Sincholagua

Once again, I spent a weekend climbing yet another one of Ecuador’s incredible volcanoes.  This weekend’s project was Sincholagua, southeast of Quito by way of the valley where the towns of Cumbaya/Tumbaco/Pifo/Yaruqui are all located (Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is where my university is, and the location of a past rock climbing/rappelling adventure with my andianismo class).  The peak is 4,898 meters tall, or 16,065 feet, which makes this the highest I’ve even climbed; even higher than where we camped at the refuge on Cayambe.

We went with Paypahuasi Guide Company, my first time with a professional guiding company, because through friends and the ample time he spends at Shawarma Kings in Tumbaco, my climbing buddy Bret got to know a couple of the guides/owners.

Our group left from Cumbaya Saturday afternoon and set up camp on the hillside of the mountain at a house, which I can only assume is part of a farm and is rented out for purposes such as ours.  Saturday afternoon we set up tents and spend the entire evening inside the house, eating dinner at playing Cuarenta, an Ecuadorean card game.

It rained most of the evening and the night, making for a soggy morning.  We woke up before the sun at 5 am, but it was just incredible to see the lights of Quito and then watch the rising sun illuminate Pichincha, Pasachoa, Rumiñahui, El Corazon, and in the distance we could even see the Ilinizas, although they were mostly obscured by clouds.

After breakfast, at about 6:30 we set off.  The beginning of the trail follows barbed wire fences separating different fields and is moderately sloped.  The first half hour or so of hiking up a mountain is always the hardest, I’ve noticed, just because it’s early and your body isn’t warmed up.  After hopping five fences we reached the beginning of the trail.  Half of our group went up the ridgeline while the group I was with followed the ravine trail.  Both meet in what our guide called the “bosque” which means forest, but it was really just where the grassy field turned into bushes.  Our group reunited and after a snack we began the ascent to the summit, at about 11 am.

Like other volcanoes, Sincholagua doesn’t have one clear peak; the remnants of the caldera form a ridgeline which runs east-west, with the crater to the south and the north face sloping down to the valley.  The ridgeline rises and falls, alternating between loose rock and more technical climbing, but nothing more difficult than basic bouldering.  On one ascending section our guides fixed a rope to help us ascend a narrow rock face, but this area could have been climbed without the rope by those with more experience.

We reached the summit at about 1pm, and it had been raining, and then sleeting on and off since our break, so our stay at the top was short.  Because of the wet rock we took a different route down the north face, which is mostly loose rock and rather steep, around 45 degrees.  We had to descend slowly because the now constant rain had turned the slope into mud and joined hands to descend as a group.  Then we traversed the face back to pick up the trail on the west side of the mountain and followed the ridgeline, rather than the valley, back to the campsite.

In all it took just over ten hours to climb, and once everyone packed up, the adventure was not quite over.  The dirt road back to the valley and Quito had turned into mud, and three of the four vehicles for our group became stuck in the mud or on rocks uncovered by the rain.  It took two hours and some creative maneuvering in the rain to get them all unstuck before we could all get on our way back to Quito.

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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.

Cayambe.

This weekend was my first foray into the world of real mountain climbing.  My Andianismo class went to Cayambe, an 5,790 meter mountain northeast of Quito right on the Equator.  We went to get our first taste of high altitudes (the refuge where we camped was 5,000 meters high, the highest altitude I’ve ever been at) and practice ice climbing.

In case you are wondering what kind of gear one brings on a trip like this, here is the list of things which ended up in my backpack:

Sleeping bag

Sleeping pad

Tent

Snow boots

Crampons

Harness + Carabiner + Rope

Ice pick

Snow pants

The shell of my snowboarding jacket

Fleece jacket

Underarmour + leggings

Sweatshirt

Extra wool socks

Gloves + Ear warmer

Food (pita bread with: sardines [dinner], peanut butter[breakfast], tuna & mustard [lunch]; apples, trail mix) & water

On a whim, I decided to bring the book Into Thin Air to have something to read on the bus ride.  I chose it mainly because it is smaller than the other book I’m reading, but it was also very appropriate since it is the book that really got me interested in mountain climbing.

Once on the bus, I pulled it out and a few of the girls asked me if we were going to read aloud, which I thought was a cool idea.  So for the 3 or so hour bus ride my friend Becca and I took turns reading chapters aloud.

Reading aloud may sound really nerdy, and one would think that it would only amuse Becca and I, but it turns out the entire 12-passenger van was listening.  People were really into the story, even those who had read the book before.

It was a new experience reading the book and knowing we were about to have a real mountain climbing experience.  The way Krakauer describes the cold of Everest and the flapping of the wind were even more meaningful after our night on the mountain.

We had to walk the last hour or so to the refuge where we were camping, and from there we had amazing views down the valley and up to Cayambe.  But once we arrived at the top, it was nearly dark causing the temperature to plummet and then the wind picked up.  All we could do was fight the wind to set up our tents and hunker down in our sleeping bags.

What Krakauer describes as the “relentless din of nylon flapping in the wind” at Camp Four on Everest, we got a taste for on Cayambe.  The wind blew all night long, causing several tents to collapse.  In my tent (which thankfully remained standing), Becca and I were accosted by the tent walls bending in to smack us in the face.

When we woke in the morning to Diego, our instructor, yelling, the wind was still blowing and a light rain was falling.  We stayed in our tents until Diego announced that due to the high wind we would not be able to go on the mountain.  And his assessment of the situation was not overly cautious; the wind was so strong it could knock you over.  I could even put most of my weight into the wind and remain standing.

So grudgingly, we left the mountain.  We hiked down to meet up with the bus and ended up picnicking for an hour or more in view of Cayambe’s cloud obscured peak watching condors fly overhead.  Condors are huge black and white vultures and are the national bird of Ecuador.  Seeing them in the wild is a pretty big deal since they are protected much like the bald eagle is in the US.

We could not see most of Cayambe from the refuge because of the surrounding mountains and the clouds swirling around the summit.  From the path we hiked down we could see that the top of the peak is more rounded than what one traditionally pictures .  Despite the clouds which perpetually obscured our view and the nontraditional facade, the mountain still retained the grandeur and massive hulk one would expect from a peak of it’s size.

While it was disappointing to leave Cayambe without trying out the ice, that is the nature of mountain climbing.  Sometimes the weather will permit climbers to attempt the treacherous peak, sometimes it won’t.  As Eric Shipton wrote, “the mountain still holds the master card, it will grant success only in its own good time.  Why else does mountaineering retain its deep fascination?”

Getting to Cotopaxi

Every once in a while when I get very lucky, I get to see one of the most amazing sights in Ecuador on my way to school.

My school is in a valley below Quito (a city also in a valley) in a town called Cumbaya.  To get there I take a bus which winds its way in switch back fashion down the valley.

The mountains around Quito are covered in trees so they’re a gorgeous green, unlike mountains in Colorado.  Most mornings the clouds cover the valley, so my bus ride feels like a mysterious adventure into the Andes.  By the afternoon the clouds have usually cleared and I can see endless green valleys and mountains and all the way up to Quito above.

On certain mornings, when the sun is out and the clouds have already rolled out, the bus will turn the corner down into the valley and I am treated with a rare view of Cotopaxi.  I spend the bus ride craning my neck to get a glimpse of the mountain at every curve of the switchbacks.  The white peak rises above the outline of the mountains, which in the early morning have a blueish, shadow like quality like the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.

There’s something about mountains which makes them seem simultaneously unreachable and yet so close and conquerable.  Their huge mass rises out of the earth, daring those who would be brave enough to climb them and almost saying, “Here I am!” But their peak lies far away, covered in ice and snow, which only the strongest will be able to find.

Cotopaxi is one of the world’s tallest active volcanoes and the second highest in Ecuador, rising to an altitude of 19,347 ft.  It is located in the province just an hour south of Quito, in a national park with the same name.  In the indigenous language Quechua, Cotopaxi means mass of fire, and it was honored by the Incans as the sender of rain and therefore the land’s fertility.

The entire mountain is a perfect cone; from my vantage point I can only see the perfect snow-capped summit.  Its silhouette is the equilateral triangle which mountains are classically depicted with: a wide base narrowing into a perfect tip

If all goes according to plan, that is if I pass my knot-tying test, go to the mountain Cayambe and learn how to ice-climb and have enough total excursions, then I will be climbing Cotopaxi.  It will be the experience of a lifetime just being up close to such an incredible peak, much less to attempt and summit it.  I know that even if I don’t get to be in the group who climbs the mountain, it will have been worth it to have taken part in this class, learned all my knots, rock climbed, lice climbed and made new Ecuadorean and American friends.  But don’t get me wrong, my goal is to somehow make it to the top of that mountain.