Mountaineering in Ecuador

16 Dec 1999 - by Maxence Nachury

On December 16th 1999, Karin Reif and Maxence Nachury (scribe) flew to Quito, Ecuador, firmly determined to get our first experience of high-altitude climbing. My friend John Zazzara had been there a couple of time and raised my interest on this country for the ease of access to most 5km+ peaks and the legendary welcoming of its people. I divided this trip report into several section to make a future html version.

Notes about Ecuador in 2000

The financial situation of this country is dreadful. During our three weeks there, the inflation went up close to 50%! During 1999, it is close to 285%! At the latest news, the US$ has been adopted as the Ecuadorian currency (http://www.economist.com/editorial/freeforall/current/index_am4164.html). Since a lot of prices were in $ but most Ecuadorian salaries are not, this move should improve the situation of a lot of people (hopefully!). What it means for the tourist are two things: First of all, crime went up dramatically and you are well advised to watch for your belongings all the time. The only incident that happened to us was my camera getting stolen on a night bus while we were both sleeping. We took a cab back to our hotel whenever we would get cash from the ATM. Whenever we had to carry more than 20$, we used a money belt. This might sound like acute paranoia since nothing happens to 99% of the tourists but that is what all the locals advise you to do. The second point concerns credit card transactions: it is HELL!! We lost so much time getting an authorisation for every single transaction... Take travellers cheques if you go. Another inconvenience with credit card transaction is that the seller gets charged 8% extra and the buyer (you or me) gets charged 10% extra!

Apart from this point on finances, this is a wonderful country. We met the friendliest people during this trip. The wildlife is wonderful too. GO THERE!

Acclimatization

(D1) We got great advice from Safari Ecuador (http://www.qni.com/~mj/safari/safari.html). All of the Jeep transfers and guides were booked with them. They are great! Up in the refugios or on the mountain roads, we could see the difference with other agencies. I would highly recommend them for helping with your trip.

(D2) First peak was Pasochoa (4200m). This is a walk-up when you get a jeep to drop you at the end of the road to the xxx face (altitude: 3800m). It takes about 4 hours round-trip through high paramo grass and is a very enjoyable hike with some class 2/3 rock scrambling. We got a glimpse of the high altitude forest on the top but the weather was very cloudy that day. No condor seen (this is supposed to be one of the best spot in Ecuador).

(D3) Second peak was Corazon (4788m). We started from our hotel (la Estacion) at 3100m. It is a technically easy hiking peak. You just need to find the right road et the beginning (ask around) an follow it to the end (4250m). Cutting switchbacks can save time if you don't mind walking through 60cm-high grass. At the end of the road, take the trail going East. You then follow a drainage until you aproach the first rock outcrop. at this point you traverse to the left of this ridge and follow it until the summit (cairns mark the way). There are a couple of class 3 move on the way but no exposure to speak of. We reached the summit at 2pm in a complete fog (why travel that far when you have the same stuff at home?) and got lost on our way down. Bring wands with you!!! I really wished I would have invested 5 $ in those. Anyway it was not that bad since after orienting ourselves with the compass, we got back to a road and could reach our hotel. Still, it took us 5 hours to get to the top and close to 5hrs30min to get back home!

Iliniza Norte (5126m)

The weather had been bad so far and we choose to go with a certified guide since snow was expected. Norte is described asan easy scramble in dry condition but as a difficult and exposed climbs when snow-covered. Edisson was our guide for the 3 peaks above 5km we did. He is a wonderful person as well as a talented professional. The ASEGUIM is the ecuadorian guide school and the instructors initially learned their skills from the ENSA in Chamonix. The guides there really stand up the comparision with their french colleagues. I would highly recommend contacting Edisson directly if you are looking for a reliable guide there.

(D5) This was our first 5km+ peak and we were both very excited about it. We started from the refugio (4650m) at 5:00am with ice axe, crampon and leather boots. The weather was misty and visibility was poor. The temperature was probably in the high 10s. We followed the southeast ridge over solid ground but sometime slippery rock. After about 90min, we reached the "Paso de la muerte" where Edisson fixed a rope. While he was fixing the rope the weather cleared up for long enough to let us have a glimpse at Cotopaxi in the far. What a wonderful symetrical shape this peak has! The traverse was rather exposed with 50: gullies looking down. Karin felt that the rope helped her feeling confident on this traverse. We hadn't put our crampons on at this point and it was indeed slippery. We then headed up a short (100m), steep snow slope until we reached the summit block. An easy rock scramble brought us to the summit (once again in white-out conditions). The way back was easy as we put crampons for the snow sections. I did not use the fixed rope anymore although Karin grabbed it once or twice. We then took a shortcut through some sandy slope on the West of the ridge. It took us about 3hrs 45min r.t. from the refugio. Overall we both fell good and never experienced any nausea and other symptoms of altitude sickness. As for all three high peaks, we started with a very slow pace (10'warm-up) and kept a very moderate but steady pace all the way to the top. Having someone experienced to set the right pace for us was truly invaluable. That is probably the n:1 thing that helped us perform well at altitude. Very often, I felt that I couls have accelerated a bit but after several hours, I was always thankful to our team for keeping the right pace.

Cotopaxi (5896m) and Glacier School

We drove to the Cotopaxi refugio on D6. Once again, the weather was not at its best and snow was falling on us during the short approach from the parking lot to the refugio. We were going to spend 2 nights at the hut (4800m) to leave time for a "glacier school". The afternoon and night of D6 were just spent socializing at the hut with a bunch a fun american and swiss. It was still snowing on and off and none of us felt like practicing skills on the glacier. However, around 5pm, a trip to the bathroom rewarded me with fantastic views of the Ilinizas, Corazon, Pasochoa, Ruminahui and Antisana. As soon as I got back in the hut and told people about the clearing of the weather, everybody went out to appreciate this rare moment.

We were not going to attempt the mountain the next day and tried to get a good night of sleep. Well... with 95% of the people getting up and ready between 1pm and 12 am, that requires some advanced sleeping skills! or good earplugs and eye-mask. Anyway, on D7, we found some gentle slope to practice all crampon techniques. Karin had never been using crampons before and she had no experience with glacier travel. This clinic was very instructive for a complete beginner and we even practiced top-roped ice climbing on a 60: slope. Although I had enjoyed this little practice, I had kept an eye on the overhanging, 30m-high serac to our left and gave it a try on top-rope. This was great fun (even though water was dripping on me, my glasses fogged up on the crux and I fell miserably). Just thinking that we were able to do technical ice climbing (AI4+?) at this altitude made us feel great. Edisson also tried the overhanging line and got further than I did but was courteous enough (?) to fall before the top.

D8 After a short night a sleep (5 hrs?), we woke up at 12am, put our gears on and forced some breakfast down our throat. Karin was not feeling great but OK enough to go. We were one of the last team to leave the hut at 1:15am. Conditions were not looking in our favor: no ascent for the last 3 days; many people reporting knew-deep snow around 5600m (before the Yanasatcha ramp) and more snow had fallen on the day before. We were still determined to give it our best attempt possible on the highest active volcano in the world.

We followed the trail to the glacier, mostly on snow (1hr). After roping up quickly, we set up along the well-marked path navigating across the crevasses. This was technically very easy and the snow was hard enough for crampons to bite well. Karin was complaining of stomach cramp but she did not want to give up (neither did I!). The weather was relatively cold around 5am but our feet never got numb although Karin was wearing leather boots (La Sportiva Makalu).

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