Cayambe – The Glacier on the Equator

At 18,400 feet, on no sleep for at last 24 hours, my body was literally shutting down.  I was closing my eyes while walking towards the summit. I couldn’t stay awake any longer.

This was a game I haven’t played before.  A dangerous game of sleep walking on a giant glacier.  Realizing I still had to get back down this mountain, I was beginning to think this was going to be a long day.


Going into a climb, my mind is usually thinking of something besides mountains.  I try to think of positive moments in my life.  Events that I am looking forward to.  Trips that I’ve had a great time on, etc.  If you think to much about what you are getting yourself into, you could put the wrong thoughts into your head. Worrying is something you don’t want to do when you are climbing one of the tallest peaks in South America.  To make matters worse, Cayambe has a three-thousand foot glacier hanging off of it.  If it’s not HACE, or HAPE that you succumb too, you have to worry about things like rock falls, crevasses, seracs, dehydration, freezing, or perhaps even falling off a cliff.  For the true climber though, you live to climb mountains like these.

On the day leading up to the climb, my main goal was to sleep as much as I could prior to the 11pm wake up call.  At this time, I would be heading for the summit and hopefully standing at 18,996 feet above sea level at around 7am.

I couldn’t fall asleep that night, because for one, I was trying to fall asleep at 7pm, which is near impossible.  The other reason, I was thinking about Jessie, a girl I wanted to ask out that I met a few days prior.  #priorities come first!

Ding, ding, ding, my alarm rings loudly at the glory hour of 10:50pm.  “Damn it, I literally just fell asleep.  Caffeine, where are you.  Ah, Coca-Cola.  You plan so well Mark Nolan”, I say to myself in the third person.  I see a ProBar and Chia Bar at eye level.  Reach, grab, eat, move.  Lets go!

Fernando, my guide, has seen people like me a million times. I am sure he is thinking, how long is this gringo going to take to get up the summit. Yeah, yeah Aconcagua, Denali, whatever. You are in Ecuador amigo.

“How long did it take you to get up Illiniza Norte”, he asks.  I respond confidently, “two and a half hours in the SNOW!” “Ok good”, replies Franando. Without Fernando asking, I continue, “Una hora, quarenta Pichincha”, I mention in broken Spanish (something I have mastered while spending 3 months in South America in 2015). “Ok”, says Fernando.

The Refugio at 15k

“Time to get ready my friend”, says Fernando.

On with the I/O Merino base layers, Kuhl Destroyer soft shell pants, L.L.Bean 850 down jacket, Sportiva shells and Baruntse double plastic boots, Petzl helmet, harness and carabiners, Zeal Optics goggles, outdoor research gloves and out the door we go!

The first stage takes us through volcanic ash and rock. All these mountains out here are loaded with tons of this.  You see, these ACTIVE volcanos (yes volcanos), just decide to erupt whenever they want to.  Typically something is on fire every couple years out here in Ecuador.  Take Cotopaxi for example. This is a peak that I wanted to climb. A mountain that I have been on.  A mountain that several of my good friends have climbed.  Now, part of it is on Illiniza.

Cotopaxi started to “blow” and deposit a thick layer of ash on its neighbor’s range, the Illiniza’s.  A completely different mountain RANGE.  By doing so, it completely changed the dynamic of climbing on Illiniza Sur and even more importantly, it greatly affected the local mountaineering community.  It completely shut down climbing on Cotopaxi, the most popular mountain in Ecuador.

As we zig zag going up this mess, I am just watching Franando’s feet. I figured that would be the safe thing to do, as he has climbed Cayambe at least 200 times.

“How many times have you climbed Cotopaxi Fernando?”, I ask.

“Cotopaxi?  Maybe like 500 times”, he responds.

And people think Sherpa’s are badasses.  Ladies and Gentlemen, meet Fernando.

After an hour of the switchbacks, we hit the glacier and on with the crampons!

Well, at least that’s less weight in the backpack”, I think to myself.  At this point our rope team of Fernando and I, and a couple other teams have separated from the rest of the climbers. Surprisingly, mostly Americans were in the lead. “Wow, we are holding our own.   Merica!”, I reluctantly think to myself.

To my surprise, we all pick different routes. No, straight line, instead just traverse up this glacier anyway we want. My competitive nature kicks in a bit. “Most of these guys are going to fall back.  We might be able to get to the summit first”, I contemplate in my head.

As we propel our way up the glacier by stepping over cracks that I can’t see the bottom of, I think to myself, this is getting serious.  The guy on the rope team next to us was starting to dry heave.”Wait, now I am starting to dry heave.

Keep going Mark. You have been here a hundred times. One foot in front of the other”, I think, but than I trump myself. “Fernando, 10 seconds please”, I Yelp.

“No problemo amigo. Take your time”.

My L.L.Bean summit pack.  The mountain created a lot of frost and humidity and eventually turned this bag into a ice pack.

At this point, the altitude was starting to kick in at 17k, with two-thousand more feet left to get to the summit.

“This is just like Elbrus in 2014”, I think.  On that peak near the Georgian/Russian border, I was near hyperthermia and I still made it to the top. Today is no different, right?

After a section of glacier that bordered several large rocks, we move to these odd cone shaped, snow cornice things and traverse through them. “Why is nothing flat around here?!?!”, I question.

At this stage, I am tired, I can’t breathe, and my foot turns a different direction every time it hits the Earth. Give me Mt. Rainier now, and I’ll run up it.

You see, every time you make the slightest misstep in high altitude, it’s like taking all the air out of your lungs in one single instant and not returning the air for a good 5 seconds.

Within this field of these beautiful shapes would be crevasses and other challenges to navigate through.

To my disbelief we were starting to catch the lead rope team.  It looks like they were tiring out or possibly sending SOS signals with their lights. “What if they need help?”, I think.

Nope – turns out one of them just had his light on the strobe/flash mode.  He may have just been jamming out to Calvin Harris and liked the affects that the lights were providing.

When I am in a group, I am not very completive, however solo climbing is a different story.  My competitive nature comes into play at times.  This particular time, it worked against me.  I used all my energy to catch the lead group.  As it turns out, I was a bit winded now.

“Franando, I need 10 seconds bro”, I weakly suggest. “No problem my friend. Take your time”, he responds in a comforting voice.

I met Franando on accident a few days prior. Coming into Ecuador, I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have a guide, but I was ready.  To most people reading this, that might sound crazy.  To me, this fit right in my wheel house.  Of the 44 countries I have visited in my 38 years of life, this was my typical approach.

When I arrived in El Chapai with my buddy Ivan, we seemed to think we could hike right out of town to the refuge and climb the Illiniza’s…just…like…that.   Not the case by any means….

“Let’s get some more information from that place over there”, I point to the blue “I” in the sign over to the right.

This happens to be Fernando’s place of residence. Turns out to be a hostel as well, with pretty damn good food.  He briefs us on the Illiniza peaks (that are currently deep in the clouds) and provides me with his WhatsApp number to contact him if I am interested in climbing with him in the future. This takes us to a couple days ago, when I text him mentioning I want to climb Cayambe with him tomorrow night.

“Take the bus from Quito to Cayambe City and meet me at the Petro Ecuador Petrol Station.  I will pick you up there”, says Fernando.

Heading into the snow spheres, I began to slow down a bit.  Slowing down in my own head, but I still was pushing a good pace, with the occasional dry heave from moving too fast.  The difficultly here is that nothing was flat.  There was no “trail” and there happened to be crevasses camouflaging themselves in this magical ice field as well.

To keep myself in control, I have to break down the mountain in stages.  Otherwise it seems too large to climb.  If you count steps all the way to the summit, you will either start to lose your mind, or you will be unsuccessful.  Stage 1 was the volcanic rock stage.  Stage 2 was the cracked glacier, stage 3 we just went through, now we move onto stage 4.

“Franando, what is that, about 400 meters to the summit”, I ask. “Yeah, more or less” , says fast Fernando.

“Ugh, the dreaded answer.  Maybe it’s a 1000 meters. What time is it anyway?”, I debate.

The spheres are gone now.  In their place are massive crevasses and underground snow villages.  “Fernando, where the hell are you going dude”, I yell as we are walking into the tiny village of hielo.  “We must go this way”, he orders.  “10-4 bro”, i say.  “No, it’s only 5:30 amigo”, he responds.

One of the crevasses we climbed into.  Due to climbing in the middle of the night, most pictures were taken on the trip back.

As we leave the crevasse field and move into the advanced stage, another team is climbing at the same pace as us.  The guy next to me asked the guide “aren’t we going too fast?  I want to make it by sunrise”. To his dismay, the guide responds, “don’t worry, we are not done yet”.

This was my indication for a break.

Four minutes later I wake up from a dead sleep and look at Fernando taking a siesta as well. “Ready Fernando”?, I say in a sleep deprived voice.

“Yeah, I’m always ready. Only an hour to go”.

“What!?!?, did he say an hour still”?

The serac field and the underground crevasse party loomed next in our exploratory trip up Cayambe.  The sun was just starting to crest the summit as we were approaching.  “This is happening!”, I think.

I never really doubt making the summit, I just wonder…”how long is this going to friggin take”.

High on the mountain, most of the “flooring” looks like this.

“Be prepared, it’s cold up there”, says one of the dudes just coming off the summit.

“Well, go figure.  The great weather day just woke up the Cayambe devil inside.”, I say with a crooked smile.

After one more siesta, Fernando and I are off. “The light at the crest of the peak is in view, but it’s steep as shit.

The last few meters

Going back to why I clear my mind going into these big climbs.  They are never like, come climb me, it’s easy!  I always know in the back of my mind, after you finish one impossible task, there is another one waiting for you. Keeping a level head is critical for success.  And never, ever, underestimate a climb.  Once you get cocky, things get rocky.

Finally, we crest the top of the peak, and I am hammered backwards by a massive force of wind that I have met before on many other peaks. I fight back with what I have left and move forward to the half igloo man made structure that is in front of me, I than jam my ice ax in the frozen ground and fall down.


The summit view!  Looking back out the way we came up, the weather was excellent, but behind us, there was a different story coming our way.

As I hug it out with my guide and fist pump the other two up there, I sit back for a minute and take it all in.  This was 7 hours of my life only, but it was a hard 7 hours.  This moment makes every second of that time worth it.  It’s beautiful.  I did this!

Moments later, I pull out my SLR to snap a few pics, but the lens instantly freezes. “Well glad I lugged the extra 5 pounds up here”… To add to the difficulties,  GoPro #1’s battery is dead. “Why does the Wifi always turn on and drain the battery. Come on GoPro. The button is in the worst possible spot”. Over to the session. Wipe off the ice, shoot.  Wipe of the ice, shoot, repeat.

Fernando on the summit.  We were up there for 20 minutes and the weather changed from clear and sunny to cloudy and a whiteout.

Coming off the summit, I began to realize we stopped seeing headlamps on our way up.   I thought most of them turned around.  Some did, but a good portion surprisingly had some step left in them after all. They were dedicated.

As we make it back down to our first siesta spot, we run into the next rope team.

“How much longer to the top”, an American guy asks me. “Oh, you know, about an hour”, I respond.

“AN HOUR?!?!?”

This photo was taken after 20 minutes of down climbing back to the spot my original siesta took place.  One hour climb to the summit from this point.  The visibility was challenging for groups heading up behin us.


As I reflect back on this climb while I head to Banos for a little R&R, I look back on the challenges, the difficulties, but also the successes and what it means to me. To me, it’s about overcoming the impossible. Four years ago I never imagined climbing a peak this high. Let alone, anything over 15k. What these mountains have done for me personally is to give me more ambition, more confidence, and to have larger goals in life to reach for. Goals are so important in life.  It gives you something to strive for.

What I have learned is, anything is possible in life.  You just have to try.

It’s also opened myself up to a large group of individuals in the MTJMe and CF family that are suffering with chronic lung deficiencies, where breathing is a challenge everyday. If they can fight daily, I can fight as well.

Reflecting back on the summit

If you find it in your hearts, please donate to a cause you believe in. I am not here to preach.  This is up to you, but I promise you, helping out will make you a better person.

With CF, the median age of survival is only 41 years old.  I use “only” lightly, as when I was born 38 years ago, that number was in the teens. People with CF now can grow into adulthood. Hopefully when I am a grandparent, they will be as well.

Let’s continue to climb on and make this world a better place.  God speed my friends!

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