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Jason Halladay—Ascending one of the world's highest active volcanoes

The Network and Infrastructure Engineering Division’s Jason Halladay is an accomplished rock climber and mountaineer who recently climbed a well-known volcano in Ecuador.

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“I just keep placing one foot in front of the other and in the dark focus on the six-foot ‘bubble’ of light my headlamp casts around me.”

Ascending one of the world's highest active volcanoes

At 1:00 a.m. on a June 2014 trip, the Network and Infrastructure Engineering Division’s Jason Halladay and four of his rock climbing and mountaineering friends, including Aron Ralston of “127 hours” fame, step from a rental van into the darkness and howling winds of a barren parking lot 4,600 meters (15,092 feet) high in South America's Andes mountain range.

“From here, we start our slow, six-hour climb to the summit of Cotopaxi, a well-known volcano in Ecuador,” Halladay says. “Despite Cotopaxi's location close to the equator, the mountain’s imposing height of 5,897 meters (19,347 feet) puts its head in the clouds often enough to give it a permanent cap of snow and ice. Cotopaxi is Ecuador’s second highest peak and one of the world’s highest active volcanoes.”

Even though Cotopaxi’s last known eruption dates back to 1940, Halladay is a bit concerned about the group’s chances of completing the climb to Cotopaxi’s top and subsequent descent in a single day since deep valleys scoured by rock debris, mudflows and ice radiate from the summit, and large lava flows extend as far as Cotopaxi’s base far below. But because of the difficult conditions, on this trek the experienced outdoors team has a luxury they are not usually accustomed to: A local guide required by Cotopaxi National Park for safety reasons.

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Aron Ralston, Elliott Larson and Jason Halladay during a reconnaissance hike on Cotopaxi the previous day.

“It’s a long, chilly night as we march slowly upward for the next six hours,” Halladay notes, “first on dirt and then onto the glacier leading to the volcano’s crater rim. I just keep placing one foot in front of the other and in the dark focus on the six-foot ‘bubble’ of light my headlamp casts around me. We hardly speak a word, because the wind is so ferocious.”

In addition to their usual gear, the group carries skis up the mountain—and a snowboard in Halladay’s case—in anticipation of the rare descent down one of the world’s few equatorial glaciers.

After a couple hours of moving on dirt and intermittent snow and ice, the hikers stop at the toe of Cotopaxi’s glacier to put on their crampons and rope up to one another in two teams.

“Roping up on a glacier means tying yourself to one or two other climbing partners, separated by about 10 meters (30 feet) of rope between us,” Halladay explains. “This is a necessary precaution in case one of the rope team members falls into a hidden crevasse. If a crevasse fall does occur, the other people on the rope can arrest the plunge and haul the fallen climber back up.”

Reaching the summit

As Halladay and company near the final steep headwall of icy snow that leads to Cotopaxi’s top, the sun peeks over the horizon. The group feels the oxygen deprivation at this altitude.

“Each breath doesn’t yield much oxygen,” Halladay says, “so we take a step, pause, take a breath, pause and then take the next step.”

Just shy of the summit, the group meets the only other team on the mountain—an Alaskan climber with his compulsory local guide.

“The Alaskan climber immediately recognizes Aron,” Halladay laughs, “with Aron’s prosthetic hand attachment on his right arm. We are used to Aron being famous in the United States, but down here, and with Aron covered in multiple layers of mountaineering clothes and goggles, he looks mighty incognito to us. I guess after all the press that Aron received after his dramatic canyoneering accident in 2003, and the release of the 127 Hours movie in 2010, being spotted even in the remotest places comes with the territory.”

Halladay’s two rope teams and the Alaskan and his guide reach Cotopaxi’s top around 7:30 a.m. to a mostly overcast sky.

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Andy Thien, Sarah Thien, Elliott Larson, Aron Ralston, guide Jaime Luje and Jason Halladay on Cotopaxi’s peak.

After hugging, congratulating each other on an uneventful ascent and catching a glimpse of Cotopaxi’s crater when the clouds finally lift for a minute, Halladay’s group readies their skis and snowboard for the journey back.

“In the words of the famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs,” Halladay explains with a smile, “’Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.’”

But the hard, icy snow proves difficult to hold a solid edge on. “We each make our way down a short distance, stop and wait for the others,” Halladay says. “We continue in this fashion until we have to catch a lot of speed to manage a long, difficult traverse across the mountain. But then, with the extended traverse behind us, we only have one more notably interesting section through a small notch between two ice walls.”

Suddenly Halladay and Aron Ralston inadvertently jump over a small crevasse as they pass through the notch. “One minute I'm riding on the snow towards a small rollover,” Halladay says, “and the next I'm airborne and fly over the unexpected crevasse before landing back on the snow. It’s pretty wild.” 

Eventually, the travelers reach the end of the glacier and begin to hike on foot. But after carrying their equipment for a while, the team discovers one last finger of dirty, black snow that allows them to ski and snowboard all the way back to their starting point in the parking lot.

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Halladay works for the Network and Infrastructure Engineering Division's Core Services group.


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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the Employee Spotlight articles are solely those of the featured employees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Los Alamos National Laboratory.


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