How I Crapped My Pants 20 Times. Or, Climbing Cotopaxi.
Warning: This gets vulnerable and messy, but it’s an honest account of my climb up Cotopaxi
There’s no ifs ands or butts about it, I have woken up this morning with an unfortunately-timed case of the runs. We are heading to climb Cotopaxi, a 19,300 foot beast-of-a-volcano in Ecuador, this is no time for Montezuma’s Revenge.
Maybe it will pass, I think as we meet our guide Joaquin and head to Cotopaxi National Park. Climbing Cotopaxi had been a major goal of mine as Eric and I traveled, and I am feeling a little nervous about the climb. I have never experienced climbing anything close to this big. Eric and I have put in our work to acclimatize, recently climbing 15,000+ foot Imbabura and hiking in the National Park the day before at 16,000 feet. I feel ready for the mountain.
A burst of hail pelts Joaquin’s vehicle as the three of us sit quietly inside, listening to the steady thump of the hail pounding the vehicle.
“Once this passes, we will go up,” Joaquin says. The first task is to get to the Refugio, a climber’s lodge built just below the glacier. We need to ascend to 16,000 feet to the Refugio, where we will have an early dinner and about 4 hours of sleep before we begin the real climb. After 20 minutes the hailstorm moves out and we begin our ascent, hauling our gear very slowly up the mountain.
“Not too fast,” Joaquin says, “we must conserve our energy. We go slow, we make it to the top. We go fast…” he trailed off, waiving his hand.
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updated: Be sure to check out our episode about our Cotopaxi Climb of When Life Goes South
The hailstorm at the car had dumped a fresh layer of snow at the Refugio. It is lovely, but a bit concerning. There had been quite a bit of snowfall in the last few days and I am concerned that we would be climbing in inclement weather and deep snow. My stomach grumbles and I feel a rumble in my bowels, something I had felt come and go all day. Part of my nerves? Maybe. Or more likely the result of third thing you can count on in life: death, taxes, and diarrhea when you travel.
It feels strange going to bed at 7 pm, and even more strange to have “breakfast” at 11 pm. But by midnight the Refugio has almost entirely cleared out as the 6 climbing parties make their way to the glacier, where the real fun begins. When we hit the glacier, we strap on our crampons and harnesses and rope our three person climbing team together. Ice picks, helmets, headlamps, the next 7 hours hold our fate. Due to a stint on the toilet, Eric, Joaquin, and I are the last party on the glacier. I watch as a series of headlamps slowly march up the mountain. Just then the last wisps of clouds clear out and the brilliant stars emerge. This is perfect climbing weather.
By 2 a.m. we have passed several other climbing parties. We are climbing strong and making good time. Here, on a continuously steep portion of the mountain, my bowels start rumbling again. What I had feared throughout the day struck me in the gut. I’m roped in to two other guys on a ridiculously steep ice slope, climbing in a train of people. How the hell am I supposed to take a dump? I think to myself.
“Joaquin!” I yell, “I have to poop!”
“Okay,” he responds. “Maybe ten minutes and then we break.”
I can do ten minutes. I think to myself. But after ten minutes I see no signs of an acceptable place to stop. By now my abdominal pain is awful and I really have to fart. But I just can’t trust a fart right now. It’s too much. I can’t hold it in forever. I have to try. I pause between steps and try to very carefully fart. I immediately regret the decision. I can’t believe I just shit my pants. I think to myself as I silently trudge on.
Meanwhile, it is breathtakingly beautiful on the mountain. There is no moon out and the stars are spectacular. I recognize many of the constellations here, but several I do not. On the horizon, lightning strikes consistently illuminate the thunderheads that have receded from Cotopaxi. Behind me a orange patch shines in the otherwise blank darkness.
“That’s Quito.” Joaquin points out. I try my best to take it all in. I had found it easy to get lost in the rhythm of my steps as I climbed, going long stretches without really thinking about anything. And in a moment of awareness I would tell myself to absorb the moment. Every painful step. Every insufficient breath. And yes, even the shit in my pants. Embrace it all.
We traverse across a long stretch of steep terrain. To my left is a wall of beautiful, wind-sculpted ice. To my right, I see nothing but black. As Eric is roped to me and only a few feet in front of me, I watch as crumbles of ice and snow sluff off into the blackness below with every step he takes. My heart begins to pound a little harder. Nothing so far had been terribly scary. Difficult yes, but this was the first time I was acutely aware of the dangers of a misstep. I pray my crampons do their job and keep me stuck on this slab of crusty ice.
“18,650 feet.” Eric says as he looks at his GPS. We have arrived at the final phase of the climb.
“That was the easy part.” Joaquin says as the three of us stare at the vastly steeper incline of the final push. It’s 5:40 am and the blackness of night has turned into a dim blue. On the other side of the mountain the sun would soon breach the horizon. “But you have crossed the point where you can go home to your mommy. It is the summit or the summit for us,” Joaquin smiles. The remaining distance is so short, maybe a quarter mile of terrain we must travel. But it is so steep that it will take an hour and a half, and the reserves of our energy.
We’ve only been able to take one proper bathroom break, where the mountain offered a safe place to untether and drop my harness and pants. I’ve written off salvaging my underwear. A few hours ago I was cringing and cursing with each messy fart. But I’ve stopped caring at this point, having sharted so many times I lost count. It’s all the same at this point. What’s one more?
I’m not the kind of guy who’s gonna let a little shit in my pants keep me from the summit. I tell myself as I climb.
“Look,” Joaquin says as he points behind us. “The shadow of Cotopaxi. Really amazing isn’t it?” We are several thousand feet above a sea of clouds, and an enormous triangular shadow stretches from the base of the mountain to the horizon, putting in perspective just how large this lone mountain is. We have passed all but one of the climbing teams on the ascent. We are so close to the summit, only another hundred feet, but my stomach is churning and my ass is burning. Just now, at the final push, am I really in pain. I’ve been confident the whole way, believing I would reach the summit. Only now, so painfully close, am I starting to wonder if I can make it.
You can do anything if you just don’t stop, I tell myself as I pray I don’t fall over.
And then ten feet from the summit, a wave of nausea sweeps over me, I nearly fall to my knees and vomit. But the slope eases up just enough below my feet to keep me from throwing up. And suddenly, we are standing on the summit. We have done it. Below me I see the smoking innards of the active cone of Cotopaxi. It is an unbelievable sight. I feel so proud, so blessed, and simultaneously so damn awful. And yet I smile, knowing wholeheartedly what a special moment this is. Joaquin and Eric and I embrace in a celebratory hug. And as if the earth is celebrating with us, a volcano in the distance spews a plume of ash high into the air, an eerie sight while standing on the rim of an active volcano.
To view even more photos from the climb and from Ecuador, check out my gallery here.