An Equatorial Weight-Loss Program – Ecuador Volcanoes – December 8-22, 2007
This was a Colorado Mountain Club trip led by Greg Olson and Lisa Herter, and included Sheryl Costello, Sharon Adams, Steve Martin, Doug Cook, Vince Bousselaire, Andrzej, Bob Thompson, Margo Gawron, Cleve Armstrong, Kevin Linebarger and myself, Bob Dawson.
Greg and Lisa had been on a very similar CMC trip 2 years earlier, and were well qualified to lead this year’s adventure to South America. They arranged this trip with the same highly qualified guide they had used earlier, Edgar and his family of “Sun and Snow Expeditions” in Quito, Ecuador. I can’t say enough great things about this guide company. Check them out:
I also can’t say enough about Greg and Lisa’s outstanding trip leadership. Good people, good organization and much appreciated. Greg (and the rest of us) learned an important lesson: some countries (Ecuador included) require passports to be good for 6 months after the planned return date. Poor Greg had to expedite a new passport and missed the first 4 days of our trip! Lisa picked up all the slack though, but we missed Greg on the warm-up climbs nonetheless.
I have to say up front that I am not a fan of guided climbs, and I prefer figuring out and executing a climb using my own and my climbing partners’ planning and route finding abilities. I knew this was a guided trip but signed up anyway. After this incredibly satisfying experience with Edgar’s leadership, I have now relaxed my “no-guide” stance on such climbing. Sure it would have been more satisfying to climb these magnificent mountains with my own skills, but this was nonetheless a very rewarding and successful climbing trip.
To make a long story short, twelve of us climbed three successively higher peaks; Pasochoa at 4200 meters (13,800’), Guagua Pichincha at 4800 meters (15,800’), Illiniza Norte at 5126 meters (16800’) and a large subset of the group made it to the top of Cotopaxi at 5897 meters (19,347’) and finally Chimborazo at 6310 meters (20,700’). Myself and four good friends, including my partner and best friend Sharon, were fortunate enough to make all 5 summits, including the true (Wymper) summit of Chimborazo. Two others made it to the first Chimbo summit, and one other person was eminently qualified to make it but alas, had a bad day and had to turn around early.
In a nutshell, we climbed a 14er, 16er, 17er, 19er and a high 20er. This was an excellent itinerary to sneak up on Chimborazo, the high point in Ecuador. With this agenda I never once had any adverse altitude symptoms, nor did I witness any in the group.
Interesting point: due to the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo is actually a full 2 kilometers “higher” than Everest,, as measured from the center of the earth. It turns out that Chimborazo’s Wymper summit is the furthest point on the planet from the center of the earth! In addition, since it is on the equator of the spinning earth, it is moving around as fast as anywhere creating the maximum centrifugal force. Consequently, on Chimborazo’s summit one weighs the least amount possible on the planet. Nice. Fun!
There were no contingency days in the schedule, and the weather was generally poor the entire trip, but we managed to make the summits and enjoyed the beautiful country of Ecuador. “Dry” season in Ecuador? Not. It rained pretty much every day. At midnight, when we started up Cotopaxi from the hut at 15,800’ it was raining (not snowing).
The following are summary reports from climbing The Five Mountains:
Pasochoa (4200 meters, 13,800’)
We arrived in Quito at around 11pm after an easy flight from Denver through Houston. Nice thing about Ecuador is the mere 2 hours time difference from Denver; no lag. We checked in to the comfy Embassy Hotel, and the next morning we were on a 1.5 hour bus ride to a trailhead at about 11,000 feet in a beautiful pine forest on the slopes of Pasochoa. Being on the equator the climate felt more like about 6-7000’ in Colorado. Maybe 4 hours of super easy hiking later we were relaxing on our first summit. Felt more like 11,000’ than the nearly 14,000 that it was. Cloudy and misty the entire day, but beautiful nonetheless. This stroll reminded me of an English countryside. Back to Quito for a fine dinner of Ecuadorian food. I had Lapingaucha, the first of many. Kevin dove right in and had Cuy, “guinea pig”…. OK….. When in Ecuador …..!
Guagua Pinchincha (4800 meters, 15,800’)
Next day we were up a bit earlier, and after a 2 hour bus ride we were at about 12000’ From the trailhead we were soon walking up a winding road towards our 2nd peak; this one an actual active Volcano. We had some fine weather early in the climb, but upon reaching a high hut, it was cool and cloudy the rest of the way. We chose to walk the entire way, but there is a road all the way to this hut at nearly 15,000’. Past the hut we climbed to a ridge marked by some sort of religious shrine (this is an extremely Catholic country). It was quite windy and cold, but dropping a few feet off the far side of the ridge and it was suddenly much warmer. An active volcano this was! We felt (and smelled) the warm moist air from the numerous vents. Alas, we couldn’t see these through the clouds in which we were immersed. Up the easy ridge to a false summit, then a class-2/3 scramble down to a saddle and finally up to the actual summit. We ran into a group of Germans who were happy to take our group pic, Afterwards, we found some nice warm rocks to cuddle up to for lunch. Two peaks accomplished, along with some nice acclimatizing! A few folks in the group had never been above Colorado altitudes, so there was excitement about being to nearly 16,000’. Climate-wise, it felt more like about 13,000’ in Colorado.
Illiniza Norte (at 5126 meters, 16,800’)
After another relaxing night in Quito it was finally time to leave town for loftier heights. Our plan was to tent-camp at 13,100’ at La Virgen de Illinizas base camp. The bus ride took up as far as possible on the road, and we had an hour hike from there to camp, a nice stroll in partly cloudy skies. With mountaineering tents pitched and waiting for us under partly cloudy skies , we made ourselves at home and sorted gear for the climb. Rain was imminent (again), so after storing everything under cover, we had a snack and headed up the trail for a short hike. Right on cue it started to rain and we headed back to camp and a mess tent provided by the guides. Hot soup and pasta made for a nice meal, and with Sheryl producing a pack of cards, five of us hung around rather late in the mess tent playing our first of many rounds of spades.
3am rise and shine, breakfast and hot tea in the mess tent and off we were at 4am under nearly clear skies. An hour into the climb I noticed an old friend in the sky, Orion on his side (right side up in the northern hemisphere, upside down in the southern, but perfectly horizontal on the equator!). After some looking around sure enough there it was: the Southern Cross. Beautiful! For many on the trip, this was there first view of this prominent constellation. The clear skies didn’t last long, and as dawn came and passed it clouded over again, and by the time we reached the climbers hut at about 15,600’, we were deep into yet another cloud. It was damn cold at this point. We went into the hut and had some welcome hot tea and a snack.
Only 1200 vertical feet to go, but given the conditions, this would take quite some time. Soon reaching a ridge, we hung a right (the higher, but much more technical Illiniza Sur is to the left) towards our goal and after a while took a nice break in the wind-shelter of the summit ridge. The route traverses the east side of the summit ridge, and would normally be a relatively easy class-3 scramble. Trouble was: we had 3-6” of fresh wet snow to contend with, and this made the final 500 feet quite interesting, to say the least. Edgar and his brothers (Diego and Segundo) wisely placed ropes in the dicey, exposed sections, which we all thankfully clipped in to. Lisa took a slip and actually took a short tumble before her prussik caught her fall. No damage! Two or three more steep, slippery pitches and one by one we popped up on the summit area…no views!.. totally clouded in. For about 5 brief seconds the clouds thinned and we saw a peak of Illiniza Sur. We spent nearly an hour on this summit, relaxing at nearly 17,000’ of altitude. Finally, down we went. Edgar led us on an alternate scree-route descent, and Kevin and I practiced our ski turns. Easy descent! Trouble is: rather heavy rain and eventually a thunder storm rolled in and soon we were all hurrying down as fast as possible. Suddenly, up ahead on the trail was an old pal: Greg! He finally arrived after his passport woes, and met us on Illiniza. He and Lisa had a fine, warm reunion despite the rain. Finally, in pouring rain we arrived back at our camp. I was soaked. Unfortunately, our tent floor leaked a bit and some of our gear was also wet. It rained all night. Thankfully morning dawned clear and we were able to pack up in dry weather. Peak #3 was in the bag and we were all acclimatizing nicely. Off to Cotopaxi!
Cotopaxi (5897 meters, 19347’)
The afternoon after leaving the Illiniza base camp we arrived at our guide’s hometown of Machachi, and did a little grocery shopping, concentrating heavily on much-needed junk food: Coke for 25 cents a bottle, big bags of chips for about the same. It still felt strange using US currency in Ecuador (curiously, Ecuador’s official currency is the US dollar). After visiting a cool church and nearby City Park, it was off to the beautiful and quite comfortable Estacion hotel near the edge of town. The 13 of us soon had all of our wet gear hanging out everywhere that you looked. Rain was yet again imminent, but we had a couple hours window to get stuff all dried out. The dinner at this establishment was perhaps the finest I’ve had anywhere in quite a while. Outstanding food and service, all for about $15, including plenty of wine and beer. Next morning it was off on the long (4 hour?) bus ride to Cotopaxi National Park and eventually the Jese Ribas refuge at 15,700’. Unfortunately the mountain was socked in during our approach and we never saw it. From where the bus parked, we had about an hour walk to the refuge. The hut was comfortable, and we all sat down to a nice dinner followed by an hour or so of gear-preparation for the climb. To “bed” at 7pm, up at 11pm, after “breakfast” we were off at about 12:30am.
It was lightly RAINING at nearly 16,000 feet. How was this possible? A half hour later we arrived at the beginning of the glacier, put on our crampons, roped up and started up. Thankfully it stopped raining, and in fact soon cleared up entirely. For the first time on this trip I was now beginning to feel the altitude. The initial climb was gradual, but after a couple hours we started up a long steep ascent, maybe 30 degrees slope; it felt about the same as Dead Dog couloir on Torrey’s peak back in Colorado. The snow was in excellent condition, perfect crampon bite, but with marching orders to stay relatively together, we were moving s-l-o-w-l-y up the mountain. Fine with me! I kept doing the math in my head; would we have time to make the summit before the appointed 8am turn-around time?
Somewhere after a couple hours we made had a long stop to rearrange rope teams. That 40 minutes was the longest, coldest of my climbing life. But it was necessary, and rearranged properly, up and up we went. Finally the slope relented, just as dawn approached. One rope team decided to turn around, and on a small saddle, we rearranged rope teams again and finally continued up. We approached a steeper section, and Edgar decided to place some pickets. Trouble was: Sharon and I only had 15 meters or so stretched between us, and we couldn’t span the pickets that the longer 4-person lead rope team placed. So I placed a couple more myself, though we were still unprotected for brief sections. No matter; it wasn’t that steep.
The steep section relented, but up ahead was a very exposed traverse, 200 yards of side-hilling on a 40 degree slope with yawning crevasses below. THIS is the section we should have saved our pickets for, in my opinion. A sharp right turn followed by a step over a bergshrund (where Edgar had placed his last picket) and finally we were on the final, gentler summit slope. A half hour later at about 7am we were basking in some rare Ecuadorian sunshine on the top of Cotopaxi. Sadly, it was cloudy all around and we only got brief, hazy glimpses of the 500 meter deep summit crater. The good news is that it was quite warm and not windy on the summit so we spent about 45 minutes on top relaxing and enjoying our success.
The descent was tiring, wet and cloudy but uneventful, and 4 hours later we were back at the Jese Ribas hut, huge smiles on our faces. Turns out that Cotopaxi is 2 meters higher than Kilimanjaro, so Sharon celebrated her success of a new altitude PR ! Difficulty-wise, Cotopaxi was just about what I expected; a tough physical climb, with one or two spots of steep snow, and dangerous crevasses lurking all around. Cotopaxi earned my respect.
Chimborazo (6310 meters, 20,700’)
After our Cotopaxi success, we headed to the excellent little town of Baños for two nights of R&R at a mere 6000’ of altitude. What a cool town, and what a fine time we had there. It sits very near the base of Tungurahua, an actively venting Volcano. Turns out we happened to hit the town in time for their anniversary celebration, complete with a fun, loud parade through town. Two nights and a lot of food and gift-shopping later, we were off for our final lofty goal, Chimborazo, the high point of Ecuador.
Imagine our surprise when the final few miles of bus ride to the huts were in a dense cloud? I’m not sure how our bus driver (Milton) ever saw the road, I could not. Pulling up to the lower hut, we went inside and had a full lunch. No dinner tonight, as we would bed down at about 5pm for a 9pm “rise and shine” for a 10pm climb start. After lunch, it was about a half-hour walk to the upper (Wymper) hut at an even 5000 meters for some final preparation and rest. I (and apparently everyone else) managed to get some good sleep at the hut although I did seem to have some Cheyne-stokes breathing issues in the 5000m (16,500’) air. 9pm came very quickly! Tea and toast and under clear skies, off we went at 10:15pm.
We were repeatedly warned that Chimbo was a significantly harder and longer day then Cotopaxi, so many of us were a bit nervous on what to expect. My buddy Wayne told me that Chimbo was the hardest single-day climb he had done. We knew that conditions weren’t always favorable for a safe climb of Chimbo, and that there was some much more serious terrain ahead somewhere. An hour into our evening stroll, it was finally time to don our crampons and rope up. Maybe two hours after that we reached a ridge and Edgar told us that the most difficult section was just ahead, a 55-60 degree ice/snow/rock section, so we stretched out our short ropes to full length and continued on. Sharon and I were the 2nd team, and up ahead I could see that the lead headlamp (Edgar’s) was pausing while placing some ice screws on the 60 degree slope. The initial section of this was merely class 3 rock, but with a bit of ice mixed in and I was happy to clip into Edgar’s ice screws. Not too much further we reached the steep ice/snow section and given that we had ice screw protection well placed, this was actually some very enjoyable front-pointing. 100 vertical feet later we were all resting on a flat section on top of the pitch.
It was getting progressively colder (as it does ascending high mountains in the middle of the night!), so we put additional clothes on and started on up. I should have put my shell pants on, but chose not to. This was an error in judgment, not soon to be repeated! Up and up we went on the 30-degree unrelenting slopes of upper Chimborazo. We paused and Edgar informed us that we would be absorbing Andrzej on a different rope team as his climbing partner was done for the day and had to turn around. I was very sorry to hear about this as he is an accomplished climber, just having a bad day. We waited for Andrezej and Diego to catch up, maybe a half hour,.. THIS is when I should have put my shell pants on, but again, I failed to be wise. Finally, onward and upward we went, chilled to the bone. I had chosen to wear merely leather boots for this climb, on a tip from a reliable source. My feet/toes were in fact marginal, but not too bad. For most however, I would recommend plastic boots for this mountain. If were to ever return I would wear plastics myself.
Dawn was approaching, but it was still getting colder. My legs were now getting too cold to stand, so I finally had to pause and pull on my shell pants, not a trivial task fully geared and roped up, so it took 10 cold, long minutes. The lead team pulled further ahead, though we were still in visual contact. Sharon and I felt good, but could not catch the lead team, though we were not losing any more ground and were only a couple hundred yards behind. Sure, Sharon and I were knackered at this point, climbing past the 20,000’ altitude mark, but overall we felt very good. It soon became apparent that there was a summit of sorts ahead, but I figured it was a false summit. Topping out we didn’t even pause but continued on towards a higher summit in the distance. Was that the Wymper (true) summit in the distance with us just having passed over the lower Veintimilla summit, or was that Veintimilla up ahead, with Wymper beyond that? Wayne had warned me about how tough physically the trek was from Veintimilla to Wymper, but this was relatively easy. So that couldn’t be Wymper ahead. That was Veintimilla ahead, for sure, with a tough traverse to Wymper to follow, right? Up we went the final 200 feet or so. Excellent surprise! There was nothing higher ahead! We had made the Wymper summit after all, no sweat. Whew! Apparently we got very lucky and had a nice, hard-packed traverse from Veintimilla to Wymper, not always the case.
It was 6:30 am…we were at 20,700’…it was COLD, Damn cold…. but it was at least sunny. Off in the distance was a parade of Ecuadorian volcanoes, our first good view thereof: Cayambe, Cotopaxi, Antisana and Tungurahua still spouting away its huge plume. We made it to the top of Ecuador and we were standing as far from the center of the Earth as possible. We were as close to Heaven as one can be on the Earth. We were happy. We ran in to a few new friends we had seen on the earlier climbs, our pals from Germany and a lady from Sweden. “My boobs are frozen” she said. Andrzej loaned her his down jacket. Stand up guy! Lots of summit pics were taken, but being nearly hypothermic, we decided to head down quickly.
Passing by the Veintimilla summit, we ran into two of our party, Steve and Cleve and their guide, Rodrigo. Poor Steve was having eye problems (acute Glaucoma) and had to turn around there. Too bad as both he and Cleve could have easily made the Wymper summit if it were not for Steve’s eye troubles. At least they made it to Veintimilla, apparently where a lot of folks call it good enough.
So down we went, and within an hour or so the warming day and decreasing altitude worked to warm our chilled bones. We took some nice food breaks, down-climbed the steep portion without incident and straggled back to the Wymper hut around noon after a 13.5 hour day.
Chimborazo was NOT a piece of cake by any means. It was a serious and physically tough mountain, at least by my modest mountaineering standards and this made it all the more satisfying.
This trip report wouldn’t be complete without a mention of our last two nights in Ecuador spent at the absolutely decadent hot-springs resort of Papallacta. It is near the base of Antisana, (except: we never saw Antisana…alas…no worries!) Who now cared that it was cloudy and rainy? We spent the first afternoon entirely in the hot springs, sipping rum-and-cokes and Pilsner beers and swapping stories/ memories of a truly fine trip to Ecuador. Next day…more of the same…I was 100% waterlogged…it was great. No trip to climb in Ecuador should end without a visit to this gorgeous and restful place. Sharon and I returned to Colorado thoroughly rested and satisfied. I told the trip leader, Greg, that it was my best 2-week vacation ever. I meant it. Sharon agreed.
Two years from now, perhaps a return to this beautiful country to attempt some more Volcanoes including Cayambe, Illiniza Sur and Antisana.