I’ve always enjoyed mountain climbing, especially the pay-off of the spectacular view when you reach the summit. Visiting my son Herb in Ecuador recently, we decided to climb Mount Cotopaxi, one of the highest mountains in the Andes standing majestically at nearly 6,000 meters (almost 20,000 feet), on December 25 so we could have a White Christmas at the Equator! Driving to basecamp was quite the ordeal. Poorly maintained dirt roads may have stood the test of time over the years, but not the test of weather. Huge potholes that could have easily stopped a car in its tracks had to be avoided by driving off-road. A one-hour drive from Quito took us about two hours. But when we reached the entrance to the Cotopaxi National Park, we knew we had a much longer and trying journey ahead of us. The snow-covered peaks rising above the clouds looked positively unattainable. But a few dozen brave souls joined us at the basecamp parking lot to begin a climb that would give us all a most memorable White Christmas. The volcanic geology of the mountain gives it a black, gravelly epidermis - very easy to lose your footing on these loose, round stones, especially when scaling the particularly steep inclines. We began with great confidence as we chatted during what seemed to be an effortless climb, but as soon as we had to change our pace from a horizontal stride to a vertical step, the oxygen got noticeably thinner. While my son has been living at an altitude of 9,000 feet for the past four years, he was relatively acclimatised to the lack of oxygen. However, I was not and I needed to stop for at least five minutes quite often to catch my breath. My legs also became affected by the lack of oxygen and they felt like I was dragging a couple of bags of sand. I eventually reached the building at nearly 17,000 feet quaintly called a “refuge”, but served as more of a hospital to those like myself. After recharging with a hot chocolate and posing at the altitude sign (4,810 meters or 16,781 feet), we continued our climb to the steepest part of the peak for some unforgettable tobogganing. My son and his girlfriend Melissa dragged their sled of cardboard and climbed to the top of the ridge while I readied the video camera to record the historic (and hysteric) moment. They lost their ride almost immediately and slid down on their bottoms accumulating snow up their shirts and down their pants all the way! Their high-pitched squeals seemed to have attracted the local wildlife including an overfed swallow and an underfed mountain wolf. The remarkable creatures did not appear to be afraid of us at all and stayed within close proximity for the rest of our visit. After taking seven hours to reach our snowy destination, it was time to begin our descent. This took us a lot less time, only two hours. I remembered the loose gravel of much of the slope and while tempting to bound down the mountain at break-neck speed, I cautiously took my time so as not to end up falling and tumbling like so many around me were doing. My slow descent left me alone – or so I thought. My friend, the wolf, followed me all the way down to the basecamp parking lot. He watched us drive away before running back up the mountain to join his friends. Climbing Mount Cotopaxi is a thrilling and unique encounter with nature you are not likely to forget or repeat elsewhere.
Mark Terry is a Fellow International member of The Explorers Club and recipient of the Canadian chapter’s highest honor, the Stefansson Medal for his international field work “documenting our natural world”. As well as a Community Leader for the David Suzuki Foundation, Mark is also this year’s winner of the Gemini Humanitarian Award, presented by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television in recognition of his work with the United Nations with his documentaries. Working closely with the world’s scientific community in Antarctica and the Arctic earned him the recognition of the United Nations Environment Programme in 2008. His last two films – The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning and The Polar Explorer – were made in partnership with the UNEP and both premiered at the Climate Change Conferences in Copenhagen and Cancun. Together, both films have won 20 international film awards for excellence. As a member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Canadian Council for Geographic Education, the Canadian Network for Environmental Education and Communication, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the University of Alberta's Northern Research Network, Mark lectures and speaks regularly about the environmental issues affecting the fragile eco-systems of the polar regions and, by extension, the world.
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