Ecuador, December 1998. Trip report by Sue Holloway.
I recently returned from a short trip to Ecuador with the primary purpose of climbing Cotopaxi (19,347 ft.) and Chimborazo (20,701 ft.). Work scheduling necessitated traveling during the Christmas/New Year holidays which worked out fine in all respects except that airfare was a bit expensive ($1,100 round-trip via American Airlines from Los Angeles to Miami to Quito).
At the recommendation of others, I joined the South American Explorer's Club (SAEC) which has a membership fee of $40/year. While I did get some valuable preliminary information from them regarding places to stay, transportation to and from trailheads, and suggestions on conditioning hikes, the hours that their headquarters in Quito were open were a bit limiting and I didn't use their facility at all. However, for informational purposes, they do offer equipment storage, e-mail access, a file of numerous trip reports, confirmation of returning flights, among other services for their members.
Overall, I found Ecuador to be a very easy place to get around and the people to be very warm and friendly. My inability to speak Spanish was more than off-set by the willingness of others to help, including a delightful young American woman, Anna, whom we met in Quito in the hostel (Posada del Maples) where we stayed for several nights. Anna has been in Ecuador for several years, speaks fluent Spanish and was ever so gracious in befriending us and accompanying us while we spent a day or so sightseeing, as we acclimated at Quito's altitude of 9,400 ft.
Prior to the trip, I purchased the latest edition (1997) of The Lonely Planet's Ecuador and Galapagos Islands Guide. I found the information useful and we used it exclusively while we were getting around. Even the room and food prices were pretty accurate, never varying by more than a dollar or two. The city maps of "Old Town" and "New Town" in the book were a bit hard to read but Quito is an easy city to get around in. We traveled by trolley, busses and taxis. I recommend using taxis that are not metered and to negotiate the price first. We made a mistake a couple of times and used metered taxis and paid much higher fares, due to heavy traffic and "short cuts" the drivers took. There have been typical big-city problems in Quito with pick-pockets and `bag slashers', especially in the Old Town area. The presence of uniformed "guards" in Old Town are an attempt by the city to reduce those problems and to make the tourists feel safer. We were told to wear our daypacks/purses in front (against our chests) rather than on our backs. Even so, my friend, Carol, had her tote bag slashed though she had nothing of value in her bag so there was nothing taken. We delighted in people watching, looking at the various crafts, sampling some of the candies, nuts and pastries and enjoying the lovely sights of the city.
In continuing with our acclimatizing, we had hoped to climb Rucu Pichincha (15,000 ft.+) which is easily dayhiked as it is right outside the city of Quito. Reports by the SAEC and others of "numerous" robberies, assaults and rapes along the route to the summit led us to change our plans and instead we did another dayhike that is described in the book, Hiking and Climbing in Ecuador, another book that we found was very useful. This hike took us to the top of another "hill" (12,000 ft.) with great views of Quito. After 3 nights in Quito, we headed south for the Cotopaxi area. Since there were 5 of us and LOTS of gear, my friend, John, negotiated for two cabs to take us to Lasso. We paid each cab driver $25.00 which seemed pretty cheap considering the distance. John thinks that he offered too much though and that the drivers would have taken us for $20.00 per cab. In Lasso, there were numerous drivers with 4 WD vehicles who were taking climbers to and from the mountain. With minimal effort, we hired one to take us to Laguna Limpiopungo (12,500 ft.), a popular camping spot where we would spend two more days acclimating. The prices from Lasso were fixed at 100,000 sucres (about $15.00) and the open bed truck easily held all of us and our gear. We found a perfectly lovely place to camp and had a leisurely day settling in. The next day we did another conditioning hike, hoping to summit Ruminahui (15,500'). Again, we used the book, Hiking and Climbing in Ecuador. The hiking directions weren't clear (in reality, I think I misread them!) so at our turn-around time of 2 p.m. we were still 500' from the summit. Since, Ruminahui wasn't a primary goal and I didn't want to exhaust myself on a mere conditioning hike, I stopped. The others, more peak-driven than I, continued on a bit farther. However, the summit was still at least 45 minutes away so everyone turned back and we returned to camp.
The following day at the previously agreed upon time, our driver was back and we all loaded back into his 4 WD and he took us to the Cotopaxi trailhead. (This transportation cost us another 100,000 sucres.) From the trailhead at about 14,800 ft. it was a 50 minute hike to the Cotopaxi hut at about 15,800 ft. Actually the hut looked very close but we had been warned by others not to be deceived and that the hike would take almost an hour. We quickly found that the one "private room" in the hut was reserved for the big guided groups so we settled down in another corner. I found an empty locker and "claimed" that by putting my padlock on it. That would serve as a safe place to store our excess gear and personal belongings.
Other than Muir Hut on Rainier, this was my first experience in a mountain hut. Others in my group thought this hut wasn't very nice but compared to my usual accommodations in my cramped tent perched on the hard ground, I thought it was quite adequate. There were 2 inch pads for the bunks which, with my Therma-Rest and 4-season down bag, almost felt like a real bed. There were plenty of tables and chairs and a 6 burner stove in the kitchen. The cost was 60,000 sucres per person per night (about $9.50). There is usually running water in the kitchen and toilets outside. However, there was a severe shortage of water (El Nino in Ecuador brought less than usual precipitation/snow) so water was collected in buckets from the rainwater `troughs' outside. The toilets were locked so everyone just went behind the buildings. I never did figure out the logic of locking the toilets; with the popularity of Cotopaxi, it won't be long before it starts to smell like a sewer outside the hut! We filtered the water and used iodine. I decided to also boil my water as an extra precaution. I might add that this did little, if any, good because I got sick anyway! To my knowledge, my friends, who only did the filtering and iodine routine, did not suffer my same fate. (Then again, I might have gotten "the bug" earlier in the trip.) Anyway, go figure....
It was fun to talk to the various people in the hut. The AAI (Alpine Ascents International) group was summiting the day we arrived and I talked to several in that group. They had also climbed Cayambe but had not done Chimborazo. The guides had determined that it was too icy and that there was too much danger from rockfall. This was to be the first of many stories I heard about the conditions on Chimborazo. No matter; Cotopaxi was first anyway. We rested for most of the day and got very little sleep that night. Climbers typically get up starting at 11 p.m. on summit "day" and leave anywhere from about midnight to 1 a.m. I felt that almost everyone was trying to be quiet but plastic boots on wooden floors and going up and down stairs with packs and all just makes for a lot of noise!! The next day we got our packs ready, tried to rest and hydrate and to eat a decent meal. My stomach started to get upset by late afternoon but I tried to ignore it. We had intended to hike up to the glacier, just for some exercise, but I started to feel worse. And, after day after day of beautiful weather, it clouded up and started to blow a little snow by 3 p.m. Our motivation to do anything was quickly lost.
We got up at 11:30 p.m. that night and had planned to leave by midnight (whatever weather there had been had blown over because it was very clear outside). Things took longer than we thought so we didn't start until 12:30 p.m. I am usually pretty good about setting a pace that everyone can follow so that was my role. The logistics were simple...the hut is at 4800 meters and the snow started around 5000 meters...so we were on scree until we put our crampons on and roped up. We had a couple of glitches right after we put our crampons on, including my headlamp batteries going out. Fumbling around with this and that took an extra 20 minutes. The climb is straightforward....up, up, up and then up. The crevasses were distinct and small; they were easy to see and step across. By 3 a.m. I started to doubt that I would make it; my stomach felt really, really bad. As I continued with one foot in front of the other, I tried to look around for a place where I could stop and stay while the others could go on without me. I started to wonder if there was anyplace at all on this mountain where the terrain leveled off....even for 10 minutes. Looking ahead and up almost broke my heart and I continued to just look at my feet and keep on plodding. Half an hour later when I looked up again, I saw that what I had thought were headlamps were just stars. Thank God.....the mountain now didn't seem quite so high! The sun started to come up; Carol commented how pretty it looked. I thought, yeah, right but with my churning stomach, I didn't even give daybreak a second look. My altimeter read 17,500 ft.
I knew I would never make the top. Up, up, up. Oops, here is a real crevasse; I couldn't just step over this one. I had to plant my ax and sort of climb up and over this one. Oh great, now it is really steep. There were some buried pickets with carabiners to clip in to. Others had told me about this spot but they said it was near the top. My Avocet now read 17,900 ft. This must be a joke. (NOTE: I later recalled that at the higher altitudes on Aconcagua, the Avocet wasn't accurate either.) It's now well past daylight....are these people talking to me coming down from the top? So it seemed; they called me by name and said we were almost there. Sure enough, I saw blue sky but I still was going up. The sun was now in my face but I was still going up. Surely this mountain levels off on top....doesn't it? The summit! Hurry up, put your goggles on; hugs, congratulationswe made it. How high can helicopters fly I thought? My stomach was killing me; I could not imagine making it all the way down. "Look", said Carol, "a volcano is exploding. Hurry, take a picture." Easy for her to say; I can't even find my camera. I glanced at the belching volcano (Guagua Pichincha-?), the expansive views, Cotopaxi's crater. Someone took my picture. Good, now let's leave. It was now 7:30 a.m. It had taken us 7 hours to summit; I would have guessed 3 days. I wondered if I would make it back to the hut by dark.... In reality it took us 3 ½ hours to descend; the group would have been faster without me tagging along. My `leap' over the one bigger crevasse was a joke; the way I approached it was similar to the way one would have approached a leap over the Grand Canyon I suppose. I landed on my face but at that point, who cared?
We got to the hut a few minutes after 11 a.m. I wanted to just crash there and let my pathetic stomach continue to die. My friends said "no"; we had arranged for our ride and we didn't want to miss it. Carol was a barrel of energy...urging me to eat and drink. Instead I rested on my bunk and thought maybe I could "will" my gear to pack itself. It seemed like everyone else was gone; those who hadn't made the summit had been back hours before and had left. The other group in front of us (who we had met as they were coming down) had left too. I don't think anyone else had summited. Others climbers with summit fever were arriving from the trailhead. I made the announcement that perhaps I could get my body down to the trailhead but there was no way I could carry all my gear so, I would have to stay. Not to be dissuaded, Carol chatted with the hut guardian and made arrangements to pay one of the Ecuadorians to take our gear down for us. (At times, I do truly love what only money can buy!) I managed to pack my gear and left Carol to the details while I hobbled down to the trailhead.
A French family took pity on me (they had hiked up for the day....Christmas Day....to spend at the hut). They helped me down by carrying the rope and my climbing boots which for some reason I decided I would carry down with me. They made conversation with me and even let me put my arms around them as they served as human "crutches" as I woefully hiked down. Our trusty driver was there right on schedule and I waited in his truck while my friends and our gear made the trip down also. The closest "big" town was Latacunga and we decided that was where we would go. This trip cost us 200,000 sucres. The drive took a couple of hours and I managed, somehow, to keep my stomach out of my throat. I consulted my Lonely Planet book and directed our driver to the Hotel Rodelu. They had two rooms so we unloaded, bid our driver adios and checked in. I immediately crashed as the others went out to dinner.
I slept straight through to morning and then quickly determined there was no way I could keep to our schedule and go on to Chimborazo. I needed at least another day of rest and hopefully my stomach would feel better. Carol decided to stay an extra day also so Bruce continued on to Chimborazo. (I heard from another friend that he turned back on his first attempt on Chimborazo several days later. He was going to try it again a couple of days later. I haven't heard if he was successful.)
At the hotel, I met a couple more American climbers, Craig and Doug (both from Los Angeles). They had summited Cayambe and were resting before going on to Cotopaxi and then planned to go on to Chimborazo. They thought that Cayambe had been quite difficult...very steep and icy with numerous crevasses. To add to the excitement on their climb, Craig fell in a crevasse. Luckily, it wasn't a deep one and Doug had instinctively performed a self arrest. Craig was able to get himself out but his heart went pitter patter for more than a few minutes! We visited the market in Latacunga and since I had a bit of an appetite, we had lunch at a nice restaurant. The 4 of us had dinner later that night and the next day Craig and Doug headed for Cotopaxi while Carol and I packed for Banos and then, we hoped, Chimborazo.
We took a taxi to the bus stop at Latacunga which is merely a place on the Panamerican highway where busses stop if people are waiting. Within a few minutes a bus to Ambato stopped and a nice young man took our packs and put them on the top of the bus and tied them down; we were on our way. We enjoyed the scenic ride though it took some getting used to the aggressive bus driver honking at cars and passing on blind curves. I told Carol that I didn't think the driver wanted to die either and besides he had probably driven this road hundreds of times.....
At Ambato, we got off the bus and collected our gear; we now had to find a bus to Banos. Once again, we were helped by others (this time by a little girl) and within 10 minutes we were on our way on a bus to Banos. We commented to each other how easy it had been for us to get around. Even though we had no clue as to bus schedules (if indeed there were any), we never had to wait more than 10 minutes at any point along our way. I had read where Ecuadorian busses are notorious for breaking down and for being somewhat unreliable. Our experiences were the exact opposite as we had no difficulties or delays whatsoever.
When we arrived in Banos, we decided to take a taxi to the hostel where we hoped to stay. We chose our place merely by reading about hotels and hostels in the Lonely Planet book. They had a room at Hostel Plantas y Blanco for $5/per person. It didn't have a private bath and it faced the street but after being assured that it was all they had available, we took it. We ended up staying in Banos for two days/nights. I wasn't feeling better and Carol was suffering from cold symptoms. We resigned ourselves to playing tourist and taking it easy. We talked about a future trip to Ecuador to climb Chimborazo......
Banos is a lovely little town, serving primarily as a "gateway" to the jungle. We enjoyed walking around, shopping and watching people. One specialty is toffee and we saw people swinging it on wooden pegs in the doorways of many of the shops. We never did buy any to taste but it looked and smelled really good. Again, we used the Lonely Planet book and had nice meals at Cafe Hood, El Jardin and Paolo's Pizzeria. Though my stomach was usually in an `uproar', I did enjoy some tasty snacks.
Since I continued to feel poorly, I wanted to head back to Quito; Carol decided to return to Quito also as she wanted to arrange a trip to the coast. We had to go back by way of Latacunga since we had stored some of our gear at the hotel there. By now we were thoroughly familiar and comfortable with the busses so returning was easy. After an overnight stay in Lagacunga, we were back in Quito on December 30th. Unfortunately, I was having one of my bad days and had decided that I had to either fly home early or see a doctor in Quito. With a little effort, I found an American Airlines agent in downtown Quito and I was able to change my return flight and leave the next day. I arrived in LAX the evening of December 31st and drove back home to San Diego the next day. An appointment with a doctor on New Year's Day and the subsequent lab tests confirmed that I was suffering from a parasite that I probably contracted from water when we were camping. Presumably a 10 day course of the prescribed medication will cure me in time to go to Mexico on January 15th. Ah, so many mountains, so little time.....
In Quito, I did meet up again with my friend, John, who had left for Chimborazo from Laguna Limpiopungo (when we left for Cotopaxi, which John had summited a few years ago). I was absolutely thrilled to hear that he was successful on this, his second, bid on Chimborazo. John had patiently spent numerous days acclimating, with us and then at the Chimbo hut. While at the hut, he had heard horror stories about the conditions on the route up to the summit. He had also watched many people attempt the peak and turn back, unsuccessful. He was ready to give up on it when the guide that he had hired, Patricio, came up to the hut on the previously arranged date. Patricio assured him "no problem" so, they left at 11:00 p.m. for the summit. Much to his surprise...and delight...they did manage to reach the summit but not without incident. In trying to get up a short but steep portion of vertical ice, John struggled and hurt his ribs. (He thought one or more were possibly broken but he never did see a doctor to confirm that.
Suffice it to say that when I saw him he was in pain, especially when he coughed or laughed.) It took John and Patricio 7 hours to summit and 4 hours to descend and John said it was the most technically difficult and dangerous climb he had ever done. Patricio kept yelling at him to hurry, hurry and in the one area where the rockfall was so bad, they just ran. John reported that Patricio was a pretty good guide and certainly knew the route well. (Since he lives in Ambato, we figured he must climb Chimborazo on a quite regular basis.) John didn't think he was very friendly though; in fact, he said he was "surly". John also confirmed that the route was very, very icy (unlike his previous attempt when there was plenty of snow); they were walking directly on the glacial ice and, in at least several areas, self arrest would have been impossible. Oh yes, he said he had heard at the Chimbo hut about some middle-aged American women who had summited Cotopaxi, in spite of one of them being very sick. Even though names weren't mentioned, he knew it was us. I guess we middle-aged Gringos surprised more than a few people with our relentless quests for the summits. Funny how our mental health is rarely commented on, at least not publicly.
A few general observations on Ecuador. I would not hesitate to go there again, even alone. It is an easy country to get around in, the people are friendly and helpful and things are relatively inexpensive. With the sucre being devalued, the good old American dollar is preferred by many Ecuadorians as payment. One does not need specific reservations or plans; it is easy to make arrangements `as you go'. An open mind, flexibility, a sense of humor and a positive attitude.... those characteristics are more than sufficient to insure a fun adventure (a stronger stomach than mine might also be desirable!). My next trip will include an attempt on Chimborazo and sufficient time (at least one additional week) to go deep into the jungle. I collected cards and phone numbers from those I met on this trip and I am looking forward to seeing everyone again....soon, I hope.