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Equatorial ascent

Haines Venture Scouts summit Cotopaxi Volcano in Equador

Posted: April 14, 2011 - 2:46pm
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Bill Dwyer and Holy Irwin play catch-up to the Venture Scouts on Iliniza Norte. Iliniza Sur can be seen in the background.   Photo by Tim Benson
Photo by Tim Benson
Bill Dwyer and Holy Irwin play catch-up to the Venture Scouts on Iliniza Norte. Iliniza Sur can be seen in the background.

“Are you doing okay?”

Hunter Badgley had to yell to cut his voice through the wind for it to reach is rope team.

Badgley is a senior at Haines High School and was climbing toward the summit of Cotopaxi, a volcanic peak in the Cordillera Central of the Andes, central Ecuador.

“Yeah, I am fine,” Teslin Podsiki replied.

She pulled her over-mittens onto her thin gloves in an effort to cut out the bitter cold. Podsiki wasn’t doing great. But at 15,000 feet, nobody is really doing “great.” Regardless, she knew she’d be fine.

Not all parts of an adventure are easy, but this group of high school students were pushing their limits knowing their efforts would pay off. What they didn’t know is they’d find much more inside each of them than they thought.

At 10 p.m. on the equator in Equador a few weeks ago, a group of Venture Scouts from Haines High School began climbing from 15,000 feet to the summit of the Cotopaxi volcano.

The students had saved money for two years for this before making the journey southward. They swam sponsored laps at the local pool for money, had benefit auctions and went door to door around the community seeking help to fund their adventure. The local Haines postmaster, Greg Podsiki, led the group and, with the help of the Alaska Mountain Guides, he organize this expedition for the students, knowing the experience could quite possibly change their perspectives on the world for the rest of their lives.

Rising to 19,347 feet, the mountain itself is the world’s highest continuously active volcano. Cotopaxi has an almost perfectly symmetrical cone, interrupted only by one minor cone — the Cabeza del Inca (“Inca’s Head”). The mountain has a long record of violent eruption and has seldom remained dormant for more than 15 years. The terrain around the mountain’s base has been devastated many times by earthquakes or been buried in pumice and ash blown out of the crater. Lava that boils constantly in its crater emits plumes of steam. The mountain itself is built up of alternating flows of dark-colored trachytic lava and falls of lighter-colored ash. The crater at the top is 2,300 feet in diameter from north to south and 1,650 feet from east to west. Its depth is roughly 1,200 feet. The base of the volcano stands on open mountain grassland, but the whole upper part of the mountain is covered with permanent snow.

The Venture Scouts persevered through the night, without sleep, so that the snow-bridges over the large crevasses would stay solid enough to hold their weight. To make things even more difficult that night, the wind was blowing at 50 mph and spitting bits of ice into the faces that looked upwards, attempting to see where they are going. Teslin Podsiki was strong when she stood up, and like the other 13 Haines students, she began to put one crampon-clad foot in front of the other up the slope towards the summit.

Cotopaxi was not the only adventure on this trip. Students started by mountain biking down the dirt roads behind Quito, into the dense flowered jungle of Ecuador. They learned about the local culture by watching dancers and touring the streets of Quito’s old town. A local guide took them via horseback through the high country farming areas explaining how agriculture works at 10,000 feet on the side of a volcano. The students also went rafting through the jungle in the Amazon Basin, where large waves tossed them out of the boats into the big pillow waves found on the river at the end of the rainy season. Many people travel to a country to relax, but the Haines Venture Scouts made sure they seized every day.

The students saw more heights than Cotopaxi, as well. To acclimatize they hiked Rucu Pichincha, the large volcano that dominates the horizon behind Quito. They also tested their fear of heights by scrambling up the steep rocky faces of Iliniza Norte. While clinging to the volcanic rock walls at 17,000 feet, they enjoyed views out over the Andes Mountain chain and encouraged one another while getting all rope teams to the top.

Despite their various adventures, Cotopaxi was the largest challenge for the Venture Scouts in Ecuador. The mountain is said to be the closest a person can get to the sun, and the climb took ten hours to complete. Students learned how to use their crampons, ice axes and how to work together as a rope team to safely manage the steep upper slopes as a solid group. Despite challenging wind, the students navigated large crevasses by zig-zagging upwards across thick snow-bridges. One crevasse in particular challenged the students because they needed to crawl across a placed ladder over a seemingly bottomless gap.

At one point, in early 1800, the mountain was deemed unclimbable by Alexander Von Humboldt when he failed to reach the summit. Other failures, in 1831 and 1858, seemed to confirm this verdict. It was in 1872 that Wilhelm Reiss, a German scientist and traveler, succeeded in reaching the top on November 28, and in May of the following year.

As the sun rose and temperatures warmed, however, the challenges paid off. The students, perhaps like Reiss, witnessed the peach alpenglow of sunrise on the glaciated crater rim high above the Amazon basin. Each experienced a sense of accomplishment felt by only a handful of the world’s population. It was no doubt a long journey and an incredible adventure. But for Hunter Badgley, Teslin Podsiki and the 12 other Haines Venture Scouts, it was also a priceless life experience.

• Bill Dwyer works as an international mountain guide and helped to lead the 14 Haines Venture Scouts on their recent mountain expeditions in Equador. He thinks Juneau is the best town on the planet.

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