We arrived at the Cayambe refuge late on Friday after a long journey on a road through the mountains. Now when I say a “road” it was probably more like a combination of different sized rocks all slung together. The route was unreal often close to the edge of high cliffs and only passable by 4×4 or off road motorbikes.
As the weather was closing in we settled into our accommodation for the night, which we quickly began referring to as “the fridge” or the “cowshed”. This was a wooden hut with no heating and electric only occasionally via a petrol generator. We tried to sleep on two long shelves with 5 of us sleeping above the other 5.
The following day we started our training with the use of crampons and ice axes. Led by two of our guides Nico and Jose, two very experienced guides and mountaineers who we had already come to trust and respect.
They soon had us all prancing around doing a variety of exercises to build up our confidence in the crampons. If you imagine line dancing on near vertical ice slopes you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
Needless to say we survived and were all pretty confident that the crampons would at least stick us to the ice if we planted our feet right.
Nico our head guide is something of an Ecuadorian mountaineering legend. A super athlete who has one of the quickest times for going up and down Cotopaxi. (Our original volcano before it started to smoke) It takes a mere mortal at least 8-10 hours to summit this and descend again Nico has done it in 1 hour 48 mins!!!
Jose and Nico explained to us that Cayambe was a lot harder to climb than Cotopaxi, there was no respite or flat parts it was all “steep” with some very dangerous crevasses that we would also have to cross……. great!!!
Jose is also a very experienced climber (and proficient Salsa dancer according to Nico – though we never did get the demonstration he promised at the summit). Jose is currently training for Mt Everest.
We tried to grab a couple of hours sleep (or at least rest) before our summit briefing.
At the briefing we were broken down into our rope teams Joe was teamed up with Helen (another of our wider group) with Jose as a guide which they were happy with, whilst Phil and I were teamed up with “Segundo”. The old saying of never judge a book by its cover was never truer than when it came to Segundo. Here is a bloke who looked like a Tubby Ecuadorian Bus Driver, but the guy was a machine and an absolute gentleman.
We were told that we needed to make the summit in around 8 hours as with the descent it would be the best part of 12 hours of mountaineering. So the bottom line was if we were not close enough to the summit within 8 hours they would turn us around and it was game over. George who is the local Ecuadorian Team leader came back inside all excited and explained how he had just seen a Condor outside the hut on the mountain and how this was a good omen for us.
We all went outside at sunset and took photos of the amazing views above the clouds. Cotopaxi and its plume of smoke was clearly visible in the distance. We all looked up at Cayambe, what we were about to take on, with a considerable amount of fear and trepidation.
We started getting ready at 10pm, everyone putting on their waterproof gear, mountaineering boots, gaiters, big gloves or mittens, climbing harnesses, helmets and head torches.
We were ready and as Nico uttered the words “OK Vamos” it all started to get very real.
We set off in a long chain with Nico leading, then two of us, then another guide then two, and so on… Somehow having Nico at the front immediately filled you with confidence.
We climbed on wet sandy tracks and across rocks for the first hour and a half. It was pitch black so the head torches were essential over the hazardous terrain. The weather started to close in and the wind and rain started to hit us hard.
We eventually reached the glacier and got our crampons on our boots, unfortunately even by this stage we had lost 2 of our wider group. Our guides roped us up in our 3s and we started the serious uphill slog on the snow. Rope in one hand and ice axe in the other ready to react should we find ourselves sliding or God forbid going into a crevasse. As we climbed we got more and more confident in the crampons. The weather thankfully also improved leaving us climbing on fresh snow.
The pace was slow and steady, it was the only way to go and at that altitude everyone was breathing heavily constantly as we climbed.
We stopped only for a couple of minutes every hour, just to grab a quick drink or a snack. Joe, Phil and I enjoyed a staple diet of Gatorade Drinks, Dextrose, Chocolate, Jelly Babies, Sweets…..basically anything that was full of sugar. Mine and Phil’s guide Segundo was particularly partial to the Yorkie Bars with Raisen’s we fed him on.
One of our wider group started struggling with the altitude, and the team doctor “Pam” was quickly on hand to assess them and help with some medication. It’s times like that when the enormity of what we had taken on really hit home, but I was reassured knowing we were in safe hands with experienced guides and a very experienced team doctor with several previous expeditions under her belt.
I saw Nico hacking away at the Snow and Ice with an axe testing a crevasse crossing point before we all long strided or jumped it one by one.
We all just concentrated on trying to follow in our guides footprints. I jumped across one crevasse and to my horror felt the snow give way beneath my foot. My other foot landed fortunately on firm ground but found myself on the ground with one leg in the crevasse. I thought I reacted quickly burying my ice axe in the snow, but nothing compared to the speed Segundo moved, dropping down and anchoring my rope to his planted ice axe until I scrambled back onto my feet away from the edge. Needless to say when Phil crossed behind me he probably made the biggest jump of his life just to be sure.
It was a real slog we all just concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other and trying to keep breathing!!
We arrived at a point after a particularly gruelling stage of the ascent. I glanced at Phil who looked how I felt, done in. As much as I was relieved when Nico told us to take a break, this was quickly replaced by horror when I realised that only half our group was there and Joe was in the half that was missing.
We had become separated and all I could think about was that they had told us that if one of a rope team had been unable to continue it would mean the end for the other one also.
I knew Joe would never give up, he has more dogged determination than anyone I have ever met and Helen is one very determined lady also, but had something happened that meant they’d had to turn back?
The thought of Phil and I getting to the summit without Joe was not something I could even consider.
To my relief before long though a group came trudging up the mountain led by Jose and our third amigo was back with us. Joe looked as tired as Phil and I felt. I shouted across to check he was okay and he called back”Its tough going this lad”…..he wasn’t wrong!! I don’t ever in my life remember feeling as tired as I did at that moment, but when Jose shouted we were all going well and Nico said one more hour I knew we were going to make it.
We quickly regrouped got some essential fluids down us and set off again.
As we climbed we passed by a huge ice cave and deep crevasse and crossed over a bridge of ice and snow. Despite it looking incredible dangerous Nico and the other guides crossed this with confidence and we were all that tired we just plodded on.
Finally we were on the final slope to the summit and the sun started to break over the ridge. I can’t describe to you the feeling when we reached that summit.
We had made it, we had conquered Cayambe all 5809 metres of it and more to the point we had done it together and for a fantastic charity, Caring Matters Now.
Maximum respect to my two other amigos, Phil and Joe, they were both fantastic company and so determined never once did I doubt they would complete this incredible challenge.
A massive thank you to everyone who has supported us and Caring Matters Now.
Bring on the next challenge!!
If you have ever considered joining a CMN charity challenge, just do it !!
I can tell you the feeling afterwards more than makes up for the pain.
Score Tres Amigos…..the lot, Volcanoes nil !!!