Quito – The Kick Off

Hacienda Rumiloma, Quito, Ecuador
Hacienda Rumiloma,
Quito, Ecuador

Writing from the Hacienda Rumiloma in Quito, where one of the resident peacocks has just perched outside our window. We are in a beautiful large room, filled with antiques and a bathroom with an elaborately tiled sunken tub and a view into the cloud forest. The property on which the hacienda is located has been in our guide’s family for a hundred years. It’s minutes outside of Quito – up tremendously steep hills that are lined with apartments, bodegas, small restaurants and many people, all outside enjoying a beautiful day.

The hacienda is at almost 11,000 feet and we could feel the altitude last night when we arrived after dark. The airport is about an hour from Quito – despite the pilot’s dire warnings of turbulence the descent wasn’t too bad. But it was a bit disconcerting to land looking up at the sides of the mountains.

Today we spent touring the old city of Quito. We started with the Virgin of Quito – an enormous winged Virgin Mary, who is stepping on a serpent, a gift from Spain in 1946. image

From there we wandered with our guide, Ossie, through various squares and side streets, and once mass had ended visited the gold encrusted Iglesias de la Campana de Jesus. It’s a baroque-style church, every inch of which is covered by carvings with 18 karat gilt pressed into their surface. The ornamentation is so geometric that were it not for chapels dedicated to multiple saints lining the sides you could almost be in a mosque.

We had lunch at an Ecuadorian restaurant, lots of corn, potatoes, pork, with Ossie and his charming wife and one of his teenaged daughters (who will be in Boston soon on summer science scholarship) – and enjoyed hearing their stories of a six month stay in the deep Amazon jungle.

Then it was off to the Equator line that divides the northern and southern Hemispheres. Funny how until then it never occurred to me that Ecuador is so named because of the equator.

We’ve just returned to the hotel and Ossie checked out equipment. We mostly passed. Tomorrow will be our first acclimatization climb. Instead of Gua Gua Pichincha, due to wind patterns we will be climbing Rucu Pichincha (means shiny). It’s about 15,696 feet high and should be a six hour round trip.

So the climbs are about to begin. Right now they are filming a movie or doing some sort of photo shoot outside my window. There’s a yellow VW bus, sunflowers on the dashboard, decorated with “just married” regalia. A bride and groom are sitting atop the van. Not sure what it all signifies, but it has to be a good omen!

Almost En Route to Ecuador


Florida has treated us to some spectacular lightning strikes the last few days – cloud to earth vertical forks so brilliant I was actually blinded when driving on I-4 the other day. I’m hoping they aren’t a portent for our upcoming trip to Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes. It is true that Cotopaxi, which is the highest active volcano in the world, has started to show signs of activity. While I have read that an eruption is not considered imminent, the mountain is degassing, letting off five times the normal amount of sulphur. So, we can add that to the obstacles we’ll have to contend with. I suppose there’s a chance that the mountain could be dicey enough that it is closed to climbers – but there are plenty of other mountains in Ecuador – not to mention the highest peak, Chimborazo, which we are already scheduled to climb. And at least it is a dead volcano.

So when I’m not scouring the Internet with search terms like “latest volcanic activity on Cotopaxi,” husband J and I are in the throes of last minute gear assembly and packing for Saturday’s departure on Copa Air. Our to do list includes items such as “cut 60 feet of rope into two 30 feet lengths,” buy GUs (for me) and those square gel energy things (for J), and “locate long underwear” (it’s amazing how things can get lost in a not particularly large house).

I have also reached that blessed moment where I feel I can finally taper back on the training. I had my “PR” – to use a term of all you Crossfit people out there – on the stairs last week, 9 times up and down the building with a 25 pound pack.  I may do more stairs but without the weight, as the pack is soon to be filled with climbing gear. And any really long runs are coming to an end just in time – because I’ve discovered that running in 90 degree heat and 90 percent humidity is no fun and certainly does nothing good for your splits (times for each mile).

As these months of training draw to a close and the days of packing ensue – all I can hope is we’ve done what it will take. And equally important pray that the volcano and mountain gods will look kindly upon these poor mortals as they venture up.

Things That Can Go Wrong on the Way From the Swamp to the Summit

Tempting fate - the untied shoelace
Tempting fate – the untied shoelace

It began yesterday. For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, I’m pretty sure I recounted our August 2012 climb up Mauna Kea, which only occurred because husband J managed to contract one of the few cases of out of season flu in the state of Hawaii, thus putting the kabosh on our plan to backpack the Mulawai trail.  I didn’t think something like that could possibly happen again. But yesterday, J announced to me that for a week he’s seen cobwebby things in his left eye, initially accompanied by a flash of light. Now, the only time I’ve heard of “floaters” (J keeps calling them floaties, like the water wings your kids wear when they’re four years old) involves detached retinas, laser surgery and possible blindness.

So, rather than google “floaters,” we – of course – researched retinal detachment, only to discover the surgical repair involved a healing period that would greatly cut into our 13 days from now departure for Ecuador and the Andes. Apparently high altitude is not considered an optimum recovery spot for eye surgery.

In any event, a “quick” visit to our local optometrist today, together with full pupil dilation and photographs of the eyeball innards, reassured all concerned that these floaters were nothing more than part of the normal aging process for people in their fifties. I keep asking why no one has given us an instruction manual. We’re highly aware of the normal wear and tear on the body, but floaters? Really?

While all this was transpiring, I was facing my own Private Idaho – we have long had a pact that if one of us can’t make it up a mountain the other goes forward. And that I would have done – but the idea of scaling Cotopaxi and maybe Chimborazo with just me and a guide was definitely going to push that pact to its furthest limit. I lay awake last night thinking of the worst case scenarios – just to get my mind in gear to accept that it could conceivably be me versus the mountain. I would have done it – but it wouldn’t be optimum.

Yesterday I did a seven mile run in unbelievable heat and humidity. Now I know many of you run further, but believe me, it’s hard when it’s in the 90s at 9 am with an equal percentage of humidity. At one point I realized my shoelace was progressively getting looser and I could feel it flapping on the ground as I ran.

You know what? I actually stopped; paused my Map My Run app; and tied the damn shoelace. All the running in the world isn’t going to do me much good if I trip and break my ankle two weeks before departure.

It’s coming soon now. Please send some good karmic vibes our way.

Running – The World is Flat After All


What's up; what's down
What’s up; what’s down

As I plowed uphill on the first half of Saturday’s seven miler, I reveled in the knowledge that the backside was going to be all down. I was running a new route – through “downtown” College Park, our area of town, all the way up Edgewater Drive, past the public high school, the Catholic high school, an abandoned juke box store (who has thought of those for a while?), a gun shop, a driftwood designer, and assorted and sundry other small establishments.

But after I turned around at the half way mark, to my utter horror, nothing but uphill faced me. I kept running along, confident that at some point I was bound to find the downward trajectory of the long hill I was sure I had climbed. But none was to be found, at least until I reached the very short half block leading down to our lake.

I’ve been punked like this before. Mt. Elbrus has a fake summit that after several hours of climbing looks like the real thing. And on the long slog down, the random metal structures that dot the slopes of Elbrus all resemble the barrel huts we were staying in. Not to mention our explorations of the buttes around Sedona, Arizona where I was convinced that each arch must have been the one that would lead us out of the vortex and to the parking lot that housed our rental car and escape to civilization.

I can’t risk thwarted expectations on the way up Cotopaxi, much less Chimborazo or whatever other mountains we end up climbing. They stop you in your tracks; they bring you down – figuratively, and in the case of climbing, literally. I just need take each step in the moment, so that when that summit finally appears, or the refuge hut out of the winds can be seen, it’s a wonderful surprise.

And maybe it’s not so bad not to have the downhill stretch. There’s either an optical illusion where long flat stretches ahead of you appear to rise up in a gentle swell – or, it could just be the fact the prescription in my sunglasses is wrong. But the real point is that maybe something that can feel so hard is really easier than you’re letting yourself believe. Maybe the world is flat after all.

The Power of Fear – Two Month Countdown to Cotopaxi

Mt. Elbrus - an avalanche seen from across the valley
Mt. Elbrus – an avalanche seen from across the valley

As we near two months out from what I expect to be our hardest climb ever, up Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, it’s the power of fear that’s keeping me training. By now I’ve hit the point when I’m terrified that taking even one day off from some sort of exercise will cause the last months of training to be flushed down the toilet. Irrational, I know, but that’s what fear’s all about.

By now I have probably watched every YouTube video and read every blog out there related to these two peaks. They range from tales of cheery climbers who apparently think not twice about the journeys up and down to poor souls who are wheezing, pale, and throwing up even before they reach 18,000 feet. And, of course, everyone posts the photos that make both mountains appear the most insurmountable – veritable jungles of crevasses and steep walls.

Things haven’t been helped by the news of this week. An earthquake in Nepal that causes an avalanche at Everest Base Camp – filled with many trekkers who had no higher ambition than base camp itself – only to find themselves in the path of runaway snow, rock and ice. A volcano in Chile – good for underscoring the fact that Cotopaxi is still active and erupted only 70 or so years ago. And celebrating my 54th birthday this past week can’t help but remind me that I am not exactly going to be the youngest or fittest climber out there. A point that one of my fellow climbers brought home to me last year on Mt. Elbrus when he pointed out most of those on the mountain were half our age. And that was a year ago.

Now it’s not as though I’m a stranger to fear. You can’t be a litigator and appear in court without having experienced dry mouth or pounding heart before you embark on an impassioned plea in defense of your client. But there’s something that’s a little bit different when it’s you up there against the forces of Mother Earth.

I just keep saying to myself that fear is good. It keeps you going. And it keeps you grounded.

How does it work for you?

Random Thoughts Of a Flatlander in Training

The Recalcitrant iPad
The Recalcitrant iPad

Some of these thoughts didn’t surface while actually  running, stair climbing or the like, but since those activities occupy a lot of my time, they were certainly in close proximity.

1. Technology baffles. Of all places and times, yesterday at the hair salon – after a morning run (despite appearances, aspiring climbers get their hair done too), my previously faithful iPad informed me that it had finished updating and would I like to activate it. As I hadn’t updated anything, I was a bit taken aback, but followed His Highness’s commands and briefly my iPad started working again….only to give me the same message a few minutes later. This time, however, my attempts at activation were met with the ominous response – “activation failed.” At that point I began to wonder if my iPad had been in communication with a neighboring iPad at the salon and they were engaging in concerted activity. A long visit with Apple phone support, involving iTunes and downloads of software updates, proved unsuccessful – leading to that most
frightening experience of the 21st century – a visit to THE GENIUS BAR AT THE APPLE STORE, presently scheduled for Tuesday. But this morning, I pressed the magic buttons again and amazingly – the iPad seems to be working. We’ll see. I’m not canceling my date with Mr. Genius yet.

Parsley and Kale
Parsley and Kale
Turnips from seed...
Turnips from seed…

2. Earth is good. Even though, horror of horrors, our temperatures here in Central Florida dropped into the thirties this week, the vegetable garden is continuing to produce. After a hard and busy week it is amazing the difference that the mere act of pulling weeds can make to your psyche. When people ask me how I can be afraid to peer over a balcony of a New York penthouse, but gazing down the steep pitch of a mountain doesn’t bother me, I answer that it’s the earth. When you’re on a mountain you’re always rooted to the ground. Not so on a steel and concrete structure.

3. Randomness amazes. One of the more interesting features of said vegetable garden is the plethora of plants that come up seemingly out of the blue. But after a few minutes of wonder, you remember, oh yes, I did plant Italian parsley there a couple of years ago. Or, that sorrel must be the remnants of the bitter war I waged with the world’s hugest sorrel plant in 2012 (do you know how few uses there are for sorrel?).  As of now, I have onions that sprouted from last year’s crop; some miscellaneous carrots whose seeds had apparently lain dormant for a while; and flat parsley. Remarkably enough, this gardening technique extends to my composter. One advantage to failing to turn over its contents is you never quite know what might start growing. I’m pretty sure I have bean plants coming up.

4. Iceland is around the corner and Ecuador approaches. Next week this time we’ll be getting out the winter gear and we have to put more money down for the Cotopaxi and Chimborazo trips.  Eyes on those goals. They keep me going every day, together with a healthy dose of randomness.

End Games or Beginnings? Mt Hood.

On the way to Mt. Hood  - photo from a car window

End games. What a great phrase. And it is what I think about as I trudge up the stairs with my backpack to prepare for this summer’s summits.

To remind myself of one of the original reasons I embarked on this journey to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo and what the end game actually is, here’s an account of an unsuccessful trek up Mt. Hood in June 2012.

We had just returned from our hike along the Inca Trail with daughters #1 and #2 in May 2012. But June is a month of brides and we were already scheduled to attend a wedding of a dear friend at the Columbia Gorge Hotel on the Hood River. What could be a more obvious add-on than an attempt on Mt. Hood.

We left the lovely afternoon wedding reception perhaps an hour early and drove off in the general direction of the biggest mountain we could see. Now, we’d been to Mt. Hood before, many years ago when the daughters were small, but that involved a car, a visit with old friends, and lunch at the ski resort. It did not involve ropes, plastic boots or crampons.

This time, we stopped at a grocery store to buy what we thought we might need food wise, and continued on up the winding road featured in the intro scene of the movie of Stephen King’s The Shining. It’s steep and windy and the pine trees lean in at you from both sides of the road. We eventually arrived at the Timberline Lodge, built in 1936. It was constructed entirely by hand, using many craftspeople from Europe, as part of a Depression era Works Progress Administration program. It is perched at the side of Mt. Hood at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, and an entire ski complex has grown up around it. The rooms are small, and retro. No televisions; there are quilts; and the phones have rotary dials.

This was our first experience on ropes and ice. One main guide company leads climbs up Mt. Hood, and they supply most of the equipment, from helmets to plastics boots to ice axes and crampons. Neither husband J nor I had used any such exotic gear before. Kilimanjaro just required leather boots and a strong set of legs.

The first day consisted of skills training. The two of us were the only climbers in our party. Our guide, Phil, was from Ireland, had learned to climb in and around Sheffield, England, where my mother is from, and had trained under classic alpinist climbers in Chamonix.

We knew knew we were off to interesting start when we checked in at the guide office. Just a few days before, an expert climber, climbing solo, had fallen to his death. Some of the guides had been involved in the rescue attempt, and were filling out accident reports as we were signing all of our liability waivers.

We spent several hours on an ice bank behind the hotel learning how to move on rope, self arrest, and the varying types of steps needed to ascend a mountain. Rest step (well, we knew that one from Kili), traversing (ascending steep sections in an s shape), “duck” steps straight up ….all the while remembering to keep that ice axe in your uphill hand.

By early afternoon the sun was beating down and it was time to go back to rest and prepare for our 2 am date with the snowcat that would take us to the point where we would start climbing. Even though it’s a little hard to sleep at 7 pm we managed a couple of hours before we got up at 11:30 – we knew it would take us ages to strap ourselves into all of our unfamiliar equipment without tangling ourselves up in carabiners, climbing harnesses and the like.

We expected problems as soon as the snowcat arrived – and out tumbled three very shaken looking climbers – a middle aged couple with a grandson – who had arrived at the point of departure up the mountain only to decide it was too windy and wet even to attempt a climb. They came down without ever even getting out of the cat! Phil said he had never actually seen that happen before. We had been watching the weather all afternoon and knew things didn’t look promising. We were offered a raincheck (appropriate use of words) but a Florida residence didn’t really lend itself to an impromptu trip up Mt. Hood any time over the next twelve months. We told Phil we recognized the risks and the likelihood we wouldn’t summit, but we wanted to go as far as we could while staying safe.

After we were unceremoniously dumped out of the snowcat at about 8,500 feet, what we didn’t know about mountain climbing became more and more apparent. Winds were gusting up to 50 MPH or so, and we were still struggling to get goggles on over our climbing helmets. That should say it all. Our lack of experience was obvious. The procedure for attaching our ice axes to our packs had become an absolute blank. Phil immediately took off to test the snow and to check conditions – which were awful. It was too soft for crampons. We took off, sinking into snow up to mid calf on most steps. Phil broke trail; I was in the middle; and J was behind me. There were very few other headlamps heading up in the swirling fog/rain/snow, and all I could do was keep watching Phil’s light in front, and follow along in his footsteps.

After several hours, it was clear we hadn’t fitted our boots, pants, and gaiters together properly, and we were getting ice and snow in our socks. My supposedly waterproof gloves were soaking.  And the wind was picking up, close to 60 MPH gusts. Fortunately, it was blowing toward the mountain, or I am convinced I would have been blown off. We started to feel chunks of ice and snow and, I suspect, some rock, hit our helmets,and ultimately reached a point that required crossing a large exposed area. At that point, Phil gave us the best of all guide advice. “We are not going to summit. No one is going to summit tonight. And I can’t keep myself safe and that means I can’t keep you safe.” The follow up was obvious – we had to descend.

As we descended, it became apparent that my short 5’1″ stature made it easier for me to go down – husband J, at 6’2″ and with a much higher center of gravity, had a harder time. I was able to glissade (boot ski) down as the sun rose over Mt. Hood, while he was a ways behind. (Two years later, on Elbrus, he made up for it with a much stronger descent than I!)

As the sun rose, we passed by the ski trail groomers, looking very zen, and could see the untouched ski runs that would would soon be home to the summer ski school skiers of Mt. Hood.

Did I mention that at some point we realized we had managed to lose both of our ice axes?

It’s a summit we didn’t achieve. But we played the end game. That afternoon, after a few hours nap, we found part of the Oregon Trail to hike. End games aren’t ends – they’re beginnings.

An Ode to Airports – Terminals Aren’t Terminal

When I started this blog last April, one of my first posts was entitled, “Where am I going and where have I been?” It was made up of exactly one photograph, as at that point I was still working my way through the intricacies of things like figuring out that a tag wasn’t a piece of paper with a price written on it (and was a far cry from a backyard game).

But a layover at the Miami airport this weekend provided the perfect graphic to answer that original question – at least for the next six months. As I looked at exotic destinations on the departures screen, many much more exciting than my 40 minute jaunt back to Orlando, I saw the below:


Where am I going? Quito, listed there near the bottom. (Or Orlando, depending on your time frame, shown just at the top of the screen.) And where have I been? Well, Raleigh-Durham – where I grew up – appearing right under Quito. (Or Orlando, once again, depending on your frame of reference.) For the record, “Raleigh-Durham” is a misnomer – I grew up in Durham!

Airports are like that. You can smell the adventure waiting at the other end of a flight. I still find it remarkable that 100 plus people can be sent 30,000 feet high at over 500 mph. At an airport, you can sum up the where you are and where you want to be in one screen shot.


Another example – note the Havana, Cuba destination. I’m not sure I can recall ever before seeing Havana listed on a departure screen, much less right above Houston, Texas. What better way to show a shift in geo-political realities.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my family always arrived at the airport dressed in Sunday best and several hours before any scheduled departure. My brother and I regarded the waiting at the airport as much a part of the trip as the actual journey. I still remember the iconic TWA terminal at JFK, and how slick and modern Dulles Airport was, rising out of what was then a rural area outside of Washington.

Photo by Joe Ravi, lic. CC-BY-SA3.0
Photo by Joe Ravi, lic. CC-BY-SA3.0

As the reality of the Cotopaxi and Chimborazo climbs sets in (right now I am at the slightly terrified stage), I just need to take it one step at a time. And after the training – the next step is going to be at an airport. And whatever happens, I know that when I set foot in one of those ultra modern terminals, it’s not a terminal in the sense of an end. Yes, it will evoke memories of where I’ve been – but even more excitement over where I’m going.

Cotopaxi and Chimborazo – Where We Are Going

Volcanoes of Ecuador
Volcanoes of Ecuador

So I did it. Last week, on Tuesday to be precise.  I emailed Mountain Madness, our trekking company, and just said yes to the Chimborazo extension. Now I recognize that some of you were pushing for the Galopagos Islands, but I simply couldn’t escape the fact that there will be no other point at which husband J and I stand a better chance of actually climbing a 20,000 foot mountain. I think I can manage the Galopagos in future years.

As I continue the grueling process of forcing  myself to run at ever faster paces and climb stairs with increasing amounts of weight – and of finding the time to do so – it occurs to me that I have not really described the two mountains that are engendering such passion (or foolhardiness). I’ve referred to them by name, but without much explanation.

Here’s what is inspiring me.

Both mountains are part of Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes, named by 19th century German scientist Alexander Van Humboldt.  Due to a location just above and below the equator, the scenery is supposed to be reminiscent of the Scottish highlands or the Arctic tundra, at least according to our trekking company.  Both were first summited (at least by westerners) in 1882 by Edward Whymper, for whom some of the passes are named.

Cotopaxi last erupted in 1940 and some consider it the world’s highest active volcano.  It stands at 19,347 feet (5897 meters) and is located near Quito, which at 9400 feet is itself one of the world’s highest cities.  Cotopaxi has been worshipped as a sacred mountain, a bringer of rain and fertility.

We will acclimatize for the altitude first with a climb up Guagua Pichincha (just outside Quito, standing at 15,696 feet, last eruption 2004) and then what is described as an “enjoyable rock scramble” up Illiniza Norte (16,818 feet), with trekking, camping and stays at haciendas in between. Mules are supposed to help at certain points as we travel between and up the various mountains.  Once we are at Cotopaxi, summit day (summit night is a more accurate description) begins at 15,749 feet, where we will have been staying at the Jose Ribas Hut.  The glacier starts at about 17,000 feet, and according to Mountain Madness, we will be crossing snow bridges, avoiding large crevasses, and climbing “short, steep sections.”  Once at the summit of Cotopaxi, we should be able to peer into a perfectly round caldera, the origin of the steam you apparently can sometimes see boiling up.

I have found a lot less written about Chimborazo. It is famous for being the point closest to the sun, due to the bulge of the earth at the equator. As I mentioned before, I hope our attempt to climb it is not too Icarus like. It is currently inactive, with a last eruption in 550 A.D. or so.  It reaches a whopping 20,564 feet (6268 meters) and is the highest mountain in Ecuador. Chimborazo can sometimes be in very bad condition – with unstable snow, big crevasses and high risk of rock fall. The itinerary states that if Chimborazo is not climable, we are to attempt Antisana. It’s only 18,714 feet high, but from what I’ve read is even more technically challenging, as it is completely covered by glaciers, and is not climbed very frequently.

Despite all this, you may still be left wondering – but “why?” Well, a summit goal, for me at least, gives me something to focus on, look forward to, and lifts me out of the drab tension of the day to day working world.  And the other reason is simply a variation of the “because it’s there” phrase – because there is something about standing on a summit that gives a high that doesn’t come from anything else.

Cotopaxi and Chimbarazo – Two are Better Than One?


Chimborazo  http://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Gerd_Breitenbach

As I sit here on a weekend, waiting for the plumber to take his interminable time to arrive (three hours late, thus far), we have some decision-making to do. As hoped, the work schedule cleared up, freeing the way to commit to some June 2015 dates for our next mountain climbing endeavor. And I’ve already contacted the guide company that successfully led us up Elbrus, so that’s done.

But here’s where the itch of mountain climbing – or you could say hubris – sets in. It turns out for an additional four days and a few more dollars, we not only could climb Cotopaxi, but also climb Chimborazo – the highest mountain in Ecuador and one that reaches my long dreamed of goal of a 20,000 foot mountain. Well, long dreamed of if you count 2011 as a long time ago, since that’s when all this started. This would mean acclimatization hikes up Guagua Pichincha and Illiniza Norte, followed by Cotopaxi at 19,348 feet and three days, later – Chimborazo.  At 20,564 feet, Chimborazo is harder than Cotopaxi.  It’s one degree south of the equator, and because of the bulge of the earth, is the farthest point away from the earth’s core and the closest point to the sun. Hubris is the right word. Think Icarus.

I hadn’t really considered doing the extension.   But then yesterday, in the midst of multiple levels of work related issues and general lawyerly stresses – and perhaps in reaction thereto (what a good, lawyerly phrase) – I suddenly found myself saying, “hell, yes.”  Not out loud. But a lawyerly phrase, nonetheless.

If not now, then when? I’ll be 54 by next June. There’s no doubt that if we make this commitment it will require the highest level of training either the husband or I have tried to achieve.  Sometimes mountains – and summits of all sorts – whether at work or at play – throw the gauntlet down before you and just ask to be climbed, and climbed hard. But I still think I better have a serious talk with the guide company.


Throwing down the gauntlet
Throwing down the gauntlet