Bagging a summit usually elicits a sense of excitement and accomplishment, but this time it was buried deep beneath sheer exhaustion.
Our crampons had brought us — barely — to the top of Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak at 20,702 feet.
Reaching high altitude came with a price, and at that moment I wasn’t sure it was worth it.
Icicles had formed on our eyelashes and hair. Blood vessels burst beneath our cheeks, giving our faces a purplish hue. The frigid cold had sucked all life from my fingers, my legs were Jell-O and a deep, dry cough burned my lungs.
But I was there, standing atop a massive volcano and peering through the clouds into nothingness with some of my closest friends. We’d earned every step of pain and misery, and while we could hardly wait to get off the mountain, these moments are when we’re happiest.
“Climbing is the one activity that lets you be the best and worst on any given day and still have a memorable experience,” said Scott Schissel, a retired Army first sergeant who organized the trip. “It’s all about the bonding experience with your friends and the mountain. We don’t climb for trophies, money or recognition. We climb because we can.”
Our group of eight varied with experience but we all shared a sense of adventure and a passion for the outdoors. The group included Schissel of South Hill; Jay Griffin of Orting; Megan Biegalski of Tacoma; Katie Miller of Olympia; Ben Roberts of Tacoma; Karen Connolly of Boynton Beach, Fla., and Claire of Seattle, whose job precludes the use of her last name.
Our late November trip was more whim than long-planned adventure.
The objective was to knock out five volcanoes in 11 days, with one rest day sandwiched in so we could see some of the countryside and revel in a bit of South American sunshine.
This would be the highest any in our group had ever climbed so we plopped down $1,080 for the guide services of High Summit, poured over maps and crammed our packs with 60 pounds of gear and extra layers.
Most of us had been hiking and mountaineering together for roughly two years so we knew what to expect. Only Connolly was new to the group, and as a Floridian, she was the only one of us who had never climbed a mountain or spent a substantial amount of time in snow.
“As the trip approached, I realized I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “I had no idea what a crampon or prusik was and I had no idea how the hell to break in a mountaineering boot in Florida.”
So she kept it simple and focused on running, figuring that being in extraordinary shape would propel her up to the summits. The rest of us did what we always do: hike in our spare time and count on experience to carry us through.
After eight hours of flying from Seattle to Miami to Quito, Ecuador, and a quick briefing by our guide, we were ready to climb.
It was slow going at first, warm-up hikes intended to acclimate us to the altitude and stretch our legs.
On our first volcano, Pasochoa, we hiked through the fog along a muddy road, past rolling green hills and up a little knob until we hit the top at 13,779 feet. The group consensus was that we didn’t need to leave Washington to enjoy the view from the top. We’d seen it dozens of time back home — blankets of fog obscuring beautiful scenery we could only imagine.
The weather was more welcoming the next day, when we set out to reach 15,728 feet atop Guagua Pichincha, the highest of the three Pichincha peaks and a popular acclimatization climb.
It was an easy trek up a dirt road lined with chuquiragua flowers, along a hazy ridge and finally to the rocky top after a bit of low-class scrambling. There we all mugged for the camera — Roberts started his tradition of doing a headstand on the summit, the girls did goofy kung-fu poses.
It hadn’t been a difficult climb, but for most of us, we’d just climbed to our highest elevation. Griffin drew a line in the sand to mark the point when we passed Mount Rainier’s elevation at 14,411 feet.
Biegalski said reaching Pichincha’s summit was drastically different than being that high on our own volcano back home. There were no freezing temperatures, no high winds, no steep hills or giant crevasses to work around.
“Mostly I was looking forward to getting to the summit of that day’s hike just like any hike,” she said.
RAISING THE ANTE
The time came to trade in our hotel beds for wooden bunks at shared huts.
With 16,784-foot Illinizas Norte in our sights, we piled into old Jeeps and started for the trailhead. The hike to the hut took less than three hours, but a torrential downpour made it less than enjoyable. The storm, which started as a slight nuisance, took on a more serious tone after lighting struck directly in front of Schissel and Griffin.
Needless to say, we welcomed the delicious soup, salmon and rice our guides cooked up as we hung our gear to dry and warmed our hands on mugs of tea.
After a night of restless sleep, we slung on our packs before dawn and picked our way over the rocky terrain. Our guide told us this was his favorite peak, and it was easy to see why.
It was a fun scramble with easy hand and foot holds and provided stunning views of nearby Cotopaxi nestled in the clouds. That, after all, is why we were in Ecuador. The names of the smaller peaks often escaped our memory back home, but Cotopaxi and Chimborazo loomed large in our minds.
PEAKS KEEP GETTING HIGHER
Cotopaxi, the country’s second highest peak, was next. It sits at 19,347 feet in the Andes Mountains. While not considered a technical mountain climb, we were still going to don crampons, carry ice axes and rope up.
We laced our boots in the dark and tromped down the stairs inside the Jose Ribas refuge to force down yogurt, bread and bananas. We needed all the energy and fuel we could get.
I was shaking, both from the cold and excitement. This would be our first big peak in Ecuador, the summit a mere seven hours away. Our guides told us it was a friendly mountain. I didn’t know whether to believe the men who had long lost count of how many times they had ascended its snow-capped flanks.
Our headlamps lit the way as we picked our way up a scree slope toward a glacier around midnight.
The peak’s perfectly symmetrical cone, which we had gazed at in wonder the previous day, was hidden in the dark. All we could see were various ice formations as we made our way through a labyrinth of seracs and crevasses, occasionally reaching out to touch one of the gigantic icicles as we wound our way upward.
This was no Mount Rainier.
The toughest part came on a steep chunk of ice just below the summit. There were a painful few moments of swinging my axe into the ice, kicking my crampons in and hauling myself up a foot at a time.
Then, blissfully, we could see the edge of the summit just as the faintest shades of purple and blue lit the sky as the sun slowly rose, giving us our first glimpse of the bucolic valleys down below.
For Claire, it was an exhilarating moment. She had tried to make it up big mountains before but something always turned her back. Other than Mount St. Helens, this was her first major summit.
“It reminded me I’m into climbing, not as much for the physical challenge and the coolness level but for feeling so small when you are on top of that mountain and getting to see how beautiful and magnificent the world around you is,” she said.
JUST STRAIGHT UP
The size of our last mountain, Chimborazo, grew but our group dwindled to six. Biegalski was sick and Schissel turned back when we hit the glacier when an old leg injury flared up.
Our mood was markedly different on Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest mountain. There was no excited chatter as set out from the refuge, where we had curled up in our sleeping bags just after 7 p.m. and dragged ourselves out of them by 10 p.m.
We were tired. Anxious. Ready to prove ourselves.
There was a traverse across a ridge, and then it was just a slog. There were no switchbacks, just straight up more than a 60 percent grade.
Roberts and Griffin, who were roped together, set a much quicker pace than the rest of us could maintain for the 10-hour climb. As we stopped for a break to gulp half-frozen water and energy goo, we watched them fade into specks in the distance.
The conditions were horrible and every step sent us crashing through a crusty layer of ice and thigh-deep into wet powder. The air was so thin and dry that our breath came in short, quick bursts.
“I remember being in the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other daze,” Ben said. “All my senses were turned off.”
Miller, who hadn’t been feeling well, asked to turn back when we were less than two hours below the summit. The other girls stopped and rallied her back on track. Moments later, Claire stopped and considered turning around because she was too tired. Repeat rally, onward and upward.
I kept going though my legs felt like they were on autopilot. I’d periodically stop, desperate for rest, before the rope would tug me forward again.
I thought reaching high altitude couldn’t possibly be worth this. I wished for a steaming cup of cocoa and enough air to soothe my lungs. Then I ceased to think at all.
My guide tried to encourage me by telling me we were almost there, that the summit was just 10 minutes away. I kept moving. I’d stop. He would urge me on, dangling that 10-minute promise.
Finally I snapped, demanded he stop treating me like a child and tell me the truth.
He stared at me sheepishly and said, “Seven more minutes?”
I sighed and trudged ahead, post-holing with every step and praying for the end of what we now refer to as the Death March. It didn’t come for at least another half hour.
Connolly and I stepped onto the summit and dropped our packs. We somehow mustered the energy to smile and hug, first each other and then the guides. I managed to slip off one of my heavy gloves long enough to snap a self-portrait of us two. Then we stood there shaking, rocking back and forth in a futile effort to stay warm.
We vowed to wait for Miller and Claire, who were finishing the long slog with their own guides. It was possibly the coldest 20 minutes of my life. I willed them to appear above the ridge so we could start descending. There would be no waiting for Griffin and Roberts, who had forged ahead to a second summit.
We celebrated with a handful of pictures we coaxed the guide into taking. Then with more energy than we’d had for hours, we agreed to get off the snowy monster.
Now that the sun was up, we could faintly see distant peaks and ice formations. We couldn’t feel much as we high-tailed it down.
We didn’t look back.
If you go
High Summits is one of several guiding services that can lead mountain climbs in Ecuador. Reach them at 593-2-290-5503 or go to their website at ecuador-climbing.info.
Tips for traveling to Ecuador
Paying cash can save you money: There is a 12 percent tax on all goods and most hotels and restaurants add a 10 percent service charge, which means 22 percent of your bill. Also, there is a departure fee for flying out of the country that ranges from $26-$42.
Only drink bottled water: This should need no further explanation.
Know your own capabilities and limits: Some people pay guide services a lot of money only to get on the mountain and realize they’re not in shape enough to make the climb.
Take along favorite snacks: Guide services will provide transportation and food during climbs, but bringing snacks is recommended. The grocery stores in Ecuador might not carry the foods and brands you’re accustomed to.
Money matters: Many ATMs in Ecuador will only accept pin numbers with four digits. Consider changing yours if you plan to withdraw money while in Ecuador.Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653 firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com