After a year of preparation, months of training, and a few days with our families, we finally got together for the two week expedition that was to be our first real high altitude experience. Ironically, for eight Coloradans that had been living in excess of 7000' for over 3 years, our journey began in Miami at the charming elevation of about 25 feet MSL. Here we met over summer leave and boarded our Copa 737 for Quito, Ecuador. Upon arrival, we had a contact at the Hotel Savoy Inn of Quito, where we made our base for the next two weeks. Quito, at just over 9200', was a great place to start acclimating. We did so with walks around town and a short but interesting hike from the Plaza de San Francisco up El Panecillo (the Little Bread Loaf), a prominant hill and landmark in Quito consisting of hundreds of stairs. The Lonely Planet advises against this walk in favor of a taxi due to high risk of muggings, but in our large group we met no problems.
We began our true acclimatization hiking on the 23rd of July with a hike up Rucu Pichincha, a 4680 m peak that is easily accessable via the TeleferiQo, a new gondola that will take climbers to 4100 m for $4 ($7 is the express line, it would have been worth it). After about 4 hours of hiking a high grassy ridge, we finished the last hundred feet of class III scrambling to top out at 15360', already the highest any of us has ever climbed, and higher than any point in CONUS. Best to do this hike in the morning before clouds roll in, but make sure to check the operating hours of the TeleferiQo first.
During our acclimatizing phase in Quito, we were waking every morning to stunning views of Volcan Cotopaxi from our hotel window. On the 25th of July, after less acclimatizing than we had planned on, it became too much. The five of us that would be climbing the glaciated peaks decided initially to head to the hut on Cotopaxi for an extra night to acclimate further, but later decided against this as we approached the city of Lasso by bus. We decided that the more time we spent at 16000' without having acclimated better first would just be more time that our bodies would be decaying. So, as we arrived in Lasso at about 2 in the afternoon, we finally made the decision to go for the summit that night. After a few inquiries to the locals, we found Patrico, who was willing to drive us to the parking area below the hut on Cotopaxi for $10 per person. After an hour and a half of riding in the back of his pickup truck and paying the $10 per person at the park entrance (note: the park entrance closes at 1500, and we made it with only minutes to spare), we arrived at the cold and foggy parking area, about 45 minutes below the hut. After arranging a pickup back to Lasso at 1300 the next day, we hauled way too much stuff up to the refugio and began looking for a place to camp. There is a good place to camp over the ridge past the bathrooms, however we were told that if we wanted to use the refugio for cooking and the lockers as we had planned, we would have to pay the full price anyway. We thus decided to go ahead and scratch camping in the sleet that was falling at this point and paid the caretaker $18 each to use the refugio. We went to bed around 2000 after clearing out the kitchen with a pot of Mac 'n' cheese that went horribly wrong. Had a tough time falling asleep but after the first hour or so with our hearts racing we all got a pretty decent sleep until waking up a little after 12 AM. Getting dressed and getting down some oatmeal took longer than expected, and we left the hut around 0130, about 30 minutes behind several guided groups attempting the mountain that morning.
There is a well established trail past the bathrooms and over the ridge. We reached the first glacier in only 30 minutes. The bottom of the glacier was crowded with guided groups still roping up, so we took our time and after they had all gone, we started up the glacier at about 0240ish. The going was smooth for about 30-45 minutes as we started passing to the left of several seracs...and then we hit a major crevasse/icefall. At this point, a tip from a climber earlier in the day finally chose to surface, and we accordingly backtracked down and went to the right of the seracs and crevasses to leave the glacier entirely and hike another 20 minutes up loose rock and scree to reach the bottom of a second glacier tongue. Up this, it was several hours of straightforward glacier travel. Large crevasses were easily avoided and small ones had good snowbridges. Towards sunrise, things got more interesting. Large crevasse fields funnelled us back to the main trail, which wove up, through, and around some spectacular ice formations, seracs, and crevasses. After these, there was a pitch (100' or so) of steep (60-70 degrees) snow and rime, and then a few more switchbacks took us to our goal!
We summitted at 0808 and took plenty of pictures. We could see several other peaks including the erupting Tunguahara volcano over Banos and our next nemesis, Chimborazo. We left the smoking crater of Cotopaxi to begin our decent and arrived back at the hut around 1130. After packing and hiking down to the parking area, Patrico picked us up about 40 minutes late and after fighting another driver for our business (nothing too ugly). In any case, we got back to Lasso and had a long bumpy busride back to Quito, where we passed out victorously in the Hotel savoy Inn.
After 2 days of rest in Quito, Jen's foot had not recovered from a badly smashed toenail she received courtesy of her boot and Cotopaxi's bruital angle on the descent. She eventually decided not to attempt Chimborazo for fear of jacking up her pieds even more, so it was only the four men that got up to take a bus from Quito's terminal terrestre to Riobamba on the 29th of July. We left the girls with plans to mountain bike in the Amazon basin around Baños, and the busride to Riobamba took about 3 hours. We arrived in Riobamba around 2 pm or so and as soon as we left the small bus terminal and walked onto the street, a man on the other side recognized our extreme gringo climberness and offered to take us up to the lower hut in his truck. We told him we needed 30 minutes for lunch, and he ushered us into the restaurant right there, Restaurant Don Washingon, which it seemed like he owned as well. After only $6 for all four of us to get rice, beans, soup, and chicken, we were off on the hour or so drive to the hut. After paying $10 each to get into the wildlife refuge that surround the mountain to protect the Vicuña deer-creatures, and $40 for the ride, we were dropped off at the carrel hut at 15900' and arranged picup for 1500h the next afternoon. A short break here and a 30 minute hike to the upper "Whymper" Refugio got us there around 4-something. It was really only $10 each this time to stay in the hut, and once the day-trippers left, we shared it only with a Frenchie and his guide and the caretaker. Spaghetti tonight was way tastier than Coto's Mac 'n' Cheese, and we got decent sleep after going to bed around 7. A 10:30 wakeup gave us time to get ready for the summit attempt. We shared our only 2 packets of oatmeal among the 4 of us and headed up the trail around 11:30 PM. The night before we had scouted a bit and decided to follow a large "V" shaped coulour/snowfield up to just under the El Castillo cliffband on the ridge and then traverse over to the mountain proper. We chose this route because the "El Corridor" section of glacier as mentioned by our Guidebook from 2000 (BY Yossi Brain) seemed seems to no longer exist, and the mountain was holding a lot more snow than expected. (the snowline was almost to the refugio in most places) To get to our chosen coulour, we headed up the well-established trail away from the refugio and kept veering left past two small hills to reach the steep part of the mountain. The guided Frenchman didn't go as far left and instead headed up the more direct "Thielman Glacier" route, which looked steeper and tricky & technical. After several hundred feet of easy screebashing, we roped up and crossed into the snow. The climb was maybe 40 degrees and straightforward, and the traverse undernieth El Costillio was easy save for a few moves over some verglass directly under the El Costillo edge when gaining the mountain proper. Once on the big chunk of the mountain, the climb was monotonous. A few small crevasses but with easy snow bridges occassionally broke the otherwise featureless climb over rime ice and snow all the way to the summit. Frenchie called for the retreat (surprise surprise) about 4AM and we had the mountain to ourselves, but navigating to the Vientmilla summit was easy, and we gained it around 7:15. With Adam feeling sick and not a soul among us that wasn't hypoxic, slow, and cold, we decided this summit was enough and after a few pictures in the high winds, we began our decent. Some glissading was possible on the decent, although near the El Costillo traverse Adam dropped his helmet during a break, which fell about 600' down the Thielman Hanging Glacier. This prompted a technical, tricky, unroped, split-up, FUN decent down the ice waterfalls and snowfields of the direct route (we got the helmet back). Everyone was back at the upper hut by noon, and we had plenty of time to pack and rest at the lower hut before our Don Washington driver-man showed at 3PM to return us to Riobamba for a busride to Baños via Ambato to meet the girls at the Hostal Plantas Y Blanco. Natural hot baths that night were all we could ask for, and felt amazing. We had done it. We made both of our high altitude goals despite a lack of diamox, guides, or experience. Awesome.
After our return to Ambato and a visit to Quisapincha (great leather markets; nice jacket ~$35), we made it back to Quito on 31 July, (Harry Potter's birthday). Another trip up Rucu Pichincha with Rachel and Nikki and Adam followed, giving all 08 of us on the trip a summit of over 15,000 feet. Some more shopping and relaxing closed out our adventures of the southern hemisphere, and we were on our way to America on 3 August.