30 November 2004

Ecuador Volcanoes Expedition

November 2004
This expedition was organised through Jagged Globe Mountaineering

Sunday 7 November / Monday 8 November

Gillian dropped me at Birmingham Airport and I checked in with a bag more than 10kg overweight, costing me £120 excess! Met Tim, another member of the team, and travelled to Amsterdam to connect on to a KLM flight to Quito. Here we met some of the others. Matt, a finance manager for Brittanic Insurance and Steve, an RAF Intelligence Officer who spends his time flying around in Nimrods. Also Robert, a retired solicitor from Kendal (and previously a District Officer in Tanganika), who seems well connected in Lakeland climbing circles.
The flight to Quito took off on schedule but realisation had dawned that we would not arrive in Quito for another 17 hours, once I had worked out the difference based on time zones. It transpired that we were to stop at Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles (off the coast of Venezuala) and wait a couple of hours before flying down to Ecuador´s largest city, Guayaquil, for refuelling. 

Refuelling in Bonaire
Only then would we fly north east again, on a 30 minute hop, to Quito. The flight was in an ageing MD 11, without individual screens, but I managed to sleep a bit aided by earplugs and eye goggles.
It was surreal getting off the plane in the middle of the night in Bonaire, where the temperature was 28 degrees with a refreshing sea breeze. In the transit lounge we met Smiler Cuthbertson, our Jagged Globe guide, and other members of the team including Peter, a rather quiet paramedic from Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. Smiler is Wolverhampton born, but then spent 25 years in N Wales as an avid rock climber, before moving to Scotland. He now lives near Loch Ness and ´commutes´ 40 minutes to the Cairngorms. The flight from Bonaire to Guayaquil took about 3 hours, taking off as the sun rose in the east behind us. We flew over Curacao and then over the mountains and jungles of Venezuala and Columbia. There were a number of snow-capped volcanoes seen to the north of Columbia, a bit of a surprise. Much of the way was cloudy, but breaks in the cover as we flew into Ecuador afforded views of the Northern Highlands with densely forested areas on the western flanks of the Andes known as ´cloud forests´. Unremittingly mountainous for miles, we then descended over the western lowlands, famous for banana and tea cultivation, before landing at Guayaquil on a very dusty runway. One hour on the tarmac here and then a short hop to Quito with some views to the summits of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi peaking through an extensive bank of cumulus cloud cover. The descent over Quito was dramatic, with mountain ridges on either side of the aircraft before flying over the town close to the buildings, and landing just north of Quito.
We were swiftly through Immigration and Customs, and then bussed to the Hotel Reina Isabel in the New Town. It was warm, 28 degrees and the town was bustling with much traffic and associated exhaust fumes! Had a good room to myself. Met final members of the team; David Sayer, a retired executive previously with Norwich Union in London (61 I think, and a bit of a jungle lover) and Ro, the pleasant property company researcher who I had met during the pre-expedition weekend in N Wales a few months earlier. She had flown in from New York where she had been on business. We had a quick lunch nearby after a short briefing from Javier and his assistant Pepe, the local guides. Pepe was to be the key local guide for our trip as Javier was leading another Jagged Globe expedition to Antisana.
We then went off to visit La Mitad del Mundo (´the middle of the world´), near the village of San Antonia, 22km north of Quito. We visited the Mitad del Mundo complex where the guide took us through the centre, starting with a walk down the equatorial line...weird thinking that you had your left foot in the southern hemisphere and your right foot in the northern hemisphere! 

On the Equator, La Mitad del Mundo

The guide then took us through the huge variety of tribes and peoples resident in Ecuador. We moved on (increasingly exhausted by jet lag) to the nearby Museo Solar Ilti Nan with fascinating exhibits of the importance of Ecuador´s geographic location. Most notable was the ´water in the sink´ experiment where water drains vertically on the exact equator, but then when the sink is moved a couple of metres south, the water circles clockwise, and a couple of metres north, the water circles in the opposite direction as it drains away due to the Coriollis Principle. It has to be seen to be believed. The tour concluded with a quick visit to some traditional habitues of Ecuadorian jungle dwellers before hopping on the bus and returning to town. We had a quick dinner in the nearby Magic Bean restaurant before turning into bed at 2015.

Tuesday 9 November

Awoke at 0550 and wrote this log. Big views of the city from my room. Quito is at 2850m but, so far, the only feeling of altitude has been the usual thirst, so keep drinking the (bottled!) water! Met the Antisana team at breakfast, led by Richard, the likeable Jagged Globe guide. They were just setting off to climb Pasachoa for an acclimatisation walk, and all looked very fit and lean.
So, back to today. We set off on the bus for a tour of Quito at 0830, moving from the congested New Town, pass a number of parks, into the Old Town, where we left the bus at the Church of La Basilica, high on a hill to the north east of the area. We climbed right up to the highest point of the church (which is still under construction, having been started in 1926!), firstly by climbing a series of steep steel ladders taking us to a roof balcony, giving 360 degree views of Quito. Then down again, and via a different route up a spiral staircase then more steel ladders until we got into the belfry and above into one of the spires. Big views fo Quito, it is massive .. only a few kilometres wide but 46kms long! Bright but cloudy, so views of the many volcanoes were obscured.

La Basilica, Quito
Ascending La Basilica, our first climb on the expedition!

El Panecillo from La Basilica
Old Town Quito and El Panecillo

We then commenced our walking tour of the Old Town, descending through the narrow streets bustling with many types of enterprise, small workshops, hardware stores, carpet and coffin shops, with indigenous locals selling fruit, avocado and broad beans on the streets. We had been told to watch for pickpockets and especially to hang on to our cameras.
Pepe eventually led us to the Plaza de la Independencia, having walked through the Archbishop´s Palace, now a colonnaded row of small shops and restaurants. Entering the main Plaza was a bit of a surprise. Very busy and seeing other tourists for the first time, but also with many locals sitting about, indigenous Indians begging or hawking everything from paintings to batteries, and a significant police and military presence! The latter, including police on horseback, police with tear gas masks and bullet proof vests, plus military with riot shields...all due to a possible demonstration against the President in this still politically unstable country.

Plaza de la Indepedencia, Quito
Presidential Palace, Quito
Moving further east we came to the Plaza and 14th century Monastery of San Francisco. This is a beautiful building with a fine inner courtyard that was hosting a film shoot with numerous models for a bank commercial. Were given a tour of the Franciscan Monastery, although the main Chapel of Senor Jesus du Gran Poder had a major roof restoration project going on, with the gold leaf being replaced. We then toured the Museo Franciscano, with statues, furniture, paintings and sculptures in abundance, with some 14/15th century hymn books which were in good condition and beautifully scribed. Flowering white magnolia were seen in another inner courtyard. One little modern touch ... the building also hosted a radio station which pushed out Catholic programmes to Quito and Guayaquil.
We then walked further east again in increasing sunshine, through a rather dodgy area and climbed the stairs of Calle Garcia Moreno, past a municipal washing/drying facility where women were seen doing their washing in a communal area. Half an hour later we reached the top of a hill called El Panecillo (´the little bread loaf´), topped by the statue of La Virgen de Quito, with a crown of stars, eagle´s wings and a chained dragon atop the world. Big views of the Old and New Town areas, albeit in hazy sunshine and with views of nearby volcanoes completely obscured. 

Old Town, Quito 
La Virgen de Quito
Expedition team, Quito
Lunch at the hilltop restaurant, a relatively upscale venue, at an altitude of 3100m. Bus back into town and through a thunderstorm before reaching the hotel at 1415. Then a gear check and some ropework with Smiler for the whole group. Quite a few did not have any knowledge of knots!
Paid a quick visit to a local internet cafe and then the evening was spent at Javier´s apartment to the east of the town, involving a foggy cab ride to get there. Food (pizza) and a slideshow on the climbs, followed by a talk by Javier´s wife (a Dutch lady who was a stockbroker for ABN Amro in London, before doing voluntary work in a Nepalese hospital for kids affected by polio and suchlike). Her mission is now to help the street children of Quito and they are currently starting an orpahnage with capacity for five children.Once there, every effort will be made to trace the original parents (who often gave up their children due top economic circumstances) and help reintegrate the family, providing support to the parents as necessary. Failing that they will move to fostering/ adoption routes. Reminder: gift some $ before I leave Ecuador. David Baber, the final member of the expedition, also joined us at the apartment, just in from London via Madrid. Back to the hotel in a ´boy racer´ taxi (ran two red lights!) and after a final pack for the following day, turned into bed at 2200.

Wednesday 10 November

Awoke around 0500 and wrote this log. Foggy outside but Javier had mentioned last night that it may rain and fog in the valleys at this time of year, but the weather is relatively stable and you do get very clear summit conditions. Another point from yesterday ...remember to use sun cream! My face caught the sun yesterday despite wearing a peaked cap.
On the road at 0800 and after a 1 ½ hour drive south of Quito, we dropped luggage at the Hosteria Hacienda ´La Carriona´, near the viullage of Sangolqui. A traditional farmhouse with big courtyard, numerous cats and dogs, plus welcoming staff. 

Hosteria Hacienda 'La Carriona'
Then a drive up to the start point of our first climb, Volcan Pasachoa, 40 minutes up rough tracks to a car park at a hydro electric station. Started the ascent late morning, climbing up initially good tracks into cloud. Then steepening up through black (volcanic) mud and long traversing paths eventually leading to a ridge across very tussocky grass interspersed by heather bushes. Many weird plants and mosses.

Fighting our way up Pasachoa!
Pasachoa on the skyline
Pasachoa, approaching the summit ridge
Two groups emerged, the steady plodders like myself, who quickly left the rest behind. Steve, Robert (a fit 69 year old), Matt (who says little) and Peter (says even less!). With the group divided, Pepe pointed us in the direction of the highest summit, which involved a steep climb up the tussocky grass before breaching the edge of the crater (a 300m drop) and 30m below a small rocky summit at 4200m. It had been thundering all morning (but no lightning was seen, so we carried on) but the clouds continued to thicken so we quickly descended, Steve losing his camera somewhere near the top. Traversed the grass slopes back and waited for the rest of the group who we assumed had gone up the first lower peak in the hope of seeing a condor (no chance in this cloud!) and eventually met up with Tim and the two Davids. Smiler and Ro arrived much later, having been pointed in the direction of the highest summit by Pepe. However, he had not made the route clear and Smiler had an epic on the ridge leading to the summit before retreating (normally has fixed ropes, apparently!), so he was not best pleased. Pepe and Steve had to return to the summit to find the camera (hard work!) and were successful, but the delay cost us 40 minutes. 
My own performance was OK. Hard work on the steeper ground but the steady pace got us through. Dehydrated quickly as usual. Slow descent due to Ro and David S. who has bad knees! Eventually we all got down by 1700, with some tricky steep muddy sections to negotiate, then drinks and back to the hacienda by bus down very rough (and surprisingly busy) gravel tracks, passing through large stands of eucalyptus trees at the top end of the valley. Reached base at about 1830 and got a super twin room with wooden beams, wood floor, fireplace and comfy bed to myself. Shower, some washing, and laid out gear to dry followed by dinner at 1930. Beer in a cosy bar and steaks served on a griddle. 
Conversation over dinner: David S. lives near Canberra 8 months of the year and in a flat in Norfolk for the balance of the time. His house in Australia is plagued by Tiger snakes and spiders are everywhere. Sounds ghastly. Apparently, Smiler started climbing when he was 15 after his then boss asked if he wanted to join him on a club trip to N Wales. He never looked back and is now a member of the Alpine Club and the more exclusive Alpine Climber's Club for the harder rock fraternity. He also makes a living doing industrial rope work which is apparently very lucrative... he once spent 7 weeks inside the cooling towers at Radcliffe Power Station near Nottingham!

Thursday 11 November

Breakfast followed by 0820 departure on the bus for Volcan Pinchincha, the closest volcano to Quito to the west of the city. Guagua Pinchincha 4794m has recently been active, with eruptions on a regular basis since 1999. Pinchincha has covered Quito in ash and closed the airport several times since then. Our bus journey took us high to the west of the city, affording further views of the huge sprawl that is Quito and taking us through some quite poor areas. Heading west, up more hills, we eventually crossed over a pass into beautiful green mountain scenery with tall pines and eucalyptus before turning off on to a very narrow and rough track, which climbed steeply up zigzags to 3700m. Smiler was very keen for us all to take the walk to Pinchincha very steadily to aid acclimatisation and we made steady progress up a gradually ascending track with occasional steeper sections, but essentially a series of long zigzags.

Looking up to the first summit of Pinchincha
Pincincha Refuge 4555m
The climb, mainly in cloud, took 2 hours 40 minutes and we reached the refuge about 1300, with the cloud starting to break up below us. David S. and Ro were slow again and we left them for the summit at about 1330. Traversing left from the refuge at 4555m, we reached the crater rim fairly quickly at 4700m but the effort at this altitude became apparent with heavier breathing, higher heart rate and slight dizziness (I had felt slightly hypoxic at the refuge but the rest and some food gave me a lift). We then turned right along the rim, which narrowed into a steepening ridge with fine ash scree underfoot. Poles would have been useful! Cloud filled the crater, which apparently is 2 kms wide and about 1000m deep! Eventually though, the general cloud base started to rise and a blue sky emerged.
Then, on a reasonable track, we made the final pull on to the first summit block, dumped sacs and scrambled along the ridge to the main summit. Straightforward scrambling, a bit like Striding Edge in the Lakes but at the same altitude as Mont Blanc, with run outs on either side to match! Then a short rock section to reach the summit, which we all did unroped. The summit was broad enough to relax and take photos, with stupendous views (as we were above the clouds) to the north and occasional glimpses of the precipitous crags down into the crater itself. Sulphorous fumes were emanating from the crater but were not particularly strong. 

Scrambling to the summit of Pinchincha
Summit ridge, Pinchincha 

Looking down into the smouldering crater of Volcan Pinchincha
Crater rim
Descending from Pinchincha
We descended back along the ridge and then quickly down to the refuge for some tea before reversing the long trail back to the bus. We cut some corners and I put the head down and yomped back to the bus, getting back around 1700. Davis S. was there, having reached the hut but had been forced to turn around due to his knees which meant a very slow pace on downhill sections. I had passed Ro on the way down. She had managed to get to the crater rim with Pepe, but had suffered bad headaches on the way up.
The main summit group was Smiler, Matt, Peter, Steve, myself, Tim and David Baber (who, at 62, had walked really well, although he was last off the hill, 40 minutes behind the rest of us). Steve had been nauseous at the top and Smiler and I had both suffered from tingly fingers at the first summit, a sign of mild AMS, apparently quite common. It disappeared once I had started scrambling further along the ridge. We then had a two-hour bus ride back to the hacienda. It was fascinating to see the people of Ecuador at play having just returned from school and work...most of the suburbs were crammed with people on the streets, enjoying food from small cafes and street stalls, lads kicking footballs, internet cafes everywhere and a hive of activity everywhere you turned. As we dropped towards Quito we were delighted to see a somewht spectral view of the mountain Antisana to the east...a vision of what was before us! Bar, meal and bed by 2100.

Friday 12 November

Off at 0830 to reposition us at another hacienda, before lunch and a quick visit to the famous Otavalo market in the Northern highlands at 2550m. As we set off we immediately had clear views of Cotopaxi to the east and the clearest view yet of Pinchincha, with yesterday´s route visible. We drove to the east of Quito, traversing one side of the ´Avenue of the Volcanoes´ (as named by Humboldt) and avoiding the congestion in the city. Views to the south included the twin peaks of Illenizas Norte and Sud. A nice drive, with spectacular countryside and a clear view of Volcan Cayambe from a scenic viewpoint off the Panamericana highway, this being our next objective.

Cayambe from the Panamericana en route to Otavalo
We dropped our luggage off at the Hacienda Guachala, founded in 1580 and said to be the oldest hacienda in the country, 7 kms south of Cayambe town. We then continued amidst neat rural countryside and had views of Laguna de San Pablo beneath Volcan Imbabura as we descended to Otavalo market, where an amazing variety of Indian traditional dress was seen. I purchased some scarves, an Ecuador t-shirt and a chess set (Spaniards v Incas!). The market was a relaxed affair with little hustling from the stall holders, and occasional begging, mainly by old women. Whilst there it clouded over and we had a heavy shower which stayed with us as we ascended to our destination for lunch. The rain produced many flash floods, with mud and rock flowing on to the roads. We climbed the rdige to the rim above Laguna de Cuicocha and had a pleasant lunch (a sea fish called Corvina) at a hosteria.

Otavalo market

Barmaid, Otavalo
A planned walk down to the lake was compromised by heavy rain, so we drove back down the ridge again and, as the weather cleared, we took a half hour boat trip on the caldera lake. This lake is 180m deep, formed in a series of collapsed craters, with three islands in the middle, one of which is known as ´Guinea Pig Island´ as they are the primary inhabitant plus a few wolves for company. Some minor gaseous emissions were seen on the far side of the main island, but the area has been volvanically inactive for some time now. Occasional views of Volcan Cotacachi towering above were seen through the clouds.

Guinea Pig Island
Cinnamon tea with sugar cane rum was served in the restaurant above the boathouse, then it was back on the Panamericana to the hacienda (we´re now only 4 hours from the Columbian border at this point and 150 kms north of Quito), arriving there about 1800. I shared a room with Steve, the RAF guy, and did a preliminary pack for the Cayambe ascent. Dinner of steak in a long room with a roaring fire before a one-hour equipment briefing from Smiler. Bed by 2200 but creaky beds disturbed sleep.

Hacienda Guachala , near Cayambe
Saturday 13 November

Late start from hacienda at 1030. After breakfast I had visited the chapel which contained a small museum, not much to write about except for a poster showing Whymper´s routes on most of the region´s big mountains in the late 19th century. It was cloudy for most of our journey with a quick stop in Cayambe for snacks then relentlessly eastwards toward the Cayambe Refuge. Road not bad, mainly cobbled, passing through verdant agricultural land with many smallholdings and white churches. Then disaster! A steep bend had a great hole in the cobbled surface into which our bus dropped. Attempting to get out of the hole our hapless driver managed to break the drive shaft! So the long walk began, from altitude 3636m, at 1155. A long plod around interlocking spurs and the group quickly divided into the usual two groups with Robert and I ahead. Nice country eventually became a bit more barren, with the track steepening into the cloud base. 

Broken drive shaft!
Walk in to Cayambe refuge
We were eventually picked up by one of the local guides, Abraham, in a 4WD and 10 minutes later we arrived at the refuge, having walked at least 10 kms with 900m of ascent. It was now after 1500 and we were at an altitude of about 4600m. It was a basic refuge but with wide bunks. Laid out gear, had some soup and tea, with rice and a very hot chilli sauce. It was generally cloudy but breaks enabled a view of the galcier, with the snout below is. The highlight of the day was seeing a condor, gliding through the fog with minimal effort, just before we were picked up by Abraham at the top of the steepest section of the track. Like many others I snuggled down into my sleeping bag late afternoon...lovely! Then dinner, soup and savoury rice, before bed at 2030. Despite a noisy group of local climbers I soon went into a coma, eventually waking at about midnight and then a fitful sleep until 0630.

Hut life! Cayambe Refuge

Sunday 14 November

Up early as fed up lying in the bunk. Quickly dressed then straight outside as the weather was clear and sunny, with great views up to the summit of Cayambe, the glacier below and views south to Antisana, Cotopaxi and Chimborazo...superb! 

Dawn at the Cayambe Refuge, Antisana in the background
Cayambe 5709m, with refuge in the foreground
Breakfast, then on to the glacier, accessed down a steep moraine track. Usual training, crampon practise, ice axe braking and then Robert and I roped up with Pepe to tackle some steeper ice, front-pointing up about 20m and descending a similar gradient on the other side. We finished off by doing a descending front point traverse (´keep the heels down´!) before returning to the refuge for lunch. Soup, lasagne, followed by peppermint tea, then Tim, Ro, myself with Smiler and Pepe ascended the hill which is the start fo our route tomorrow – steep, scrambly sections and ash paths (apparently very alkaline and corrosive) but relatively easy and I moved well, topping out at 4836m, the highest point of the trip so far. Ro and Tim had headaches and Tim also had tingly knees... more AMS symptoms.

Descent to Cayambe Refuge after training session
Tomorrow's objective!
We saw the route for tomorrow through a break in the clouds, then the summit emerged, high and to the right. It was a relatively easy descent, followed by tea and writing this log. Plan for the evening: dinner at 1800, bed until midnight, then up for a 0100 start....Cayambe beckons!

Monday 15 November

After a fitful night´s sleep we were up at midnight for a 0100 start. Nobody else slept either...much rustling of sleeping bags throughout the bunks. Ro was off an hour earlier than the rest of us in an attempt to compensate for her slow pace on the hill. We eventaully got going at 0115 into a relatively warm night with a clear sky and the lights of Cayambe and Quito in the far distance below us. As Smiler wanted us all to keep together in the early stages, giving the guides flexibilitry to move people between ropes and, if necessary, return with weaker members, it was a slow climb up the hill beside the refuge, with David B. particularly slow on the steeper sections and scrambles. 
After about 1.5 hours we reached the glacier and put crampons on, roped up into groups – Robert and I with Pepe – and started the long trek up on to the Cayambe Glacier. Straightforward ground, with few crevasses and the clear sky occasionally crossed by shooting stars. There was lightning in the distance at regular intervals, reminding us that we were climbing the only glacier in the world crossed by the Equator! Ground steepening, we soon caught up with Mauricio and Ro, and two groups, ours and Abraham´s group, Steve and Matt, pulled ahead. Eventually Ro turned round, having reached 5000m and David S. went back with her. Smiler, Tim and Peter were the third team but were slower.
The glacier continued to steepen and by 0530 we were past a feature which the guides called ´The Island´, at about 5400m, and entering into more severely crevassed terrain with large seracs overhanging sections of the route. The last 200-300m was very steep and crossing the bergschrund involved front-pointing a 55-60 degree slope. This required a huge degre of effort from me as my lungs were now fit to burst. From about 5100-5200m my breathing had become very frequent, with one breath per step required – OK for a rythmic ascent on easier slopes but desparate when you are forced to stop for breath on really steep exposed ground that would best be climbed in a continuous movement. Pepe said that my breathing was a common altitude issue.

Colin and Robert on Cayambe
Ascent of Cayambe
Steepening slopes towards the summi 
Approaching the bergshrund below the summit of Cayambe
After a short respite on easier ground above the steep section, the final summit ice dome came into view and Steve, Matt and Abraham could be seen above us. The final ice dome was ascended via a narrow traversing groove that was flanked by a deep crevasse immediately to the upside of the slope. Ice axe placements went into a void, so balance became crucial! We summited at 0815, passing Steve et al who had just enjoyed 25 minutes on the summit before the cold got to them. At 5790m this was my new altitude record and it was a marvellous top with plenty of room to take photos. We did the usual summit shots with views south to Cotopaxi, Antisana and Chimborazo. To the north east a volcano called El Reventador was venting smoke and ash, a classic volcanic scene. 360 degree views – superb.

Cayambe summit ice dome
El Reventador erupting, from Cayambe
Final approach to Cayambe summit

On Cayambe summit 5790m
Getting colder, we were asked to wait for Tim, who was helped to the summit by Pepe. Smiler and Pepe were both exhausted and could not make the final 15 minutes of the climb to the summit. Smiler seemed to be suffering from a virus he has been fighting. Then the long descent, starting at about 0835. The steep section was led by Robert and was not as bad as I had expected. We now had Tim on our rope. The descent was through spectacular icicles and seracs that I had failed to notice on the way up as I was too focused on overcoming my tiredness before then.

Descending from the summit of Cayambe
Several steeper sections followed, crossing large crevasses, and then a long plod down the main glacier with views of the surrounding countryside and the beginning of the usual cloud build up. After about two hours we left the hot blinding sunshine and dropped into thick damp cloud giving almost white out conditions for the last 2 kms of the glacier. We used tracks of earlier parties to guide our way back to the start point of the glacier section. Crampons off, tried to eat a snack but was too thirsty to eat much. Then a walk back to the hut on the now familiar andesite (pink volcanic rock) and ash. Apparently the ash is very alkaline and corrosive, so must remember to wash my crampons! We finally reached the hut by midday - a seven hour ascent plus four hour descent. Steve and Matt, both younger and fitter, did it in 5+2 hours! Soup, tea and crisps and started to feel recovery but feet were sore (fortunately, not blistered). Packed stuff in dorm and loaded gear into jeeps, then walked 40 minutes down to get the bus. The track down was very steep, taking about one hour to Cayambe, and involved two stops for some impromptu road building so that the bus didn’t sink into another hole (memo to Jagged Globe – use 4WDs next time!). Back to Hacienda Guachala – shower, then a couple of beers, a short sleep and a debrief with Smiler before a dinner of potato soup and trout. Bed by 2045. Sleep disturbed by dogs barking on several occasions.

Tuesday 16 November

Late start at 1000 and into Cayambe to visit an internet café. Sent emails to Gillian and a couple of brewery people. Then south, mainly on the Panamericana before a late lunch at El Café de la Vaca near Machachi, 41 kms south of Quito. Increasingly cloudy during the day with some rain before lunch. Excellent meal in a building painted to look like a black and white dairy cow. Then north again before turning east in Machachi, taking a steepening and narrowing lane to an area at 3600m, crossing the paramo (Andean grasslands), more open rolling country with beef and dairy cattle and some barley. Farms en route were very basic, subsistence, almost hovels. Then late afternoon we turned into a very old hacienda, which still functions as a farm with 50,000 hectares. The Hacienda Hosteria El Porvenir, north west of Cotopaxi and just on the border of the national park, looked very basic from the outside, but inside it was cosy with log fires throughout and cinnamon tea (fortified by sugar cane spirit).

Cotopaxi from the Panamericana
Hosteria El Porvenir

Rooms in the roof were tiny, so opted to pay a huge $10 for a single room – two beds with a tiny gap in the middle, right under a sloping thatched roof, wickerwork walls and a curtain for a door. But this is a lovely, cosy, welcoming place. Dinner at 2000, then bed to rest for Cotopaxi in a couple of days time.
Pepe said today that we were acclimatised now – the key is now to rest and get the body into the best physical shape for Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. There is no more glacier training, so tomorrow we have a variety of less strenuous options to choose from.

Wednesday 17 November

Up and out at 0630 to get a view of Cotopaxi before the cloud build up. Magnificent vista across the paramo, with views to Cotopaxi rising like an ice dome from the grasslands. Good views in the opposite direction to Pasachoa, now resplendent in the early morning sun. Further across, the rocky summit of Volcan Sincholagua at ~4740m could be seen. I walked down the lane and took a few ‘arty’ shots of Cotopaxi before going up the hill behind the hostel for clearer sight of Cotopaxi. 

Early morning light on Cotopaxi, from the Hosteria El Porvenir
A good breakfast (fine bacon), then off to our next destination, the Hacienda Tambopaxi, which resides at the base of Cotopaxi, about 40 minutes from the refuge from which we will mount our ascent.
Llamas were grazing around the hacienda. Cinnamon tea, then we moved bags up to the 7-bed bunkhouse, where we were to spend the night. Then a rough muddy track steeply up from 3760m to 4600m, and we then walked up zigzags for 45 minutes to reach the Refugio Jose Rivas at about 4800m, a bright yellow building in the cloud which had built up steadily during the morning.
Lunch and some messing about before Smiler set off with David Baber and Ro for some more glacier training. We waited longer for Pepe with the cloud density increasing outside (with some sleet) and finally set off to reach 5000m for further acclimatisation. We yomped up to the start of the glacier in 30 minutes, up an ash track occasionally covered in fresh snow with big drops (unseen in the fog) to the right. Then nine minutes to get down, and then straight down the direct route to the car park in another ten minutes. We had left our climbing gear up at the hut in lockers. A rough descent – with our team again expressing concern about the mechanical condition of the bus – and got back to the hacienda just before 1700. Sorted gear for tomorrow and Friday, hot shower and write this log.

Cotopaxi from Hacienda Tambopaxi 
The two David’s and Ro have trouble getting power in their lodge 200m away – oh, the hassle over separate rooms we’ve had! Tambopaxi is run by the same people as the last hacienda but, although more modern and clean inside, seems less efficient with the staff obsessed by a football match between Brazil and Ecuador. Whilst on the hill today, Pepe had described the route to Cotopaxi’s summit: from 5000m we crampon up the glacier on a steadily rising traverse. After 5100m the ground steepens to ~40 degrees up to 5500m, necessitating the French ‘crab’ technique, before easing for some 100m. The final 200-300m steepens again, but not as much as Cayambe. This is a relatively new route, new crevasses forcing closure of the previous ‘Normal Route.’ The plan for tomorrow is to go up to the refuge early afternoon, then some food, early to bed before setting off for the summit at midnight. We had a good dinner of trout, then bed by 2100 in the bunkrooms upstairs.

Thursday 18 November

Not a bad night’s sleep – earplugs helped to drown out Smiler’s snoring. At 0300 it was raining heavily – and that must mean snow up on the mountain. Up at 0630 and the clouds were covering the hill and light drizzle continued outside. A frustrating day was to begin. We delayed going up to the refuge as long as possible as it is cold and damp up there, but we eventually left, after reading the Mandela book for a couple of hours, late morning. A long slow crawl up to 4600m in the bus, which is getting increasingly beaten up on these roads. We spotted a colpeo (Andean Fox) on the way up. 
Emerging from the bus with lighter sacs containing sleeping bag, duvet and clothing (as climbing gear had gone up the day before), we donned waterproofs as it was now lightly snowing in the dense cloud. We took the quick (but relentlessly upward) route to the hut. When we arrived it was relatively busy but we secured bunks in a spacious area, albeit that they were very narrow ones. Nobody had managed to climb Cotopaxi today, climbers having turned back at 5200m because of the snow. A long afternoon followed – cold, damp hut with no heating, so I sat around in my duvet jacket reading the Mandela book before dinner at 1800 and awaiting a decision at 1900 on tomorrow’s climb.

Expedition team at the Whmper Refuge below Cotopaxi
Whymper Refuge, Cotopaxi
This was ultimately positive and before turning into bed we caught a glimpse of the formidable glacier above the refuge as the sky began to clear. Ro and David Baber were to be up at 10 p.m. for an 11 p.m. ascent and the rest of us were to follow one hour later. To ‘bed’ at 1915 with a lot of noise in the hut and I had a fitful night’s sleep disturbed by the 2200 arrangement. Up at 2300, dress for the hill, quick breakfast and away just after midnight into a relatively mild, clear night. Felt quite nervous on starting today – this is a ‘big name’ mountain!

Friday 19 November

So the ascent began, the team of six with three guides making good progress up the ash path to the glacier, now mostly snow covered and crisp in the night air. After about 45 minutes we donned crampons and, still moving together, crossed some crevassed ground before hitting the first 400m of relentless 30 degree plus snow slopes, going almost directly up rather that zigzagging due to a potential avalanche risk following the recent snowfall.
Smiler and Ro, followed by new guide Daniel with David Baber, had broken trail but the snow was very soft in places, with foot placements already collapsing underfoot. 
Some ground was more icy and we nevertheless made good progress. Surreal this, 0100 in the morning – lights of Quito in the far distance, a massive array of stars (and shooting stars again) with lightning lighting the sky to the east – Pepe said that this was the Upper Amazon basin. Roped to Pepe and Robert, as on Cayambe, we eventually started to meet even steeper ground, with the path winding intricately through massive crevasses and seracs – often the path was one foot wide, with massive run outs below.

Ice cliffs on Cotopaxi
Exhilarating and stretching the comfort zone once again, but I was feeling stronger now with acclimatisation over the last week or so. At about 0500 we stopped ahead of the last steep section, this requiring a zigzag approach that would increase the likelihood of an avalanche. Pepe and Abraham, the two Ecuadorian guides, moved 20m up the slope and cut a couple of snow profiles to check the slope. Unfortunately, our worst fears were confirmed. The profile revealed that the snow of the preceding 24 hours (14-15cms) had not compacted with the underlying layer and the slope posed an obvious avalanche risk. So, at ~ 5700m, we were forced to retreat, with the summit dome tantalisingly ahead of us. I had got cold hands on the way up and had to change into my Marmot ‘Work gloves’ and these did the job admirably. Feet were OK, with my right foot chilling after a stop to sort gear on the way up. 

Waiting for dawn below the summit of Cotopaxi

We had passed Ro and Smiler on the steep 400m section sometime before and a radio message confirmed that they had turned around at 5400m, Ro finding the soft snow very difficult to ascend.
We sheltered next to a huge ice cliff from 0500 to 0530 and a number of other climbing teams, including Mauricio and David Baber, joined us to await the dawn. This disappointed as cloud had moved across the summit, so we descended back through the icefall and made a speedy descent to the refuge. This took us about 1½ hours, with a number of photo stops, mainly to capture the ice cliffs. As usual, I was absolutely bushed when we reached the hut, but with a breakfast of granola and yoghurt, followed by asparagus soup (!), recovered quite quickly.

Retreat from Cotopaxi
Views on descent of Cotopaxi

We waited, cold and damp, in the refuge for a couple of hours before descending to meet the bus and returning back to the valley floor, a two hour descent on really rough and muddy tracks following the recent rain.

After the aborted attempt on Cotopaxi
There were wild volcanic ash plains below Ruminahmi and we went steeply down to the scruffy town of Machachi where we joined the Panamericana to travel to our hotel for the night. There was some excitement on the way down as the driver misjudged a turn on the mud track and the bus careered sideways on the road, necessitating ½ hour of digging and pushing to recover the vehicle. This bus is totally unsuitable for this trip! Thirty minutes southwards and we reached our hotel for the next two nights, the Hotel Cuella de Luna, a pleasant spot off the beaten track again. Quick shower, sort laundry and lunch accompanied by a few beers, before bed at 1530 and a solid sleep for three hours before returning to the bar (nice fire going) to write this log. This hotel is at an elevation of 3125m, so acclimatisation continues! One observation about our journey so far – everywhere we go, we are the object of attention – Europeans on a ‘Tourist Bus’ turn heads almost everywhere…’look at the gringos!’ Dinner at 2000. Phoned home and spoke to Kev who sounded chirpy.

Ruminahui with the paramo in the foreground
Hotel Cuella de Luna
Saturday 20 November

Over dinner the previous evening we had collectively decided to ignore FO advice and go to Banos to see the erupting Tungurahua volcano. However, Jagged Globe would not permit this unless we all officially ‘signed off’ the trip as they could not cover the insurance liability. So, the original plan is back on, with a visit to Tigua, home of the naïve art seen earlier in the trip, plus a visit to the Quilotoa crater lake. Before we boarded the bus I managed to have a good chat with Gillian at home and that put me in a good mood for the day ahead.
We departed at 0830 and headed south on the Panamericana highway to the town of Latacunga. Normally, Cotopaxi would be resplendent to our left on this journey, but once again we were frustrated by a cloud base at 4500m that obscured everything. Latacunga was hectic, with a bustling market and narrow streets choked with people and cars. A couple of nice Piazzas with well tended gardens were seen, but the main objective was to get people on to the internet and find a post office. I replied to an email from Hayden and some ex brewery folks. Latacunga, by the way, has been destroyed three times by eruptions from Cotopaxi starting in 1742, the last one occurring in 1877. Some of the original buildings (well, the tops of) can be seen protruding from the now consolidated volcanic ash.

Central Highlands, Ecuador
From Latacunga we headed relentlessly uphill to the west, going far into the magnificent Central Highlands. Our tour bus was a real novelty to the indigenous people here, with kids waving at us as we passed. We passed through Pujili and reached the principal Tiguan art gallery an hour later. These distinctive, bright paintings of Andean life in naïve form are painted on sheepskin stretched on a wooden frame and originated from paintings to decorate drums. The gallery featured the best from the region, with larger pictures costing over $200, most of them painted by the Toaquiza family or their students. Now being exhibited in the USA, these paintings are increasingly sought after and cost many times the price paid here in the Highlands. I purchased a nice example for $50, one produced by a student, rather than a Toaquiza, the latter have generally darker styling.

Tigua 'naive' art

Then, after many more long hairpin bends, we reached the village of Zumbahua, which had a busy local market in full swing. This town has been completely rebuilt since 1996, following an earthquake (6.5 on the Richter scale). The village sits right on a massive tectonic fault, clearly visible as we left the village, yet they have rebuilt the place right on it again! Apparently fatalities were significant last time…
The people here are very poor, scraping a living from smallholdings, some with thatched shelters on the steep slopes that they farm. The elevation here is around 3700-3800m, but farming is very intensive and we saw many groups coming back from the market with donkeys and llama laden with goods and produce. The people here are predominately Quechua Indians, with the most common dress for the women a small suede trilby hat, a brightly covered poncho, knee length dress (often embroidered satin), and long white socks.

Zumbahua market 

From Zumbahua we climbed steadily to Quilotoa, a fairly touristy village on the rim of a volcano with a massive, green crater lake hundreds of metres below. A few photographs, then a simple lunch in a nearby hostel, during which time the clouds poured in, obscuring everything. So we passed an hour or so buying some cheaper local crafts, having fun bartering with the local Indians, then back to the hostel for some beer and chips whilst it hailed outside. 

Quilatoa Crater Lake
Local folk, Quilatoa

Back on the bus at 1600 and 3 hours later we got back to the Hotel Cuella de Luna. A couple more beers, collected laundry, dinner and bed by 2130.
Pepe had said that we could expect another day of poor weather. Very similar to our arrival in Ecuador, there seems to be a pattern of three poor days, followed by three good days. We have experienced this cycle, with poor weather in Quito and on Pasachoa, improving when we did Pinchincha and good when we climbed Cayambe, before deteriorating again during our quest to climb Cotopaxi. With luck, the good weather window will appear for our attempt on Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain, late on Monday night into Tuesday morning.

Sunday 21 November

Another R&R day (rest and relocation!) with a 1000 departure to Urbina, just to the southeast of Chimborazo. The destination for the night is Pasada La Estacion, a converted train station built in 1905. At 3618m our acclimatisation continues! We travelled south on the Panamericana again, passing once more through Latacunga and then eventually arriving at Ambato, a thriving but unattractive town 136 kms south of Quito. A quick visit to an internet café, then a lunch of pizza, chips and beer (very healthy!), before travelling a little further south to Urbina, which feels about as remote as you can get. Pasada La Estacion stands isolated next to a railway track (Quito to Riobamba), which has now fallen into disrepair. Kids from a nearby farm posed for photos in return for sweets, whilst kids of about 12-13 rode past on horseback, herding mixed groups of cattle and llamas. 

Kids at Urbina
Paramo below Chimborazo
Pasoda La Estacion, Urbina
Towering over us is the impressive bulk of Chimborazo, 3700m above, although at first shrouded in cloud. I walked down the track late afternoon - perfect solitude, with stunning scenery and farmland patchwork quilting the lower hills to the south and east, and, eventually, Chimborazo’s summit briefly appeared, much higher up than expected, before being crowned by a lenticular cloud. Beautiful!

Sunset on Chimborazo
The lodge, run by a guy who also guides in the mountains, is quite spartan but it will do the job tonight – at this altitude it will be cold! Not much else to report today – read a great chunk of the Mandela tome on the bus, but that’s about all.
We had a convivial dinner of trout (with some good Chilean wine), preceded by some local musicians with a variety of guitars, drums and pan pipes. Entertaining but a bit touristy! Bed by 2115.

Monday 22 November

Not a bad night’s sleep. Awoke to cloud on Chimborazo, surprise, surprise. Dry lips again – Pepe had remarked that we would notice a big difference in humidity as we went further south and west. Today’s plan is to pay a quick visit to Riobamba, then up to the Carrel Hut at 4860m for lunch, then a walk up to the Whymper refuge at 5000m for our short overnight before attempting Chimborazo overnight. So we did just that, with an interesting drive into the Chimborazo reserve, a good road almost all the way up to the Refugio Hermanos Carrel, named after the Swiss Carrel brothers who guided Edward Whymper on the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880). The terrain here is very desolate, quite a lot of rock fall and minor landslips on the road, with the earth mainly volcanic ash, broken only by sparse shrubs. We sighted vicunas (a wild relative of the llama) en route. We had lunch at the Carrel hut, before humping our gear 1 km further up the hill to Refugio Whymper at 5000m. 

Chimborazo 6310m
Carrell Refuge 4860m
Chimborazo from the Carrell Refuge
Refugio Edward Whymper, 5000m

Hut life! Whymper Refuge at 5000m
This was the usual basic high altitude hut, with bucket flush loos and crammed dormitories. The hut was full with us, a party of Germans, some French and American climbers. Day trippers walk up to the hut as well, so late afternoon there were a group of (inadequately dressed) students from Quito in the hut taking photos. Usual routine, bed by 1845, toss and turn, lapse into sleep (this time, no more than an hour), then up at 2300 for the climb.

Tuesday 23 November

Awoke to clear skies and a good moon, which afforded some natural light. As before, Ro and David had gone off an hour earlier with Pepe to give them a head start and Robert and I had been allocated the ebullient Mauricio as our guide this time. An early start up a good track across ash moraine, before the path steepened and entered an unpleasant boulder field, with icy patches on the path. Eventually we cramponed up and climbed a small glacier that drops from the narrow ridge above (by this time we had already passed Ro and David, who were to turn back shortly after). The glacier steepened and we had some route finding to do through some seracs before rising on to the narrow ash ridge with steep drops on either side.

The tricky initial glaciated section of the Chimborazo climb from the Whymper Refuge, seen in daylight.
Much more difficult in the dark!
We moved up this, no more than a couple of feet wide in places but with great exposure, and the moon lighting up banks of cloud below us and the lights of Riobamba to be seen in the far distance. We quickly got back on to snow again and the ridge steepened considerably (30-40 degrees) and, with hardly any respite, this took us relentlessly to our goal. Snow conditions were good, generally crisp with no collapse on foot placement. We made good progress although Steve, Matt with Abraham, and Tim, Peter with Smiler, were ahead of us already.

On the ridge to Chimborazo, about 2 a.m.
Shadow projected by Chimborazo at sunrise

Stumpy struggling up Chimborazo
Ice cliffs below Chimborazo summit
Ridge to Chimborazo summit
As usual I found the going hard after about 5400m and as daylight emerged around 0530 I was gasping for breath and cussing a lot! The slope never really eased at all and about 300m below the summit the slope steepened again towards an ice cliff which, eventually, was easily broached. At this point the rest of the team came down past us and said it was only another 30 minutes to the top. This, and a bit of peer pressure from Robert (!), fired me up and we made good progress, eventually reaching the summit at 0730, 7 ½ hours after we had started. Smiler, by the way, had found the going too fast and had passed Peter and Tim on to Abraham, who therefore had four people on his rope.
Views from the summit were marvellous and we enjoyed blue skies there. On the way up we had taken photos of the shadow of the volcano projected over the country to the west as the sun was rising. We were now standing at 6260m (just below the tricky Whymper summit) and at well over 20,000’ this is the highest I’ve ever been in the mountains. Moreover, as the highest mountain in Ecuador, it is also the furthest point from the centre of the earth due to the earth’s ‘Equatorial bulge.’ We stayed on the summit for 30 minutes, taking photographs and enjoying the views. We could see almost all the main volcanoes in Ecuador, with the exception of Tungurahua which was obscured by the Whymper summit. To the north we could see the Illinizas, Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxi (all poking through the clouds) and to the south, Volcan Sangay, with smoke and ash plumes rising from it. The top was very crevassed giving interesting ice scenery, but was broad enough to walk around unroped in comparative safety.

Mauricio and Colin on Chimborazo summit, 6260m
Summit crevasses, Chimborazo

View to the Whymper summit on Chimborazo 6310m
Cotopaxi from the summit of Chimborazo
Summit views from Chimborazo
Stumpy on the Veintemilla summit of Chimborazo 6260m
At 0800 we started down and made good progress back to the ridge we had surmounted five hours earlier. Steep snow, but as it was still in the shade it was crisp and relatively firm. More photos back to the summit and to the glacier and seracs to the north of the ridge, before descending the glacial ramp back towards the hut. Easier route finding in the daylight but the boulder field and loose ash paths below were hard work for tired legs. Back to the hut by 1100 - a three-hour descent and 11 hour round trip. Not bad! Greeted by the rest of the team and then tea, pack up hut gear and yomp back down to the bus at the Carrel Hut.

Descent from Chimborazo

Snow slope above the Whymper Refuge (seen far below, left of centre)

View down to Whymper Refuge (the tricky bit!) 
Final section of main Chimborazo ridge

We set off for Quito just after noon, taking a different road out of the reserve to rejoin the Panamericana northbound at Ambato. The local Indians herd sheep in this barren area and are a different tribe, with both male and female wearing straw boaters rather than the trilby seen elsewhere. A long ride back, 4 ½ hours.
Hotel in Quito as before, unpack clothes to dry, then a few beers before finding a good little Mexican restaurant two blocks from the hotel. Good dinner, bed by 2130.

Wednesday 24 November

Breakfast at 0830, then with Robert and Smiler to nearby bookshop to see if I could get a tome on the geomorphology of Ecuador. No luck, so I took a cab to the Instituto Geographica Militar as recommended by the bookshop. This turned out to be a military facility and after explaining what I was after, left a copy of my passport at the gate house and a soldier escorted me to the ‘Marketing’ department where maps were for sale. I was then taken to another area but no English language books were available, so I returned to the hotel by cab, a $5 round trip including wait time. Went to a nearby internet café to check email and start typing this log before lunch with Robert in a nearby fish restaurant, Las Redes, which offered the Ecuadorian speciality ‘ceviche’, a selection of marinated raw fish. This was excellent and a pleasant hour or so was had.
Then back to the internet café until 1700, a dash through the rain and down to a group meeting at 1730. After discussing and agreeing tips for the guides, Robert presented Smiler with a book on the Andes of Ecuador and we then repaired to the bar for the last time. Javier joined us, followed by Pepe and his family. Pepe’s wife comes from the jungles to the east, six hours away by road plus three hours by boat.
After several false starts we ended up in the Namaste Everest restaurant, and despite very slow service, we had a good meal washed down with quite a lot of beer and wine. Cost only $12 each!

Last night in Quito
Then the two David’s, Ro and myself followed Javier’s directions to find a salsa bar. We ended up in a bar with a good vocal/guitar soloist, but then we went next door to a small place with a six-piece band who were playing the most amazing salsa. You could not resist tapping your hands to the beat (and shaking the plastic water bottle provided part filled with stones!), and the dancing became almost trance like. A fantastic finale to the trip. Bed by 0130, I think!

Thursday 25 November

Up at 0620 and homeward bound. Apparently, it was 0230 when we got back last night…! And it feels like it…. Ro was very hungover, but David Baber came down to see us off and David S. was soon back on the beer on the plane, having a Heineken with his breakfast!
Uneventful flight home, but noisy Germans and Dutch restricted sleep. Home by 0945.