10:24 p.m. I step outside, and the brisk air rushes at my warm face. Everything around me is lit with the soft glow of moonlight. In groups of three – two climbers and one guide – we set off toward the glacier. We reach the ice, and our crampons take the first bite into the crust of this snow expanse.
Before I climbed Cotopaxi, I read a blog from a young Australian who had summited with no previous mountaineering experience. Throughout the challenges, his refrain is: “Don’t ask yourself why you are doing this. There is no answer.”
That seemed like the perfect way to put it. How could you find reason for climbing an endless snowfield in the middle of a night into thinner air? One bad fall could leave you tumbling into the abyss, an unseen crevasse could swallow you into the center of the earth, or an avalanche could suffocate everything you know.
1:00 a.m. Once I get out there, I feel differently. I know why I am doing this. The twinkling lights of Quito remind me of my origin. We climb above the clouds, little by little. We cross through forests of glaciers jeweled with sparkling icicles, crevasses, and snow caves. I feel confident with my ice axe, and I kick my feet into the ground for every solid step. Thank you body. Thank you mountain. Higher and higher.
3:00 a.m. We move slowly to maintain our energy, and I know that all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other. I find the rhythm that keeps the rope tight. I have one headphone from my iPod in as we trudge up the endless ice slope. Many of my friends and family visit me through those songs and keep me going. I hold on to the moments that the music evokes and I have even more reasons to be doing this. The hours drag on and sometimes it is hard to remember that this is not a dream; I am climbing Cotopaxi.
If you look behind you, you will see what looks like a sheer drop into nothingness. If you look down as you’re stepping over smaller crevasses, you will see into the icy heart of this glacial world. Don’t let the fear start talking; it could be paralyzing. You must keep your mind in reality, your eyes where you are, and your footing solid.
If you look in front of you, the wall of snow seems to extend upwards into infinity. There is no room for self-doubt at 17,000 ft. The more you focus on what is to come, the less you can handle what you are doing in that moment. This mountain is undoubtedly physically challenging, but the mental strength it takes to keep going is unmatched. You need motivation and focus, but most importantly you need to maintain a calm confidence.
5:00 a.m. The sun starts to rise and we stop near a rocky overhang. My partner Tess has been having a hard time breathing and with her footing.
If we don’t summit by 7:30 a.m., we will be forced to turn around because when the glacier warms with the sun, snow, and ice, the crevasses melt and the mountain becomes dangerous.
I start to process how it will feel if we don’t summit. Swallowing that bitter taste of pride and knowing that our safety comes first. Realizing that we have made it this far, though, is a huge accomplishment. We continue on, and Tess comes back with strength. Our guide Fabian tells us we must be warriors now. We can see the daunting shadow of Cotopaxi cast over the clouds below us.
6:20 a.m. We climb up unto a ridge and down into a small valley of snow and rocks. My calves are burning, but I know why I am doing this.
There is a folklore tale of a woman who climbs a mountain to seek answers for her loved one, and the refrain has played in my head during many tough climbs. “Still she climbed, for she was a woman who loved. She climbed ‘til she saw snow on the mountain peak. Soon her feet were wet and cold, and still she climbed higher, for she was a woman who loved.”
6:45 a.m. After seven hours of putting one foot in front of another, you reach 19,000 ft. The air is thin, and you have found a new definition of tired. Left foot. Right foot. Ice axe. Left foot. Right foot. Ice axe. The final trudge to victory. When you put your last crampon up onto flat ground, you can’t believe it; you summited Cotopaxi. 5897 meters. 19,347 ft.
7:00 am. For all of its cliché, the altitude, the view, and the sheer accomplishment take my breath away. Mountains in the distance that were previously giants are small bumps on the horizon. I have never felt quite that mixture of pride and humility. People who we have never met approach us for hugs, handshakes, and congratulations. The summit is a fiesta, filled with others as bold, brave, and maybe a little crazy. You don’t need to know the others’ names to feel like a family. You all have made it up here, and that speaks for itself. We did it.