Touching the Sky

You might have thought I was finished with megapeaks for 2021 when I posted this at the end of the summer, but no. Oh no. Far from it. Plans for Ecuador’s volcano alley were already underway at that time, and now, they are accomplished. I only made it to three, though I hiked in the beautiful craters of Pululahua and Quilotoa as well. Some peaks like Antisana and El Altar will probably always be out of my reach with the level of technical climbing they require, but others, like Cayambe or the highest peak, Chimborazo, are still playing around in my mind as possibilities for next year. For now, please enjoy these trip reports of my three Ecuadorian conquests.

Rucu Pichincha

Date: December 12, 2021
Summit Elevation: 15,413 ft
Report: To reach the Rucu Pichincha trailhead, you take the TelefériQo to just under 13,000 feet. There are some cafés and vendors there, where you can buy tea made from the coca leaf, which helps with altitude sickness. I thought about trying it, but it wasn’t clear to me if it was supposed to prevent the sickness or alleviate the symptoms. There’s a big difference. If I get altitude sickness, I don’t want to mask the symptoms. I need to know what’s happening in my body. It’s the same reason I don’t take painkillers for minor injuries. I need the pain to be aware if my activities are continuing to aggravate the injury.

Turns out I didn’t need the coca leaf anyway. The hike, coming in at four hours and ten minutes, wasn’t long enough for altitude sickness to set in. I would have completed it faster had I not been sliding around in the mud so badly on the way down. Because, wow did it rain.

Ideally, I would have gone on a sunny day, but with limited time and a training schedule to keep, I ended up going on the rainiest day of my entire stay in Quito. I wasn’t the only one though. There were at least two dozen other hikers heading to the summit and several dozen runners with their dogs participating in a trail race that went about halfway up. I just put on my raincoat, rain pants, and protecting rainsleeve for my backpack and off I went.

Snow does not start to accumulate on peaks in Ecuador until over 15,000 feet, which seems to be about where treeline is, so rainy in Quito meant rainy on my hike. There was a light hail/snow mix at one point, but it quickly turned to rain again. But also because the snow doesn’t start until such a high altitude, peaks in Ecuador are lush. There is so much greenery for thousands of feet above the Colorado treeline. And, by extension, there’s so much soil, so this was one muddy hike. A new mountain hiking experience for me, for sure!

But I was grateful for the rain in one respect – being a volcano like Shasta – much of the cone is sand. The rain kept it clumped together and more firm, making it easier both going up and down that section.

And while the rain made the final 400 foot scramble to the top difficult because I had to grab onto cold, wet rocks, the actual temperature never got cold enough for me to put my winter jacket on. I had a tank top, long sleeve shirt, and my rain jacket on top. That was all. The chill set in when I got home though and I spent the rest of the day on the couch under a blanket after a nice, hot shower.

This wasn’t a technical hike in any way. There was one sketchy spot around 14,500 feet, exacerbated by, yes, you guessed it, the rain. In fact, I waited for another hiker to catch up so I could see how he navigated it. But if you’re itching to get up over the Colorado 14er limit, this is a great peak to choose. Also, please ignore the altitude on my handwritten sign. I saw about six different elevations listed for Pichincha and I accidentally wrote the one for a different peak (Guagua Pichincha, which has the active caldera) for this volcano. The information on hikes here is not as clear and as easy to find as it is in Colorado. I also couldn’t find the difficulty rankings for any of the peaks I did, but with my experience from Colorado, I’d say this is a solid Class 2.

Iliniza Norte

Date: December 19, 2021
Summit Elevation: 16,818 ft
Report: Like Pichincha, this volcano has two calderas. Iliniza Sur is the higher and more technical, so Norte was for me. Also like Rucu Pichincha, Norte has no permanent snow, while its sister Iliniza Sur does. Even without the glacial aspect, I opted for a guide on this one. I read that the summit can be tricky, there’s a permitting aspect involved, and given the cost of a rental car capable of getting to the trailhead, paying for a guide seemed the way to go. I definitely made the right choice.

The last five kilometers to the parking lot are on what barely qualifies as a road. One truck got stuck in the mud and we all had to wait for a tractor to come pull it out. Two SUVs in our caravan of day hikers couldn’t make it up and their passengers had to hitch a ride with others. So, yeah, not a road you want to drive.

The hike began around 12,600 feet and was a fairly easy, steady grade up to 15,400 feet where the refugio is for people who spend the night so they can hike both peaks. My guide, Cosme, and I stopped here to eat a little bit and put our harnesses, helmets, and warmer clothing on. Shortly after leaving the refugio, the scrambling began. We had a few scrambles, a ridgeline, a narrow rocky pass, and then around 16,000 feet, the real snow and dicey ledges began. Again, I really made the right choice going with a guide. I was grateful to have him in front, testing our footing and carving the path since we were the first group up to the summit that day. I wouldn’t have been able to summit had I gone myself (which technically isn’t even allowed though some people do it).

The last 250 feet to the top we had to ditch our hiking poles and use the ropes and anchor points to hoist ourselves up through several areas. In the summer, Cosme says you don’t have to do this and it’s all scrambling, but with the amount of snow on the day I went, the few parties that showed up without ropes had to turn back. One group turned back even before the snow because the mud was so slick. Tour companies don’t provide crampons for this hike because they generally aren’t necessary (they are for Iliniza Sur), but I was grateful I had mine. They made all the difference. You can’t exactly tell from this video how steep this ledge drop was and how narrow and snowy the footing was, but you can see some of the people behind us inching along and gripping the rock. I was all about safety; even with the crampons and rope, I kept a firm grip on the rock and often used my butt for support as well.

We made a good team, Cosme and I, and he gave good guidance on those climbing sections. He’s 60 years old and has been a mountain guide for 40 years. He worked with my pace – he said I actually pushed him faster than he would normally go on the lower section up to the refugio – and I felt completely safe with his instructions. He was also just really funny. He is a chatterbox. He was backseat driving (it’s the law here that guides have a separate driver) and yammering away to the driver the whole way out and back about every topic under the sun from World War II to the Paris Agreement to COVID vaccines to poverty rates in rural Ecuador. After every few sentences, he would ask the driver “Yes or no?” to get his opinion, but half the time, the driver just ignored him. It got to the point where I couldn’t help laughing after each 3-4 minute spurt of rapid-fire Spanish followed by “Sí o no?” “Sí o no?”

On the way down from the summit, instead of passing by the refugio again, we took a different route, a fast slide down mud in a gully and then a walk through the stunning páramo. It hailed and rained most of the descent, but we reached the truck right before the massive downpour. Despite the less than stellar weather and visibility, Cosme said it’s better to do these peaks this time of year. In the summer, the peaks get really icy apparently. And there are way more people too and you can end up waiting for people on the scrambles. On this day, fewer than 20 of us went up to the summit, and like I said, I got to be the first, which was pretty damn cool.

I did get a touch of altitude sickness but only on the way down, oddly enough. It started to hit me when we got back below 15,000 feet and I know it’s because I wasn’t drinking enough water. The line to my bladder froze, so I was only drinking at the breaks when I could take my extra liter reserve out of my pack. But then I kept feeling worse and worse as we descended and halfway through the drive back to Quito, my head was pounding, despite chugging water. So, lesson learned there – remember ibuprofen and figure out the water situation for the big one…Cotopaxi.

If you do want to hike here but don’t want to take on such a technical peak, you don’t need a permit to hike to refugio, only to do the summits. There’s also a beautiful lake between the two Ilinizas, past the refugio at roughly the same elevation. You can take that trail for a gorgeous day hike as well, assuming you can figure out a ride up to La Virgin parking lot.

Cotopaxi

Date: December 25, 2021
Summit Elevation: 19,347
Report: While not the highest peak in Ecuador, this is the most emblematic of the country, so I couldn’t leave without trying to summit. There’s no climbing involved but you are hiking a glacier with the risk of avalanche (six people died in one in October) and plummeting down a crevasse, so do not attempt this without a guide. And don’t get a cut-rate guide either.

Juan Carlos (from Ecuador Eco Tours, I 100% recommend using them!) picked me up in Quito at 11am. We drove to the Cotopaxi National Park entrance where we picked up my personal trekking guide Pablo Falconí (who is the tastiest piece of eye candy, and very sweet and patient and helpful. He runs a snowboarding company too if you’re interested). The three of us had a robust and delicious lunch at the restaurant there (included in the price – all three meals plus gear plus snacks were included), then drove to a resort in the park to pick up another couple who would be trekking with Juan Carlos. They were very cool people from Washington state and we spent most of the rest of the trip together.

From there, we went to the parking lot and hiked 1,500 feet up to the José Ribas refugio. You are expected to carry all your own gear – helmet, crampons, sleeping bag, etc. This makes sense to me, but some people might be expecting the guides to do it for them. If so, you probably shouldn’t be signing up for this kind of adventure. It was about 4:30 by then, so we claimed bunks in one of the dorm rooms, checked out the refugio which has a climbing wall, some seating areas, and amazing views of the national park, and chatted with some of the other people. Dinner – more incredible home cooking – was at 5pm and then the guides went right to bed. I followed suit, hoping to get in some good rest before the 11pm wake up call.

That didn’t happen. At 15,750 ft, the altitude was already affecting me. My heart was palpitating weirdly and I kept getting up to pee because I drank so much since I didn’t want to get dehydrated. I understand the concept of spending 8 hours at that elevation before starting the hike to help your body acclimate, but it worked against me. By 11pm, I already felt sick to my stomach and had a headache. I didn’t even want to do the hike at all at that point, but I was there and had to try.

We geared up, clinked mugs full of hot water and exchanged “Merry Christmas” with each other, and then hiked less than a half hour up until we hit the snowfield. There, we put on our crampons, roped up, and began. At this point, the 12 or so of us groups started to disperse, each guide more or less blazing his own trail, then converging again at the rest points. The guides go slowly, slowly, slowly. This is against my nature but a necessity because I would burn out so fast otherwise. You have to take baby steps and just keep plodding along, one foot in front of the other. You aren’t really looking at much except for the snow imprints the guide left in front of you. And you always do exactly what your guide tells you. Sadly, a guide died on Chimborazo only two days before my hike, saving a client who fell.

I felt okay at our first two rest stops, but it was bad news from there. When glacier hiking, you keep your ice axe on the mountainside. So with every switchback, if you are also using a hiking pole, you have to switch hands. When you’re wearing thick gloves, it gets cumbersome to keep slipping the pole strap on your wrist, so I stopped doing it. Then we hit a long, narrow steep ridgeline and I stupidly didn’t even put the strap on then. Well, you can guess what happened. Bye-bye hiking pole! Pablo was kind enough to give me his, and I made sure to keep the strap on after that.

Around the third rest stop, I was trembling uncontrollably. Too cold to relax, definitely too cold to eat. Here’s what I was wearing:

  • Tank top, long sleeve shirt, North Face vest, puffy jacket, rain jacket over that to break the wind
  • Two pairs of gloves, one thin running layer and a pair of winter gloves over that, but not proper mountaineering gloves
  • Thick hiking pants and rain paints, but not proper ski pants
  • Two pairs of heavy socks (one smart wool, one cotton) and mountaineering boots
  • A knit hat, gaiter, and helmet

So, it was definitely my fault for not having the right clothing, but I dressed based on my Ilinza Norte experience and how plenty warm I was at 16,818 with far less clothing. Of course, I didn’t consider that the previous hike was during the day and this was in the middle of the night. And even with more clothing, figuring out where to store enough water so it was accessible and wouldn’t freeze would have still been a challenge. No one else seemed to be drinking that much water, but I don’t know how. I had a small hand-held bottle stuffed down the front of my jacket and a liter pouch in my backpack to refill it from, but I was massively dehydrated. Also, the thought of having to de-harness and shed all those layers to pee was depressing.

We had our sixth stop around 18,000 feet and I knew that was the end for me. My sole thought at that point was how much I wanted to get back into my sleeping bag at the refugio. I had absolutely no desire left to summit. I was so cold and so tired. The higher I went, the more I would have to descend. Pablo – my hero – had another coat in his pack that he gave and he convinced me to try a little more, which I did.

But halfway up the next ridgeline, I could see the others’ headlamps way up there and I just couldn’t anymore. Despite the added clothing layer, my fingers and toes were still numb, and I was just so, so, so tired. I don’t know about you, but when I’m tired, it’s even harder to stay warm. I started to worry I might get hypothermia. So I called it at 18,199 feet. We “only” had another 1,100 feet to go, but by Pablo’s estimation, that would have taken another two hours. I simply couldn’t. Had it been less than an hour, I might have pressed on but two hours was too much. I wasn’t the only one either; two other parties failed to summit that night as well. Cotopaxi is serious business!

Because I did my whole hike in the dark, I couldn’t really take any photos, but let me tell you, it was incredible. The ice caves, the snow mounds, the crevasses, the feeling that you were about to walk straight off the earth because of how steep it was…it was incredible. We made lots of switchbacks on the way up because of how steep it is, but on the way down, you just trust your crampons and march straight on down the face of the volcano. Also on the way down, I was in front and Pablo was behind me, ready to rope me in if I fell. So it was like being out there all alone. The lights of Quito twinkled off in the distance to the left and to the right, a wild lightning storm was flashing over Antisana volcano.

I was grateful to get back to the refugio because my toes were blistered and my ankles in pain from those heavy boots. The other way those boots hindered me was in their size. These were old school, heavy, leather mountaineering boots with gigantic crampons. I’m used to regular hiking boots and $15 crampons off Amazon. It’s like going from driving a Toyota Corolla to a GMC Yukon; it’s hard getting used to the size difference. I kept kicking my own feet, misjudging the clearance around snow piles and nearly causing myself to trip. I was so happy to take those things off when we got back and get into bed. Until I had to sprint out the door to vomit about 15 minutes after I laid down…

So, would I attempt another glacier hike? Despite my hatred of the cold and snow, I won’t say no definitively, since I often change my mind about such things and I do love a mountain challenge, but I truly don’t know if my body can handle the altitude no matter what I try. I know the conditions would have to be right. Based on this experience, I can say this much:

  • I won’t sign up again for a trek that leaves at midnight. The simple fact is that I need more sleep to succeed. The earliest I’m willing to wake up next time is 3am.
  • I will dress better next time. This was a learning experience and now I understand better what I need to wear to not freeze.
  • I will go to the tour company office first to try on the boots or get my own.
  • I need to figure out the water/food situation better. I would do more research on this.

I also learned that when the hike is this steep, it’s more about your calf muscles than your booty muscles, which is what I’m used to in high altitude hiking. I’ll do my training a bit differently next time now that I know that because, who am I kidding? Obviously there’s going to be a next time.

4 thoughts on “Touching the Sky

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