Stepping Up to Ice Skills
Huge, icy fangs to one side and a seemingly endless drop on the other: what had I let myself in for? 10-foot tall icicles loomed out of the darkness, lit only by my head-torch, marking the entrance to another giant crevasse on my left. The howling wind and pitch-blackness of night on my right hand side only hinted at what drop awaited the clumsy. Weary, breathless and cold at 5,600m, I wondered if I was really cut out for this. I felt my rope tug, looked up, and relieved to see torchlight on the snow ahead, I continued on the slow trudge through this long, long night.
I was sure that there would be other hikers out there who also wanted to get a taste for mountaineering. So, I redesigned our Avenue of the Volcanoes trip to incorporate a couple of days on the equatorial glaciers of volcanic Cayambe in Ecuador to learn the essential ice-skills required. I changed the trip so it was more focused on getting the acclimatisation, practice and fitness levels right for attempting the summit of the beautiful ice-capped, near-perfect cone of Cotopaxi.
A few days before ‘summit day’, I found myself and an enthusiastic group of Exodus clients practicing self-arrests, climbing and descending techniques and learning how to walk as a roped-up team in glorious sunshine on Cayambe Volcano. The scenery was simply spectacular, the lessons were great fun and the training helped to fill the group with confidence for the ultimate goal of our trip. There was no doubt, though, that the Cotopaxi climb itself would still be a huge challenge and by this point in the trip, most of the group, myself included, were beginning to feel some nerves.
We awoke at 11pm at 4,800m with a heady mixture of anxiety, excitement and oxygen deprivation. All packed up, it was time to force some ‘breakfast’ in to our systems to fuel the climb. At 12:30am we were outside fitting our crampons with snowflakes lighting up our head-torch beams. Then we were off, steadily zigzagging up through the fresh powder snow for 90 minutes to reach the base of the glacier.
Here we separated into pairs, each with a mountain guide and securely roped up. Donning our ice axes, we entered the eerie, jumbled up world of crevasses and contorted ice, forced into precipitous formations as the glaciers tortuously creep down the mountain. We wove back and forth, making our way around the huge, seemingly bottomless cracks. Expertly guided, we paused regularly to take on water and snacks. It was at about 4.30am, trapped between the gaping jaws of a crevasse and an indeterminable drop, that I stood on a narrow ridge buffeted by the wind and got to wondering if this was really for me.
Then dawn broke. What a change! Out of the shadows emerged one of the most beautiful environments I’ve ever seen.
Convoluted and complex glaciers sparkled below my feet for thousands of metres, before abruptly giving way to the dark volcanic planes smoothed out by repeated eruptions. Further away, more volcanoes pushed above a broken sea of clouds, the highest of which shone with their own ice caps. The cold gale of the night reduced to a steady breeze, filling the air with the magical glitter of spindrift.
A surge of relief, euphoria and energy pushed us on for the steeper climb up to the bergschrund on the crater rim at 5,775m, now bathed in sunshine. As we paused for breath at the bottom of this wall of ice where the steeper glaciers pull away from those perched on the summit, a group that had been ahead of us descended with bad news.
The heavy snow of the last few days had left treacherous conditions on the crater rim and with fresh cracks appearing as they broke trail, their guides deemed the avalanche risk too high to make the summit and they had turned back.
So, with just over 100m left to climb, we too re-oriented our ropes and gear for the descent. For a few minutes disappointment set in, but try as it might, it couldn’t hold for long against the sheer majesty and pristine beauty of the mountain as we threaded our way back down through the crumbling glaciers. This was why I was here. I relished every step, stopping regularly to take in the incredible views – a completely novel environment, so treacherous yet so alluring
Reaching the summit would have been a great bonus, but as I stepped off the glaciers a few hours later I felt very privileged to have walked in those surroundings, proud to have pushed myself so far and excited for the next time I could return to the climb high amongst the peaks.
By Exodus' Walking & Trekking Programme Manager - Dan Cockburn