The adventure began at 12,000 feet

By , Photo editor of The Christian Science Monitor

As a reporter/photographer team, Sara Miller Llana and I had been in Quito about a week in pursuit of our assignments. Walking the streets of the Ecuadoran capital, we kept encountering images of a perfectly shaped, snowcapped volcano standing proud under blue skies. We saw it on postcards, posters, and paintings, but never in real life. Cotopaxi's 19,344 feet were always hidden by Quito's cloudy skies.

When the sun shone through our hotel's windows one Saturday morning, we decided this would be the day we would visit it. Our mission: ride the Teleférico cable car to the top of Cruz Loma Mountain, where a Disneylandesque attraction had been constructed at 12,000 feet. We figured that once we were that far up in the air, we would finally enjoy a glorious view of the picture-perfect volcano.

Because the weather in Quito was warm and the sun was shining, we didn't think about taking jackets or other warm-weather gear. In our excitement, we even forgot to grab bottles of water.

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It wasn't long before we stood atop Cruz Loma Mountain, breathing the fresh but oxygen-deficient air at the Teleférico terminal. We looked around, but to our surprise, we saw no volcano.

At that point, most reasonable people would have thought that maybe there was no view of the Cotopaxi from there. Not us. We decided that maybe we needed to get even higher. Yes, at 12,150 feet you can stand at the beginning of your trek in Ecuador.

At 14,000 feet we decided to stop, relax, and enjoy ourselves for a few minutes. As Sara researched the effects of a prolonged yoga headstand at high altitude, I decided to do some time-lapse photography of 15,176-foot-high Ruco Pichincha, in front of us.

Although we heard claps of thunder and saw an incoming deep fog, we decided to continue climbing. Surely the volcano was not far in front of us.

The higher we went, the slower our progress became. Visibility became more of an issue. Now each step uphill required a lot of determination. Our hands hurt from the cold. All of a sudden, we felt a tap on our heads. And another. A hailstorm came down with a fury. We looked at each other and couldn't help but laugh at the absurdity of our predicament. We ran downhill.

This time, common sense prevailed: We would return to Quito by way of the Teleférico cable car. By the time we reached the terminal, there was a total whiteout.

At the bottom of the mountain, soaked, cold, tired, and hungry, we hailed a cab. As we rode back to the hotel, Sara looked at me with the honesty allowed by sharing an ordeal. "Were you scared?" she asked. I gave her the faintest of conspiratorial smiles for an answer. We left it at that.

As for seeing the volcano, buying a small $12 painting would have to do.

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