Climbing Volcanoes In Ecuador
High Altitude Mountaineering in South America
My trip to Ecuador turned out to be a success far beyond my wildest dreams. In fact, the trip was one of the best experiences I've ever had.
My flights were all on time and I was surprised to find myself riding in airplanes that were one third to one half filled, not what I had expected considering it was the day before Thanksgiving. I met fellow client Peter in Miami and we enjoyed a nice flight to Quito that included a great multi-course dinner served on real china. I know people complain about airline food, but the meals served by SAETA Airlines were almost restaurant quality.
Arriving in Quito at 11 p.m. we quickly passed through Immigration, found our baggage and were escorted through Customs as if we were royalty. A short taxi ride brought us to the Hotel Quito which turned out to be one of the best hotels in town.
Peter and I spent Thursday and most of Friday exploring the city before meeting the rest of the team over dinner Friday night. As each member introduced themselves and gave a brief rundown of their climbing experience I felt a little intimidated. They had all climbed in exotic locals such as Alaska, Colorado and even Nepal. In contrast, all of my experience was in New England, primarily in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Otavalo marketAs it turned out, I was every bit as experienced and prepared as the others and in fact, I believe most of my winter climbing trips to New England have been much more difficult than anything I did in Ecuador.
The following day we drove north to Otavalo and visited the market. I forgot my hat in the van and within ten minutes the top of my head was so sunburned it was smoking. The market was every bit as fascinating and colorful as I had hoped and despite my initial misgivings and my limited Spanish I found I enjoyed haggling with the merchants. In the afternoon we hiked up through a eucalyptus grove and down to a very nice restaurant by a lake with a great view of the volcanoes.
Sunday we made our first acclimation hike on Guagua Pichincha, the volcano that periodicaly threatens Quito. Crater rim of Guagua PichinchaThe climb was about 3,500 foot elevation gain and, although the crater floor was obscured by clouds, I was pleased with my performance and my personal altitude record of just over 4000 meters.
I was fortunate enough to be visiting Ecuador during Fiesta de Quito, the week long celebration of the founding of Quito. Instead of a walking tour of Old Town Quito featuring the old cathedrals, we decided to take advantage of the special Fiesta events and attend a bullfight. Despite the fact that we had no idea what the "rules" were, we all found the event to be quite interesting if somewhat offensive from our cultural perspective.
The next day week drove increasingly narrow and bumpy roads and arrived at the Cayambe refugio at about 15,000 foot elevation in mid-afternoon. That evening I had such a bad headache that I was sure I had High Altitude Sickness.Sunset on Cayambe Fortunately, I felt much better the next morning and we all climbed to the glacier for our instruction in glacier travel and crevasse rescue. It was exciting to be climbing amongst the huge serracs and gaping crevasses, something I never imagined I would experience.
We began climbing at 12:30 a.m. and just before 7 a.m. I reached the 5790 meter (18,990 ft.) summit, the third highest in Ecuador. Cayambe is located exactly on the Equator. We enjoyed the views of far off Cotopaxi, Antisana and Chimborazo and after the obligatory summit photos my rope team started back down, picking up two others who had run out of energy just short of the summit. The sun was extremely bright and by the time we got back to the refugio my nose, lips and chin had been sunburned despite the use of sunscreen. I was surprised to learn that the only clients to summit Cayambe were the three oldest - Peter, 36 years old; Shujen, 40 years old; and myself, 42 years old.
Following a rest day at Hosteria La Cienega we drove to the refugio on Volcan Cotopaxi, the second highest peak in Ecuador, and world's highest active volcano. A mid-afternoon sleet/snow storm prevented the van from reaching the parking area and as a result we were forced to carry our gear several miles up the mountain. I had packed only the bare essentials but my pack still weighed close to fifty pounds due to the extra weight of my share of group gear and food .View from approx. 18,000 ft. on Cotopaxi The long slog to the refugio brought back many memories of similar heavily laden hikes in New England and I was so tired when I reached the refugio at 4,800 meters that I seriously doubted I would be able to climb the mountain.
Finally our stay at Baxter was at an end, so with great reluctance we packed up and headed for Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. Stopping for a quick visit at the Lumberman's Museum we watched a short but very informative video on lumbering in the early 1900's, then toured the reconstructed logging camp. I was very impressed... those lumbermen where tough fellows to live way out there in the wilderness in a small log bunk house with only a wool blanket and a bed of balsam fir boughs.
We didn't get any sleep that evening due to several other inconsiderate groups and 11:30 p.m. saw us wearily tramping up the glacier. I was once again teamed with Shujen, but this time our rope leader was Pepe, an Ecuadorian mountain guide. He has climbed these mountains so many times that he has stopped counting and to alleviate boredom he has taken to leading clients to the summit by any route other than the standard routes. While this is exciting it is also extremely exhausting for the clients who are not as physically fit as Pepe. This was why the team led by Pepe failed to summit Cayambe.
Just as we were about to begin the final steep stretch to the summit of Cotopaxi, Pepe started traversing to the right of the route.Traversing the crater of Cotopaxi After several hours of intense exposure, difficult climbing and desperate route finding we finally reached the crater. Although this route had given us spectacular views and plenty of excitement, it was also far more physically demanding than the standard route. Shujen was near exhaustion and in the early stages of hypothermia but after a rest and plenty of hot, sweetened tea she somehow managed to force herself to begin the descent. We were late returning and as soon as we reached the refugio we had to quickly pack our gear and carry it down to where the van was waiting. Despite our epic Shujen and I were pleased that we had made the 5995 meter (19,783 ft.) summit. Surprisingly, we were also the only clients to make the top.
We spent the night at Hosteria La Cienega and then drove several hours south to the Carrel refugio at 4900 meters (16,170 ft.). I spent the afternoon by myself scrambling up the nearby ridges and later stalking a small group of llamas. That evening I experienced the most incredible sunset I am likely to ever see. From my view point high up on the mountain I watched as the sun became a thin, vibrantly colored band stretching across a curving horizon of incomprehensible scale. It was an intense experience for reasons I have yet to fully understand and one that I have great difficulty explaining. An extremely poor explanation is that I realized "no es importante" - nothing is really so important that I need to become depressed and stressed-out. Life is far too short to worry about minor, insignificant annoyances when there are fantastic sunsets like this to experience.
16,000 ft on Chimborazo The following day we single or double carried our gear up to the Edward Whymper refugio at 5,000 meters. Although I was still extremely tired from the Cotopaxi epic I was unable to sleep. After a quick mug of tea we left the refugio at 11:00 p.m. and for the next hour hiked up the steep slope of loose volcanic ash and rock. When we reached the glacier I flatly refused to tie in to the rope Pepe was leading and instead tied in with Kelly and Carolyn. We were making slow but steady progress up the mountain but I could feel my strength rapidly waning. The other teams, with the exception of Bill who continued on with Pepe, decided to turn back fairly early. We pushed on but the ice was very steep, almost 50 to 60 degrees in places, and was sun-cupped which made it very difficult to maintain a steady energy-conserving pace. Of all the mountains we had been on, I wanted to summit Chimborazo the most and I forced myself to continue. Finally, after three hours on the mountain I was unable to take more than ten steps without resting. At 18,000 feet, with only 2,800 vertical feet to the summit, I was regretfully forced to concede defeat. Kelly decided that she too had gone as far as she could and while Bill and Pepe continue upward toward the summit, we started back down.
Volcan Chimborazo The descent was every bit as tiring and difficult as I had expected and it was with a great deal of relief that I arrived back at the refugio. The others were all attempting to get some sleep but Kelly, Shujen and I stayed up and watched for headlamps high on the mountain and drank mugs of steaming tea. Shortly after sunrise we saw Bill and Pepe heading back down and for the next several hours we watched tensely as they negotiated the crevasses and the rock-fall zone. We were excited and pleased that at least one of our team had reached the top, but as it turned out, they were forced to turn back 200 vertical feet short of the summit. Nonetheless, we all considered the trip a great success and an intense life experience.
Leaving Chimborazo, we drove to the town of Banos where we relaxed, took a long horseback ride to several spectacular waterfalls and enjoyed the fabulous spring-like weather. Returning to Quito, we celebrated our successful trip at a very fancy restaurant and regretfully said our good-byes. I was amazed how well the entire group got along with each other and we all became very good friends. I am surprised how much I miss them.
I highly recommend making a trip to Ecuador, even if you don't want to climb. It will be an adventure you'll not soon forget.
I have over 800 photographs to sort through but when I'm done I'm going to have a "vacation-slide-show-from-hell" that will be guaranteed to cure insomnia.