Los Seis Amigos y los Volcanes de EcuadorOSAT members Lori U, Kathy H, John M, Pete S, Rod B and Rik A spent two exciting weeks south of the equator in February 2002. The trip, which was organized by 2001 glacier course student Dick B who subsequently had to drop out, was in the planning stages for six months. We made a number of climbs together during the fall and winter getting ready for the trip. Preparations were capped off at the final meeting before our departure where we were treated to Shirley’s slide show of the Ecuador trip she made in 1992 with OSAT originals Jimmy, Charlie, and Dick; our anticipation quotient was passing 12 on a scale of 10 when we finally departed for Quito.
In addition to climbing, we took in the famous market at Otovalo, the streets of colonial Quito, the Equator monument ("Mitad del Mundo"), a bull fight, and even the small zoo north of town.
Climbing the big volcanoes in Ecuador is not an expedition-type of experience. Its more like a series of enjoyable weekend club climbs, with the added attraction (and challenge) that the peaks are all over 15,000 ft in elevation, and between climbs you have time to take in the delights (and challenges) of a different culture.
Warmup on Guagua Pichincha
We began with a dayhike of Guagua Pichincha, a recently-active volcano immediately west of Quito. Our guide dropped us off well before the end of the road, so we got in a full 2500+ vertical, beginning at over 13,000 ft. We took pictures of our altimeter watches as we passed Mt. Rainier (14,410) before we even got to the parking lot at the refugio. The surrounding countryside was a lush cultivated valley, and the hike from the refugio to the 15,728 ft. summit provided us views into the crater and a little scrambling near the top.
After this, we were ready to do some high altitude glacier climbing. The next morning we loaded the Land Rovers and headed down to the town of Machachi, which was to be our base for climbing south of Quito. We stayed in a wonderful hostel west of town. Because it was Mardi Gras weekend, we were the only paying guests in the hostel, as the rest of the rooms were taken by family and friends of the owners.
Iliniza Sur - NOW we're really climbing
Our next climb was Iliniza Sur. The plan to have some of us on Iliniza Norte and some on Sur was changed at the last minute when Kathy had to return to our Machachi hostel due to a lung infection she imported to Ecuador from Seattle. The two hour hike to the comfortable refugio was made relatively easy by the fact that we elected to hire horses to bring up our gear.
Iliniza Sur lived up to its reputation as the most accessable steep glacier climbing in Ecuador, with a couple of sections of 45+degree ice. We trusted our crampons and our French technique, and didn’t have to put in any of the ice screws we brought, but were glad for the ice climbing brush-up we did on Coleman Glacier of Mount Baker the previous fall during preparations for the trip.
The 2,000 feet of climbing to the summit took over four hours. The initial rising traverse of the lower glacier felt wierd, with that sensation that the slope would be less steep if we just went a few feet lower (just out of range of our headlamps -- an illusion of course.) When the sun rose we enjoyed fabulous views in a wonderful setting, with Norte at our back and the main route of our climb ahead. The slope of the glacier was "just right", not low enough to be boring, but not so steep that it was overwhelming. This remains my most memorable glacier ascent.
Sitting on the 17,267 ft. summit we surveyed our next objective, the beautiful Cotopaxi.
Cotopaxi - More Adventure Than We Wanted
After celebrating Mardi Gras in Machachi, complete with water balloon battles and a volleyball game at 10,200 ft. elevation, we headed for Ecuador’s most popular climb. The second highest peak in the country is a seemingly perfect cone, reminiscent of Mt. Fuji, but over 7000 ft higher. The Land Rovers were parked at 15,100, and we scrambled up the scree slope to Jose Ribas Refugio at 15,750.
We had the route to ourselves the next morning, and saw the shadow of the mountain stretch to the west and touch the Ilinizas. To the south we saw Chimborazo, Ecuador’s high point, and Tungurahua which let off a steam explosion while we were watching. Tungurahua was the highest Ecuadorian summit attained by the 1992 OSAT group, but was off limits in 2002 as it has been erupting since late 1999.
John was “feeling run down” prior to the Cotopaxi climb, and we should have been asking him more questions about his condition when he was late getting to the refugio the day before. When we returned from Cotopaxi’s 19,347 ft. summit, we found John unconscious, suffering from HAPE and in need of immediate evacuation down the mountain. There was no oxygen at the refugio (which there was supposed to be), so we put him on a stretcher and carried him down the scree slope to the parking lot as fast as possible.
Aftermath - turning short of the summits but having fun
The rush to the hospital was a bit more adventure than we had bargained for, so only Rod and Pete elected to make an attempt on the big one, Chimborazo while the rest of us re-established Quito as a base for some day trips and checking on John, who was released after a couple of nights in the hospital.
Rod and Pete only made it as far as the base of the glacier on Chimbo’, where the party was beaten back by rock fall and high winds. Meanwhile, Rik, Kathy, and Lori took a day hike down into the lovely Pululahua Crater, a caldera that supports a farming population of around 300 in a quiet oasis not far from the hustle and bustle of Quito. A couple of days later Pete, Kathy and Rik escaped the smog of Quito on an excursion to the Cayambe refugio, another comfortable climber accommodation at over 15,000 ft. that provides the base camp for a climb to just below 19,000ft. right on the equator.
Of course there was much more to this trip than just climbing. Among memorable experiences were the markets, museums, Mardi Gras, bus rides, a wide variety of restaurants (Pete and Rod even tried cuy – guinea pig – for dinner one night), and health care in a developing country. We had it all, and enjoyed most of it. Kathy and Lori added a cruise in the Galapagos to unwind from the exertions in the high country. Anyone thinking about an international climbing trip would do well to consider Ecuador’s volcanoes high on their list. If you do, let us know…we still have to take another shot at Chimbo’!
KCMADS – Pedro, Rikardo, Rodreguez, Katerina, Lorita, and Juan
The neat thing about web resource such as SummitPost.org is it is so easy to edit in response to comments or suggestions. Please return to the top of the page and provide a page score on the pages you visit. You may also send a quick note to the authors with ideas on how to improve their descriptions!
Thanks -- Keep Climbing Mountains, and Don't Slip!