Dizziness will be My Downfall


Subtitled: Dizziness is my devil

After two very vivid dreams, Mauricio woke me at 22:10. I suspect he thought I would have my own alarm, but I did not have one set, assuming he would wake me. While he did, in retrospect, that was a bad plan. I lay in the sleeping bag for a couple minutes, then rose to start this day. I had all the various clothes and equipment laid out, but was slightly unsure what order to dress in, so opened up my list from Cayambe and cranked through it.

I went downstairs quickly to start eating. I had cream cheese and jelly on a roll, and in the next thirty minutes managed to eat most of it. I had hot water and made my green tea, downed that. Went to the restroom because I really did not want to use a wag bag on the glacier. My body agreed with this desire and helped me out.

Back into the main hall, Mauricio said hold off on the harness and other glacier things, we would rope up at the glacier, about 2 hours up. I also chose to go up without gaiters and without knee braces, neither of them this time. The path on the glacier is well worn, Juliana had let us know, and Cotopaxi had had no snow for the last week, so we would not be blazing trails.

I turned on my avalanche beacon, removed a layer, pulled on my backpack, and off we went. We were starting at 15700' (4800m). I was drinking liquids. I had no headache, I had had one cycle of REM sleep, I had dreamed twice, I had a working headlamp with fresh batteries, I was confident in my equipment choices, my pack was light and complete, we had an aggressive break schedule planned: stopping every 30 minutes for me to have some calories and liquids, we were leaving an hour before everyone else thereby reducing any internal pressure about speed or effort, I felt strong, we were set to go.

And off we went around 23:15.

The first two hours to the top of Cotopaxi from the refuge are up the side of an ash fall, similar to the hike from the parking lot the day before, but less hard packed, which makes sense given the reduced number of people who climb up past the refuge. The glacier recession in recent decades puts its edge higher, also. The volcano is displaying its true nature.

Around 30 minutes in, we stopped for a break. I had water with electrolytes and calories from almond butter, I checked in with myself, feeling good, let's go.

We stopped again around 00:30, a little longer than our planned 30 minutes between breaks, but closer to the normal 60 minutes between breaks. I sat down. My heart rate was fine, 140 and under, which is under 145 bpm, my I-can-go-all-day heart rate. My legs were fine. My breathing varied between I don't notice this to oh, I need to breath more, but I was able to work on deep, full, diaphragm breathsto reduce the breathing variations. I had my audiobook on, and was in a flow state watching Mauricio's boots as he went up the volcano at the perfect pace for me. I was in a good place.

Except I was dizzy. I had experienced mild dizziness when climbing with CB up Mt Superior a few weeks ago. That was going rapidly from 4500' to 9800'. I was able to hike through that dizziness. With that recollection, my plan from the 00:30 break became to focus on my breathing, achieve flow state again, and see if the dizziness went away.

It did not.

Instead, it became worse. With each step I took, the world spun right to left. I started leaning forward into the mountain, I leant heavily on my poles. When I looked left or right, the vertigo became fierce, so I stopped looking from side to side. All I had was Mauricio's feet in my circle of light, the audiobook talking about gravitic drives and the Hegemony, and my poles. One foot in front of the other. The dizziness continued.

We took another break around 1:05 after I had stumbled a few times. At this point, I was uncertain that I would actually fall forward if I fell. We were not roped up. In the daylight this would have been a type-one-fun hike. In the dark, it was a moving, shifting slope of ash to walk up.

I sat there on a rock, sheltered from the wind, and took stock of the situation. I was wobbly sitting on the ground. I drank liquids, I had more calories. I tried breathing deeply. The dizziness would not go away.

Up was another four hours.

I recalled Ken's email that the turn around point isn't the half way point, because you are tired when you turn. Coming down safely when tired is harder than coming down safely when rested and alert.

If I was this dizzy at 17060', how was I going to be at 19347'? In crampons on a glacier?

I asked to turn around.

Mauricio let the other guides know we were turning back, helped me stand back up, and led me pretty much straight down the volcano when he could. We met up with Juliana and the rest of the team after about fifteen minutes. They paused for a break while I explained what had happened.

This happens, she said. When you are going up a hill in the dark, with only the small radius of light around you, you lose where the horizon is. Your body just doesn't know which way is up, and adapts to what it sees, which is often only the feet in front of you. When all you see is a slope, the world becomes confusing to your balance.

This gave me hope, because Vinson is all in the light.

We continued going pretty much straight down the volcano when we could. Mauricio again set a perfect pace for me. We met up with Ramiro coming up the mountain about half an hour behind the rest of the team. I had difficulties at a couple rocky points, but otherwise we made good time back down.

We arrived back to the refuge. Mauricio took care of me, sat with me, brought me hot water for tea, made sure I had food. We talked about family and mountains, food and things we do outside of climbing. It was a lovely chat. Eventually, sleep was calling, so we went upstairs. I turned on the light and went to the area next to the wall to to drop off my pack. The area is next to Tr's bed, out of the way, which meant between the light and the noise, a "How did it go?" arrived. Tr was in bed, trying to sleep, and I'm an asshole. I didn't realize that Tr was there, and had been asleep. SHIT!

I ran over to turn off the light, but he was awake. We talked for a bit. He had managed about half an hour up the mountain before he needed to come down. Ramiro took him down, which is why we saw him going back up.

Tr and I talked about mountaineering, desires, goals, and being present in the moment. He didn't think mountaineering was for him, more of an ocean guy. He asked about Vinson, the why of it. I explained how Antartica is my happy place and I can't explain why I need this mountain. With the wisdom of many more years than he carries, he cautioned me about summits, about how a poor performance can ruin a day, a week, a trip, and that you just cannot allow this to happen. He gave me a couple examples from his life. I don't know that I expressed how much I appreciated his talking with me, being there with me as I lay down to sleep off the dizziness that was finally starting to abate.

Eventually, we both fell quiet, and went to sleep.

High Altitude Dreams


Yeah, so, Juliana did warn us that unusual dreams are very common at altitude. I had two last night, in the very short time available to sleep before we started for the Cotopaxi summit today. One confusing AF and the other delightful if only merely confusing.

In the first dream, there are seven forms of Kitt in this universe. Each incarnation of me manifests in one of these seven forms: scientist, tech person, athlete, mother (clearly orthogonal from the previous three), adventurer, and two others that I don't recall. All of us have allergies to authority, all of us seem to have the same mental thoughts and processes. More succinctly, we all think the same, with some variations.

So, the scientist version of me, who is fucking brilliant, realizes there are seven forms of us, brings us all together, and says, hey, there are other universes. We can invade these other universes, capture the other Kitts, enslave them, and, hell if I know what the end goal of this idea was. The scientist Kitt's personality was clearly dominant, and the other six of us agreed to whatever this plan was.

As the seven of us were lined up in front of the portal to another universe, I considered what a terrible idea this was. There was no way we would be successful at subjugating a different universe's Kitt, much less a set of Kitts. Why, with all of us standing here in full military gear waiting for the portal to open, all it would take was for one of the Kitts in this universe to turn on the others and we'd be done. I turned to my right to see the Kitt there turn to me, slow grin on her face. She winked at me, and all hell broke loose.

The portal opened, hundreds of Kitts poured into the large, dark chamber we had all been standing in, and the Kitt to my right leapt at the Kitt to her right, who was already midflight towards the to-my-right-Kitt. Louds noises, lots of lights, screaming, pure pandemonium. I had ducked at to-my-right-Kitt's wink, covered my head, and turned to run. I was running hard for the exit lights soon after the portal door had dropped open.

I made it out the door, and I was in some bright mansion with lots of rooms, many halls, high ceilings, twists and turns. I ran to a large bedroom and was closing the bathroom door off the bedroom when another Kitt ran into the room. We talked briefly about the zombie apocalypse that had just been unleashed, before she ran out of the room to find her own cover. I turned to look at the bathroom I was in, and realized I needed to pee.

I woke up after that, in order to, indeed, use the toilet.

Update: I told Nick about this dream later, and he laughed. "So, you're Rick." Turns out, there is an episode of Rick and Morty where some Morty incarnation goes off the destroy the Citadel (The Citadel, originally known as The Citadel of Ricks, was a trans-dimensional citadel city-state located in a pocket dimension along the Central Finite Curve, inhabited entirely by Ricks and Mortys from across infinite realities. The Citadel was formed as a secret entity serving to protect Ricks and Mortys from a multitude of accumulated enemies within the Galaxy, including Rick C-137 and the Galactic Federation) or something. Glad to see that my dreams reflect fiction.

The other dream involved Jonathan contacting me in a very odd way. You can guess which one was the delightful dream, they were both confusing.

Plan for Cotopaxi tomorrow


We are at Los Molinas Lodge tonight. It is quite a lovely place, with seemingly good wifi, so I'm happy.

Our schedule has us going up Cotopaxi tomorrow night. Having had a difficult time on Cayambe, I had asked our lead guide, Juliana, yesterday for an alternate climb today. This evening she brought out her computer to show me alternatives. I had spent the day, however, considering Cayambe. My issues were intake mismanagement and lack of crampon glacier experience. An alternate peak may not give me the chance to work on those issues. So, I asked if I could climb Cotopaxi, but differently.

So, we have arranged for me to start 2 hours before the rest of the team, and stop every 30 minutes for food and water. I am hoping this change will address the dehydration and lack of calories I had on Cayambe. Cotopaxi is the best choice for the experience I need, so giving it a go.

And fixing those equipment issues.

Happiness is a Warm Shower


I was mostly blah last night from the climb and the travel back, so didn't shower. We are back at Yanacocha Lodge today, so I knew that the showers were not hot, they were just slightly cooler than tepid. When I woke up at 6:15 to a teammate's accidental alarm, and, as I already had 9 hours of sleep, decided to embrace the cold shower.

Turns out, the tepid was "not enough hot water because everyone else was showering at the same time." The shower did start off cold, and I jumped in, but it warmed up as I cleaned up. Never quite sure if the water was becoming warmer, or I was becoming colder and the water warmer by comparison, I eventually put my head into the water to wash my hair and it was warm!

Mucho happiness!

One thing I don't understand at this lodge is how everyone is walking around in socked feet. These floors are COLD. I'm in my indoor shoes nearly all the time and my feet are still chilled.

Today we move to Tambopaxi Lodge, close to Cotopaxi.

A Successful Climb Doesn't Necessarily Need a Summit


Well, that was an adventure. I did not summit. None of the team summitted. I learned a lot, and have a new highest point for me: 5000m (16404').

That said, this climb was a complete mismanagement of intake resources, coupled with significant equipment issues. Which begs the question, "Can a climb be awesome and awful, wondrous and a wreck?" Yes? Good, because this one was.

I had packed my summit bag and written up my checklist last night, so that I should be good to go immediately at wake up. Didn't really work out that way. I went through my checklist as quickly as I could, but was still far behind everyone getting ready to go. I think maybe one person didn't have his crampons on by the time I arrived at the stones to put mine on.

We climbers had our guide assignments from last night. Since we weren't going to rope up until the glacier (two hours up), we were told to just head out when we were ready. I was close to the departure point, so ended up second in the climber conga line, right before Tr, whom I identified by his breathing.

Well, it has been a long time since I've been in crampons. I managed about 40m before I fell. Now, falling onto my knee after tripping over my crampon isn't that big of a deal, but doing it right in front of Tr, our strongest and most fit teammate, was a little awkward. So, I stood up, and told him I was going to move back in the line, and waited for others to pass. I ended up fourth from the back.

We climbed a while, with the group in front of me gaining distance. I had put on both my knee braces this morning, but had never put on the right knee brace before. Hello, second equipment mistake, the first being not having a backup battery or backup headlamp. I was using a borrowed light today, as my battery, fresh just before the trip and working at my gear check, wouldn't work yesterday.

The knee brace was really stiff. I was unable to lift my right leg more than about six inches without effort. With the extra weight of my rental boots, gaiters, and using crampons which force one to lift their foot higher than a normal walk, the knee brace effort became a lot, and I fell behind the team quickly.

Behind me was Manuel, the guide for our two strongest teammates. He quickly moved in front of me to show me where to step, as I had lost E's steps in front of me quickly.

Behind me was Maurice with D.

Manuel was very encouraging, eventually helping me move the brace down off my knee so that I could move more easily. He also asked if I wanted to rope up. Very much so, I wanted to rope up. We were 45 minutes into this hike and while my legs were tired from the new brace effort, and my lungs and heart felt nominally fine, I was dizzy. I didn't really want to tumble down the side of the glacier.

I was very glad we roped up. We had to scramble through some large rocks that I struggled with, and traverse over parts of the glacier nearing a 100% grade. I was not comfortable at all.

I was, however, mostly in the moment. My world had shrunk to a three meter radius of light, snow and rocks, the sight of Manuel in front of me, and the crunch of his boots and crampons on snow. I didn't struggle with the future, I didn't struggle with ruminations that have plagued me for months, I didn't struggle with the past. I had this moment, the snow, sounds, and guide around me, and the feel of my body.

Blurry night lights of Cayambe, Ecuador

I was not, however, moving very quickly.

About two and a half hours into the climb (though I kept trying to convince myself we had been moving for only an hour), Maurice caught up to us, sans D. D had dropped, so Maurice guided him back to the hut, and came back up to us. Manuel handed me off to Maurice, and off he went. Maurice and I continued.

At this point, I was dizzy. I was stumbling not a little bit, and I wasn't moving very quickly at all. I asked to stop frequently, though I tried to keep the stops to a minimum. We probably started stoping every 7-10 minutes, however long I took to walk 300 steps. I counted.

Night view of my guide Maurice in mountaineering gear, holding a walkie-talkie

Maurice said nice things as we climbed, encouraging me to keep going, but let him know if I reached my limit. This is all for me, however I am feeling. At one point, I asked how far we had climbed, maybe a quarter of the way. We scrambled over some rocks and made it to the glacier, and started going up.

After a short bit, I asked what our altitude was. 4890m. Okay, I said, I would like to go to 5000m then turn around. Maurice agreed with that, and up we went. Those last 110 meters were hard. I managed the first 40 or so without difficulty, as I tried to remember the easy way to convert meters to feet (meters * 3 + meters / 4 gets you REALLY close, but still off by a bit). After that, I started counting my steps, in groups of 10, then 100. I asked again how high we were, "It is just a number, we can turn around if you would like. 4980m." I can make it another 20m. At three hours of climbing, I stood at 5000m, the highest I've ever been by my own two feet.

Watch displaying elevation of 5000 meters

We celebrated and hugged! I was so happy in that moment.

However, the summit or highest point you reach is only half way through the journey, and I had to come down off the mountain, too.

At this point, I was miserable (happy, but miserable). I hadn't managed to drink much, and I hadn't had more than 4 bites of bread since we started. I was dizzy to the point of tipping over if I didn't pay attention to where I was standing. I was not, however, cold. I found that interesting, that I managed to dress for the climb appropriately. I run hot when climbing.

I was not in the best mind space when Maurice was checking in with the other guides, let them know we were turning around, but I knew I wanted a photo of the moment. So, I took this picture, which is, I have to say, one of the very worst pictures of me in existence. Certainly the worst I've willingly posted. And I am keeping it.

A testament to how out of it I was at that moment, I realized that the first picture might not be a good one, so I took a second picture of me at 5000m. I have the exact same expression.

The worst picture of me ever kept

We turned around to go back down, and all of my fatigue and hunger and dizziness came at me hard. I stumbled a lot. I asked to rest frequently. I sat in bad choice locations and would have slid down the glacier without Maurice there to catch me. We took two hours and 40 minutes to descend. My headlamp went out just as we were descending. Of course it did. Did I mention I was going first down the mountain, because we were roped? Yeah, we did it.

The down was hard. The darkness down the glacier and the mountain looked like giant bushes next to us as we descended. I didn't lose any equipment, but that was more luck than skill or awareness on my part.

At 5:40, we arrived back at the Hut. I dropped my bag off at the bunks, and walked back to the kitchen, as D. was asleep in one of the bunks. I had not peed once on the climb or descent. For someone who pees every 30-60 minutes normally, going six hours without peeing is noteworthy.

I felt terrible. Dizzy, headache starting, dehydrated, and, wait, what? Nauseous? No! Yep. As soon as I recognized the feeling, I ran (clomped) down the stairs to the toilets, and barely made the bowl. Up came the Clif Shot I had downed an hour ago, clearly without sufficient water. Up came some of dinner from last night. And up came nothing as I dry-heaved and considered that vomiting is another altitude sickness symptom.

Once done throwing up, I went back to the kitchen, and spent some time with Maurice, having tea, and checking in. He made sure I was okay, I was, before leaving. I would be unsurprised if he went back up the mountain again, but I don't know, because I crawled into bed and fell asleep.

I woke a couple hours later, hours before the rest of the team was expected to arrive, and considered what I had learned on this climb.

There are the obvious ones:

  • Having a morning checklist is still key for me.
  • I am slow in the morning and need at least 50% more time than everyone else to organize in the morning, even with the checklist.
  • If something seems wrong, it is. Stop, figure it out, and fix it.
  • The mountain is not the first time to wear your boots, or your gaiters over your boots, or a new knee brace, or any untested equipment (unless your job is testing new gear designs).
  • The turn around point is only half way.

And the not so obvious ones:

  • I cry at altitude, seemingly for no reason
  • Not all successful climbs include a summit
  • Dizziness is my altitude sickness indicator. I can manage some dizziness, but not at 45° descents in crampons at night with a wind and no headlamp
  • Do not sit down to move over rocks when on a glacier, you will start sliding down the mountain
  • I can go 5½ hours without music, audiobooks, or someone talking with me
  • Darkness on a glacier can look like bushes out the sides of one's eyes
  • I really handle liquid food better than solid food at altitude

After a few hours during which I slept and processed the climb, the rest of the expedition returned. None of the team summitted today. Their comments seemed similar to my thoughts:

"That was the hardest thing I've ever done" From the youngest, most in shape on of us.

"That was the hardest mountain I've ever been on." From the search and rescue leader.

"That was a lot." From one of the work buddies.

All told I had a good time, and was delighted by the experience. Two more mountains to go on this trip!

Cayambe Hut Notes


We all went to bed around 20:00 tonight, to "rest" before starting the summit attempt at midnight.

We had arrived at the Cayambe Hut hike about 15:15, hiked up (still took me 22 minutes, though it felt like 10), and all piled into the bunks. The toilets are on the bottom floor, one set of bunks is on the middle floor, with a second set of bunks on the upper floor. Nominally, where we slept wouldn't matter, as we would be "asleep" for only three hours. Still, I requested the closest bunk to the toilets. The irony of this request was that I slept for the three hours, and Ts was up to use the toilets 3-4 times during the night, much to the heckling of his coworkers.

Juliana woke us at 23:02, with some grumbling from Tr about Ts' night movements, "No one was going to sleep anyway."

I suspect I was the only person who both fell asleep and had a REM cycle.