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Feature

Conquistadors of Cotopaxi header graphic

Johns Hopkins students discover friendships,
humanity, and incredible will as they scale an
Ecuadorian volcano.

Above, Hopkins climbers ascend Cotopaxi.
photo by Kevin Pearl
January 22, 2005, Cotopaxi Hut, Ecuador: In the mist-obscured afternoon, here at nearly 16,000 feet, a moment of truth.

Students and mountain guides, surrounded by packs, ropes, ice axes, double boots, and snow pickets, face each other. In a few hours all will attempt to climb a magnificent, snow-and-ice clad live volcano, Cotopaxi, whose name in Quechua means "Neck of the Moon." It waits for us just outside the door.

"The normal trip you go on," says Dan Touchette, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering, "every minute is planned out, every step you take, but not with you guys. No, not you. And I appreciate that. I really love that."

Laughter. Generous laughter. This is the highest praise, from this group of students-recognition that, whether or not anyone reaches the summit tonight, we have gotten here on our own hook. We have arrived here un-babied, our independence, even our capacity for failure, respected at every step along the way.

Collin Jergens, a senior and international studies major: "We've had our own time, we've taken some amazing side trips, yet here we are, with a chance to make the top. To get up there tonight has become less and less important to me, though, for some reason...unlike on all my other climbing trips, it's just not that crucial. Although I'm not saying that it's not completely important."

Philip Zook Friesen, experiential education coordinator at Hopkins, whose dream it was to bring a group of Hopkins students to the Andes for some real mountaineering (which means, always, an encounter with uncertainty): "I tried to think back to when I was a college student myself, over 10 years ago. What would I have wanted? What degree of autonomy? Then, you know-cut that about in half."

More laughter. Outside, as the late afternoon goes on thickening, the vast mountain enshrouds itself. With nearly 4,000 feet from climbers' hut to true summit, the sight is overwhelming. You can see where you have to go, if you stand outside looking straight up, but to conceive of actually doing it, in a few hurried hours before the frozen snow dangerously softens, is much more difficult. A strange kind of precipitation, called graupel, begins to fall. Each pellet, about half as big as a pea, is pure white and spherical - graupel falls only in high mountains, those covered with glaciers.

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Every mountaineering trip is basically a logistical problem. The goal is to end up, as this one has, with all or most of the participants in reasonably good health on the day or night when the top of the mountain is momentarily in reach. The gear each climber carries needs to be in decent shape, and everyone should be well-rested, well-watered, and well-fed.

Simple requirements, but to produce this outcome in a group this large (12 students, five guides, plus one Hopkins employee and one professor-me) in a foreign country on a different continent on a certain date is to flirt with impossibility. The students, only two of them with former high-mountain experience, have been looking toward this day for seven months, and their willingness to learn and train and plan and suffer for the group goal has impressed everybody, not least of all themselves (Rose Zulliger, a sophomore studying public health: "When I signed up, it was really just to get to the summit of Cotopaxi. I didn't know anybody here very well, but now I feel honored to have gotten to know you all, really impressed, and if I get to the summit tonight, well, it'll be icing on the cake.")

This has been one of those extremely rare mountain expeditions conducted to the non-stop sound of youthful laughter. The guides, from a California-based outdoor company called Summit Adventure, have at every moment appeared to be having a fine time themselves, and their why-not-enjoy-yourself approach has proved infectious. Friesen, who worked at Summit Adventure before coming to Hopkins, knew the kind of outfit he wanted to help him with the trip: well-seasoned, professional, but with an eye for deeper things. With a sense of life and its varied meanings. Mountaineering, a gratuitous exercise important to nobody except its few practitioners-see Conquistadors of the Useless, one of the most aptly named books on adventure climbing-routinely brings well-off Westerners into contact with exotic cultures where children often go to bed hungry at night. In slightly less than two weeks, Friesen hopes that he and his partners at Summit can give a group of Hopkins students enough technical instruction to allow them to succeed or fail creditably on a great mountain, while also helping them to encounter a different culture in a more than trivial way. "Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds ambitious," says Tom Smith, executive director of Summit. "But if these Hopkins kids are really as smart as they think they are, well, why not? At least I knew it wouldn't be boring."

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Ecuador, the most densely populated country in South America. (Even so, marvelously spacious, with great nature preserves both in the altiplano, where the peaks are, and in the lowland jungles.) Roughly the size of Nevada or of Britain, Ecuador has over 1,500 bird species, twice as many as in all of North America. Ecuador is a land where drivers do not pause at stop signs, but rather roll boldly through with a double-honk of the horn. Quito, the capital, is at an elevation of 9,300 feet, nestled in a valley running north-south along the spine of the Andes. Here, in Quito, fresh off the plane from Miami, many of the students get their first taste of altitude sickness: headaches, uneasy stomachs, lack of energy.

"We will have fun, though," Smith declares at a group meeting on the first full day. "We will communicate. And we will go far beyond our comfort zones-yes, by all means." Then he divides the group into four smaller teams and sends them out into pickpocket-ridden, stubbornly Spanish-speaking Quito with $200 in cash and instructions on how to catch a bus. The goal is to get to a supermarket to buy enough food for the meals the team will be cooking on its own, in mountain huts and at other non-standard venues, over the next two weeks, and after a few hours, all the students somehow stumble back, bearing pasta, eggs, pancake mix, cookies, candies, fruit, salami, bacon, and other essentials, not a single one of them having been kidnapped or even looked at funny.

From this moment of being set rudely loose in a Third World capital-forced to find and buy real goods, to rely on fellow team members, to figure things out-the template of the whole experience has been set. Friendships are already forming. Hopkins students who knew each other not at all in Baltimore are discovering a basic common competence, and for those who have some book-learned Spanish, the joy of making exotic sounds and having other people seem to understand has already begun.

A running joke-but not quite a joke-for the whole two weeks is the enduring character of the "typical Hopkins student." Jergens puts it this way: "It's a stereotype, but people talk about 'the Hopkins 500,' meaning that of 4,000 students, maybe 500 know how to enjoy themselves. The rest are just driven, lost in the library, grim...it's not about Baltimore, because now that I'm 21, there's hundreds of cool bars and places all over the city to have a good time in. No, it's us. We don't know how to live."

Friesen, when he arrived at Hopkins in the fall of 2000, sensed something that "I thought it might be good to change here, if we could figure out how to do it." The Hopkins students he met seemed to him to be "very hard-working, very serious, highly individualistic...good people, for sure, but allergic to group efforts and, you know, sort of depressed. Just a little depressed." His solution: get them out into nature, of course. Get them into groups where they have to rely on each other, while working toward some common goal. Friesen developed a cadre of student instructors, and he put together a range of outdoor trips focusing on adventure skills (backpacking, rock-climbing, winter mountaineering, canoeing, caving, kayaking, etc.). An international trip, one to Ecuador, say, Ecuador with its vast, scary volcanoes within a few hours' drive of a modern capital city, seemed both a logical next step and a consummation too splendid to hope for. Would the students be interested in such a difficult trip, would they be able to pay for it ($1,800 each), would they want to live strenuously for two weeks in a close-knit group, without cell phones and iPods and all the other comforts?

mountain photo
Snow covered Cotopaxi, a live volcano rising 19,347 feet in Ecuador.

The trip would combine climbing and acclimatizing with service days and getting to know the country. (But service to whom? Doing what? Later, several members confessed to a ho-hum feeling upon first hearing that some of their precious days of adventure would be given over to working in a soup kitchen or something of that sort -why travel 1,700 miles, buy a new down parka, and learn how to use an ice axe and crampons, only to make some vague humanitarian gesture? But never mind.) Preparations began early, and they involved buying technical gear able to withstand sub-zero temperatures and summit winds of 30 to 40 miles an hour, along with a serious effort to get in shape. Beginning in the summer, Friesen sent out e-mails stressing the importance of training hard to have a chance on a mountain as high and hard as Cotopaxi (19,347 feet). Trail-running, stadium-stair-running, weights, long-distance hiking with a pack: all were part of the fun mix he recommended. In one of his later messages, he advised, "You should be continuing to run 45 minutes 3 to 4 times a week until you leave. Ideally, you have gotten in 3 to 4 longer sessions [by now]...if you haven't gotten in any longer sessions DO NOT try to get them all in on one day. However, one long session two weeks out can still be beneficial mentally and physically-a long hike, 6 to 8 hrs with a 30-pound pack, that would be dandy...."

Despite the expense and the training, the trip was soon full up. (Two grad students plus one Hopkins employee joined 10 underclassmen, two of them women.) Friesen invited me to teach an Intersession course in mountaineering literature while the team was in Ecuador; most of the students signed up for it, and thus the trip took place amidst ardent discussion of some of the most controversial books of high-altitude adventure, for example, Maurice Herzog's Annapurna, about the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in Nepal, and Art Davidson's Minus 148 Degrees, about the first winter climb of Mt. McKinley.

Short of running laps with a plastic bag over your head, there is no way to prepare for a climb to 6,000 meters while living in a city with oxygen-rich air, such as sea-level Baltimore.

No amount of stair-running, or hiking with a pack, can guarantee success on a great mountain. The problem is more mysterious than mere muscular strength or aerobic capacity; those are important, but speed and efficiency of acclimatization trump everything else. Short of running laps with a plastic bag over your head, there is no way to prepare for a climb to 6,000 meters while living in a city with oxygen-rich air, such as sea-level Baltimore. Indeed, young athletes in excellent shape often suffer more than others when they go up high. Able to run for miles without breathing very hard, they lack the desperate gasp-and-pant response that actually aids acclimatization.

Another factor: sheer bigness. Audacious monumentality and scariness. Although trained in the use of ice axe and rope and knowledgeable about how to escape from crevasses, the Hopkins team would be encountering an enormous, glaciated, Himalayan-scale mountain for the first time. No one could say for sure how he would respond. The mental effort of setting out in more or less complete darkness, roped to only a couple of other people, with only one's ice axe and newly acquired climbing skills for protection, is considerable and, again, almost impossible to prepare for in advance.

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For over a week, Cotopaxi kept toying with the team, showing itself now and then in the mystic snowy distance from the windows of the tour bus. On a drive out of Quito-we were on the way to climb Rucu Pichincha, the first of two practice peaks-it loomed, ethereally, above the clouds to the southeast, and more than one team member felt surges of excitement running up and down his arms as he looked. "Had spectacular view of Cotopaxi!" junior Michael Kelly-Sell, a biology major, writes in his journal later. "It is imposing, with a giant snow cap on top. It is the largest mountain I have ever seen....tough to believe we are going to climb that! It's HUGE!"

Mountains seduce, charm, and tease from a distance, especially those as classically well formed as Cotopaxi, but the practice peaks were themselves formidable challenges. Both Rucu Pichincha (15,413 feet) and Iliniza Norte (16,817 feet) are taller than Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the lower Forty Eight. Friesen and the guides from Summit Adventure had, in their casual way, put together a wise itinerary that got the expedition members huffing and puffing early on, while introducing them to basic rope-management and the thrill of climbing high-angled rock with plenty of exposure. Rucu was a long day, a very long day, with thousands of vertical feet gained and then rapidly lost on a steep, sandy descent, and although everyone made it to the top-there to meet Ecuadorian climbers as well as a group of boisterous, middle-aged Germans-almost everyone felt the altitude as something uncertain, beyond control. Although you might be strong enough physically to push on, sometimes you just didn't want to, your head hurt so much.

The descent worked like magic in most cases: As you quickly lost thousands of feet, the headache and other ills grew less, then went away. After a good dinner and a good night's sleep (at a Christian retreat called El Refugio), it was easy to forget the suffering of the day and that Rucu was the smallest of the three peaks slated for an ascent.

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January 15, Quito City Dump: Not some nice soup kitchen, not some sad-but-hygienic old-age home for the first service day. No, the Summit staff and Paul Reichert, an assistant guide born in Ecuador, thoroughly at home in the culture and thus indispensable to the trip, have gone to the very heart of things, to the place where the trash ends up, the pathogens collect, and the poorest of the poor live in hovels. What can we possibly do here? Help them tidy up? This is a taste, a small but real taste, of the legendary poverty of the southern hemisphere, of Rio's favelas, of Bogota's barrios bajos.

Still, somehow it's a place of order, a human place. Those are families living in those hovels, and there are lots of kids about, lively, cheeky kids. To prepare for our visit, we've gone shopping in Quito's mercado, the produce market, and we come here bearing fruit, jump-ropes, plastic whistles, and other toys, plus, crucially, a new soccer ball. The people of the dump, many of them sorting through steaming mounds of trash, extracting recyclables and other items of value, are shy and downcast and accept a banana with embarrassed formality, while we, North American Lords and Ladies Bountiful, feel appropriately out of place, but soon shed our self-consciousness as we see that it really matters, a banana really matters here, therefore, to deliver it is a good thing.

Much fun ensues. Soccer diplomacy. Digital-camera bonding. As Kelly-Sell describes it in his journal, the kids "wanted piggyback rides and they jumped on, and Aaron [Landgraff] and I found ourselves racing around the dump....more kids came for pictures, races, duck-duck-goose, and candy....I had a blast." The soccer game, a free-ranging affair over a vast dirt pitch, lasted for hours, with the gringos gasping in the thin air flavored by the smoke from garbage fires, the local kids and young men showing off many slick moves. At the end of the day, the score, if score had been kept, might have read: North Americans, 38 eyes opened; Kids of the Dump, one pretty cool morning and afternoon.

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January 19, Iliniza Norte: Another big, big "lesser" mountain. Another practice climb, but of a size not to be encountered in North America anywhere outside of Alaska. A wild ride in the jouncing back of pickup trucks in the cold dawn brings us up above the clouds, where the climbing starts. Are we having an adventure yet? Are we acclimatizing? Again, the whole group that sets out that day reaches the summit, after a six-plus-hour ascent through cloud and cold, on rock and unstable, high-angled rock-rubble, but many are plagued by headaches and by feelings of eclipsed consciousness. "I started getting a bad headache around...halfway up," writes Kelly-Sell. "By this point I was really out of it mentally and focused hard on putting one foot in front of the other....My head pounded and I gained tunnel vision....Dustin [Smucker, one of the guides] really kept me going and took care of me....Without this stream of energy I wouldn't have made it....I don't remember much."

This is the real thing, at 17,000 feet above sea level: the kind of symptom that we've been reading about in Annapurna and the other books. High-altitude climbers not only have to handle steep ice and rock, with the possibility of an avalanche or a fall, but they have to do so with a mind half-starved of oxygen at times, one drifting in and out of full alertness. But, better to have a taste of that here, in daytime conditions, rather than on Cotopaxi, with its glacial ice and other hazards. And somehow, it works out. One foot does go in front of the other. The guides are here, providing ropes when needed, encouragement and advice as needed. The brain is a remarkable organ, able to accomplish wonders going on automatic. The summit arrives at last, an eerie, cloud-shredded rock-ridgetop, no bigger than a dinner table. And when the clouds blow away: an astounding view to this side and that, down, down, to the very bottom of your fear.

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After climbing Iliniza Norte, Sameer Punyani, a sophomore majoring in international studies, writes in his journal, "It is tremendous how large [Cotopaxi] is and looked today. It seemed to take up almost all of the sky." Then he added, "I also think that the group is really meshing well, as displayed by our singing. On the ascent many of us were just singing random songs...it was a lot of fun."

How to account for good chemistry, good group chemistry? After the trip, a number of students admitted that their main fear had been exactly this: going on a trip with other Hopkins students, ones they didn't know well. Ones who, maybe, didn't know how to "live." But from the first hours out of the U.S., a sense of relief was in the air, a sense of openness and relaxation and silliness. These fellow Hopkins students weren't so bad after all. In fact, most of them were thoughtful, intelligent, straight-shooting, lighthearted. They made the suffering a joke and the scariness of Cotopaxi not such a big deal, even if real. A group discovery was going on, one that enriched everything else: a discovery of each other.

Zulliger, whose grandfather died three days into the trip (he had been taken off kidney dialysis before the team left for Ecuador): "It's been hard not being with my family back home, really hard. But you have been my other family, you, this group. I'm only just starting to know most of you," Zulliger explains at a group meeting around a campfire. "But I feel you standing with me, giving me strength. You're the kind of people I would've chosen to have in this situation, if I could have chosen."

Maybe the kind of people who go on climbing trips makes a difference, then: maybe that explains all the warm feelings breaking out, the easy camaraderie. As the days and the mountains go by, though, it becomes clear that this is not an accident, that someone has been doing his homework, that any group of people might well respond favorably to a situation like this, rich in challenge but light in rigidity and talk of blame. Again, though they seem offhanded and not very worried about anything, the Summit Adventure guides have thought it all through very carefully, have weighed every detail, tested all options for safety and feasibility and gone with what works. They've been here in Ecuador for some weeks now (following an exploratory trip in 2003), preparing for the group's arrival. They've climbed Cotopaxi and the other peaks numbers of times, to nail down the routes and minimize risk. The rhythm of climbing days and rest days, the service day choices (after the dump, an orphanage with infants and toddlers, many of them disabled), urban Quito followed by long spells up high, in the airy, rocky wilderness-somehow, it all works beautifully. There is a logic to it, a principle behind everything, even if no one can quite say what that principle is.

Aaron Landgraff, a junior majoring in physics and math, speaking at the campfire: "The climbing has been great, truly serious stuff, but that trip to the dump really rocked me. It's too soon to say it changed my life, but it hit me hard. I don't know if this was a goal of yours, but I think I'm falling in love with this country. With the people and everything I see."

And Touchette: "Excuse me, Phil, but I have to gush some...I just want to thank you for doing this awesome job, putting this whole thing together. We've been laughing so much, and the climbing has been fantastic, and the dump was, I don't know, just awesome. It's the end of Day Four, and I've been exposed to life-altering experiences already. Wow. I'm a very happy camper right now."

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January 22, Day Ten, Cotopaxi Hut, 11:30 p.m.: Everyone stumbles out into the cold, bearing summit pack and ice axe. The clear skies of this moonlit night are obscured by the dense cloud we're in. Are we rested and alert enough? Have we drunk enough water and crammed in enough carbohydrates? (A summit climb at this altitude may burn upwards of 10,000 calories in a few hours.) Never mind, it's time to go. Just start walking, putting one foot in front of another, under the swirling, troubled-looking sky.

After 800 vertical feet, the edge of a vast snow and ice field. From here on, everybody will proceed via crampons and axe, lighting the way with a headlamp. Dave Marvin, a senior majoring in psychological and brain sciences, will describe it later in his journal: "When we reached the glacier I was amazed...in the dark you could still see the glow of the blue ice that came out at all different angles from the earth....It took a little while to get into a rhythm....Finally I was able to master the French step [a cramponing technique]. After an hour and a half...my ankles were bursting with pain. I mostly just zoned out for the slog and tried to think of anything else except for the pain in my legs....after three and a half hours...we reached the 'cove,' [a] depression in the glacier that offered relief from the wind, but because the side of the glacier was exposed it was real cold. I started to feel my first effects of being at 18,000 feet...lightheadedness and not feeling so good throughout my body."

There is a time limit to the ascent: now, in the frigid dark, the snow is hard and takes crampon points well, but when the sun comes, the snow will soften and become unstable. Rather than deal with avalanches or ice-fall, the climbers must turn around by 9 a.m., whether at the top or not.

From the journal of Kevin Pearl, a senior in computer science and biology: "At the...cove...I put on my down jacket because I was very cold. I was shocked that [some] people had [already turned back. Three people in the Hopkins group, having made a remarkable effort and gotten quite high on the mountain, were escorted safely down by guides]. Suddenly I felt ill. I had just enough time to pull down my balaclava before vomiting into the snow....I expected to have to turn around because of this [but] Dustin told me that [it] was okay, and as long as I wasn't lightheaded, to keep going. It's simple advice, but I really feel a gratitude to Dustin for saying it."

Pearl pushes on, surprisingly strong despite his nausea. "We encountered many more crevasses and seracs [ice towers]," he would later write. "Gradually the sun started to peek up. We passed Dustin's rope-team under the overhang of a serac...[one of the climbers] was vomiting pretty fiercely. At the time of the actual sunrise we were starting to climb the final mound...the route dropped into a crevasse for 20 feet, climbing out the other side...[now] we could see the summit and had one last steep climb...Finally, we made the ridge....Part of me imagined running [to the top] but I couldn't move. I asked Tom [Smith] to stop for just 30 seconds, but we pushed on...I tripped over the snow. Slowly, I got up and kept walking. I was suffering, gasping for air. Finally...there I was, at 19,347 feet, on top of Cotopaxi. I took two minutes just to catch my breath...."

And Marvin, who summited a few minutes after Pearl and Smith's rope team: "When we finally reached the base of [the final headwall] I was not doing well, but I reasoned that I had come so far and so long that there was no way I would turn back now....My vision was starting to become unstable....then I looked up and could see pink clouds rushing overhead. It was the final ridge, there was no more. [S]uddenly it flattened out...I immediately broke down crying. It was a combination of my overexhaustion, the feeling that I [had] overcome what had seemed impossible earlier, and the absolute beauty of the summit and the volcanic crater...I knelt in front of the steaming crater...emotionally moved beyond words."

All told, 11 of 14 Hopkins climbers who set out that night reached the summit safely, in good time, to end up breathing the thrilling air at the top of a continent. Far, far above the clouds, in brilliant morning light, their view from Cotopaxi summit was of numerous other titans, the great Andean volcanoes, some of them snow-clad, some bare, all mysteriously afloat in the streaming silence. There is another world, on a vastly different scale, at the top of things, and the team had pushed through to gain a glimpse of it-gaining as well a glimpse of other adventures, other climbs, awaiting.

cotopaxi summit photo
At 19,347 feet (from left) Dave Martin, Robert Roper,
sophomore Sameer Punyani, and guide Dustin Smucker
celebrate their summit.
(photo courtesy of Sameer Punyani)

 


Robert Roper teaches in Film & Media Studies and the Writing Seminars. His most recent book is Fatal Mountaineer, a biography of Willi Unsoeld, America's greatest Himalayan climber of the post-World War II period.

 


 

 

SPRING/SUMMER 2005
Features
Conquistadors of Cotopaxi
Child on the Wing
Ten Issues We Can't
Afford to Ignore

 

Departments

Dean's Letter
News
Research
Teaching
Alumni

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Through Hopkins Outdoor Pursuits, members of the JHU community can escape city life and leave the campus behind for adventures in climbing, kayaking, backpacking, canoeing, and caving. From day hikes along the Gunpowder River, a half-hour from campus, to Ecuadorian climbs like the one Robert Roper describes here, Outdoor Pursuits, part of the Office of Recreation, tries to offer something for everyone, with instructors to help along the way. Participants pay their way on the trips, which this spring included whitewater kayaking in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia, and climbing in Maryland, West Virginia, and in Red Rocks, Nev. (during spring break). For more information, check the Outdoor Pursuits web site or e-mail op@jhu.edu.