Climb of reckoning

Ecuador's 5897-metre Cotopaxi sits above the clouds.
Ecuador's 5897-metre Cotopaxi sits above the clouds. Photo: Corbis

Dugald Jellie flirted with Cotopaxi long ago; now he's back to finish his business with the world's highest active volcano.

George Leigh Mallory, the English schoolmaster considered the finest climber of his day, when on a lecture tour of the US to raise money for the 1924 British Mount Everest Expedition and asked why he wanted to climb it, spoke mountaineering's three most famous words: "Because it's there."

His was a justification for all travel: to explore beyond what is known and understood. Mallory set off as a national hero for an untouched point in hobnail boots and snow goggles, last seen as a "tiny black spot" ascending the summit pyramid before "the whole fascinating vision vanished, enveloped in cloud".

Seventy-five years later he was found, frozen on Everest's north face.

If everyone has a mountain to climb and a reason for doing so, then mine's for a simple act of atonement. On my first CV, applying for a cadetship at The Age, I said I'd climbed the world's highest active volcano, Cotopaxi, a not- insignificant doing on the uplands of Ecuador and which Edward Whymper, the best known of 19th-century mountaineers, thought was the "ideal volcano".

Boasts such as this I hoped might get me a job. But about seven in 10 people lie on their resumes. Hard news is I'd never set foot on Cotopaxi, let alone reached its icy caldera 5897 metres above sea level. The paper's then editor couldn't have known of my deceit. I was a young man in need of a wage. He didn't look the outdoor type. He took me on. And so began my life as a fake.

Almost 20 years on, this transgression now leaves me gasping for air. "If it's not possible to get sleep it's normal, but you need rest," says an Ecuadorian guide from a refuge on the edge of an epic cone that in local language means "throat of fire" and where an east wind from the Amazon now spits snow and ice. "We wake at midnight. One o'clock we leave, OK? The mountain is big."

In pre-dawn dark, icicles stuck to whiskers, nauseated, cold and too frightened to look up, it's easy to say I've come to Cotopaxi to right a wrong. But it's more than that. It's a reckoning, but also renewal. A longing has taken hold: for wild places, for a quest, for something to reaffirm life's treasured possibilities.

True story is that as a 21-year-old I'd done this before, travelling to South America with two chums, JJ and Whit, on the idea of plumbing Angel Falls in the heart of Venezuela. Wrong turns found us in the Andes instead, with ice axes and crampons, climbing as high as we could.

Ours was the bravado of young men on holidays, taking risks. We hitch-hiked through Colombia, scaling whatever we could. We made pacts. We got high off thin air.

Then one milky dawn, from a refuge on the side of Volcan Tungurahua, we clambered up scree to its sulphurous vents and above clouds at 5016 metres laid eyes on Cotopaxi and all bets were off. We knew our limits. This looked one of them.

Unfinished business brings me back, putting me now beyond the fine print of my travel insurance policy, tethered by rope to two strangers: a guide above and a 22-year-old snowboard instructor from Los Angeles below who for the past six days has cajoled himself with talk of "shred it" and "kill it" and says if we make the top he'll do a handstand. Wind scowls at jacket flaps. Clumsy footfalls are clawed into ice. And higher up, on another rope's end, there's my old mate JJ.

WHYMPER, a London book engraver who, in 1865, became known the world over as the first to climb the Matterhorn, the last of the untrodden peaks in the Alps, said of reaching the top: "There is nothing to look up to, all is below." His viewpoint was both literal and figurative. "The man who is there has attained all he desires; he has nothing to aspire to."

Except, of course, to get down safely.

For Whymper, this peak cast a fatal spell: four in his party plunged to their deaths on descent, a disaster that in its day ranked in popular imagination alongside Franklin's disappearance, Livingstone's death in Africa and, later, Scott's dismal fate at the south pole. News of the accident caused horror. Queen Victoria asked if this folly of mountain climbing could not be outlawed.

Woozy with jet lag, our boys' own expedition follows in Whymper's footsteps, beginning on the sharp streets of Quito, 2800 metres above sea level in the world's second-highest capital (after Bolivia's de facto capital La Paz). Whymper came here during the great Victorian age of scientific inquiry, to study the effects of high altitude but also, like us, to seek the thrill of high places in strange and wonderful lands. For this, we're not alone. "I climb mountains for the solitude," says Kim Polistina, 44, from Brisbane, a doctor of philosophy who we encounter acclimatising at a refuge on Cotopaxi.

Her cheeks are blushed, her breath laboured. "I've been up Kilimanjaro, and big mountains in Nepal, but my real passion is rock climbing."

We also meet a 61-year-old professor from Philadelphia, Parisians and Romans, travellers from Miami, Barcelona, Amsterdam and Tel Aviv, and a Londoner who says her "legs are like jelly", to which I tell her my surname.

Flurries of snow swirl outside in thin air, catching on cuffs and collecting on loose scoria the colour of paprika. Glacial ice hangs above like a gothic cathedral.

A sign by the hut reads: "PELIGRO - zona de avalanchas".

Alexander von Humboldt, the great 19th-century speculative scientist-traveller who, among other toponyms, lends his name to a cold-water current running up the Peruvian coast, was the first to put this mountain on the map. In 1802, on his five-year wanderlust through the Spanish colonies of the Americas, the aristocratic German geographer traversed this plateau and called it "the Avenue of the Volcanos".

"Cotopaxi's shape is the most beautiful and regular of all the colossal peaks in the high Andes," he reported. Humboldt struck for its crown, and for the crest of Chimborazo - a nearby volcano then thought the world's highest peak. He was thwarted. Both mountains, he said, were unclimbable.

A half-century later, the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India put this lofty chain in perspective, then in January 1880 Whymper reached Chimborazo's summit, becoming the first European to climb above 6090 metres. He later topped Cotopaxi, camping beneath its "majestic dome", where he took photographs, calculated angles, recorded temperatures and barometric pressures, and surveyed his altitude.

Our travels are for reasons mostly of pleasure, catching breath in Quito, where we sign indemnity waivers and pay $US750 ($725) each for an 11-day guided climbing program. The itinerary steps us up summits to Cotopaxi, then Chimborazo - the furthest limit of Earth if measured from its core. The Himalayas are higher from sea level, but the planet's equatorial bulge puts no other place nearer the stars.

"Everybody wants to climb these mountains," says a guide from whom we rent gear in Quito. "But you must have very good technique with crampons on Chimborazo. The rock is icy. If you can't make it very well it is dangerous."

Two others join us. Thomas Paul, a tall and nimble 28-year-old physical chemist from Switzerland, who speaks fluent Spanish, has his own ice axe and harness, and climbs in the Alps in spare time. And Shanan, a free-spirited snowboard instructor with chestnut eyes who walks with a stoop and smile, fresh from a season working in Colorado and now living cheaply in Quito.

For all four of us, the mountains have called.

On our first acclimatising walks beyond 4000 metres we share clipped monologues. A natural order is set. I drop back, learning the word despacio - slow, in Spanish - and using it often. Shanan walks a few paces behind. We talk about US visas, football, indoor rock climbing. "It's like ballet," he says. "You try to use as little energy as possible. You dance up the wall."

Hearts pump hard, heads spin in the heights. On day two, while lingering on the lip of a volcano, Thomas checks his altimeter. "We're as high as you can get in Switzerland," he says. And we've just begun.

Five days later the four of us are like brothers. Together we've been above 5000 metres in shredding ice winds, played 71 rounds of poker, and shared meals, confidences and doubts. Now, at the entry to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, we each buy gaudy llama wool beanies from Quechua-speaking vendors in the hope they will bring us luck.

MOBILE PHONES chime at midnight and I've not slept a wink. My head throbs, I can barely breathe. I wonder what I'm doing here. Stories we'd heard earlier bring no relief: the German climber who fell in a crevice and froze to death; the party entombed in the glacier for 10 years; the 13 people who died here on Easter Sunday, 1996, in an avalanche.

I dress with a deliberateness that's like ritual. I make a wish under a portrait of the Virgin Mary. It's 1.24am. Six hours of climbing awaits.

Our group splits at the glacier, where we clip on crampons and rope up. It's survival of the fittest. A poll at the hut confirmed most don't reach the summit.

"I had a wardrobe malfunction," says 28-year-old Londoner Judy Forbes, here with her boyfriend and another couple. "A zip broke on my jacket, batteries went on my light. We all turned back."

Thomas and JJ climb together as the stronger pairing. They push ahead as a string of lights in the void above. We're led by Fausto Tenemasa, a 39-year-old guide from Chimborazo province. "This mountain I go up 200 times," he says. "It is my life."

For four hours, under quicksilver moonlight and all the stars of Ecuador, the three of us climb to the heavens and I'm too afraid to look anywhere but at the rope in front, sliding up ice in the beam of a halogen lamp. My right hand's numbed by the clutch of an ice axe. I'm giddy with vertigo. Shanan points out shooting stars. I don't dare look up.

All that's around seems abstract and surreal. I'm disoriented by the size and shape of the mountain, by the vastness of the empty space below. I hardly care for who's on either end of the rope. They're like ghosts to me. I think only of my family, and wonder what they're up to.

"You've no idea how lost in my head I am," Shanan says at 4.30am when we break. "I feel half dead and half asleep."

Soon the sky lightens and from our bearings I know we'll make the top. Consolations are found in sequences: each step is counted, each breath considered. It's slow going. Shanan pauses often to suck in oxygen.

Beyond a snow bridge across a crevice, Thomas and JJ come down the mountain, all puffer jackets and cheer. They were among the first to summit. We shuffle to the crest soon after 7am and my face screws in sobs. I feel blessed to be here. Shanan and I embrace. We take photographs. He does a handstand. I gaze at a cordillera that seems a trick of geography and feel like a man at the end of something. Some have a cross to bear; I've had this mountain to climb.

ENDINGS are only beginnings. The day after topping Cotopaxi I eat a bowl of spaghetti and fall ill. We've come halfway around the world to get up Chimborazo - a travel story like few others - but my hopes are cruelled by a lousy meal. Who'd eat Italian in Ecuador? The game's over, Montezuma's revenge wins out. Yet at Edward Whymper refuge at 5000 metres on Chimborazo I head off at midnight with the others, not knowing how to give up on these things. "Have no obsession for the top," our guide says. I vomit again at 3.30am and that's that. I turn my back on the mountain and feel contented: for leaving an adventure unfinished, for letting go of desire, for finding a limit. Chimborazo will always be there.

Thomas and JJ make the top. All the way they're knocked by brutal weather and return with hurt etched on their faces. JJ bursts into tears. I console him. In this moment of exhaustion and grief far from home I see in him the boy I had known at primary school, his vulnerabilities and ambition stripped bare.

The two of us, I know now, we've not yet quit the mountains.

FAST FACTS

Getting there Lan Airlines has a fare to Quito for about $2950 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Sydney passengers fly to Santiago (about 16hr, including transit time in Auckland), then to Guayaquil (5hr 55min) and finally to Quito (55min); see lan.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and fly Qantas to and from Auckland to connect.

When to go Cotopaxi and Chimborazo can be attempted year round. The best climbing seasons are June-August and December-January.

Touring there Most are based in Quito or Riobamba. We booked through Safari Tours (safari.com.ec) on an 11-day climbing program costing $US750 ($725) plus tips, and were happy with the service and guides — although the tour had no leeway for bad weather or illness. No guarantees are given for reaching the top. Shop around online and check travel forums for recommended operators — some are better than others.

Safety Anyone who is reasonably fit can climb both mountains, although the peaks are glacial and require crampons, ice axes, ropes and suitable clothing. Guides are strongly recommended. Acclimatising improves the chances of reaching the summit. Find out about altitude sickness at the International Society for Mountain Medicine's excellent website, ismmed.org.

Dugald Jellie was supported on his travels by Paddy Pallin.

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