I lifted one plastic boot and planted steel crampons into the snow with a styrofoam crunch. Took a deep breath. Fourteen. Eleven more steps and I could rest again.
It was dark, the air was thin, and Billie Holiday was crooning through the ice-coated wires of my headphones about what a little moonlight can do.
The night clouds parted and the snowy flank of Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, was bathed in a spectral light.
I was almost exactly on the equator, three miles high in the heart of the Ecuadorian Andes, with three thousand feet to climb before dawn.
Ecuador is one of my favorite places in the world, and not just because I wrote the Moon guidebook to the country. It combines the best of South America—Pacific beaches, Andean peaks, Amazon jungle—with thriving indigenous cultures and the Galapagos Islands, Darwin’s “laboratory of evolution,” 1,000 miles offshore.
It’s a great place to learn mountaineering, with a dozen climbable peaks within day-trip distance of Quito, the capital. At 19,400 feet, Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in the country, with a rap sheet of over a dozen recorded eruptions. This was my first attempt.
The day before, our climbing guides had taught our group of four how to rope together and stop an out-of-control slide using our ice axes. We slept in the climber’s refuge at 16,000 feet, a stone building that smelled of exertion and starchy food. At 2 a.m. we got up, ate a bleary breakfast and started climbing, aiming to be well up the mountain before the sun started to soften the snow. The headlamps of other groups bobbed uphill in the darkness.
Within an hour we hit the snowline and strapped on our crampons. The sky began to lighten to the east as we cut endless switchbacks up and up. Robin’s-egg blue gave way to a sky full of flaming clouds.
We stepped over crevasses that fell into blackness and climbed past ice caves glowing blue in the sun. The world was nothing but snow and sky, purple shadows and the yellow dots of our guides’ parkas. We gasped out way past 18,000 feet, where the air held half as much oxygen as at sea level.
The slope grew steeper the higher we climbed. The summit seemed to recede into the wind-whipped air. Existence had narrowed to a simple rhythm. Step. Gulp air. Plant ice axe. Repeat. Twenty-five steps to the next rest.
Suddenly the incline flattened and the trail ended at the lip of a vast crater filled with clouds. I looked around in a daze. We had made it.
I almost laughed when one guide pulled out his cell phone to call the office and tell them we mad made it. This was his 143rd time on top.
The wind whipped the clouds apart to reveal snowy peaks in every direction. We snapped photos of each other, ice axes raised. Then we turned and started down.
Julian Smith has written over six travel book and is the author of “Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure” – out now.