This weekend was my first foray into the world of real mountain climbing. My Andianismo class went to Cayambe, an 5,790 meter mountain northeast of Quito right on the Equator. We went to get our first taste of high altitudes (the refuge where we camped was 5,000 meters high, the highest altitude I’ve ever been at) and practice ice climbing.
In case you are wondering what kind of gear one brings on a trip like this, here is the list of things which ended up in my backpack:
Harness + Carabiner + Rope
The shell of my snowboarding jacket
Underarmour + leggings
Extra wool socks
Gloves + Ear warmer
Food (pita bread with: sardines [dinner], peanut butter[breakfast], tuna & mustard [lunch]; apples, trail mix) & water
On a whim, I decided to bring the book Into Thin Air to have something to read on the bus ride. I chose it mainly because it is smaller than the other book I’m reading, but it was also very appropriate since it is the book that really got me interested in mountain climbing.
Once on the bus, I pulled it out and a few of the girls asked me if we were going to read aloud, which I thought was a cool idea. So for the 3 or so hour bus ride my friend Becca and I took turns reading chapters aloud.
Reading aloud may sound really nerdy, and one would think that it would only amuse Becca and I, but it turns out the entire 12-passenger van was listening. People were really into the story, even those who had read the book before.
It was a new experience reading the book and knowing we were about to have a real mountain climbing experience. The way Krakauer describes the cold of Everest and the flapping of the wind were even more meaningful after our night on the mountain.
We had to walk the last hour or so to the refuge where we were camping, and from there we had amazing views down the valley and up to Cayambe. But once we arrived at the top, it was nearly dark causing the temperature to plummet and then the wind picked up. All we could do was fight the wind to set up our tents and hunker down in our sleeping bags.
What Krakauer describes as the “relentless din of nylon flapping in the wind” at Camp Four on Everest, we got a taste for on Cayambe. The wind blew all night long, causing several tents to collapse. In my tent (which thankfully remained standing), Becca and I were accosted by the tent walls bending in to smack us in the face.
When we woke in the morning to Diego, our instructor, yelling, the wind was still blowing and a light rain was falling. We stayed in our tents until Diego announced that due to the high wind we would not be able to go on the mountain. And his assessment of the situation was not overly cautious; the wind was so strong it could knock you over. I could even put most of my weight into the wind and remain standing.
So grudgingly, we left the mountain. We hiked down to meet up with the bus and ended up picnicking for an hour or more in view of Cayambe’s cloud obscured peak watching condors fly overhead. Condors are huge black and white vultures and are the national bird of Ecuador. Seeing them in the wild is a pretty big deal since they are protected much like the bald eagle is in the US.
We could not see most of Cayambe from the refuge because of the surrounding mountains and the clouds swirling around the summit. From the path we hiked down we could see that the top of the peak is more rounded than what one traditionally pictures . Despite the clouds which perpetually obscured our view and the nontraditional facade, the mountain still retained the grandeur and massive hulk one would expect from a peak of it’s size.
While it was disappointing to leave Cayambe without trying out the ice, that is the nature of mountain climbing. Sometimes the weather will permit climbers to attempt the treacherous peak, sometimes it won’t. As Eric Shipton wrote, “the mountain still holds the master card, it will grant success only in its own good time. Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?”