Our watch alarm went off at 6 yesterday, but we'd both been awake for a good hour. Stirring, restless but still attempting to give our bodies as much rest as possible. Once the alarm sounded, it was time to move. "Hey Trav, want to climb a big ass mountain today?". After breakfast, we loaded into the late 1990s Toyota Land Cruiser with our two guides, Fernando and Juan, and fellow climbers Ladina (Swiss), and a Japanese man who's name I never caught. The Land Cruiser jolted over the cobblestone road, giving the shocks a pretty good morning workout. After turning onto the Panamerican Highway, we were surrounded by spectacular, enormous mountains on all sides. Cotopaxi on the left, one of the largest active volcanoes on earth. Chimborazo on the right, the biggest mountain in Ecuador. And straight ahead, the Illinizas. A pair of giants, still emerging from the morning clouds. Our goal for today: summit Illiniza Norte, standing at 5126 meters, or 16,817 feet.
The closer we got, the more massive it looked. The Land Cruiser parked and we were issued our helmets, harnesses and sack lunches. Each hour of hiking meant hundreds of meters of elevation gained. The environment was unlike anything we'd experienced before and just as we'd begin to revel in the beauty, it would change. Heavy clouds and fog would roll in in moments, creating a near white out. Minutes would pass and the sky would open, crisp and blue. The earth beneath our feet changed just as often. Packed dark brown dirt turned to different shades of sand, the sand then became a deep ocher gravel that eliminated our feet's attempts at traction. There were tall grasses, then fields of lupine, and as we got higher, less and less that was green and growing. Once we hit the dark red and blackish rocks, I knew the summit was near.
If the change in the rock hadn't told me, the bass drum pounding in my head did. I felt dizzy. Nauseous. Every 10 steps were work. Walking on the ridge felt like teetering on a knife blade. Stunning and sheer slopes on either side. I'd never been so high in my life. Once we were close enough to the summit and scrambling on all fours, Juan hooked us up to a line. A few more deep breaths and steadying of my freezing hands, and there we were. Right there. At the summit of Illiniza Norte. We had a few minutes of sun and then we sat amongst the clouds, sharing congratulations and food. Thrilled, overwhelmed and reveling in the fatigue that indicated our accomplishment.
The climb up took 4 hours and the descent would take us only an hour and forty five minutes. All of the various ecosystems flew by as we glided on our tired feet, our hands swelling and our bodies warming. We arrived back to the Land Cruiser. Hugs all around. Photos. Cheers. We piled in, and as the car started to jerk over the 4x4 road, Fernando turned around from the driver seat, and with a big, goofy grin asked "Who wants a massage?". He laughed loudly as the Land Cruiser would launch us 4 to 6 inches out of our seats. Our necks, backs and limbs slamming around. Our tired bodies getting worked even more.
Arriving back at our hostal, we sat in exhausted silence with our fellow climbers and enjoyed chocolate cake. Our bodies were tired and our minds delirious. It was hard to comprehend what we had just accomplished and then, "Hey Mag, we climbed a big ass mountain today".