“After climbing Cotopaxi, I stand humbled in the face of nature. I have in no way conquered this mountain. If anything, this mountain has simply reinforced its massive dominance over me.” - a young Ty, September 28, 2008
“At the end of the day, the mountain says yes or no.” Ty, 2021.
My heart is racing and I taste the coppery blood in the back of my throat as I stand alone, stopped for the first time this morning, staring at the steep descent towards the chasm in the glacier, where a tiny bridge of snow leads across to the steep ascent on the other side. I’d known this moment would come. Not the exact location or circumstances, but I knew there would be a moment where I’d question myself. How much risk am I willing to take? What potential consequences am I willing to tolerate?
I take a deep breath and scamper down and across the tiny snow-bridge. I don’t look down into the dark heart of the mountain to either side but instead continue upward. Cotopaxi, so far, is saying “yes.”
Fifteen days earlier, the mountain had said “no.” A different mountain, Tungurahua Volcano sits just down the valley and is a shorter, steeper, and more active cousin of Cotopaxi. I’d attempted to run from the tropical town center of Baños de Agua Santa to the snowy, lifeless summit, more than 10,000 ft above. That time, rain and wind made the going slow and eventually thunder on the high, barren slopes tipped the scale of my risk tolerance from “sketchy but reasonable” to “turn around”.
As I’ve spent more time in the mountains, especially as I’ve been chasing “Fastest Known Time” records here in the Andes as part of my #Los10FKT project, I’ve thought a lot about what levels of risk and what potential consequences I can tolerate. Running in the mountains is a unique series of decisions, on navigation, effort, and when to pull the plug. If you misjudge your effort in a road race, you might lose a few minutes in the later stages and beat yourself up for it afterward. In the mountains, an early overexertion could lead to a bonk in a high, isolated spot, leaving you alone at the mercy of the mountains.
All this is to preface the fact that attempting the FKT on Cotopaxi was both an impulsive decision and one about which I thought deeply and carefully before stepping foot on the mountain.
Cotopaxi is a 19,350 ft glaciated, active volcano. It is an iconic mountain, a perfect pyramidal cone visible from all over the country. I first climbed Coto as a bub-18-year-old in 2008; it was the first glaciated peak (“nevado” in Spanish) I’d ever climbed, my first time using crampons, the highest I’d ever been, and -- to quote my teenage LiveJournal from the trip -- it was “the hardest thing I [had] ever been.”
Since then, I’d been to its summit twice more, including a trip with Scott just six weeks earlier as part of our acclimatization program before heading to Ojos del Salado. And despite my overly-dramatic 18-year-old language in my blog posts (I had a blast re-reading these old journals in prepping this piece and, no, I won’t be sharing them), Cotopaxi was and still is one of the safer and easier nevados you can climb.
I never really considered attempting to break Karl Egloff’s legendary records of 1h15 (ascent) / 1h37 minutes (round trip) until a few days before the attempt. We’d had a rough few weeks of weather, cloudy and wet, and so when a window of sunny skies appeared on the forecast in Cotopaxi National Park, the idea seemingly presented itself. For the very first time, I did some bar-napkin math about rates of ascent and descent and, also for the first time, it didn’t seem that crazy.
The part that still did seem crazy was running by myself on a high alpine glacier. Up to now, all the nevado climbing I’d done had been on a rope team, as is normal; you tie yourself to your climbing partner so that if one of you slips or falls, the other has time to react and “self-arrest”, the rope protecting the both of you. Going solo means removing this safety net; any slip or fall can be fatal if you can’t stop yourself.
But, so, Scott and I booked a rental car and planned to head out to Cotopaxi N.P. on Friday morning, leaving the window open for my attempt from early Saturday through mid-day Sunday.
I spent these two remaining days thinking. I thought about risk -- how likely was it that something bad would happen? -- and about consequence -- what would actually happen if something did go wrong? And, I found myself in the most challenging quadrant of that decision matrix: A situation where the risk is relatively low but the consequences are extremely high.
Can I protect myself from all risk? Can I be 100% sure that nothing will go wrong?
I can’t. And no one can and no one ever will be. But during those two days, I came to the conclusion that I was comfortable enough with the risks I could and couldn’t control, as well as my ability to handle the potential consequences. I decided it was worth it. It was on.
And now, here we are, back in the present tense and back in the Refugio Jose Rivas on the slopes of Cotopaxi. Scott and I have walked up the 200 vertical meters from the parking lot and I’m now gearing up as the sun begins to illuminate the glacier above us.
I wear my HOKA Gore Tex Speedgoat -- a waterproof trail running shoe but an ocean away from the hard plastic mountaineering boots that most climbers on the mountain use -- with a minimalist hiking crampon and carry a Bryce XT running vest from Ultraspire, overkill for a route that should take less than two hours, but it’s the pack with which I’m comfortable and can easily carry an extra jacket layer, one 500mL water-bottle, and three gels. I carry two super-light Salewa trekking poles my friend Javi Martin had given me a couple years ago and decide not to carry an ice ax. I pop a caffeine pill and try mostly not to think about the vertical kilometer of mountain that lies above us.
I think Scott wants to take a nap -- we’ve been up since 03:00am after all -- so I hurry out the door and, without any fanfare, start my watch and tap the sign and then we’re off.
I am almost immediately red-lining. The weird thing about high-altitude speed-climbing is that, aerobically, you can (and almost have to) operate extremely close to this red-line, especially on a relatively short route like this. And so, I cautiously keep my foot on the gas as I begin the extremely steep first chunk of the route: about 400 vertical meters in about 800 horizontal meters (i.e. about 50% grade).
As challenging as it is, this is the lowest and safest part of the route; there are no crevasses this low and essentially no avalanche risk. Mostly, I’m just trying to hammer straight up without thinking about anything other than the next few steps and making sure my tunnel vision doesn’t turn to full brown-out. The metallic taste of pennies in the back of my mouth tells me when I’m dangerously close to the edge (fun fact: that coppery taste you may have experienced during extreme bouts of exercise is the actual taste of elemental iron, attached to hemoglobin, a molecule in your red blood cells which binds with iron and ends up getting squished out of your lungs and through the bronchi to your mouth).
I’m making good time, right where I’d hoped to be, and reach the top of this section at 5,250m in about 25 minutes. But I know it’ll only get harder and slower from here.
A handful of switchbacks and a longer traverse lead to the point where our story began. I realize that we’ve been re-routed due to the recent heavy snowfalls and this is not the same route Scott and I had followed in February.
In that moment, I consider whether the uncertainty of the route changes my internal risk/consequence calculations. I no longer feel the sense of certainty and confidence that I can handle the route alone because I have no idea what’s above me. But, I see footprints, very recent footprints, and I see the climbers who had left those footprints a few hundred meters up the mountain, and so, in that split-second that feels like an eternity, my mind says “SEND IT” and I run down the steep slope, cross the snow bridge, and climb up the steep wall on the other side.
The next few hundred vertical meters are slow and careful as -- it turns out -- that had not been the only additional crevasse crossing. I scoot across a handful of snow-bridges, subconsciously holding my breath each time, and finally make an extremely exposed diagonal climb up the side of an icy wall with a few hundred feet of drop to my left.
Finally, though, a steep snow-wall leads to a false summit and a left-turn which takes us to the true summit. Here, I’ve now caught up to the twenty or so climbers who had left some six or eight hours ahead of me and seem truly baffled, like, what is this little white gringo doing up here with his orange running shoes and trekking poles and no rope?
As politely as I possibly can -- given the state of physical duress in which I find myself -- I shout ahead asking if I can scootch around these groups. I’ve lost a lot of time in the crevasse-y section and now can see that I’m going to be very close to Karl’s 1h15 ascent record.
Most of them are encouraging, shouting in Spanish and English and French and German, but they are also extremely fatigued themselves -- I can empathize -- and so I leave the safer, hard-packed snow of the trail of footprints and find myself post-holing through knee deep powder to get around these rope teams, each pass a gargantuan effort that robs me of precious seconds.
But, I’m going to make it. I’m pretty sure I’m going to make it. I think.
On the final pitch, I’m stuck behind a threesome and somehow end up in between two climbers with no room to pass -- like a conga-line, sorry -- and then, there we are. I try to turn my go-pro on my helmet on but I can’t find the buttons and I run to the true summit, split my watch and immediately turn around.
1’13’24. One record in the books.
I know that more than 90% of climbing accidents happen on descent. And with one record under my belt, I am cautious as I make my way down the upper half of the mountain. I honestly think there’s no way I’ll get Karl’s round-trip mark given how cautiously I’m going down. His 22 minute descent seems incomprehensible even in good conditions and, as Jim will tell you, I’m objectively a pretty bad downhill trail runner.
But I’m already past most of the groups and the super-exposed traverse pitch is scary but short and I don’t even think about the crevasses this time and all of a sudden I’m at the top of the headwall with maybe 3 or 4 minutes to go and that Refugio looks really fucking close all of a sudden, though it’s still some, like, 400m below, and I just absolutely send it like I’ve never sent it before downhill, my shoes occasionally catching in a deeper patch of snow and flinging me onto my face but I just roll through it -- still downhill, keeping the momentum -- and hardly lose a step and am really flying down now -- yes, I’m going to make it -- my quads are screaming, each step a butcher knife being hammered deeper into the center of my thigh, I’m counting in my head, counting steps and breaths, less than 100 go, and I’m willing that fucker closer, willing my legs to turn over faster, trying to find the hardest snow, and I can see Scott there and I know I’m not going to die or fall into a crevasse or slide off the mountain and it’s just how hard can you push for another minute, do it, do it, finally.
I stop my watch at 1’37’04, I’ve made it down in 23’40.
So, did ya get it?
Karl’s record is listed everywhere as 1 hour 37 minutes. He’s a friend of mine here in Quito and I reached out to ask if he knew if there were seconds recorded and he said that no, there was no GPS track, no strava, just the guard at the refugio who looked at the clock when he left and when he got back and Kar’s own photos of his analog watch which show the time of day on the summit and back at the refugio.
With that in mind, and given the prestige and history of this record, I’m happy to call it a tie on the round trip mark and a new FKT on the ascent.
Will you try again?
With a week to digest, I think the answer is: Maybe. I’m not ready to make unprotected solo speed-climbing on glaciated mountains a regular part of my athletic life. My tolerance for risk and my trust in myself aren’t strong enough for that. Yet.
But, while being alone up there at almost 20,000 ft did at times feel terrifying, I also felt in my element. I felt both my body and mind perform in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before. A sense of focus that one might be able to call flow.
For now, I’ll keep gazing up at the nevados and day-dreaming and scheming, just like I did as an 18-year-old, and when the mountains seem to be beckoning the next time, I’ll be ready.
DISCLOSURE: Ty is sponsored by HOKA and Ultraspire and received the products mentioned in this post for free.