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.

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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