Ecuador, one of the smallest of the South American countries, is geographically diverse. The high Andean range extends through the country in a north-south direction separating the hot, humid lowlands on the Pacific coast from the tropical rain forest of the upper Amazon basin in the east. In addition, Ecuador is situated directly on the equator. In fact, 'ecuador' is Spanish for 'equator'. The mountain climber and backpacker has much to choose from. Ecuador has one of the world's greatest concentrations of volcanoes of which a considerable number are still active. Chimborazo, the highest peak at 20,703 feet, is higher than any mountain in the America's north of it, and is also the highest mountain in the world measured from the center of the Earth. The weather is often uncertain in Ecuador, and reading about facts such as these gives one something to do while waiting out storms in a tent.
In June 1995, after leading a group of 12 people to the Galápagos Islands located off the coast of Ecuador, I stayed in Ecuador to climb. John Otter and Andy Kleist from the Galápagos trip joined me.
Standard Ecuador climbing is not my style. Typically, people acclimatize a few days in the picturesque capital city of Quito, at 9,300 feet in a lovely mountain setting. They then hire a jeep to drive them to a hut, often above 15,000 feet, spend one or two nights, and then do a one day ascent of a peak hoping to get back to Quito before altitude sickness sets in. Ascents usually start in the early hours of the morning. Ecuadorian guides are often used, since it is difficult to route-find on a strange mountain in the dark and detailed route descriptions are often hard to find.
After much discussion, John, Andy, and I decided to climb 19,350 foot Cotopaxi. The second highest and most popular peak, Cotopaxi may also be the most aesthetic due to the huge semi-active crater at the summit. It is located in Cotopaxi National Park, a beautiful area containing a region called the Páramo, at elevations of 12,000 to 14,000 feet, which has a truly unique plant life. Several nights spent at these altitudes allowed us to acclimatize before attempting Cotopaxi.
We spent half a day traveling from Quito to a 12,500 foot lake called Limpiopungo using public transport, which in Ecuador is efficient and inexpensive. We were self-contained with tents, climbing equipment, and food for 5 days. On our second day we day hiked up Rumínahui, a rocky peak with two summits. We climbed the central summit at about 15,100 feet and the northern summit at 15,455 feet. Typical Ecuador weather was evident as we had light snow near the top, and were caught in a heavy rain on the return to our camp. It also rained much of the night.
On day three, we started walking up the road toward the refugio located on the north side of Cotopaxi at 15,745 feet. We felt that a slow 3000 foot hike with 55 lb. packs would be good for acclimatization. About half way up, some Ecuadorian tourists felt sorry for us and offered to give us a lift. Andy agreed to go with all three of our packs. John and I continued to hike but had we kept our packs, we would probably still be walking.
The Cotopaxi hut is first class. We were there during the week so we saw the hut in its best light without the weekend crowds. There are semi-flush toilets (including the bucket of water), fresh rain water for drinking, bunks with foam mattresses, a huge sunken fireplace complete with firewood, and beer to buy if you want to get high faster. Due to the recent bad weather (it rained most of the day while we hiked up) only one other group was in the hut, a 5 person party from New Mexico. The weather cleared in the evening which allowed us to see the route that we would attempt the following morning. We decided to get up at 1 a.m. and leave at 2 a.m., following the new Mexico group who planned to leave at 12:30 a.m. When the alarm rang, Andy had a bad headache. He decided not to go so John and I were on our own.
The route up Cotopaxi consists of three distinct parts. The total gain is 3600 feet. The first 1000 feet follows a well marked path up a scree slope. The middle third of the route extends from the start of the glacier and wanders up through a large crevasse field. Finally, the upper third is crevasse free but the angle steepens to possibly 40· at a few places.
Everything I had read and heard about the mountain indicated that the route was relatively safe as long as one stayed on the well marked path. Based on this, John and I went very light with just ice axes, crampons, and wands, leaving our rope at the hut. We had no problems for the first half of the climb. Although it had snowed several inches the previous day, the track was visible and the route was fairly well marked with wands. In addition, we had the New Mexico group's tracks to follow. It was dark with no moon so we climbed using headlamps.
After about three hours, we caught up with the New Mexico group. They were in the process of turning back due to perceived avalanche danger and a difficult crevasse crossing. We continued on, seeing no avalanche danger and crossed the crevasse at a safer location. However, as we climbed higher, the game changed. The new snow had hidden the track completely in an area which was likely to have crevasses. We probed very carefully and slowly, barely avoiding a crevasse three feet wide and 100 feet deep which was covered by fresh snow regretting having left our rope behind. It took us 1 1/2 hours to pass through this small area before we once again found the well marked path.
The upper third of the mountain went quickly and easily since there were no crevasses and the snow was firm. We summited at 9:45 a.m., almost eight hours after we started. It was a beautiful day and we had clear views of the 2000 foot deep crater at the summit as well as other high peaks in the distance. After a short stay, we descended the upper third of the mountain in 30 minutes. It then took us over three hours to descend the next 1000 feet through the crevasse field. Our crampons balled up severely, which required us to often knock the snow off at every step. We had to bypass part of our ascent route which did not appear safe due to the soft snow conditions. Finally, it took a long time to cross thin snow bridges across very deep and unsafe looking crevasses. As before, any travel off the marked path required tedious probing and checking to avoid hidden crevasses. We finally reached the hut about 2:30 p.m. finishing a 12 hour plus day and happy to see the last of the crevasses.
Meanwhile, Andy had recovered and was participating in the spell binding recovery of two frozen bodies in the ice that had been discovered that morning near the base of the glacier, 1000 feet above the hut. They turned out to be two Swiss climbers who had disappeared five years ago. The hut guardian was so excited about the discovery that he raced up the scree slope that had taken us an hour that morning, in a few short minutes, ice ax in hand and continued right on to the icy glacier in his rubber boots. The climbers were found frozen under the ice with only their feet sticking out. It is unknown what had happened to them but they probably fell into a crevasse and were moved down by the shifting glacier over the last five years. While this was happening, we packed up and found a ride down the mountain to a nearby town called Latacunga, where we enjoyed a good dinner and hot showers.
In retrospect, it was a mistake to travel without a rope. Cotopaxi's reputation as a 'safe' mountain is based on following a guide's footsteps. In theory, a competent guide will never get off the path, and will be aware of the quality of the snow bridges. Also, climbers will not waste time looking for the route, allowing them to summit quickly and descend before crampon balling up becomes a problem. However, I think this is false security. The crevasse crossings I saw on Cotopaxi were dangerous under any circumstances. One crevasse about five feet wide was covered with a bridge less than 2 feet deep with holes extending through! Going up in the dark early morning hours hides much of this.
BACKPACKING THE PÁRAMO
Andy departed the following day to catch his flight home. Meanwhile, John and I had another week and we were by now well acclimatized. John had climbed Chimborazo on a previous trip to Ecuador in 1975 so rather than tackle Ecuador's highest, we decided to do a multi-day backpack just north of Chimborazo and attempt the 2 summits of Carihuairazo, the 9th highest peak in Ecuador at 16,471 feet.
Our hike started at 13,200 feet where we got off a public bus and started walking towards the east with supplies for 5 days. As we climbed toward the pass separating Chimborazo from Carihuairazo, we had beautiful views of Chimborazo to the south and passed through Indian settlements where a herd of 300 llamas and sheep were being brought back to the village from high pastures at the end of the day. But it was not to be. The good weather deteriorated quickly, and although two days later we set up camp above 15,000 feet, we were not able to attempt the twin summits. We continued hiking east until we reached the Pan American Highway and returned to Quito. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in this high Páramo region; I have never experienced plant life so interesting. The most striking examples were large green mounds formed by vegetation, several feet in diameter, that were so firm that one could walk on them.
The day before we were scheduled to return home, John and I climbed 15,724 foot, Guagua Pichincha, a short distance from Quito. The challenge here is not the summit, which is reached in 30 minutes from the end of a four-wheel drive road, but rather the 3300 foot descent into the semi-active crater where we saw steam fumeroles and exotic vegetation. The high point (and low point) was soaking in hot water pools formed by three streams cascading down the cliffs deep inside of this crater. The water was a little too warm but we managed.
Airfares to Ecuador are not unreasonable, and once there, it is very inexpensive to travel around. It is one of the safer countries in South America. By using local transport and avoiding rental cars, four-wheel drive vehicles, and guides, one can climb and hike in Ecuador for less than $15/day.
Copyright 1995 by Rich Henke. email: Rich@adventureplus.org