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Scratch the Terror and Begin - Cotopaxi Volcano Record

January 28, 2022

Tyler Andrews (Ty) is a professional runner for HOKA and the founder and CEO of Chaski.  On December 13th, he set a new world record on Cotopaxi Volcano 19,333 ft of 1'36'36 (Refuge - Summit - Refuge). Ty has been going back-and-forth with legendary speed climber Karl Egloff as the two have each brought this particular record down (even having tied at 1 hour, 37 minutes) multiple times in the last year. Ty's ascent comes just a month before his attempt on the Mt. Aconcagua record.

“No one summited today.”

These are the first words I hear from the guide I meet at Refugio Jose Riveras, at 4,864m above sea level on the side of Cotopaxi Volcano, around 05:00am on Monday, December 13th.

“The conditions are very bad. Too much humidity and moisture,” he continues.

“In the air or in the snow?” I ask.

“It’s been raining and snowing all night. Many parties didn’t even leave the refugio and everyone else turned back already,” he replies.

Well, I guess today won’t be the day.

**

This is my 5th day in Cotopaxi National Park, a bit of a self-prescribed break from the big city and an opportunity to spend some time even higher up than my home base in Quito at 9,300 ft. It’s also my 5th time in these five days driving up the ridiculously rutted road to the high parking lot at nearly 4,600m in the pre-dawn dark. And it’s my last day here -- at least for now. I’ve got to get my rental car back to the city in less than 4 hours.

Cotopaxi holds a special place in my heart. A perfect glacier-capped cone, it towers over the high plateau in the national park and is visible (on a clear day) from Quito, all the other high mountains, and much of the rest of Ecuador. It’s an iconic mountain for the country (you’ll see its silhouette plastered all over t-shirts and mugs and even tattooed on people’s bodies) and an important one in my own personal development. In 2008, I laced up my first pair of crampons on Cotopaxi’s slopes and made then my first true ascent of a glaciated peak (with a guide, roped up, over many hours).

Since then, I’ve returned countless times with friends and family and, earlier this year, I made my first attempt at Karl Egloff’s legendary solo speed record. His mark of 1h37 from the refuge to the summit and back, a distance of only about 5km but climbing and descending more than 1000 vertical meters on snow, had stood since 2012 and, for some reason, I got the idea that I wanted to give it a go. I ended up breaking the ascent record (1h13 to 1h15) and then lost just enough time on the way down to come in at an exact tie with 2012-Karl: 1’37’04.

I wrote afterward about how intense and scary the experience had been; traveling on a crevassed glacier by yourself carries inherent risk and I’d never done it before. And I wrote that I wasn’t sure I’d ever try again.

I might not have tried again if not for Karl pushing the record down another 8 seconds in October, 2021, and thus knocking your author out of the record books. By the slimmest of margins, he’d cemented himself again as the sole King of Coto, the only guy in the 1h36s.

As my training progressed over the past few weeks, things began to click. I broken Oscar Basantes’ 50km record on Rucu Pichincha (a lower, but longer, route with a ton of climbing) and then I broke Karl’s record on the ascent to the Antenas by nearly 4 minutes (almost 10%) in a pretty controlled training run.  I realized it was time to get to the big mountains, and here in Ecuador, that means Cotopaxi. After three solo trips to the summit in my first few days in the park, I thought I might be ready to once again give an honest squeeze.

**

But here I am, now, in the refuge, and this guide is telling me that the conditions on the mountain are awful, that people aren’t even getting to the summit, let alone tackling records. I’m surprised as the conditions have been quite good for my training runs here the last few days, but I also know how quickly that can change.

As we say, “La montaña siempre decide,” (the mountain always decides).

I kit up, regardless. My gear is extremely minimal: A light long-sleeve shirt, light gloves, the most minimal bottle vest from Ultraspire (which vest holds exactly 500mL of water, 3 gels, my phone, my garmin in-reach emergency GPS beacon, and a light wind-breaker), very light snow-pants, and HOKA goretex speedgoats w/ a cheap hiking crampon strapped onto the bottom. I wear a helmet and carry two trekking poles (one still slightly bent from a fall near Everest Base Camp last year), but carry no rope or harness or ice ax. Next to the fully decked out climbers in their huge plastic boots, and micheline-man-style snow suits, I look more like I’m heading to the mall on February day in Boston.

Unlike last time, I’m by myself for this attempt; only the random Colombian cross-country-cyclist whom I’d given a ride up to the lot is there with me and really knows what I’m about to do. And so, with little fan-fare, I tap the sign next to the refugio and take off up the trail.

**

There is indeed fresh snow.

After a few days studying the route, I’d mentally divided Cotopaxi into three chunks. The first 500 vertical meters span distance from the refugio to the true edge of the glacier. The middle chunk covers the most risky and technically challenging stretch as you scoot up onto the glacier and cross a series of snow-bridge across (seemingly) bottomless crevasses with massive seracs (ice cliffs) teetering above you, before skirting steeply up onto a rock landing on the right side of the Yanasacha rock wall. Finally, from this landing (~5,650m), it’s a technically easy but steep and high and unrelenting climb to the true summit at 5,897m.

I know that, as I set off, the first 500m is where I should be climbing the fastest. It’s the easiest terrain: It’s steep, but simple, straight up, no turns, no danger.

The start is unremarkable. My crampons grip well into the soft sand and within a couple minutes, I'm on the tongue of the snow-ramp which leads all the way up to the glacier. It's here that I see (and feel) how much wet, heavy snow has fallen overnight. Despite being clear and calm now, the snow ramp -- which was as firm as asphalt as recently as yesterday -- is now soft and I sink up to my knees in the soggy white goop.

Thus, I find myself less than 20% of the way up and I am literally shouting obscenities at the snow.

"FUCK THIS," I remember shouting, post-holing across the ramp, trying helplessly to find some firmer ground.

And with that, I pretty much give up. The guide was right. Today's not the day. I seriously consider turning around and just going down with my tail between my legs, but, I mean, I'm already here, I've been up since 02:45am, so I might as well at least get a decent workout in, go breathe some of that more rarefied air at almost 6000m.

I continue upward, but, in my mind, the attempt is off. The snow is too shitty and the effort is too hard. Slogging up, up, up, I'm actually pleasantly surprised to hit the end of the first chunk -- the steep entrance to the glacier -- in just over 32 minutes. I'm much closer than I expected, and as I make my way up the steep little pitch, across the snow-bridge, I actually pass the first other humans of the day on the mountain, two dudes heading down.

"Hicieron cumbre ustedes?" I ask, "Did you guys make it to the summit?"

"Por supuesto!" The guide calls back. “But of course!”

Suddenly, I realize that making the summit is possible and the pace I’m on is at least within shouting distance of where I wanted to be. In my mind, the record attempt is back on.

The middle third of the route presents the most objective hazards and thus gives me a little bit of the ol’ howling fantods. Skirting parallel to several large crevasses, the route is exposed to the possibility of falling chunks of ice from the massive seracs which tower above to the right. It's with these seracs in mind that I move as quickly as I can, following the foot-prints of the descending climbers up towards the rock-ledge.

They've taken a slightly different route than I'd climbed on my three previous summit trips this week -- this route pegged closer to the Yanasacha Wall and following a steep gully up to the rock ledge, but finally, I'm there and I know there's only about 15 minutes to the summit. I look at my watch. It's going to be close.

This final section always hurts but I no longer feel any fear or doubt. I'm just 100% focused on the physical effort of moving steeply uphill at almost 6,000m. I see two more climbers up ahead, just below the summit and pass them quickly, shouting words of encouragement, and then with my watch just ticking past 1h12, I'm literally running up onto the summit and split my watch: 1'13'15, a new ascent record by just 10 seconds.

I pull out my phone for a (very short and breathless) video from the summit and immediately turn back to head down. Here, I find, that the fresh snow actually helps a tiny bit on the high, steep summit ridge. My crampons grip well and I have none of the out-of-control-slippy-slidey feeling I'd experienced a couple days earlier.

Quickly, I'm back to the rock ledge and then make the very steep descent through the Yanasacha couloir. It's steep enough (and not exposed) that I actually (purposefully) slide onto my ass and toboggan down 20m or so. I'm having way too much fun.

And then, moving quickly under the seracs, across the snow bridges, and carefully, carefully, down the final pitch to the top of the snow ramp. I look at my watch. I know that my fastest time down from here to the refugio was just under 10 minutes and I'm already around 1h30. Not today, then; I've simply lost too much time on this first half of the descent. Oh well.

But, I follow my own footprints and somehow find a better line on the snow-ramp and I'm really running down this insane grade and I decide to shoot for the soft dirt instead of sticking to the snow this time and so I hit that and suddenly it's like I'm skiing, sliding a meter or more with every step. I look at my watch and I can see the refugio, so close, and there's no way it's going to take me 3 minutes to get there, no, I can really fucking do this.

I've never sent it like I full-send it those last 3 minutes. I'm bounding, flying, slipping, sliding, panting, grunting. There are a couple hikers just across the ridge who look at me like "what the actual fuck?"

But, I'm on the last few switch-backs. I can see the sign. My watch says 1h35, then 1h36 and it's right there and I toss my poles down and really use my arms and smack the sign and scream and stop the watch: 1'36'36.

**

After I stop shouting, after I get up off the ground, after I hike back up 50m and grab my poles, and after I gather my things in the refugio and talk with the few guides and climbers who have gathered outside, wondering why this gringo is making such a racket; after I hike back down to the car with my Colombian bicyclist friend and we drive back down to La Rinconada and I pack up the tent and then drive the two hours back to Quito, drop of the rental car, and finally make it back to my house and shut the door behind me in my room, only then do I finally, really, exhale.

This week in the park, playing in the snow, scratching at that terror that I feel when pushing just to the edge of my risk-tolerance, I feel all the weight drop off my shoulders, as if setting down a hugely over-stuffed backpack (which, coincidentally, I also do). But this tension, this weight, has another side. I have never felt so strong, so confident, so content. I feel like the child who has just faced his fear of the bicycle head-on and is now proudly riding the two-wheeler. And in conquering that fear, the proof to myself that, yes, I can really do it, there is tremendous joy and pride and surely a bit of arrogance.

In a way, the physical accomplishment, the actual breaking of the record itself, almost feels secondary. Of course, I'm still glowing from the sense of accomplishment that comes with meeting a (challenging and intimidating) goal; but, even moreso, I am overjoyed with how much more comfortable I became om Cotopaxi, How much I learned about myself and the mountain in those four solo trips to the summit.

Because, like the child learning to ride his bike, I still recognize the objective risks and hazards in what I'm doing -- there's no getting around the danger of balancing on two wheels on asphalt, nor is there sense in ignoring the towering thousands of pounds of ice seracs that, at some point, will topple down the mountain, completely indifferent to  whether you're under them or not -- I can't ignore those risks; but I also see what this new skill and comfort has given me, like the newly two-wheeling kiddo, I feel a sense of freedom. The whole world is at my fingertips.

— Tyler Andrews

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