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