The trip of a lifetime!
I got off the plan at Quito's international airport after a calm flight from Miami. Though I had thought up this trip only two months prior and had no plans for how to spend the first two weeks, there was little apprehension. With my travel experience, I didn't expect any problems, even with a complete lack of planning.
When I boarded the plane, all I knew was that I had 23 days in Quito for climbing. After two weeks alone, I would meet up with Earth Treks, the climbing company I work for, and accompany them on an 8 day climbing trip in country before having 4 more days alone. I had no hotel reservations, no local contacts, and only the names of a few mountains in my head. But what followed was a great adventure, one that cemented my love for the mountains and South America.
This report is a compilation of several blog articles I published on my personal blog
. As such, the articles will be brief at time and rather informal, but I thought I'd leave them in their original character instead of altering them. Enjoy!
A mini-epic to start the trip!
This update covers Pichincha Rucu, New Years in Quito, and the mini-epic of Volcan Corazon.
I met up with a crew from SAE on Wednesday night for pub trivia. One of the other members there, Jim Spark, and I struck up a conversation and learned he was a seasoned climber. He has done Kiliminjaro, Aconcagua, Denali, Everest, and Cho Oyu, among many other mountains. After talking to him for about three hours, our team went on to win the trivia challenge.
The next morning I met up with two Americans, Dave and Jeb, and their Ecuadorian friend Belang. We went up these trolly carts on the city limits to Cruz Loma, the starting point for the ascent of Pichincha Rucu (4627m).
We bumped into Jim on his way back; he had just done what is supposed to be a 2 - 3 hour ascent in an hour and 19 minutes! We continued on our way but were forced to turn back from the summit base as clouds and rain moved in; Dave and Jeb's bags had been lost by the airline, so they didn't have any of their shells with them.
Though we were frustrated, we had a great time. Belang's mother invited me over for dinner at their house, were they were all staying, and cooked an awesome meal that put a great finish to the day.
The next day New Years eve, so I hung with Dave and Jeb while Belang visited family. We went into Old Town Quito and had a great time walking around and seeing the sites. We even got off onto some side streets, giving us the chance to see lots of Ecuadorians in their pre-festive shopping. Unfortunately, on the ride back we were pick-pocketed. Thankfully they only got both of our phones, but still it was frustrating. It was ironic because as we had gotten on the trolley, I told them: "If there is anywhere where you will be be pick-pocketed, it's going to be on this bus, so watch your stuff!" We did good till the last second, as we had to take our hands off our pockets to fight our way off the bus.
That night was another adventure in itself. Traditional New Years festivities in Quito are a bit unique as far as I've heard. They build effigies of people from the year past, and then the men dress up as the widows, dancing in the street begging for money for the effigies' funeral.
Well low and behold, Belang gets Dave, Jeb, and I dressed up in some of her outfits and had us dance in the streets for money! It was a very... unique experience, but I don't think I will ever want to do something like that again! After we embarrassed ourselves, we went to SAE and enjoy bringing in the New Year with the other members. We played some games, ate grapes (another tradition), and then burned and jumped over the effigies. As this all wrapped up around 1 am, Jeb and Dave went home while Belang and I went out clubbing with some of her local friends. We had a good time, but I didn't get back to the hostal until 6 am. And then found someone else sleeping in my bed!
The next day I met a group of Canadians and spent the day around Quito with them. We had a good afternoon walking around the giant statue of the Virgin Mary overlooking Old Town. However, after a rough ride back to the hostal I started feeling very ill. A hot cup of tea, all of my climbing fleeces and base layers, and Motrin made the world feel alright though. Went out to dinner with the Canadians before an early bedtime.
Woke up the next morning at 6 am and met with Dave, Jeb, and Belang for our train to Aloasi. We arrived at about 10:15 am, intending on climbing Volcan Corazon (4788m) after leaving from the station, what is supposed to be a 9 - 11 hour hike. We left some stuff at the haciendo (farmhouse-style hotel) before starting our hike at 10:30 am, with the wind carrying the haciendo's owner's voice saying we were crazy to start so late in the day for the summit. Undeterred, we made great progress initially. We past the first landmark and followed a very rough dirt road higher and higher up the face. We took a short cut, following a direct route instead of some switch backs, but we lost time with a long lunch and recovery spell. We finally made it past the switch backs and then went cross-country through some underbrush to the mountain's saddle.
At this point it was about 3:45 and we were concerned about night fall (regularly about 6:30), but we decided to push on. I used my trekking poles to mark the sand with arrows and stacked rocks, all meant to aid our descent. As we made it from the saddle to the actual summit pyramid, we found the climb increasingly difficult. We were on lots of harsh grade three and even some grade four for very short spells. Belang was hesitant at first, but she quickly grew to like the scrambling. At one point we were on the Eastern ridge, looking straight down a 200-300 m drop. We made our way aside from the ridge, not wanting the unnecessary exposure. While we bumped into two climbers at about 4:05 who said we were only an hour from the summit, by 4:30 we decided we had to turn back. The clouds were thickening, and we thought we had heard thunder. Not wanting to push our luck, we reached the second and last false summit (maybe 50 m below actual summit and 500 m horizontally away) before we turned back. The moment we started back, however, it began hailing. For most of the hail, it was very tiny stuff, only as large as the 'o' in this font. We worked our way down, luckly having no trouble following our markers out back. However, after about 20 min, as we got lower the hail turned to rain. We all had our hard shells on, but it was pretty rough going. After we got off the cross-country trail back to the road, we found the roads nothing more then a giant muddy slip and slide. At about 6:30 it finally grew too dark and we had to all put on our headlamps (I cannot stress enough how lucky we were to all have brought them, even though we all thought we'd be done by 4 or 5). We got back to the haciendo at 7:30 pm, 9 hours after our start and just caked in mud.
Though we were frustrated with our failure to summit, we were proud of our effort. We tried hard and failed for no fault of our own. Indeed, we could have pushed on for the summit, only 30 minutes away, but with the way the weather went, it could have been an even more dangerous descent. As is, we stripped at the haciendo, took warm showers (it never felt so good to put on clean, dry clothes), and had an AMAZING dinner. The haciendo served us a fixed menu, offering a course of cheese empanadas, a cauliflower/carrot soup with fried egg pieces (a real highlight), a selection of beef, pork, or chicken all served with mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli (they made me a cheese omelet in place of the meats), and then some sort of bread cake. All in all, the best meal I've had in a long, long time. We then passed out!
After another great meal at the haciendo, we got a ride back to Quito. Before we left though, I found a snake in my boot! Not really though, it was just a scorpian in my clothes!
Rest and recovery is on the menu today, and maybe another stab by myself at Pinincha Rucu tomorrow?
On Tuesday, though I was still a little tired from Corazon, I awoke and made my way to the teleferico at the base of Rucu. While getting tickets for the ride to 3850m, I met two German climbers, Juergen and Peter. Juergen is a engineer taking some time to study business administration and travel while Peter is a electrician traveling and climbing. After meeting at the teleferico, we agreed to climb together.
The trek out went well, we made great time from the teleferico to the base of the summit pyramid. We traversed across without difficulty and ascended the scree. However, at the top of the scree, as we began our traverse along the ridge, the clouds really closed in. As we got past the two false summits, it actually began to hail! The hail was larger than last time, reaching the size of marbles and really hurt. I used my bag to create a shelter for myself, but still could only cover my head and chest; my arms and legs took a little bit of a beating. Thankfully the hail cleared up after about 5 - 10 minutes. As we continued, we bumped into Jim Spark (makes the second time I've bumped into him on Rucu!). He gave some critical beta for the summit push, helping us identify an awesome section of rock scramble marked by rock carrins and one white painted marker. After a fun section of scramble, we reached the summit at 4627m and enjoyed the view! We got a few good glimpses of Quito and the surrounding area as the clouds lifted at times. We didn't stay too long though, as we were concerned about the weather. Time from teleferico to summit, 3850m to 4627m: 2 hours and 40 minutes.
Notes on Rucu: Equipment was sufficient; had to climb in sneakers as boots were still soaked from Corazon. No noticed altitude effects. Consumed about 1 L of H20. Trail is clear till you reach traverse. Follow upper trails as they are drier. Follow trail farthest to the right of the scree fields up to ridge, and then follow trail below ridge line past the two false summits. Pass to the left of the false summits, as right side is very exposed to large falls. Descend through scree fields.
Another summit, now Guagua
After the early defeats, it feels great to make some summits! Tuesday evening, after the successful Rucu summit, I met Paulo Roberto, aka Parofes. He is a very famous Brazilian climber, know for his solo climbs on many of Latin America's highest and hardest peaks. He had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt at Cotopaxi (the weather is shit there right now; snow, snow, and more snow). After that frustrating defeat, he was eager to get a summit. That night, we discussed options for climbing Guagua, about 20 km away from central Quito and is the partner mountain of Rucu. It is much harder to get to, requiring either a traverse from Rucu, which is a long day or more likely a two day affair, or a hike from nearby Lloa.
The next morning we awoke to gray skies. We ate breakfast before running down to the internet cafe, trying to find out what the weather had in store for us. On our way out, we met another American, Danni, and invited him along. The weather forecast did not look good, but we said to hell with it and decided we would try. Lo and behold, as we took a taxi to Lloa the clouds started to burn off. Traditionally, to do Guagua, you either hike from Lloa or take a 4W truck up the road to a parking lot at 4050m. We had planned on the hike, but it's a heck of one: over 6 hours with a 1800m elevation gain. However, when we got to Lloa our taxi driver offered to find out about the chance of us getting a ride up further, as we were short on time. We stop in the center of town in front of the police station and the taxi driver runs in. He comes out in about 3 minutes with a man in a nice suit, who is introduced as 'el jefe de la policia,' or the chief of police. After introductions, he immediately begins bargaining with us for a ride up the road! A few moments later and its agreed, and off we go! We get up to about 3800m before a landslide blocked the road, forcing us out of the car.
We hiked along the road, all making good pace. Parofes was taking his time, enjoying the view (clouds had cleared up and we were getting great views of the valley around us) while Danni and I kept a strong and steady pace. We quickly made it to the parking lot and then on to the refuge, following the switchback road. The refuge sits at 4550m, and from there we had two options: follow the easy, clear trail to the left up to the crater's rim before following the rim to the summit, or traverse the base of the summit pyramid and then follow scree up. We opted for the later, working our way up along the fresh snow that was sporadically present. We reached a ridge line and then quickly followed that to the summit. The summit push was 30 degree hike, nothing too serious. The summit was awesome, marked by a large pillar that, when held, allowed to lean over the lip of the crater and peer down into the active volcano. Unfortunately, we could only see steam and fog, but we sure smelled the sulfur! Time to summit, 3850m to 4776m: 2 hours even.
We were joined at the summit by three Spaniards, seen below traversing the rim.
Notes on Guagua: Equipment was insufficient; very cold and windy at summit. In addition to base, thin soft shell, and hard shell, thicker soft shell was needed. Clear path to refuge, and from refuge to rim. If taking traverse, follow higher where scree is more stable. Avoid the direct path up the scree, as this is the descent path and is very tiring to try to hike up. No altitude effects. Drank 1 L of H20. Boots were still damp at start, but dried quickly.
Photos shared with permission from Paulo Roberto, aka Parofes. See more at http://parofess.blogspot.com/.
Killing time healing in Quito
We have been having some less than ideal weather on the mountains. Parofes left Thursday morning for the Ilinizas, but snow trumpted his summit efforts. I stayed in Quito, taking a rest day. My heels were swollen from 3 mountains in four days, so I lounged around reading a Dean Kootnz book and relaxing. Like I said, no real news.
On Friday, I met an American at the hostal who had been traveling through Central America and had just gotten to Quito. She was planning on going out to Mitad del Mundo, the site built up over where the equator is supposed to pass. We caught an early bus out to the main terminal and caught a connecting bus from there. Mitad del Mundo was interesting enough; they have an small museum with info on Ecuador´s indigenous populations.
We stopped for a light lunch, a waffle with fruit, whip cream, and ice cream, before heading back into Quito. Once there I took some time to get my logistics all arranged for meeting up with Earth Treks. While at the hostal planning this, I bumped into a group of Americans I had met the week before; they had just gotten off Cotopaxi (succesful summit; the weather has broken). They told me an ET group had summited too! Low and behold, a little research and I find out that Chris Warner and some other ET group is down here right now. I surmise it´s a private Wharton Business School group... Anyways, bumped into Parofes that evening. He had been turned back by snow at the paso de muerte (the pass of death, which is exactly as it sounds). He will be making an attempt at Cotopaxi on Sunday/Monday; best of luck to him.
Parofes and I are arranging our attempt on Cayambe, the country´s most dangerous peak. The current plan is that we will join his buddy, a local guide with 10 successful summits on Cayambe, and make a three-person alpine ascent. We will likely organize on 16th, leaving that evening, and attempt the summit in the wee hours of the 18th. Very excited, very hopeful that we can pull it off!
Welcome to town, ET!
On Saturday, January 8th, the climbers from ET
arrived. We are staying at a really nice hotel, a great upgrade from the hostal I had been staying at! The first morning, we all met up for breakfast at the Magic Bean, a real treat: I had yogurt with granola and fried eggs, it was delicious! We spent the morning with some briefings, getting oriented to Quito, Ecuador, and our itinerary. We also began getting to know each other: Stephan is a young guy, works for EPA in DC, while Tim is in his mid-40´s and works as a general contractor in Boston. That afternoon we toured Quito, specifically Old Town. This was a lot of fun, touring the churches and just sort of running all over the place.
That night, we planned and packed for Pasochoa.
First ET attempt: Pasochoa
Our first climbing trip with ET was an attempt on Pasochoa. This is a small mountain located outside of Quito that gave Tim and Stephan a chance to acclimatize. We got an early ride out of the city, eventually bringing us to this cobbled but deteriorated road. After a bone-jarring trip, we passed through the gates of a hacienda before beginning our trek. It was very straightforward, just a bit muddy. We got a little rain on the ascent, too. We summited without difficulty, climbing both the real and false summit. The real summit was fun, entailing a little scramble. Also, there was a giant crack at the top: instead of climbing down and going around it like the rest of the team, I jumped it! As you can see from the photo, I didn't quite make it all the way across...
Working our way up a beautiful dihedral, 3/4 way through the Direct Route.
We returned to Quito for a tasty burger at Tio Billy's before an early bedtime, as we readied for Rucu.
Rucu again, via the Direct Route
Now here was an adventure! After taking the teleferico up and hiking to the rock base (see previous post on Rucu for details of that trek), we busted out our ropes and harness for a very exposed climb. Dan climbed ahead, fixing gear (protection to hold the rope to rock in case someone fell) for the rest of us. We then used prusicks (a kind of knot that can slide one way, so that if you fall the knot and rope hold you) to follow.
As I had the most experience climbing, I got to climb last and clean all the protection as I went (essential removing the gear from the rocks and taking it with me, also coiling the rope as I climb). THIS WAS SO COOL! And then we get to the venta del muerte (window of death), which was just so freaking awesome (see the photo below!).
All in all, we had a great summit. Today is rest day in Quito, tomorrow we leave early for Cotopaxi! That means no more news until I get back late on Saturday!
My butt-kicking on Cotopaxi
Cotopaxi was quite the ordeal, a butt-kicking really.
We took the van in the morning of the 13th. We could see the mountain on approach and had to stop for photos several times.
This mountian was to be the highlight for us, and we were all in high spirits. We hiked up to the refuge, which was no small feat! We had our large packs and were at 4810m! This first day was spent resting, laying in bed once we got up there. I´d like to note here our snack for that day: bread with cheese and mustard. Can I say AWESOME?
The next day was an early rise, as we had to get to Snow School. After a breakfast of granola and blackberry yogurt, we hiked out onto the snow at the base of the glaciar. We practiced walking as a rope team, self-arrest, and other ice skills during the morning. It was then back to bed at about 10am, resting until lunch at 1pm. Finally we rested again until dinner at 5pm, another meal which deserves note: pasta with tomato, ricotta, and chestnut pesto. Delish.
After dinner, it was rest time until our summit push. The altitude has not been too much of an issue for me: I was eating well and sleeping without much difficulty. When I wasn´t sleeping, I was reading Ghandi´s autobiography, possibly a new favorite book! But I digress. We awoke at 12:15am, having planned on a 1 am start since we had been crushing all our other climbs and expected to make a great pace. It took us 30 minutes to suit up, getting all our layers on, boots, gaiters, and final packing of our bags. We then took breakfast, eating some danish and drinking hot, hot coffee. Finally, we were off!
We were one of the last teams out, leaving at 1:10 am, but as we proceeded unroped on the snow up to the glaciar, we began to overtake multiple teams. We reached the glaciar quickly, running into a group of about three teams at the base of the steep snow and ice that marked the begining of the glaciar. They were getting their ropes out and preping the team for the real start of the climb. Instead of setting down with the teams there, we made our way up the steep ascent and roped in at the top. This enabled us to pass these teams. A quick change of plans resulted in Tim and Stephan being roped in with our Ecuadorian guide, Ronaldo, and Dan and I operating as a two person rope team.
We ascended the glaciar in the dark of night, only able to see as far as our headlamps would show us. During the descent, I realized this to be a good thing: I had no idea the degree of exposure on some sections! Three specific locations are worth mention. The first was an ice wall that we had to traverese the base of. To do so, we had to walk with our sides to the wall along an ice ledge about six to eight inches wide with a 75 degree slope to the side. The second site was pretty much identical to the first. The third site was a steep ice climb, requiring us to front-point our crampons into the ice and use our axes for hand grips. The photo below is of us doing the same section, during the descent.
And finally, we were there. Exausted and freezing (from the start I had been fighting frost bite on my toes, and then on my hands), we reached the summit. What a view! We were the first team to ascend that morning, having passed all of them on the ascent, and our arrival was timed perfectly to the rising sun! A blistering pace, we summited at 5:50 am, after 4 hours and 40 minutes.
Las Ilinizas, on approach.
The descent was painful: as I regained the feeling in my feet, I also began to feel the big blisters on my pinky toes. Obviously, I was a very happy camper to make it back to the refuge!
The last climb had to be an Epic: A white-out on Iliniza Norte
With Cotopaxi done, Parofes and I had planned Cayambe. However, illness derailed that plan for Parofes. After talking with Dan, I decided to try Iliniza Norte.
We hiked in after getting dropped off at 7:15 am. It was a great day and we had beautiful views of the mountains during the approach. The whole hike in we saw dangerous clouds on Sur, but our target, Norte, was cloud free! The only concern was the fresh snow, which can make what is a technically straight-forward and fairly easy climb much more dangerous.
Parofes working his way through the icy paso del muerte.
After a long approach, we began the ascent. After about an hour and a half, we reached the Paso del Muerte (Death´s pass, or the Pass of Death). Normally not all that dangerous, the fresh snow and ice meant we had to get out our crampons, snow boots, and ice axes. This was a fun section, requiring us to tread carefully.
Finishing the traverse.
I made it through this section and then quickly rushed by another group begining their descent. And then I was there, the summit!
But where was Parofes? Since he had been ill, he had gone a little slower. As we weren´t roped in, I had managed to get a bit ahead of him. I waited on the summit until clouds pushed me off out of concern over a storm. I had to descend looking for him, which was a little harrowing in the white-out conditions of the cloud. I was happy to find him back near the start of the Paso del Muerte, but I was concerned as to what had happened. It turns out that group I passed had been kicking loose all kinds of snow, ice, and rock, making for dangerous falling debris. The result, he couldn´t summit! The photo below is him climbing back up the Paso del Muerte in the clouds.
A little bummed by that, we descended out of concern for the soft snow and ice and the changing weather. Then it was back to Quito for a big dinner at Tio Billy´s!
This trip was a great experience, and a sign of the year to come. Since getting back in late January 2011, I have made three trips to Seneca, WV, two to the Red River Gorge, KY, and one trip each to the New River Gorge, WV and Mount Washington, NH. I learned a lot and got to refine my mountaineering skills, tackling a reasonable mountain and pushing myself. And I met a lot of great climbers, getting to know Parofes, Dan, and Stefan, all of whom continue to shape my climbing career today.