No One Does It Better Than YOU
Speeding UP Cotopaxi Volcano at 19,347ft (5,897 meters)
Saturday, November 13th, 2021
It was Friday afternoon and we entered the park. It's a 25 minute drive from the main gate to the parking lot (15,218ft) where we decided to climb to base camp as a pre warm-up for the next day and to test the altitude above 15,000ft for the first time. Climbers usually take (about) 45 minutes to an hour to climb from the parking lot to the main base camp (Jose Rivas) (15,5953ft). We started climbing and at that point were already at an altitude I had never been before. As we started the climb I touched my chest over my heart and I felt my heart beating rapidly and I said to myself, “calm down, your body's trying to adapt to this new high altitude you have never been before”. It was a mix of snow, volcanic sand, and rocks. About halfway to the camp I started to feel better, a little more like myself and next thing we knew we were at base camp. This small ascent proved two things to me: 1) that the ability to climb and adapt quickly was there (we did it in approximately 15 to 20 minutes; when most people do it in almost an hour). 2) OR, a recipe for disaster because if we go up at this intensity what could happen with my body above 17,18, or 19 thousand feet of elevation? At that point it was all a mystery so instead of guessing, we spent our afternoon being happy and splendid drinking tea and hot chocolate at base camp, while we overheard everyone else complaining about things. Some were saying they needed to acclimate above the 15,000ft before attempting the summit and others were concerned about "if" a storm passed through -- All displays of external forces already in control of people's emotions. Later that afternoon we went back to the parking lot and drove down to our refuge (Tambopaxi) located at 12,309ft.
We sat down at the dinner table where we had the chance to talk with other climbers who were also ready to climb that evening around midnight. The atmosphere amongst most climbers was a bit of nervousness. They all seemed to be nervous about all the equipment being ready and kept saying “ I hope we can reach the summit tomorrow". I continued the night making jokes with Raul, my professional guide and climber who has already conquered K2 in Nepal, one of the deadliest peaks in the world to climb and someone who has been above 20,000+ feet many times. He is a calm professional mountaineer who was a little confused by my mixed messages one minute telling him I wanted us to climb in less than 4 hours and the next minute not really worrying about my equipment or at the speed I said we could go up. He spent the entire night at the dinner table trying to figure me out. Our fellow climbers couldn’t believe I didn’t have a thermal waterproof jacket to go up. All I had was my regular jacket I always travel with and a regular sweatshirt. They all wondered how could someone climb this high mountain without the proper equipment? Everything happened so quickly for me trying to plan this trip that I forgot many things including the waterproof thermal jacket. We went up to our rooms and I couldn't sleep, my face was super hot and I felt overheated. I couldn’t figure out if it was because of the high altitude or the fact that I was excited about the climb but I needed it to catch a bit of sleep so I said to myself “calm down, stop thinking, and rest”. Next thing I knew it was 12:30am and it was time to climb! I jumped out of my bed and did 30 push ups to accelerate my metabolism. I needed to get super pumped if I wanted to have a chance to break the goal that everyone there doubted -- reaching the summit in less than 4 hours from someone who has almost NO experience climbing 19,000+ft elevations.
We arrived at the parking lot (15,218ft) and when we walked out of the car we looked up and saw all the small lights above us. I asked Raul “what are all those mini lights?” It was the more than 50 climbers who started the journey that morning at 12:00am. Myself and Raul were the only ones starting almost 2 hours behind. It was per my request as I knew that if we started with everyone officially at midnight and made it up in under 4 hours we would arrive before 4am and the sunrise was at 5:30am. It was a hit or miss target but I took the chance and Raul had no other option but to trust me, the guy with zero experience.
I put my chronometer on zero and started the climb! It was finally here, “Let's go, Raul. Let's get into a good rhythm from the start”. We started climbing, Raul in front and me just 2 steps behind. My adrenaline was at its MAXIMUM capacity! I was finally climbing the Cotopaxi and I was 100% sure I was going to make it in under four (4) hours even without any previous experience. The pace was very stable at a very high intensity. Raul kept asking me “are you alright back there?” and my response was always the same, “I am having an amazing time Raul, let's keep the pace”. At that point I realized that it would be suicide to try go up this mountain alone. You can’t see anything and all you have is a wall of snow in front of you and very dangerous altitudes waiting ahead. Crazy, just crazy. You must put your faith and trust in a super pro like Raul. Some time went by and I didn’t even look at the time as it's pointless to look at your watch on this high mountain. The time on the watch won’t make any difference and is one more thing to worry about. Instead my only weapon and my best friend was my rhythm, my steps, and my breathing. “Let's go, let's go; one strong step at a time” I thought to myself. Approximately one hour went by and I was sure we must've been above 16,000ft. It was a once in a lifetime moment to be at that altitude and to see how it feels to be at that altitude for the first time and at that intensity (crazy thinking for sure). "Holy shit", I looked at the time for the first time and It was only 43 minutes into the climb and I said to myself (without asking Raul about where we were), “I know we are already going at 3:30 hours pace”, even if I never been on that mountain I trusted my feelings and trusted my experience climbing volcanoes in Guatemala. I knew we were going fast so I told Raul, “slow down the pace by 1%, trust me we are going really well”. Once again the guy with zero experience running the show. From that point up I was dictating the intensity throughout the accent telling Raul “1% slower Raul, 1% slower”. I never had to tell him 1% faster! Somewhere around one hour and a half we caught up with the first group of climbers who started at midnight. As we started to pass them some of them told us “you are running up the mountain, you are running”. I guess a usual term on the mountain for those climbing at a fast pace.
Ahead we started to catch up with heavy lines of climbers all going up one behind another at a pace that almost looked like they were not moving as we passed by. The rule in high altitude mountains is that you climb standing leaning forward a little with a ice axe on your right hand which you are supposed to stick it into the snow for support as you go up. I have been all my life going up the mountains putting both hands on my knees and sometimes my right hand or both hands on the ground (like spiderman climbing a wall). This technique has worked out for me well in the past and as we continued passing by lines of climbers more than one told me to “stand up and use your ice axe for support”. Mind you, all of this is being said to us as we are flying by next to them and finally I took the authority to say to one of them; “I climb like a spiderman with my hands,this is how I have done it in Guatemala for the past 30 years”. Even in this hostile environment getting more and more challenging, I had to put trust in what had worked for me. So, I was climbing Cotopaxi that morning without the help of an ice axe and the "right" body posture.
Somewhere around the 2 hour mark
We had passed all the climbers in the mountain and we were in the lead unintentionally which is when the serious work and intensity started! It was just me and Raul in the dark mountain, no wind, and a sky full of stars. We started to take small breaks (per my request) of 10 seconds. I told Raul “wait ” counted to 10 and said “let's go again”. I was starting to feel the effects of the high elevation (17,000-18,000ft). During those 10 seconds breaks I looked to the stars for energy and focus. It was an amazing night and a surreal experience. Too bad I had no time to take in all this amazing beauty. I had to focus on the assault on this mountain. At points I also looked down and saw all the lights of the more than 50 climbers we passed by, an incredible experience! For the first time Raul told me “lets take a small 1 minute break ahead” and I replied “sure”. It was just then when I looked at my surroundings and realized that we were very high up surrounded by big glaciers that you could see even in the dark. They all look like big giant white monsters that want to eat you alive. For some reason, I didn't want to think about them for long. You wanted to see them for a few seconds and then look in another direction as they were incredibly intimidating! They are big and look evil to me. It also could have been the fact that I had never seen a glacier in front of me before!
Approximately at 19,000ft (347ft to go)
At this point I had slowed down the pace and I was climbing dizzy. It felt like I was aware of the moment but at the same time I started to feel like I was not there and I was dreaming. The 10 seconds breaks were no longer helping me so we started to take breaks of 4 seconds every 4 steps. Even if this felt like I was dreaming (lack of oxygen in the brain) I knew we needed to keep moving. I started to crawl on my knees as I couldn’t walk or stand any more but I needed to keep moving even if it was on my knees and with my hands. Every time I stopped my breathing was so heavy like I was doing 100 meter sprints all out to a point that I was almost going to complete exhaustion. I decided quickly that it was time to make a change “rapidly” so I told Raul “Please stop, please stop”. He turned back and told me “let's go Cobi, we are almost there, come on’’. I told him “no. no. wait and stop”. It was time to switch to a different frequency, the frequency of the summit of Cotopaxi. So. I took a few breaths and told myself, “ok, you are above 19,000ft elevation, but let's move slowly and dance up the final stretch of the mountain”. "Let's go, Raul. I am ready", I thought to myself. Minutes later during this dream and reality we took another one minute break in front of a Glacier. This was the FIRST time I started to panic because we encountered something out of my control, dangerous volcanic gases. Now not only do I have to deal with the fact that I can’t breathe because of the high altitude but also because of dangerous volcanic gases. I started to panic because one thing is putting my body and brain to the absolute limit and another is to put my life in clear risk. For the first time since the pandemic started I was in need and in favor of wearing a mask (lol). “I need one (mask) right now", I told myself. Without stopping I reached into my bag for an extra t-shirt to cover my face and I started to feel better and in control again. I saw Raul speeding up the pace and knew we were approaching the summit at any time. His body language was telling me all I needed to know. I decided to enjoy the last moments going around these big glaciers just waiting and waiting for Raul to tell me we reached the summit and he did. We finally reached the summit at approximately 4:56am.
It was surreal, the ascent to 19,347ft was finally completed!
When you have done something so many times and you know it works for you, we must find the mental ability that when we are at “big stages” we trust and don't forget what has worked for us so many times. We shouldn’t be afraid of criticism or public humiliation. If we know something works for us, go for it because it won’t disappoint you. Especially in crucial moments where there is no room for errors or testing new things we should fully implement this strategy. We should be open to trusting others, people who are willing to share their expertise and knowledge -- the “You trust me, I trust you” mentality. Remember, the thermal jacket I didn’t bring? I ended up going up on a single layer dry fit t-shirt. Why!? Because no matter if hundreds of people were wearing thermal jackets because that's the rule, I knew I would get super super hot going up and knew that going up this big mountain was not gonna be an exception. My spiderman climbing style (climbing with my hands and knees) was the talk of the night but why would I abandon a technique that helped me break so many records climbing volcanoes in Guatemala? I put 100% trust in what I knew was all I had; my personal experiences climbing volcanoes. Why would I be afraid of altitude when in Guatemala I climbed all of the 14,000ft crates and ran 8Km around volcanic craters ? I knew, 100% I could do this with zero experience and I did it because I trusted myself and I trusted my preparation back at CasaAdriana Guatemala. Every single step I took that morning at the Cotopaxi was nothing in comparison to the millions of steps I have done in the past 30 years climbing volcanoes. With all the respect, you must trust that you can be better than someone else. Know that there are people who trust in protocols and guide books and there are people (like me) who trust in themselves based on their own experiences and preparation.
Goal time; sub 4 hours. We reached the summit in 2 hours and 58 minutes. One of the fastest times ever recorded.