight.
The dining hall of the climbers’ hut is lit by candlelight and smells of starchy food and mountaineers. One of the long wooden tables is piled high with junk food and surrounded by my nine other teammates and our five guides. A few, citing the shock of the accident earlier that morning have dropped out. I’m not hungry, but force one last meal of oatmeal and cookies into my uneasy stomach. It will be too cold on the mountain to stop and eat much more than snacks, but my body may burn 15,000 calories in the next few hours, so I’ve been gorging on carbs and high calorie food, storing fuel for the climb. Even here, the altitude is already wreaking havoc. I’m sleeping poorly, coughing a little, nursing a constantly spreading bruise of a headache. Altitude sickness is a very real danger at these heights. Crushing headaches, nausea and disorientation are only the beginnings of High Altitude Cerebral Edema: potentially fatal brain swelling.
Rodrigo, one of our Ecuadorian mountain guides, stands at the head of the table and reads out our rope teams- two to three people per guide. Instead of being roped to the mountain we will be roped to each other. If one of us falls, we have to trust our teammates to catch us. Having successfully summited another volcano, 18,900 foot Cayambe last week, I am assigned to a rope with three experienced mountain men. I’m in good hands and thrilled with the vote of confidence in my climbing abilities, but aware I will be the weak link on my team. I top off my water bottles with boiling water to stave off freezing, stuff a few candy bars deep inside my layers, and shoulder my backpack. Ready or not, it’s time to go.
A rough climb over sharp red volcanic rock takes us to the foot of Cotopaxi’s glacier. It’s now 11pm. Most successful summit trips take between 10 to 12 hours of continuous climbing to get to the top and back down. Since the mid-day equatorial sun softens the snow and makes it slippery and dangerous, we are starting before midnight to ensure we are off the slopes before noon tomorrow. Soon we reach the edge of the glacier, strap our crampon spikes onto our boots and rope up. My team is ready first and we step out onto the ice. Little do I know, we won’t see the rest of our group again until the following afternoon.
Climbing at night by headlamp is encouraging; it reduces the mountain to a more manageable size. The darkness keeps me from worrying about how I will survive the next 12 hours and forces my focus on only the bright patch of snow illuminated just in front of me. As I climb, my mind is on only my next few steps. The pace of mountaineering is slow and agonizing, almost elderly. It is too cold to stop and rest, so we must keep moving upwards, always. I fixate on the tortoise’s mantra: slow and steady, slow and steady. With each step I plant the spikes of my crampons firmly in the ice, and take a breath. Then I move my axe, impale it deep in the ice, and take another step and then another breath. I go on and on like this for hours, not climbing a mountain, but merely crossing a narrow circle of light.
The four of us are spread along our yellow rope about 15 feet apart. I am second in line after Bryce Green, our Californian mountain guide. Behind me is Colin Hamel, a videographer making a promotional video for our guiding company and then, Matt Hardy, trip coordinator for Johns Hopkins University’s Outdoor Pursuits program. Bryce continues upward like a machine, slow and steady and never pausing. We climb for what seems like hours before I figure out that if I need a rest, I have to ask for it. I speak up for a water break and we stop just long enough for me to dig out my already slushy water bottle and take a few sips. Stopping is precarious. The slope is steep enough to reach out and touch the snow in front of me without bending over. Bryce is not so much ahead of me as above me. Stopping on such a steep slope doesn’t give my calves a break and without the balance of forward motion, I feel like I’m about to tumble over backwards and off the face of the mountain. By the time I get my water bottle back in my pack, I’m already shivering. Bryce calls down “Listo?” we respond “Si!” through chattering teeth and continue following him up the endless ladder of ice and snow.
The moon is full and the stars are magnificent. The Big Dipper hovers over the slope ahead of us, so close that once we reach the top it seems we can climb right into the ladle and up into the night sky. Here in the southern hemisphere we have a different view of the stars, including the prominent Southern Cross constellation, which none of us has ever seen before. My rope team is moving well and we have passed several other teams of climbers laboring up the slope, their faint mumblings in Spanish and German and Russian fading into the night below us. I concentrate on my pace, on taking a controlled breath with each measured step. Every now and then, Bryce yells over his shoulder for our numbers. A one means you’re about to die and a ten is euphoria. At this point I’m a little tired, but elated just to be up here so I yell back- “Ten!” There’s plenty of light from the moon now so I turn off my headlamp and keep going up, step by step, feeling confident, climbing a mountain.
I’m not wearing a watch, but I know the hours are passing because the stars are moving and the moon is sinking. As it slips behind the mountain, I reluctantly turn my headlamp back on. The next time Bryce asks for my number, I reply “seven” and ask the time. It’s 4 am. We have been climbing upslope for five straight hours now and my legs are shaking and numb with exhaustion. With every step I have to hunch over my ice axe for balance and my arms and shoulders ache from the effort. My back hurts worst of all though, like it hasn’t in years, not since my accident.
As a teenager I was thrown off my horse and speared into the ground at top speed. Upon waking from blunt unconsciousness, I tried to move my hands to take off my helmet and found only searing numbness. Later I would learn I had broken several vertebrae, cracked three ribs and ruptured two spinal discs. All I knew then was that pain was scorching my spine, leaving me unable to do anything but lie still, gasp for breath and fight off panic. Hours passed before I willed my hands to move again. I was alone and miles from help and so I began dragging myself home, in shock and unable even to crawl. Face down, against the earth, I can remember every inch of that journey, every rock and root that ground against my broken ribs, every clump of grass I grabbed to pull myself along. Every inch brought new pains, but the suffering was welcome. It meant I could still feel something, that I was still alive. I had left the barn in the early morning and it was well after dark when I finally reached the edge of the spotlight on the driveway where somebody later found me.
If finding my way home that day was the hardest thing I have ever done, I am beginning to realize climbing this mountain might be a close second. Bryce warned us yesterday that mountaineering is “one big suffer fest” and now I understand what he meant. With the moon gone, darkness sets in and it seems colder than ever. I’m exhausted, painfully cold and approaching utter misery. But even if I turn around, I would still have hours of dangerous downhill (most mountaineering accidents occur on the way down) to get back to camp. And worst of all, for safety’s sake, my teammates would have to turn around with me. The wind picks up, whistling in my ears and I can no longer hear the crunch of my rope mates’ boots. We are all silent, saving our breath for the increasingly difficult task of gulping the thin air. I trudge on, and on, feeling alone on this miserable mountain.
The saying ‘the darkest hour comes right before the dawn’ is never truer than in mountaineering. With the moon gone, it is pitch black, except for the feeble light from my headlamp. My body gave out long ago and I’m running solely on sheer stubbornness now. We are around 18,000 feet when I completely forget the name of the mountain we’re climbing. I know it begins with a ‘C’ but for the life of me, I cannot remember what it is called. The air up here provides half as much oxygen as it does at sea level and it must be taking its toll on my brain along with my lungs. We stop for a break on a rare level section and I collapse on the snow, convinced I’ll never move again. Bryce asks us our numbers. I mumble 4 and my rope mates aren’t faring much better. I want to lay here forever, but prickling cold sets into my hands and feet after a minute or two. I rub my gloved hands together and suddenly I’m back on the road, staring at the hand, the dead hand, just lying there on the road, not moving and I’m standing there, willing it with all my might to move. I know now it never will, but I still can so I shake my head clear, stumble to my freezing feet and go on.
Looking at his watch, Bryce has good news and bad news: dawn is coming soon, but we still have at least three more hours until the top. Three hours! I cannot conceive of three more hours of this. The wind has died down and Colin, sensing our dark moods, offers to tell a story to get our minds off of feeling miserable. He begins telling a tale about two mice, the details of which I sadly, cannot remember. But it works and our numbers all raise a notch or two. As he wraps up his story, the first glimmer of dawn peeks out from behind the mountain. Then the dark sky lights up robins egg blue with streaks of red and for the first time, we can see what we’ve been climbing. Below us our tracks switchback across the endless snow, down and down to where the clouds swirl far below us. Gazing back at the way we came, the name Cotopaxi comes back to me in a flash. I am as exhausted as I’ve ever been in my life, but dawn flooding over the Andes is beautiful and it rejuvenates my resolve not just to make it to the top, but to enjoy getting up there. After all, not everybody gets to climb mountains.
Daylight brings a newfound fascination with the icy, alien world around me. I don’t know if it’s another wind, or my change in attitude, but I’m finally able to embrace my miseries and enjoy the experience of being on this mountain. We continue climbing, marveling at the massive ice caves, towering seracs and bottomless crevasses along our route. Occasionally we have to cross one of these giant cracks in the glacier and each time I hold my breath, try not to look down and leap across. On one crossing, Colin misses the edge and falls into the crevasse up to his waist. I dive to the ground, shoving my axe firmly into the ice to anchor us and he climbs out without further incident.
Awhile later, we stagger around a towering pile of snow and ice and suddenly, just above us, the mountain stops. The summit lies on top of a twenty-foot high pile of corniced ice and snow. I follow Bryce up, climbing vertically hand over hand. Swinging my axe and hammering my toe spikes into the snow, I drag myself up, inch by inch. When I reach the edge I rest a moment on my knees, eyes bleary, unable to summon enough energy to focus, let alone stand. But then, Bryce tugs on my rope and says “Welcome to the four-mile-high club” and it makes me laugh. I open my eyes wide and stand atop one of the highest volcanoes in the world. It’s a clear day and it isn’t just the thin air that makes me gasp; the view from the summit is breathtaking. Other snowcapped Andean peaks dot the green valley far below and I can actually see the curve of the Earth against the horizon. The volcano’s black crater lies just below us. The smell of sulfur is strong, but somehow the thin air up here is still pleasant to breathe. Colin and Matt join us and we all take pictures, holding our axes high in triumph. Just then I remember a note from my guidebook: Cotopaxi sits near the equator and here on top, we are closer to the sun than anybody else on Earth.
All too soon the clouds start rolling in and the cold wind forces us to take our leave. After scrambling down the cornice, we face directly down slope, kicking our spiked heels deep in the ice and start descending. Along the way we pass other groups, but nobody we know. Once our radio finally comes back into range we learn that everybody else turned back sometime during the night because of altitude sickness or exhaustion. As the sun keeps rising, the air heats up and for the first time in hours I am comfortably warm. We stop occasionally to slather on sunscreen, peel off layers and eat candy bars. Three hours after we left the top, we spot the edge of the glacier below us. It’s late morning and what was ice last night is now soft, slippery snow. The final leg of the descent is by far the hardest. My body is on the verge of collapse and I just can’t kick my feet into the slope anymore. I slip and fall most of the way down and have my rope mates to thank profusely for keeping me from flying off the mountain. Finally, we stagger onto the red rocks that we left nearly 12 hours ago, remove our crampons, stow our axes and trudge back to camp.
The physical toll of climbing big mountains is terrific: in the course of three such climbs over two weeks, I lost nearly 15 pounds. Breathing the thin air left me with a tightness in my chest that lingered long after I returned home to sea level; but when it finally cleared, I was sad to feel it go. The psychological effects of that trip have lasted far longer. Standing atop such a summit left me with a restlessness for rare heights and the fortitude to reach them and I have climbed many mountains since. Every now and then, I still see the smoking bus coming for me in my dreams, but after Cotopaxi the accident has become less of a nightmare and more of an inspiration. That day on a wending mountain road in rural Ecuador a blue truck was crushed by a bus and the driver was killed instantly. But a pack of climbers in a van lived another day, another day that was spent suffering, pushing living to its limits, climbing a mountain. They say that beyond mountains there are always more mountains. I hope that it is true.
“The Suffer Fest” was published in the anthology Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 from Travelers’ Tales and won the Gold Medal in Adventure Travel in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Story of the Year in 2010.