El Corazon

This past weekend I climbed my highest mountain to date, El Corazon, which is actually a volcano.  El Corazon stands at 15,700 feet, or 4,788 meters and is less than an hour south of Quito near the towns of Machachi and Aloasí.  The peak is right next to several other volcanoes in the area: Iliniza Sur, Iliniza Norte, Rumiñahui, and one more I may have mentioned before- Cotopaxi.

We began the weekend by heading to climb the mountain on Saturday early morning, but were deterred by lots of cloud coverage and fog on the mountain.  So, we continued south to the town of Latacunga where we explored the city and its market and ate some great Chinese food.

Sunday morning we woke up to perfect weather, though we did not get moving as quickly as we had planned.  After being egregiously overcharged by a guy in a pickup truck who took up to the “trail head” we started our ascent at 9:20 am.  The “trail head” was not very high on the mountain at all, and was in fact one of the hardest parts of the climb, given the steep grade of the road we were walking up.  After cutting through a field and jumping a couple of fences, we were on what could legitimately be called the beginning of the trail up the mountain.

After the first, steep part of the hike, the trail was relatively easy, winding up through the foothills of the mountain.  Right across from where we were hiking were Rumiñahui and Cotopaxi.  Rumiñahui is a long, rocky volcano in front of and to the left of Cotopaxi if viewed from the Panamerican Highway.  Cotopaxi, from any angle, is incredible.  We took a couple breaks just to take pictures and look at the mountains.

Unlike when we climbed Imbabura right before Semana Santa, we managed to follow the trail without any trail blazing or getting lost.  This is a particularly impressive achievement given the fact that hikers often get lost on El Corazon, including my Andianismo teacher Diego and our guide Romero (better known as El Lobo).

At 1:45 we arrived at the base of the summit, which looked incredibly intimidating.  El Corazon is rated class 3 in terms of rock difficulty.  This means that although it is not technical, the route is very steep and there is the potential for falling.  We were warned beforehand about the danger of falling rocks, and took care to approach faces which looked dubious.  On top of all of this, the parts of the summit which were not steep and rocky are covered by some mixture of gravel and sand, so we had to take care not to misstep and slip down the side of the volcano.

The odd thing about El Corazon is that while it doesn’t look like a volcano, the top still has a long summit, remnants of a caldera which used to exist.  So each time we thought we had reached the top, we saw that we actually had to keep climbing.  The clouds had been rolling in all afternoon so that by the time we reached the real summit it was impossible to see any real view.

By 3:20 we were back down to the base of the summit where we had stashed my backpack.  At this point we refueled with some leftover Chinese food, something I’m not sure many andinistas have ever done.  I like to think we could start an elite group of Chinese food-eating mountain climbers.   I’ll keep everyone posted on that.

On the descent, I understood why it was so easy to get lost on the mountain.  The clouds made it very difficult to see beyond the next ridge or foothill, so it was difficult to decide whether we were on the correct path or not.

While we were still high up on the mountain, some combination of the being far away from any civilization and the muffling effect of the clouds made it absolutely silent.  It was like being in a completely isolated part of the world, it was so cool.

During our descent, it started raining and continued raining for the better part of an hour.  While it was damp and cold during the rain, afterwards it was absolutely amazing.  The birds chirped, insects made noise, the cows and the horses had escaped from their pens and walked across our path; it was like spring had sprung.

Then, in the midst of all of this, we rounded the bend and the clouds had cleared and we saw Cotopaxi.  In the late afternoon sun the mountain looked red, contrasting with the white of the glacier.  It was absolutely incredible.

Dog tired, we flagged down a truck and hopped in for a ride back to the Panamerican highway where we caught the bus back to Quito.  If you’re keeping track, I have now hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck on nearly every adventure thus far in Ecuador.

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