Peak bagging in the Avenue of Volcanoes, an Ecuador climbing trip.

9-22 Jul 2006 - by Arun Mahajan (view roster page)

The three of us, myself, Dimitry Nechayev and Maja Engmark spent two weeks in Ecuador eating potatoes, cheese, trucha, bananas, granadillas, melcocha and so on, although we stayed away from the local delicacy, cuy (a rat by any other name....). Somewhere in all this indulgence, we also managed to huff and puff our way up a few peaks. I am hoping that this little note about our trip will help in deciding among the various types of the excellent Ecuadorian banana chifle and if not too tired from eating them, maybe help you in your wanderings among the high paramo and the most excellent mountain scenery that is bang on the Equator.

Dimitry and I flew from the Bay Area into Quito and there met with Maja Engmark, an accomplished outdoorswoman from Denmark. We spent a couple of days in Quito paying the obligatory visit to the Mitad Del Mundo, a monument to mark the Equator that passes just north of Quito and getting our fill of the churches and other sights of this interesting city situated on a high plateau and ringed by hills. We also did two trips up a local peak, Loma Cruz, by way of the Teleferico, by far the more posh and civilised way of getting up any mountain instead of hiking like hicks. We managed to do a bit of hiking once at the top but mostly we drank the excellent coffee at the cafeteria up there. We also supped at the various restaurants in the Mariscal district, a happening place, although that is where all the tourists hang out, sort of like an uncrowded Thamel. We also visited The Magic Bean, the place mentioned in the Ecuador trip report by that great andinismo, John Zazzarra. To stretch the Thamel analogy further, The Magic Bean would be the Rum Doodle of Mariscal.

In Quito we also met Diego Zurita, one of Ecuador's best known guides who is a partner in Compania De Guias De Montana (www.companiadeguias.com.ec/). We had arranged with his company to participate in their 'climbing special' which promised us five peaks in just under two weeks and Diego was to be our guide.

12 July 06: Pasachoa, 4200m/14000ft

We started walking at a hydro-electric station. Initially we were on a 'dirt road' which was heavily rutted. Pasachoa was visible straight ahead. When the road terminated at a fence with a servicable hut beyond, we jumped the fence to go right, angling on the slopes of the Andean highland grass, the paramo, till we got to a trail that made its way to a ridge. Another fence jump and more ridge walking, some steep, got us to a rest break spot with some shelter from the wind. Cotopaxi was visible through the clouds and with its black summit wall, the Yanasacha face, looked like a snowy one eyed giant. We walked over some rock that was solidified lava and then to the summit. It was a beautiful day although a little windy and cool and we could see into Pasachoa's extinct crater which was filled up with trees. We spent 30 minutes at the summit, getting our lungs acclimated to the high altitude. The walk down was a little quicker but we compensated for that with a long lunch break. RT time: 6 hrs 45 mins, with 3.5 hrs to get to the top and that included many breaks. Just my kind of climb!

13 July 06: Guagua Pichincha, 4800m/15500ft.

Guagua (the baby) Pichincha is the highest peak on the Pichincha massif which is visible from Quito and is one one end. The other end of this massif is Rucu (the old) Pichincha. Ironically, even though we were able to spot the Pichincha peaks on several days, we never really had a clear view of Guagua. It seemed to be in the clouds all the time. Whymper says that 'nothing more need be said about the ascent than that it might be made alone by any moderately active lad'.

We started off by parking the car on a flat spot along the road that continues on from the hamlet of Lloa. Another guided party (Eric and Elfie of Graz, Austria) with their guide, Marcial, parked close to us. Guagua was not visible due to the dense clouds. We continued along on the road switchbacking and gaining altitude quickly till we came to a refugio with spartan facilities. We took a break there and we were all breathing a little heavily because of the altitude. It was cold and slightly windy outside and visibility was poor.

We continued on the trail from behind the hut. The steep trail dropped us to the top of a ridge which was actually a crater rim. We had expected to see views of the bubbling crater far below us but the clouds robbed us of the sight. Here we turned right and followed the ridge which got steeper till the false summit and then some more scrambling got us to the true summit. Summit views were not extensive as one would expect because of the clouds but this peak, that is almost as tall as Mont Blanc, gave us some much needed acclimatization. For the return, instead of following the ridge back, we cut left, into the scree and that got us back down quicker and we were even able to bypass the refugio. We got back to the car at 2.30pm or so after having left it at 9.30am.

There is a fantastic report on climbing in the Avenue of Volcanoes by the great John Zazzarra which not only gives an idea of the climbing available in Ecuador but to also to gives a sense of the larger-than-life personality of John. In that report, he also uses Guagua as an acclimatization peak and as a filler between harder climbs.

14/15 July 06: Illiniza Norte, 5126m/17069 ft

Now, we left Quito and were to return only after a week or so. At this point, it felt as if our climbing was to begin in ernest.

The Illinizas, norte and sur, north and south, are respectively Ecuador's 8th and 6th highest peaks. They form two distinct peaks, seperated by a saddle that has a basic refugio but the story goes that they were one large volcano. The more fanciful story is that one of them is a woman who was heartbroken when her father, in the fashion of fathers everywhere, took a dim view of her lover and took somewhat drastic steps to show his dislike and paid a wizard to convert the lover into a peak, Illiniza Sur. Subsequently the wizard, taking pity on the pining woman converted her into another peak, Illiniza Norte and thus they stand, gazing eternally into each other's rocky profiles. Illiniza Sur also has a reputation as being one of the harder climbs in Ecuador while Norte is considerably easier.

The drive along the Pan American highway was interesting and we stopped for a bit at the small town of Machachi where a market was in full swing. Bananas, granadillas, yuccas and papayas jostled for space with car tires, chickens and metal tools. Onward to the township of El Chaupi and then up and up on a 4WD dirt road till an area called La Virgen. We were thankful to the skillful driving of Diego and he selected an excellent campsite on a spur road which had a stream nearby. There we pitched tents and decided to go for a walk in the direction of the Illinizas refugio. We got some acclimatization in by this walk and also got to study the route but the clouds soon closed in and it got cold, so we backed off and huddled from the cold wind into the large dinner tent and plotted the next day's climb. One of the interesting things of this trail was passing through a small cloud forest of polylepis trees.

The next day, we were up at 4 and after breakfast, were walking at 5.15am. It was cold, clouded over and windy and visibility was poor. Diego set a slow pace but we kept moving. We got to the refugio at 7.45am. There was moisture in the air which was settling on our parkas and packs as ice. Rime ice was everywhere, on the refugio and on the strange plants. The hut was at 15250ft. Then began the steep climb on the so called Normal Route up Illiniza-Norte. We could not see anything. We climbed on on the ever steepening trail and then we had to round the Paseo De La Muerte, the pass of death. While dramatic sounding, it is just exposed class-3 but in a high wind with the rime ice making the rock slick, this got to be somewhat spicier than the aji-con-chocos that we had eaten a couple of days before at lunch with the plato tipico (alert: more unnecessary Spanish words in the middle of a trip report) in colonial Quito. After this bit, we dropped our trekking poles and did some more scrambling and there we hit snow, or rather hardened snow with the wind having cut strange patterns and shapes on it and soon we were at the summit which is marked by a metal cross. It was about 10am then. We took photos and rested a bit. The summit has a very small area. There were no views which was rather disappointing. I was expecting to see the incredible summit of Illiniza Sur from here and perhaps even the snow mushroom at the top, the El Hongo that had beaten back Whymper on two occassions. After some careful down-climbing back to the trekking poles, Diego suggested that we drop down by the North Face route and this would mean we would not be going back to the Paseo de La Muerte, the refugio and the saddle between the Illinizas. This sounded appealing at first but our concern level rose once again as the route was steep scree and the wind picked up some more and we were being buffetted so much that we had to crouch low to keep our balance. As it is, our outer layers were soaked because of the rime ice and moisture in the air and now this wind blew dust on them making us brown all over. But we kept moving as that was the only recourse and soon the angle eased up a little and we found ourselves in a beautiful mountainside with a verdant valley below us. Once over a ridge, were back on the trail. We got back to camp at 12.45 and this gave us enough time to rest, get our clothes dried out and prepare for the next day. We ran into Elfie/Eric/Marcial once again. Maja also ran into Trudie/Rita who had prudently decided to back off from below the summit due to the high winds and the cold.

The next day, our day of rest, took us into the Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, to a beautifully constructed lodge called Tambopaxi which is on the north foothills of the immense peak, Cotopaxi, the mountain of moonlight, the necklace of the moon and at 19347 ft, the second highest peak in Ecuador and we had designs on it.

Tambopaxi, with its log construction, reminds one of the lodge at Sunrise at the base of Rainier or the Timberline Lodge at the base of Mt Hood. It is an elegant building and very well appointed. It is advertised as an acclimatization center and is just under 12500 ft. The view of Cotopaxi from here is outstanding and we could make out the initial section of our route from here. It looked depressingly steep.

We set out for a long walk, the three of us, Maja, Dimitry and I. It was a wonderful afternoon. We walked over hills covered with knee high paramo. Some llamas grazing nearby completed the Andean pastoral effect. Dimitry and Maja decided to have a longer walk towards Laguna Limpiopungo while I headed back to the more civilised charms of Tambopaxi.

I have to make a special mention here of the excellent meals, the service and the appointments at Tambopaxi. If you go to Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, under no account miss out on this place. It also serves as a starting point for several hikes in the national park.

17/18 July 06: Cotopaxi, 5897m/19560 ft

Diego met us at Tambopaxi and also arriving was Patricio (Patto) the energetic assistant guide. Patto had just finished climbing Coto and was joining us for yet another visit just a day after. Amazing dude. The 5 of us+gear drove to the parking lot at the trailhead of the normal route for Coto. It was windy and cold but the sun was out. The dusty wind swept parking lot at 15100 ft makes one's head spin. Our destination for that day was the Jose Ribas refugio at 15750 ft. Despite carrying backpacks and the cold/wind, we made the next 200m in about 45 mins walking over a moderately steep but wide scree path. The hut was crowded and noisy but some of the crowd thinned out shortly, probably day trippers turning back. Maja was not feeling too well so she decided to rest and Dimitry, Diego and I went to the glacier about 30 mins of uphill scree-walking away to practice our snow skills the steep terrain . It was sad to see the recession in the glacier. Diego showed us a sorry looking island of snow and ice which had been part of the main glacier system and also showed us how far down the glacier used to go. I looked up at tomorrow's route with some trepidation. One of my friends, Dee Booth, who had been on Cotopaxi's summit just a few months back had warned me that the initial section was steep and that it had taken a lot out of her to get over it. Well, that was for tomorrow. So, we got back to the refugio, dined and pretended to fall asleep at about 6.30pm while yet another excellent sunset ended and brought out the stars.

Up at 12 into the surreal atmosphere that is so common in these huts with everybody clumping around in their plastic boots, the clank of gear and the glow of individual headlamps. I am never sure whether I am asleep or awake as I stumble along making sure that I have everything. By 1.10am, after downing a quick breakfast, all covered up to handle the cold we trooped out into the night. I was wearing five layers, I think, for my upper body and a neck gaiter, a balaclava and a windstopper cap. It was COLD but once we got walking, it was bearable and very soon we climbed the scree and got to the glacier where we put crampons and roped up. Me, Dimitry and Patto on one rope and Maja and Diego on another. Maja was still unwell but she was brave and decided to give it a go. Patto kept a steady pace and soon we hit the steep and icy section. The axe shaft would not sink well and we had to really concentrate on our footwork making sure that all crampon points stuck. This seemed to go on forever and it seemed that we were climbing from break to break...axe-step-step, the mantra to repeat over and over. I kept telling myself that at some point of time in all this the so called 'fun' would begin.

At one point the angle eased a little and we took a break near what seemed to be a huge ice wall but right after that was another steep bit and then another steep section and then another. We passed fantastic shaped snow and ice structures but had neither the day light nor the time to stand and stare and snap pictures. Finally, the sun started to come up and we saw the unreal ice world that we were in. I looked at the horrible suncups that were tinged with black on the south side of the peak...

I am never going to complain about the Sierra Nevada suncups, ever! "How much longer, Patto?", Dimitry and I asked. "20 minutes", said the laconic Patto. But only a steep dome started at us and not the summit, so we ploughed on. This section seemed especially hard but then as soon as we topped the dome the bright rays of the sun hit us on the face making us blink and scramble for our sunglasses. There were a few people there and we knew that we had arrived at the top. It was time to relax our guard just a little. It was 6.55. A total of five hours and 45 minutes to get to the top...reasonably brisk although while climbing it had seemed a lot longer! We saw Trudi/Rita there. Eric was on his way also. Clouds blocked the distant views but we could see the other giant, Chimborazo, in the distance. Someone pointed out Tungurahua. This volcano had just erupted a few days ago blowing ash in the air and causing a near panic in the town of Banos which was at its base. For just a little bit, the low clouds lifted and we could see one of Cotopaxi's amazing sights, a yawning 800 meter diameter crater on the southeast side. The warmth of the simmering volcano underneath is so strong that despite the altitude and the snow all around, the inner walls of the crater are bereft of snow.

Despite the sun, it was getting cold and at 7.20am or so, we roped up again and started the descent. Most of the parties had left already but some were still coming up. The descent went quickly enough. We passed by the amazing ice and snow shapes and this time were able to stop and admire them. We could see the Illinizas very clearly and sometimes through the clouds, the summits of Cayambe and Antisana. The steep slopes did not seem to be a deterrent on the descent and in just under two hours we were at the refugio. We said our goodbyes to Trudi/Rita and Eric/Elfie and left the Jose Ribas refugio and hiked out to the car. Then Diego dropped us off at a hacienda style hotel, Cuello De Luna which is just outside the southern entrance of the Parque Nacional. Apparently, Cuello De Luna means the Neck of the Moon....kind of goes with Cotopaxi which is the Necklace of the Moon and those of us on the lunatic fringe who want to climb high peaks. This hacienda is just off of the Pan American highway. It is yet another place that I would recommend, excellent in its design, amenites and locale.

The next day Diego came by and we drove to the scenic resort town of Banos which sits in a beautiful valley and under the brooding shadow of a 5000m volcano, Tunguragua, which had been showing its fiery side of late. A few significant eruptions had happened in the past few days and the road to Ambato was closed off. We stayed the night at a bungalow style hotel, the El Higueron, after having 'done' the quaint town of Banos. Diego's friend, William, who owns El Higueron, was an excellent host and his wife and daughter cooked up a great meal for us. It seemed that instead of staying in a hotel, we were guests with a gracious Ecuadorian family. William is also a climber and mountain guide. If in Banos, stay there. El Higueron is on a side street off from Oriente.

20/21 July 06: Chimborazo, 6310m/21012 ft

It is a long drive from Banos to the Carrel Refugio at the base of Chimborazo. This refugio is at 4800m and Chimborazo at over 21000 ft completely dominates the view. The earlier awestruck Europeans had called it 'one of the bigger things you will see'. The west face of Chimborazo with the large Thielman Glacier creeping down from the top is indeed an awe inspiring sight. The guidebooks suggest that climbs be done by the Normal or Castillo route and unless there is good amount of ice and snow, to avoid the southwest ridge route, also known as the Whymper Route.

Diego had climbed Chimborazo a few weeks back and had actually climbed it by the Whymper Route and that was supposed to be in condition. The better way to do this route is to start from the Carrel Refugio and head up the steep scree to meet the SW Ridge.

About 30 mins of uphill from the Carrel Refugio is the larger Whymper Refugio but since we were planning to do the Whymper Route, we decided to stay at the Carrel and so did all the other parties as word had reached them also that Whymper was in condition and Castillo not. Eric and Elfie were also there but Elfie was not going to climb as Cotopaxi had tired her out.

Ash from the erupting Tungurahua had peppered the gleaming dome of Chimborazo and instead of white, it had taken a greyish tint. This ash had created other problems. Where it had landed, it had melted away the snow and that had subsequently hardened into ice. That evening we heard the guides involved in animated conversations. I had the sinking feeling that even they were not too happy about the iciness of the routes.

We again went to bed at 6pm or so with a planned wakeup time of 11pm. Hardly had we hit the sleeping bags that we were woken up. It was 10.30pm! Sleeping was futile. We followed the same drill, gear up and grab some breakfast and head out...it seemed to be even colder than that morning on Cotopaxi. Diego pointed us to some foxes which had come out to check us out. We could not make out their shapes, just their tiny eyes unblinkingly reflecting the light from our headlamps. We started walking on the steep scree. I looked at my watch. 11.30 pm. So you want to be a mountaineer, huh? You must be certifiably insane. Who does things like these? But after Cotopaxi, we were feeling acclimated and we were keeping pace with Diego and Patto. We continued climbing till about 2.30am and Diego thinks that we were at 5400m then. It was then that we hit the glacier. It was all ice with neither the axes nor the crampons making any impression. A party of climbers from France with three guides were roping up just below us. Patto and Diego got into a conversation and Dimitry, Maja and I rested, huddling up in our down jackets from the cold and the wind. Diego told us that we should turn around. It was too icy to climb. He apologised but was firm. We all instantly agreed. From what he could tell, we would have to either do a belayed climb with tools or at least he and Patto would have to put up a lot of fixed rope. It was very disappointing to turn around especially since it had taken us four peaks and almost two weeks to get acclimated to these altitudes. The French continued on however. Slowly we made our way back to the Whymper refugio and then Carrell. We could see the bobbing lights of the French party as they tried to get from the SW Ridge via the traverse and eventually to the Normal Route. There was also a party attempting the Normal Route and we could see their headlamps as well. But soon, we could see the lights of the French party turning around. But then, we decided to turn in and perhaps grab a couple of hours of sleep at Carrel.

As we were getting ready to pack up and leave Carrel, we met the French party. They reported that they had turned back at the traverse because instead of snow, all they had found was a thin layer of ice and that was unprotectable. We never got to see Eric as they were still coming down but we assumed that they too had backed out somewhere along the Normal Route, above a section called El Corredor on the Normal Route.

Diego drove us back, making a detour via Riobamba. Maja and Dimitry decided to check out the town and take the bus back to Quito but I was happy to return to Quito. As Diego and I got back to our hotel we found out that due to some administrative glitch, they had given up our rooms to someone else. Diego, ever resourceful, found us rooms in another hotel just a few blocks away. The next day, Maja headed out to the Galapagoes for a week of sight seeing and we said our goodbyes. Dimitry and I hired a taxi for the day and took in the sights and shopping of the market town of Otavalo, Cotacachi, and Ibarra and our trip to Ecuador came to a close.

I hope to visit Ecuador again. There are still many peaks to climb there and offcourse more types of aji and chifle to sample! Perhaps Chimborazo's routes would be in condition then.

Some final notes. If guided climbing is your choice then the Compania De Guias De Montana is one of the best around. I am grateful to the advice and information about Ecuador given to me by my friends and others on the Climber.Org mailing lists including Dee Booth, Kelly Maas, Paul Wilms, Aaron Schuman, Steve Landis, Paul Wilson and Bob Ayers. The trip was enjoyable because of my companions, Dimitry Nechayev and Maja Engmark and would not have even happened had it not been for Dimitry who did all the research and picked up Compania De Guias as our guide service. Diego Zurita was a great guide and mountaineer.

References:

  1. Ecuador, A Climbing Guide by Yossi Brain, Mountaineers Books
  2. Ecuador, The Bradt Climbing and Hiking Guide, 5th ed, Rob Rachowiecki, Mark Thurber


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