Acclimitizing for Cotopaxi Part II: climbing Volcan Pichincha

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May 28th 2007
Published: December 13th 2007
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So I´m proud of myself today. Despite the raging thirst after finishing the Quilitoa hikes yesterday, I managed to extricate myself from the excellent narrow bar ´Strawberry Fields´ in Quito around 11pm last night. Even that meant not being asleep till around midnight, but given my TOTAL weakness for those rare, ephemeral, good nights out that only happen with the right blend of people, music, general bar atmos and beverage (all the cocktails are named after Beatles songs - though after several visits, we never heard any tunes from the Fabulous Foursome), 11pm was a pretty good effort.

So I awoke at the ungodly hour 6.30am with nevertheless some decent sleep injected and was as ready as I could be for today´s mountain. I was suffering from a smidgen of trepidation, but I was excited to attack the thing, all 4,800 metres of it. Just to play with our nerves, there was a stunning view of Cotopaxi - the evil thing we were to attack in a couple of days time - against a blue sky, all 5,800m of it, on our way up in the truck. All I thought was "Jesus, you can actually WALK up that?". Both me and the Canadian girl - Sadeka or something - from the Quilitoa trek (the other one of the pair was sick already) were a bit nervous of the snowy beast now.

In our truck were a couple of Ecuadorian guys wearing the clothes it looked like they´d been out clubbing in the night before. All black nylon trousers, white dress shirts and nifty suede jackets. Not a North Face label in sight . By this apparel I couldn´t imagine they were wearing boots. One of the sharp-dressed men smeared his face with so much sun-cream - unguided as he was without a mirror - that he ended up resembling a clown for the next hour; why his pal didn´t say anything I couldn´t tell. It dried a kind of purple.

When we arrived at the point to have breakfast, there was another view of Cotopaxi, and a most surreal-looking forest and sky scene. So I had to snap that too. Now here´s a thing you may not be surprised to read about, if you´ve read about my previous white-water rafting experience. Just as the group was setting off en masse up the first part of the hill, I felt my bowels and lower abdomen lurch. "Oh fook". It was suddenly apparent that the Deadly Trinity of orange juice, eggs and coffee consumed at the hostel earlier, were not going to let me go up that hill without first dropping off a gaseous load....damn, dumping al fresco is starting to become a bit of a theme of this trip. So there I am, a few paper hankies in hand and bottom to the wind 3km up, depositing the most awful business behind a road-side bush. It was quite a balancing act too - I was at about a 45 degree angle and it was all I could do to make sure I would end up doing the walk with clean pants.

Honestly, it´s like I´m regressing.

So by the time I am back on the road, the others were all out of sight. Soon however, I caught up with Sadeka, who was holding the hand of the tiny daughter of one of the office staff of the tour agent; the mother - a striking black woman with Caribbean accented Spanish from the Esmereldas coast area - was slightly ahead. I figured it was only right to make sure I beat at least these three to the summit! Pride sped me on and up, along with a few residual farts. After a period of steadily more challenging uphill, Warren (skinny young English bloke in a big sunhat) could be seen striding far ahead. I tried to increase my stride, but the boy in the hat was too fast, so I gave up on catching up with him. Six or seven pints he´d had last night too, he´d told me, and not got to bed till after midnight either. Damn these youngsters. Well, it´s not a race I reminded myself. And I have to remember that awful experience trying to climb the volcano in Nicaragua . Just take it easy, me.

Carlos, the Mexican lad that I had easily ´beaten´ on the Quilitoa circuit, was also well in front of me. Anyway, after an hour or so ......

Where was I, oh yes, after an hour or so, I reach this plateau which allows me to leisurely stroll for a while, as if walking the dog on a Sunday afternoon (I don't have a dog. My mum does though). Whilst enjoying that, and staring straight at the base of the actual volcano, one of the guides catches up with me, baseball cap on head and blue jeans and training shoes on foot (no self-respecting locals seem to observe appropriate equipment rules out here, whether just punters or professionals!). "The girls are really slow", he tells me. "We will meet them on the way down anyway, so now I am here to push you up the hill". "Cool", I thought to myself. "It looks pretty steep", I say. "I hope I can make it. I am trying to train for Cotopaxi". With a monkey-like grin, the pint-size guide who looks like my Mancunian friend Lee Gaffney (I´ve forgotton his name now, so I´ll stick with Lee), says "we can try". What confidence! I guess my progress up the trail to this point failed to impress him.

We walked a bit together then he just sat down on a rock. "I´m gonna wait a while for the girls". I carry on, massaging my head at the back as I go, the throbbing that built up now starting to subside, gladly. There are what seem like an endless number of turns in the route up to the refuge, which I keep catching a glimpse of, like an oasis in the desert, as I climb upwards. On the way up though, the rough yet colourful vegetation, and views beyond, help compensate for the constant tension on the calf muscles:

It takes me another hour I record to achieve this milestone and then guess what! Lo and behold, the monkey-like Lee is standing there, cheeky monkey that he is, there outside the refuge beckoning me in for a rest. "How did you get here, or do you have a twin brother?" I exige. I find out that he forged his own direct path that avoided all the turns I had spent an hour on. "Look, the others are on the ridge", he says, as he points his monkey finger to the left edge of the volcano. "At least I got to here", I think and then say out loud. "No that´s very good, you have done well" Lee congratulates me, me enjoying his praise without calling into question his sincerity. "You have climbed over a kilometer and we are at about 4.5km now". I begin to feel sick, and my head is pouding again, but the continued applause from Lee peps me up. "I´d like to try to make it to the top - do you think we can?", I meekly inquire. "Of course! Let´s try, but it gets very steep now....just rest another minute or two and drink some water."

Soon we are on our way up a narrow track but it seems so close to the summit that I am in high spirits and we talk about Ecuador. "How many volcanoes are there here in Ecuador" I ask, as if considering making an assault on all of them. "## in Quito on J.L. Mena Street and we order a ton of the´s about my fourth visit by now (having been pretty curry-free this past seven months). Warren is a nice bloke, and quite funny, but we got into - well I got myself into - about the most mundane topics imaginable. Unfortunately, I have forgotton what it was that got Warren so worked up, but it was maddeningly dull. The next day however, I was laughing about it and indeed, it was quite amusing to think how this could ever become curry-time conversation. I was so tired after a quick drink in the John Lennon bar, that I headed off to bed. (Annoyingly, it always seems to be a Saturday night or something when I have just done one of this bloody exhausting trips).

¡¡¡ Ah that was it !!! Something about cheese! Warren was a veggie and we´d - he´d - got into a whole thing about how he only really liked cheese sandwiches....all extolled disdainfully in a heavy Bristol accent but sounding like Wallace from W and Grommit, who also said cheese a lot. Was funny later like I said, but you had to be there, but then, if you had been, you would have wanted to shoot yourself like I did........sorry Warren! :-)


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