Cayambe Hut Notes« an older post

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!


What a great read to cap off a great adventure. Thanks for sharing.

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