All 10 of our team summitted Cotopaxi . . . “Yeah team! Yeah God!”
The summit bid was the hardest physical challenge of my life. 6 inches of fresh powder in the hours before we began our trek made the mountain even more arduous than normal. As one of our climbers, Glenn, said, “We got the mountain at its best.” 50% of the climb was at a 45 degree angle. One ice wall near the summit was 60 degrees. Roberto Bravo (A very good Ecuadorian friend from Compassion International) and I departed at 11:12 P.M., with our guide, Cozme Leon.
Turns out Cozme is a world class climber and considered by many to be the best in Ecuador–he’s “all business.” We have an hour and a half climb to the opening of the glacier–it is all through snow (which is to our benefit), so we are able to begin the climb in full cold weather gear with ice-axe and crampons.
On the glacier we encounter not just one ice bridge (as anticipated) crossing a crevasse 80-150 feet deep, but six! There are crevasses everywhere–which is why you must have an experienced guide. At one point we navigated an ice wall on a very narrow ledge (6-12 inches wide) by hugging it “face to the ice” to prevent dropping several hundred vertical feet. I was glad the dark hid the danger. Still, Jason, who climbed amazingly well, froze on the ledge and his guide (Abraham) had to come back and talk him through it.
Frequently, there were 45 degree ascents covered in deep, fresh powder. We would take three steps up, jamming our crampons as deeply as possible into the ice and snow, and still slide back down two steps–exasperating and energy depleting.
The sky cleared and the stars appeared close enough to touch. Heart-breaking beauty. Lightning flashed over the city of Quito. We paused to admire the awesomeness of God’s creation.
Six hours later with sunrise rapidly approaching, so was our final push to the summit. We reached the notorious ice wall, one of the most challenging and most treacherous points of the climb. Our guides assured us that once we ascended the wall we would be almost there. At 60 degree ascent you more or less scramble on your hands and knees, slamming your ice axe in and then pulling yourself up.
Roberto and I safely reached the top of the wall. We were both doubled over sucking air–actually only 50% oxygen at this altitude. To our dismay, we discovered that we still had another 30 minute climb at a 45 degree angle to reach the summit. Roberto shouted, “Greg, you can do this! For the children!” And we climbed further into thin air.
At 6:45 A.M. we reached the top of the mountain. Glenn, Matt, Steve and Jason had summitted 45 minutes earlier. Words cannot begin to express the goodness of their cheering us on as we traversed the last 100 feet.
High fives, fist pumps and long embraces all around. Tom, Jon, Toby and Eric had not yet reached the top. For those of us who had, we all agreed that this was the most difficult thing we had ever done. We were concerned about Tom. At 63, Tom was the eldest climber in our group. After what we had just experienced we wondered if he would make it?
Fifteen minutes later we saw Tom and Jon ascend the summit. We went wild with joy! Tom and I shared a special greeting of tears–memories of Kilimanjaro three years earlier. I said to him, “Still crazy after all these years!” Toby and Eric were still not in sight.
The first group to reach the top had now been on the summit for an hour. At 19,400 feet, 0 degree temperature and wind gusts of 15-20 miles per hour, we could not safely stay much longer. The sun broke through and we experienced nothing short of magnificent vistas.
The volcanic crater opened up and we were able to peer down into its forbidding depths. Sulfur faintly wafted through the air. We desperately wanted to get a group photo. Where were Toby and Eric?
We began to be concerned about Toby, who on a previous lower altitude summit had clawed his way to the top through raging headaches. I had now been on the summit for 45 minutes, far longer than I like to stay (by comparison, I stayed on the summit of Kili for 15 minutes). At one hour on the summit for me and an hour and 45 minutes for our first team, Matt asked me, “Are you okay? You don’t look good.” I responded, “Something’s wrong Matt. I have to get down.”
And so as much as we hated to, we took a group picture of the eight of us and began our descent. One half hour down we crossed paths with Toby and Eric. Eric was his usual jovial self, cracking jokes as we passed. Toby was on his hands and knees. He later confessed to us that for the previous hour he was seeing green spots all over the mountain. 45 minutes later both Toby and Eric summitted–for the children!
Soon, I noticed that my vision was blurring in short bursts about every ten minutes, my breath was rattling in my chest and a severe headache was burning down the back of my skull. I had to get off the mountain as rapidly as possible. We navigated the numerous crevasses on two foot wide ice bridges and that nasty six inch wide ice path around the ice wall with many prayers and “Thank-Yous” to God.
Halfway down the mountain, my condition continued to deteriorate. I was doubled over, violently coughing liquid phlegm out of my lungs. Cozme, our guide, stripped all of my gear and outer layers, and carried my burden the rest of the way to base camp.
Finally, I saw the refuge. Only 2,000 more vertical feet to descend. The last 1,000 feet of the drop was off the glacier and through the previously fallen powder. Our guides showed us how to lay down and glissade the mountain (serious sled riding for big kids) braking with our ice axes. We all made it safely to the camp. My illness was progressing.
Once inside the refuge I lay down to rest but was quickly back up choking and coughing, expelling liquid from my lungs.
A young lady was bunking near us, ready to make her ascent that night. She was a pharmacist from New york City and “just happened” to have steroids for edema. Tom, also a pharmacist, assured me that was exactly what I needed. Here at base camp we were still at 15,600 feet. I had to get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible. Steve and Jason linked arms with me and guided, half-carried me the last 45 minutes through volcanic scree to our awaiting bus. Fernando Puga (the country Director for Compassion International) and his wife, Liseth, were waiting at the bus to celebrate our triumph. When they saw my condition, they graciously loaded me into their SUV and drove me into the city of Quito at 10,000 feet. The lower we descended . . . the better I felt.
So, this morning, after a hot shower, a long sleep, some very good drugs and many prayers, I am sitting at an outdoor cafe enjoying an Ecuadorian espresso. Would I do it all again? You bet . . . for the children!