December 4, 2001
On Tuesday December fourth (2001), we depart Quito at about 8:40 AM headed for Cayambe. In the city of Cayambe we stop at a small biscuit place (biscuits are a local specialty) and have biscuits (of course!), cheese and coffee. We then head up the small road to the Cayambe hut (15,250 ft.). On the way there, we pass an American Alpine Institute (AAI) group in a large bus. The bus is forced to stop at about 14,000 feet on the road and the AAI climbers hike the last 1,000 feet up to the hut. They are assisted by Pepi, (one of the Safari guides) so we take some of their load in our Land Rover to make it easier on Pepi to negotiate the upper and more difficult four-wheel drive part of the road. (The upper part of the road can be tricky and someone once rolled a Land Rover on this section of the road.) We get up to the hut at about 12:15 noon.
The Cayambe hut is the nicest in Ecuador and actually has running water, which means sinks in the bathroom and toilets that actually flush without using a bucket. (And electricity via a 3500 Watt Honda generator which runs from 6 PM to 8:30 PM). The setting for the hut is one of the prettiest also. It's drizzly and foggy at intervals but I really enjoy spending the afternoon at the hut and feel privileged to be able to enjoy such a beautiful place. Julian Tonsmeire of Ultimate Ascents (www.ultimateascents.com) and a client are planning to paraglide from the summit in a tandem paraglider. (Julian has done this once before from Cayambe). The AAI group is planning to spend two or three days at the hut to acclimatize before attempting the summit. This means the AAI group members won't need to hit the sack early and this winds up making it hard for me to get to sleep as they drift into the bunks at different times. It feels cold in the hut and I expect we're going to have a cold climb up the mountain. (The guidebooks say Cayambe has some of the worst weather in Ecuador.)
We go to bed about 7 PM but I don't get sound sleep until about 9 PM. At 11:30 PM, we get up; I poke my head outside the hut and find that it's snowing but the wind is calm and it feels rather warm. With the warm weather in mind, I dress with just a Gore-Tex parka over my undershirt. We get some hot water (we each carry two liters of Cytomax) and start climbing at 12:52. During the first hour, we climb over some rocky areas with a few brief (six foot) sections of class 3 climbing. It's warm (it feels like it's in the low 40s Fahrenheit) and I regret wearing as much clothes as I am wearing but the clouds are mostly to the east which indicates we may be getting more bad weather. (For the eastern volcanoes the moisture generally comes in from the jungle rather than the coast.)
We reach the glacier at slightly over 16,000 feet (at 1 AM), and put on our crampons. At this point it appears we have climbed through the clouds and snow and now have good visibility and can see the stars. (It's starting to look like we may have another pretty summit.) We climb by the light of the moon rather than using our headlamps at this point. The glacier on Cayambe is the easiest of all the glaciated mountains (Cotopaxi, Iliniza Sur and Chimborazo) we have climbed so far. It's a fairly mild slope (I'd guess about a 20 to 30 degree average) until you reach the very top of the mountain. We climb for about 90 minutes under the beautiful stars. We plan to take a rest break near a rock out-cropping further ahead. During the next half hour (as we approach the rocks), the wind steadily increases. By the time we reach the rocks, the wind is howling (I'd guess 30 knots steady with 45 knot gusts), it's starting to sleet, and the clouds are starting to move back in. I strip and put on fleece, Activent jacket, and my Gore-Tex parka again. I remove my multi-layer (Gore-Tex shells and windstopper fleece) mittens and put on my expedition down mitts (this is the first time I have needed to put on these mittens while climbing but I can tell we are in for some really bad weather ahead.) Dianne at first wonders why I am putting on the down mittens but then does the same.)
As we head higher, the weather worsens; visibility goes down to about 20 to 30 feet and the sleet stings my eyes. (After nicer conditions on the other peaks, we did not bring our goggles on this climb...big mistake! It would have been much easier climbing and route finding with goggles.) Crevasses now become much more an issue. We overtake and then are followed by Javier (former part owner of Safari and highly regarded guide) who is guiding a British climber. Suddenly, out of the fog, a lone German climber (crazy fellow!) appears; this fellow starts to shadow Javier and client. Our guide Rene does excellent route finding around the glaciers in what is now at times almost zero visibility. (There are wands indicating a route but these can no longer be followed on the upper mountain.) The low visibility combined with the strong wind and sleet makes reading the crevasses very difficult.
At one point, at around 18,000 feet on the mountain, I briefly break through a crevasse (Rene and Dianne passed over the same spot with no problem) sinking up to my waist in the snow. Rene and Dianne quickly apply tension and I carefully crawl away from the opening. Javier and client, who are following us, wisely detour around the new opening. (The German fellow disappears after this; we later learn he turned back at some point before this incident). At about 500 vertical feet below the summit, we reach a large bergschrund (a wide crevasse with a vertical wall of ice on the far side). We follow the bergschrund to the right circling the summit and eventually find a 60-degree slope to the top. As we reach the summit, conditions continue to worsen. On the summit (at almost 7:30 AM), we have very strong winds and blinding sleet. It's almost impossible to do anything other than look just beyond your feet due to the stinging sleet. Not a nice view from this summit; we don't even bother to take a picture under these conditions!
Javier and client have chosen (wisely!) not to continue the last 500 vertical feet to the summit but we rejoin them shortly and descend down the mountain together. Once we descend past the upper 1,500 feet of the mountain (where route finding was still rather difficult under the conditions), the descent becomes quite easy and fast due to the moderate slope of the mountain. At about 16,500 feet, the wind drops and we start to get some sun coming through the clouds. Amazingly, it has become hot again and we stop to strip off our extra layers and rehydrate. Dianne and I consume only slightly over a liter of the water on this climb rather than the two liters we expected. This is the first time on this climb that I get out my camera and start to take some pictures. We learn that we are the only team to have reached the summit. (A dubious distinction <g>)
We take our time on the remainder of the descent so we can have at least a few pictures of this beautiful mountain. (Rene informs us that he has never had good weather on Cayambe so there is probably something to the bad reputation that Cayambe has weather-wise.) To further sour Rene on this mountain is the fact that this is where the Ecuadorian mountain guides do their glacier training and testing (so he has been dumped into numerous crevasses here <g>). We return to the hut at about 10:45 and are driving down the mountain at about 12 noon. The weather now looks rather benign; it's hard to imagine that it is probably still storming higher up on Cayambe.
Warm regards, Wolfgang and Dianne Stiller (Colorado Springs, Colorado USA)
Copyright December 2001 by Wolfgang Stiller.