Monday, February 1, 2010

Cotopaxi - Solo attempt

Story at the bottom of the photos. The first 4 photos are from the internet, as is the foto of a single climber.

This picture from the camera of well know Ecuadorian ariel photographer, Jorge Anhalzer, shows the slopes of the north face of Cotopaxi, and the last third of the normal route, 2003. The route in red is the approximate route in January 2003. Yanasasha, the obvious rock band, is clearly visible below the summit. It got to a point just to the top right of the rock band.
A telephoto shot from nearby Tambopaxi lodge. The old route went up the RHS, rouphly along the shadow line, and met at the apex below and to the right of Yanasash, the rock wall.
This photo was taken in 2006...note in this and the last 2 photos the round summit cone.
This photo was taken by me 2 days ago....not the massive chunk of glacial ice that has broken away from the summit. No more perfect semetrical cone! Note how much the lower glacier has receded in just 5 years.
This is as far as I felt I could go safely. This party is decending a 45 degree slope...the steeper exposure below is out of the photo.
Another internet photo from This is just below the point I got to. It shows the steepness better than my photos. (Just to justify that I wasn't too much of a wimp to turn around :)
Shadow of Cotopaxi...Illiniza Sur and Norte to the left, with the full moon above; Corazon to the right.

The first party decending, I've brightened the photo as they still have their headlamps on.

At 5,897m, Cotopaxi is claimed by the Ecuadorians to be the highest active volcano in the world, although I believe there are higher, active volcanoes in Chile. I don’t know where the idea to solo it took root; perhaps because the mountain has been promoted to tourists as very accessible and therefore relatively easy ascent, that with so many people attempting it, the result is a trail to the top, (at least under good weather conditions). Of course a trail on a glacier does not make it safe, but it does reduce the risks….a risk that I am willing to take, as I have done on a few other glaciers in the past. Well, solo or not, it is a long, steep, glaciated climb and mountain that deserves more respect than it recieves.

From the parking lot at 4500m, it’s a ½ hour hike to the refuge, which was packed with over 60 people! Shortly before going to bed at 7pm, I watched a large group being shown what crampons are and how to put them on. The next morning, after zero sleep, I was the last one to leave the refuge at 1:30am and I passed about 30 people, most likely the ones with little or no experience. Gotta give them credit for trying, even though quite a few turned around without having reached the glacier.

After a one hour scramble up loose volcanic rubble, under a full moon and a howling easterly, I reached the foot of the glacier. A third of the way up it began to snow and at times, zigzaging past the crevasses, the wind blew it directly in my eyes. At first light, shortly before 6am, I reached an exposed traverse just above the huge rock band that one can see from Quito; the crux. It was a difficult place to be…only 150 vertical metres/45 minutes from the summit, ability and energy not being an issue and no ill effects from the altitude at about 5750m. It was just too steep and exposed and I’m not that comfortable on steep snow slopes, especially with that kind of exposure and gaping crevasses below. This particular stretch had such a steep drop, (steeper than I had anticipated) that one would not have much of a chance of surviving a fall. I’d already overcome a few steep bits, some with ice and some with loose snow, that I knew it would be tricky down climbing, so that also weighed on my mind. I had brought my harness with me to possibly hook up with a group, if the going became too risky to solo, but no one was behind me and the rest were on their way to the summit. Most importantly, this was also the moment when my 2 little bubbies, asleep at home, popped into mind. So, this left me with no choice but to turn around (Some would argue I should solo in the first place...cada loco con su tema)and carefully retrace my steps…down the beaten path.

The Cotopaxi glacier is possibly the most beautiful I’ve climbed and being the second highest peak in the country, the views, at least when it cleared on the west side, were astounding. If there was any consolation, the successful climbers I talked to later said that because of the wind driven snow, there was no view from the summit, or into the crater. Also the fact that the volcano is clearly visible from Quito, only a 3 hour drive, means that I’ll be back….only the next time with a rope and partner...can you hear me down under Studley?

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