Subtitled: Dizziness is my devil
After two very vivid dreams, Mauricio woke me at 22:10. I suspect he thought I would have my own alarm, but I did not have one set, assuming he would wake me. While he did, in retrospect, that was a bad plan. I lay in the sleeping bag for a couple minutes, then rose to start this day. I had all the various clothes and equipment laid out, but was slightly unsure what order to dress in, so opened up my list from Cayambe and cranked through it.
I went downstairs quickly to start eating. I had cream cheese and jelly on a roll, and in the next thirty minutes managed to eat most of it. I had hot water and made my green tea, downed that. Went to the restroom because I really did not want to use a wag bag on the glacier. My body agreed with this desire and helped me out.
Back into the main hall, Mauricio said hold off on the harness and other glacier things, we would rope up at the glacier, about 2 hours up. I also chose to go up without gaiters and without knee braces, neither of them this time. The path on the glacier is well worn, Juliana had let us know, and Cotopaxi had had no snow for the last week, so we would not be blazing trails.
I turned on my avalanche beacon, removed a layer, pulled on my backpack, and off we went. We were starting at 15700' (4800m). I was drinking liquids. I had no headache, I had had one cycle of REM sleep, I had dreamed twice, I had a working headlamp with fresh batteries, I was confident in my equipment choices, my pack was light and complete, we had an aggressive break schedule planned: stopping every 30 minutes for me to have some calories and liquids, we were leaving an hour before everyone else thereby reducing any internal pressure about speed or effort, I felt strong, we were set to go.
And off we went around 23:15.
The first two hours to the top of Cotopaxi from the refuge are up the side of an ash fall, similar to the hike from the parking lot the day before, but less hard packed, which makes sense given the reduced number of people who climb up past the refuge. The glacier recession in recent decades puts its edge higher, also. The volcano is displaying its true nature.
Around 30 minutes in, we stopped for a break. I had water with electrolytes and calories from almond butter, I checked in with myself, feeling good, let's go.
We stopped again around 00:30, a little longer than our planned 30 minutes between breaks, but closer to the normal 60 minutes between breaks. I sat down. My heart rate was fine, 140 and under, which is under 145 bpm, my I-can-go-all-day heart rate. My legs were fine. My breathing varied between I don't notice this to oh, I need to breath more, but I was able to work on deep, full, diaphragm breathsto reduce the breathing variations. I had my audiobook on, and was in a flow state watching Mauricio's boots as he went up the volcano at the perfect pace for me. I was in a good place.
Except I was dizzy. I had experienced mild dizziness when climbing with CB up Mt Superior a few weeks ago. That was going rapidly from 4500' to 9800'. I was able to hike through that dizziness. With that recollection, my plan from the 00:30 break became to focus on my breathing, achieve flow state again, and see if the dizziness went away.
It did not.
Instead, it became worse. With each step I took, the world spun right to left. I started leaning forward into the mountain, I leant heavily on my poles. When I looked left or right, the vertigo became fierce, so I stopped looking from side to side. All I had was Mauricio's feet in my circle of light, the audiobook talking about gravitic drives and the Hegemony, and my poles. One foot in front of the other. The dizziness continued.
We took another break around 1:05 after I had stumbled a few times. At this point, I was uncertain that I would actually fall forward if I fell. We were not roped up. In the daylight this would have been a type-one-fun hike. In the dark, it was a moving, shifting slope of ash to walk up.
I sat there on a rock, sheltered from the wind, and took stock of the situation. I was wobbly sitting on the ground. I drank liquids, I had more calories. I tried breathing deeply. The dizziness would not go away.
Up was another four hours.
I recalled Ken's email that the turn around point isn't the half way point, because you are tired when you turn. Coming down safely when tired is harder than coming down safely when rested and alert.
If I was this dizzy at 17060', how was I going to be at 19347'? In crampons on a glacier?
I asked to turn around.
Mauricio let the other guides know we were turning back, helped me stand back up, and led me pretty much straight down the volcano when he could. We met up with Juliana and the rest of the team after about fifteen minutes. They paused for a break while I explained what had happened.
This happens, she said. When you are going up a hill in the dark, with only the small radius of light around you, you lose where the horizon is. Your body just doesn't know which way is up, and adapts to what it sees, which is often only the feet in front of you. When all you see is a slope, the world becomes confusing to your balance.
This gave me hope, because Vinson is all in the light.
We continued going pretty much straight down the volcano when we could. Mauricio again set a perfect pace for me. We met up with Ramiro coming up the mountain about half an hour behind the rest of the team. I had difficulties at a couple rocky points, but otherwise we made good time back down.
We arrived back to the refuge. Mauricio took care of me, sat with me, brought me hot water for tea, made sure I had food. We talked about family and mountains, food and things we do outside of climbing. It was a lovely chat. Eventually, sleep was calling, so we went upstairs. I turned on the light and went to the area next to the wall to to drop off my pack. The area is next to Tr's bed, out of the way, which meant between the light and the noise, a "How did it go?" arrived. Tr was in bed, trying to sleep, and I'm an asshole. I didn't realize that Tr was there, and had been asleep. SHIT!
I ran over to turn off the light, but he was awake. We talked for a bit. He had managed about half an hour up the mountain before he needed to come down. Ramiro took him down, which is why we saw him going back up.
Tr and I talked about mountaineering, desires, goals, and being present in the moment. He didn't think mountaineering was for him, more of an ocean guy. He asked about Vinson, the why of it. I explained how Antartica is my happy place and I can't explain why I need this mountain. With the wisdom of many more years than he carries, he cautioned me about summits, about how a poor performance can ruin a day, a week, a trip, and that you just cannot allow this to happen. He gave me a couple examples from his life. I don't know that I expressed how much I appreciated his talking with me, being there with me as I lay down to sleep off the dizziness that was finally starting to abate.
Eventually, we both fell quiet, and went to sleep.