Gear I Haven’t Used – A Closet of Dreams?

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All of us have those Purchases that seemed very logical to buy at the time. And perhaps they were, but life happens and the intended event for which said Purchase would have been just perfect never occurs. And now the Purchases sit there in a closet or a duffel or a garage as homage to lost hopes and dreams.

Granted, a bit melodramatic. But my climbing/hiking storage space is full of such items.

The rope. We carefully ordered on line the exact specifications identified in the gear list for our July 2015 trip to Ecuador. Our local hiking/climbing store didn’t carry the precise dimensions and we were sure those few millimeters would make the difference between success and failure. Alas, it turned out the rope wasn’t going to be necessary unless we actually climbed Chimborazo, and once there, we made the wiser choice of allowing our summit of Cotopaxi to be our crowning glory.  Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit.  The rope lies curled in waiting. One day.

The stove. This was to accompany us on our multi day backpacking trip along the Muliwai trail in the Big Island in Hawaii In 2013. Those plans were kaboshed when J came down with the flu and was told by the doctor he’d have to be helicoptered out if he tried it. I did the first couple of hours in my own, but there was hardly a need for a stove. Ah well, the alternative we found – the Mauna Kea hike – was pretty spectacular. Journey to Another Planet – Mauna Kea

The tent.  See The Stove.

Odd square pieces of aluminum foil, carefully folded. I think they relate to the stove. Highly unclear what they were for or why I saved them.

Long and skinny gaiters. These were on sale at some point and were apparently so cheap because no one else could figure out what they were for either. They haven’t really gone to waste because I used them to wrap my crampons in. Actually that didn’t work very well and they too are now relegated to the pile of great unuse.

Those are just the gear items that come to mind. I’m only now putting everything away from our January Orizaba trip, in preparation for getting a lot of it out again for our Scottish Highlands hike, which starts 60 days from today.

There’s still room to realize all the dreams of the unused gear.

 

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Shifting Gears – A New Year and A Gear Check: Orizaba Here We Come

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So we leave in two days and I’ve managed to do an unbelievably good job of procrastination with the gear check. It started off as – oh, we did this six months ago, how much more can there be to do – to, well, maybe I need to go to Trak Shack and by more gu’s tomorrow because I’m down to five.

But procrastination – i.e., let’s do anything besides the gear check – enabled me to do just a tiny bit of work this morning to welcome in the new year in appropriate lawyer like fashion. It also helped me take down all the Christmas decorations, mop the kitchen floor, communicate with daughters A and S, and go for one last leisurely walk with pack on. Oh, and there was time for the martini on the porch while watching the sunset.

But while on the porch, I did find myself black thread and needle in hand as I mended my Thermasilk glove liners, which clearly could not be replaced within the next 24 hours of globally warmed Florida. Just before sundowner hour we did venture into our guest room, which is where we do gear assembly, to start the preliminary review. What I hadn’t realized about a gear check after having climbed a number of mountains is that you wear out your equipment. As I pulled out the glove liners and saw each index finger was completely ripped, I suddenly recalled that I’d climbed Illiniza Norte in Ecuador with only my liners – they kept my fingers warm but I could feel the rock, unlike my heavily lined gloves or my even heavier mittens. (But I was very happy to have those mittens on Cotopaxi when I realized my fingers were going numb.)

There’s still an overwhelming amount of stuff to go through in what used to be called the guest room. And only 72 (or is it 48) hours to sort it out.  Are the lithium batteries still good? Is there a leak in my Thermorest pad and does it really make a difference anyway? And will gorilla tape actually work to repair our very ripped up duffel bags?
Any answers to these questions or other tips for climbing Orizaba are more than welcome!

I’m excited. Next post – from Mexico, at altitude.

Observations on a Mountain and Otherwise

Ecuador - Avenue of Volcanoes
Ecuador – Avenue of Volcanoes

Lots of times on the way up a mountain it’s pitch dark. And even if you’re lucky and the path is lit by thousands of silver stars and perhaps the glow of a brilliant white moon, it’s pretty difficult to look around you to take it all in as you trudge up, all senses aimed at planting your feet so as not to take a tumble down hundreds of meters of snow, ignominiously ending up on a pile of rock.

Even in daytime it’s not always easy to take the extra moments to look about. By then you’re worried that the snow is softening, avalanche and rock fall risk getting greater, and you still have to clamber back down.

The last few weeks have presented just enough strange little coincidences that remind me, though, that sometimes it is worth taking those extra moments and noticing those connections you might otherwise miss. One thing about running as part of training – it gives you a lot of time just to observe – and basically to try and focus on anything other than how sore you feel.

I wrote about the first such coincidence a couple of weeks ago. That is, ordering a glass of Malbec at two restaurants over 1000 miles apart, two nights in a row – and being informed at each that was the last Malbec – not of the bottle but at the entire establishment!

This past week, I learned via Facebook on the same day that two unrelated people I know, one through work and one an old college friend, were both making their standup comedy debuts in a very far apart states on exactly the same night. I had not hitherto thought of stand up comedy as something hordes of people were lining up to do.

And just recently, while engaging in some unexpected dialogue about the poet W.S. Merwin, again on Facebook, of all places, a friend mentioned her love of his book, Vixen. Back in 1996 or so, I cut that poem out of The New Yorker when it was first published, and it’s been on my work bulletin board ever since. (Somehow I just add to the bulletin board. I never take anything off. It has an archeological feel by now.)

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Now, any two things can look strangely connected if you examine them hard enough. And it certainly makes life more interesting to do so. But the reality is that there are an awful lot of fun things to look at out there that can liven up any part of a journey.

There was the incredible wild orchid I saw in Ecuador in our hike to see the hummingbirds. And on Friday when I walked home from work I was delighted to find an Italian restaurant that featured Hawaiian pizza and gyros. And as close as my own backyard are some tiny basil plants springing up volunteer. We’ll see how long they last in our Florida “winter.”

Taken through an IPhone rain cover - a little blurry!
Taken through an IPhone rain cover – a little blurry!

We have just over two months before we attempt Pico de Orizaba. There will be a lot to look at before then.

Pain and Train – Getting Ready for Orizaba

Rainbow on Cayambe descent
Rainbow on Cayambe descent

Now that Labor Day has passed, it is time to return to the backbone of any successful summit bid – and that is the long hard slog of training.  I haven’t stopped since Ecuador and our adventures on Cotopaxi, Illiniza Norte and Cayambe, but I have definitely taken it a bit easier.

For example, I treated myself to the luxury of stairs without a 25 pound backpack. I haven’t attempted a seven mile run. And I have not been at all diligent about any weight lifting. It’s been nice.

But, as the Walrus said In Jabberwocky, the time has come. So on Saturday, after much futzing around (you do need to make sure your sunglasses are adjusted just so, headphones properly positioned, etc.), I embarked on a five mile run. I’ve been running four milers, but if we want to have a hope of scaling Mexico’s 18,491 foot Pico de Orizaba in January, I need to be back up there at the seven mile plus level. The run actually felt good. And on Monday, I’m going to reload the pack with the weights from my weight vest and lug it back off to work where my 16 story office building awaits.

In the meantime, I’ve been reading excerpts from a book called Fast After Fifty. It’s aimed at athletes who are trying to maintain or improve after age fifty and emphasizes interval and anaerobic training. But – true confession – I didn’t really do anything particularly athletic until I was almost fifty! So I have some reservations as to how applicable those principles are to me….although that may just be a copout as I have no desire to run as hard as I can for thirty minutes to find my lactic threshold.

At least I can find some inspiration in the movie, Meru, which we saw last night. It’s a documentary based on alpinists Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk’s two attempts to climb Mt. Meru in the Himalayas – 21,000 feet above the headwaters of the Ganges River. It’s the sort of mountain that makes Everest seem like climbing for dummies. Over the course of the three years between the first failed attempt and the second successful one, one of them was in a near fatal snowboard accident, which resulted in a severely fractured skull, and another narrowly survived an avalanche. But they ultimately made it up what is called the Shark Fin – razer like slabs of granite so unstable Chin said he could feel them move under his fingers.

On the first attempt they got within 500 feet of the summit – but ran out of food due to an unexpected four days waiting out a storm in a small tent half way the mountain.

The physical and mental strength it takes to know when to turn around and when to keep going is huge. I may not be headed to the super high mountains of the Himalayas, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that my Florida version of training can at least get me ready again for something higher than Mt. Dora. For those of you non-Floridians, that’s what we in Central Florida call a summit – it’s a whopping 184 feet above sea level.

Cotopaxi, Ecuador…..And the Volcano Erupted

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Cotopaxi viewed from Illiniza Norte

On July 3, 2015 J, our guide Ossy, and I stood on top on top of Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, blithely ignoring the sulfur fumes that had fortunately blown in a direction away from us. And on August 14, 2015, that very same volcano sent a two mile plume of ash, hot glass and fumes into the air, creating an ash shower for all the surrounding villages, some of which are now being evacuated.  (Apparently it is called a “pyroclastic flow.” Great name.)

This same weekend, I’ve read about a mountain guide who suffered a serious spinal injury while rock climbing in Ecuador. I believe that he’s someone we crossed paths with when we were in Ecuador – he was one of the guides working with the Climbing 4 My Donor team that we met both at Rucu Pichincha and Illiniza Norte.  (The Climbing 4 My Donor team consisted of heart/lung transplant recipients from the U.K. who were climbing in honor of their donors.  They were pretty inspirational.) There is a GoFundMe page for his medical expenses (Sebastian Carrasco).

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Rock climbing on Illiniza Norte

But recent dangers don’t appear to be limited to the summit. Down here in the swamp, this past week in Central Florida saw an absolutely horrendous accident — a woman swimming at a popular spot on a local river was pulled under by an alligator and lost her arm.

I tend to ignore the fact that my particular version of swamp to summit carries with it some degree of danger.  Even these recent events really only affect me in the sense of “oh wow, can you believe we were just there” or “we were just doing that.”  I think that’s part of the  journey – the danger is a given and it just becomes part of the landscape.  It certainly helps ratchet up the adrenaline, but when you’re on the mountain, you’re not thinking danger; you’re just thinking the immediacy of the moment and how to handle that which is in front of you.  Rock climbing up Illiniza Norte was a particularly good example of that.  In fact, I usually end up feeling more fear of physical failure than I do of external, more objective dangers.

For various reasons my Saturday run this week took me from downtown Orlando along a service road that parallels the now constantly under construction interstate.  It’s becoming increasingly overgrown, with many vacant lots.  I did briefly wonder whether this was actually the best place to be running by myself.  But the answer wasn’t to turn around.  I simply ran a bit faster.

Ecuador – A Walk in the Cloud Forest

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We returned from Cayambe on a Monday, with one day left to eke out every last remaining bit of our Ecuador experience before we returned to hot, humid and flat Florida. Of all the various options Ossy offered, a hike up into the cloud forest in the Pichincha range, into the Yanacocha Reserve, had the most appeal. Plus, he promised hummingbirds.

Now, I’ve had a hummingbird feeder for years. I’ve heard that Florida too has hummingbirds – but each time I spy such a potential winged creature, it turns out to be one of Florida’s special species of gigantic, winged bugs. Of course, the fact I have never bothered to put hummingbird food in the feeder probably doesn’t help.

So off we took, me, husband J, Ossy, and his wife. One fact I hadn’t realized before we left the U.S. was that our trip coincided with Pope Francis’s trip to Ecuador – and specifically Quito. Multiple roads were closed and police were everywhere.

On the way out of Quito we turned on the car radio and heard the Pope saying mass as we looked down on the crowd, half a million strong, in Quito’s Bicentennial Park. A little surreal.

A sea of people at Pope Francis' visit to Quito
A sea of people at Pope Francis’ visit to Quito

The sunny weather we’d brought from Florida had definitely turned and there was a steady downpour as we drove the winding roads up to the trailhead. Once we arrived at Yanacocha we all donned raingear, and I was profoundly greatful for my absolutely waterproof wind jacket (a Marmot that dates back to 2011) and pants (also Marmlot).

After a mile or so straight uphill through the paramo – the Ecuadorian highlands, we encountered our first swarm of hummingbirds. And I use the word swarm intentionally. There were so many of them darting back and forth to feeders that you could hear their wings. They shot past our heads as if catapulted from some sort of slingshot.

Not only were there small hummingbirds, but we saw several (I think) Great Sapphirewings, one of the largest hummingbirds, about the size of a cardinal, native to Ecuador. We also saw one hummingbird with a needle like beak almost as long as his body.

After we hiked through hummingbird central, we turned a corner – and there, growing on the side, was a fully blooming orchid, exactly (well, bigger and healthier) like one I have at home.

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Even though it was still pouring, we ventured up the steeper section of trail as it didn’t seem too slippery. Of course, nothing seems slippery after a glacier. Nonetheless, by this point it had started to hail, and chunks of ice were accumulating and forming small banks of snow.  Ossy could have used a machete as there was a fair amount of trail breaking involved as moved further into the dense jungle of cloud forest. Flowers were everywhere, purple lupines, flame colored trumpets, white daisies growing close to the ground, all framed against a canopy of outsized leaves.

We finally reached a turnoff that would have taken us down a steep section to circle back to where we’d started – but that path did seem very muddy and by then we were all pretty well soaked. So we opted for what looked like a wider trail, despite the fact no one present had ever gone on it before.  The trail exited the cloud forest and took us back into the highlands – where we continued to climb up and up and up – even though it really seemed we should be going down and down and down. There were ultimately some long switchbacks, and we passed a few people working on the roof of a tumbled down structure of some sort, so we knew that at some point we should rejoin civilization.

Just after that, we suddenly realized we were walking across a field that was surrounded by a barbed wire fence – we were apparently on the wrong side of it. After we scrambled under the barbed wire, we looked back to see a large keep out sign barricading the area we’d been blithely strolling across.

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But, our faith in Ossy’s mountain guide instincts was justified. Within another mile of so we hooked up with the “main” road and ended up exiting just a little below the spot we’d parked the car.

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It was still raining, and we could all squeeze puddles of water out of everything we had on. J had on his customary too many layers of shirts and was able to lend Ossy one for the drive back. Apparently it’s illegal to drive without a shirt on in Ecuador. And besides, the Pope was there so I suppose it would have been unseemly in any event.

We made a quick pit stop back at the Hacienda Rumiloma to change – and dry off. The next order of business was a trip down into Quito for Chinese food – hot and sour soup never sounded so good. The Pope’s presence and road closings seemed to have resulted in an eerily quiet city, and we were able to park directly in front of the restaurant.

Hummingbirds, orchids, Chinese food, the Pope, and crawling under barbed wire. What better ribbon for wrapping our four Ecuadorean mountains in eight days?

Cayambe Calling

Checking out this route from outside the hut at Cayambe
Checking out the route from outside the hut at Cayambe

Four mountains, including one at 19,347 feet and another at 18,996 feet, in eight days, is a lot. I knew I was in trouble when I started to cough the night before we attempted Cayambe.  And how did we end up at Cayambe in the first place, you ask? You’ll recall the original plan was to follow our Cotopaxi climb  (second highest peak in Ecuador) with Chimborazo, the highest peak and the point on earth closest to the sun.

Well, the worldwide rise in temperatures is affecting Chimborazo as much as the next glacier. Have you seen photos of Kilimanjaro recently? Very different than 2011 when we were there. Warm glaciers create greater risk of avalanches and rock fall (not to mention the difficulties of slushy snow). Chimborazo is also a long drive from Quito and it’s one heckuva big mountain. So, prudence being the better part of valor we decided, with guidance from Ossy, not to let the wax on our wings melt by attempting to fly too close to the sun and instead to try Cayambe, Ecuador’s third highest peak at just under 19,000 feet, as the final mountain of our Ecuador trip.

After our peak (literally) experience on Cotopaxi — even two weeks later I keep re-living it in my head  — Cayambe was a logical choice. It’s just a little lower than Cotopaxi, perhaps steeper in spots (but for shorter sections), and has some rock to climb at the beginning. We had summited Cotopaxi at 9:05 am on July 3. After a rest day in Quito on July 4, we left the next morning to drive to the hut at Cayambe. Unlike the other huts at which we stayed, at Cayambe you can “drive” – if that’s the right word – right to the door of the hut.

Road to Cayambe hut - and this was the good part!
Road to Cayambe hut – and this was the good part!

The road to Cayambe beats about any road I have ever travelled on for ruts, rocks, and steep precipices.  It doesn’t resemble anything on which any self-respecting automobile should drive. We’d all learned our lesson by then about my issues with winding roads and cars, so I sat in the front. Ossy spent a lot of the time sticking his head out the side window to see exactly which snow, mud or ice covered rut would best create traction for the four wheel drive.

Eventually we made our way to the hut and checked in. For the first time during our trip we were sharing the hut with another team, a large group of nine or so climbers with four guides.  All males and considerably physically larger than I. As we settled in at a table in the main room we traded stories  about what we’d been climbing – and I must say it was 100% satisfying to say “yes” when they asked if we’d summited Cotopaxi, which they hadn’t yet attempted, and to be met with some very bemused looks. For a five foot, one and one-half inch woman (that half inch is very important), I felt a certain instant credibility. As Ossy said though, the pressure on all those guys to summit Cotopaxi had just increased immeasurably!

But Cayambe was the summit that was not to be. I still had not  completely recovered from whatever stomach issues had so gravely affected me the night after we climbed Illiniza Norte and had also developed a nagging cough. Plus I think I was still generally burned out from Cotopaxi. I had put my heart and soul into that climb, and I couldn’t help but regard Cayambe as a latecomer to the party.

We followed a similar routine – packed for the next day, went out and looked at the route we’d be taking, ate soup and something  sweet, and were in our bunkbeds by 6:30. I slept a couple of hours and we were up at 11:30 – this time with other climbers also packing up and getting ready to go. It did change the serenity of the moment. But, as the only woman, I got to have the entire women’s bathroom all to myself!

The night was spectacular; the moon had waned only a bit and there was scarcely any wind. But the downside of all that was that it was quite warm – in fact, we all wore a layer less than we’d originally planned. And the snow was soft, meaning  that once we were on the glacier we were sinking in and exerting a lot more energy than desired. Once we had scaled the rock area – which I had spent way too much time worrying about because it wasn’t that hard – we had to traverse through a scree and rock field and finally reached the glacier, where we could put our crampons on.

But as we roped up and took off I just couldn’t attain the same sort of steady rhythm that I’d been able to manage on Cotopaxi. Although at one point we were among the highest teams I made the mistake of looking up and seeing how incredibly steep and seemingly never ending the slopes above me were, and let myself get distracted by what the other climbers on the mountain were doing. All of which added up to a point where I was feeling dizzy and our pace simply was not what it needed to be if we were to summit early enough to avoid the risk of avalanche as the mountain heated up during the day.

Dawn breaking over Cayambe - photo by Oswaldo Freire
Dawn breaking over Cayambe – photo by Oswaldo Freire

Just then, one of the other teams that had passed us turned around after reaching a ridge line about 400 meters from the summit. We decided to go to the same point and then head back down. It turned out two other teams did make the summit but it took them 8 or so hours – an hour and a half longer than usual, due to the hard climbing conditions.

Our descent went well, even though the scree field we were hoping to slide down instead of rock climb was covered with snow. That meant we had to turn around and walk back up an area we had just hiked down – possibly the most dispiriting moment of the whole climb. But I did well on the rock climbing on the way down, no ropes needed.

Descent down Cayambe - photo by Oswaldo Freire
Descent down Cayambe – photo by Oswaldo Freire

And on the way down we were treated to a rainbow. Clearly a promise of future summits. Cayambe is still calling to me. I think we’ll be back.

Shifting Winds Lead to Cotopaxi Summit

Cotopaxi Summit
Cotopaxi Summit

The wind shifted. I’ve always known the wind is important. After all, Mary Poppins arrived with the east wind, and there’s an old saying that if you make a face when the wind changes your face will get stuck that way. But I’d never really experienced just how important a shift in the wind could be until we were right at the lip of the Cotopaxi crater, just below the summit.

After climbing Illiniza Norte, we spent the night at the Hacienda Chilcabamba. I went to bed at 6:30 and slept for about 12 hours – unable to face anything for dinner. I felt about a hundred times better the next day, and we had an easy morning at the hacienda, followed by a large lunch. J and I had a little thatched cottage all to ourselves, with two bedrooms and a sitting area, heated by a wood stove.

Hacienda Chilcabamba
Hacienda Chilcabamba

We left in early afternoon to drive to the parking lot for the Cotopaxi hut. This time I sat in the front seat to avoid the  gastrointestinal dangers associated with the curving cobbled stone roads. From the parking lot we strapped on our backpacks, which contained only what we needed at the hut and for our summit attempt. We were already wearing our base layers, to minimize having to change. The walk up to the hut is about 45 minutes on a steep dirt road – we reached the top, only for Ossy to realize he’d left his phone in the car and had to go down to get it!

The Cotopaxi hut was redone only a few months ago, and although nicely varnished and with new mattresses, it’s really cold and the roof makes an incredible array of noises in the whistling wind. While the Illiniza Norte roof clanged and sounded as though it might blow off, this roof variably screamed, whistled, hooted and howled. Despite all that, after we’d had bowls of quinoa soup, followed by figs, cheese and sweet biscuits, we still managed to sleep a few hours.

Bedroom at the hut at Cotopaxi
Bedroom at the hut at Cotopaxi

We were supposed to awaken at 11:30 pm but  slept through the alarm and ended up getting up at midnight. Just as on Illiniza Norte, we were the only people in the hut.  And we soon found out there were only two other climbers on the entire mountain, besides us.

We stuffed some food into ourselves and started climbing about 1 am. The first part is a 45 minute walk up a relatively steep scree field. Once at the top, you’re on the glacier, which meant it was time to rope up and put on crampons.
The old “normal” route has been closed for 2 or 3 years after a climber was killed on it – too many crevasses. Instead you now use the Rompe Corazones – the heartbreaker. There’s an extremely long 2 plus hour stretch that simply goes up without any sort of break. And it’s a killer. I was trying hard to stay hydrated, so each hour when we stopped, the routine was water, a handful of trail mix, and more water. As we gained altitude, the trail mix became GU, and Ossy was literally tearing the top of the packages and holding them as I sucked the sticky sweet electrolytes out.

We climbed up one sheer icy patch where we had to use the front points of our crampons – as if we were scaling a vertical wall.  Much of the trek up was simple side by side steps, but even there I kept finding my crampons pointing too far uphill, and I quickly realized how much I had to learn in the way of technique.

Sea of Penitentes
Sea of Penitentes

At one point you traverse a sea of Penitentes – formed by the wind, they are peculiar to the Andes in the summer months. Sometimes they are upright, but these were bent by the wind. They look like a field of praying hands, fingers outstretched in supplication. You can walk between or on them, and if on, each step sounds as though you are stepping on a brittle twig – or finger.

The very last bit of Cotopaxi is steep, steep, steep. As we had to do in a couple of prior areas, we used the picks of our ice axes overhand to dig in and help pull ourselves up (normally you’re using your ice axe in your uphill hand like a very sharp ski pole or walking stick).

But just before we reached that point, we saw the only other two climbers on the mountain turn around, apparently overwhelmed by the sulphur fumes spewing out of the crater.  You may recall I mentioned that starting in May or so Cotopaxi had reactivated. It is “degassing” (lovely word) and literally tons of fumes are forming into thick heavy clouds over the crater – which is just below the summit.

Despite the retreat of the other climbers, we kept on going. Although the mountain administered a pretty strong dose of sulphur to us – Ossy and J in their throats and me in my eyes – just at that point….the wind shifted. I heard Ossy say that we might have a window and I kept slogging up the close to vertical slope.

Suddenly I was on a flat area – but surely I couldn’t be there. I was positive there must be another 15 or more minutes of sheer physical and mental pushing left and this was just a fake….but no, I was actually at the summit. There wasn’t anywhere else up to go. I’d seen people on YouTube videos throw themselves down on the ground when they finally arrived, and without even thinking, that’s just what I did too.

Cotopaxi Summit - sulphur cloud in background
Cotopaxi Summit – sulphur cloud in background

We couldn’t stay on the summit for long – just in case the wind shifted again and the crater drenched us with another load of sulphur.

Our descent was noneventful, which is about the best that can be said about descents. We kept up a pretty good pace, with J on the front of the rope, me in the middle, and Ossy bringing up the rear in order to arrest whoever might fall.

It turned out we made it up in 6 hours and 50 minutes, well within the range of normal, and down in 3 hours – also what Ossy wanted us to do.

Once back at the hut the reality of what we had just accomplished finally sank in. All those stairs; all those hot and sweaty runs.  The culmination of all of it was that confluence of ice and snow and blue sky. A perfect summit.

Illiniza Norte Or How I Ended Up Rock Climbing After All

Cotopaxi from the hut at Illiniza Norte
Cotopaxi from the hut at Illiniza Norte

Some of you may remember that one reason we ended up in Ecuador instead of the Grand Teton was our conclusion that we preferred mountaineering to rock climbing. (See “Cotopaxi, Ecuador – 180 Degree Turns.”)  So it was somewhat inexplicable that I nonetheless found myself on July 1 hanging on for dear life to an ice encrusted basalt wall with my left hand, ski pole in my right and nothing but an almost vertical drop of rocks below. Oh, and this was at about 16,000 feet. And did I mention no ropes?

Illiniza Norte is one of the two Illiniza peaks (the other, obviously, is Sud), and is a common acclimatization hike in preparation for Cotopaxi. It reaches about 16,500 feet, and is the taller of the two forked peaks in the right in the photo. Its sister peak, on the left, is much more technical and is covered in snow.

The Illiniza Peaks
The Illiniza Peaks

It was about a three hour hike to the mountain hut where we were to stay for our ascent of Illiniza Norte so we left in early morning. After fighting through Quito traffic, we followed modern highways for a while until we abruptly turned off to cobble stone roads, still in the same condition as in the 1940s when Ossy thought they were originally built. Jaw breaking and winding is an understatement. More on that later.  We passed through several small villages, stopping at one to drop off things we wouldn’t need on the hike. Once we parked the car near the trailhead, we met up with the two men who took our supplies up to the hut on horses. Each day the horses plod up to the hut with full loads and bring trash back.  Despite the routine, they seem quite content with their rather proletariat role in life.
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The mountain hut is primitive – but there are flushing toilets, even if you do have to go outside to get to them. There’s a series of about four bunk beds, going up to a triple level, a small eating area and a tiny kitchen. No electricity. We were the only people there, and, in fact, the only climbers on the mountain the next day. That night we were treated to a spectacular sunset with a full moon. The entire Avenue of Volcanoes was visible, including the white capped isosceles triangle of Cotopaxi.

We got up at 5 for an early morning departure. The weather cleared as we hiked. There was more snow than normal, and many of the rocks were encrusted with icicles. I was glad of my climbing helmet since I hit my head several times on wide swathes of ice sticking out from the rocks I was trying to hold on to.

There are several sections of rock, the most difficult probably the one right below the summit. We climbed up through a chimney, along exposed ledges – and all without ropes. Ossy very carefully instructed where to place hands and feet and how to balance – and ultimately we did make it to the summit which is marked by a metal cross. But that wasn’t before a bowling ball sized rock hurtled down from the top in J’s general direction, followed by a smaller one in his more specific direction. Fortunately, no injuries. We now know the best way to react to rockfall (besides not experiencing it in the first place!) is to make yourself as small as possible. Sort of an airline crash position.

Summit of Illiniza Norte - that's the summit cross that appears to be sticking out of my head
Summit of Illiniza Norte – that’s the summit cross that appears to be sticking out of my head

Coming down was exhausting and Ossy roped me in after I slipped twice. I think I’d burned up a lot of nervous energy on the ascent – not to mention physical. And we not only had to descend and get back to the hut – there was still the three hour hike back to the parking lot ahead of us, and then a couple of hours to drive to our next stop, the Hacienda Chilcabamba, outside Cotopaxi National Park.

For someone who actually froze on the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and who still has recurring dreams about being stuck on the old swinging bridge on Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina, reaching this summit was huge. But it also reminded me that figuring out how to get down from summits is just as important as going up them.

Rucu Pichincha, Ecuador – Rocks and Ridges

Rucu Pichincha - the paramo
Rucu Pichincha – the paramo

On June 29, 2015, at 8:15 am, J, I and our guide, Ossy, left the Hacienda Rumiloma on the outskirts of Quito for Rucu Pichincha. Reminiscent of Mt. Elbrus, you travel up the first section by way of gondola. The gondola was constructed in 2005 as part of an ambitious amusement park, restaurant and hotel complex that failed not long after it opened. The gondola is all that really survived and it’s a bit depressing to see the closed shop fronts below.

Mountain hikes here start in the paramo – the Ecuadorian highlands. Wild flowers abound – white and yellow daisies that grow flat to the ground, violets, red bell shaped flowers, yellow blooms on bushy shrubs about waist high. Parts of the hike were like walking on a carpet of flowers.
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As we neared the summit, there was some class 4 and 5 scrambling – using your hands as you scale the tumbled down rocks. The summit was spectacular. I never feel as totally in the present as on a summit.

J and Ossie on the summit of Rucu Pichincha
J and Ossy on the summit of Rucu Pichincha

Going down was fun. We learned to down climb – facing the rocks, youbcontinuously look down for your next step, as though you’re on a ladder. It was surprisingly similar to the backward stair climbing I had practiced so diligently as part of my training. (I tried to do that part in flights I knew I was the least likely to encounter other people.) The rest of the trail down was runnable – that fantastic feeling of flying where you gather just enough momentum to take you up the next uphill bit.

Of note, as we neared the parking lot we ran into the Climbing 4 My Donor group from the UK – a group of heart- lung transplant patients whose Twitter feed I had been following. So impressive. They had just climbed Rucu, were planning on Ilianza Norte and were substituting Cayambe for Cotopaxi due to the level of sulphur.

We spent another night at Rumiloma and then it was off to Illiniza Norte – our experiences in climbing up Class 5 rock without ropes, the rock that almost hit J and our first mountain hut to be posted shortly. As a preview – sunset from the hut at Illiniza Norte.

[Sunset from the hut in Illiniza Norte Sunset from the hut at Illiniza Norte