Travel and Sports—Bronze: Necklace of the Moon

by Peter Bronski

The beep of my altimeter wristwatch rouses me from my sleep at 11:30 pm, five all-too-short hours after I settled in for a nap. I crawl out of the warm cocoon of my sleeping bag, zip open the tent door, pull back the rain fly, and poke my head out into the thin, rarified air at 16,000 feet. Overhead, countless stars fill the night sky. There’s no wind. It’s clear and calm — perfect conditions for our summit bid.

I swivel my head to the left and right. Other tents nearby glow yellow and orange, illuminated by the headlamps of my teammates stirring inside. Our camp is perched on a glacial moraine of red and black volcanic pumice. From here we have nearly 4,000 feet – the better part of a vertical mile – of climbing beneath seracs (towers of ice), over glaciers, and around and through crevasses before we can traverse the mountain’s summit crater to its highest point.

I’ve come to Ecuador with a group of fellow climbing instructors from the outdoor education program at my alma mater, Cornell University. We’re here to take our leadership skills to new heights, both literally and figuratively, on Cotopaxi. At 19,347 feet tall, it’s one of the country’s tallest peaks and a prized notch in the belt of many a mountaineer. For many of us, standing atop Cotopaxi will be a personal altitude high, but reaching the summit is anything but a guarantee. At the moment, though, we’re preoccupied with more mundane tasks: melting snow for drinking water, eating a hot breakfast, and getting dressed and geared up for the climb ahead.

It’s shortly after midnight when we take our first tentative steps upward into the night. Amazingly, for now we’re able to climb without headlamps. The combination of starlight and the moon still arcing across the sky provide enough ambient glow to see the way. We plod upward over loose volcanic pumice, putting one foot in front of the other until we come to an impasse. At the toe of the glacier, several large seracs block our progress, and we traverse to climber’s left until we reach a point where the seracs give way and we can safely access the glacier.

From here on, the going gets more serious – the glacier ahead becomes a jumble of threatening crevasses, some of them wide and deep – and we pause to tie ourselves together in rope teams of three or four people each. If any of us falls into a crevasse, we’ll be counting on the other members of our rope team to catch us.

I strap crampons to my plastic mountaineering boots, and grasp my ice axe, ready for the climb. Looking up the mountain, the huge features of Cotopaxi throw off my perspective. I can make out the faint outline of Yanasacha, an enormous, overhanging ice cliff near the summit of the mountain. It looks close, but I know that in reality it is many thousands of feet, and many hours of climbing, away.

We set off and immediately fall into the slow, methodical rhythm of step-rest step-breathe. At these extreme elevations, there’s roughly half as much oxygen available as at sea level. Even with a good acclimatization routine, which allows our bodies to build more red blood cells and adjust to the thin air, the exertion of climbing still leaves our muscles oxygen-starved.

As the moon sets behind the mountain, I switch on my headlamp. Separated from my nearest teammate by 50 feet of rope that leads off into the darkness, my world becomes an isolated sphere of light cast by my headlamp directly in front of me. I’m alone with my thoughts, which are interrupted only by the crunch-squeak of my metal crampon points and the shaft of my ice axe when they bite into the neve snow, which has a consistency like Styrofoam and is the dream of every mountaineer. I think about my family back in New York, worried for my safety, and about my mother in particular. In the weeks leading up to the expedition her imagination ran wild with worst-case scenarios, and at this moment, she has no way to know that I’m fine. At other times, I sing songs in my head – AC/DC’s “Hard as a Rock”, James Taylor’s “Up on the Roof,” the theme from Rocky IV, anything by the Bee Gees. And more than anything else, I think simply about putting one foot in front of the other.

Looking down the mountain, I see a string of headlights stretched out across the glacier far below. It’s like a procession of a virtual United Nations – each cluster of lights comes from climbing teams that have converged on this mountain from around the world: Colombia, Brazil, Japan, England, the United States.

Unexpectedly, the rope that leads from my climbing harness and into the darkness ahead stops moving. I stop, too, maintaining the distance between myself and the next climber on my rope team. And I stand. The minutes accumulate until they grow to more than half an hour. I grow colder and colder as my body temperature drops from lack of activity.

Soon, other rope teams arrive behind me. We’re all standing in a great bottleneck on the route, and it’s not a comfortable place. The route traverses a steep snow slope; to the right, yawning crevasses prevent passage; to the left, the mountain falls away in a series of ice cliffs. Every climber intent on reaching the summit must thread this needle, and at the moment, things aren’t moving.

My rope team can’t advance, and neither can any other team behind us, until the clog ahead opens up. A climber with a British accent stands behind me, speaking to no one in particular, “This is a bad place to be stopped,” he says, a sense of urgency in his voice. “We need to get moving. I don’t like this. I don’t like this at all.”

Cotopaxi, whose name means “necklace of the moon” in the native Quechua language, is a quintessential peak. When you ask a child to sketch a mountain, invariably they draw a likeness akin to Cotopaxi – a symmetrical, cone-shaped peak, its summit clad in snow and ice. Its distinctive and instantly recognizable shape comes from its status as a stratovolcano, which puts Cotopaxi in the same family as Japan’s Mount Fuji and Washington State’s Mount Rainier.

And like Fuji and Rainier, Cotopaxi stands alone on the landscape. It is one of the great sentinels of the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a high-alpine valley that sits at 10,000 feet in the heart of Ecuador’s Andes. The valley is flanked by solitary volcanic peaks that soar to heights of 20,000 feet, and Cotopaxi is the second-highest of them all, behind only Chimborazo.

But unlike dormant Chimbo, Cotopaxi is alive and breathing. It’s often touted as the highest active volcano in the world, and there’s little doubt that it is indeed active. Between 1700 and 1904, Cotopaxi erupted more than 50 times. In 1877, a catastrophic eruption sent pyroclastic flows and lahars (volcanic mudslides) streaking down all sides of the mountain, reaching as far as the Pacific Ocean 100km to the west.

No one knows the active history of the mountain better than the residents of Latacunga, the nearest town to Cotopaxi in the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Between the mid-1500’s and 1904, eruptions from Cotopaxi destroyed the town 22 times. Each time the residents rebuilt, only to have their community torn back down by the mountain.

There is plenty of doubt, on the other hand, that Cotopaxi is the tallest active volcano. Much to the chagrin of Ecuador’s Ministry of Tourism, other active volcanoes farther south in the Andes are higher. But the “tallest active” title is a relatively insignificant inaccuracy. The fact remains that Cotopaxi is indeed very high.

It’s also a relatively accessible and inviting peak by the standards of high altitude mountaineering. Climbers first summitted the mountain in 1872, and by 1880, a team had spent the night on the summit. While its high-altitude challenge can’t be ignored, the standard route up the mountain is only moderately technical (glacier travel, snow and ice to 50 degrees), without being too much so, making Cotopaxi extremely popular with aspiring high-altitude mountaineers – like us – looking for their first experience in truly thin air. For that same reason, the mountain has also become popular within the “mountaineering as leadership and teambuilding exercise” circle. The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, for example, leads an annual “Leadership Venture to Ecuador” that culminates with Cotopaxi’s summit as the literal and figurative high point of the trip.

The Necklace of the Moon, it seems, calls to many people.

Nine days before the Cotopaxi summit bid I arrived in Quito, Ecuador’s capital. At an elevation of 9,000 feet, it’s the second highest capital city in the world (Bolivia’s La Paz, with an average elevation of 12,000 feet, takes that title).

Exactly how the group dynamic would play out on the trip was one of the expedition’s biggest question marks, and it had me worried. One year earlier, during a trip to Mexico’s 18,405-foot Pico de Orizaba – the third highest mountain in North America – I saw that expedition crumble before my very eyes as it self-destructed in a swirl of failed team synergy. Miscommunication, lack of training on the part of some team members, and the tension between personal ambition and group goals and safety cost us the summit. The last thing I wanted was a replay in Ecuador.

For sure, this expedition was different from Orizaba in significant ways, and I had high expectations. We restricted the team size, shrinking it from fourteen people in Mexico to a more manageable and intimate nine in Ecuador. I knew several of the team members well: Josh and Adam, rock and ice climbers with whom I’d roped up at the Gunks in New York many times; DJ, a former mountain guide from Colorado who’d climbed Cotopaxi before, the de facto leader of this trip; Ann, an ex-girlfriend who’d completed a National Outdoor Leadership School semester in Wyoming and Utah; Danfung, a varsity athlete. And we were all climbing instructors from Cornell’s outdoor education program.

Even so, there were wild cards, people on the trip I’d never climbed with, and I hardly knew them, save for one or two all-team-members-on-hand meetings prior to leaving for South America. I had no idea how they’d climb, or how they’d mesh with those of us that were already good friends.

We convened the next day at the Hostal Posada del Maple in Quito’s New Town. The hostel is located in a neighborhood unapologetically nicknamed Gringolandia (a derogatory term meaning “land of white foreigners”) by locals, owing to its overwhelming number of hostels and restaurants that cater specifically to climbers and backpackers from Europe and North America.

After adjusting to the altitude for a few days, we left Quito behind and headed into the mountains. Before we set our sights on Cotopaxi, however, we needed to continue acclimatizing – climbing progressively higher, and raising our sleeping elevation, until we were ready for the main event. We also needed to work out the kinks in our group dynamic. How would we divide the larger group into smaller rope teams? Who climbed best together? What pace was comfortable? Were we all committed to the same goals (i.e. group safety first, summit second)?

To achieve both goals – the acclimatization and the group dynamic – we traveled by 4×4 transport to 16,817-foot Ilinza Norte.

Our route to the mountain headed south on the Pan-American Highway. Vivid greens in the valley bottoms gave way to a lunar landscape of blacks, reds and browns higher on the mountains. Then we turned off onto a dirt road that wound its way past agricultural fields and tiny huts with thatched roofs. The track became so rough at points that we all piled to one side of the truck to counterbalance it and prevent us from tipping over. At last, Iliniza Norte came into view.

Along with its sister mountain, Iliniza Sur, Norte was once part of a single massive volcano. An eruption of unfathomable proportions cleaved the mountain into two – Sur and Norte – and we’d spend a few days high on the mountain, honing our skills and adjusting to the ever-thinning air. First, though, we had to trek to camp.

The route to high camp follows a ridgeline for a short eternity before depositing you at an excellent flat camping area cradled between the two Ilinizas. We shouldered our heavy expedition packs and set off, but soon the group became spread out as stronger hikers ascended faster, and weaker hikers lagged behind at the back of the pack. I particularly worried about Ann and Erin, who consistently fell behind the rest of the group. We all agreed to split into two groups. Four of us who were feeling strong would hike ahead and set up camp in advance of the rest of the group, who would follow at a slower pace. I went ahead with the advance team to set up camp.

We quickly put great distance between ourselves and the others, who appeared to have slowed to a crawl far down the mountain. Suddenly, DJ, who had remained behind with the others, caught up with us. “Ann and Erin are too tired to continue with their packs,” he said. My fears about the “wild card” factor and group dynamics had been realized. “They’ve cached them behind a rock and are continuing up to camp,” he continued. “I need two of you stronger guys to head down and carry their packs up.”

Danfung and I volunteered. We dropped our own packs and descended to recover the two cached packs. Along the way, we passed Ann, Erin and the others. Ann and Erin, in particular, didn’t look well. Would they sabotage our summit chances on this trip? I thought. I didn’t want to resent them, but I did.

Re-ascending the same ridge with a second expedition pack was at once demoralizing and utterly exhausting. As I got close to camp, clouds closed in on the mountain, reducing visibility to 100 feet. I was also running out of steam, and I’d pick a boulder on the edge of visibility and hike to it, then set a new goal for myself. By the time I stumbled into camp, the exertion of re-climbing the ridge had brought on a rough bout of altitude sickness, with a migraine headache and terrible nausea with violent vomiting.

That night I lay in my sleeping bag, contemplating the way the day unfolded, and scribbled in my journal: It is often quoted that mountaineering is the art of suffering. There have been times in my own mountain climbing when I couldn’t agree more. This is one of them. Adam brought me hot drinks and a small bite of much-appreciated and needed dinner. It was disappointing to feel so ill after having felt so strong just a few short hours before. Would I recover? And if so, how soon? Would I retain or regain enough strength to face Cotopaxi? Had helping to carry the second expedition pack pushed my body over the edge?

A day later, I had recovered (almost as quickly as I had plummeted into the depths of severe altitude sickness) and felt strong on our climb on Iliniza Norte. A fresh coating of snow blanketed camp as we began a long, rising traverse up to the crest of the mountain. We crossed to the mountain’s back side, and gingerly climbed across narrow ledges above seemingly bottomless couloirs. Then we arrived at the Paseo del Muerte, The Pass of Death. There, the route to Norte’s summit traversed a steep, snow-filled gully. But thanks to the fresh snow, conditions were unstable. Worrying about avalanche potential in the gully, and unsure footing on the rock ledges to either side, we turned back, arriving in camp early that afternoon.

My rapid transition from strong and healthy to severely altitude sick and back to strong and healthy was a powerful and humbling learning experience about team mountaineering. As we celebrated New Year’s on the mountain that night back in camp, I reflected in my journal: Looking back I was so worried about Ann and Erin holding the group back, yet in a matter of hours I had become the liability. Ultimately, I think it’s about a lesson of humility in the mountains. We all have our turn in the barrel, no one is exempted, and when it happens we have to take care of each other.

Whether or not carrying the heavy second pack up to our camp on Iliniza Norte caused my altitude sickness remains uncertain. Maybe it brought on the bought, or maybe I would have gotten sick anyway. It didn’t matter. Had the roles been reversed and I needed help on the approach, I would have been grateful if a teammate did the same for me. Just that very thing has happened in the past. While I usually count myself among the stronger climbers on the trips I’ve taken, there have been notable exceptions when others have felt strong and I’ve been weak. During those times my climbing companions have been unfailingly supportive, sometimes to the point of taking the heavy contents of my pack and distributing it among their own in order to lighten my own burden.

There is a line between being selfish and selfless; a line that can be exceedingly thin, and often blurry, in the world of high-altitude mountaineering and group dynamics. I’m reminded that there are some cultures whose climbing ethic is such that simply putting someone from the group on the summit is considered a team success, and that many climbers play subordinate roles for the sake of the group’s overall objective. In some extreme instances, the death of a team member is even considered an acceptable sacrifice if the group as a whole is successful. I’m thankful to come from a climbing pedigree with a different ethic, one where bringing everyone home safely is paramount, but also one where individual achievement is equally prized, where each member of the expedition has an opportunity to feel the satisfaction of standing on a high summit for his or her own. Not that such an arrangement is without tension – What to do when individual desire clashes with group need? – the very tension I was trying to resolve on this expedition.

We left Iliniza behind and continued on to Latacunga, where we stopped briefly to make final preparations for Cotopaxi. Our two 4×4 trucks rattled and rumbled over the lunar landscape of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi as we traveled across the remnants of lava flows from the mountain’s many past eruptions.

On the lower flanks of the mountain, at 14,000 feet, we said goodbye to our trucks and began the slow plod to our camp at 16,000 feet. Nearby, the rebuilt Jose Ribas Refugio offers basic accommodations for climbers. But a few years ago, an avalanche destroyed the hut, and we opted to camp in tents in a safer location on the glacial moraine.

That afternoon standing in camp, I watched as a thunderstorm floated across the valley below and butted itself up against the mountain. Tendrils of cloud swirled upward, but the storm never came as high as camp, and I had the unique experience of watching lightning flash from above.

The following day served as a final rest day. It was our final chance to acclimatize before climbing to nearly 20,000 feet. Dinner came earlyaround 4:00 pmso that we could go to sleep by 6:00 in preparation for the summit bid later that night. Erin had already disappeared into her tent when DJ and Julie, his co-leader, called an impromptu team meeting. “Erin won’t be joining us for the summit bid tonight,” they announced. “She’s not feeling well and has decided to stay behind.” Without verbalizing as much, we all knew DJ and Julie probably had made an executive decision and pulled the plug on Erin’s summit chances, and that this explanation was one meant to preserve Erin’s dignity more than anything else. Whether it was Erin’s choice or not, it seemed the right decision for her to stay behind.

With the sun still shining, I crawled into the tent, disappeared into my sleeping bag, and tried my best to sleep fitfully through the excitement of the impending summit bid. Then the alarm on my watch went off, and it was time to go.

Shortly after the Brit verbalizes what we’re all thinking, the bottleneck inexplicably evaporates and we’re climbing again. The horizon to the east glows orange over the Amazon with the first light of day. As we traverse beneath Yanasacha, the first rays of sunlight hit the mountain, bathing it in alpenglow – a warm pink-orange light that happens for a few fleeting minutes at sunrise and sunset.

To the west, the mountain casts a dark, pyramidal shadow across the landscape. In my climbing experience, it’s an effect unique to big mountains that stand as solitary giants, and I’ve only seen the shadow at dawn when I’m high on a peak during summit bids: on Mount Adams and Mount Rainier in Washington State, on Orizaba in Mexico, and now on Cotopaxi in Ecuador.

Beyond Yanasacha, the summit looms, and I can feel that we are close to success. The yawning crevasses here are big enough to swallow buses, and we cross tentatively on fragile snow bridges that span the walls of the crevasse. Every now and then, the wind coaxes the pungent smell of sulfur out from within the mountain, and I’m reminded that Cotopaxi merely lies in waiting.

A final steep pitch of neve snow leads to the summit crater. Peering into the crater is an awe-inspiring sight. The crater rim is a donut of snow and ice, but inside the crater, black volcanic debris is like a black hole. Vents of steam and sulfur spew from fissures, and in places the black rock is stained yellow from the sulfur. It is as beautiful a marriage of fire and ice as I’ve ever seen.

We traverse the crater rim to its highest point, and suddenly our team is standing atop the Necklace of the Moon. The altitude today has nearly crippled one member of my rope team, Josh. He has persevered through his hardship and has reached the top, but he slumps over and can only groan. I wish he could enjoy this success. Clouds fill the valleys below, while the other sentinels of the Avenue of the Volcanoes are strung out as far as my eyes can see.

In this instant, all my worries and fears about group dynamics and individual performance fade away. They are supplanted by a deep contentment and satisfaction. Cotopaxi is a new personal altitude high, and a shining accomplishment in my mountaineering career. But more than that, it is a group victory, won through our collective individual contributions. Later, when we return to camp, Erin will be their waiting to congratulate us, and our smiles and hugs will be genuine and sincere. We have each learned lessons about ourselves, and about functioning as part of a greater whole. They are lessons we learned when pushed to the edge of our mental and physical stamina; lessons learned on Ecuador’s mountain of fire and ice; lessons learned on the Necklace of the Moon.


Peter Bronski (www.peterbronski.com) is an award-winning writer from Boulder, Colorado. This article originally appeared in the Winter 2008/2009 issue of Appalachia. Bronski received the Silver Certificate in the Men’s Travel category of the 2008 Solas Awards for his essay, “Eight Seconds,” about learning to ride a bull in the rodeo. He is also the author of At the Mercy of the Mountains: True Stories of Survival and Tragedy in New York’s Adirondacks (The Lyons Press, 2008) .

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