By Adriana Hidalgo
So, there I was, standing at 5893 meters above sea level, at the top of the highest active volcano in the world. While the first sun beams started warming my face, I glanced at the most impressive scenery I had ever seen. I could barely feel my toes and I was extremely exhausted. But standing there with a crater full of ashes in front of my face, dozens of Andean peaks surrounding me, and a white snow valley underneath my feet, I wondered, “Was this worth it?”
I started this “vertical journey” 10 years ago, when I decided that I couldn’t live in fear of too many things anymore. My fear of spiders and stray dogs were a lot harder to get rid of, but I could do something about the heights. Mountains and climbing were not only the solution to my fear, but they also gave my life a new direction as I started to get more adventurous in my own country and later, around the world.
It was 12:00 am when the summit attempt started. I took my first step outside of the REFUGIO DEL COTOPAXI and the cold air made me realize that the three pairs of pants, socks and four jackets I was wearing were just enough for what was ahead. I looked up to see a clear, full moon and the summit that appeared to be much closer than it was. I was the personification of motivation at that point. I was happily carrying in my backpack, my ice equipment, warm water and lots of sweets. In front of me, our guide, The Wolf, was celebrating his birthday and my friend Maria Emilia was behind me. We were one of the first groups to start our attempt that night.
To reach the top, you need to go through a lot. First, about three hours of walking on dry lava dust. Once you get to the glacier, the real challenge begins. In October, the ice is hard and thick, so every step requires a lot of energy. However, seeing the gigantic and unusual formations that the snow has been sculpting on the snowy slopes for centuries made up for all the effort.
It was 3:30 am. We were silently walking one of the easiest parts of the way when I looked down. It was clear enough to see the landscapes the lava had painted over multiple eruptions, the smaller neighboring mountains, and far away my hometown, Quito, which was illuminated in the distance. I suddenly felt I needed to go home. I was cold, tired, and in urgent need of a shower and a warm bed. Nonetheless, my team had other plans. And since my two months of preparation for this climb were well planned, I was in good physical shape. So, they decided to ignore my complaints and we kept going. We were at 5500 meters above the sea level and we had already crossed the most dangerous area of cracks on the mountain. We were only 400 meters away from the top.
Those 400 meters were honestly the most challenging couple hours of my life. With me, unstoppably asking myself, “Why?” I was thirsty, hungry, and dragging my body the best I could through the rocks and ice. The last couple of meters took a lot of motivation from strangers, caffeine, chocolate, and pride. And then, I was there. Seven hours later, we were standing at the top of the volcano I had been seeing every day on my way to school since I was five years old. The one that felt unreachable and impossible, and I was standing at the top of it. I felt so many things at that moment, that I couldn’t even cry.
The way back was just as hard. I was the last one to reach the top and the last one to leave the mountain that day. And then, as soon as I reached the car, it all hit me. The unmeasurable beauty of nature, the city lights, the uncountable shooting stars, the conversations while freezing, the promises of not doing it again, the laughs and tears with strangers, the sound of the ice breaking underneath my feet, the labyrinths of giant stalagmites, the crater, the weight of my bag… Was it worth it? It absolutely was, and I can't wait to do it all again.