It rises above the small village of Banos, partly obscured by nearby mountains. A felt presence more than seen. Occasionally, when the clouds part, you catch a glimpse of the ice-capped peak.
!Listos! Vamos para La Cumbra! "Come On! We're Going to the Top!", the guide called to rouse us toward the summit.
Arriving in Banos, escaping Quito, I had decided on the spur of a moment to do this tourist thing. Sure, I can climb a volcano. Why not? After signing up I experienced some trepidation the next day while waiting. I had never scaled an active volcano before! Not fully. Not the height of Tungurahua.
Could I make it? Would my lungs hold out? Why was I doing this thing?
Banos is the kind of place you come across every other country or so. You begin to recognize and appreciate these spots. Tranquilo.
There's always a German/Swiss Coffee House, a French Restaurant, a sleazy American Bar (this one a faux Hard Rock Cafe). One or two Gringo hotels. Banos has a French Jazz Cafe. It's a kind of crossroads for Gringos to meet, exchange stories and places.
There were eighteen of us traveling in two trucks to the entrance of Parque Sangay, 35 minutes outside of Banos, up through mountainous pasture land, bouncing along the cow-trails that serve as roads.
We were met by five guides and pack animals for the baggage at the entrance. It is a warm spring-like morning around eleven o'clock, we are already at 2500 meters and begin to climb.
Following a horse trail, muddy and narrow, we climbed through tree and shrub lined landscape.
All uphill, the higher we went, the colder. The air is thinning and breathing becomes rougher. I find myself taking larger draughts just to keep lungs expanded, gulping air like a thirsty dog!
Even when resting on a plateau, not fully recovering. I began to wonder even more what I am doing here?
In three hours we reached the Refugio at 3800 meters. Thankfully. A small cabin set on a hillside, it affords a panoramic view of mountains, valleys, a lush and varied astonishing landscape. There would be more!
Spent the rest of that day resting near the Refugio, smoking cigarettes, preparing my gear and sharing stories with fellow travelers. Our guides prepared Spaghetti A La Tungurahua, simple pasta and tomato sauce for dinner. Shortly after we ate, 19 of us ascended to the small loft to sleep.
Packed in like sardines amidst the noises, farts, snores, shoves, coughs, sneezes. At least it was warm!
Waking at 2:15 in the morning and preparing for the trek that commenced at three. Stepped out of the Refugio into Hell-shivering cold. Freezing wind that forms icicles on noses and ears. Dark that appears even more blank by the heavy coldness. When the wind dies nothing is heard, all silent and frozen.
Two of the companeiros decided they had gone far enough. They stayed put, warm and cozy in the small hut.
Boots, two sweaters, gloves, wool cap, long thermal underwear, down jacket and more. In my pack a bottle of water, camera and crampons. In my hand a heavy ice-axe.
I became grateful for the cold as we set off from the Refugio. The mountain inclines steeply from there. Shortly past the flower covered brush, the trail turns to black and gray volcanic rock. Loose pebbles, ash and difficult tread. Now even more thankful it is dark.
If I had seen what torture lay ahead, I might not have ventured forth. I might have curled up in a soft warm sleeping bag till dawn.
In my clothes I feel the stickiness of dry sweat. Every step an exertion. Legs on fire with each knee-bend. Breathing is quickly becoming an unbearable exertion and even just raising a leg is like lifting heavy weights.
We stop to rest occasionally, yet in this thin air recovery is a memory. Sucking in air like that soon even air will be a scarce commodity. I want to turn back. This was crazy, just plain madness for the foolhardy. Am swearing off smoking after this - too many cigarettes! Lungs are burning, it's dark out, can't even see the scenery, just keep slogging ahead through dirt and ash.
During occasional rest-stops more adventurers drop out. We stop and there is always a trekker who has had enough, the strain, exertion and the lack of air finally wearing down enthusiasm.
I feel like joining them as they turn back toward the Refugio and relaxation. Why am I doing this in the first place? What do I have to prove? That I'm a Macho Cowboy, or simply to experience something that may or may not be up there? This is Madness!
Three hours up we donned crampons for the ice. The climb becomes steeper still. Now into slippery ash covered in glistening ice. Patches of snow sinking to ankle level, covering my boots. Crampons like heavy weights on the legs yet they keep me upright and can move forward with a bit of traction.
The ice-axe is becoming more useful now to safeguard against slipping and for balance.
!Listos! Voy A La Playa! "Come On! We're Going to the Beach!" The guide rouses us toward the crater. At this altitude any encouragement is welcome motivation.
Another thirty minutes and into the ropes. A body behind and one ahead of me, can't see anything and hope no one slips or we'll all take a roll. Don't even know where the line begins now, and can only follow the rope blindly.
We reach the crater in four and a half hours.
I have felt like turning back at least a dozen times. The only way to do this thing is to "Stay Present". My mind continually wanders back to the past, or toward the future.
Whenever that doesn't happen all I can think of is quitting. I've had enough! Only concentrating on the next footstep, the next inhalation of frigid atmosphere, no fantasies of where I'm going or if there is any tomorrow, or all would be lost.
At times I felt like I was composing a narrative of this journey as I was going along. This torturous climbing certainly induces an Altered State of Consciousness simply through the sheer exertion and sensory deprivation.
Everything becomes focused down to the tiniest detailed activity.
At 5000 meters, ten of us make it to the crater. Inside it is warm, the ground wet with moss growing all over those volcanic rocks. You can smell the sulfurous fumes and watch the steaminess swirling off the ground into the air. I did not wish to remain in this gas-pit for too long.
Another 300 meters up the ice, vertical and another hour. Seven of us, including three guides, made La Cumbra, the Summit! 5300 meters.
We all stand silently at first, no talk, just observing. Within moments all of us reach into our packs as if prompted by some spontaneous unseen signal and pull out a pack of smokes.
I quickly light up and take a satisfying drag along with my fellow victors!
Day is just breaking, and I am looking out over the top of the World! The peaks of distant mountains, all 5000 to 6500 meters revealed in mirrored glory. The colors are strangely different. Effervescent.
The blue sky looks like no blue I had ever beheld. Sharp, lustrous, as if the filters of any smog or atmospheric dispersion have all been swept away to reveal pristine solitude. The air is filled with an enormous silence, within which I faintly hear a majestic symphony announcing the arrival of that Imperial Sun.
This is truly The Hall of the Mountain Kings.
I had done It! And am swept up in overwhelming waves of elation and accomplishment. The Top of the World!
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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