Trip planning & the first daysThey say half the fun of taking a trip is planning it. I agree and that leaves another half for more fun!
Travel dates - June 13 to June 21, 2012
Approximately one year ago, I set the gears in motion to travel to Ecuador to climb mountains. My climbing partner would be my college-aged daughter. Our objective, Cotopaxi. An airfare on Expedia caught my eye; I must immediately purchase two tickets to Quito...the price is low (and for a reason). Codeshare flights involving United Express(formerly Continental Express), United Airlines (formerly Continental Airlines), and Copa involving (2) stops. The potential for a flight delay and a baggage mishandling was significant. Having worked many years behind the scenes at a major airline I had doubts our luggage would be at our destination. A delay of the inbound flight at Minneapolis airport meant we would misconnect in Houston so we were rerouted on American via Miami. "If you hurry you can catch the flight. I will reroute your luggage" the ticket agent said. But our luggage! I had to let it go; from now on I took a "no worries" approach as we headed for Ecuador.
Approaching Quito Mariscal airport (elevation 9228) was spectacular. A clear night revealed the twinkling city lights below. You could tell there was significant topographic relief by the different elevation of the twinkling lights, some low some way up high. The pilot set the flaps, lowered the gear and made a few steep turns. It was awesome. The 757 touched down, brakes and trust reversers on full. Exciting! See the following you tube link for a visual aircraft landing at Quito - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RVCc79rasnU
Now into the terminal, baggage claim and customs. There, on the carousel, were our backpacks! Hats off to ticket agent for rerouting our bags.
I had selected a fully guided (4) peak acclimatization program prior to arriving in Quito (more specific information on the tour operator I used to follow). My instructions were, I would see a person at the airport holding a sign with my name on it after clearing customs. The door leaving customs opened to a large group of Ecuadorians, one with a sign and my name, and off we were to a hotel in the Mariscal district of Quito. This was a long (19) hour day of airports, TSA, etc. We stayed at the Travellers Inn. Comfortable(firm mattress), clean beds and an excellent breakfast (scrambled eggs, breads, fruit, good coffee). To date, the furthest south we had been was the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica so it felt great being on the South American continent.
Our first day was to drive north from Quito to the equator and visit the Mitad del Mundo and Intinan Museum. The purpose was two fold. First we would be spending a day at roughly (9330) feet in elevation for acclimatization and second we would be introduced to Ecuadorian culture. We had a personal tour of the museum given by the only English speaking guide and, I believe, she was the Director of the museum. So, we received an "advanced placement" course on the various groups of people in Ecuador. We exited the museum with a much better understanding of the peoples of Ecuador...The Shuar and head shrinking!.... We did buy some souvenirs in what could be described as a bit touristy area, however we did not have time in our itinerary to hit the more traditional markets of Otovalo or Sasquisili.
Onward south to the Machachi / Aloasi area for our deluxe "base camp" accommodations at LaEstacion Hosteria.
Pasochoa (13,779) feet
June 15, 2012
Weather - Sunny to partly cloudy. Temp - upper 60's F (lower elevation) to low 60's F on the summit.
The first 1/3 of the trek up Pasochoa was through primary old growth Andean forest on a well traveled two track road. After breaking out of the forest we were on paramo grassland in full sun so we were able to shed some clothing. The trail was clearly visible, slicing diagonally up the grassland to a rocky outcrop. The rocky outcrop is the ridge that ultimately leads to the summit.
2 hours 10 minutes - Trailhead to summit. Coming down went quickly, however I did not time it.
This was our first of four peaks and I would like to note some personal physiological effects I experienced. First, altitude - At 13, 774 ' we did not experience the effect of altitude. We elected to use Diamox (Acetazolamide), 250 mg / 2 times a day. I feel this eliminated the pounding head ache I have experienced in the past. A side effect of Diamox was the frequent need to pee. Second, on descent, I always experience muscle pain in my thighs due to the constant breaking action of my thigh muscles. I felt this on Pasochoa despite training (running) and using a variety of gym machinery (for over a year - almost daily) in preparation for Cotopaxi. I guess there is no substitute for the real thing. For flat landers like myself I would recommend building up your rectus femoris muscle (somehow) if you are one who experiences the downhill muscle burn. It only gets worse on the following three peaks!
Corazon (15,718) feetJune 16, 2012
Weather - Trailhead / cloudy, breezy, temps in the 50'sF. Summit / fog, ice pellets, snow, temps upper 40'sF.
Driving out of the town of El Chaupi felt like a maze of dirt roads. Good thing we had a guide with intimate knowledge of the area. There was no designated trailhead I could see, simply a pullout for a car. This was in paramo and we began slowly trekking up toward the distant base of Corazon (the rocky part). It was nice to see an Andean fox sleeping within a stones throw of us.
We were excited about reaching the summit of Corazon as this would be our personal high point, having tackled a half dozen Colorado 14ers. If Corazon, the second of our increasingly higher peaks was all we could climb, I would be happy, ecstatic even. So we approached the rocky section, put on our helmets and ropes and were off. Now in roll the clouds, snow and ice pellets. Through the clouds one false summit after another presented themselves.
We were close to the summit. The effects of altitude made breathing more difficult. Nothing serious, just huffing and puffing. One last scramble and we were on the summit! We ate lunch and slowly worked our way down. Hail continued with a roar of thunder off in the distance. Fortunately, we were well below the summit ridge so the threat of lightening strike was minimal. We could see the car off in the distance. This distance gap between us and the car closed slowly as we slogged through the wet grasses. We made it! Sore, wet and tired.
I thought Corazon was a physically demanding, long trek with some exposure and challenging weather.
Illiniza Norte (16,818) feetJune 18, 2012
Weather - Evening arrival at the refugio - light wind, temps in the 40sF, clear. Overnight at the refugio - clear, temps dropped below the freezing point. Summit day - clear, light wind, temps in the 50sF.
Illiniza Norte was peak #3. We had seen it, and neighboring Illiniza Sur, on several occasions and were impressed by their beauty. Being somewhat of a novice climber, I had concerns going into this one, namely the Paso de la Muerte, or death pass, a narrow rocky ledge that makes a 30 foot traverse across a significant vertical drop. This was on my mind for some time.
We arrived at the parking lot/trailhead under sunny skies. Two horses were set up to carry our packs the 2-3 hour hike up to the refugio. Elevation at the start was roughly 13,000 feet with an overnight stay at roughly 15,500 feet. This would be another first for us, a brisk hike at some good elevation and spending the night at 15,000'...I wondered what sleeping would be like?
The horses were headed up the well travelled trail first, followed by us. I really enjoyed looking at the unique vegetation and the Illinizas in the distance.
As the sun set, the few clouds at the summit of Illiniza Norte were bright orange. It appeared as if flames were licking the summit!
We arose to a beautiful day. The sun was rising as we slowly ascended the saddle formed between the two Illinizas.
Descent was down the North face scree route.
The scree route descent afforded us a direct route back to the parking area, bypassing the refugio. As we approached lower elevation the vegetation started to change. While looking at the plants we spotted some Caracara chicks.
It felt good sitting in the car. Our legs were sore and tired. We were happy we had just climbed to the top of a 16,818' peak and enjoyed every minute of it! Illiniza Norte was our favorite, but Cotopaxi would provide its own reward!
Cotopaxi (19,347) feetBefore attempting Cotopaxi we had a half a day to explore the nearby town. From our lodging in the town of Aloasi we took a cab to nearby Machachi. I was surprised to find it cost a mere $2 one way for a 10-15 minute ride. First stop was the post office to mail some post cards. Next to the market place in the center of town. We spent two hours shopping, eating and simply enjoying the people.
Shortly after the Park entrance, it is evident Cotopaxi erupted fairly recently (1904). Boulders the size of small cars litter the barren ground. There is little vegetation. Driving up the lower flank of the volcano to the parking area gave us great views of the lava flows of different ages, indicating a long history of activity. From Yanasacha up to the summit was in clouds; just the very tip of the volcano. From the parking area to the Jose Rivas refugio was a tiring hour walk. The trail went through soft, ash like sand making walking difficult. Additionally, we were carrying loaded packs. Fortunately, for my daughter a friendly park employee offered to carry her pack!
The refugio was a bustling place. Folks from all over the world were milling around enjoying a beverage and the splendid weather. As evening approached only those who intended to climb Cotopaxi remained. It appeared there would be five climbing parties. A guy from North Carolina, the Hollanders, two French speaking Ecuadorians, a group of four, and a guy from Venezuela who would tag along with us. The massive refugio was relatively empty.
As late afternoon approached we headed up to the glacier for some glacier travel training. This included walking in crampons, climbing up a short vertical ice wall, self arrest, rope travel and ice axe use. We headed in for dinner and to bed at 6:30pm. We were to awake at 11:00pm. This would mean 4 1/2 hours of sleep. I did not sleep at all. The combination of anticipation, too much tea and liquid (again sloshing around), and overall noise level made it impossible. At 11:30pm it was time to put on the gear. We were on the scree slope heading toward the glacier at 12:15. The evening had a sustained breeze and was relatively cloud free. I was tired and we were at an extreme altitude so my best account of climbing Cotopaxi follows:
I could see the twinkling city lights of Quito down below. Up above I could see the twinkling stars. Between the two was the dark, angling slope of Cotopaxi...Gosh, this behemoth was steep! Don't look again. From now on I looked only at the beam of light from my head lamp on the boot track. My head lamp was growing dim despite fresh batteries. This was the one piece of cheap, inexpensive equipment I brought along and it failed. Fortunately the guide had a spare. Up we went, in the dark, following a narrow trail and its switchback. The slope eased and we entered into an area 1/2 way up Cotopaxi characterized by crevasses, seracs and massive ice formations. We actually went into this big, deep huge crevasse. It was surreal down in there! Calm, quiet and very "glassy" and sparkly. It was like being in the downtown of a large modern city of glass buildings at night, in the rain....shiny. Occasionally we stopped as the guides would discuss the route through the ice. Then we would hop across a crevasse (keep in mind we were already deep in one) from one ice block to another, then duck under an ice overhang.
Once out of the crevasses, we were back in the wind on the exposed slope. There were at least 3 locations where we had to front point with the crampons and use the ice axe in order to climb up. It was dark and I do not know what the degree of the slope was, but it was steep. I do know that the route we took, and its 3 steep ascent sections differs from the general climbing description of Cotopaxi offered here in SummitPost. SP refers to Cotopaxi as "not a difficult technical climb" with one "crux". We experience 3 cruxes, therefore the route must had changed. This was a very exhilarating, challenging climb for us!
I recall our guide informing us that the most difficult, steepest part of the climb is near the summit. When we arrived there, daybreak was approaching. I knew we would not be on the summit to witness the sun poking over the horizon over the Amazon basin. We had to keep moving regardless of the time. We were real close, you could smell the sulfur coming out of the volcano and you could detect a light glow around the summit (from sunrise). but we had to scale the last steep incline. I have to thank my daughter and guide Edgar. I was the last one on the rope chain and off and up they went, disappearing from my sight. All I felt was a tug on my harness as if say "lets go!' Without this tug, I would have wallowed around in a daze at 19,000' for who knows how long. I had to move and move fast to keep up with them. With the last obstacle behind us now, the slope flattened and spilled onto the summit. We made it. We had summitted Cotopaxi!