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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Friday 20 December 2013

Quilotoa: Keep On Climbing

This picture was taken 15 years ago today, at the mid-point of a brutal hike out of Quilotoa volcano in Ecuador.  That trek is far the most excruciating thing I have ever done.

A friend of mine and I, on holidays from a year-abroad program in the country, backpacked around the famous Quilotoa loop; for something different, we decided to camp out in the crater rather than around the rim with all the other tourists.

Quilotoa rests at 3,914m - right where the earth bulges at the equator, thinning the atmosphere down to a wisp.  For an asthmatic, merely breathing under those conditions was a Herculean effort.  

It was a fairly quick hike down the rock path and a sandy embankment, leading through some surreal landscape and even a field of flowers down to the edge.  My trust backpack, as pictured above, weighed me down a bit further - every step I took into the crater, I knew, would be an added torture on the climb out.

You don't dwell on such things when you're 20.

The Dark came fast within the depths of Quilotoa.  My friend and I had barely set up our tent when a lid of clouds settled at the crater's rim, sealing us in for the night.  

We explored, gingerly, afraid to stray too far from our tent.  We were both struggling for breath and energy and worried, senselessly, that someone might steal the tent while we were away.  A silly worry - on that night, we were very much alone.

It began to rain.  Great teardrops dripped from the cloud above, quickly blotting out the sky and the landscape between us and our tent.  Spent, we none-the-less mustered every ounce of speed we could and rushed down the embankment and across the impossible field of flowers that separated us and the promontory where rested our shelter.  It looked so small and fragile in the immensity of the crater; fragile, and increasingly vulnerable.

We dove in to the tent, bring both my friend's small pack and my larger one, which carried the supplies, in with us.  And then the Dark settled in, the howl of the rain blocked out all other sound and we settled in for a long night of pitch black and creeping cold.

The rain didn't stop all night - it kept pounding the walls of the crater and our little tent, creeping up through the floor and dampening our sleeping bags and clothes, chattering our bones.  Sometime past the witching hour, a new sound joined the thunderous rain; distant rumbles that grew louder, moved faster and ended with heavy splashes.  


So heavy was the rain that it was ripping loose the walls of the volcano, sending tumbling waves of rock down into the carter lake metres below us.  We'd picked our campsite well - the promontory jutted out into the water.  But was it far enough?  The night crept on as we silently waited for the rumble to grow closer and swallow us whole.

Dawn came; we were still alive.  With stiff, frozen joints my friend and I roused, opened the tent and began to prepare for the hike out.  After a quick breakfast of market-bough goods we laid our sleeping bags and clothes out to dry.  Our breath pushed heavy against the frozen air, but we knew it wouldn't be long until the sun rose above the lip of the crater and the heat poured on intensely.

Above us, we could see the sunlight glinting off the cameras of tourists up above.  Where they were, it was warm already.  We watched, holding our arms close and stomping our feet as the sun slowly spilled into the crater and crept down to our level.  The shift in temperature was astonishing - from freezing and wet to hot and sweaty within the space of minutes.  

We waited, steeling ourselves for the climb out as our gear dried and the muddy embankments returned to their sandy state.  Packing took on the airs of ritual, an attempt to connect with divine forces to give us the strength for that which was to come.

And then we climbed.

My knees ached, by back bowed under the wait of my pack made only more burdensome by the hot sun that beat down on us both.  The ground gave way with each footfall, turning every step out into a half step, or sometimes a retreat.  And all this before we reached the sandy embankment.  That we climbed on all fours, grasping at the sifting surface before us, looking for anything to cling to, to keep us from falling behind.  With the constant sliding, we must have climbed that bit at least three times over.

The world stripped away from us - we were laid bare, naked under the sun in our drive to get out of the cavernous crater that had become our world.

My lungs simply ceased to function; oxygen-starved muscles strained, whipped on by willpower alone, but it was not enough.  Finally my friend had the compassionate wisdom to suggest we switch packs for a while - mine, after all, carried the tent and gear.  I took his, barely conscious enough to show gratitude.  The hike became slightly more bearable from there.

I couldn't tell you how long it took us to ply our way out of the cave and back to the surface.  It felt like forever - or perhaps, it felt like an experience that took place beyond time, in a world that nestled below the surface of the world we accept as home.  

Close to emergence, my friend and I began to regain our youthful cockiness, even if it was just in the airs we put on for each other.  

Then a local indigenous man walked by with a massive bundle of branches on his shoulders.  It must have been twice his size, that load of branches; like an ant, he'd scurried down in to the crater with the sunrise, collected, tied and picked up his load and was now casually walking out.  It was a humbling moment.

We determined we would beat this man out, just because we felt the need for some kind of victory, some sort of validation to cap off our experience.  The man himself didn't care - this was his daily routine, he saw lots of tourists come and go.  The cycle carried on, and would long after we'd gone.

Finally, my friend and I were on the path that led to the crater's rim and then, out into the tourist encampment that greeted all visitors.  Backpackers were playing cards, taking pictures, eating local treats bought from a restaurant tent off to one side.  We paused for a picture to prove we had done this thing, then stumbled to the tent and bought a couple of Cokes.  We needed the caffeine and carbonation.

For a moment we just sat, existing, recuperating, being.  We'd earned that much.  My friend turned to me and smiled.

"Keep on climbing, eh?"  We still said "eh" in those days.

I smiled back and nodded.  Keep on climbing.  

Since then I've climbed many a peak and dipped down into many a valley.  The valleys are always dark, shadowed; while in them, you feel below the world.  The peaks can be tortuous, but after Quilotoa, always surmountable.  I did the Machu Picchu trail a bit more than a year later - it was equally hard, but never once did I doubt my ability to complete it.  Quilotoa gave me that.

You can never know what lies beyond when you're deep in a valley, nor know the depths of the valleys to come when you sit atop a mountain high.  But they are both there - they are always there.  

I'm often asked what my secret is, keeping my head high even when I'm in a valley.  

The trick is easy; just keep on climbing.  The simple experience makes it all worthwhile.

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