Cayambe

I like to write. Writing helps me express myself, and when I refer back to pieces I wrote long ago, it helps me remember the experiences I wrote about more vividly. Today while cleaning out some old files on my computer, I stumbled across this piece, written shortly after my trip to Ecuador in three years ago.

CAYAMBE

I tossed and turned. I rolled onto my stomach then back onto my side, and finally lay with my back against the thin mattress, head pointed to the sky, hands resting on my chest like a corpse. In this position I found I could not breathe. At 15,000 feet above sea level the air was too thin, and for some reason when lying on my back my chest felt weighted, as if a large dog had fancied itself a lap dog and placed itself there. So I turned back onto my side and looked at the watch on my wrist. I had by lying in bed for hours but had yet to gain one wink of sleep.

Every sound was amplified. Will, to my left, was restless too, and his every movement further condemned me to sleeplessness. I lay awake, eyes closed, trying to trick myself into falling asleep. The time crawled slowly, and by 10:50, I could take it no more and started to dress. Static sparks from my polyester long johns danced like miniature green fireworks as I pulled them over my legs. Soon, everyone else had joined in, dressing the the dark, pulling on warm layers of clothes.

We tiptoed downstairs to empty our bladders, top off our water bottles, and nibble on breakfast. Little conversation was had. We were too distracted by the unknown journey ahead and too tired to focus on much else.

At midnight, we left the hut and started our death march up the mountain. It was slow at first. The fifteen of us walked like ants, single file, following close behind one another over a trail of volcanic rock and loose gravel. Up and down we walked, although mostly up, until the sand beneath our feet grew hard and failed to give way as we stepped. Patches of black ice, decorated with trapped bubbles, occasionally appeared underfoot and soon we reached the frozen edge of the glacier. Here, we put on harnesses and crampons, added layers, and armed ourselves with ice axes for the climb. Rope teams formed, and each team of three or four tied into a long and sturdy rope, led by an experienced guide.

For hours, we climbed the glacier. We stopped infrequently to rest and when we did, it was only briefly. Our tired bodies grew increasingly fatigued, our bellies more hungry and nauseous, and our throats burned from want of water, aggravated by exertion and the cold, dry mountain air.

At one point the clouds gave way to stars. Looking up, one could see a thousand tiny diamonds glistening in the night sky. Behind us, the lights of the city glowed amber in the valley below. As the hours passed, gray-purple clouds moved in, flowing over the mountains, merging earth and sky, first framing, then consuming Quito’s urban landscape. It was beautiful.

We were tired beyond tired. As we climbed, the weather worsened. Soon, the wind took the stars and visibility was reduced to the glowing orb of our headlamps.

We marched onward and upward into the black night. Our progress was slow. The air was thin. We were tired beyond tired. Our feet dragged. We stumbled, our bodies swayed, and occasionally, some of us pitched and fell. When this happened, the guides would catch us, halting our failing bodies by tugging tight the rope that connected them to us. They half walked us, half dragged us by our leashes ever higher onto the mountain.

My mind was fuzzy. I felt drunk. My throat burned and the bits of cracker stuck in my teeth from the few I had nibbled on earlier tasted rotten and sour. Standing was hard, walking was harder. I was sure I had never felt closer to dying in my life, save for the one time at Christmas when I had a fever so high I could not stand at all and had to drag myself across the floor to the bathroom just so I could pass out on the cold tile floor. I thought of Cotopaxi, the even taller mountain we would attempt to climb in just a few days, and was not sure I would convince myself to endure this again. I wanted to lie down, to collapse onto my knees and then tip sideways into the snow, giving in to the exhaustion that I felt. But even my broken mind was too stubborn to let me, so I continued to plod forward, like a diseased and injured animal, possessed by the need for something. Each step seemed to require an extreme amount of effort, but I kept forcing myself to take them.

Dawn rose slowly. The black night softened as the hours passed, but the sun never came. Our world was blue and empty. Gray clouds and fog and windswept snow consumed us in every direction. The wind howled at us. Forward and backward looked exactly the same, yet we continued forward, following our leaders blindly.

At a point just shy of the summit, we stopped to rest, for maybe only the third time since midnight. The rope teams convened and the guides told us to drop our packs. “We are very close,” they said, “but the next part is very steep.” I stuffed my down jacket and sunglasses into the front of my rain jacket, and reluctantly left my camera and water behind. They told us the summit was just one hour away.

We plodded onward and were met with a vertical wall of blue ice. The structure must have stretched fifteen to twenty feet high, and had the texture of unfurling coiled rope, thin strands of ice interlaced and woven into a delicate pattern. The ice was aquamarine, like the color of the sea in the clearest most tropical oceans of the world, only bluer, softer, and more translucent. It had no snow on it to spoil its beauty. It was unlike anything I had ever seen before, and had I had any more clarity of mind, I might have stopped and pondered it more deeply. As we walked past it, the strong smell of sulfur permeated my nostrils, rising from the geothermic vents of the volcano upon which we stepped. I knew we had to be close.

The only way around the great wall involved a steep climb up an adjacent snow covered slope. Nico, our guide, punched holes into the ice with his feet, providing us with small steps to climb, and I smashed my way up the steep slope, thrusting the pick of my ice axe deep into the snow for purchase. Beneath the snow, the ice glowed blue. The new motions and effort required provided me with a brief moment of clarity, and despite being exhausted from the effort of punching and clawing my way towards the top, I urged myself forward.

Beyond this, there were more gradual and steep ascents, winding in and out of icy obstacles in our way. I don’t remember much of it very well, as I am sure I would have found it disorienting even had I been in a clearer state of mind. I trudged along the flatter parts in a straight line as best I could and scrambled up the steep pitches in a maddening fashion, like a person possessed. My mind had locked onto its goal, and despite the pain and lunacy of continuing forward in such a shattered state, I continued to follow Nico, slowly advancing towards the summit.

At some point I fell. My legs gave way, and my body tumbled, pulled by gravity down the slope. Nico and my rope team members, Josh and Kelli, caught me, stretching the rope tight to stop my downward fall. My mind was so unraveled that I lay tangled and suspended in the rope for almost a minute before I found my footing and a good placement for my ice axe and managed to right myself.

The summit itself was rather anticlimactic. It was a small rise following a steep pitch, and had Nico not told us we had arrived we never would have known. There, Nico placed his ice axe into the ground, point end first so it stood tall, like a flag. The spot was unremarkable, and the clouds around us were so dense that we could not tell how much more there was to climb or in what direction in might possibly be in. But he placed his axe with such certainty that when he said “Congratulations!” and told us we had reached the summit, I doubted him for only a second. I was too exhausted to want to go any further, so even if I had been less convinced, I am not sure I would have objected to stopping there.

I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to cry, because the journey had been so trying, and we had reached the summit, but I couldn’t. I wanted to jump up and down or shout out with joy, but I didn’t have the energy. I was glad and relieved to have reached the summit, but the emotions weren’t as fast, as sudden, or as strong as I wanted them to be. I mostly just stood there, dazed. It was as if the reality of reaching the summit couldn’t find its way through the muddled mess of my brain.

Nico came over to me and gave me a long hug. His embrace was one of those that seems to fill you with life, as if the person hugging you is actually transferring energy from their body to yours. His hug was so comforting that I didn’t want him to let go, but when he did, I felt instantly better than I had before. Only then, could I start to comprehend what I had accomplished.

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