Just beyond a sign marking the main entrance of Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, the bus slowed and pulled onto the shoulder of the highway. Brittany, Nir, and I disembarked, and the attendant/herder retrieved my pack from below the bus. I performed a quick once over on my precious cargo to ensure neither thieves nor ISIS had tampered with it. They had not.
The attendant/herder pointed us in the direction of two small, white, quad-cab, tour guide pick-up trucks that sat parked on the shoulder of an on-ramp leading toward the park. The three of us began walking toward the trucks and one of the tour guides met us halfway.
Between Nir’s command of Spanish and mine (read: Nir translated for me), we ascertained from the driver, who introduced himself as Patricio, that he would drive us into the park, and then to the base of Cotopaxi, where he would allow us plenty of time to asphyxiate whilst climbing to the refugio, and then to a lake that sat below.
“¿Entonces, no irás en el expedición con nosotros? I asked
Our would-be “tour guide” looked at me with pity, as if I was a 10-year-old who had just been told Santa Claus is not real.
I only understood part of Patricio's response, but I took it to mean “Oh, hells to the no, I’m not climbing up that damn thing with you people. Are you kidding? It’s cold up there and there’s a heater in my truck. Also, it’s getting close to my nap time, so I’ll be sleeping in my nice warm truck while you gringos freeze your asses off.”
“Fair enough,” I said to no one in particular.
Understanding that Patricio was to be more of a driver and less of an anything else, we agreed to pay him $25.00 per person, and climbed into the small truck.
Nir and Brittany being a couple worked in my favor here, and they offered me the front seat. I was greatly relieved, because, aside from having a little extra legroom in the front seat, I can also (usually) overcome my life-long battle with motion sickness. [Leave me alone. The struggle is real, y’all!] If that turned out not to be the case here, at least I could projectile vomit toward the windshield, as opposed to the backside of one of my new friends’ headrest.
To even greater relief, the road leading into and through the main entrance of the park turned out to be freshly paved and well maintained. The truck puttered along smoothly, with nary a proverbial bump in the road.
I was impressed much, much too soon, as the blacktop soon ran out and we continued on along a potholed, uneven dirt road.
Nine hours later – okay, okay, it was 25 minutes; but it felt like a lifetime of having my kidneys punched on – we rounded a bend. To our right, across a long, open field that rose into the sky, sat Cotopaxi.
Our driver pulled to the side of the road, where we eagerly jumped out and snapped a few pictures. Still below the base of the volcano, the temperature had dropped noticeably from the park entrance, some 500 vertical meters below and behind us. As I scurried back to the warmth of the truck, I noticed that we were in a valley of sorts, wedged between Cotopaxi and other surrounding mountains. Clouds whipped around the mountain peaks and down into the valley at bizarrely fast speeds
"Hmm,” I said, again to no one in particular. “I wonder if it’s going to rain.”
Loaded back into the truck, we continued on.
Around 700 vertical meters later, we reached the “parking lot” at Cotopaxi’s base. By “parking lot,” I mean a spot where the road dead ends and vehicles park disturbingly close to the steep edge of the road, where any man, woman, child, or truck could easily roll off and down to their doom.
“Mira, el refugio es allí,” Patricio said and pointed to what looked like a lunchbox made for ants sitting precariously on a cliff high above.
“¿!El, huh?!” I asked in my best Spanish.
“Sí, el refugio,” Patricio replied politely and pointed again.
Above: a view of the refugio, barely visible and just inside the snow line.
Brittany, Nir, and I looked at each other and accepted our sentencing.
Me being me, i.e., always super, super well-prepared, Nir and Brittany waited patiently while I scrambled to pull on my North Face windbreaker, re-tie my hiking boots, and extend my hiking poles to the exact length that I absolutely had not bothered to remember.
We set out, and I noticed immediately I was the only person among dozens of others on the mountain who was using hiking poles. Not only that, I saw several people dressed in blue jeans, light sweatshirts, and definitely not hiking boots. Yet, they all seemed to pass me by like truck drivers answering the call of free methamphetamine somewhere along I-35.
15 steps above the "parking lot," I collapsed, gasping for breath, my head spinning, my chest spasming, heart threatening to burst from my chest. As I fell, I began to slide in the loose, grey, volcanic dirt. Down and down I slid to the edge of a massive fissure that dropped 50 meters below. Over the edge I went.
Okay, just kidding, again. I’m totally still alive – tranquilo!
I had to stop to catch my breath numerous times along the way up to the refugio and every time I leaned against the support of my hiking poles, I gazed toward the massive fissure. Even though it was at least 15 meters away and the odds of falling into it were virtually zero, its sharp mouth seemed to lie open, waiting to gobble up the unfortunate soul who came too close to the edge.
Above: clouds race into a deep fissure to the immediate west of the refugio hiking trail.
The steepness of the volcano, combined with the texture of dirt and rocks leading up the volcano made for sloppy, slow dredging, the likes of which I had certainly never experienced before (but which – SPOILER ALERT – I would encounter again a couple of weeks later on a different volcano) . For every step I took, the dirt would slide me back down another three or four inches.
As we made our way up, I was relieved to see that Nir was taking the hike fairly slow as well. Whether he did so out of sheer pity for me or because he also was struggling, I didn’t know and I didn’t care - I was just happy not to be left in the dust. Meanwhile, Brittany had scampered a few dozen meters ahead of us, seemingly unfazed by the altitude, the terrain, nor the quickly worsening weather.
From left to right: Brittany, Nir, and a ginger pause to catch their breath and a quick photo op.
About halfway to the refugio, we stopped to catch our breath and looked down toward the “parking lot.” The weather had changed from “party cloudy,” to “can’t see shit” (which is technical phraseology taught to all pilots and air traffic controllers). The vehicles were invisible, enveloped by thick white clouds that began to chase us up the mountain. Then, it began to snow.
A battle raged at the foot of a mountain.
In the middle of absolute, gory chaos, an Inca warrior spotted a vulnerable adversary, and shot an arrow into the un-armored left flank of a young conquistador. As the arrow lodged itself deep inside the conquistador’s ribcage and tore violently through his left lung, he tried to scream. All he could muster was a blood-choked gurgle of agony and despair.
Panicking, the young conquistador made what would be the last mistake of his short life. Disoriented and trying in vain to dislodge the arrow, he ran. But, rather than running back to the safety of the conquistadors’ horse-mounted line, he ran directly into the sea of oncoming Incans.
Another Inca warrior spotted the injured conquistador and charged toward him. As the Inca charged, he expertly swung a long sling over his head. The sling was almost two meters long, hand-woven, and braided with different colors of llama wool. The precise, elegant craftsmanship betrayed the nature of the sling’s deadly cargo: a smooth, oblong-shaped stone, weighing just under one kilogram.
Suddenly, hearing the battle yell of the Inca warrior, the young conquistador realized his mistake and attempted to retreat in the other direction.
It was too late.
The Inca made one last overhead rotation of the sling, and, from 15 meters away, launched the stone at the conquistador. The warrior’s aim was true, and the stone struck its target, smashing into oblivion the bone, cartilage, and grey matter of the conquistador’s nose and skull.
The young conquistador did not rise again.
On the other side of the battlefield, another conquistador – this one a seasoned fighter, originally from the ranks of the lower nobility back in Spain, and having enjoyed the spoils of war on many occasion – rode atop a large, black Andalusian stallion that measured just over 17 hands. One of the few Andalusian’s to make the long, miserable voyage to the New World, the horse, like the conquistador, was no stranger to struggle and strife.
The conquistador was covered nearly head-to-toe in strong, heavy body armor, crafted thousands of miles away back in Toledo, Spain. The stallion was draped in heavy chainmail that protected its head and body from the arrows, spears, and stones of the Incas. Despite the weight of the armor, the horse and rider moved together easily, seeming as though they were a single being.
The rider spurred the horse into a gallop, toward the sea of chaos. As he rode, he readied his lance, preparing to thrust it into an enemy. Crafted from wood and razor sharp Toledo steel, the lance was over 10 feet long, thereby saving the conquistador the inconvenience of having to dismount his steed in order to murder enemy fighters.
As he charged, several of the Incas fled in fear, having never seen a horse, let alone one so massive and covered in armor. One Inca, however, stood his ground and readied an arrow. Three seconds later, he loosed the arrow directly at the conquistador’s head. It made contact, but bounced harmlessly off the of the mounted devil’s helmet.
The Inca watched helplessly as the arrow fell to the ground. Then, he ran.
It was too late.
The stallion closed the gap and was upon the warrior within seconds. The conquistador thrust the lance deep into the warrior’s back, severing his spinal cord.
The Inca warrior did not rise again.
As the battle raged, a deep, menacing grumble rose from within the mountainous battlefield.
At first, no one – Spaniard nor Inca – noticed, and the violence on the mountain side continued.
Minutes later, without warning, the mountain belched thick, dark grey, sulfury, smoke thousands of feet into the air. The ground shook violently below the combatants. The eruption sent thousands of igneous rocks – some the size of peas, others the size of small cars – flying into the air.
The combatants all stopped and gazed, dumbstruck and terrified, toward the top of the mountain.
Then, hot ash and rocks began to rain down upon the battlefield. Sulfurous smoke filled the air, making it impossible to breathe. Lava began slithering from the volcano, into sharp, deep fissures, that creased the mountain, created by millenia of similar lava flows and eruptions.
The combatants – Spaniard and Inca alike – ran for their lives.
The battled ended.
. . .
Okay, yeah. So I’ve taken some liberties here. I am certainly no historian of the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire. I don’t know how much time passed between the time Cotopaxi erupted and the time everyone hauled ass off the mountain. Nor, do I know, precisely, how any single warrior died; but you can bet your bottom dollar that battle during that time was a violent, hands-on, and gory experience.
In 1534, Cotopaxi really did erupt during a battle between Spanish conquistadors and the Incas. (There may also have been other Native peoples fighting along side the Spanish, as the Incas had long forced other cultures into assimilation and submission, much as the Spanish would do to the Incas.) The violence of a full-scale battle was actually interrupted by an even more violent act of nature.
Naturally, an eruption of any size out of Ecuador’s second highest mountain peak probably scared the living shit out of everyone – warriors or not. So, it’s not hard to imagine them all running for their lives, content to leave killing each other for another day, as opposed to getting killed right then and there by the demon that was spewing forth from the volcano.
I thought about these things as we trudged upward to the climber’s refugio, knowing that Cotopaxi’s last eruption, which lasted over five months, was only two years in the past. In fact, Cotopaxi was only re-opened for climbing on October 7, 2017, less than four months before I arrived in Ecuador.
. . .
Just as the snow and clouds began to envelope us, we reached the refugio, where we took a few quick photos standing at the elevation marker, holding out the attached Ecuadorian flag. Obligatory photos taken, we huddled into the refugio with a few dozen other people, and enjoyed a few minutes of warmth and relaxation.
As I sat, I contemplated the fact that, even at 4,864 meters above sea level, we were still another 1,000 meters from the mighty Cotopaxi’s summit. Suddenly, I felt very, very small.
Rested and warmed, we agreed it was time to head back to the truck. As we made our way down, intermittent rays of sun shone through the clouds, only to be quickly extinguished and replaced by what I absent-mindedly described aloud as sleet.
“I think that’s hail,” Nir said.
Nir was undoubtedly correct, but at the moment I didn’t care what the - ahem - hail it was. It was cold and stung as it managed time and time again to prick the few exposed pieces of my face.
Back in the "parking lot," Patricio welcomed us back, and we crawled into the truck’s warmth. With more vehicles having arrived during our absence, Patricio managed to execute a 73-point u-turn and we headed back down from whence we had some.
I was exhausted. Between waking up in the pre-dawn hours, jumping on and off buses, and “climbing” a volcano, not only was I exhausted, I had forgotten that there was a “tour” of the lake yet to come.
As we pulled into the parking lot by the lake – an actual parking lot this time – the sleet/hail had turned to rain. From what I could tell Nir and Brittany shared my relative disinterest in walking around the lake in the rain. Nevertheless, we put our rain gear back on, and walked the 100 meters or so to a gazebo that cropped out from the lake’s shoreline.
From there, we enjoyed the shelter and gazed back toward the Cotopaxi. It stood, unfazed, watching back at us, just as it had done to countless other humans for millennia before.
We stayed for about 10 minutes and then headed back to the truck, again relieved to be in the warmth and relative comfort of the small pick-up truck.
About 40 minutes later, Patricio dropped us off near the highway, where we had begun.
Brittany, Nir, and I exchanged farewells, and they headed toward the northbound side of the highway, to catch a bus back to Quito. I shook hands with Patricio, gave him an inappropriately small tip [hey, I’m living on peanuts during this trip, leave me alone!], and hoisted my 386-pound backpack onto my shoulders. I made my way over the bridge to the southbound side of the highway, where I began walking toward my destination for the evening: Guaytacama.
Once again, I traveled alone.
From Guayaquil, with Love,