icons/avalancheicons/bootscompassfacebookicons/gloveshandsicons/hearticons/helmeticons/ice axeinstagramminusmountainicons/pathsMap Pinplusicons/questionicons/guideicons/ropeicons/gogglesicons/stafftenttwitteryoutube

Stories from the Andes of Ecuador, getting schooled and knowing when to turn around

By MM guide Mal­lo­rie Estenson

Trip: Ecuador Moun­taineer­ing School Ecuador Vol­ca­noes Expedition

My watch begins beep­ing, pierc­ing the tran­quil dark­ness around me. I hear a few sighs. Some­one rolls over in their sleep­ing bag. My illu­mi­nat­ed watch face tells me it’s 12:00am. Go time.

Out­side my win­dow, the wind whis­tles through Refu­gio Ruales-Oleas-Berge. My instinct is to nes­tle deep­er into my sleep­ing bag. Instead I add an extra lay­er before putting on my hard­shell lay­ers. By now, every­one is awake and there’s an excit­ed, ner­vous ener­gy in the air. For sev­er­al peo­ple on our team, this will be their first Ecuado­ri­an vol­cano and first expe­ri­ence with thin air at high altitude.

We make our way to a com­mu­nal din­ing room for an alpine-start break­fast: grilled cheese, gra­nola and yogurt. We sip sug­ary teas and instant cof­fee. Cara­bin­ers make tin­kling sounds as we pull our har­ness­es on, attach our head­lamps to our hel­mets, and make final adjust­ments to our boots.

Ecuador climber
Ecuador climber 7
Ecuador climber 5

The wind whips around me as I step out­side of the hut. I see faster teams ahead mak­ing their way up the rocky steps to attain the glac­i­er. My rope team of three falls in step and we begin the jour­ney up. We walk slow­ly, giv­ing our bod­ies a chance to respond to the alti­tude. The day before, the team was shut­tled up to the hut at 15,092 feet (4,600 meters.) My heart beats faster and my breath is heavy. I’m sur­prised by how quick­ly my body reacts to the alti­tude; I’m con­stant­ly aware of it and drink­ing water accordingly.Step by step, we make our way to the glac­i­er more than 1,000 ver­ti­cal feet above the hut. We trav­el as a team, which helps reg­u­late our slow and steady pace. Above 16,000 feet, the pre­cip­i­ta­tion comes in the form of snow, which feels like less suf­fer­ing than fac­ing the rain. In the time it takes to apply my cram­pons to my boots, I become acute­ly aware of the fact that it’s time to put on my heav­ier ski gloves instead of return­ing to the soft­shell gloves I’ve been using.

Togeth­er, my rope team and I find our com­fort­able rhythm. It’s slow, steady and sus­tain­able. Only see­ing what’s con­tained Mountaw­ith­in the small halo of light emit­ted from my head­lamp, the night pass­es slow­ly. The snow is firm beneath my cram­pons, which aids my uphill progress. How­ev­er, the wind remains con­stant and short­ens com­mu­ni­ca­tions. It frees us all up to focus on walk­ing, breath­ing and moti­vat­ing our way high­er on the glacier.

Ecuador climber 2
Ecuador climber 3
Ecuador climber 4

Grad­u­al­ly, the light begins to change. Instead of just sim­ple, utter dark­ness punc­tu­at­ed by dis­tant head­lamps simul­ta­ne­ous­ly ahead and above me, I can begin to make out the form of the rock, ice and snow around me. We arrive at a bench for sun­rise. In the dis­tance, I can see Cotopaxi and Anti­sana part­ing the clouds that hov­er beneath us around 16,000 feet. It’s a beau­ti­ful morn­ing. After some pho­tos, water, smiles and some high fives, we car­ry on toward the impos­ing snow­domes that com­prise the sum­mit. Almost as soon as we start, we see the faster teams com­ing down the hill. The wind pre­vents dis­tant com­mu­ni­ca­tion, so we wait for them to approach. We learn that avalanche dan­ger is such that a sum­mit is out of the cards. A thick wind crust sit­ting atop sug­ary, faceted snow indi­cates that today is not the day to trav­el in avalanche terrain.

Hav­ing climbed to 18,000 feet, nobody is dis­ap­point­ed. We feel accom­plished for press­ing on through chal­leng­ing con­di­tions and reward­ed by the gor­geous views at sun­rise. And besides, we still have two more vol­ca­noes to climb: Cotopaxi and Chimb­o­ra­zo. Miss­ing the sum­mit on Cayambe rep­re­sents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to become more accli­ma­tized and pre­pared for those to come. A win for the team.