She hid her face nearly the entire day, with only an occasional glimpse of her cheek or chin at certain breakings of the clouds. The trip started at 6:30. I left the house to walk into Calacali to meet Esteban at the town square where the bus stops. We loaded at 7:00 to Quito, then caught a cab to Cayambe City, about 90 minutes away.
Esteban made a phone call for one final ride, a 4X4 truck to take us the final stretch. It was a grueling, bumpy ride on the way to base camp called the Refuge, an unheated, stone building with small, dorm-like rooms, a kitchen, a main room with some picnic tables, and a lower level bathroom. The outside temperature was about 38 degrees when we arrived and inside the Refuge was not much warmer. The clouds were dense at our 15,000 feet elevation, in fact we were in them.
Her face was still hidden, but I felt her looking down on me. I kept waiting for her to exhale to give back some of the air that I could not find to breathe. I would not admit it to Esteban when he asked “How do you feel?”, but my temples throbbed.
The low glaciers were running off into valley steams. Glacial till molded the entire landscape, with basketball to bus-sized boulders carefully placed by the past-moving ice. It was surreal to be there.
When we arrived at the Refuge at 2 pm, we took some time to get acclimated and practice what we would have to do later in the evening. So we geared up, walked to one of the lower glaciers, put on our crampons and started. The techniques came fairly easy, but my lungs and head were a concern. I still could not see the summit, as she was still hiding in the clouds.
At 5:30 we arrived back at the Refuge, had some dinner, and tried to catch some sleep before the summit attempt at 11:00 pm. My sleep didn’t go so well. I was achy and cold, then sweaty, then cold again. At about 8:00 pm there was deep rumble in the earth. It was big enough that I questioned whether sleeping at the base of a volcano was smart. I envisioned flying boulders and hot lava. Thankfully it was a common earthquake as I learned later.
After tossing and turning in a sleeping bag for 3 and a half hours without sleep, the 10 pm alarm went off. My fever had not broken, but this was my chance to climb. So I took the few Ibuprofin I had to dull the pain of what was coming and I got up, put on my gear and walked down to grab a bit more food. We walked outside to a star-filled sky. It was perfect. I could now finally see the siloutte of that hiding beast that illuded me the day before.
The climb began. After the first hour on rocks, I was soaked with sweat. I did not feel up to the task. I took a few minutes to remove the most wet undershirt. Esteban was patient as I took this time. Soon after we took another break to get our crampons on and get tethered together by rope. By now, I was getting cold and needed to move. I warmed up quickly as two hours we hiked straight up the galacier. The distance behind us grew, but the distance in front of us never seemed to shrink. I got in a slow rhythm of one foot in front of the other, ice axe in hand to help keep balance. My sickness seemed to disappear. My legs and lungs first hurt, then they just got dumb and kept doing it. This was my day. It was going to happen.
At almost 17,000 feet of elevation, something happened. I started to lose my balance. I could regain it at rest, but when I started back up, I was dizzy instantly. My temples throbbed and I felt nauseous. I stopped and started again 4 or 5 times thinking I could get through it. Each time with only 2 minutes before Esteban’s 135 lb frame prevented my fall as I stumbled. It was getting dangerous for me to be on the glacier. My attempt was over. I didn’t even feel the disappointment with the other things I was feeling. The trip down the mountain seemed endless. The 4 hours up, still took 2 hours down, but my naseau got worse and all I wanted to do was crawl into a ball and make it go away.
Morning came after a few hours of sleep back at the Refuge. My head still throbbed. But it all seemed unnoticeable when I walked back outside. The mountain finally showed herself in full beauty. The sky was clear. I could also look across the horizon to see Antisana, Cotapaxi and in the far distance, Chimborazo. These beautiful galcial volcanos of Ecuador are a wonder of God’s creation. Next time, I will give myself at least 3 days to acclimate to the high altitude and with my son, over the years, we will attempt and achieve them all. But for today, I remain defeated in my attempt, but victorious in giving my all at something big, and seeing God in the midst of it.