Full Beards, Empty Air and Reinvention at 6000m


Travelling is almost exactly like internet dating, minus the prospect of sex. With both activities, you always spend more money than you wanted to, you always get that niggling feeling that someone else has been there before you, and most importantly, you can always start fresh in the morning.

With travel, as with internet dating, reinvention is king.

That’s why normal life can be so tiresome – you are constantly obliged to play ‘you’. Stray from what your friends (or you) regard as ‘you’, and they’ll think you’re weird and maybe stop being your friends. But when you travel solo, you don’t have any friends, just the freedom to be whoever you want to be when you wake up. So on the day I woke up in the Ecuadorian Andes, I decided with absolute clarity that I wanted to be Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor and Ranger of the North (from the Lord of the Rings), and go on a quest of my own. But first things first, I needed accomplacies.

Looking around the hostel with my new, smouldering Aragorn eyes, I spotted a young man-boy who looked almost identical to Legolas from Lord of The Rings. His name was Octavio, which confused me because I hadn’t intended to have a Transformer on my quest but I let it slide because I’m accomodating like that, and we quickly agreed to scale the absurdly high, active cone of Mount Cotopaxi with another man who didn’t really look like anyone from Lord of the Rings but had enough of the Boromir about him to join the troop.

Cotopaxi is high. How high? Well, high enough that half of the people that try to climb it don’t get to the top. At 5,897 metres, it’s more than 3 times the height of Ben Nevis, which, like most Scots, I used to think was a real mountain. At that height, there is less than half the oxygen that there is at sea level. With such meagre supplies, your heart rate rockets to a panicky machine-gun staccato, your legs turn to lead and if you’re unlucky, your eyes stop working too.

A few days prior to my reinvention as Aragorn, I met a man stumbling down drunkenly from the summit of Chimborazo (marginally higher than Cotopaxi, and officially the highest point on earth due to the equatorial bulge), who breezily informed me that he’d gone blind in one eye at the top. ‘Don’t go there’ he said simply, before taking his hulking frame off down the mountain, more falling than walking.

It’s easy to die at these altitudes. I found a blog written by keen mountaineering types who had to give up on the ascent because it was too hard. When they returned to the refuge, they were met with the sight of 2 human bodies being thawed out beside the wood-burning stove. They had disappeared in a blizzard months earlier and been spat out by the glacier only moments before. The old me would have baulked at these risks but then, the old me didnt have a beard like I did, or a multi-tool with excellent pliers. The new me just grew more beard and pushed on into the wilderness with Legolas/Octavio and almost-Boromir.

The training ground of choice for those wishing to summit Cotopaxi is the impossibly beautiful but dog-riddled mountainscape of the ‘Quilotoa loop’ – a 3 or 4 day hike terminating on the rim of a dormant, 3800 metre high, lake-filled crater that used to be inhabited by a hermit until he died by thinking he could survive only on air. Apparently it’s called being a ‘breatharian’, or as I like to put it, being ‘a dick’.

In the wilds though, you don’t need to be a breatharian to risk your life. You just need to be a human walking past a dog. There are so many, everywhere, rushing at you from all angles as their owners watch on with the kind of apathy that borders on criminality. I had my sword of course (small knife attached to pliers) but didn’t want to use it. As a general rule, killing man’s best friend in front of them isn’t a good look, especially when that man probably has a real sword to repay the favour with. No, for bloodless and thus guilt-free dog-battery, I needed a good, stout stick.

No sooner had I seen it in my mind, than it magically appeared in front of me – a timber of the perfect size, stoutness and swingability. If I had wanted to, I could have stunned an Alsation or killed a medium-sized mongrel with that thing. I christened it ‘Douglas the Dog Destroyer’, to no laughs from Legolas/Octavio and almost-Boromir, but some from me, and proceeded to get sun burnt, short of breath and happy over the next 3 days. It was good times. But it wasn’t high enough. To be truly ready, we needed to go into the clouds. At 4,800 metres, Pichincha beckoned.

We postiviely bounded up, Legolas/Octavio possessed by some kind of Elvish energy and me following up the rear with a more human level of energy. Almost-Boromir had deserted us and gone off to ride horses in lower elevations, so we had found a replacement, who was absolutely nothing like anyone from Lord of the Rings so that whole metaphor kinda fell by the wayside at that point, but I stayed in character anyway. We would need Aragorn’s valour soon. I made the call. It was booked. Tomorrow night, at midnight, we would go higher than any of us had been before. Perhaps we would fall further than we had fallen before too.

The plan was simple – drive to the carpark, walk to the refuge, eat lots of soup, coca tea and altitude pills, then try to sleep for 3 hours before a midnight start. Sleep? No chance. After 3 hours of shivering in the foetal position, eyes wide open, we rose to the flash of lightning storms. Plural. The guides shrugged it off – ‘there is some electricity in the air’, they scoffed at the silly gringos with their sense of mortality.

Our guides, Miguel and Milton, were tough men. You could tell that straight away. Miguel was a stout man with a pot belly and a handshake that could split a coconut. I became convinced that if the storms came too close, he could simply punch them away. Milton had a wicked laugh and a tattoo on the piece of flesh between his thumb and forefinger, which also made me think that he was tough. Whenever I asked them if the climb was hard, they would laugh in my face and say ‘It’s a beach.’
Funny, guys, but in my book ‘beaches’ generally weren’t places where lightning bolts tried to tetris themselves into 100-foot deep crevasses via the medium of human flesh. Still, I liked their style.

Out we plodded, in our massive plastic boots. To either side of us, in the far distance, lightning flashes from two mighty storms silently silhouetted the mountains. We trudged onwards to the glacier. As we fastened our crampons, she groaned a deep, shuddering, weary groan. Not more of you humans. When will you learn? This place is not for you. You’re not meant to be here. Especially you. Yes, you with all the Snickers. I felt myself slipping out of character. What was I doing here? I’m not a mountain guy. I’d never even worn crampons. I’d had full-blown vertigo from childhood and a primal fear of falling into anything, especially crevasses. Immodium time.

After an hour of trudging, we arrived at the glacier and my skull felt like it was splitting into 2. Having Googled it, I knew that a severe headache was one of the most serious symptoms of altitude sickness, but I also knew that if the guides got even a whiff of this, they’d turn tail and take me down. 200 dollars for nothing. Not on my watch, Milton. Not on my watch. I silently stumbled on, sucking in as much oxygen as I could but only ever getting half as much as I needed. Only 800 vertical metres left. The Glacier belly-laughed underfoot.

That first third was a bitch. A real bitch. All the Snickers in the world couldn’t have saved me. And trust me, I had all the Snickers in the world. I also had 3 bottles of Gatorade, some inadvisably-bought wasabi nuts, a flask of manzanilla and honey tea, a bread roll with nutella, banana, nuts and raisins in it, and for some reason, a tiny lighter. I imagined falling into a crevasse and trying to melt my way out with the tiny lighter over the course of several years. Despite myself, I laughed. My head exploded. I almost fell over. ‘Bien?’ Milton enquired. ‘Bien’, I lied. ‘Pero, necessito una pausa por favour.’ I collapsed onto the snow. The storms had slid away over the horizon. The only sound was the creaking of crampons on snow and our desperate wheezings.

1, 2, 3. Left foot, right foot, ice-axe. Left foot, right foot, ice-axe. Soon, ‘ritmo’ was all I had left. Side-step, side-step, ice-axe. Rhythm was everything. Rhythm and breath. Eventually I managed to couple my breath to my steps, and fell into a sort of trance. I wasn’t in pain, not like I would be when I cycled up mountains, when my quads and lower back would burn up with the fire of lactic acid. My muscles were fine. There was just no oxygen. Nada. It was the air equivalent of rice cakes – you could feel it going in but it didn’t do anything. You know you are in trouble when even the air is lying to you.

Through the darkness, I could see Milton shimmying around an ice wall with 3-feet daggers of ice hanging inches from his head. He had a helmet. We didn’t. ‘Vamos!’ he called back, the rope tugging me forward. Eyeing the 30cm-wide ‘path’ with a sheer drop into nothingness that this maniac was cheerfully encouraging me to take, suddenly my light-headedness had gone. I slammed my ice-axe into the wall and prayed to the Gods of crampon.

But adrenalin only sustains you for so long and soon I was back where I started – heaving, spluttering, cursing the useless, empty air. The Gatorade wasn’t working, the Snickers were frozen solid and the tea was just as impotent as usual. I desperately needed strength from somewhere else, so I scanned through all my friends, family – anyone I’d ever met, looking for strength, and paused on one person, unable to look away. I imagined her climbing beside me, hurting worse but complaining less, and I felt a strange energy spreading through my body. I’ve never felt anythign like that before, but it was honestly like she was, even in her absence, pulling me up. She’ll probably never know it, but she was the only thing that kept me going.

Legolas-Octavio, however, was struggling. I could feel the rope between me and him tugging as he slipped around on the ice behind me. Perhaps his Elvish magic didn’t work so high up. ‘Por favor, Octavio necessita una pausa!’, I croaked forward to Milton, who begrudgingly stopped. Offering him some tea, I told Octavio to think of someone who gave him strength, and to breath more. When he turned to me, I could see that his left eye was almost completely closed. ‘I have a headache’ he said. ‘Drink the tea.’ I insisted, ‘Breath. We’re almost there. You can do this.’ He nodded, unsure what he was agreeing to, or where he was.

Then, after six and a half hours of climbing, the false summits stopped being false and we reached the top of the beanstalk. The horizon was just beginning to bleed an orangey-red. On one side, a carpet of cloud rolled out from under us. On the other, 70km away, the lights of Quito twinkled reassuringly. People, warmth, full-fat air. The crater gaped at us ominously. Everything was bathed in blue light.

Afterwards, Octavio confessed to me that he’d cried as he thought of the people in his life that gave him strength. Not-Boromir said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done. Milton and Miguel said it was ‘A beach’. 2 days later, I shaved my beard off, and my hair, and started the next version of me, more aware than ever that you can grow a beard, you can climb a volcano, heck, you can even batter a dog with a stick in your mind, but it won’t change who you call on for strength in the darkness of night.