After successfully climbing Guagua Pichincha, Illiniza Norte, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo (Ventemilla) back in January 2005, I started to put together a return trip back to Ecuador for the summer. Gunner, who unfortunately could not make the January trip, was more then eager to join me.
We planned for a short trip since both of us couldn’t take too much time away from family and work. We had decided on acclimatizing on Ruminahui, then hit Illiniza Sur, and Chimborazo (I was hopeful we could make it to Whymper summit this time).
I arrived in Quito on Friday afternoon after 2 hour delay in Miami. Remembering the routine from January, I quickly got a cab and checked into our hostel, Posada del Maple. It’s located in a quiet side street just off La Mariscal (tourist district). Having stayed only 6 blocks away back in January, the surroundings were very familiar and I was eager to get out into town again. However, due to one reason or another, Gunner’s flight did not get in until Saturday morning, which proved to be problematic. He lost one precious day of sleeping at 9000 ft. It certainly hurt him on Ruminahui.
Arriving in Quito Saturday morning, Gunner wasted no time getting ready to play tourist for one day. We rode the newly constructed cable cars (Tereferico) up to 13,000 ft on thefoothills of Pichincha Massif. There were steep trails at the top of the cable cars so while admiring the great views of the high volcanoes, we actively hiked around for acclimatization. Views of Cayambe, Antisana, and Cotopaxi were awesome!
Afterwards, we walked around Old Town and climbed up the two towers of La Basilica and visited the Saturday market in the parque El Ejido.
The following morning (Sunday), we rode in private transportation toLaguna Limpiopungo in the Cotopaxi National Park. The standard start off point for climbing Ruminahui. We had planned on climbing Ruminahui Norte (15,459 ft), the highest of its 3 peaks. Starting off at around 10am, we more or less followed the description given by big_g on the mountain website. The climb was nothing special but it was good altitude for our first climb. We took few breaks in-between and admired the view. Near 15,000 ft, Gunner started to really feel the altitude. Not at all surprising since he was just at sea level 36 hours earlier. It was 2:30pm when I reached the saddle at approx. 15,300 ft. Gunner was still 50 vertical feet below. I waited for a little while but it was nearing 3:00pm and not wise to be on the mountain much later. When Gunner deciding it was not wise for him to push on any further, I hurried on to the summit. Quick shots with my Cannon digital camera and I was off and descending down the gully trying to catch up with Gunner.
That night, we stayed at Llovizna Hostel in El Chaupi. I like this place because it’s very quiet and its owner Bladimir is one of the nicest guys I’ve had pleasure of meeting in my short 7 years of climbing. The next morning (Monday), we decided to recover a little from our Ruminahui climb and continue our acclimatization. So instead of heading up to the refugio on Illiniza to spend a night at 15,400 ft, we hiked up to the hut but came all the way back down to town. This time, Gunner had no ill affects of the altitude and he felt really strong. Gaining confidence, he was eager to give Illiniza Sur a shot.
Tuesday morning, we woke up to gusty winds and very cloudy condition. Nonetheless, we headed up to LaVirgen and continued onto the refugio. The winds were howling at times along the approach trail and it was uncomfortable. Still, we were hopeful of getting that "window" of climbing. We checked into the hut and basically planned on going if and when the weather cleared up. Just on the side note, this hut is by far the crummiest in Ecuador. It’s small, dirty, and lacks good ventilation(read my TR from January). But this time, we were the only ones there, along with hut keeper Jose. I did not encounter any altitude illness so I was "pumped" for this climb.
Unfortunately, the weather did not clear up at all throughout the night. So by 2am (Wednesday), we decided to give it our best efforts anyway. It was lightly misting so we knew we would be in for a wet one. Unfortunately, due to poor visibility and conditions, it took us 3 hours just to step foot on the glacier. We had trouble following the maze of cairns on the way to the glacier. This probably cost us the summit because by then, we were pretty soaked and ice covered from head to toe. Adding to the misery, Gunner’s fingers were getting numb from the wet conditions. For the time being, we donned crampons, roped up, and headed up the glacier with me on lead. We made good time until we reached the crux of the climb. At this point, we were beyond wet and cold. Though it was light already, I could not turn my head lamp off. About ¼" of ice was caked all around it, which prevented me from getting to the on-off button. To make matters worse, Gunner was losing feeling in his two fingers on his right hand. Quick discussion and we both agreed that we should turn around. The prospect of climbing through the technical and steep slopes under these conditions was asking for trouble. I was little worried about the ascent but more worried about the descent too. Being further exposed to the elements and down-climbing or rappelling down these steep slopes did not appeal to me at all. We figured we were approx. 200m from the summit using my GPS.
Back at the hut, we dried off as much as we can. Gunner headed straight for the sleeping bag and stayed cocooned for at least an hour thawing out. I just tried to get warm by drinking hot tea but it took a while before I started to regain my warmth again. We briefly discussed our next goal, Chimborazo but we knew we had to regroup and dry our gear off. Everything from our shell down to our thermos was soaked, not to mention our gloves. So we decided on heading back to Quito.
When we arrived back in Quito that afternoon, we were starving. We had not had much to eat all day. Craving for some non local food, we headed straight to Pizza Hut. Man, that pizza tasted sooo good. Come to think of it, that may have been the best food we had the entire trip. We sat inside the restaurant in 80 degree warmth and stuffed our faces! It’s so funny that 8 hours earlier, we were freezing our asses off.
We spent the next day (Thursday) playing tourist while our gear dried off. We visited the thermal springs of Papallacta and had good carbo-loaded dinner in Quito. With our gear pretty much dry, we were ready to tackle a high volcano.
Gunner and I decided to tackle Cotopaxi instead of Chimborazo. It was much closer and from talking with local guides, Cotopaxi had better snow conditions then Chimborazo. I had climbed it before but prospect of summitting this mountain twice appealed to me. We figured our probability of success was much higher on Cotopaxi too. Around 2pm on Friday, we were dropped off at the high parking lot on Cotopaxi. The sky was clear but the winds were a lot stronger. As a matter of fact, when I started the shortapproach hike to the hut, I was gasping for air. With combination of altitude and heading into the strong steady wind (40mph), I had difficulty breathing. Every time I tried to breathe, the wind was taking my breath away. At one point, I felt like I was going to explode inside because I couldn’t get enough oxygen in me!!
Eventually recovering and getting into a steady pace, we reached the hut in 30 minutes. Throughout the evening, we listened to the winds howling outside. But most of the teams in the hut were gearing up to give it a go. We were leaving Ecuador on Sunday so we had no choice. We could not delay our attempt. Surprisingly, I slept very well this evening. Hitting the sack at 7:30pm, I did not wake up until 11:30pm. Far cry from my 1 hour sleep I had the last time I was here. I finally coaxed myself out of the warmth of my sleeping bag at midnight and started to get ready. Gunner and I were off at 1:30am on Saturday and the winds were strong as ever. It had not died down at all.
Reaching the glacier in mere 30 minutes, we put our crampons on and roped up. We pushed on through the icy sections of the lower glacier, encountering steady winds of 40mph and gusting to 60mph (my best estimate). At around 6:30 am, we were mere 200 meters from the summit. Possibly another hour of climbing to go. Gunner and I still felt very strong, despite fighting the wind and cold throughout the morning. We stopped at a very well sheltered location and rested for few minutes with another group of 3 (2 Americans and their guide). They continued on as we watched them front point up the steep slope and rounded a corner when all 3 of them hit the deck almost simultaneously. Gunner and I were little confused as their guide motioned something and all 3 started to downclimb. When they got back down to where we were, we started to understand what was going on. As they rounded the corner, they encountered winds so strong that their team was almost blown off. The Ecuadorian guide exclaimed "not possible, wind too strong".
Well, that was it. This was to be thehigh point of this climb. We were not going to risk injury or death for this mountain. This guide, who I recognized from last January, certainly knew what he was talking about. If their team was almost blown off the mountain, I certainly was not going any further. So….we headed down. Looking back, I’m pretty sure we made the right decision. The wind I encountered on this climb was the strongest I’ve ever climbed in.
Overall, we did not have good success climbing on this trip. Nonetheless, it was a great time and great learning experience. On Sur and Cotopaxi, we felt we climbed very hard and gave it our best shot. I have no regrets at all.
It is true what they say about Ecuador climbing. The winter months are little more wet but less wind, whereas summer months are clearer but very windy. I am already chomping at the bits to go climb in this beautiful country again. But it will have to be during the winter months!