Attempting to reach the Point on Earth Closest to the Sun
CHIMBORAZO – January 2018
This trip was a dream come true for me. I had yearned to reach the highest point from the centre of the earth ever since I had first heard about Chimborazo several years ago when a friend called Pete Hammond had attempted to climb it with his partner, Tess Burrows. Tess had written a book called Cry from the Highest Mountain’ about their expedition. Feeling elated and motivated after climbing an unclimbed peak in Nepal which we had named Karbu Ri, I set about trying to find a trip to Chimborazo led by a British leader. When Brian decided to set it up he quickly found a team of willing participants among his friends and previous clients. It was great to be with people I already considered buddies. Rhiannon, Dawn, Catherine and I had climbed together on our first unclimbed Nepalese peak, Nar Phu Peak, led by Brian. Catherine had then been with me, Gwyn and Simon on Karbu Ri. Catherine and Dawn had trekked in Ethiopia along with Simon and Julian, and Thomas had done the same trek with Brian on a different trip. The other two team members were father and son, Ken and Alex who were friends of Catherine from Hong Kong. Despite being a random group no one was a complete stranger but it would have made no difference as very quickly we bonded as a team under Brian’s expert leadership.
We had all arrived in Quito and enjoyed an informative city tour, visited Mitad del Munda at the Equator, browsed around the market and eaten at a local restaurant which appeared to have opened just for us. On Sunday morning, as happened every week, the main streets of Quito had been closed to traffic to encourage people to walk and cycle. It was great to breathe the unpolluted air and see whole families out together as well as the lycra clad fitness fanatics taking advantage of the clear, quiet streets.
Now it was Monday morning and we were boarding our bus driven by Patrichio who had greeted us with a grin which hardly left his face for the following fortnight. We set off on reasonable roads for Pichincha, the first of our Ecuadorian volcanoes. As we gained height we looked back at the long, narrow city of Quito only 8km wide but extending for over 56 km down the valley. We travelled through the fertile fields seeing first hand the source of Ecuador’s main exports of flowers and vegetables.
There was a smart chair lift station on Pichincha and from there we looked out at a vista of mountains and could see all our intended peaks, Pasachoa, Ruminahui, Iliniza, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo.
Already we could see snow extending down the slopes much further than would be normal for January as Vladimir, our leader, explained it had been an exceptional year. As well as Vladimir we met our other guides, Falstowe and Christain. Falstowe wore reflective sunglasses and boasted a thick drooping moustache which someone pointed out made him look like a 70s porn star ! We boarded the gondolas and climbed steeply up the mountain side before emerging at the top station to look forward over a long grassy mountain with a well maintained path winding its way up. We set a slow steady pace and wandered along enjoying the views.
We all felt a little breathless but Vladimir seemed particularly worried about me and kept checking my pulse and telling me to go slowly. I had been very ill the few days before leaving the UK and in fact my GP had suggested cancelling my trip but I was on antibiotics and already feeling hugely better than I had been and the dreadful cough was subsiding. I had arranged to have my own room in Quito and not to share with Rhiannon as I would have hated her to catch my infection. The infection, antibiotics, lack of sleep and the exhaustion of travelling had taken its toll on me but out here in the beautiful scenery and fresh air I felt so much better and positive about the forthcoming adventure.
We took plenty of rests and Brian encouraged us to drink but by now Alex, the youngster of our team, had a crushing headache and clearly felt dreadful. He lived at sea level and this was his first trip to high altitude. Feeling so awful early on depressed him and I think he was worried he would not be able to complete the climbs. We reassured him the headache was normal but he must take on board all the advice and especially drink loads of water while slowing his pace to much slower than he thought he needed to. He was a lovely young man who we had all taken to and really hoped he would succeed in his quest. Thankfully as we descended again he felt a bit better. As we drew close to the chair lift station again the skies darkened and as we formed a circle to do our first stretch down together we were bombarded by a viscous hailstorm. Now cold and wet we queued to descend in the gondolas and once down found our bus and Patrichio waiting for us.
We set off rejoining the Pan American highway and were enjoying a comfortable journey until eventually we reached a town and turned off onto a rougher road. Once through the town the road deteriorated rapidly and for miles and miles Patrichio steered a winding path trying to avoid the deepest of the potholes and not getting stuck in the ruts but it was no longer a comfortable journey. I was so tired but any more than dozing was impossible as the bus swerved and lurched on the dreadful road. Brian passed the bus journeys playing Wordscapes on his phone with occasional help from the rest of the team. This involved finding words from a collection of letters and filling them into a crossword grid. On one occasion he was looking for 4 letter words beginning with W. Having found ‘ward’ he actually said, “Spelling ward the other way, with an O rather than an A is not a real word is it ?” As we pointed out the word was actually ‘word’ we all laughed as by now everyone was taking an interest in the game. The journey seemed to go on for ever and as we drove on the track got narrower and even rougher. At one point in the middle of nowhere we passed a bus shelter in which two forlorn people were waiting shivering in the cold. Surely this remote shelter was not on a commercial bus route! Just when we all had given up hope of the journey ever ending we turned onto a track and there was Hacienda El Porvenir.
It was the quaintest building you could imagine with burnt orange walls and a natural thatch roof and bounding out to greet us was Amiti, a kind black labrador. Inside the delightful traditionally built building we were met by Evelyn in traditional dress and a felt fedora hat, offering us a delicious welcoming fruit drink and empanadas to eat.
We took our kit bags up the narrow wooden stair case to find our ‘bedrooms’. These were divided by rattan walls each with a curtain across the ‘doorways’ and the low beds were already made up with heavy blankets.
On the landing was a log burner surrounded by a settee, easy chairs and a low table with a beautiful arrangement of fresh roses scenting the air. The balcony overlooked the main lounge which also had a huge fireplace and fresh roses on the table. A selection of traditional ponchos hung over the balcony rail which we could wear as we chose. Hacienda El Porvenir was the most cosy, homely place to have as a base and we all loved it at first sight.
By now I was feeling really ill again and totally exhausted so decided to take a shower before dinner. The shower was powerful and scaldingly hot, the temperature was difficult to control but after wards I certainly felt more awake! Rhiannon and Ken were also feeling unwell and Alex was still suffering with his headache. The menu was amazing and the food delicious although I was feeling so awful I could eat very little. Suddenly and uncontrollably I coughed violently and inadvertently spluttered over Brian. As he quietly wiped his face and glasses I was mortified to have spat my food into his face. I was so embarrassed but the rest of the team dissolved into giggles and this story would be recounted time and time again over the expedition.
After dinner we retired to the lounge and sat around the huge fire drinking various flavours of tea, chatting and relaxing.
Dawn had bought her Peter Rabbit sampler and most of her free time she would be found sitting by the window where the light was better doing her embroidery. Simon and Julian wrote their diaries every day and most of the others spent time on their iPhones. We would have no mobile reception for most of our trip but there was some internet connection at the hacienda although it was not available throughout the building and frequently dropped out. Over the course of the trek most people ended up playing Wordscapes which seemed an addictive and competitive pastime. We joked that as Brian had introduced every one to it Expedition Wise should be paying for addiction therapy for them.
Next morning at breakfast Alex told us Ken, who suffered from vertigo, was still feeling unwell and wanted to return to Hong Kong taking his son with him.
Alex was feeling better today and assured us there was no way he wanted to opt out at this stage. Breakfast was served by Evelyn, as were most of our meals, and consisted of fruit with yogurt and muesli, a different variety of fruit juice every day, eggs which you could have scrambled, fried or as a pancake and strong coffee. I can never eat much breakfast on expeditions and this one was no exception so I picked at the fruit and ate a small piece of pancake.
Today we were able to appreciate the wonderful setting of the hacienda. We were surrounded by beautiful countryside much of it owned by Jorge. In paddocks around the Hacinda their horses and llamas grazed peacefully and then further away at the back their cattle and fighting bulls lived on the slopes heading towards Ruminahui. The snow draped Cotopaxi was sometimes visible in the distance from the grounds of the hacienda and out the front and not looking too far away we could see the sprawling grassy slopes of Pasochoa where we would soon be heading.
Patrichio arrived with the bus and we climbed aboard with our guides, Vladimir, Falstowe and Christain. Very soon we were treated to amazing views of Cotopaxi with the snow line extending very low into the foothills. We drove for ages on the rough roads and it became clear the guides did not know how to get to Pascochoa. We seemed to be taking a massive sweep around the mountain but never getting any closer. Heated discussions ensued between our driver and our guides and although we did not understand the language it was clear they did not agree. On and on we drove and now it seemed we were on the far side of the mountain, sometimes on tracks heading towards it which raised our hopes of reaching our destination, but then turning away and heading in seemingly the opposite direction and all the time lurching through potholes and ruts on the rough roads. Eventually we were heading up a steep track only the width of our vehicle when, turning round a sharp bend, the track came to an abrupt end and Patrichio announced we could go no further. None of us had any idea how he was going to turn around as the track was barely wider than the bus and the thought of him backing it down the steep twisting track filled us with horror. We were all glad to get out, don our rucksacks and walk away up the path leaving Patrichio to this dilemma.
As we walked it became clear the guides had no better idea of the route up Pasochoa than the route to it. We walked and walked rather aimlessly and were soon on hillside tramping through tall dense grass unable to see our feet and stumbling into holes and tripping over tussocks. This was real ankle breaking terrain. Vladamir checked my pulse again a couple of times even though I was keeping pace with the others.
Gwyn and Brian broke away from the rest of the team and climbed higher to try to spy a route and eventually we could see a path ahead leading towards the higher ground. We fought our way to it only to find it was not a path at all but a deep ditch lined with trees and bushes either side. Finally we found a safe-ish crossing place and struggled down into the ditch and hauled each other up the other side only to find we were now definitely not on a path and shortly after crossed back to the other side. By now, more by luck than judgement and largely due to Brian and Gwyn taking over the leading, we did seem to be heading in the right direction and towards a summit. I was very, very tired and my legs felt like lead as I struggled up towards the first summit hardly able to put one foot in front of another. With the summit in sight and the anticipation of lunch the team had quickened their pace and I struggled to keep up. Finally we reached the grassy plateau and sat down to eat our packed lunches. Invigorated by lunch and a rest, scrambling up to the cramped real summit was easy and without even stopping we started to descend through dense jungle-like vegetation.
It came as a huge surprise as a short time before we were on grassland and now we were slipping down a muddy, rocky path pushing aside bushes and avoiding low branches. It was a fun scramble to start with and soon we were on a clear path heading down, down, down.
The descent seemed much longer than the ascent and the group had become widely separated. I found myself coming down with Catherine and we had a long heart to heart. I had been devastated when my three and a half year relationship with Roger had come to an end in May and had immersed myself in a pool of self pity and self loathing. In truth, despite trying desperately hard to put on a brave face I still felt inadequate and unlovable. I had spent far too many hours going over our conversations and reading into them probably far more than was meant at the time. I still resented his thoughtless comment when I proudly showed him the picture of me at the summit of Karbu Ri. Brian had only led five of the team around the final crevasse to reach the true summit no more than a metre higher and just a few metres from the rest of us, but Roger had cruelly commented, “So you didn’t really reach the summit then.” Clearly he never was my soul mate and I needed to regain my self esteem and refind the place where I had been happy on my own, content within myself and not craving the love of another to make me feel complete. Perhaps now, far away in Ecuador, facing a huge personal challenge surrounded by real supportive friends thrown together by chance I could finally prove to myself I didn’t need Roger or his negativity. Catherine had been a great mountain buddy both on Nar Phu Peak and Karbu Ri but in between these times we had had little contact but now we had bonded all over again and for the first time I could really talk openly to someone about how I was feeling. I cried a bit but then felt so much better as we moved on to talk about her family, her nephews and nieces and her friends in Hong Kong. After a while Dawn caught up with us and the three of us continued together. Time had passed quickly as we were chatting and suddenly we were surprised to see a closed gate ahead of us and beyond it our waiting bus. We just had to climb through a hedge and wait for the rest of the team to catch us up. We formed our customary circle to stretch down and then it was back on the bus for another uncomfortable journey. Alex had struggled again today although much less so than on Pichincha but on the bus he quickly fell asleep.
After a long, long drive we pulled into a service station to refuel and several of the team took advantage of the toilet facilities. Before everyone was back on the bus Patrichio started to drive forward as we all shouted, “Stop, we are not all here,” but actually he was just pulling up next to the workshop. Soon we realised one of the wheels was being changed because we had a puncture but Alex, checking progress out of his window, informed us the replacement was a bald tyre. Finally we were off again only to pulled aside after the next town at a police check point where Patrichio had to present his documentation for checking. Would we ever get back to the hacienda ? It seemed like a very long drive before we reached the now familiar turning and headed up the rough track towards what was now our ‘home’.
Now my legs were aching badly and I struggled up the stairs realising, as I headed along the corridor to the toilets, it still made me breathless. Dinner was delicious but again I had little appetite. Every evening Brian would read out messages on the tracker and I was delighted that Rebecca sent daily messages and included a few jokes which got ruder as the holiday went on. Our friendly bus driver was staying at the hacienda tonight and Rhiannon suggested he should come for a walk with us the next day when we would be setting out straight from here and climbing Ruminahui. We were all relieved there would be no bus journey tomorrow. After dinner I sorted through my kit and realised I must have packed in a daze. I had loads of pairs of socks but hardly any T shirts and had failed to bring any casual, non trekking clothes at all so it was a good job we were staying in a hacienda where we could get some laundry done. I also had brought far too many snacks with me and had added to these a supply of 9bars from Brian. I knew I would need a lot of cereal or nut bars to take to the refuges as from past experience I would be unlikely to be able to eat very much of the food there but I now had far more snacks than I could possibly eat.
Next morning our hopes of a bus journey free day were dashed as we were told we would be going by bus to Cotopaxi National Park and trekking up Ruminahui from there. Thankfully it was not a long journey and once in the park the road was remarkably good. We saw lots of wild horses and after a while passed Tambopaxi Lodge where I had stayed on my last visit to Ecuador before climbing Cotopaxi in 2011. As we drove Cotopaxi loomed massively beside us and looked like an impossible challenge.
The car park was beside a beautiful lake reflecting the amazing scenery and looking up we saw graceful caracaras with their golden underbellies as they soared effortlessly above us.
From here we could also see Chimborazo far away on the horizon but none the less equally daunting. Having rested at the Hacienda yesterday Ken was now feeling better and so the whole team were together for a team photo before setting off on the boarded walkway around the lake and then turning off sharply to right following a path up the hillside. Vladimir seemed to have adopted me as his project and he regularly checked my pulse and kept reminding me to breathe deeper and go slower although I was keen to keep up with the others and be part of the team. Again I had not managed much breakfast so by 10am, by which time we had reached the equivalent height of the summit of Pasochoa from yesterday, I was starving and starting on my lunch. It was a lovely walk up through long grass on a good path and even when it was very steep we kept a steady pace and I was happy to be keeping up with the others. Later we came to scree which was more challenging and then a very rocky area with tricky scrambling which I loved.
During the scrambling it was clear Ken, who was just in front of me, was struggling and he sat on a rock feeling queasy. Brian called down to me to pass him and come up to the ledge where the rest of the team were but Vladimir said, “No,” and roped me up. I had no idea why he did this as I was confident scrambling and felt fine. Ken had now developed cramp and was in a lot of pain but still Vladimir told me not to overtake him and go on. I resented the fact it seemed Vladimir was certain I was not going to be able to do the climbs and was always encouraging me to give up which was demoralising. Now Christain had joined us and finally I was able to ascend with him and quickly caught up with the others.
It was a great scramble and very exciting. I always loved scrambling and felt totally in my element. All too soon we had climbed the last 50 metres and had reached the rocky summit. I realised I was starving and was delighted to find our packed lunch from the Hacienda contained a guacamole roll, my favourite. Cutting my way into today’s piece of fruit I found the middle resembled frog spawn but it was delicious none the less. Looking around to admire the view I suddenly noticed Patrichio, wearing jeans and trainers, was proudly sitting on a rock taking selfies of himself having ‘joined us for walk’ just as Rhiannon had suggested. Alex was on great form today, which was a relief to us all, and it was lovely to see him enjoying the climb without the crushing headaches of the first two days and now he was acclimatising well. The summit had huge rocky towers making great photo opportunities and through my camera lens I noticed we were being studiously watched by a bird of prey. Everyone was taking photos which of course had to include our two important non human team members, ‘PW’ (Piggy Wooller) Simon’s tartan clad pig and Julian’s stuffed elephant called ‘Mouse’.
I had loved today’s walk and although my pace had been slow I had been happy plodding along and concentrating on breathing slowly and deeply. Thankfully so far I had not suffered from any effects of the altitude but was just feeling weak and unfit. I worried that Vladimir seemed convinced I was not able to do this but for now I was so happy to be at the summit of Ruminahui and part of a great, supportive team. I lay back on the rock, admired the amazing views all around us and felt totally at peace.
We descended together at a leisurely pace and back at the bus rejoined Ken who thankfully was feeling much better and joined us for the team stretch down before we headed back to the hacienda. I realised I had not looked at my Kobo at all since we had arrived and so after my shower settled down to read. Hacienda El Porvenir was very comfortable but I was finding it far too easy to faff unlike on previous expeditions when I would be staying in a tent and had to be well organised. We were staying in such a beautiful setting I was planning to take lots of photos on our rest day in a couple of days time. Every day as soon as we got in I would mix up my Dioralyte and make sure I had drank two sachets of rehydration sachets by bedtime to help restore electrolytes and hopefully help ward off altitude sickness. Tomorrow we would have an early start, heading for Iliniza after stopping off at Vladimir’s hostel for breakfast, and so soon after dinner most of us had retired to bed.
By 5am the next day we were back in the bus and heading off along the rough roads yet again. Everywhere we drove I was struck by the number of dogs we saw. In Quito there had been several purebreds including malamutes, huskies and tiny Yorkshire terriers but out in the country it was mainly scrawny labrador crosses often accompanied by a small bichon frise type of dirty fluff ball. In one place we were surprised to see two german shepherd dogs and a bloodhound. It was a long drive to Vladimir’s hostel where breakfast awaited us. I enjoyed the fruit juice and croissant but again could not face the egg. From here we would be travelling in 4x4s to where we would be starting our climb of Iliniza. Brian, Dawn and I went outside first and climbed into the first 4×4 and the driver quickly set off with us. After a short while we looked behind to see if the others were following and were shocked to see a two seater truck with the rest of the team standing in the back clinging to the rails and looking frozen !
We appreciated the comfort of our vehicle but did feel a tiny bit guilty. Eventually we came to a rusty old chain stretched across the road and our driver got out to undo the padlock to let us through. This was the Iliniza ‘Gate’.
After about 40 minutes we reached the car park in a lovely open area and soon were setting off through the scrub on a good trail. Suddenly a horse appeared from a side path and, accompanied by two dogs, the rider headed up the path ahead of us. Again Vladimir singled me out to go slower saying to me, “Too fast now and you won’t reach the top.” I knew today was going to be a big day and stupidly I had repeated my mistake from one day on Karbu Ri by carrying 3 litres of water. Once Vladimir had taken my Camelbac I felt so much better although he complained about the additional weight. He set us a slow pace which was fine and I happily plodded on although it was hard seeing the rest of the team ahead of me in small groups chatting together while I was on my own.
After a while I heard rasping breathing behind me as we were overtaken by three Russians. The two clients were struggling badly and the larger man was noisily gasping for breath and despite the strong sun neither were wearing hats even though one of them was completely bald. I felt grateful that I was being encouraged to take it a bit slower as it looked unlikely that either of the clients would be able to summit if they were struggling this much at this stage. We came to a ridge and looking down saw the most beautiful turquoise lake reflecting the sun and the majestic mountains.
I was never too far behind the rest of my team and as they rested I strove to catch them up but every time I drew close they would either move on or Vladimir would make me take a rest. Each day on the ascents when I was at my slowest I was feeling a bit excluded from the team which was sad. Although Thomas, the smiley Dutchman, with his huge camera was often also at the back of the group so sometimes we got to walk together. The first time we had met it was his smiling eyes I had noticed and he had a good but dry sense of humour making him a well liked team member. Coming down I was usually at the front of group and enjoyed feeling more part of the team.
I could now see the orange painted hut ahead of us where the rest of the team were already resting and here there was snow on the ground. Quickly I joined them and found the two dogs we had seen much earlier had joined our group and were scrounging titbits from everyone. I was feeling tired and Brian suggested a hot chocolate at the hut. I had not drunk much today as Vladimir was carrying my camelbac so we had to stop every time I wanted to drink rather than being able to sip it while on the move. Normally I do not even like hot chocolate and probably have not drunk one since I was a child, but today, with Iliniza Norte looming ahead of us, it was the best drink in the world. I hungrily gulped it down and headed back outside where everyone was already putting on their helmets and harnesses although Brian questioned whether it was necessary this soon. As everyone set off Vladimir made me hang back and set off last again. I wished I could go in the middle of the group where I would be less demoralised and have the support of the team around me. As we started along the path traversing towards the steeper slopes someone pointed out there was an Andean Wolf watching us from slightly higher up.
Everyone scrambled to get out their cameras but as soon as they spotted it our two canine companions chased it off. It was fun scrambling up the rocky ascent and we made slow but steady progress although there were some very large rocks which were not sound and as they moved beneath our feet everyone passed back the warning of which ones to avoid. By now the two dogs had returned from chasing off the wolf and deftly scampered from rock to rock with ease. Eventually we reached the ridge and stopped to eat some snacks, predictably our canine friends were there with us begging for scraps.
Our guides produced a flask of coca tea which we drank from metal shot glasses hoping it would help with the altitude. It was windy now so I put on my windproof and realised I could still hear rumbles in the distance which I had heard a few times on our way up. I assumed it would not be the volcanoes but asked Vladimir any way, he chuckled and dismissed it as aircraft noise. Looking around I realised we were being watched by a bird of prey again but at the time did not realise both dogs had now disappeared which was strange given several of us were still eating. This time when we started off, still scrambling along a narrow ledge up the ridge, I was at the front behind Falstowe and Julian.
Suddenly I noticed the sky had darkened and without warning we were being bombarded by hard graupel, the hard pellets of frozen snow pelting into us in the strong wind. Seconds later there was an almighty crack of thunder vibrating the rockface and the graupel cascaded onto us from above as if we were under a waterfall. Instinctively we faced into the rockface, heads bowed and feet placed in a wide stance to provide some sort of stability as the deafening thunder crashed directly over us and the rocks shook as the cascade of hail rained down on us from above. Looking back we were in a very dangerous situation but at the time it was awesome and exciting, I was high on adrenaline. The noise was deafening but through it some of us could hear a sinister hum piercing through the sounds of the storm. Much later we realised it was the static electricity ringing in our metal walking poles on the back of our rucksacks. At first there was hardly a gap between the cracks of thunder and the noise of the graupel on our helmets made any communication impossible but now the guides were shouting at each other and it seemed they were arguing over what we should do and while they tried to shout over the storm we clung to the rock face, vulnerable and exposed. Finally Falstowe made his way back to us closing up the little group of Catherine, Julian and me and started paying out his rope. He tied a loop and shouted at Julian, “Carabiner.” We all looked bewildered as we had mentioned the lack of carabiners when we had been given our harnesses but Brian had assured us the guides would be bringing them. Now we were in a very dangerous situation on a narrow ledge in a massive electrical storm with insufficient carabiners to tie in the whole team. None of the guides took the initiative to tie us in through our harnesses and Brian opted to remain unsecured. The experienced guides were arguing and had no sense of urgency to get us secure although at the back of the group apparently Christain, the youngest guide, had quickly made his own decision and got his group tied in swiftly and efficiently without prompting. A long time had passed and still the storm was raging but we were all getting cold crouching on the path clinging to the rock face. Finally Julian, Catherine and I were clipped into a rope with Falstowe in the lead and he shouted to us we were moving on. The guides’ indecision and the ferocity of the storm, which showed no sign of abating, had dented our confidence but we were in a dangerous situation on tricky terrain so, with no other option, we followed on concentrating intently. Almost immediately we were even more exposed as we made our way around a boulder and the wind now hit us almost head on, the snow covered narrow ledge was now lost from view and the ball bearing layer over the slippery rock was treacherous. Falstowe quickly realised this had been a mistake and after more shouting in Spanish with Vladimir decided we should turn back. This meant our descent would be more treacherous but it was even more dangerous to go on to the point were there was the option of a safer descent. Our careful progress back around the rocks on the narrow ledge was slow but determined and we were all concentrating too hard to be scared. In fact I was loving the excitement and felt unjustifiably invincible. The thunder cracks were further apart now but no less violent and still the graupel rained down on us, ricocheting off the rock face above us and battering our helmets, while painful hailstones drove into our faces in the cruel wind. Our metalwork still buzzed and the rocks vibrated. While our indecisive guides had argued over the plan another group of 4 or 5 climbers had passed us on a slightly higher path. Now they too had changed their minds and turned back.
By the time we reached the beginning of the ridge where we had eaten our lunches the storm had eased and already the rest of our team were lost from view below us in the snow. Now we had to descend on a very steep path roped together behind Catherine who moved slowly, focussed with determination and absorbed in concentration. Often we slipped downwards and Julian, following behind me, seemed scared and despite our reassurances that he was securely tied in and could trust the rope he resolutely clung on to it. The route was steep and slippery with no handholds and at one point we dislodged a large boulder shouting, “Rock below” as it cascaded down the hillside. Falstowe, a rope’s length behind Catherine, gave no directions and offered no encouragement other than occasionally saying, “Go on please.” I kept up a commentary with Julian and encouraged Catherine who was great in the lead despite slipping several times. For me this was a moment of deja vu as six years previously I had talked Elaine, that time up Iliniza, with disinterested, unencouraging Ecuadorian guides. As we came out of the storm it was a long, rocky and now snow covered descent which was not easy.
We had faced the worst of the storm on a narrow ledge in the very worst place and on the worst possible terrain but it had been very, very exciting. Now it was still snowing but the situation was much safer as we trudged on downhill. Eventually the refuge came into view and Vladimir said we had 30 minutes to go. As always with the Ecuadorians’ estimates this was way out and it took us nearer 90 minutes. Time keeping is not their strong point either and all trip nothing had ever happened at the planned time and everything always took much longer than they had estimated. We trudged slowly on along a very lengthy traverse on a narrow ledge with the slope falling steeply away to our right extending deep into the valley. As we descended through the scrub land suddenly we noticed the two dogs were back with us and realised when they had inexplicably disappeared on the ridge it was just before the storm had hit. Clearly they had sensed what was coming. Now, drained by the excitement and content in our own little worlds, our team had become quite spread out plodding downhill. I joined up with Brian and congratulated him on a job well done, keeping us all focussed and calm in the storm. At the time though everyone had been focused on task in hand and unaware of true danger of our precarious situation. As we descended it gradually became less snowy and the muddy track was slippery. For a while I joined Alex who was walking with the two dogs and wanted me to take a photograph of them trotting along beside him.
He kept slipping over which made us both laugh. After a few minutes we drifted apart and I continued ahead of the rest of the team content with my own company and was first back to the parked jeeps. It was warm now as I laid back on the grass waiting for the others. For the journey back to Vladimir’s hostel I volunteered to join Gwyn, Simon, Julian and Thomas in the back of the open jeep and wedged down in a corner it was less cold and uncomfortable than I had expected.
It was a surprisingly long drive back to the ‘gate’ and then onto Vladimir’s hostel where some of the others would be hiring plastic boots, crampons and sleeping bags. We met in what appeared to be Vladimir’s lounge. His children sat on a sofa trying to watch TV while a group of strangers clumped backwards and forwards past them in heavy, ill-fitting boots blocking their view of the screen. I was glad I had brought my own boots as there did not seen to be much choice with a very limited number of pairs of boots and no one seemed confident with the fit. I selected a pair of crampons, checked they fitted my Spantiks and then retired to the bus. There seemed a huge amount of confusion over the boots and the number of sleeping bags Vladimir was hiring out. Eventually we were all back on the bus and facing the long drive back to the hacienda and a late dinner at 8.30pm. Dinner was delicious as always and included a wonderful chocolate birthday cake for Dawn.
With a rest day tomorrow we enjoyed staying up late chatting, reading and writing our diaries while Dawn worked on Peter Rabbit. Despite the excitement of the day I slept badly and somehow managed to lose my hairslides in the night. I worried unnecessarily about them, trying to silently check all around my low bed and the rest of our tiny room in the dark so as not to disturb Rhiannon. Despite the opportunity of a lie in and having only slept fitfully, I was awake early and unable to relax and go back to sleep.
Finally it was 9am and time for breakfast although as usual I had little appetite. During the morning we went into the paddocks to practice fitting our crampons and walking in them, our lesson watched by the inquisitive and slightly bemused llamas.
As I waited for lunch time I looked forward to my planned walk around the land behind the hacienda this afternoon and thought about how I was feeling. Certainly I was happy and content but I still had the productive cough despite Brian extending my course of antibiotics and I still got out of breath every time I walked along the upstairs corridor. I felt disappointed by how slowly I was having to go especially when starting out, but glad that although weak and unfit I was not struggling with the altitude. It was bizarre that I always felt better higher up especially if the climb was more technical. I had known this would be a very different trip to those in Nepal but it felt strange staying in our amazing accommodation. This felt more like a holiday than a challenge and a little bit of me wished we had been camping so it felt more like an expedition. The bus journeys every day on awful roads were not enjoyable and I knew I would have preferred to have been trekking place to place. The Hacienda was a beautiful place to stay and Brian had negotiated for our team to have sole use of the spa this afternoon but somehow it did not feel right using a spa on an ‘expedition’. I was enjoying the chance to read during our rest times but felt a bit guilty thinking I should have been socialising more and contributing to the team bonding. It was great to see Alex coping so well now after struggling early on but his dad, Ken, had decided he would not be tackling Cotopaxi and Chimborazo with the rest of the team. Julian had suffered with an upset gut from soon after arriving at the hacienda and was being very careful with his diet and hoping a full rest day would help his recovery.
Although I had done very little this morning by lunch time I was starving which was a good sign. Finally I was regaining my appetite although I could never finished a meal and did not even consider having three courses.
As we ate lunch I noticed it was raining again. We had been assured this was usually the driest month of the year but every afternoon we were at the Hacienda it rained heavily. I regretted not having gone for my walk earlier and so after lunch everyone started sorting their kit for Cotopaxi. It seemed impossible we only had two more mountains to climb although I had been very determined to take one day at a time and was consciously trying not to think about the two massive challenges ahead.
Despite being much less efficient than I would have been in a tent I was soon packed ready for tomorrow leaving a long afternoon stretching ahead of me with little to occupy my mind other than nagging worries. I thought alot about my dear friend Jan and the poor prognosis she had been given just before I came away. I thought about my own future and my hopes and dreams, how I craved more ‘challenges’ and all the different places I wanted to see. I thought too about Natasha and Rebecca, how much I wanted them to lead fulfilled lives, do adventurous stuff and have amazing experiences. Then my mind returned to Roger and how I knew I needed to get back to where I could be content in myself and not have that desperate need to feel loved for who I am. Today there was too much thinking time and now I was having a down day. In an effort to lift my mood I decided to read. I had been thoroughly enjoying Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the story of some one who at a very difficult point in her life set out to walk The Pacific Crest Trail. The first part of the book where her mother had died had been a hard read as I was still struggling with losing my own Mum a bit over a year ago but now I was engrossed in the story of her walking the trail. Reading today was not a good idea as Cheryl was also having a down day. As I read I related so completely to her emotions as she vented her anger at her Mum for all her little failings and most of all hated her for dying. I was upset now and my mood sank lower. With my confidence low and my head in a bad place I decided I should speak to Brian about the plan for Cotopaxi as I felt I would be too slow to be paired with Rhiannon. Brian was reassuring as ever and told me he had a plan and that I would be on my own meaning I could go at my own pace. He had asked each or us to vote in secret as to whether we preferred to be assigned teams based on our established buddy pairs or if we preferred it to be based on our speed and ability. The result had been a surprise as 8 out of 10 of us were in favour of being paired with our existing buddies.
Tomorrow we planned to leave straight away after lunch to drive to Cotopaxi. Then we would trek up to the refuge, eat and rest there before getting up at 11pm ready for a midnight departure. Vladimir estimated it would take us 7 hours to summit and 4 hours to descend but we had all learned his timings were always way out and felt it was better to ignore them and simply accept it would take as long as it took ! Since we had arrived in Ecuador there had been no real talk of Chimborazo and Brian had been avoiding saying much about even the possibility of us climbing it. All the information we had gleaned from our guides had not been favourable as they had heard reports from other guides of loads of snow and difficult conditions. We caught odd snippets of conversations between the guides and with Brian and Gwyn but did not really know what was going on. I felt fairly sure we would not be attempting it but did not like to ask Brian the direct question. Anyway, Brian was being evasive about any plan and encouraging us to take each day as it came.
Next morning I woke in a better frame of mind although my cough persisted and I still could only manage a little breakfast. It was a long morning of waiting around which gave me time to reconsider my kit to take up to the refuge and resulted in me unpacking everything, faffing around for ages and then repacking almost exactly what had been ready since yesterday ! After lunch we were back in the bus with Patrichio at the wheel. We felt very grateful he was such a good driver as we lurched off along the pot holed roads. As we neared Cotopaxi he avoided the badly driven trucks and randomly dumped cars left at odd angles, often 2 abreast, all along the approach road even on the corners. It was a very grim location and seemed like a bizarre place for a family day out. The hillside was bleak with virtually no vegetation but hundreds of cars and trucks littered the track long before we reached the car park. On my previous trip to Cotopaxi there had been a long zig zag path up to the refuge but since the eruption the path was now virtually straight up, the deep soil track climbing steeply. Many families were struggling up towards the refuge moving slowly, gasping for air and complaining of headaches while small children sat on rocks holding their heads and crying.
The refuge had been rebuilt since the eruption and was surprisingly homely. We sat on benches at long wooden tables with wooden place mats carved with a picture of Cotopaxi. Brian told me the new plan was for me to get up at 10pm with a view to setting off on my own with Francisco at 10.30pm ahead of the rest of the team. I could not eat much of the meal and soon retired upstairs to the dormitory to lie down and rest realising that sleep was likely to elude me. I was feeling very calm, relaxed and confident.
As I laid on my bed I was able to clearly picture myself at the summit and even imagined announcing triumphantly, “This is for Jan.” I imagined writing up this blog and how it would fit into the book I now wanted to write to include all my blogs and came up with the title, ‘From Snowdon to the Point on Earth Closest to the Sun. Just a Walker.’ I thought about my long term plans, new challenges, new places to see, selling the house and moving on with my life. Feeling so positive I realised I had much to offer others and saw myself as an inspirational speaker and planned to get involved with children or young adults. While planning all this I was resting and for a short time I think I did actually fall asleep. Quickly 10pm came round and I got up quietly trying not to disturb anyone else who was resting before setting off for the summit. Downstairs I drank some tea and filled my insulated bottles with hot water. I tried to eat the provided stale roll with jam but could only stomach a couple of mouthfuls. My guide was not ready to leave at 10.30pm as planned and when we eventually went outside he shook his head and took my carefully adjusted crampons off my boots and loosened them by about three holes. I worried they would now be too loose and saw no benefit at all in them having been altered but he helped me reattach them to my boots and finally we were ready to set off. By now the others were all downstairs and I had lost most of the advantage of having an earlier start.
We set off in the snow which came right down to the refuge, plodding along under a clear sky full of a myriad of stars. Straight away the path was very steep but I was happy plodding along in silence behind Francisco. He had not yet spoken to me and when I tried to talk to him he just looked bemused and walked on. I was not sure if he understood English at all. Time passed as I walked on, my mind empty but feeling content and at peace. My pace was slow but steady and I felt supremely confident that if I stuck to this pace finally, many, many hours from now, I would find myself at the summit. In my head I pictured the crater I had seen 6 years ago and wondered how different it would be following the eruption two years ago. For ages Francisco and I wandered on, roped together but feeling completely alone on the massive mountain steadily heading steeply upwards. Eventually Julian and Simon passed us and we briefly exchanged pleasantries and soon after other team members also overtook me. It was not a problem, there was no hurry, I had all the time in the world to slowly, slowly reach the summit. After a while Vladimir and Julian met us again as Julian was heading down. He had been struggling for days with his upset gut and was now completely wasted. Vladimir stopped and casually suggested I should go down with them. I was shocked. WHY would he suggest I turn back ? I was fine and making progress albeit slowly. I simply said, “No,” but then he tried to persuade me implying I would not make the summit going at my pace. My pace was irrelevant, Brian had said there was no time constraints on me summiting. I was confused and hurt, why did Vladimir want me to turn back ? I insisted on speaking to Brian on the radio and asked Francisco if I could go on. Francisco just shrugged nonchalantly. Resorting to speaking very slowly and adding hand gestures I asked him directly did he think I was ok to go on ? He simply said, “Yes,” but offered no other encouragement. I radioed Brian and explained Vladimir’s suggestion that I should go down, Brian sounded surprised and immediately asked how I felt. I explained I felt fine and wanted to go on and Brian said, “Great, then go on.” Then he added, “Keep in touch on the radio if you need to.” I set off again, steeply making my way upwards, plod, plod, plod. Soon I had left behind Vladimir’s negativity and moved on from his lack of confidence in me. I felt totally at peace and my mind was empty, no doubts, no worries, no thoughts, just a peaceful contentment. Looking ahead I could see clusters of lights climbing even more steeply and some were so high I was unsure if they were head torches or stars.
Then another shock came over the radio, Gwyn was bringing Thomas down. It seemed Thomas was exhausted with no energy and already dehydrated, Gwyn was even concerned he may not have enough strength to get down safely. This was very upsetting. On the radio Brian said Thomas had already done the hardest bit and from now on it would be easier and less steep. I spoke up on my radio suggesting my guide, Francisco, should take Thomas down to enable Gwyn to continue but Gwyn was insistent he would not leave his buddy. When they reached us I again asked Gwyn to go on but he refused saying he would never desert a buddy and besides as he was a medic Thomas may need his medical expertise. Gwyn was determined to be the one to take Thomas down. I hugged them both and as they set off again patted them on their shoulders promising I would take pictures at the summit for them. Warm tears trickled down my face, I was sad for Thomas and just as sad for Gwyn but had so much respect for him and his totally selfless attitude. He was giving up his chance of summitting to stick by his buddy and see him down safely. It was with a heavier heart I started off again. Not long after this Rhiannon, Dawn, Catherine and Falstowe caught us up. I explained to Rhiannon how Vladimir had wanted me to go down and she agreed we were all feeling pressurised by the guides to give up. She spoke to Brian on the radio and said we needed help with the guides as only Brian had the authority to compel them to continue if we wanted to go on. Brian reassured us he would speak to the guides but so long as no one was putting themselves or others in danger none of us should turn back without first speaking to him.
Catherine was finding the climb a struggle and felt she was holding her team back. She was keen to join me and Francisco but Dawn was against the idea of splitting up their team. It was snowing now and our crampons had no purchase in the deep snow, our short ice axes were useless and I wished I had my walking poles. I made a mental note to always take my poles on summit attempts in the future. I was tired now and had to ask to rest. Francisco never suggested a rest so I pushed myself further than I should have done rather than taking short breaks more frequently so gradually my energy sapped away. Francisco rarely spoke but occasionally poked at the snow with his poles and muttered, “Too deep, too dangerous,” and kept suggesting we turn around and go down. I knew the others had already climbed through this part so clearly it was not unsafe. I radioed Brian again and explained I wanted to go on despite Francisco advising me not to and Brian said, “Fine.” Francisco’s blank expression did not change but he turned round again and continued leading me onwards. I was still feeling good although tired and slow but I was still sure I could make it. When I rested I sat down, slurped at my water which was now cold, and after a few minutes felt fine and ready to go on again but the constant pressure from the guides to give up was getting to me and somehow my heart was not really in it any more. I knew I had been to the summit before and even though this was a very different route somehow it seemed less important now. I realised this mental attitude would defeat me and tried to resurrect my feelings from a few hours ago at the refuge, the quiet confidence and determination to reach the summit. It did not help being on my own with just an unenthusiastic guide who had wanted to give up on me when we had hardly started. Eventually Catherine did join me so her team of Rhiannon and Dawn could go faster. Francisco was leading, followed by Catherine and then me. Now I had a buddy and someone else to consider. Now I had a reason to go on. I did not want to scupper Catherine’s chance of success and so now I had an incentive and had regained some of my positivity.
We struggled to communicate with Francisco who kept drawing pictures in the snow with his walking pole. It was a strange A shape and he repeatedly seemed to be saying we were at the horizontal bar of the A and it was still 6 hours to the summit. Apparently later, on his way down, Brian had kept seeing the ‘weird symbols’ drawn in the snow and wondered about the significance of them. I was tired and the path was steep but I was coping fine going at Catherine’s slow steady pace although occasionally I had to ask to stop for a quick rest. I possibly could have gone faster so long as I was able to rest but Catherine stuck to a steady pace which she could maintain without needing to stop. She asked if I had eaten and I had to admit to only managing a quarter of a cashew bar. Whenever we stopped we got cold quickly and I struggled to eat. Francisco kept repeating his drawing and implying we were not going to summit so we should give up. Before long Catherine also started to suggest turning back, citing my lack of appetite and her being concerned about me. Still feeling reasonably confident of success I was keen to go on at least until dawn otherwise we would not even get to see the amazing views which I remembered from before. I also knew the sunrise would give us a boost and was keen to reach a definite point rather than just randomly turning back. I tried to persuade Catherine to at least go on until sunrise and tried to ask Francisco what lay ahead. This time he drew a curved line in the snow and seemed to imply that it would get flatter as we rounded a corner and seemed to be telling us we were about an hour from a lake. He was so difficult to communicate with and we failed to clarify if indeed the route was less steep further on. We set off again and for a few yards we were on a relatively flat ledge but soon it was steeper again as the ledge got narrower. We did not talk much but soon Catherine asked me again if I wanted to turn back. I absolutely did not want to turn back but started to worry that perhaps Catherine wanted to turn back herself. I said I wanted to go on for her sake which was not totally true, I did want to go on for myself too but also did not want to be the reason she turned back. But so many hours of the guides chipping away at my confidence was taking its toll. Catherine spoke to Brian on the radio and said she was worried about me. In response Brian said there were deep crevasses ahead to cross and the path got even steeper but I kept saying I wanted to go on although inside I was feeling pressurised to give up. I tried to tell myself Cotopaxi was not important to me as I had seen the summit before and if I went down now would that mean I was saving myself a bit for Chimborazo ? Would I be more determined for that or would I be tainted by failure, demoralised and already defeated before I started ? Would I be thinking if I could not even manage Cotopaxi what hope did I have for Chimborazo ? Bitterly I remembered my confidence of a few short hours ago as I had laid on my bunk in the refuge. Where had it all gone ? Catherine was insisting she was very happy with what she had already achieved and had no doubts herself about turning back now. We still had not reached the lake or even knew for sure if it actually existed, I felt I had been worn down by the guides and was losing the will to go on fighting against their determination to send me down. “You decide,” I said to Catherine finally, “You make the decision, it’s your call.” And so, just as the sun started to light the horizon we turned around and with a heavy heart I started the long, long descent.
I felt so dejected, so disappointed in myself. I really wanted to talk about it but didn’t want to tell Catherine how I was really feeling. That would not be fair and so I followed behind her in gloomy silence.
Looking out over the sea of cloud we could see Antisana and, further away, Cayambe poking through. Now, as the sun rose, it was warmer and brighter. It was so unbelievably steep as we headed down I was having to side step despite Francisco trying to persuade me to do the ‘Thunderbirds puppet walk’, leaning back as I moved forward on my heels. It was no good, I did not have the confidence to trust my crampons and was too scared of slipping. Catherine was very slow in the lead but I was happy enough to follow although I could not believe how far we had come or how steep it was. Now I could appreciate the amazing views and take photographs. At one point we looked back and far far above us we could see a tiny group of climbers still heading upward which was Brian and the remaining members of our team, Rhiannon, Simon, Alex and Dawn. Sick with envy I waved dismally at them.
Maybe I couldn’t have summitted but I knew I could have got higher. Now I was hungry and needed to eat and drink but Catherine was keen to keep moving as she was feeling chilled. As I plodded on downhill I thought about how I would write this up in my diary. At the end of the day I am my own person and after all I had agreed to turn back. Part of being a team means supporting other team members and making selfless decisions. I thought about Gwyn, who had made a much greater personal sacrifice than me as I am certain he had every chance of summiting, and felt humbled by his selfless act. As I was thinking this the radio crackled and Gwyn’s voice was asking how everyone was doing and checking in on our progress.
The route down seemed never ending, down, down, down. Finally we caught a brief glimpse of the refuge before it disappeared again into the mist. Although it was clear where we were, mist filled the valley below and ahead of us so it seemed we were walking towards a wall of cloud which we could also see over. Francisco seemed bored by Catherine and I now and kept getting ahead and leaving us to our own devices. The refuge appeared and disappeared again and it was hard to judge how far we had to go. About 100 yards from it suddenly we saw Simon still striding out having been to the summit and he joined us for the last few yards back to the refuge.
Once back at refuge I was overcome by emotion. I was so worried that my dearest friend, Jan, may pass away while I was away and I questioned how I could have been so selfish as to come away despite knowing her prognosis and then to fail in my quest to reach the summit of Cotopaxi. The whole trip seemed so trivial now compared to what Jan and Ken were facing. Why had I come at all ? Why had I left Jan not knowing if I would get the chance to see her again ? Why was I so self absorbed ? I isolated myself from the others and sat alone on the floor against the wall but still I could not hold back the tears. Simon came over and asked why I was so upset, he said I was not the person I was when I had stayed with him and we had walked together in the Lake District. I told him about Jan and how I was feeling and it was a huge relief to pour out all my sadness. Simon and Julian comforted me and assured me they felt sure Jan would not have wanted me to have missed this incredible opportunity and in my heart I knew they were right. When Brian came in he came over and patted my shoulder reassuringly, I stood up and hugged him in silence. I couldn’t talk to him yet. Later he would ask me about what went on with Catherine and how and why the decision was made to go down. I could not stomach much of the breakfast of hot chocolate, banana and cereal with a sickly chocolate sauce which was pretty revolting.
It was a steep walk back down to our bus and by the time we were on our way I had got a lot of my disappointment out of my system and was happy enough although I was still trying not to think about what could be happening with Jan. Everyone was tired on the journey back but looking across at Alex he was clearly elated and deservedly so. Brian, only half jokingly, said Alex had summitted on his hands and knees and had moaned his way to the top. We had all grown very fond of Alex who despite his young years fitted so comfortably into our group and were delighted he had succeeded. It was an amazing achievement at his age and I told him he should be so proud. His dad, Ken, had not come to Cotopaxi but I was sure he would also be very proud of his son’s determination and resilience.
Back at the Hacienda another delicious lunch awaited us and in the afternoon I had a hot stone massage in the spa which was very relaxing. Afterwards as I lay on my bed I thought back to the last time I had laid on a bed, back at the refuge, it seemed a very long time ago. I remembered how positive I had felt and all the ideas and plans I had made, how I had seen myself as a motivational speaker. I felt so differently now, disappointed in myself, feeling I had given up so easily. I wrote in my diary, ‘Motivational Speaker !!!!!!!!’. Despite not really having slept at all the night before and the huge physical effort on Cotopaxi I did not feel tired. I could not face sorting my kit but I needed to distract myself and so read my Kobo until it was time for dinner. Brian read out the messages on the tracker and it was great hearing from Rebecca as most days she had sent us funny jokes but what I wanted more than anything else was news of Jan. After dinner I laid on my bed amongst all my kit and carried on reading. I must have fallen asleep because at 1am I woke still fully clothed, half asleep I wandered down the corridor to the toilet but did not remember returning to my bed. The same thing happened at 5am. Then I heard Rhiannon talking to me, she was saying it was 8.50am and did I want breakfast ? I was still fully dressed and laying uncomfortably on top of my scattered kit. Later Rhiannon told me how in the night she had twice tried to put me to bed but I was completely dead to the world and uncooperative ! As I got up I realised my right hip was sore but other than that I suffered no ill effects from the day before. We now had two rest days to enjoy before our attempt on Chimborazo.
I was a bit worried about the horse riding we had all booked today but as we donned our animal skin chaps and ponchos I was glad I had agreed to take part.
Our guide gave us a brief description on how to mount the horses and ride Ecuadorian style. We had Western saddles and standing up in the stirrups adjusted them to allow a handspan gap between us and the saddle. Thomas was allocated a big grey horse and with his large camera around his neck he mounted deftly. He looked slightly ill at ease and suddenly there was a minor commotion and next second Thomas had been deposited onto the muddy ground. He was clearly shocked but appeared unhurt and thankfully his camera had also survived unscathed. The guides seemed unsurprised and the belligerent steed was led away in disgrace and another mount was offered. It appeared that if this horse did not want to work he would dump his rider and then enjoy being exiled to the field for the rest of the day. I was more worried now as ‘Bijou’ was led over to me. He was a gentle looking horse and stood patiently as I awkwardly hauled myself on to his back. Moving slowly around the field I attempted steering holding the reins in one hand as we had been shown, practised the unfamiliar noises for ‘Go on’ and ‘Stop’, and tried to get my feet at right angles when I wanted to kick to encourage him forward. It did not come naturally and I felt awkward and insecure perched on his saddle especially as he tended to throw his head around whenever I moved the reins to either side.
Soon we were setting off in a long string accompanied by Amiti, the faithful black dog to protect us from the attention of the fighting bulls which we would be passing. As we got going I relaxed a bit although the horses consistently chose the most difficult route. The path was muddy and deeply rutted but they seemed to prefer barging through the thick bushes with no idea what the ground was like below their hooves so they slipped frequently and occasionally stumbled although most of the time I felt surprisingly secure. As they plodded along Julian’s mount seemed to be obsessed by the horse in front’s bottom and often they both stopped for no apparent reason and had to be encouraged to trot to catch up again. It was disappointing it was now drizzling so we did not see much of the view as we passed by the cows and, higher up, the fighting bulls. At the highest point of our ride there were three huge wooden statues of a man, a woman and a llama. Jorge had built them himself after the eruption of Cotopaxi as Sentinels of the Mountain to reassure guests and locals the Hacienda’s grounds were safe from the volcano.
As I was only wearing a T shirt under my poncho, I started to feel cold once we had stopped but then our guides produced a flask of coca tea which was very welcome. As we mounted again and set off our guide asked if anyone would like to go for a gallop. Gwyn, who has some Romany roots, and Dawn were keen although the rest of us declined. Had it not been for Chimborazo ahead of us I would have liked to try galloping but did not want to risk falling off. Going steeply downhill was more scary as the horses slipped frequently and even leaning back as directed I did not feel all that safe. Bijou had a ‘rope’ made of twisted skin bundled into a coil attached to his bridle but it came undone and trailed on the ground, I quickly coiled it up and held onto it to stop him stepping on the trailing end. As Dawn and Gwyn had galloped off with one guide that only left one leading the rest of us and now we had no back marker. Going down Simon and Julian’s horses lagged behind and soon a large gap had opened up behind me. I had to shout for our leader to stop and let them catch up. Even though the rain was much heavier now the heavy ponchos were remarkable waterproof and I only got wet where the rain trickled down my neck. Every day since we had arrived at the Hacienda there had been heavy rain by late morning.
Catherine had not come with us as she did not want to risk aggravating her bad back by riding but she was waiting for us as we arrived back. We dried off and headed into the dining room for lunch where Catherine told us she had booked a cookery session for us all the next day where we could learn to cook a traditional Ecuadorian recipe. In the afternoon we all retired to a different lounge which we had not explored before. The lights appeared not to work and everyone searched around for the switches, of which there were loads, and still no one succeeded in switching them on. Some of the team were reading or writing their diaries while others played Dobble, a game provided by Brian, which involved quite a lot of noise and laughter. As the light faded it became increasingly difficult to see and then Thomas randomly stood up a twisted one of the light bulbs which immediately came on. It transpired none of the light bulbs had been screwed in properly and once twisted in we were bathed in light. This room was comfortable enough but colder than the main lounge in the other building so after dinner we returned to our normal haunt. I was feeling very relaxed and was enjoying reading and writing my diary although I did feel I should have been joining in more with rest of the team and again I was thinking how this did not feel like a ‘challenge’. However my head was in a good place now and I was happy. On one side my gluteal muscle still ached a bit but it was not too bad and was not going to put me off walking to the waterfall tomorrow.
Our evening was filled with frivolity as Gwyn regaled us with funny stories and Dawn discussed the problems of trapped wind. There was loads of good humoured banter and everyone was happy and relaxed. Gwyn’s love of horses had earned him the nickname of the ‘Lone Ranger’ and as Dawn would be accompanying him on another hack tomorrow someone suggested she should be ‘Tonto’. Dawn misheard this and later was asking the significance of her being called ‘Tintin’. This was met with gales of laughter and as we had another rest today tomorrow we all stayed up late joking together as people played games on their phones. Finally I retired to my bed and thought I would check my phone hoping there would be some internet connection. Browsing Facebook I saw Jan had reposted a memory and almost cried with delight and relief. Now at least I knew she was well enough to have been on Facebook.
I slept soundly and the next morning I woke refreshed and looking forward to exploring the area around the hacienda and hopefully finding the waterfall Jorge had described. I set off with Rhiannon and Thomas who were good company and the three of us wandered slowly past the fields of cattle and llamas and an angry looking bull.
A baby llama hid shyly behind his mother but small calves were tethered on the path beyond the fences obviously being weaned but still in sight of their dams. I thought again how much Rebecca would love this place with all the livestock and especially the horses. My sore glute from yesterday was better but today my foot was uncomfortable. I hoped the debilitating Plantar Fascilitis I had suffered from before was not going to rear its ugly head again. It was a lovely walk and eventually we came upon the camping area with a few small flat pitches and a covered area for cooking over a firepit.
From here a small sign pointed to ‘Cascada’ and following a narrow path through the shrubs we soon could hear the waterfall. Jorge had built a viewing platform but our photographs did not do justice to the beauty of the rushing water.
We headed back through the campsite and then on down towards the road where we found a sad donkey tethered by the road side but desperate to be made a fuss of as he stretched his neck to get his muzzle onto the bank we were walking along.
We saw rabbits and tiny humming birds which Thomas photographed. Suddenly we heard what sounded like a public announcement coming over a loud speaker. The same few words were being repeated over and over again. At first we didn’t think much of it but as it went on over and over again I became uneasy. It sounded too short a message to be something like a politician campaigning and then I wondered vaguely if it was some type of public warning. What if a volcano was erupting and we were being told to evacuate ? I did not mention this to Rhiannon and Thomas but feeling a little ill at ease I was hugely relieved when a truck came into view loaded with gas canisters and the driver obviously announcing his wares for sale ! We slowly headed back towards the Hacienda and went into the paddock to have a closer look at a cows head nailed to a post. Presumably this was how the various animal skulls came to be hung on some of the fence posts.
Back from our walk we heard that word had got back that Chimborazo had been summited the day before and apparently conditions had been ‘good’. Brian had been keeping very quiet about Chimborazo and I had hardly thought it and until now had assumed it may not even be possible. A little rush of excitement passed through my body but I resolved not to think too hard about the prospect. It was not long to wait for lunch and I was ready for it although my appetite would be quickly sated which was a shame as the food here was amazing. I was still struggling to drink enough as well, even yesterday after Cotopaxi when I was certain to have been dehydrated it took a determined effort to drink.
During the afternoon all the team except Brian met up with Evelyn to make empanadas which was great fun although none of us were able to copy her deft moves stretching the dough and making neat crescents with perfect, even twisted pinches around the edge. But despite their appearance our randomly shaped and over stuffed efforts were delicious.
Having eaten our fill we took some over to the other lounge to share with Brian and then he announced he would like to see each of us in his room one at a time. We told him it was like being asked into the Headmaster’s study and I asked if we should be taking the precaution of putting a book down the back of our trousers. I told Brian how I had felt bullied into turning back on Cotopaxi and he said the guides here reminded him of the Russians we had met on Elbrus for whom guiding was just a job rather than a vocation, merely a means of getting paid for going into the mountain themselves. They seemed to see their role as providing the logistics and to lead the way with little desire to actually guide or encourage their clients to achieve their dreams. Brian explained the plan for Chimborazo to each of us. As no one was as slow as me I would be on my own again with my own guide but that would mean there would be no pressure to go faster than I felt able to. I was not unduly upset by this, in fact I felt empty with no real emotion at all although I was a little sad I would not have supportive team mates around me. Brian hoped we would keep together more as a whole team on Chimborazo and he would not be buddied up himself so he could move up and down through the group as needed. The next day we would be having breakfast at 9.00am and were told to be ready to leave at 11.00am. The journey would probably take about 4 hours so we would be provided with a packed lunch to eat on the bus and then have dinner at the first hut at 4800m at 5.00pm. After filling our water bottles and flasks we would then move on up to the second hut at 5000m for 7pm where we would rest until 9pm and then set off for the summit at 10pm. The ascent was expected to take 9 hours and the descent 5 although so far every estimate the guides had made had been wildly inaccurate. Brian explained the forecast was for temperatures of -10° which would drop to -18° with wind chill and the wind was expected to be 30km/hr at the base and 40 km/hr at the summit.
Julian had already decided he would not be coming to Chimborazo and he and Ken had made plans to explore more of Cotopaxi National Park. Gwyn had some doubts about the boots he had hired in the UK and asked Julian if he could try his which were hired from Vladimir. Gwyn was horrified as he stumbled around in the heavy boots, “All I need now is a brass fishbowl on my head to be kitted out as an old fashioned deep sea diver !” he commented dryly and decided his own boots were a much more comfortable and practical option.
Before dinner I was already packed and ready for the next day and so was disappointed when I returned to my bed to find my camelbac was leaking and so now both my bag and kit were wet. It was not a huge problem as the stove outside our room was always hot for most of the night so I spread my things out in front of it but I was still frustrated that I was going to have to repack in the morning. For the first time since arriving I could not get to sleep and kept thinking about Jan and a bit about the summit. I desperately hoped we would have some phone reception on route so I could send texts to Jan and Ken.
After breakfast we had an hour to wait for our bus, I was packed and eager to go but dreading the bus journey. My texts to Jan and Ken were written waiting to send. All trip I had had nagging worries about them, it was so, so hard not knowing how things were and I could not accept that Jan may not be there when I got home. Now I was worrying that maybe Ken could be ill himself why there was no news. I really hoped for phone reception today and had made another plan to try to contact Fiona, their son’s ex partner who was a good friend of theirs, to check all was well. I realised I was not thinking about the summit at all but more about Natasha and Rebecca and hoping they would lead fulfilled lives and experience moments like this anticipating great things. Since my chat to Catherine on Pasochoa which seemed a life time ago, I had hardly thought about Roger at all and it felt like a burden had been lifted from my mind. For the first time in 8 months I felt it was his loss rather than mine and could not help thinking I did not need negativity in my life. Finally I realised that however much I may want to, some people cannot be helped or supported unless they themselves wanted to be.
Our route took us along the Trans American Highway again and even after we left it the roads were much better than those leading to Cotopaxi. The landscape became increasingly bleak but herds of very cute vacunae frolicked over the barren soil avoiding the very occasional shrubby bushes. Suddenly a monster mountain loomed into view and Patrichio stopped for us to photograph mighty Chimborazo. Back in the bus we drove on again and finally came to the ‘gate’. There were smart stone buildings with offices, an information centre, a cafe and toilets, very different to the ‘gate’ to Iliniza.
We wandered around, already breathless and by the time I reached the cafe several of the others were already enjoying hot chocolate. We asked for 4 more hot chocolates but there appeared to be a language barrier and despite a lot of pointing we only managed to get two and then there was confusion over paying as it seemed the ‘cashier’ was telling us he had no change despite Simon pointing it out to him in the till. After this we all had to go to the ‘office’ to register. I had not brought my glasses so Rhiannon had to explain the form to me and show me where to sign it. It all seemed a shambolic process with the lady behind a glass screen handing back forms and calling out funnily pronounced names. We ended up entering two people’s details on each form which appeared to satisfy her and then we climbed back into the bus headed onward and upward to the refuge. This was a smart, well built building and when we arrived we were told that there had been another change of plan. We would be eating here and then resting in the dormitories for 4 hours before setting out for the summit. I managed some soup but struggled to eat anything else and in my bed I had difficulty forcing down a cashew and date bar.
Here the other teams looked like ‘serious’ mountaineers and I felt old, silly and out of place. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here ?’. I did not belong with these real mountaineers. Unfortunately upstairs in the dormitory only top bunks were still unoccupied and I was very scared of falling off but I tried to clear my mind and at least rest even if I could not sleep. Now my head was in a good place again and I felt quietly confident, I think I even fell asleep for a while. I was going to have my own guide so my pace would not be an issue but Brian, Catherine, Gwyn and Thomas would be climbing as a team of 4. I hoped I would be able to keep up with them so I was not on my own again. I did wish I was not so slow and my illness had made that even worse but I was confident I would make this summit and again pictured myself at the top announcing, ‘This is for Jan’. I even composed the messages I would send to people afterwards. I worried a bit about the practicalities, regetting not having brought my walking poles, and was concerned about my glove combination not being warm enough to protect my hands from frostbite this time so I asked Brian’s advice again.
Very soon it was time to get up and head downstairs where I only managed a tiny bit of bread and cheese, filled my flask with coca tea and introduced myself to Fabio before heading outside. We had been warned it was going to be very cold but despite the clear sky it was surprisingly warm. I was glad I had abandoned my long sleeved t shirt and so only had my merino hoodie under my paramo jacket. After suffering frostbite on my last expedition I had invested in heated gloves for this trip but did not need to switch them on and my feet were cosy warm in my new socks and insulated Spantik boots. As I set off plodding slowly behind Fabio I looked up at the beautiful star studded sky as two shooting stars arced over us. This must be a good omen, I was at peace with my world and felt sure a few hours from now when the stars had faded I would be standing at the summit of Chimborazo.
Fabio did not speak much but I was very content plodding along behind him although I felt a little concerned I was falling back a bit from the others. My head was empty now and I was just enjoying the monotony of step after step slowly making upward progress. It was not too steep and there was some snow on the rocky path. Time passed but I was in my own little world and had no idea how long we had been walking. Fabio suggested I rested for moment and had a drink then we moved on again. We passed the higher refuge where we had intended to stay but it was all closed up and then on past a small frozen lake. We were gaining on the group ahead and when we were closer I realised it was Catherine and Falstowe. Catherine had felt unwell at the refuge and was now struggling with fatigue and nausea and so was heading down. Over the radio Brian informed us Gwyn was also heading down but we had no idea why.
Thomas who had been with Catherine and Falstowe now joined me and Fabio. I had tried to reduce the weight I had to carry by only half filling my Camelbac although my Nalgene bottle and flask were full. I had also sacrificed bringing my walking poles but now as my heavy legs felt leaden I regretted that decision especially as Thomas was getting cold and was keen to go faster. It was colder now but I was fine and for a while I switched on my heated gloves. When we stopped to eat and drink it was impossible to open my flask or undo my rucksack without taking the gloves off and then it was very difficult to get them back on. Even simple tasks were cumbersome and could only be completed slowly at this altitude. Ahead and much higher up we could see head torches getting further away from us as the various teams on the mountain spread out. I was happy at my pace but Thomas was getting increasingly frustrated with me and repeated time and time again, “You can do this. Keep moving.”
Gwyn reached us as he headed down and was happy and upbeat saying he had simply lost his love of high altitude mountains and just found himself asking, ‘What am I doing here ? Why am I doing this ?’ He seemed quite happy with his decision to go down and perhaps was almost relieved he had listened to the voice in his head and now was heading back to the refuge which also meant he could go down with Catherine and see she was ok. I was feeling pressurised by Thomas but was still happy and determined. Time passed as we plodded slowly upwards. Then over the radio we heard Rhiannon was also coming down as she was worried she was developing frostbite in her feet again. It must have been a huge personal battle to admit this to herself and do the sensible thing. When Rhiannon and Falstowe met us Thomas explained our dilemna that I was too slow for him as he was getting chilled. I was adamant I did not want to go down and was determined I would go faster. But try as I might I could not pick up the pace sufficiently and now Thomas was saying that unless he could go faster he would have to turn back himself. I was devastated. I had been given my own guide so my speed would not be an issue but that was now irrelevant. I knew I must not scupper his chances of summiting especially as he was more likely to succeed than me but it felt horribly unfair. Thomas insisted on speaking to Brian on the radio and suggested some of the guides who had already gone down should come back up to help me. On the radio Falstowe refused saying it was too far for them to come back. The radio conversation continued as we all started to get cold. Brian was at least an hour ahead of us and was in an impossible situation. Thomas was not happy. I battled with my conscience, I knew for the sake of the team I had to agree to go down but I was gutted and resentful. I knew I could succeed if only I had been able to go at my own pace. This was the second time I had been forced to go down against my will and I was so choked up I could hardly speak to inform Brian I would turn back and go down. Then I handed the radio to Thomas and waited for Falstowe to come back up to collect me and then lead me and Rhiannon down. We waited and he did not come and so after a while we radioed to find out how long he would be as Thomas was cold now and keen to get going with Fabio. Initially Falstowe replied he was not coming back to collect me but eventually he did and then he would lead me back to Rhiannon and the three of us would return to the refuge together.
I turned away and headed downhill in silence, lost in a chasm of disappointment and deeply resentful of Thomas having the opportunity to go on heading for the summit without me. I did not like myself much and was ashamed of how I was feeling. I forced myself to raise my gaze from the ground and to look around me. The star scape was amazing and I tried to make myself enjoy the experience of the lonely mountain in the depths of the night but my gut was knotted in grief and for a while I could not turn the situation around and see the positive side. I knew this was my last big challenge, I knew I would never go to altitude again. I resented the fact I had discovered this great passion so late and I guess I should be grateful that I had had ten years of amazing mountain experiences but I was bitterly disappointed it should all come to an end on such a low. I had so, so wanted this to be a success. All this whirred through my head but an icy silence hung in the air. After a while Rhiannon asked if I was ok and I could contain it no longer, “This was MY mountain,” I cried bitterly, “I really hope Thomas makes it now he has taken my opportunity.” Rhiannon was kind and reassuring but carefully diplomatic. I was deeply ashamed of feeling so bitter and resentful and tried hard to rise above it and see the positives. After all, it was an amazing privilege to be here at all.
Before long we heard on the radio that Alex and Thomas were both coming down. Now I felt worse than ever. Probably if Thomas had been able to go faster initially rather than being slowed down by me and getting cold he would have made it. Now neither of us was going to make it to the summit. I felt like a bad person and did not like how I was feeling. I tried hard to focus on the team and not myself but I was feeling very selfish. I cried a bit, struggling to see the bright side but I knew in my heart this had been my only chance of reaching the top of Chimborazo. I knew I would never come back.
Back at the refuge we looked for a bowl to soak Rhiannon’s painful foot. Initially Falstowe was very reluctant to let us use things from the kitchen without waking the warden to get permission but we understood the urgency of warming her foot up just as we had both had to do on Nar Phu Peak when we both suffered from frostbite. We carried on regardless and before long he disappeared to the dormitory to sleep. Eventually Brian radioed and informed us he, Simon and Dawn were in a very dangerous situation in high winds, setting off slab avalanches with every step and now were faced by a dangerous boulder to get over. There was a lot of static and it was hard to hear what he was saying but we understood he was turning the team around. This was a huge reality check for me, now I saw, for the first time, the true dangers of this crazy plan. Rhiannon and I decided we would wait up for the rest of the team and guessed Thomas and Alex would soon be down. I went outside to look for their head torches but now it was snowing and a swirling mist hid the mountain.
When Thomas came in he looked exhausted and his feet were very cold. I examined them and realising his circulation was already poor and he had no sensation in his toes I decided to wake Gwyn after we had started to soak them in hot water. Gwyn came down, quickly assessed the situation and took over his care. He told us that Catherine had been very poorly, feeling dizzy and disoriented and had been vomitting. For some time we had been unable to raise Brian on the radio but now Gwyn tried and made contact which was a relief. Apparently they were all making their way down slowly. Gywn insisted he too was going to stay up now as he was recovered and fresh so would be able to go back up to help if it was needed. We slouched on the chairs and chatted, careful to avoid the subject of the others and the danger they were in. Other climbers were returning now as everyone on the mountain had turned around. It was an anxious wait for us all. A random group of people too tired to take off more than their heavy boots slumped on the benches in their socks waiting in silence for team mates. Slowly, exhausted climbers staggered in, they would briefly acknowledge each other, a fleeting relieved hug, an exhausted pat on the shoulder before they retired and collapsed onto their bunks. Each of us had an empty fear lodged in our gut knowing three of our team were still out there battling the elements on the cruel mountain. None of us voiced our concerns but drew comfort from the fact we suspected we were united in the same worry. We were sitting in silence, lost in our own thoughts when Brian’s voice suddenly crackled on the radio. “We are all ok and now safe,” he said. Tears of relief sprang to our eyes. “We are all tired and now we are somewhere safe we are going to rest up and wait for sunrise to get some photos.” “You can all go to bed now,” he added. I immediately protested, “No I’m going to stay up until everyone is in.” But Brian was insistent and as Gwyn took the radio to bed with him and promised to wake us if we were needed I reluctantly agreed. I did stay up a little while longer and just as I was heading out of the main room, Alex staggered in totally wasted but ok. I insisted on checking his feet before we both headed into the dormitory. I was unable to sleep but laid back and rested, listening to the steady breathing around me and straining my ears for sounds of people coming in down stairs. I recognised Dawn’s voice and quietly climbed off my bunk and wearing just my thermals, crept downstairs to see her. Dawn who had come down with her guide assumed they had been moving a bit faster than Brian and Simon so did not know the others were now sitting on the mountainside waiting for the sunrise. It was very cold now and I was keen to get back into my sleeping bag. Gwyn stirred and I told him Dawn was now back safely and he got up to check on Catherine again. The dormitory was quite full now and as I snuggled into my bag I realised my disappointment had abated and now I just had the nagging fear for the safety of the others. I knew how dangerous this could be and knew I should be grateful I was already safe but part of me wanted to be part of the action, I craved the excitement of literally battling the elements. I laid still staring at the ceiling and slowly realised some light was just creeping in through the window when suddenly I heard footsteps on the stairs as Brian and Simon staggered in. Tears of relief streamed down my face as I greeted them, telling them how pleased I was to see them and now all the team were safe and back together again. Joy, relief and exhaustion flooded over me, sleep came very easily now. We were a weird community of strangers lying in bunks united in palpable relief now we knew every one was safe and all the teams were back.
After a while people were stirring and starting to pack up their kit. Breakfast was fruit and cereal with a vivid pink sickly yogurt which I could not stomach. Catherine, who had vomitted several times in the night, was feeling whoozy went outside for some fresh air. She came back with the disappointing news that Patrichio was struggling to start our bus. Gradually groups drifted out of the refuge. It felt strange to be walking away from a random hut with a bunch of total strangers with whom we were peculiarly united in disappointment, relief and hope.
Once on the bus the banter started up again and quickly Brian, Gwyn and I all resolved not to return to high altitude again. “Never again,” we cried as we shook hands and resolved to sell our mountaineering boots. I thought about how, even though I now knew I would have never made it to the summit, I had desperately wanted to be turned back due to the conditions or because I could not go on, not because I was just too slow for the others. Although she was feeling rough and nauseous, Catherine was still cheerful as ever and very encouraging to the rest of the team. She is an inspiration to us all. Gradually the conversations flagged and everyone was dozing when suddenly my phone beeped. I retrieved it from deep in my rucksack. A TEXT FROM JAN !!! I was so happy tears streamed down my face. At last I knew she was ok, everything else shrank into insignificance, my dear, dear friend was doing ok. I desperately wanted to share my good news but everyone was asleep. As soon as we ground to a halt for a toilet stop I immediately told Simon and Rhiannon.
It was a long journey back and as soon as we left the Trans American Highway we were back on the dreadful rough roads. Back at the Hacienda I started to sort my kit ready to pack tomorrow as I planned to pack my main kit bag which would not need opening again until I was back home. Dawn said she was ‘retiring to the Drawing Room with Peter Rabbit’ and settled herself by the window stitching away at her sampler. For all the world she could have been in Downton Abbey. I sat upstairs on the balcony by the fire writing my diary as Rhiannon scanned Facebook and Brian played Wordscapes. Catherine was busy organising charity donations of spare snacks and kit and came to tell us the hacienda had accidentally charged us individually for the cookery class which had been her treat and so she tried to reimburse us. We all agreed she should keep the money and donate it to her personal charity in Kathmandu.
I felt strangely dislocated from the world. Our great adventure had come to an end, there was no challenge ahead now and I felt lost. “How am I feeling today ?” I asked myself. Already my disappointment was fading but I knew I would be so sad to leave the beautiful hacienda and even sadder to leave our team. Just now I can not imagine us not all being together. Brian had already briefly had a chat to us about the the very real condition, Post Expedition Blues. I was worried about returning home, back to the real world with nothing to look forward to, no plan, no goal. Returning to friends and family who had supported me so well as I had prepared for this trip and who I feared were unjustifiably a little in awe of me. Now I would be going back having failed on both my major objectives. I wished I had not made such a big issue of Chimborazo. Would they understand ? I am just a very ordinary person who despite high aspirations has reached their limit. Last night I had admitted to myself that I do think I am capable of more than I am, perhaps I need to learn humility. Was being ill why I had struggled ? Or was that not it at all ? Was I just too old and unable to get fit enough ? Was I just over ambitious and over confident ? Now I was questioning the decisions I had made in my bunk on Cotopaxi. I was fairly certain I was not ‘motivational speaker’ material and probably would never actually write my book. I still wanted to plan to visit places, to see amazing sights and encourage Natasha and Rebecca to broaden their horizons. I had so many regrets about how much I had had to work as they were growing up and felt I had not been a good mother but now at least I could encourage them set goals and make plans for themselves. Perhaps I should arrange to go to Toubkal with Rebecca. So many thoughts were spinning around in my mind trying to make sense of things. Jan’s situation had clarified things in my mind, perhaps now was a time for reflection, time to reassess my goals, time to make plans. I resolved to have a serious conversation with Natasha and Rebecca.
Next morning Patrichio arrived to collect us to return to Quito and despite our praising his excellent driving in the last two weeks he very nearly backed the bus into the overhanging roof of the hacienda.
Back in Quito we all visited the market and although it held little attraction to me I teamed up with Gywn, Rhiannon and Thomas rather than being on my own. On our way back to the hotel we noticed Simon and Julian sitting in the window of a chocolate shop so went in to join them. They recommended the 55% cocoa solids hot chocolate which was amazing but Thomas went one step further and went for the incredibly indulgent 75%. We then all piled into the North Face shop advertising a 70% sale but were very disappointed to find no good bargains to be had. Back at the hotel I found I had an email about several trips including one to Peak Lenin (7134m). Despite all my reservations and resolution not to go to high altitude again I could not help myself and clicked on the link, my heart racing a little at the anticipation. If I worked really hard at my fitness could I do it ? Maybe, just maybe I had one more peak in me ! My resolve was already weakening. The actual altitude had never been important to me, it was, after all, just a number, but I so wanted to prove, mainly to myself, that I had the mental strength to do it. I logged off the internet and tried to think back to how I was feeling at the refuge. I had felt old and silly and out of place. I had questioned what I was doing there and felt I did not belong among real mountaineers. But it was so good to be part of a team, I felt I needed to be part of something. Although I had hardly thought about Roger after my chat with Catherine coming off Pasochoa, when I had, for the first time, started to feel a little more confident about not needing him, the failed relationship still hurt so much and I felt so alone.
That evening we went out for our celebration meal and debrief.It was a very emotional time for everyone and most of us cried. Brian awarded titles to each of us, I was labelled the ‘most determined trekker’. He asked each of us to chose our best moment and explain our most challenging time. For me it was easy. My most challenging time had been coming on the expedition ill and having to turn back not because I could not go on but because I was too slow for the rest of the team. I choked back my tears as I described the best moment for me, the moment Simon and Brian stumbled back into the refuge on Chimborazo, the moment I knew all the team was safely down and back together.
The next morning after breakfast I joined Rhiannon and Thomas on the balcony amongst the flowers listening to the joyous sounds from the school opposite. I felt we were uniquely priviliged to have had the amazing experience of the mountains, seen the bustling life in Quito and most of all been part of a great, supportive team for two short weeks although it felt like so much more. As we boarded our bus to take us to the Hot Springs at Pallacta we instinctively took our usual seats, Rhiannon and Thomas together on the front seat, Brian on the single seat opposite them, Alex a couple seats behind him and then Catherine a couple further back. It was like we had always done it. A couple of hours later we were relaxing in the hot springs although only a few of us braved the icy plunge pools and then a leisurely lunch together before heading back through manic traffic to the airport and then it was over. Soon we would all be returning home to our other worlds and our tight band of adventurers would be divided by thousands of miles across the globe but the bond we had formed between us would never be broken. We had each faced our own adversities while supporting each other and every one of us had achieved a personal goal even though this time none of us had got to stand on the point of the earth closest to the sun.
Thank you to every member of our team for sharing this amazing adventure with me.
Although none of us had reached the point on earth closest to the sun even at the top of Pasochoa, our first summit at 4199metres, we had all been further from the centre of the earth than the summit of Everest