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Because It’s There

Thank you to MM climber, Jim Schatz, for shar­ing this arti­cle he wrote for his church, St. Pete’s in Vir­ginia, after his expe­ri­ence climb­ing with Moun­tain Mad­ness in Ecuador this win­ter. Why do you love to climb?

There are many rea­sons to climb a big moun­tain. It was once famous­ly said because it is there”. One might do it to get phys­i­cal­ly clos­er to heav­en and God by ascend­ing up through the clouds. Sure­ly every climber has his or her own reason. 

Cotopaxi from a pre­vi­ous expe­di­tion. Ter­ry Tra­cy photo

Imag­ine climb­ing the steep slopes of a spec­tac­u­lar peak in the Andes moun­tain range in north cen­tral Ecuador in bright moon­light. Start­ing at 14,500 feet in the cold air at mid­night, to lessen the chances of avalanch­es that increase as the air warms, you don your cram­pons and har­ness, dust off your ice axe and rope up” togeth­er and begin the jour­ney up, and up, and up some more. Below your feet, pro­tect­ed by dou­ble insu­lat­ed climb­ing boots, is an ancient liv­ing glac­i­er many feet thick that moves, grows, recedes, cracks and some­times takes human lives. 

Get­ting ready for the big climb! Jim Schatz photo

You car­ry with you the essen­tials in your 40 pound pack. Cold and wet weath­er gear, water in insu­lat­ed con­tain­ers to keep it from freez­ing in sub-zero tem­per­a­tures, enough snacks for the manda­to­ry hourly refu­el­ing to keep your engine going, and you mov­ing for­ward. The air is thin espe­cial­ly for a low­lan­der” who lives at 400 feet in the Catoctin Val­ley of Vir­ginia. The body will burn thou­sands of calo­ries on this cold but calm morn­ing. With each step you breathe — gasp, in fact, for oxy­gen that is sim­ply not there and prac­tice your rhyth­mic rest step” to make the most effi­cient use of your finite reserves of strength and endurance. You will need both and all of it this morn­ing on your high­est climb­ing attempt yet. It is a marathon, not a sprint, a slow steady pro­ces­sion where haste is not reward­ed. Five inch­es of fresh snow cov­er the glac­i­er’s skin. The spikes of your met­al cram­pons dig through the snow to make the all-impor­tant pur­chase in the ice. The teeth of your cram­pons, the spike end of your ice axe and the rope between you is your only pro­tec­tion from the expo­sure” of rac­ing down 70 degree icy slopes should you fall. You rely on your fel­low climbers and your guide; the fel­low­ship of the moun­tain”. Trust and expe­ri­ence are key. You are there to per­form, to reach the sum­mit togeth­er because if one comes down ear­ly, all must follow. 

On the descent. Oswal­do Freire photo

On Cotopaxi the sum­mit is 7 long, gru­el­ing hours away at 19,348 feet above sea lev­el, more than 3 ½ miles high­er than down­town Lovettsville. You arrive days ear­li­er to accli­ma­tize, for your body to adjust to the alti­tude and thin­ner air. Dai­ly climbs and stays in climb­ing huts at 16,000 and 17,000 feet pre­pare you for sum­mit day” on The Sacred Moun­tain”, Cotopaxi, the tallest active vol­cano in the world and the sec­ond high­est peak in Ecuador. Eight hours ear­li­er at the hut you stood, from a dis­tance, cap­ti­vat­ed by God’s mas­sive and beau­ti­ful cre­ation, an active vol­cano that still breathes steam and the strong smell of sul­fur from its crater open­ing just below the sum­mit. You pray to God for the strength to safe­ly com­plete the mis­sion that awaits you.

Ter­ry Tra­cy photo

As you climb in the moon­light, with­out the need for the head­lamp strapped to your hel­met, you can see the dis­tant lights of Quito, Ecuador’s cap­i­tal city and the high­est in the world at near­ly 10,000 feet. Deep crevass­es, the many near­by peaks of the Andes, and the cot­tony clouds which are now below you are vis­i­ble in every direc­tion. The moon is giv­ing you the views of your life. You smile as your mood soars in joy and pure love for one of life’s small mir­a­cles on earth, thanks to the Lord Almighty. In the vast still­ness you can hear the cold ice around you crack and groan as your fel­low climbers breathe in all the O2 that the sur­round­ing air can pro­vide. (Bot­tled oxy­gen is gen­er­al­ly not need­ed or used on peaks below the 7000 meters (25,000 feet), the start of the death zone”). 500 feet from the sum­mit, the sun ris­es to your left through the clouds as you exit the cold­est pitch­es of the climb. It is a glo­ri­ous sight but Moth­er Cotopaxi is kick­ing your butt after 6 hours of push­ing steadi­ly upwards against grav­i­ty, your tanks near empty.

Jim on the sum­mit with his St. Pete’s mag­net. Jim Schatz photo

There is sim­ply no way to train for the alti­tude and you endure; think of friends, fam­i­ly, and in my case a favorite dog who has come along for the ride in the form of a small vile of his ash­es in my pack (and a St. Pete’s car mag­net!). Axel wills me for­ward, the Lord draws me upward, the image of my wife’s kind smile brings me strength. I grin at the thought of mak­ing God proud in our shared accom­plish­ment and recall the months of prep and train­ing to get this far. The last pitch before reach­ing the sum­mit you are will­ing your feet for­ward, one step at a time, ever so slow­ly. Exhale. One-legged push-up. Rest. Repeat. 100 more to go and then you step onto the sum­mit. You stand there, in awe, arm in arm with your fel­low climbers for a pho­to. You gaze into the dis­tance, and view oth­er peaks jut­ting through the sur­round­ing cloud lay­er and you feel what can only be God’s pres­ence and love for all mankind and the whole of his cre­ation. Why do I climb? Climb­ing is life and love and a cel­e­bra­tion of all God has giv­en us to suc­ceed and over­come. And, oh yes, for the scenery.

~ Jim Schatz, Cotopaxi Feb. 2014