Saturday, October 23, 2010

Cotopaxi: October 13

I made it back to Quito safely for beers with the translator.  Over the next two days we climbed Pichinca Rucu (15,413') and checked out Pasachoa National Refuge.  That afternoon it was time to make a move towards Cotopaxi.  We parted ways at the bus stop in Amanguana.  High fives and thanks.  That CBrown is a good one.  

I hired a pick-up to drive me to Papagayo Hostel in Machachi.  Papagayo is rad; they have a petting zoo, puppies, white linen dining, a hot tub, internet, TV, and dollar beers.  This runs $20 a night.  Meals are in the $3-$7 range.  

The next morning I met my guide, Fernando.  Fernando lives at the base of the mountain and stopped counting Cotopaxi summits last year when he hit 200.  He also has climbed in Peru and the Alps.  This was a good sign.  I was outfitted with mountaineering boots and clamp-ons and we hit the road for the park.  

From Papagayo it is about 30 minutes to the park entrance and another 30 to the high parking lot.  We raided a small grocer on the way for supplies.  There are no ClifBars, no trail mix, no Goo, no Blox, just candy bars, doughnuts, and Coca Cola.  I like this place.  
Park Entrance (Fee $10)

Refuge and Cotopaxi from the Parking Area

We parked at 14,700' and hiked with full packs to the Refugio P. Jose Ribas de Reina at 15,800'.  It felt good.  The refuge can hold about 100 people and I hear it fills up for a rocking party on New Years.  Pounding booze at 15,800?  Well, that wouldn't even be close to the dumbest thing I have ever done. Tonight there were only 7: 3 guides, 4 clients. The refuge has bunks stacked 3 high with thin mattresses; bring a sleeping bag. The kitchen is communal with a propane stove. There are plenty of pots, pans, plates, cups, etc.  

Fernando whipped up an awesome chicken cacccitore pasta which is no small feat considering water boils at 175 ˚F.  He laid out the plan: hit the sheets at 7:30 PM, get up at midnight, hiking by 1:00 AM, summit by dawn.  Copy.

In Ecuador the sun rises at 6, is directly above you at noon, and then sets at 6 everyday of the year.  And when it sets, it is dropping straight down; not much time between sunset and dark. What dusk lacks in duration, it makes up for in intensity.

Midnight finally arrived.  I spent the short night tossing and turning.  We hit the trail at 12:53 AM.  There's one group ahead of us, but that won't stand.  The 1st 1,200' vert is loose gravel.  Its like trying to climb a sand-dune.  Each step pays 6" but then is promptly fined 3".  I struggled unsuccessfully to find better purchase.  This is more work than anticipated.

Fernando said it would take an hour to reach the ice.  After exactly one hour we reach the ice. I wanted to beat his estimate, but it was not to be.  Getting the clamp-ons affixed to the boots allowed for a bit of a breather and a chance to admire the stars.  Many stars.  Quito stretched out to the North and seemed to sprawl on forever.  I tied in and we started in on the ice. The hard ice made me nervous, but after about 10 minutes we were on snow and feeling comfortable.   

Cotopaxi is climbed often.  The trail is beat into the snow and is about 2' wide with no side hill action.  It is not that steep, but traverses some steep faces with consequences.  I check my grip on my axe often.  The ascent is just a slow march.  Large amorphous shapes loom all around. Black chasms close just before the trail and open wide on the other side.  

At 18,000', Fernando informed me that the ice bridge has melted out.  Route-finding ate up about 30 minutes. The crux of the detour ended with Fernando sending it over a snow bridge and booting up a 50˚ slope for about 6 steps in 5 seconds flat. Fast and loose. Nice! This guy was getting it done.  I repeated the Skier Boyz mantra and went for it.  

Back to the grind. Foot step after foot step. One minute I was done, the next I found my wind. My head was starting to hurt.  My muscles weren't tired, but I just couldn't muster the energy. We were traversing above something big and I was getting the dizzies.  

"One minute."

"Not here, 100 more meters."


We were through and took our first break. Ten minutes later Fernando was moving. OK, OK. More of the same, but then the trail narrowed and then narrowed again. It traversed a steep slope and disappeared around a corner.  Cotopaxi is a very symmetrical cone.  There are no major ridges.  The route is a series of traversing faces and getting on short minor ridges and repeat. This latest traverse got about boot wide. I was having trouble getting my inside foot in front of my outside foot. It was light enough to see around us, but I chose not to look.   

"Nothing's gonna happen"


"Nada va a occurrir."

Mercifully, the ledge rolled into a ridge which quickly transformed into a climbing narrow traverse across a face.  Boot wide again, but it felt narrower.  Fernando was around the corner, keeping a tight belay.  I really better not look at whatever this is.  Getting my inside foot around was becoming a problem, so I tried a technique from a popular movie.  It worked.

And again back to a ridge, but this one was different.  It started to roll over.  I could see low spots on the crater rim.  The sun had just risen and pink light was dotting the landscape. I could smell sulfur wafting over us from the crater.  Minutes later there was nothing left to climb.

Cotopaxi's Shadow over Las Ilinizas 

Summit Crater

After 15 minutes the 2nd team made the summit.  Smiles and high fives and exhaustion.  The sun was heading straight up and warming things quickly.  We couldn't linger.  Snow bridges would soften, ice would fall.  We made quick time.  The large dark shapes from the hike up revealed themselves in the light.  Generally things looked beautiful and terrifying, but our little trail snaked to and fro avoiding all of the obstacles.

We hit the refugio after 2.5 hours for some rest.  My head was killing me.  I finished my water and chocolate.  The other team of 3 wasn't fast enough and had to turn back because of softening snow.  You really have to hit it and quit to make the summit.  A good guide is a wise move especially if there is new snow.  Call Papagayo and ask for Fernando.  Months of training was critical to my success.  Without the help of hiking parter DBass and altitude coach CBrown, the summit would have been elusive.  

And since you read this far, I will answer the only question you care about:
The snow is ass; leave the skis at home.

- Doyle Hargraves

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Las Ilinizas: October 9

My translator was gone.  I was on my own.  It was time to see if I could navigate this country solo.  Cab to the bus station: easy.  Bus to Machachi: stressful but got it done.  Now where is the bus for El Chaupi?  Fortunately the people of Ecuador are the nicest people ever.  I must have looked out of place because I was getting plenty of unsolicited help.  

Along came a bus straight from Imagination-land: bumping music, brightly painted, tassels on the curtains, license plate that said "Fresh", and there were dice in the mir'.

If anything I could say that this bus was rare, but I thought, nah, forget it, yo home's, to El Chaupi!  

The ride set me back $0.41 but I would have paid $0.45, so I was feeling pretty good about myself.  The hostel was only a few blocks uphill from the town square.  I had booked a private room at the Illovizno and opted to include dinner and breakfast ($25 all in).  This place is a climber's hangout.  Stickers from climbing stores from all over the world plaster the windows around the entrance.  Flags and old climbing gear fill the mantel over the fire place. The main food staples in this part of the country are chicken and potatoes and plenty of them. Dessert was tomate de arbol (tree tomato).  It was sweetened, baked, and served warm. Fantastic. My room was drafty but the covers were heavy.  Perfect sleeping weather.

The Hostel

The owner, Bladimir (with a B) Gallo arranged for a 5 AM wake-up, breakfast, and a ride up the 10K cobblestone road into the park to the trailhead.  He also insisted that I borrow a climbing helmet and gave me a 2-way radio in case I ran into trouble.  See, these Ecuadorians are awesome.  

The trail starts at 12,800'.  It starts gradually climbing through what feels like high desert.  The elevation (altura) wasted now time kicking my ass.  I had left my fancy watch back in Quito so I was unsure of the elevations for the entire hike.  

Sur on the Left, Norte on the Right

I had planned on climbing the North Peak, but I was on a sub-ridge heading towards the South. The gully separating the two was deep and narrow. This didn't feel right, but I didn't have the energy to do anything except slog on up the trail. Closer and closer to the wrong mountain, but as long as the pass was above me, I wasn't going to worry about it. Finally the trail took a hard right and headed towards the pass.  The hut came into view; I had chosen the correct route. Phew!  The hut costs $15 a night and has a propane stove.  They sell beer ($1.50) and other hot and cold drinks for about $1.  

The Refugio (15,400')

The South peak has plenty of ice and requires technical gear. It blocks the weather for the North; so no ice on the North. So North to the future. I gained the ridge and was making good time.  

The Route to the North (16, 818')

The South

Eventually you need to get off the ridge and traverse onto the face via El Paso de la Muerte.  With a name liked that, I assumed this would be the crux.  I breathed a sigh of relief on the other side even though it was only 3rd class.  At this point you need to trascend across the face until you are under the 2nd (higher) summit.  This was considerably more difficult than the Pass of Death.  There were some low 5th class moves and the sun was starting to change the frozen mud into slickery mud.  Where is Vonnegut's Ice Nine when you need it?  Careful placement kept my feet on the rocks and my shoes dry.  The hedgehog could smell the summit. 

The last 100' vert is an awesome super juggy 4th class chimney. Prefect hold after perfect hold, near vertical and then no more. An iron cross marks the summit, well that and thick clouds. No visibility, but that was fine. Ain't nothing going to break my stride, nobody's gonna slow me down.  I rested and after about 5 minutes the clouds broke.  First some valleys, then the South Peak, and then Cotopaxi! I lingered trying in vain to take it all in.  No words to describe it. Poetry. They should've sent a poet.
Cotopaxi from Iliniza Norte

On the way up I sussed a big time short cut.  Send it right down the East Face, all scree.  No Death Pass, no mud, just 2,000 vert of beautiful scree.  Hallelujah!  This I know.  4 hours up, 2 hours down.  "Blad, come and get me, over, copy, 10-9, come again, roger!" 

It was my highest peak ever.  The elevation didn't crush me as much as I expected, but Cotopaxi concerned me.  Its 2,500' higher, glaciated, and looked terrifying from Las Ilinizas.  There'll be time to worry about that later, now it was time to negotiate buses and taxis and pick-ups.  I needed to get back to Quito to meet my translator for beers.  


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Monday, October 18, 2010


Just returned from a very successful 2 weeks on the Equator. It was terrifying and exhilarating. Never have I been more scared or more excited.

Ecuador is on the US dollar so that part was easy. They speak Spanish; that was a bit more difficult but my Spanish was just passable. Their wanton disregard for highway safety was the toughest aspect to get used to. Those hombres straight up send it on every highway, alley, dirt road, and city street. Terrifying. My advice is not to look and let the drivers do their jobs.

Why Ecuador? The beauty, the culture, the people, the mountains, the experience? No, no, no, no, and no. Liftie extrodinaire CBrown of Bridger/Alta/Alyeska fame is a the beginning of a 10 mounth diplomatic mission of cultural exchange. I was hoping for a free couch. Check out her blog for indepth analysis of all things Ecuador:

I'll post trip reports for Iliniza Norte (16,818') and Cotopaxi (19,347') later in the week. For now, please enjoy these photos:

Top of Cotopaxi

Sunset behind Las Ilinizas

Cotopaxi from the Highway

Pickup Soccer: The Basilica, Quito