September 24, 2019
I had every intention on sleeping for a solid ten hours last night, but it was only in my wildest dreams. If you have ever even spent fifteen minutes with me, then you know I run hot because I have surely whined about it. The worst is being hot at night — I tossed and turned, battled with my duvet and sheets, and cursed the city noises because they kept me from wanting to open the door to try and get a breeze. I checked my clock for the time, and sure enough it read 5 AM. My alarm was set to go off at 730 AM. I finally dozed off and opened my eyes before my alarm to a dimly lit room. I rolled over to see Rebecca on her phone and already researching what the morning’s pillow talk would consist of. I wondered what the New York Times was already educating her on.
We debated who would take a shower first, and I began repacking my bags to load in to the bus. Today, we would be headed to Hacienda Los Mortinos to set up “camp” for a few days. It would be our home away from home while we completed our second training hike at Ruminahui followed by our trek to the refuge and our summit bid of Cotopaxi. Eventually, a hot shower and a racing mind woke me up. I wandered downstairs fueled by TLC songs pumping through the speakers of the hotel. If that’s not hype music, then I don’t know what is.
Breakfast was meant to be at 9 AM, but we got a slow start. We all congregated, ate, drank (not the good stuff), and were merry. It was time to gather bags… great. The elevators in South America are big enough to hold myself and a change purse it seems. I wasn’t looking forward to wedging myself and the tumor of a massive duffel bag through the narrow doors. I am sure this will be how I lose my other leg. Headlines will read, “American Veteran in Traumatic Elevator Incident.”
Yes, I am dramatic. And yes, I got my bags down safely, even if I was covered in sweat. We loaded up in our buses and off we went. En route, we stopped at another pizza spot and grubbed down for a bit. I guess its a good thing we have a couple climbs coming up because this is the most carbs I’ve ever consumed in my life. For another 45 minutes, humans and bags were jostled and jolted in the back of our buses as we maneuvered through the curves of the cobblestone roads that were covered in pot holes.
Pulling up to the hotel was quite the sight. I am always so impressed with the labor that people in rural areas put in to their establishments and their business. The building was stunning, as were the views of Cotopaxi. We brought all of our kit inside, and were then sent off to handle what we needed to. Unpacking, reorganizing, writing, stretching, and body work were on my list. Sarah (my yoga crush and massage therapist) and Estefania are my room mates in the, all too fitting, Cotopaxi room. It must be a good omen.
Danny (riot and massage therapist) and Sarah went to work on all of the climbers to set them up for success in the coming days. I have been terrible about maintenance on my body and in recovery, and it shows. Both of them stretched and dug in to my calves, hip flexor, and lower back. My eyes welled up and I stopped mid sentence — but in this case, pain is a good thing.
Later, all of the mountaineering gear was distributed and house keeping was buttoned up. Dinner was lovely. I’m not sure how they managed to get Tilapia all the way out here, but I won’t question it too much either… it was delicious. LP had some quick announcements, followed by the late shows making introductions, and Dave giving a mini presentation on who ROMP is and the impact they are making internationally.
By 915 PM, we were wrapped up for the evening. Dave, Estefania, and I pulled ourselves to the side to work on Estefania’s knee. After pointing out some room for improvement, Dave and I decided it would be best to teach her on solid ground how to ride her knee down. First, we made adjustments to her alignment. Then, I showed her the movements I wanted her to mimic. People often tell me I am crazy for wanting to be on the knee that I am. But I have been patient with learning how it works with my body and have taken the time to understand how it works in different environments. I wouldn’t use any other knee, especially in the outdoors.
I was like a proud momma bird watching Estefania learn how to shift her weight and roll her toe over the edge over the stairs so that she could descend foot over foot. I teared up as I witnessed it all start to click for her. I am sure I started to annoy her with my, “yes,” “perfect,” and “that’s it” commentary after every successful step. We duplicated my settings for her and I watched from the hallway. Shortly after, I had the idea of using the ramp outside and the decline on the lawn. I assumed she would want to wait until the morning before throwing herself in to more, but she stood outside in the cold and wind right next to me, and ready to go. I knew I liked her!
For another thirty minutes, she repeated the movements I did. When I ride my knee down, I often call it my lazy walk — and I wanted her to do it. Over and over she went through the grass and up and down the ramp. With every practice run we could see improvement. As a final change, I asked Dave to drop Estefania’s toe to see if it would make it a bit easier for her to fluidly roll over it and it seemed to do the trick! I was so tickled. I love this — being able to help someone else, even if its in a small way. Estefania’s smile radiated and it was the perfect ending to my night.
September 25, 2019
Sleep was strange. Short lived, but I felt wide awake. Maybe it was an excitement to move. I wandered out to the dining area, a bit before breakfast, with my gear for Ruminahui in hand. Before we knew it the team from Cumbre Tours lead by the fearless Karl were slinging waivers and bag lunches. We loaded up in to the buses where we stopped at a gate to the National Park and then drove another 15 minutes to the parking lot of Ruminahui.
We settled next to a lake while the fog swirled around us, as we made last minute adjustments. On the narrow trail, the rain had dried on the tall bushes we had to make our way through. I wasn’t off to a strong start with the slick sand and crumbled volcano rock sliding beneath my feet. I slipped and took a knee a few times, easily one of my least favorite things. Falling isn’t a blow to my pride, but it is mighty frustrating to try and get back up with a pack on your back. All in all, the first mile and hour blew by.
In a clearing, the team gathered to take a photo and our first break. I was antsy and didn’t want to stop. I found my rhythm and just wanted to go strong, slow, and steady with short, minimal breaks. Kionte joined me again. He and I have a similar pace and move well together. Whether you are simply on a rope team together, or on a long expedition, it is important to know the boundaries of the person with you — when its time to make small talk or time to walk in silence with your own thoughts. We had that mastered. He adjusted his prosthetic and we were off again.
I was out in front as the rest of the team gathered behind me. I felt bad for slowing down the team, but I was determined to hold my pace and regulate my breathing. Eventually, I stepped to the side and let them all pass. The sun struggled to break through the clouds and it stayed overcast well in to us making it to the ridge to the base of the summit push. The ridge was fairly flat and reminded me of the Devil’s Backbone on Mt Baldy. As we weaved through the trail, our summit route became clear. It was going to be absolutely terrible. Nothing, but soft sand until a 20-30 minute scramble at the top.
After a break to dry off our stumps and grab a snack, Kionte and I forced ourselves along in to the scree. It is safe to say that I made my 10,000 step goal — considering every few steps we took, we slid back one. We both fell and bounced off of the moss and rocks growing in the terrain. Half way up the sand and scree field, we regrouped with the rest of the team where they were putting layers on. There was no way in Hell I was going to put any more clothes on when I was already burning up and soaked in sweat. I questioned if anyone had an update on Estefania, as I was curious as to how she was handling the knee today. But no one knew much.
We started to move again. The team made it out ahead of us in the blink of an eye as we stayed our course. Joel, my travel buddy and Navy veteran, joined us. He stayed behind Kionte as we all shared stories from service and other times on the mountains. It was nice to have the military crew together. I still can’t believe that we were all in the hospital together, and now we are here in Ecuador. I stayed quiet and just listened to the boys as I didn’t want to create a dynamic and interrupt. I wore a smile as they bantered back and forth because it reminded me of days past.
I grunted and went into my infamous 4Low mode. I am notorious for crawling and using my hands. My shoulders have become my other quad in many situations. My left foot was far from stable so I locked my knee out and hoped for the best. Maybe I could use it to post if I couldn’t use it for power. Less than ten moves out from the top, Darwin yelled to me, “Here, here, come up this way.” To which I snarkily replied, “I am missing a leg, I am not blind.” I immediately felt guilty. It’s a weird sensation to have 15 other people staring down at you and watching — a sense of pressure.
I pulled myself up on to the summit and was overcome with relief. It was over, and I wouldn’t have to come back to Ecuador for this summit. I cheered a little with the group, but quickly refocused myself. Towering over the scramble, the down climb was daunting. As always, going up there is a technique, but going down, it’s just forward momentum. I used my arms to wedge myself between features, and utilized my infamous butt scoot along sections. Loose terrain tumbled, as we all yelled, “ROCK!” Never in my life have I seen a dozen people look up to find the rock, when you’re supposed to look down (hence our sweet helmets). Guess every ones envious of my sweet OG face scar. For 20 minutes, my hands were my means to get down.
Finally, we made it to the soft sand and I was thankful to be away from the threat of a hard fall. Sliding through the sand was heaven on my sore leg. Then the hail hit. Because I run so hot, I was still in the tank top that I had worn all day and even on the summit. The frozen water bounced off my arms and stung my sun burn, but the cold felt amazing. Karl begged me to put on a jacket, so I threw on a hard shell at the next safe spot. I was a sweat shop inside of the non breathable jacket — and the hail started to rip as lightning lit up the sky and the thunder shook the ground we walked on.
We were all soaked by the time we caught up to Estefania’s group. I was proud of her. She continued to wear a smile though she was moving slow and it was less than ideal conditions. Dave told her to watch me and try to match my movements. I was told to pass a few times, but I refused. I even snapped back at Greg (ROMP supporter and brother to Dave), “No one ever got tougher by being warm and dry.” Jesus. My sass meter was pegged today.
The lightning got closer and more active. Now, safety was of a concern as we worked our way a long the ridge. So many people with so much metal was a huge gamble. The guides decided that it would be best that Kionte, Lenin (Cumbre Tours Guide who the dream team has adopted), Kirstie, and JD to break away from the group and get down. So we did. The tall grass edging the single track trail drenched me, it was inevitable. Both shoes filled up quickly as we splashed through the flooded trail. The hail was relentless until we could see the vans by the lake. Then it just got worse, rain and drizzle.
Kionte and I work well together. Our pace is steady and we can sense when the other is in a chatty mood or not. We moved in silence for a while only stopping when he needed to make a quick adjustment to his leg. Engaging my knee got harder and harder, as the the rain and mud in my shoe made things heavier and heavier. The last 30 minutes, while we skirted the lake, seemed to go on forever. When we finally made it to the lone bus in the parking lot, we were greeted by several of the guides just lounging.
Being wet and cold while moving is one thing, but sitting still is dreadful. Kionte and I were freezing as we tried to get out of our wet clothes. Luckily I had a couple of puffy layers, a buff, and a beanie that all managed to stay dry. My upper half thawed out, but my legs and foot were done for. We shivered for 30 minutes before Joel and another guide shook the bus as they got on. Joel was no warmer than us, so we asked for the keys to start the bus for the heater — only to no avail. We shook and laughed at each other’s pain for another 40 minutes before we saw Estefania. Chiqui (one of the guides) started up the bus and clunkily drove it to the end of the boardwalk to pick up Estefania, Greg, Karl, and Dave. Hallelujah — we were going to get the hell out of there and use the heater.
We bounced and rocked for thirty minutes around the lava rock field. It still blows my mind that some of the rocks from the last Cotopaxi eruption are the sizes of Smart Cars and Priuses — my mind wanders to what it would have been like to witness it. Would you run? Or would you accept your fate? Wrapping up our conversations of Tommy Guns and Colorado visits we turned through the gates of Mortinos.
I was relieved to make it back to the hotel and ran through the main house back to my room. All I wanted was a hot shower to thaw out. I slung dirt from my shoes and clothes everywhere, and jumped in the steaming water. The heat lasted all of 90 seconds, and I was back to freezing. My teeth chattered as I reached for my towel and turned on the blow dryer to blast warm air over my body. After I shook my chill, I grumbled as I refused to put my leg on and cleaned the bathroom sitting on my butt. Throughout the course of the hike, my socket rubbed a wound in my groin. It was extremely painful, and though I hate feeling disabled, it was going to be best to keep my leg off and utilize my butt and crutches for the rest of the night.
My bed was warm, and dinner didn’t appeal to me. 625 PM rolled around and I forced myself out of the bed and to the main dining area. Everyone looked tired, but had an energetic feel to them — still riding the highs of the days successes, I’m sure! We played the classic guess the number of beans in a jar game, and a handful of the team won beautiful leather prizes from Greg’s start up company. Everyone was going to watch the movie on the very first climbing for ROMP, and I snuck off to bed.
Sarah cranked on my right leg for a while. Lord knows I needed it. Then, I just laid in bed and listened to the laughter coming from the living space of our building. Maybe it was the thought of knowing everyone had a good day, or maybe it was the laughter singing me a lullaby, but I was out like a light.
September 26, 2019
It was the best nights sleep of the whole trip. The fire went out in the night, so the cold air wrapped around me as I curled up in the fleece sheets. I must have finally been at peace and comfortable — it takes me a while, but I’ve learned to let go of stressors that I can not control while on an expedition. Work, emails, and the day yo day will have to wait as I focus on what’s important for the climb: safety, health, hydration, fuel, and rest.
We had a slow start to the day with breakfast at 8 AM, and instruction to be packed and ready to head to the refuge by 1015 AM since the guides would be there at 1030 AM. After I ate, I rummaged through and reorganized my gear. The trek up to the refuge played tricks on my mind. I began to think about last years endeavor and nightmare that it was to get up there. My neon yellow alpine pack was stuffed to the brim and carabiners held my crampons, poles, helmet, ice axe and more to the outside — what a junk show. My bag was brought to the storage room and I slowly made my way back to the dining area. The Cumbre Tours folks wouldn’t be there by 1030. Around 1115 AM, I looked up to see Karl explaining what the day would consist of. After a short brief, and signing of more waivers, we all tumbled out the front door to load our bags in to the bus for the hour long ride to the Cotopaxi parking lot where we would be dropped off.
Danny, Joel, and I all sat in the back and exchanged our most ridiculous stories to pass the time. The bus threw us around and I questioned if the bus wasn’t going to end up on its side at some point. The engine cried for mercy as we took one of our final turns through the deep soft sand. As we stepped off the bus, the wind nearly took me over. Fifteen of us scattered to pop a squat, which really just turned in to us all standing/squatting next to each other in a wide open parking lot praying that the wind wouldn’t take a turn and soak us in our neighbors urine. Cracks me up how there’s not a shy bone in any ones body any more. Didn’t take long!
We grabbed our packs and inched a long the hard packed scree switchbacks. Back and forth we winded through the trail. This was great compared to what I remembered. The quick ones like Danny and Karl ran back down the trail to grab packs from those struggling. Of course, I was to stubborn to take anyone’s offer of being my mule. Slowly, slowly, I went one foot in front of the other. In less than an hour we were at the refuge! I was elated and felt amazing. I took the bottom bunk in the far right corner and unpacked a bit of my bag before making my way back downstairs for lunch.
Riding my endorphins and stretching my legs was the perfect combination. It didn’t matter what they fed me, I was in a great mood. I tucked myself in my sleeping bag and was out for a solid two hours before heading back down to socialize and go through team announcements. Karl shared with us the rope teams — and while the dream team Kirstie and Kionte would not be on the same rope, we would be leaving at the same time. Still plenty of opportunity to share the climb experience together.
I scarfed down dinner and stuck around for a while to have girl talk with LP, Rebecca, Sandy, Estefania, and oddly enough, Greg. We shared horror stories of our exes and the mistakes we wouldn’t make again. Eventually, I started to fade and found myself brushing my teeth and heading up to bed. Dave wasn’t far behind me. For two hours Dave and I swapped life experiences, told jokes, and family histories sitting in the dimly lit bunk room. These are the moments that make an expedition special. Sure, we can all climb and summit, but the lifelong friendships make it that much sweeter.