Its now 6:30 pm in Quito and I´ve been awake since midnight. That´s how you climb when your route crosses the equator.
After a day of messing around on the lower glacier, lots of ipod time, food and naps at the hut at 15k, I settled into bed at 6pm. For 3 hours I tossed and turned with growing frustration; having to sleep is near impossible. Add in some harsh equatorial daylight and wind pouring through the leaky panes of the refugio, mixed with the anxiety of 19,000 feet, and rest doesn´t come easy.
Bryce woke me up at 12:00, planning on leaving in 30 minutes. We made some french toast, ate a few apples, and had some tea to warm us up. Bags were packed from the night before, and to save time we had harnesses and helmets on out of the hut.
The guide book calls this a 7 hour climb to the summit. Bryce says 7-9 or so for most of the times he´s been up. Its important to get off, or atleast well below the crevassed section up higher, before the very strong sun hits the route at 9am. The snow bridges become a gamble and crossing the larger crevasses below the summit becomes a non option. Thus the midnight start on all of these bigger climbs down here.
The first hour was a lot of hiking and scrambling. Relying on headlamps makes route finding a little tricky, as does the darkness of the new moon. We hit the glacier around 1:45, and cramponed up for the rest of the day.
This is my first actual glacier experience, having done a lot of vertical ice climbing in the past, but never walking on consolidated snow and ice at lower angles. It looks white and fluffy, but the 12 sharp points of your crampons barely make a dent. Your foot floats above the perfectly tractioned styrofoam surface. For 2 solid hours we made our way up the 35 degree slope neve and occasional hard ice. The lower glacier is pretty featureless, so there´s no crevasses, or noticable route denoters. Its just generally up. I´m sure Bryce was aiming at something, but in the dark, with 25 feet of visibility on acres of glacier, it just felt like one foot in front of the other, following the rope tied between us.
At 3:30 we ran into our first tricky route finding. A series of huge crevasses stood in our way. The plan from the start was to leave later than most of his clients because of the speed at which we´ve tackled the first two climbs. Rather than leave at 11:30 or 12, we slept in. The goal was to not reach this part of the climb until there was some predawn light. No luck. It was 3:30 in the morning and we were looking at a much changed crevasse feild since Bryce´s last summit a few weeks ago. This is rare for such a short time period, but glacial retreat via global warming is in full effect on the equator. Making it worse, recent snow had covered over everything, giving the illusion of solid ground, but actually thin snow bridges covering the large cracks in the ice.
With the help of my headlight, we spotted around looking for possible routes through the maze. We went left, up over a small ridge bordering a deep chasm of hard blue ice and found ourselves at a 3 foot wide, but very thin (according to Bryce) snow bridge across a 9 foot gap. The crevasse below was maybe 20 feet deep, and full of hard blue chandeliered icycle teeth. This is the only time in any of our climbs that Bryce has asked me to put him on belay. He stepped to the edge, with the rope kept tight, and darted across yelling back to me¨"think lite thoughts."
Minor challenge bested, we reached a point that he usually gets to via a different route, one that couldn´t be found in the dark and new snow conditions. A pitch and a half of vertical snow. The route description says 35 degree, but apparently the route has changed with the recent crevasse activity. This was 60 meters of 75-80 degree snow. Near vertical snow. Amazing to climb. The years of bullet hard Adirondak or Vermont ice with dulling crampons made this feel like climbing a ladder. Light kick with the foot, keeping the heel dropped to engage the secondary points, and you just kind of ran right up. Bryce and I simulclimbed this section tied short on our 30 meteres of rope, stopping to rest at the top under a nicely frozen overhanging wall of broken glacier.
We set a quick anchor, climbed one more pitch, moving seperatly, and had reached the end of the difficulty. We checked our watches, it was 4:45. We joked about, and then did, walk very slowly towards the summit. The goal being to have the sun rise while we were up there. Not much point summiting in the dark. Again, no luck. We got up there at 5:10 in the morning, fifty minutes before first light.
We piled on all of our clothes, sat on our packs, and moved in close, hoping to stay warm enough to wait it out. Sitting there in everything I had with me, slowly getting cold and falling asleep I called of our vigil. I knew it was for my benefit, but from a climbing perspective, it didn´t make sense. We were at 18,993 feet above sea level, probably 6k higher than I´ve been before this trip. No reason to sit around and see how my body reacted. Down we went, still guided by the LED beams of our headlamps.
More problems with the dark. We can´t find our descent point, which was at the top of that last pitch we did. Bryce had left two large snow pickets set for our use, but the 3 foot shafts of T-shaped aluminum were not making their whereabouts known. I led down off the summit, with Bryce´s direction, but we ended up well right of our point. Everything looks kind of the same up there. The only landmark a long crevasse that runs along the break from the summit dome. Its only 12-18 inches long, but it was 300 feet long. We remembered crossing over it, so we walked along it, occasionally looking down, and downclimbing looking for aluminum below. No luck.
I was getting pretty tired wandering around. Fitness always fails when a) your kind of lost and making no progress and b) you were convinced it was all downhill from here. We finally sat down again and waited for our accursed sun to rise so we´d have some light. Right around 6, in the ambient light coming around the horizon, we tried going far left, and 100 yards away saw two shiny pickets waiting for us at the top of a steep wall.
The down climb was uneventful, quick, and warm. We simul´d down the steep stuff. The daylight and overhead view allowed Bryce a better look at the crevasse feild, and we picked a much safer, and faster way through. We stripped off layers, and finally stopped for a snack in the warming sun, the thought having never occured to us before in the cold. Now everything around was lit up, and it was a rare clear day along the avenue of the volcanos. In the distance we could see Antisanna, Chimborazo (Tuesday´s climb), Cotopaxi (Friday´s Climb), the Ilinza´s (which i climbed last week) and a series of the other¨"big 10" down here. Lots of pictures and vistas on the way down made up for walking 6 hours in the dark. We finished scrambling down the last few hundred feet in view of the hut while hiding from the sun.
Route Details: Cayambe Standard Route: Grade II/PD 35 degree 1200m/3900 feet, summit height 5,789 meters, 18,993 feet.