On Monday, July 20, 2015, MPI Program Directors Evan Quinnell, Michael Weiner and Allegra Mangione climbed the summit of Cotopaxi in Ecuador. Just weeks later, Cotopaxi, an active stratovolcano, began to rumble. Evan reflects on the experience of a lifetime!
By Evan Quinnell
Looking back now, it’s hard to fathom that we actually summited Cotopaxi.
We’d built this day up in our minds for over six months. First as an idea, and then through a number of months preparing for the climb; we practiced by climbing six nearby peaks at lower altitudes.
In June, we began receiving notification from the U.S. State Department regarding the volcanic activity coming from Cotopaxi. As amateur climbers, we were a little concerned that we may have to postpone our climb, but we kept hope and continued our training, summiting nearby Ruminahui and Illiniza Norte in June and July.
Less than one week before climbing Cotopaxi, Mike and I were working with English students at the local university in the Chillos valley, ESPE. The English professor, Sonia, explained to us that the Ecuadorian geophysic institute had just raised the volcanic alert level that week and that ESPE was convening university leaders and students for refuge planning in case of extreme emergency. Sonia was convinced there was no way we could climb!
Then, just two days before the summit, our professional guides assured us that the reports for that weekend were safe. Some of the concern for Cotopaxi at times can be exaggerated, but it is with great caution. If the volcano is to fully erupt, the nearby towns and valleys could experience volcanic ash, glacial melt, and mudslides. The most recent major eruption, in 1877 before there were warning systems in place, destroyed the nearby city of Latacunga.
We may have been crazy to climb Cotopaxi when we did, but I feel extremely fortunate to have made it to the top with Michael and Allegra.
From the beginning, Michael, Allegra, and I were determined we would do everything in our power to reach the summit. During our time in Ecuador, we had met people who had to turn back before the summit due to extreme wind and ice storm conditions. We were hopeful that would not be us.
On July 18th we took the bus into Quito to meet up with our guides. At the shop we were outfitted with all the necessary snow pants and jackets, harnesses, helmets, crampons, and ice picks. From there, we rode just over two hours into Cotopaxi National Park. We arrived near the foot of the volcano where a number of tourists were reveling in the beauty of the beast of Cotopaxi.
From the parking area, we needed to haul our gear up slope for about 45 minutes to the climbers' refuge. At this point in the day, we were optimistic as the weather seemed relatively clear and stable.
Arriving to the refuge at about 3:00 pm, we had time to relax, acclimatize, fuel up in the small dining hall, and get a brief training on Ice pick and crampon use. Although harness, ice picks, and crampons are necessary to summit Cotopaxi, the climb is more of an endurance and altitude test rather than an extremely technical one.
At 6:00 pm we had a dinner prepared by the refuge crew of pasta, pork chops, cole slaw and tea. At this point the climb became real. In just six hours, we would be off for the summit. Following dinner we had time for a quick five hour rest before it was time to get our gear in order.
Laying in the cold and bare refuge bunks, we attempted get some sleep before we would leave to begin climbing at midnight. Through the wood-paneled walls I could hear the wind howling outside of the refuge. We were legitimately worried, that we would encounter less-than-desired conditions. Thankfully, when we got outside at midnight, our fears retreated. There was a sense of calm I have rarely, if ever, experienced. In the pitch black night, Mike, Allegra, our new friend Benji, and our two guides made our way 30 minutes to the glacier line. We paused to attach our crampons and connect by rope line to our respective guides in groups of three. Slowly but surely, guided by the headlamps attached to our helmets, we made our way up the snow and ice.
We were fortunate to have good conditions the entirety of our climb. One of the highlights of climbing in the night/early morning was the ability to see Quito and the surrounding city lights far off in the distance. Not to mention the spectacular star show.
There were a few moments when we struggled with the altitude, but we kept pressing on. With very few breaks for water and chocolate, the climb seemed to never end...and finally, as the sun began to rise shortly after 6:00 am, we were in the final stretch.
We passed a few fellow climbers who were on their way back down. "Ten more minutes, you'll be to the top," they said. Ten minutes was more like thirty minutes, but at approximately 6:30 am we reached the summit having reached 19, 347 feet.
It was a surreal feeling. We had made it. After six months of dreaming and with a few significant obstacles to overcome, we were above the clouds and could see to what seemed like infinity. The mountains and volcanoes we had climbed in the previous six months were off in the distance, along with others we had yet to attempt.
Quito, the Chillos Valley, and nearby cities like Latacunga were below. What was probably the most incredible was to look down into the volcanic crater. The vast opening of nothingness made it clear: we were at the peak of Cotopaxi.
Our guides had told us the night before that two years from now, significant eruptions would likely render it impossible to climb Cotopaxi as we know it again. Little did we now that only a month later, eruptions would begin to occur, spewing ash and putting the country on serious alert.
It is hard to believe that for quite some time we will be some of the last people to have summited the worlds tallest active volcano.
I have no regrets and am fortunate to carry this experience with me for the rest of my life.
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