Visiting Ecuador was not something I would have foreseen when I was young. To be honest, until I head the words, ‘Cotopaxi’ and ‘Chimborazo’, my knowledge of the country was limited to its location on the Equator, and the fact that the people of Ecuador spoke Spanish. So when Jesse first brought up the idea of going there to climb some of the volcanoes, I felt like I was jumping into a great black hole in regards to real cultural knowledge.
That was in late March of 2009. Jesse and I had just gotten back from climbing Pico de Orizaba, and I found myself hooked to the idea of climbing bigger mountains. We ambitiously began planning, and set our sights for January of 2010, we planned, and trained, but the trip had to be delayed for a number of reasons to December of 2010.
Provided with all of that time, I did my best to learn something about the country that uses the Equator as its Spanish namesake. I spent countless hours developing itineraries and planned as much as possible with as much precision as possible. Potential team members came and went, as I developed friendships with all of them. As the departure date neared, we even came up with a Team Name and campy little logo.
Before I knew it, I was on a plane to Ecuador for two weeks. The plan was a very conservative one. We would arrive in Quito, spend a day getting used to being in the country, climb Guagua Pichincha, and then start a series of climbs with rest days in between to keep ourselves from burning out. We planed on doing Iliniza Norte, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. We had hired a guide for Chimborazo through Sierra Nevada Expeditions, but the rest we planned on climbing unguided. We had even left 3 weather days to give ourselves every opportunity to have sucessful ascents. As I sat on the plane I felt like I had given myself every possible opportunity to succeed, now it was up to us, and the weather.
We arrived in Quito with the nightly rain. Shawn and I blew through customs, and went to the transportation desk… Kelly’s flight was not so timely and two hours later she came out of customs. Oh the things we saw while waiting! Namely a Spanish Metal band, Mago de Oz, come through customs to screaming girls and cheers…. We almost got our own autographs since we were right there and figured we might as well… but we thought better of it and just watched the swarm.
Our first day in Quito was a blur of walking through the beautiful old city, checking out churches, and making the sketchiest climb of the whole trip… the spiral metal staircase over the sketchy wood platform in the Basilica in Old Town Quito. That afternoon we started trying to plan for Guagua Pichincha, figuring it would be much more straight forward planning the transport than it turned out being. After wandering the town attempting to find a transport provider, we located a place that recommended Rucu Pichincha. We were not really very excited about that idea with the reports we had heard of how dangerous that mountain was in regards to the risk of being robbed. We were assured by a guide service that if we took the TeliferiQo up, and climbed from there we would be fine, but that we should under no circumstances climb it from Cruz Loma.
With some amount of trepidation, we woke up the next morning, trimmed our packs of anything of value and got in the taxi to the TeliferiQo. It was an $8 ride to the cable car that is located just above a small amusement park located on the side of the Pichincha volcano. It was a Saturday morning, but there were no lines given the cloudy conditions. We loaded into the gondola, and started the ride up through the clouds.
The top of the Teleferico is comprised of a few paved paths around a building that on a clear day overlooks Quito. There is a church down a short hill, and a wide dirt path that works its way up the ridge in the direction of the triangular summit in the distance. Once we were at the Teleferico top, the clouds cleared some, and we made our way along the long ridge, joking frequently about the banditos
The ridge led to the bulk of the large summit pyramid. The trail left the ridge, and worked its way through amazingly green vegetation as it loops around the opposite side of the mountain. A wide gully, that was filled with soft dirt came into view and we followed the small path to the rocky saddle. By this time I was feeling our elevation. We were nearing 15k, and I was starting to slow down a bit. There were cairns that led south, and seemed to switchback up towards the summit, but Shawn and Kelly found a solid, and fun looking scramble that was closer to the north ridge.
We made it to the summit just in time for the clouds to re-emerge and engulf us. Despite this we decided to cop a squat and took our time enjoying the elevation. After an hour, we headed down, just as we heard a clap of thunder below us. This definitely got us moving, and we felt like we made good time to the bottom. We took our time at the TeliferiQo, soaking in the acclimation. Shawn and I decided to help encourage some additional acclimation with a Cervesa before heading down completely intact, with all our property, and with only stories of friendly people to report back.
As a side note regarding the stories of robberies on Rucu Pichincha, we talked with Freddy at Sierra Nevada several days later and he reassured us that climbing from the TelifericQo is safe. He said that for quite a long time there was a man that was aggressively robbing people on the mountain, and that at that time it was dangerous. However, in 2007, that individual was arrested and he reported that he had not heard of anyone who climbed Rucu Pichincha from the TeliferiQo being robbed since then.
After getting back from Rucu, we went out to a nice dinner for $8 in the Marscal Foch area before turning in for our trip to the Iliniza hut the next day. We took a taxi from Sierra Nevada to the Quitumbe Bus Station (a routine that we would become very familiar with). As we pulled in, our taxi driver, who had asked where we were going pointed to a bus that was pulling out of the terminal and told us that it was bus to Machachi. The bus attendant noticed, and they slowed down, he hopped off grabbed our stuff, threw it under the bus and we were on our way. The bus took us to the main bus terminal in Machachi, where we easily found the blue and white bus with El Chaupi in the window that would be our next chariot.
On this ride, a nice lady with a german shepherd that was terrified to get on the bus, sat down next to me, and talked as much as my limited Spanish allowed. When we reached the last stop, she made sure we got off, saying “Aqui, Aqui! Illiniza, Aqui!”. Once off the bus, we could clearly see the giant statue of the cow with a lady milking it, and we started down a road that seemed to have a sign that pointed to Iliniza…. We were wrong. After a half hour walk out and back we found the right road, and a yellow hostel that was more than willing to call someone to give us a ride to La Virgin. The ride cost $10, and before we knew it were in the clouds at 13,000ft. The gentleman who gave us the ride up was quick to arrange a pick up for 1pm the next day, said a prayer at the Shrine and left us in the fog.
There was a moment of initial confusion because nothing says whether to go left or right. In the thick clouds it was impossible to tell and the wooden map didn't give us much of a hint. This time, unlike in El Chaupi, we made the right choice and went right, following the road as it worked its way upward to a creek crossing with a wooden bridge and a wild vaca, horns and all… it did not look very happy to see us come up on it in the thick fog.
The trail is fragmented by a number of paths that have been created by erosion. However, every so often there are signs with an arrow pointing to the correct direction simply labeled ‘refugio’. A little more than halfway into the hike to the refugio, the clouds started parting, which allowed us to catch a glimpse of Iliniza Norte above us. Our morale skyrocketed, and we pressed onwards, working our way up the trail until we saw a person sitting on a rock at the top of a large hill that we could see was headed towards the saddle. As we worked our way up, the person seemed to come down a bit to meet us. We were excited, knowing that this had to mean that we were getting close to the Refugio. The young man met us below the spot we had seen him, it turned out he was the Refugio Guardian, Freddy. He was very happy to see people, and was excited to talk, telling us that the Refugio was very close, which it was, despite how it felt. As the bright orange building broke through the fog, I couldn’t help but feel my heart speed up. Here is was, the first Refugio of the trip!
I was also a little bit nervous. I had heard a lot of negative things about this refugio. I had heard that it was dirty, cold, and not well maintained. As we walked in I knew immediately how wrong those reports were.
The hut was very nice. It was clean, looked to have new beds and benches, and the kitchen area was well maintained. Freddy, the guardian, was beyond friendly. We ended up having the hut to ourselves, and I can definitely see how it would get very crowded, very quickly, but we were able to sprawl a bit.
We did our best to get to bed as soon as it got dark. Our first night sleeping at 15,600ft was a long one. A couple of us woke up with headaches, and I struggled to get down had of a bagel in the morning, forcing warm water down. Overnight, the skies had cleared, and there was no way we were not giving it a shot.
We left the Refugio a little bit later than we had planned at around 645am. Hiking towards the far side of the saddle opened up views of the mountains around us. As soon as we came to the Southeastern ridge of Iliniza Norte, the scrambling began. While there was a clear path through the scree that would have kept us below the ridge on the Southern side of the ridge and would have met up farther up the ridge. We found a cairned route that kept us much closer to the ridge crest proper on very solid rock. This also gave us amazing views of Iliniza Sur and Cotopaxi in the distance. We were awestruck by the views. At the point the scree path met up with the ridge, we crossed to the opposite side of the ridge.
After a very short period of time, we found ourselves on snow, which made things much more spicy. While the snow was still extremely hard, previous boot tracks gave us stable foot holds except for a few, very spicy moments. Looking back, I think I would have put my crampons on as soon as we saw the snow, but we were safely making our way without them, and it was not long before we were working our way up to the short class 5 exit. Shawn made the very timely comment (as it was also going through my head at the same time) that we would need crampons for the descent. All 3 of us took a different route up and out of El Paso del Muerto. Kelly worked her way to the right of the rocks, while I felt more comfortable, without crampons finding a very short 3 move class 5 rock to work my way up. Shawn stayed left, on the snow, until he reached a point that allowed him to reach a slightly easier rock section.
Once above this difficulty, we had a short scramble to the summit, where we spent a brief moment cramming a quick bar down, and snapping the must have summit shot as clouds started to push in. On the way down, Shawn and I put the brakes on joking until we had navigated ‘the no-joke section’. With crampons on the descent was much more secure, and we were able to navigate an easier route through the class 5 section. We decided to try the snow gully we had been told about, and skipped the exposed gullies. However, there was a price to be paid. We discovered when we reached the trail at the bottom of the gully, that we were now several hundred feet below the hut, and a long way from it. We could see the ridge we had climbed the day before in the distance, and plodded through the scree, making our own trail around the mountain back to the refugio. The snow field would have been wonderful had we planned on not going back to the hut, so as a day trip it’s a perfect option if conditions permit.
Under the gun with time, needing to meet our ride by 1pm, we packed up quickly, thanked Freddy, the Hut Guardian, and headed out. The descent was quick, the soft dirt that had been such an annoyance on the way up was a blessing on the way down. Our ride was early, and we had a nearly seemless trip back to Quito.
Cotopaxi - Part the First
After Iliniza we felt good. No one had major altitude issues, and the climb went well with the weather co-operating. However, as I lay in bed the night before we were set to head to Tambopaxi we could hear the rain start. We woke up to a very wet world around us. The cab ride to Quitumbe, and the bus ride felt more stark, with some of the scenes of the difficult life that many in Ecuador lead made more harsh in the cold rain. Things like young boys juggling fire in the rain with no shoes and soot covered faces, a puppy barely able to walk limping through a crowd begging for food, and a man literally thrown from the not-quite-completely-stopped bus because he had not paid (in fairness another person eventually paid for him but at that point he had become belligerent and kept arguing with the attendant). This bus ride really opened my eyes more than they had been up to that point in the trip to the reality of life in Ecuador. I had a bit of an existential crisis as I rode on the bus, carrying thousands of dollars worth of gear to climb a mountain, while the people around me were struggling to survive.
I was pulled from my reverie by the attendant calling us to come up to get off the bus, we were at the park entrance! We grabbed ourselves, and hopped off. The attendant barely had enough time to pull our bags from under the bus before it was moving again, with him running after it and jumping onto the bus that was pulling back onto the Pan-American. We looked at each other, and across the busy highway, and took a deep breath before we ran across, feeling a bit like we were in a Frogger game.
As soon as we crossed the street, we were approached by one of several drivers with 4x4 vehicles that were parked in a lot just off the road. We quickly had a ride arranged to Tambopaxi, and headed up. Our ride cost us $40, and the entrance fee was only $2, which was a nice surprise. However, the entire ride up Cotopaxi was in clouds. The clouds had no break, but would periodically move up just enough to see that the snow line was very low.
We arrived at Tambopaxi with light rain. We spent the rest of the day watching the mountain, waiting, hoping that it would clear enough to give us hope that things were improving up there. The wifi also gave us the ability to get weather information, which was a long way from promising. I was given a map of the systems by my brother, who is a pilot, and was told there was a system off the coast that was pushing moisture into the country. After an amazing dinner, we hit the sack and woke up early to see that Cotopaxi was still socked in. As time went by, the clouds briefly cleared, letting us see a line of climbers descending from the Jose Ribas Refugio. When the clouds lifted off the summit, we saw a group coming down the mountain, but it was impossible to tell if they had reached the summit or not. Unfortunately, the clear skies didn’t last, and before we knew it the mountain was socked in again.
Complicating matters was the fact that one of our team was not feeling well either. After an enormous amount of debate, we decided that based on all the information we had it just didn’t make sense to go up to the Jose Ribas Refugio at this point. The weather was not co-operating, the forecast made it look very unlikely that we would be able to head up that night as planned, and one of our team was fighting a cold. We decided that the best course of action would be to head back to Quito. Our schedule had included 3 extra weather days at the end, and we decided that we would try to climb Cotopaxi after Chimborazo, if weather permitted.
We headed back to Quito, and found ourselves back in a very rainy Quito. The next morning we found out that the weather had continued to deteriorate on the mountain, and that we had made the right decision. However, sometimes even when you do the right thing, there are negative impacts. We were told by the owner of Sierra Nevada that he was concerned about our acclimation if we had not yet climbed a peak higher than Iliniza. Additionally, the weather throughout the Ecuadorian Andes had deteriorated substantially, and the likelihood of a successful summit attempt on Chimborazo was minimal at best. Based on this information, we decided to move our next climb to Cayambe. The weather looked like it would be marginally better, so it just made more sense.
We decided to spend the day going to the Mitad Del Mundo (Equator) monument. It was neat, but we got hammered with rain on the way back. The next day we decided to attempt to climb Rucu Pichincha again for acclimation, but were turned back due to the weather at 14,100ft so we spent an hour hanging out at the TeleferiQo. Our spirits had begun to sink, the weather was turning people back throughout the range, from the Pichinchas to the Ilinizas to the larger volcano’s and the forecasters kept pushing the end of the weather backwards. We let our gear dry from our attempt on Rucu the rest of the day, and tried to make the best of a day stuck in Quito.
The morning we left for Cayambe everyone started feeling pretty good about things. A team had made it several hundred feet shy of the summit the day before. They had turned due to avalanche conditions, but if the mountain didn’t get too much more, then maybe this would stabilize. On the drive up we met our additional team member, Jacob. He was a really nice guy who seemed like the type of person that would be cool to hang with for a couple of days.
We stopped in the Village of Cayambe for supplies, and the town was having it’s Sunday market. This was another opportunity to see a major difference between the US and Ecuador. As we were sitting there, an older man was sitting on the sidewalk with a wooden flute. He had no shoes, and his feet were twisted with what was probably arthritis. He would periodically play the flute, and had a hat cradled in his legs for money to be tossed in. I watched as parents of local children would give money to their kids to toss in the old mans hat. There was a time here that this would have been common, for parents to teach their children to be kind to those who have less, but in the generation of me-first it's so rare that the sight tore at my heart as I felt deeply that our country could learn a thing or two from the world I found myself in.
Before we left, the clouds that seemed to be hovering over the peaks around us moved over the Village and threatened rain. The long road to hut was made more interesting by the snow that showed up at the swtichbacks. The guide looked back at us and told us that this is where it would get interesting. We made it less than a quarter mile from the hut before the snow got deep enough that shovels became necessary, but the vehicle eventually made it up to the hut, as heavy wet snow fell. The guide pointed up to the steep ridge to the right of the Refugio and told us that the route started there.
As we ate lunch, there was a brief moment where the clouds let up enough for us to see the terminus of a glacier across what looked to be a glacial valley, but the clearing ended before any photos could happen. We went for a short hike around outside before eating dinner and going to sleep, which came slowly with a guy in the room that had a snore that made him sound more like a World War II bomber making passes through the room than a human snore.
1130pm came slowly. My headphones had worked up to this point, falling asleep to Skinny Puppy or New Order with my journal on the iPhone glowing in my face, but the snoring kept pulling me awake. When the guides woke us up, they were really only prodding me out of my sleeping bag, I was not really asleep. There was only one other person with a guide attempting the summit, and we went to the second floor to try and force down some breakfast and get our boots on. We all managed to be somewhat cheery about the prospects of success, as the darkness of the night prevented us from seeing what was waiting for us outside.
The guides announced that it was time to go, we pulled our packs on, and as we walked outside reality hit. It had been snowing all night, and was still snowing. The snow was wet and heavy, making an outer shell necessary, as the snow turned to water moments after landing on your body. The guide let us know right away that this was not a good sign, that we would go as far as way safe, and maybe if the weather broke higher up then we could summit.
We started our upwards progress quickly, as the trail starts with a steep ascent. The short scramble above the hut was complicated by the snow and ice that covered the rocks, causing Jacob to take a fall early on. He was undeterred, and got back on the rock and moved upwards as our shells got soaked. While the pace was perfect, I found myself sweating under the hard shell, and even as I dropped layers underneath, I just couldn’t get dry. The moisture permeated everything from the inside out. I desperately wanted to pull the shell that was trapping the moisture off, but knew I couldn’t without ditching my hood as well. I found myself between a rock and a hard place. The higher we went, the worse it seemed to get. We reached a point where the slope angle eased, and we dropped briefly before climbing back up to the base of the glacier.
We could see headlamps coming towards us, which made my heart sink. Our guides spoke with the guide that was leading his client down, and they let us know that they had turned around due to snow conditions. We were told that normally weather would have changed by now, and this was not good. We decided to rope up and climb up and see what conditions were for ourselves. After getting geared up, we started up the glacier in two teams of 3.
I am not entirely sure how long we traveled upwards, but my gut started screaming that this was a bad idea. The slope was starting to steepen and I have learned to listen to my instincts. Aside from that, I had promised a climber that I deeply respect that I would trust my gut so I asked the guide what he thought. He said that this was actually a good place to check, and started digging a snow pit to see what the layers underneath looked like and make an objective assessment of the avalanche conditions. Shawn, Kelly and I both plunged our axes, and could immediately feel the slab beneath us, which the pit verified. As Estallin dug, slab after slab revealed itself, all with weak layers in between. It was clear that the snow was not in condition to climb, and it didn’t seem like there was any rational choice but to turn around. Estallin let us know that we were coming up on a steep slope, and it was better to turn while we could. The climb down felt colder, as we were exerting less energy and everything was wet.
When we got back to the Refugio, I felt a little bit empty inside. I knew we made the right decision, there was no part of me that disputed that, the pit had told us exactly how dangerous continuing on really was, but this was becoming too much. First Cotopaxi, then our second Rucu climb, now this. I took my SPOT beacon outside to send the message that would let my wife know we had made it safely back to the refugio, set it out in the snow, and quietly watched it as the sky lightened and snow covered its flashing lights with white.
As I felt myself start to shiver from sitting in the cold, and I was sure the messages had been sent I went upstairs and crawled back in my sleeping bag. It had been a long time since I felt this dejected on a mountain. In Colorado, we would have stayed home with weather and avalanche conditions as bad as they were, and I would be planning for another day. Or we would have simply found a different mountain to climb. Ecuador was forcing some humility upon me, and I felt a lot of empathy for my buddies who spend time and money to go to Colorado only to get weathered off. It sucked.
Everyone woke up several hours later, and our guide promised us that he would call around and see if conditions on Cotopaxi had improved, and let us know so that we could try that peak one more time, but as we climbed into the land cruiser to head down to Quito in the heavy wet snow, it didn’t feel promising, and there was talk of spending our remaining time in Ecuador in Banos discovering the hot springs.
Cotopaxi – Part Deux
Estallin gave us the news that he had heard that a group had reached the summit of Cotopaxi and that conditions had cleared some South of Quito. This gave us hope and we spent the remainder of what should have been our Cayambe summit day drying out our gear if the reports of reasonable conditions on Cotopaxi kept up. We discussed go/no-go standards for if we headed up. We did not want to be in a similar situation as Cayambe without an objective set of eyes, so the plan was if we went up and conditions were equal to or worse than Cayambe we would not leave the hut to make an attempt.
The morning of the 21st we woke up to the best weather we had seen in over a week in Quito. The sun was shining through scattered clouds, and the forecast for Latacunga and Machachi was the best we had seen since we had left Quito for Tambopaxi a week before. At breakfast, Freddy from Sierra Nevada encouraged us to give it one more shot and even offered to let us ride with another of his groups as far as Machachi. We decided to go ahead and take the buses again since it would give us the time we needed to get our now mostly dry gear back in our packs.
The trip down the Pan-American felt much less ominous this time. We passed through a couple of wicked thunderstorms, but we were encouraged that instead of the widespread murk associated with low preasure systems was gone, replaced by single cell thunderstorms that would pass. This time we were ready for our sudden exit off the bus, and were ready to go as we approached the entrance. We were even able to catch a ride to the Refugio car park for $30, which was less than before, with wild horses and views of the mountain as we drove up the road.
From the car park, the refugio looked tantalizingly close. We pulled on our packs, and started up the slope. Shawn made the appropriate comment that he would really appreciate the soft dirt on the hike down, but the soft dirt on the way up definitely pulled our pace back. We made the Refugio from the car park in about 30-40 minutes. It was nice to drop our packs, and we were happy to find that there were still bunks and storage lockers. The mountain had cleared, and we could see the slopes ahead, which were all white. People were hanging out with their guides practicing crampon skills just above the Refugio in the several foot deep snow that surrounded the building. There was another group, 12 large, from Colorado there preparing for a summit attempt along with a number of others. It was clear that this was our window, and we felt good for the first time Since Iliniza Norte about our chances.
Sleep at the Jose Ribas Refugio was harder to get than it had been on Cayambe. Between the excitement, and the german climber who had decided to use the empty bunk next to me as a gear prepping platform as I tried to sleep, I struggled to stay asleep. We woke at 1145pm, and I was not feeling as well as I had before. I felt better the Iliniza Norte, but my head was still hurting. I checked my Pulse Ox, it was in the low 90’s, so I knew I should be ok, but it slowed me down. I was glad I had eaten enough before bed, because I was not really in the mood to eat. We had discussed rope positions, and since I would take the middle on the glacier, I offered to carry the super nice rope that my buddy Tom had loaned me for this trip up to the glacier. We left the Refugio at 115am, crampons on with the Stars and Moon glowing brightly above us.
A line of headlamps was spread out across the slope leading to the glacier. Not too many people, but enough. We took our place in the line, and started up. I was really feeling the rope on my back, and between that and my headache I was moving slower than I had on Cayambe. Shawn politely offered to take the rope a couple of times, but there was no way I was passing that on to someone else. I had offered to carry the rope, and they had the protection, it was the fair thing, but I was worried with how I was feeling. When we reached the glacier, I took a couple of shots of Quito in the distance glowing in the night sky and we roped up. This was one of the 2 bottlenecks on the mountain. With everyone figuring their gear out, some slower groups ended up starting up the toe of the glacier in front of faster groups that were willing to pass everyone, even if it meant stepping on other team's ropes. It was one of the few moments on the mountain where I just couldn’t figure out what other people might be thinking.
One way or the other, without the rope on my back I was feeling a million times better. I had also taken the opportunity to down water, and some Energy Beans, which I am sure, also helped. We started winding our way through the maze of crevasses, marveling at their menacing appearance in the moonlight. Cluds rolled in as we entered the icefall, making it extremely surreal. The haze and darkness make the ice walls and crevasses seem like an alien landscape, as though we were on a different planet. There is nothing like this in Colorado, and this was way more impressive than anything I had seen on Orizaba. The group of three climbers in front of us slowed down as they moved through the fall, and they would not let anyone pass. When we reached the traverse, they came to a stop, blocking passage as they decided what to do. Shawn, Kelly and I were becoming frustrated, as the cold was setting in, and the slower we moved the harder it was to stay warm.
When we made the traverse I could understand why they had paused for a moment. The slope to climbers' left clearly dropped off into nothingness, and happily the clouds and darkness filled it in. We planted our ice axes into the wall of rotten ice to our right, but knew that this would not hold a fall, so this was a no fall zone. Despite the spice, it didn’t last long, and shortly thereafter we found ourselves passing the group that had been in front of us. They seemed to be erecting a bivy to warm up, but were ok so we moved on. The next stop was the crux of the climb.
First light had illuminated the sky, and as we approached the ice wall in front of us the clouds we were in cleared for just long enough that we could see what lay ahead. There was an ice ramp that was the weakness in the wall running climbers left up the wall. This proved to be the second bottleneck of the climb, both ascending and descending.
We waited patiently for our turn, and instead of setting a belay, we simulclimbed the slope. All of us were happy for our ice tools, as the mountaineering axes struggled in places to break through the ice. Once up the slope, we knew we were close. The last steep slope leading to the summit was covered in sugar snow that was horrible to climb, pushing out from under your boot every step. It was like the mountain was telling us she was not quite done. When we reached the summit, the wind and clouds welcomed us bitterly. Nothing could bring us down though, this was a high point for all three of us, and we had climbed strongly. With my life long asthma, I feel like I have beat some invisible enemy that had told me I couldn’t so many times as a kid. It felt good to be cold and to look into the clouds at 19,347ft. Despite the cold, we stayed long enough to take a couple of photos, and then headed down, telling ourselves we could get food and water above the crux.
Reminding ourselves that we were only halfway, and that we had a long way to go until we were really in a safe place, we started working our way down. The first hundred feet off the summit are a mellow slope, it then steepens a good bit. We didn’t measure it, but if I had to guess I would say it was between 40-45 degrees, and just as on the way up, the snow was rotten. After watching a woman in the group before us fall, and struggle to gain her control back, we all opted to face in and kick steps down. It gave us enough security in the loose snow that we moved much faster than we would have otherwise.
We finally got to take a quick break and get some well deserved water and food just above the crux. While it felt safer on this flat and wind protected area, we knew that the winds had kicked up and if we didn’t get down we would risk having the boot pack covered, so we made quick work of our break. To save time we skipped the ax belay that other groups were building for their descent of the crux and simulclimbed the gully/ramp. It would have been miserable had we been forced to do it without our second tool, but with the solid placements we were getting with our ice tools, it actually felt really good to move with more speed.
Now that we had light, we all wanted to get shots of the alien landscape we were re-entering, so we took a shot of the first crevasse we came upon after the crux, and then made our way down with all the speed we could while keeping ourselves safe. The freezing mist that was blowing through the wind was painting frost over our goggles, blurring our vision as we worked our way across the traverse that remained as obscured by the thickness of the clouds as it had been in the lighter clouds and darkness of the early morning on our way up. When we reached the icefall the wind was cut, but the clouds seemed thicker, and the added warmth made this seem like the last place to stop. Aside from that, it was nearly impossible to pause without someone being on a snow bridge. Even though I looked around at the ice towering above and below me in the haze, longing to pull off my pack and get some photos, I resisted the urge in favor of keeping us moving out of the maze, and to the end of the glacier, where the clouds we were in would be less of a threat to our safe return to the Refugio.
Once we were off the glacier, the clouds seemed to clear, opening enough to let us see the Refugio below. It was nice to know we were not far from being able to really take a break. The snow on the slopes to the glacier had softened with the warming temps lower on the mountain, making the plunge stepping without the rope tied to us feel like we were walking on clouds. We reached the Refugio at 1130am. It was so nice to sit down, and pull our heavy double boots from our feet, and put lighter boots on.
Our ride was there early, and this time the tired bus ride back to Quito felt a million times better. Freddy, Estallin and the staff at Sierra Nevada seemed as excited as we were that we had finally gotten the summit of one of the big ones. While we wanted to go out and party when we got to Quito, we found ourselves eating dinner at 6pm, and were dead to the world within minutes of getting back to Sierra Nevada.
Happy Endings Are a State of Mind
By the time we woke up the next morning, the little hotel felt like our second home. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I thought I was at home and wondered for a moment where my wife was before realizing it would still be a couple of more days before we got home. The next day we headed back out into Quito to finish our purchase of stuff for our families, and for me, to make up for some pictures I had taken on my first day that had not come out.
Walking through Old Town 15 days after our first time here felt different. I felt safer, like this really was a good place. Really, no more safe or dangerous than Downtown Denver. Because in the end, people are the same everywhere. No matter where a person goes, people are just trying to do the best they can with what they have.
With this thought firmly planted in my head, I made sure to give the nun in the convent we visited a donation, and it made me feel so good to see the smile on her face when I give her something. I am not a religious man, but the sign of the cross she made made me feel warm inside.
The rest of the day passed quickly, with our last night landing us at a Mexican restaurant we had been eyeing every time we walked by because of the guy who stood outside in a Mariachi outfit, with a giant mustache. It was the best meal we had the whole trip, with Shawn landing himself a beer that was close to being the size of a 2 liter bottle.
Now that I am back at home, and have had time to reflect of the trip, I couldn’t feel better about how things went. Sure, we didn’t get every peak we went looking for, but we do know that we pushed ourselves to the point where reason and safety dictated it was time to stop, and in the end we all came home safe, in one piece, and a little bit more aware of the beauty and the struggles of the world outside of our world of privilege. I feel humbled by that little country on the Equator with an enormous amount of soul. The country I had felt so unsure of when I first started planning will now always live with me.
Itinerary and Miscellaneous Costs I Couldn't Find Elsewhere
What We Had Planned
Day 1: Leave Denver and Arrive in Quito
Day 2: Quito
Day 3: Guagua Pichincha
Day 4: Hike to Iliniza Refugio
Day 5: Iliniza Norte
Day 6: Rest Day
Day 7: Tambopaxi
Day 8: Upper Cotopaxi Refugio and Glacier Skills Practice
Day 9: Cotopaxi
Day 10: Rest
Day 11: Chimborazo Refugio
Day 12: Chimborazo
Day 13: Reserve/Weather Day
Day 14: Reserve/Weather Day
Day 15: Reserve/Weather Day
Day 16: Return Flight to Denver
Day 1: Leave Denver and Arrive in Quito
Day 2: Quito
Day 3: Rucu Pichincha
Day 4: Hike to Iliniza Refugio
Day 5: Iliniza Norte
Day 6: Rest Day
Day 7: Tambopaxi
Day 8: back to Quito due to Weather
Day 9: Bad Weather Day
Day 10: Attempted Rucu
Day 11: Cayambe Refugio
Day 12: Cayambe Attempt
Day 13: Travel to Cotopaxi Refugio
Day 14: Cotopaxi
Day 15: Sightseeing Day
Day 16: Return Flight to Denver
Transportation and Refugio Costs
Getting around Ecuador by bus is very easy, and the taxis are not bad. We found that taking cabs summoned by the hotel were nicer, and more expensive by several dollars. As a result, getting places was always more expensive than coming back. I did my best to track costs but lost track with the buses so I will provide a range for those
Central Quito to Quitumbe Bus Terminal: $12
Quitumbe Bus Terminal to Central Quito: $8
Central Quito to TeleferiQo: $8
Buses averaged $1.50 per bus per person
Transportation from the Pan American to the Upper Hut on Cotopaxi: $30-$40 each way
Transportation from El Chaupi to La Virgen: $10 each way
Iliniza: $15/person per night
- Tambopaxi (broken down as per person cost because you cannot cook so you must rely on buying food there)
- Lodging per night in a shared room: $19.52
- Dinner or Lunch: $13.42
- Breakfast: $8.30
- Jose Ribas Refugio: $22/night per person
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