On top of the world
Sleeping on the plane was not an option, as the trickle of excitement which had started to filter into my head from the moment I boarded soon overrode all other thoughts.
The next day my patience was rewarded. Leaving the Quito traffic behind, we drove through the famous Avenue of the Volcanoes. Enormous peaks which had been just visible above the clouds as we cruised through the sky the previous day now powerfully jutted over the landscape in the morning sunshine.
“You’re all very lucky,” said our guide as we arrived in Cotopaxi National Park, “the weather is rarely this nice!” He predicted that it would take us about an hour and a half to get to the refuge, a key milestone on the trek to the top of Cotopaxi and as far as we would be getting on this trip. But as I looked up at Cotopaxi glowing in the morning sunshine I almost laughed, thinking he had surely overestimated it. Things seemed to be in our favour: I was feeling energetic and the weather was promising. Armed with a Gatorade, a Snickers and my camera, I was ready.
I was off… One foot after the other... And that’s when I felt it. It was an odd sensation and something that made me imagine what it must feel like to be on the moon, taking giant, slow steps. Although I was trying to force my legs to move faster, the altitude seemed to be slowing down the transmission of this message and I could only muster one step every couple of seconds. My heart was pumping so hard that I was glad my ribs provided a strong enough cage to contain it.
“This is actually quite difficult...” I gasped at my companion. That was when I made my second realisation: communication was out of the question; this was going to be a solitary expedition.
Following the local guide's advice, I had opted for the longer but easier option: having not prepared for this climb in any way, I knew that this was no time to be heroic. About ten minutes into the hike, what I previously described as promising weather rapidly turned and became highly unpromising. I could hardly believe my eyes as the wind picked up and it began to hail. I know that Ecuador has a reputation for an ever-changing climate but the transition was so rapid as to give the unfamiliar traveller no time to prepare. As the route I had chosen meandered up the side of Cotopaxi, one minute I would be facing the wind, with the hail pelting my face; the next, the wind was behind, pushing me along. These interchanges made the ascent all the more challenging and I often lost sight of the person in front of me as we single-filed along in silence. At times my motivation plunged and I felt like some malevolent person was moving the refuge further away from me as I struggled to combat the forces of nature. The only thing keeping me going was that distance between our starting point and me was steadily growing bigger than that which separated me from my destination.
I trudged along until I finally got there. The refuge: 4,810m above sea level. The highest place I had ever been.
The building itself was quite basic but it was all I needed – a place to discuss the experience with fellow travellers and consume a warming hot chocolate. The panoramic views were breathtaking. Although I was still far from the summit of Cotopaxi, I felt like I was on top of the world. I took a few moments to soak it all up, willing my eyes to capture a mental photograph. I couldn’t quite believe I was on one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. The feeling overwhelmed me.
Before I knew it we were off again. This time I chose the other option – the steeper route straight down. As we stampeded down unable to stop, I was frustrated at how easy it was to undo all the hard work that had gone into the ascent. When I got there, a sense of achievement flooded through my veins as I looked my opponent in the face. Upon reflection I was glad of a few things – that I had been able to fully immerse myself in this experience alone, that I had chosen the easier route and, despite myself, I was glad that the weather had turned. It was all worthwhile as Cotopaxi looked even more resplendent with his white coat on.