Five paces from the best sunrise of my 30s, a nearly 60-year-old Ecuadorian man with wrought fists and more than 300 summits of Cotopaxi, the mountain we stood on, Marcello Puruncajas let out a roar against the spirit of the peak we had spent 6 hours climbing. Cotopaxi’s 19,346-foot summit and my entire trip was somehow only really worth one photo, it was of this moment, a moment where our enthusiasm far exceeded our efforts. At that moment, above the equator and on the summit with this local guide who still visibly cherished his passage to the top, I cherished it too. Summits are as elusive as clear days and we nailed both.
This was a rare condition in Ecuador, a country I can almost guarantee has never seen a 100 percent cloudless day. Cotopaxi mysteriously rides above the clouds, it’s lofty slopes are as alpine as Antarctica and as dry as Tibet. Beneath it’s mighty slopes is a jungle shrowded by a constant canopy capping the hillside long before tree line. Presumptions on what lies above are only fueled by an explosive volcano shaped landscape violently sculpted into mysteriously disfigured valleys with small crevices, choking steam and sulfur. So standing on top of this big hulking explosive mass that wants to blow up is kind of a macho thing, I guess. I had overlooked that before I went..
Which leads me to a confession… I signed up for this, a guided expedition to Ecuador’s volcanoes, only because I bailed on a vacation with my friends earlier in the summer and wanted to spend time with them. It was more up my alley than the summer trip which was drinking wine and trekking through the Dolomites, but still I know, it doesn’t seem right, every time I pick an expedition somewhere I usually have some esoteric exploratory reason for going there, and every time I always have a video camera, but not this one. I solely signed up so as not to be the butt of many jokes and a trivial piece of twisted semantics.
Shallow perhaps, but as it turns out, the 20,700-foot volcano known as Chimborazo, is by all accounts six feet closer to the sun than Mt. Everest’s 29,035-foot summit. Who cares you might ask? I summitted Everest almost 10 years ago, what is a 20,700-foot peak to me? Well, you don’t know this group of friends and how much adventurous motivation, fun and trash talk they have inspired. Pick the right partners and no matter what the subjective nature of technicality presents or how high you may stand, it will be the memories that you boast about.
As a sponsored athlete I have to say that signing on to a guided expedition sounded like a bad PR call, but I don’t really care about that either, this was about experiencing the mountains with my friends. It was so much fun, I thought I would still write about it and expose the secret that I can still learn from others. I learned long ago that I would never be that bad ass on the cover if I wasn’t climbing technical peaks by new routes in alpine style, skiing them and being the first or being the frozen snowman wielding a tiny axe on a crusty summit surrounded by an impending storm and surmounting certain death.
But this time, I signed up for this trip to get guided from bottom to top. I never worried about dying, I never worried about finding the trail in the dark, I didn’t even have to melt snow to drink water — the most basic of fundamentals in the alpine world.
So who did have to do all those things? Well, Marcello of course and then Nate Disser of Southwest Adventure Guides, assisted by Todd Ruttledge, Matt Pickren and Mike Sibalski.
And how was it to give up total control, to follow direction and to be corrected on footwork on each section of glacier? It was great. I am so thankful that all the guides were courteous and understanding that I was just there for bragging rights with a group of awesome friends and to take advantage of being directed toward ending bad habits I may have picked up while exploring obscure hinterlands in search of new routes. There is never a time where we can’t all still benefit from someone taking an objective look at what we do and helping us realize more potential by doing things correctly or better. These guys are great at it and I am grateful to them.
Now back to my pitiful excuse for going: strictly to avoid trash talk. Amongst my group of friends, we have sumitted an array of worthy peaks, several have completed all 54 fourteeners, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, Kilimanjaro, Mt. Fuji… but none of those summits seemed to hold the allure of accessibility to the heavens like Chimborazo. Standing atop it’s summit and being closest to the sun was, in theory, better than sumitting Everest and six feet higher. In hindsight and with the vexing and punishing memory of a mountaineer I can say that yes, maybe it was better than summiting Everest. Reason being, my friends were there, we could share the top and it was warm… really warm, as it turns out, being that close to the sun on a clear day is pretty intense. Of course, the process of getting there is really why it was better, as with most mountain climbs and when you make the top with your partners.
I’m really thankful that my friends invited me. Over the last 13 years we’ve focused on different objectives but maintained our core activity of mountaineering adventures. My friends were there in the beginning before the years of walking alone through foreign valleys, climbing in high winds and and skiing down through avalanching slopes that made a mark and left a few scars. Suffering sometimes from weather, and sometimes from lack of company to spread the uncertainty around, it’s a wonder I had fun at all without them. I’m lucky to have friends to pull me to places that are not so forbidding. It was this trip that let me freshen my perspective, to share the company of 13 people and two well-traveled objectives and to have a good time with little risk. To eat steak and drink wine and enjoy a massage between climbs, these activities are okay… in fact they are much better than rice cakes, ramen and diet cokes so I can scrape myself up the next wall or the next 500 feet.
Maybe I’m getting old at 32 or hypoxia is setting in, but it is memories of both worlds, the extreme and the extremely fun that are a big part of why I continue to search and continue to explore. I can only say thank you to the guides, to my friends and to Marcello for taking the time to let me just follow and to have fun. As a professional mountaineer, it should be okay to take a vacation… even in the mountains!
Ben Clark is a mountaineer and native of Clarksville, Tennessee, though he is based in the mountains of SW Colorado. He starting rock climbing as a boy and progressed to larger, more challenging mountains in his early twenties. At the age of 23, Ben became the second youngest American to summit Mount Everest, via the North-Northeast Ridge Route. Today, Ben climbs and skis the Himalayas for the pure joy of what may happen, but trains in his home mountains in between edits and when not on location documenting an adventure.