Cotopaxi

Heather’s Diary of Trekking in the Avenue of Volcanoes September 2011

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It is 6am on September 15th at Heathrow airport and I meet up with nine strangers all booked onto the same flight and all slightly nervous of the challenge ahead. In ten days time we will be ten firm friends having enjoyed the most awesome experience trekking in the Avenue of Volcanoes in Ecuador culminating with climbing Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world.

We were a varied group in both age and experience. The fun loving duo of Trudy and Elaine were friends who had done several treks together in the past as well as taking part in endurance sports events. Into their luggage they had both managed to cram a vast assortment of confectionary and kept us all supplied at every opportunity. Every time spirits were flagging another bag of sweeties would miraculously appear. Jonathan and Adam were friends from their joint interest in Dragon Boat Racing. Jonathan was a podiatrist and had bought a huge foot first aid kit and generously attended to all our pedal needs throughout the trip. He was also accompanied by Misty, his small son’s floppy eared toy dog, Cotopaxi02who had his own dri-bag and spent most of the trip peeping out of the side pocket of Jonathan’s rucksack. At first, Brian seemed quiet but his reserved exterior hid a dry sense of humour and a good sense of fun. He initially was labelled ‘Dad’ by Elaine but inexplicably some time later that became ‘Doug’. Erisilia, the little lady from the north of Italy, turned out to be the mountain goat of the group, always galloping off ahead. This was Fiona’s first high altitude challenge and she threw herself into it with great enthusiasm and determination. Tamzin also seemed quiet initially but was always an integral part of the team. Much to Jonathan and Adam’s delight she seemed to have a very small appetite and regularly shared her meals with them. However, this did not apply to desserts as she had a sweet tooth and so they often returned the favour with sweet stuff. The last member of the team was Mike, a photographer commissioned to make a film of the expedition, who had only been given about a week to prepare. Amazingly with no training he rose admirably to the challenge putting the rest of us to shame.

Having finally arrived in Ecuador we were met by Nelson, our guide. He was a likeable Ecuadorian with a dry sense of humour and the same plodding walking pace, whether walking the streets of Quito or scaling a volcano at altitude. We sat in a line against the wall outside the airport waiting for him to collect our minibus and I remembered the jelly babies in the top of my day sack, always a great ice breaker.

After a comfortable night at our hotel in Quito we all met up for Cotopaxi03breakfast which turned out to be a fairly random affair, granola with amazingly sweet pink yogurt of an unrecognisable flavour, bananas (there would always be bananas at every meal ! ), watermelon, sweet fruit juice and ham with cheese, both highly processed, but only a very limited portion of each. Next came the coffee which had the consistency and colour of tar, followed by toast and jam. The toast was really just faintly coloured dried bread and the jam, presented in a saucer, was very runny and unset and then we were offered scrambled eggs. Mike was very late for breakfast despite him being almost ready when Brian had left him. Eventually Brian went back to their room to check he was Ok. He found him having dismantled the sink to reclaim his toothpaste cap which had disappeared down the plug hole. Given we had been advised not to drink the tap water, and the likely state of the U bend, we all thought we may have tried to borrow someone else’s toothpaste or even buy some more at the nearby supermarket. This became a joke for the rest of the trip although DIY skills could well have proved useful. We were quite suspicious of the quality of the electrical wiring as everywhere we stayed the sockets were all loose and randomly attached to the walls at odd angles. Our adapters seemed not to fit into all the sockets and the odd spark was not unusual. This did not affect me until I borrowed Jonathan’s adapter as I had come fully prepared with a phone charger and European adapter, having no idea America was any different. Oh, us naïve, poorly travelled individuals.

Before setting off Nelson warned us that Quito is not a safe city and that contrary to the itinerary we would not be visiting La Virgen de Quito as the area is far too dangerous and we would very likely ‘be attacked with weapons’. Our first task of the day was to walk to the hire shop to hire our ice boots, hard hats, crampons, harnesses and ice axes for the ascents of Iliniza and Cotopaxi. On the way we heard a loud hailer emanating from a small white van and it sounded as if something momentous was being proclaimed. I asked Nelson what was being said and he calmly replied, “ He’s saying Cotopaxi is erupting.” After a brief moment of panic I realised this was our first encounter of his dry sense of humour as it turned out to be a scrap metal dealer touting for trade. As the hire shop was cramped and they could only deal with one person at a time I went into a shop to buy water for my camelbak. Very proud of having negotiated the purchase of water on my own, I started to fill my camelbak only to discover I had bought sparkling water and the reservoir was swelling to an alarming size. I had to keep opening it to release the gas although it does make an interesting change sucking fizzy water through a pipe ! My new friends told me I should have bought ‘aqua sin gas’ and so returned to the shop to exchange the second bottle. The fitting of boots was chaotic with the owner seeming to ignore our requests for a Cotopaxi04specific size and handing out random boots saying ‘try this’. Eventually we were all sorted with vaguely comfortable boots and the shop owner had made illegible notes in a notebook of our names and the number painted onto our chosen boots. Several of us had to request new laces to be fitted before the boots were collected later in the week.

We then boarded our bus to drive to a hill overlooking Quito with a view of the huge statue of the Virgin Mary on El Panecillo. It is certainly an impressive statue. We look over the vast expanse of Quito which is a long narrow city nestling in a valley at 2850 metres and always at the mercy of Cotopaxi which, if it erupted, could wipe out the whole city. The population of Ecuador is about 13,000,000 of which 2,000,000 live in Quito. Nelson pointed out Pasochoa, tomorrow’s volcano. It looked huge and almost lost in cloud. Next, we moved on to the Equator and on route Nelson explained more of the history and geography of Quito. Before the city developed the whole area was known as Quito where just 200 Spaniards had conquered the thousands of resident Inca’s.

We had a delicious lunch of typical Ecuadorian food beginning with lupin seeds, corn and plantain with a spicy dip. I was somewhat worried to be eating lupin seeds as I had always believed them to be poisonous. Next, there was a filled ‘turnover’ made from maize and then potato and avocado soup. The soups in Ecuador often contained pieces of avocado which is supposedly good for helping cope with the altitude or sometimes they contained cheese. We had a choice of beef , pork and chicken which we all elected to share and chose from a variety of unusual fruit juices including naranjilla, tree tomato and papaya.
The position of the Equator was calculated by the French who built a huge monument there and now a yellow line is painted along the middle of a path and a portable metal sign marks the ‘Mitad del Mundo’. Jonathan was disappointed to find his GPS did not show this as Latitude 0 and then Nelson explained this was not the ‘true’ Equator but that lay a few hundred yards away beyond the boundary of public grounds. Despite that fact, in true tourist fashion, we all took plenty of photographs of ourselves at the middle of the world. The monument housed a fascinating museum of the ethnic origins of the Ecuadorian people, cleverly laid out around a circular staircase, with the geographical locations of the groups in the correct compass quadrants of the museum. Each distinct ethnic group was described on informative boards with fascinating artefacts on display and maps of their original location but Nelson explained how this was the historical situation and now the whole population was very mixed. He explained with such diverse origins there is no ‘typical’ Ecuadorian features and they are a very varied people. We even learned how the African roots came from just 23 survivors of a wrecked slave ship.

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We then got back on the bus and persuaded the driver to drive slowly as Jonathan checked his GPS in search of the ‘real’ Equator. He was counting down as we drew near and suddenly we saw a sign which we assumed marked the Equator. We piled off the bus and took more photographs of ourselves and the GPS reading zero at ‘The Equator’. As we stood in a line under the sign, it was me who realised we were at right angles to the previous ‘equator’ we had visited earlier. Beside us we noticed a gateway leading to small stone monument and a notice proclaiming this to be the Equator and then the third series of photographs of ‘Us at the Equator’ was taken!

That evening it was raining and Nelson warned us that rain and thunder was also forecast for the next day. Despite our lack of knowledge we had a discussion assuring each other we would be above the rain on Pasochoa. By 9 pm we had all retired to bed ready for a 7am breakfast and 8am departure the next day. I did sleep better than the previous night, though still not well, and again was awake to hear the rich and vibrant dawn chorus in the early hours.

Despite the appearance of a luxury coach, the journey to Pasochoa was hairy and on very rough roads but our gold toothed driver was good and took the worse of the ruts slowly and carefully. It seemed strange why such smart coaches would be used on roads they were clearly not suitable for. It would definitely be a bad business venture to set up a coach hire company in Ecuador. Eventually we reached a white wall with large rusty gates and a sign proclaiming ‘Pasochoa’. We got off the bus, applied the obligatory suncream, disappeared to more discreet locations to relieve ourselves before beginning our first trek in the Avenue of Volcanoes.

We set off up the track at Nelson’s slow steady pace. He had told us he walks at the same speed regardless of where he is as he knows that pace will get us to the top of Pasochoa or Iliniza or Cotopaxi. The track went on and on and it was a pretty boring walk with little evidence of the great views higher up. Further on the track was covered by chopped pine which was a little harder going and after what seemed like hours, finally we came to more open country and were able to admire the views around us between the periods of swirling mist. There was no hurry, we were all acclimatising and we all knew a slow pace would be much better but Erisilia insisted on striding ahead and at times was only just within yelling distance. It was a shame we were not more of a team.

Early in the walk we saw a few butterflies and some large shiny brown flying beetles but I was really hoping to see humming birds. Although the itinerary had suggested we may see them, Nelson said it was very unlikely unless you could spend hours sitting quietly waiting for them. The track had now disappeared and there was no Cotopaxi07clear indication of the route we should take. I don’t think there are actual footpaths or rights of way in this area but Nelson explained there was a public ‘right to roam’ to the summits. However, as we trudged on up the hillside we saw two horses in the distance galloping downhill towards us. When they reached us the horses were heaving and exhausted, one was drooling blood from the bit. A conversation with Nelson ensued and it turned out the riders supposedly worked for the landowner, a Swiss farmer and cheese producer, and we were to pay $5 each for using the land. Nelson paid Cotopaxi08up and the two rode off. We had all felt slightly ill at ease with them and highly suspicious that their claims were not genuine. Were they bandits ? Who knows ? But Nelson seemed to believe them or at least did not let on if he also had his doubts. I found the trek hard on my legs and my knees ached. I was walking without walking poles as I wanted to rest my shoulder as it was still recovering from the road accident over a year ago. I was remembering the pain on Ben Nevis during the Three Peaks Challenge when I had used poles for the first time since Kilimanjaro. Both Jonathan and Trudy were suffering with head aches but remembering Brian Jackson’s advice I kept drinking from my camelbak and avoided any headaches all trip. However, I could feel the effects of altitude with the tiredness and the aching legs. As we climbed higher we came to the upper grasslands or ‘paramo’ which means infertile although only the peak was actually rocky.

Nelson was our only guide although Isaac (pronounced ‘Is-ac), our doctor, had joined the group, which now numbered 12, for today’s trek. Nelson had struggled to keep the group together but we did just about manage to summit as a team. We had now reached 4199 metres. After the obligatory photo session of each other and waiting to get clear views of the surrounding volcanoes as the mist swirled around , lifting for a few seconds and then enveloping them again, we opened our packed lunches. We each had a ham and cheese sandwich and a jam one which luckily I was able to trade, salted banana chips which were ‘interesting’ but surprisingly tasty, a chocolate biscuit, the ever present banana and an interesting orange fruit which turned out to be a passion fruit. Nelson gave us a demonstration on how to eat it by sticking your thumb in all the way around, pulling off the ‘lid’ you had created and then slurping the contents which bore an uncanny resemblance to frog spawn. As we discussed this, for some people the description was too graphic and they could not stomach it.

The walk off in heavy rain was long and slippery. Several of us slipped over on the mud but I had to go one better and slip in a cow pat. As we descended we saw a stationary figure standing alone ahead of us. He did not move or acknowledge us as we drew near but as we passed him we all noticed the large knife strapped to his leg and felt uneasy. A short distance after him we passed a young lady sitting in grass. She looked happy and Ersilia asked if she was OK. She replied she was fine and we moved on all thinking our own thoughts.

As we descended some of the paths were very narrow and we were trekking through waist height or even higher undergrowth. We were now a long crocodile of wet people and conversation had flagged. Then we came to a barbed wire fence blocking our path. Having decided this was the route forward, Nelson and Erisilia held the strands down and I was the first to struggle over it. Jonathan was supposed to be next but, keen to avoid tearing his trousers, said he was going to look for a better place to cross. Walking five yards along the fence he found the gate. The others promptly followed him leaving me the wrong side of the barbed wire. Initially, I tried to wriggle under it on my stomach but quickly discovered that with a rucksack on my back that was going to be impossible. Luckily, Mike and Fiona who had noticed my plight, helped me back over. Then we continued down the narrow gully in our crocodile.

Back on the bus Jonathan and Mike took over the back seats like naughty boys on a school trip and were delighted to discover the seats could be reclined. At first there was some idle chatter and Jonathan mischievously suggested we should be nominating each other for a future awards ceremony. He was keen to award the ‘Susan Boyle – do not judge a book by its cover Award’. However, conversation soon flagged as the exhausted group dozed. Some were better at this than others and it seemed Fiona and Tamzin could fall asleep almost instantly despite being thrown around as the bus lurched over the pot holes. It was a slow bus journey due to the amount of traffic and an accident. This was to become the norm for every bus journey we took. We would either be being shaken to pieces by the bad side roads or be crawling along in a traffic jam on the better highway. Once we neared the towns there would be people in the road at every junction weaving amongst the traffic juggling or selling all types of wares, cake, frozen desserts, drinks, cheese, newspapers and fruit.

The hosteria, next to the station, where we were to spend the next two nights was delightful. It was a white timbered building with beautiful gardens and rural bygones surrounded by hanging baskets and pot plants. Obviously owned by a deeply religious family, a huge crucifix was on the balcony and in the corner of the courtyard was a small, quaint chapel. Our lodge consisted of 3 twin rooms, each en suite, which led off a sitting room with a very weCotopaxi09lcome wood burner. It was very rustic with lots of old furniture and cushions. We took off all our wet clothes, fashioned washing lines from the beams and hung shirts and coats onto chairs around the wood burner rapidly transforming the comfortable sitting room into a laundry. I had to completely empty my daysack to try and dry it off as today had proved my waterproof rucksack cover was 100% useless. In the dining room we were given complementary warm ‘moonshine’ with fruit juice before our meal. As was to become a usual evening meal we had the maize turn over as a starter, then soup, followed by a meat course with small portions of vegetables and a very sweet dessert. Everything in Ecuador seemed highly sweetened or served with a fruity syrup. At breakfast the next day even the bread was sweet, no wonder we had seen so many chubby children at the airport. After a pleasant meal we returned to our rooms to discover tCotopaxi10he wood burner had really got going and had burnt a hole in Adam’s shirt and singed the chair it had been hung over. Thank Goodness we hadn’t spent longer over dinner or left things that close to the heat overnight.

Next morning before breakfast we set about making our own packed lunches from the provided ingredients. Jonathan thought we should patent our sandwich recipe of cheese, meat, avocado and gherkin. It would certainly give Subway a run for their money. Of course there were bananas and more chocolate biscuits. The views from the balcony were spectacular as we were truly in the Avenue of Volcanoes with volcanoes visible in all directions including humpy backed Pasochoa which we had conquered yesterday. Today we would be climbing on El Corazon although most of us had not realised we were not going to the summit. This was to be another acclimatisation climb, climbing up for about five hours and down for about three. This was a disappointment for the ‘peak baggers’ among us who would rather get to the top of something smaller than climb half way up a higher mountain. More disappointing was the fact we would again be walking up a boring track. I took more notice of the vegetation today and was surprised to see many familiar species including dock, ox eye daisies, vetch and lupin and the main crop we saw was potato and there was even oil seed rape. In the valley below there were glasshouses where roses and other flowers would be grown. After oil and bananas, flowers are Ecuador’s main export. The volcanic soil is very fertile and looked and felt almost like compost. On the hills we could see cultivation almost to the summits although it was hard to imagine how anyone ever got machinery up onto the steep slopes to tend it. We walked up the muddy track, crossed a ploughed field and when we finally got to see the view it could have been in the Lake District although on a much larger scale with the added components of shortness of breath and tiredness due to the altitude and for some people, headaches and Cotopaxi11nausea which luckily I avoided. I was less tired today, my knees felt better and my shoulder was still fine which was a huge relief to me, although I had a dispensary worth of medication in my rucksack should the need arise. The decision had been made to go on upward until 1pm and then to turn back which seemed very unsatisfactory with not even a particular feature to aim for. Again we had not really stuck together as a team but just before one o clock we were a group and discussed how far to go on. Half of us went on a further couple of hundred yards and although some were keen to go higher, Isaac insisted we had achieved our target of 4150 metres and should turn back. He explained that the effects of a further increase in altitude may not be felt for a couple of days and may jeopardise future ascents. The key to successful acclimatisation is taking it slowly and, to be fair, for most of us it was working, although poor Trudy seemed to be suffering almost constant headaches and nausea. Around us were many chuquiragua shrubs which Isaac told us were good to help with acclimatisation. Apparently you would normally make an infusion with the leaves but Erisilia chose to chew the leaves instead as well as insisting on drinking her coca tea each day while I relied on the more orthodox Dioralyte to replenish lost salts. Later she would move on to DIY rehydration drinks made from salt, sugar and water. The visibility was poor and we had not even seen the peak of El Corazon, the volcano we were on. It was with some disappointment we turned back to retrace our steps.

As we descended the weather deteriorated rapidly turning first to rain and then hail. We were wet, cold and hungry and in the absence of any real shelter huddled against the bank under a small sparse tree which offered virtually no protection and ate our lunch. My good humour further declined when I managed to urinate onto my own waterproof ! Mike and Jonathan decided to run ahead with a view to getting the wood burners going in our lodges. This was a kind thought although not entirely selfless as the rain intensified as we trudged slowly downward. Running at altitude on slippery paths and in muddy fields could have been a recipe for disaster. Nelson should never have let the group split up especially as later he led the rest of us down a short cut which meant if the leading group, which now included Fiona, had had an accident he may not have found them. I was shocked and disappointed by the lack of regard for safe trekking practices as I remembered the Expedition Wise lectures and the UK challenges with Brian Jackson where he always insisted on a leader at the back of the team to ensure everyone’s safety. The situation worsened again as I realised my group of Erisilia, Brian and Tamzin had got well ahead of Nelson and the rest of the team. I decided to wait for them but the other three went on, confident they knew the route back. I quickly realised I should not have hung back alone as I was now isolated from all the groups. I waited for what seemed like an age and finally, for want of something to do, decided to head back up the hill to meet the others. Sensibly I kept looking back to where I had come from and made sure it remained in view. Even more time elapsed before I saw them at the bottom of the hill which I had just reclimbed as they had changed their descent route again. I had to run down to join them. We all did get back safely, but I felt very uneasy thinking of how different things could have been and that we had been allowed to get into this dangerous situation. Nelson is a lovely person but just so laid back, was he really not aware of the risks we were taking ? But by the next day he had obviously thought about things and chastised the group for splitting up. He explained the risks that I had been aware of and insisted that, in future, we should stick together as a group.

Trudy seemed pleased I had waited for them and as we continued Cotopaxi12downhill the weather did improve and we were graced by a beautiful rainbow which lifted everyone’s spirits. While I had been waiting I had seen a small vivid but dark green bird. From my description I was pleased that Nelson identified it as one of the two species of humming bird found at this altitude. As we crossed the railway line we noticed a train at the station which, with childish glee, we all hurried to photograph. To English people it was a strange looking train, more like a coach, with curtains at the windows, steps at the back leading up onto the roof and a cow catcher on the front.

Once back at the lodge, we sat around the fire trying to dry everything off for the second evening, although this time we were Cotopaxi13more careful to hang things further from the wood burner. Before dinner, as the whole group had congregated in our ‘sitting room’, Jonathan produced a pack of cards so we played two versions of ‘Chase the Ace’ which Erisilia won by a mile. Jonathan joked she should be buying the first round of drinks which she very generously did by arranging another round of ‘moonshine’ for everyone. Despite our careful arrangement of boots, stoking up the fire before bed and Jonathan reorganising things in the early hours, the next morning my boots were still wet.

We were already on Day 5 and today we were driven along the Avenue of Volcanoes to reach the starting point for our trek up to our camp site prior to the ascent of Iliniza on Day 6. We arrived and all got off the bus to wait for the 4×4’s which would go up ahead of us taking all the gear to set up camp. We were outside a boarded up building with a stone shrine and open fronted shed. There were three dairy cows around us which, unusually, were not tethered although they were wearing halters and soon some mangy looking dogs also joined us. One had a badly deformed leg which probably had been broken earlier in life and left to set. They seemed quite content and not aggressive but I was aware I had opted not to have the vastly expensive rabies vaccination and so did not approach them. They seemed friendly enough until Adam thought one was going to relieve himself over his rucksack and as he approached, the dog’s mood changed and we felt they probably should not be trusted. Looking around we could see a couple of small farmsteads and a dried out trout lake. A family came along the track on a donkey and the cows obediently followed them. At first we basked in the sunshine but soon became bored so Jonathan started a warm up routine which was good fun especially the part where we were supposed to imitate superman or ‘the king dancer’ for yoga fans. I am not sure that was part of the routine, it was probably just to provide a good photo opportunity of the participants looking stupid.
The trucks did not arrive and eventually we set off anyway and guess what ? It was another walk along a track. Quite early on we had to cross a ford or there was a narrow plank over a stream which some of us opted for while others ran through the water. The dusty track wound onward and upwards, there was little to see of interest other than some plants on the banked edge of the track and a few butterflies. Eventually we lost the high banks either side of the track and then the views were fabulous. We could also see tomorrow’s spiky summit, Iliniza Norte. It looked scary but amazing. The trek up to the camp site had not been not hard, just tedious. It had only taken two and a half hours and it had been more interesting than yesterday. Towards the end we veered off the track to take a short cut through the pampas grass although the path, if there was one, was difficult to recognise. Finally, we rounded a corner to see our camp made up of yellow two man tents in a row with the green mess tent at the end. Ersilia had arrived first as usual and already selected our tent with a glorious view ……. of the toilet tents!

The toilets were interesting, consisting of a plastic toilet seat and lid secured over a metal frame which stood over a dug out hole. It seemed vaguely amusinCotopaxi14g to have a lid when the frame and hole were completely open. Each yellow tent already contained two roll mats and so before lunch, we were able to inflate the mats, lay out our sleeping bags and sort our kit. I realised my own roll mat had been inflatinCotopaxi15g within it’s bag as the air pressure had reduced at altitude and it’s ever expanding size had accounted for the seemingly decreasing amount of space in my rucksack over the last few days. Lunch consisted of smoked chicken, two types of maize and boiled potatoes. I couldn’t eat the pink chicken meat but did manage the maize, potatoes and two bananas. There was hot chocolate, tea and coffee to drink. Sitting in the cold mess tent on collapsible stools brought back fond memories of Kilimanjaro. To me this was what trekking was all about. I loved the camaraderie of the mess tent and the basicness of wild camping.

During lunch Nelson discussed our plans for the rest of the day. He suggested resting in our tents until 4 pm and then a short acclimatisation walk, assuring us we would sleep better if we had climbed higher before retiring to our sleeping bags. However, rain was expected and 4 o clock seemed a long way away so we pushed for an earlier start. Nelson insisted rain would be less likely and the views would be better if we waited but he did agree to a compromise starting time of 3.30 pm. But the rain started shortly after the plan was made and I had to spend the afternoon lying in my tent, thoroughly bored, looking through the flap at the blue sky in the distance. I was disappointed, I wasn’t tired and I wanted to be walking although I understood the reservations of some of the others that it was not a good idea to get our kit wet before the big climb tomorrow. As it happened, Nelson was 100% correct and at 4 o clock the rain stopped Cotopaxi16so at 4.10 pm we were able to start our walk almost precisely as he had originally planned. Sadly both Isaac and Brian had been ill all night and were still unwell and weak. The other men opted out of the walk for fear of getting wet and so Nelson and all the girls set off together. Trudy was still feeling unwell but resolutely joined us hoping to improve her chances of a decent night’s sleep, at least until 2.15 am when we would need to be getting up.

It was supposed to be a short walk, only lasting about an hour, and at a pleasant wandering pace, but Erisilia wanted to go faster and higher. Trudy was clearly struggling and when the time came to return Nelson suggested traversing at the same level and then dropping down into the camp. However, Erisilia struck off to go over Cotopaxi17a higher ridge and Nelson followed. The rest of us protested and insisted we should stay at the same level as he had suggested and we resolutely stuck together with Trudy. We returned to camp in time for dinner of salted popcorn followed by soup, and then beef stew with rice and fried banana with stewed strawberries to follow. The beef was tough and the ‘stew’ was devoid of much gravy but the fried banana was delicious. By 7.30 pm we were all in our sleeping bags trying to get some rest before getting up at 2.15 am for tomorrow’s big climb. I did not feel I slept at all and it felt like a long night. I had not slept well all trip but I remembered Brian’s advice about relaxing and that six hours of still relaxation could equate to four hours sleep. Most of us were struggling to sleep, probably due to the altitude but someone, later assumed to be Nelson, had slept well as his snoring reverberated down the line of tents.

Our day began at 2.15 am meeting in the mess tent for breakfast of fruit, granola and yogurt with bread and cheese, hardly a good start for a strenuous climb when you need plenty of complex carbohydrates. It seems strange we were never given porridge, which I assumed to be the staple diet of trekkers and mountaineers. Then at 3 am we set off wearing our head torches, harnesses and carrying our hard hats.

Up, up and up through moorland initially and then on to the ash scree. It was a relentless slog and the darkness was demoralising although the sky was filled by more stars than I had ever seen. Then, as dawn began to break, our mood lifted and we admired again the fabulous views under the vast, vast sky. As we climbed, the rocks making up the scree became larger. The group gradually spread out and I spent some time with Trudy at the back who was accompanied by one of the three extra guides brought in for this climb. Sadly she was still suffering with the altitude and taking things very slowly. I decided I needed to move faster and catch up with the people ahead but I then realised they had opened up a huge lead ahead of me. I trudged onward in the cold feeling very isolated. I was wearing my silk glove liners but my hands were freezing. I looked around me, I was completely alone, I could see no one ahead or behind. I fought the urge just to sit down and cry and struggled onwards. I didn’t dare stop to get my gloves out of my rucksack for fear of falling further behind. I battled the demons in my head and wondered vaguely if I would know if I had frost bite. It didn’t seem to matter either way, my slow trudge was now automatic, my mind was in a dark, dark place and I was thoroughly miserable. It was now light but I was on scree which I hated. I kept slipping and falling despite having resorted to using my walking poles. Then, at last, ahead and above the scree I saw the others nestled against a large rock face. I knew I should feel elation but I was so tired, so demoralised, and then I fell over again. It was the last straw, I didn’t care anymore, I could go no further. I stayed there with my head in my hands, crying in my heart but there were no tears, I was in total despair. Suddenly I realised I could hear Mike calling to me as he was coming down to meet me. I was no longer alone. I struggled to my feet and started again up the last few feet of scree. Everything had changed now, I wasn’t alone, my legs were less tired, my breath came easier, I knew I could do it. As Mike said later, I had ‘hit the wall’ but then battled through and overcame it.

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We could see the spiky peak way ahead of us, there was still a long way to go but now I wasn’t alone I knew I would make it. The rocks were much larger now and we were scrambling. This was fun for me but Elaine was way out of her comfort zone. We moved on together but the leaders had got ahead again. The guides Cotopaxi20were not watching the group as a whole and as the others traversed above us, a huge rock came hurtling towards us. It hit another rock a few feet from Elaine and veered off it’s direct course and caught her a glancing blow on the hip. We stood still for a few seconds in shock as it careered faster and faster downhill below us. Elaine was white with fear probably as she realised how close she had come to disaster. Somehow she found the courage to move on but all her confidence was lost, her breathing became shallower and shallower as she panicked and hyperventilated. I just talked to her, probably all rubbish, but helped her find foot holds and reassured her. Slowly but steadily, we made progress and finally joined the others on the tiny craggy summit. As we summitted we both dissolved into tears as almost everyone else had done. We were all very emotional. It was truly awesome, the view, the amazing ice formations sculptured by the wind and the total relief at having reached the top. We all hugged, shook hands and cried together. This was the hardest thing I had ever done. It seemed Cotopaxi didn’t matter anymore. And there it was, far, far away poking menacingly through the cloud in the distance. It didn’t matter, I was at the top of Iliniza Norte, I had beaten despair and felt totally fulfilled. The summit was tiny and we edged around each other carefully to take photographs. Some of our photos were to show the two crosses on the summit where unfortunate previous climbers had met their deaths.

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All too soon we had to start the difficult descent. Elaine, leading, was roped to a guide but was petrified, quickly her panic returned, her breaths shortened and with rasping gasps she repeated again and again “I can’t, I can’t”. I started to talk to her again, the words tripped off my tongue almost instinctively “Trust the rope” “Each step counts” “Lean into the rock” “Three Points of Contact” Was I talking her down? Or talking every one down? Or just talking myself down? It didn’t matter; we were all progressing steadily downward. I pointed out hand and foot holds, told her when to go down backwards and slowly her confidence grew and our pace increased. Eventually the scrambling ended and ahead of us was the dreaded scree. Elaine and I took it slowly and carefully and were quickly overtaken by the others. Down, down, down, it went on forever. At last the bleak landscape became dotted by sparse gnarled bushes and then, as the vegetation became more scrub like, it finally became easier and our footing felt more secure. We were almost back. We struck on through the moorland, the others long since lost from view, but I was confident that any moment we would turn a corner and see the welcoming yellow tents ahead. It didn’t happen. We went on and on and on, I had forgotten those long dark hours earlier when we had struggled up here by the light of our head torches. We were both tired but Elaine was also struggling with old injuries in her knee and foot. She was obviously in a good deal of pain and stopped frequently to stretch her foot. After some time we caught up with Adam and I asked how he was doing. His expression was totally blank as he simply said “ I’m broke, just broke” So the three of us joined forces, hardly speaking, but drawing strength from the comradeship, we vowed to return to camp as a team. When we were almost back we tried to link arms and walk alongside each other but the path was too narrow so Adam led us back into camp as Elaine and I followed arms around each other. We had summitted together and descended to return to camp together. There was a special bond between us.
We were too tired for food, I just wanted to lie in my tent and let all the emotions wash over me. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. However, Nelson insisted we join the others in the mess tent for lunch. Everyone else was there. Poor Brian was still looking ill and struggling to even keep down fluids, Isaac was looking drawn and tired. They had both been suffering from food poisoning and had not attempted Iliniza. Trudy was also there looking pale and strained. We later learnt she had continued to suffer with altitude sickness after I had left them and when it became clear she would not be able to summit, her guide had left her alone on a ledge for 2 hours while he joined the rest of us at the summit. I was appalled, she clearly had symptoms attributable to altitude sickness but she had been left alone and not even taken lower. She could have died before the guide returned to her. It was difficult to take in the enormity of the risk that had been taken.

Suddenly Jonathan noticed Fiona was bright red and looking really ill. He quickly found Isaac who, although ill himself, diagnosed sunstroke and took her to her tent for treatment and to rest. Nelson came into the mess tent and tried to hurry us up over lunch. He was insistent we needed to finish lunch quickly and begin the walk down to the place we had left the bus yesterday, at least a two hour trek. We all sat in dumbstruck silence. Tamzin was about to cry. We had already trekked for 10 hours scaling a gruelling 5,126 metre volcano, almost half our group were casualties, we were all exhausted and it was now the hottest time of the day. We protested weakly and Nelson agreed 3 of us could go down in the 4 x 4’s but the rest would have to walk down. It was madness. It was unlikely that even the fittest of us would make it down safely in the 2 hours allowed. Someone had to take charge so I acted as spokesperson and approached Nelson again, “This is crazy” I said , “ We cannot do it. It’s not safe” Eventually we negotiated for everyone to be ferried down in the trucks and then they would return to collect all the camping gear. It was huge relief as we piled into the 4 x 4’s and started the long winding drive down. It transpired that the urgency was due to the fact that the gates to Cotopaxi National Park where we were to spend the next two nights closed at 5 pm.

On the bus journey to Tambopaxi Lodge we all were lost in our own thoughts. Suddenly Nelson asked the driver to stop and pointed out a condor soaring over the hills beside us. It was a honour to watch that majestic, but now rare, master of the Andes sail through the air.

Tambopaxi Lodge was lovely, our timbered rooms cosy and there Cotopaxi22were good showers. We had a male and a female dormitory where all the beds joined but we had everything we needed. The dining room had a woodburner and wide windows looking out at Cotopaxi and even a telescope so you could view this amazing volcano, see the tiny, yellow roofed refuge where we would be staying before our summit climb and the next morning we even saw the tiny dots of climbers making slow progress to the summit. Outside the windows hung nectar bird feeders attracting humming birds which I spent ages trying to photograph. We had a good meal and drank the clear water which came from a spring which we would visit the next day.

After my shower and brief panic in the toilet as I forgot, again, that in Ecuador most door knobs turn clockwise to open, I returned to our dormitory to find Isaac, our doctor, lecturing the other females in our group. He was difficult to understand as he had obviously learnt English medical terms from a book and pronounced them phonetically. By now we had grown accustomed to him asking if we had ‘head a-ch’ rather than head ache. He felt we were not being honest with him and always said we were ‘fine’ when asked even if we clearly were not. He stressed again the dangers of altitude sickness and how safe decisions could only be made if he was fully aware of the situation. We felt we were being told off like school children but were not quite sure why. Later we talked among ourselves and aired our concerns. We all seemed very disillusioned. Now I had had time to think about things a bit more I was deeply unhappy about the safety aspects of the trip. I know I would not join another challenge with the same organisation. I did not feel we were in safe hands. On the positive side though we were a good team and looked out for each other.

Next morning I woke early and watched the hawks soaring in the sky through the dormitory window and then birds like black birds coming onto the window sill. This was to be a rest day and the plan was not to gain any altitude at all. I didn’t feel I needed a rest day and wanted to go on building up and definitely felt I wanted to at least gain some height. I was pleased not to have suffered any problems with the altitude other than tiredness and was delighted my shoulder was still fine despite resorting to using my poles for some of the ascent yesterday.

We all set off from Tambopaxi Lodge at a gentle wander and despite Cotopaxi23my reservations it was a really lovely day walking on mainly level ground, occasionally scrambling down slopes to trickling streams and small rippling waterfalls. First we sought out the spring which supplied the water at the lodge and then followed the stream which drained from it for a short distance. Here we found a horse skeleton and under the skull some amazing black bugs with orange striped backs and curled up tails. It was quite breezy but of course we needed sunhats for protection. After years of always carrying spare bootlaces in my rucksack which I’ve never needed , I discovered why they are always included in kit lists. Bootlaces tied over your sunhat are great for holding it on your head if you haven’t had the fore thought to purchase one with a chin strap !

Nelson pointed out landmarks and explained the geology and geography of the area. We learnt how ‘our volcano’ was Cotopaxi 2 and a previous volcano, Cotopaxi 1, had erupted long beforehand and had forged the landscape of a flat plain surrounded by hillocks caused by the shock waves. Grass and wild flowers grew over most of the ground but then we would come across swaths of small rocks and then one area of massive boulders which had been shot from the volcano. We saw several small herds of wild horses and even a fox. Overhead we watched hawks, teal and lapwing though they were different to the familiar peewits in England.

Isaac suggested we should do some short jogs to help acclimatisation and taught us a recovery technique of two inspirations per expiration and also taking a deep inspiration, holding your breath and then a slow expiration. Even though Trudy had struggled with the altitude up until now, she excelled at the jogging as she and Elaine kept pace with Isaac. Not a natural runner even at home I struggled to run very far. We came to the second spring which fed into a small lake and challenged each other to swim. Nelson, Brian and Erisilia paddled while the rest of us looked on in admiration at their stoicism and claims that it ‘wasn’t that cold’.

We explored an Inca site which had been partially excavated and photographed the reconstructed Inca hut built as a base for the archaeologists. I noticed behind the hut a rectangle of large stones Cotopaxi24which, when asked, Nelson described as , ‘an Inca car park’ but then went on to say it had marked the car park area for the archaeologists using the hut during the excavations ! Apparently from aerial photography several circular and oblong Inca buildings have been identified in this area but only a very small area excavated. Inca settlements were often built on hills steep on one side with a more gentle slope on the other. We explored a typical such area where some off the walls had been reconstructed while others were almost totally buried and hidden by vegetation. On a slab like rock on the wall I thought I noticed some circular fossils which I carefully photographed before wiping them with my finger and discovering they were in fact bird poo!

As we headed back I suddenly realised I was very tired, I was short of breath and for the first time, my shoulder was aching. It seemed ridiculous as it had been an easy walk with hardly any weight in my rucksack. That evening I would be taking the first of my stash of pain killers. Suddenly even a slight slope was difficult and I could only manage a slow pace. Perhaps I was not as well acclimatised as I thought. Or perhaps it was the fact that this was our ‘rest’ day and we had been walking for 5 hours! Close to Tambopaxi we noticed a Cotopaxi25string of horses cantering towards us. The riders looked to me like indigenous people with their faces hidden and swathed in ponchos. Apparently Nelson passed comment they could be bandits. We had just crossed the river at the entrance to the lodge as they too came to the water. We all got out our cameras as they stopped and suddenly a pretentious English voice rang out “Do we get orf here and water the horses ?” Brian passed comment that horsey people sound the same the world over.

After dinner Nelson spoke to us explaining he would not be climbing Cotopaxi with us as he ‘hadn’t trained’ for it. He went on to say that for the next day we would have to pack our day sacks with all our summit kit including crampons and ice axes, several layers of warm clothing as well as our sleeping bags and then wearing our ice boots would be walking for about 2 hours up to the Refugio. This was the first we had heard of this. No one had told us we needed to be able to fit a sleeping bag into our day sacks. For most people it was not possible and we were all worried about rain and having wet sleeping bags to sleep in before the summit ascent. Later we all packed and repacked again and again as we dithered about what to wear and what to carry, would we be too hot or too cold, would we need water proofs and then eventually we shared out straps and string to tie wrapped sleeping bags onto rucksacks. He also lectured us on using our ice axes safely and the risks of frost bite. It was all serious, scary stuff and I went to bed feeling very uneasy and had a bad night panicking about the Cotopaxi Climb.

The next morning we hung around for ages waiting for the guides and our kit to arrive from Quito. I spent a content hour or more sitting outside trying to catch a photograph of the humming birds which had a nest under the roof of the lodge and kept flying to an antique bell hanging by the door. I also gazed out at the vast plain left in the wake of Cotopaxi 1. It was so quiet and peaceful, then suddenly, I heard a distant roar of an engine and in a cloud of dust a dustbin lorry arrived to collect the rubbish. It seemed totally incongruous. As it sped away I watched the dust cloud shrink ever smaller far into the distance. Finally our kit arrived and we got to fit our ice boots again and claim the helmets, harnesses and ice axes we had reserved. Poor Tamzin had been allocated size 43 boots which was clearly a mistake, however the organiser refused to go back to Quito to sort it out. However, due to the generosity of a guide lending his boots and Fiona giving her’s to Tamzin we eventually all had cumbersome ice boots which vaguely fitted. I was not looking forward to the long walk up the scree and wished I could use my own boots but knew it would be impossible to carry the ice boots in addition to everything else. I was right; the walk up to the Refugio was a tedious, tiring slog.

The yellow roofed Refugio was basic but much more comfortable than I had expected. We all claimed our beds, boys above, girls below, in the 12 mattressed bunk beds.

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The toilets were mixed and interestingly designed as you had to pass the urinals to reach the cubicles and flushing was by means of a jug of freezing water from a water butt in the corner of the open building. Most groups attempting Cotopaxi do so roped together in groups of two or three with a guide but the majority of our group had elected to pay for individual guides as none of us wanted to be responsible for others not being able to summit if we were forced to turn back. After lunch our guides were randomly allocated and we set off to the edge of the glacier for crampon training. It was great fun and I loved it, coming down I declared it was my latest ambition to be an ice climber. As we returned we saw a jackal close to the refugio who seemed as interested in us as we were in him.

Just before our evening meal Elaine declared she was not going to attempt the summit. This was a blow to all of us and unexpected. She had lost confidence on Iliniza and felt it was simply not right for her on this night. We chatted and she explained her feelings and her reasons and I respected her brave decision though I was disappointed for her and for me. We had battled up and down Iliniza together and had formed a close bond declaring ourselves a team. Actually before the trip, in an email, Brian and I had also promised to help each other get to the summit as we had recently both faced similar personal challenges. I remembered fondly the powerful, silent camaraderie on Kilimanjaro four years ago and the great strength we had drawn from each other as the team faced the great challenge together. I assumed this ascent would be similar and was excited about the prospect. We retired early in an attempt to at least get some rest before rising again at 11pm although none of us expected to sleep.

The breakfast at 11pm seemed inadequate for the challenge ahead, granola, bananas, bread, marmalade and salami. Then, at about midnight we found our respective guides and set off. I was the last of the group to leave. Quickly I realised this was not going to be a team effort as already the group was well spread out, each person alone with their guide. It was a beautiful clear night as millions of stars dimly lit the dull trudge up 1500 feet of scree. Early on we passed Trudy and our guides spoke briefly to each other and then carried on a conversation shouting back as we forged ahead. When we passed other guides sometimes they spoke to each other but most of the time it was a silent walk. The air was cold but I was warm in my silk thermals and primaloft jacket which I was so grateful I had been persuaded to purchase. At first, my hands were warm enough with silk liners under fleece lined waterproof gloves but later my fingers became white with cold and devoid of all feeling. Earlier in the week I had sometimes noticed my fingers were pale and slightly blue although not cold presumably due to poor peripheral circulation and low oxygen levels at altitude but now they were truly cold. Later Jaime kindly swapped his wonderful mittens for my inadequate gloves which made a huge difference to both my hands and my frame of mind.

Eventually we reached the edge of the glacier, I clipped on the crampons and was roped to the guide. I was already very tired and the darkness was depressing but I had enjoyed the ice practice in the afternoon and my spirits were lifted by being off the scree and onto a more interesting surface. Jaime told me to keep the rope taut and I plodded on about 10 yards behind him. It was a long, long almost silent climb. We only really spoke when I asked to stop and drink as it was becoming much more of an effort to suck on the camelbak and, despite blowing back each time, the bite valve kept freezing. Well before we were half way up the glacier my camelbak had frozen so I could no longer drink. I struggled to break into the jelly baby bag with my stiff, cold fingers and at one stage crunched on a near solid nut bar. I wasn’t hungry, it just broke the monotony of the trudge ever upward. I knew the only way to succeed would be to have the right mind set and I closed my mind to my dark thoughts and trudged on almost automatically. Sometimes I felt very lonely but most of the time I felt nothing, just an emptiness and an awareness of my breathing and my feet and legs moving. It was a strange, dark, almost surreal world and despite knowing Jaime was at the end of rope I felt totally alone but strangely content. We passed amazing towering ice walls looming out of the darkness and gloomy crevasses in the dim blue light but there was no time to appreciate them and besides it was too cold to stop. As dawn broke I felt as if I should feel uplifted and rejuvenated but although the amazing scenery was spectacular it was harder to clear my head in the cold light of day and I realised how totally exhausted I was. My pace became slower and slower as the air got thinner, my legs numbly struggled on but Jaime insisted we kept moving as it is vital to get off the glacier by early morning as it rapidly becomes very dangerous once the sun hits the ice. As we passed under a vast blue overhang he said we probably would have to descend by a different route as this area would be too dangerous.

I had no idea how much time passed as we wound our way upward but it became even steeper and harder and I was more tired than I thought was possible. Eventually I met some of the others coming down. Mike was elated by the summit and assured me it was ‘not long now’ and ‘more like a footpath soon’. I smiled weakly though even smiling seemed to sap my energy. His encouragement was kind and well meaning but I still had far, far to go. Luckily by now I had no concept of time at all and reaching the top was simply a progression of the present. With grim determination I left the others and sought out the promised footpath which never came.

When I finally summitted it was unexpected. My head was down and I suddenly realised I was going forward and not up, the path had levelled. I wearily lifted my head and there it was, the large flat summit almost devoid of features except the vast black crater with a Cotopaxi28small cloud of steam rising from the far edge. I was too tired to feel elation, too tired to even cry, too lonely to really appreciate the enormity of my achievement. I was at the top of one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. I looked around over the ice and the cloud which far below me seemed to merge into one and far away other ice capped volcanoes peeked through the white carpet of cloud. It was an awesome view.

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Now I was not moving, I realised the cold was cutting and the icy wind vicious. I was now wearing my down over the primaloft jacket, but with Nelson’s grim warnings about frostbite on my mind and the fact I only had Jaime to share this moment with, there seemed little point in staying on the summit for any longer as I was the last of our group to reach the top. Later I discovered Trudy, having valiantly battled to acclimatise, had sadly been forced to turn back because of the cold.

So, within five minutes of this amazing achievement, I had left the summit that I had strove for so long to reach and had begun the long descent down. This time I was ahead of my guide and leaning forward on the rope as Jaime instructed me so we could move downward quite quickly and safely. Coming up had just been a long, exhausting slog and I had hardly glanced up from where my feet were landing, but now I was able to appreciate much more the incredible scenery. I had expected the glacier to be relatively featureless and was amazed by the deep crevasses, majestic ice walls, mighty overhangs and vast icicles. It is true to say I was awestruck. ‘Awesome’ is such an overused word in our modern vocabulary but the glacier was truly awesome. Jaime had kindly offered to take photographs for me as we descended but no photograph could ever do justice to this monumental glacier.

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Cotopaxi32Jaime and I must have been descending much faster than some of the others as we caught up with Erisilia, Brian and Tamzin. By now the sun was warm and we all started shedding layers. Worryingly I realised we had returned via the icefields which Jaime had warned me would be too dangerous to cross by this time of day. We came to a deep crevasse into which Erisilia and Tamzin had already descended. Brian was being lowered down as Jaime reached them. The guides started arguing and although I did not understand what was being said it appeared Jaime was unhappy about where an ice axe had been placed as an anchor for Brian’s rope. He removed the axe leaving the rope free and I quickly shouted to Brian warning him to stay still as he was no longer secure. Jaime, realising the danger and despite wearing crampons, tried to step on the rope. Brian was clearly alarmed by the situation and stayed rooted to the spot. Eventually he got down safely and he and his guide moved on. Jaime Cotopaxi36meanwhile pondered on the best route down for me as the melting ice was no longer giving purchase to the crampons. At first he wrapped the rope around himself as a body belay and then used an ice screw in the wall of the crevasse. Not feeling at all safe I was lowered onto a ledge. The next challenge was to cross the crevasse. Jaime gave me instructions to throw in the ice axe and, using it as an anchor, pull myself across on it but I was too tired and too weak. Next he pointed out a foot hold at about shoulder height and seemed disbelieving that my leg simply physically could not go that high. At one point I was lying over the crevasse with legs and feet one side and chest and arms on the other, I was then ungraciously dragged across by the rope. We hurried on; Jaime repeating it was dangerous to still be on the glacier this late.

Once off the glacier and onto the dreaded scree we caught up with Brian and Tamzin again. BCotopaxi33rian was suffering terribly from painful feet due to the ill fitting boots and despite trying them laced first looser and then tighter, nothing relieved the discomfort. We slowly descended together finally arriving back at the refuge to be greeted by the rest of the team. Looking back at the vast volcano it did not seem possible we had conquered it just a few hours previously. It was good to be back together as a team, congratulate each other and share in our joint success, but my emotions were mixed. I felt some pride at my Cotopaxi34success but remembered the dark despair of the long, lonely night, the relief and short lived joy at reaching the summit, the awe and wonder of the fabulous ice fields, the excitement of the descent and then the fear and anger at the dangerous situation we had been in. I was physically exhausted and emotionally drained. It would take some time to really appreciate what we had achieved and the awe inspiring beauty of what we had seen.

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All too soon we had to be packed up and once again descending the cinder scree back to our waiting coach. Some of the more confident members of the group took the shortest route straight down the slope while, in the swirling mist, Erisilia and I attempted to follow the zig zag path which had seemed so much clearer on the way up. Once again the group was split up and only found each other by yelling into fog. Isaac had become totally separated from everyone and had lost the track completely only finding it beyond the car park where he was waiting for us when we eventually decided to set off without him in the bus.
Going out for a celebration meal that night, Nelson again warned us about the dangers of Quito and advised Mike against taking his expensive camera. Our area of Quito was very different at night, buzzing with young people enjoying the vibrant night life but everywhere you looked there were policemen, always in groups of three or more. On our last day Nelson took us on a tour of Quito including a street where people had adorned their houses to look like Disney palaces, through the parks of the New Town and down into the Old Town. We saw again the furtive money dealers on the street with fistfuls of bank notes and street traders selling absolutely anything you could imagine from puppies to insoles as well as all manner of food including trays of a sweet mixture of whipped egg white, cream and fruit which they scooped into small plastic pots like ice cream. We were fascinated by the contrasts of the town, the opulent churches, the dingy cafes from which unusual smells emanated, the impressive neoclassical buildings built with the wealth generated from the cocoa trade, the mix of people and bizarre ways they found to make a living, selling freshly squeezed fruit juices from home made trolleys, shoe shine booths and one man carrying skeins of coloured shoe laces hung from a broom stick carried across his shoulders. We were all relaxed and happy when suddenly our carefree wandering was shattered as a thief suddenly ripped Fiona’s St Christopher from her neck and ran off at great speed. We were all so shocked he was far down the street and lost from view before anyone really realised what had happened. Jonathan comforted Fiona and Nelson calmly pronounced “ It happens every day in Quito” and went on to suggest we should all remove our earrings as they too are often targetted by thieves and could be ripped from our ear lobes. The town had a very different feel now. Nelson’s dire warnings had been fulfilled, I no longer wanted to explore this strange town and resolved to stick close to the men in our group. We continued our tour but with less enthusiasm to enjoy the culture. As it neared midday someone noticed how short our shadows were and we all watched as they shrunk back to virtually nothing at noon. Having no shadow held a childish fascination for me and I would have liked to take a photograph but no longer felt safe to do so. The risk of having my camera stolen and losing my precious memories of the rest of the trip was too great.

After a pleasant lunch in a cafe on the main square of Old Quito we hailed taxis to return to our hotel. As a festival was going on and much of the old town was closed to traffic the surrounding streets were jammed with vehicles. Mike suggested we should walk as he had noticed a street sign bearing the name of the street next to our hotel, ‘ Una Via’ . Nelson explained that many streets bore that label as it meant ‘One Way’! Careful to ensure a male travelled in each taxi we began the slow journey back into the New Town and were amazed that despite taking fifteen minutes the fare was just $3. Then, at 2pm we boarded our bus for the last time and began the long journey home.

It was an awful journey home. After six and a half hours of a bus journey, security checks, a short flight on a scruffy aircraft, sitting in departure lounges with no information and rumours of changes of gates and over booked flights, we were finally herded back onto the same scruffy plane. So far we had travelled 170 miles in the wrong direction and soon would fly directly over Quito, the airport we had left hours earlier. The plane was old with no seat back televisions and non adjustable head rests, for five hours we were not allowed to leave our seats, the staff were miserable and when it was finally served the food was dreadful. It was a grim journey back to Madrid and onto London Heathrow.

Looking back it hardly seemed possible that ten days previously we had all met for the first time and in ten short days had climbed to great heights on awesome volcanoes and seen sights we will marvel at forever. We had all fought our personal battles and faced challenges we had not predicted. We had all come back changed people, touched in different ways by this amazing challenge.

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Thank you to the wonderful team whose new friendship I treasure and who made this trip so special. Thank you also to my many sponsors who helped me raise vital funds for the East Anglian Air Ambulance.

Heather Bentley

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