Last Friday, I finally returned to Cotopaxi accompanied by a talented guide named Jamie. It was beautiful from start to finish. It snowed, but there was no wind. The moon was bright so I could see some sights while we climbed. It was a nine-hour round trip starting at 12AM. These are a few photos of the climb.
Somehow, I find myself seeing the light at the end of the tunnel/staring down the barrel of the close of my Peace Corps service. This implys poking and prodding of my body by the medical team to determine my fitness for release back into the wild, and a cacophony of paperwork requiring signatures from every Tom, Dick, and Maria in the Quito central office, a mere twelve-hour bus ride from my site. All this after climbing Aconcagua- the most intense three weeks, ever; maybe setting a world record, I fell into and back out of love in less than a month. Oxygen deprivation is a very funny thing.
After two birthdays in Ecuador, I’d imagined I would compile a somewhat eloquent summary of lessons learned and wisdom acquired, though I was misguided. If anything, now my work and wisdom fall more proportionately on the scale of meaning, a very large scale with more work to be done and more wisdom to be acquired. It seems appropriate to relate this sentiment to mountain climbing.
At 2AM on our last night in Mendoza, two British gents and I sat at a table in an empty plaza drinking copious amounts of Los Andes Beer. Strangers at the beginning of this trek, we sat as friends eking out the last moments of this incredible time we’d shared, knowing that in all likelihood we wouldn’t cross paths again…Apparently, New Zealand and the UK are the ends of the Earth. We considered the challenge of describing the experience to others when we got home. A photo may depict the view from the summit, but it won’t communicate how I redefined my physical and mental limits, and, ultimately, failed to find them, or the summit. The value of my time as a PCV is similarly challenging to summarize, even to myself.
The self-congratulations of climbing up and over a 6,900 meter peak are short-lived and now I wonder how I could have been more successful, did I give it all that I could have? I wonder the same things about my service here in Ecuador. It’s natural to forget the obstacles while counting the tangible outcomes, well aware that some meaningful outcomes, like my friendship with the Ulloas, are intangible. All I’ve gathered from mountain climbing or Peace Corps is that, in the best of scenarios, one summit leads to another. The goal isn’t necessarily the top, but to keep learning and pushing the bar higher, and that is good enough.
My fascination with Spanish didn’t start as a love of language, but with a crush on a literature professor named Juan Dabove. He was not especially charismatic, nor particularly attractive, but he was from Argentina and lacked not of masculinity.
We spent a year and a half discussing the Dirty War in Argentina and Borges, Bioy Casares, and Luisa Valenzuela, among others. I tried to imagine the pampas and Buenas Aires in 1976. I pretended to understand the stories; He pretended my critiques were insightful. I watched The Motorcycle Diaries every day, sometimes twice a day, one summer simply because the main character Ernesto hailed from Argentina.
In 48 hours, I’ll leave for Mendoza. While I was sitting in Dabove’s class, I figured that I’d get to Argentina at some point, but I wouldn’t have considered that it would roll out this way. I thought I’d go for wine and tango, maybe a bicycle ride around Buenas Aires.
I can’t decide if I’ll be seeing a lot or a little of Argentina, after all. Unlike Kilimanjaro, I’m going for the views this time because the summit doesn’t last very long. And, I’m bringing my shoes if I do find wine and tango.
Four weeks from today, I’ll leave for my climb in Argentina. I’ve spent the last year getting ready and, I think, I’m mostly ready. In August, I climbed Cotopaxi and I saw the error of my ways in a few respects.
First, I learned to make sure the ice axe is the proper size for the job. I’m 5′ 2″ and 70 cm, not 48 cm, is the right size. I cursed myself and my naïvety many times as I leaned down to use my too short axe to stabilize myself.
Get ready for heavy feet, I mean really heavy. My boots are 2.5 pounds a piece, without crampons. Recently, I heard a program on Radiolab that confirmed that the added weight on my feet was the worst place for it in terms of increasing my energy consumption. I can’t do much about it, except to train in my double boots, and add 2.5 pound weights to each leg while I climb the stairs in my building. Outside of my building, I hike with my pack loaded, the leg weights, and regular hiking boots.
After I get back from the Abuga and/ or Cojitambo, I climb the stairs. I count the times I go up, ten trips up for each stair. To keep myself motivated, I imagine doing the same thing at 8.6% oxygen saturation as opposed to 15.4% here in Azogues.
Our guides on Cotopaxi taught us something called the French technique to climb on ice and to use less energy. It’s similar to a crab walk, lifting one foot over the other. It required the use of an unusual combination of muscles in my hips. I simulate this crab walk by climbing the stairs sideways, lifting one foot over the other.
With just a few more weeks to train, hopefully these strategies, and some weird hip muscles, will get me closer to the summit.
Yesterday, the 2nd of November, was the Day of the Dead in Ecuador. Here it is a different celebration than the one famous in Mexico: there’s no carnival outside of the cemetery gates, or altars, or skeletons; it’s less about laughing at death than remembering, and being remembered by, the dead. After Lucha prayed for her dad, she said, “Acuérdate de mí.” I was reminded of Memorial Day in the U.S., but with more focus on memorial. Ecuadorians eat guaguas de pan, or bread babies, and stands crop up selling colada morada- a boiled drink of fruits and spices. Some people observe the tradition of dressing in black or purple, the colors of mourning. In my family, only Lucha wore black. It’s a day to spend together with the family: eat, go to a cemetery, or two, leave flowers, say a prayer, and go eat again. These are a few photos of the day.
I knew the first time I saw her that, sooner or later, our relationship would probably get out of hand. La/El Abuga is a 100 ft aluminum statue of the Virgin Mary that sits on a hill above my town. I’ve asked people why El and La are both correct, but no one hazards a guess. Maybe it has to do with the baby Jesus in her arms. I visit El/La Abuga often. Sometimes Lucha asks me to pray for her and I do. On Friday, I brought some company with me.
From my house, it was 2:15 minutes round-trip a couple of months ago. I’ve shaved minutes off, first in the approach, then running down as soon as I get to the top. There’s a family that lives on the hill and I’ve gotten to know them better with each trip. I met a ten-year-old girl named Nadia who lives in a small, tin-roofed house right below the Virgin. She grabbed my hand one day as I went by, and I’m pretty sure we’re friends now. Today, I got there and back to my front door in 1:36. I wear a kilo weight on each foot and, when I’m not going for speed, a pack with rocks in it. If I miss a day, then I have to go twice to make it up. By November, I plan to go twice a day, regardless.
I climbed Cotopaxi at the end of August. It was incredibly windy, cold, and physically demanding. At 18,000 ft, we turned around. We jumped over a few crevasses and our guide thought it prudent to head down. I had no experience climbing glaciers, so I was surprised Peace Corps approved this one. In 77 days I’ll be on Aconcagua. Hence, I’m praying for Lucha more often than I did in July.
And that is my Rain Man training regimen leading up to December 18th.
One last thing, there’s another medal at the top.