Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Ecuador Tales III: Getting High In The Avenue Of The Volcanoes

Tuesday, January 19th
Machachi, Ecuador at 9,000 feet
Nestled in the Avenue of the Volcanoes

Five Day Acclimitization at Papagayo Hacienda:

We've spent the last four days at a 150-year old hacienda once owned by the grandson of Simone Bolivar (the revolutionary who freed Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador from Spanish Rule) on a five day trip acclimating and climbing volcanoes. The hacienda is just outside of Machachi, a town situated right in the middle of Los Avenidas de los Volcanes...a valley which is created by two strips of giant volcanoes going right through the center of Ecuador. From the nearby road, we have gorgeous view on a clear day of some of Ecuador's highest volcanoes: Cotopaxi (19,347 feet), Chimbarazo (20,700 feet), Corazon (15,715 feet), Pasochoa (13,460 feet), Ruminahue (15,549 feet), and Las Ilinizas (17,272 feet). Several of which we're going to try to climb this week.

Because it's the low season right now, we've basically had the entire hacienda to ourselves...creaky staircases and chunky mahogany furniture, a rifle from 1876, giant canvas paintings of naked robust women riding horses and luxuriating in the countryside (just like us only without the clothes!), an old radio from the mid 1900s, and set on a gorgeous farm resplete in blooming flowers. At dusk we go out to visit the animals...several cows, two llamas, several dogs, and a new litter of puppies so small they haven't opened their eyes yet.

Two Ecuadoreans (David and Newton who are brothers of Gabriel, our guide in the rainforest) and a super sweet Swiss girl who's interning here are incredibly fun to spend the evenings with watching poorly dubbed American movies and eating scrumptious organic food that's grown locally: homemade cream of broccoli soup, hot mint tea (from their garden), fresh strawberry banana shakes, spaghetti bolognaise, and french fries. Mom and I devoured four fresh mangoes today and crackers and cheese for lunch.

And for the Hard Stuff:

So what's a trip to Mom and I without a bit of major SANDBAGGING?! We signed up for this five day trip here to Papagayo in the hopes of acclimating and attempting a midnight summit of the world's highest snowcapped active volcano. Cotopaxi Volcan is an active, snow-capped and glaciated volcano which stands at 19,347feet. Although we've been to around 19,000 feet in Nepal, we took nine days getting there. Climbing in the Andes is a bit different. You have to do it in a shorter amount of time. Most people just hike from the lodge at Cotopaxi up to the point where the glacier ice begins and then come back down, telling their friends that they climbed Cotopaxi when they were actually miles away from the summit. A few other masochistic souls (i.e. The Thurston Girls) attempt summiting the glacier by crossing the glacier ice and snow with crampons, ice axes, and ropes and climbing in the middle of the night (before the sun starts melting the ice and before storms come through later in the day trying to reach the 19,347 foot summit (which I can tell you is very high if you've never been). Mount Whitney (the lower 48's highest mountain) is 14,505 feet and Mount McKinley (North America's highest) is 20,320 feet (just a little higher than Cotopaxi but at a higher latitude)....and people usually take a few weeks to climb the latter.

So the idea was basically to climb two other high altitude, non-technical volcanoes to acclimate our bodies to higher altitude and give our little red blood cells time to saturate themselves with oxygen. We were told that these first two climbs would be "fun little jaunts" or "easy scrambles" to the top, easy day hikes if you will. But what's a Thurston Girls' Adventure without a bit of sandbagging anyway?

Day I: Volcan Pasochoa 13,400 feet

Our first day started out on a gorgeous note. We made our way up to about 10,000 feet where we started our hike up the volcano. First of all, let me say that hiking to 13,400 feet from 10,000 feet is a major frickin' hike. But to Ecuadorean guides and locals, it's a fun little day hike where their heart rates rarely get above 100 bps. Our guide, Abel, seemed young and bored (he listened to music on headphones and texted throughout the day) but patient enough with our pace. Mom and I love hiking in the mountains but we've also learned to take our time...it's best to go slowly at altitude or else you have a higher probability of getting sick with AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) or worse (Cerebral and or Pulmonary Edema which can kill you). We also love taking photos, adjusting our packs, shedding or putting on layers depending on the weather, eating snacks and drinking water, and asking each other why we sign up for stuff like this on our vacations.

We hiked for around 4 hours up the side of the volcano with the most expansive views I think I've ever seen on a "day hike." The Avenue of the Volcanoes was completely clear and we could see the bustling sprawl of Quito nearly an hour to the North, the neighboring volcanoes Corazon and Ruminahe, and massive hills of green velvet...the giant fluid dark shadows of clouds overhead moving across massive green velvet hills of grass. Later in the day, several llamas ran up to Mom within three feet of her, their silky cream and chocolate fur rustling in the wind and reminding me a bit (and not suprisingly) of the giant snow creatures in "Star Wars." We ate wild blueberries along the trail and laid in the grass for our lunchbreak eating bananas and sandwiches watching Caracara birds flying overhead.

The summit was gorgeous...a giant crag of volcanic rock pushing out from the earth like the backbone of a giant sleeping dragon...we could see for hundreds of miles in all directions. A group of American climbers and high altitude junkies made it up a bit after us...they were a boisterous group led by a famous climber, Phil Ershler, who's summited all seven peaks around the world and is one of the directors of International Mountain Guides based in Washington.

In the distance, we heard the engine of an ultralight and were lucky enough to see a friend of his, a famous Ecuadorean photographer, circling his way up towards them to do a fly-over greeting to them on their summit.

On our way back down the mountain, we watching the ultralight following the group of Americans making their way down. As I was filming him it looked like he was flying super close to the ground but I figured he must have experience flying in the mountains. A few minutes later Mom--who was walking behind me--let out a yelp.

"What?" I yelled back to her.

"I heard a really bad sound," she answered. "it was like the sound of an engine going ´bzzzzzzzzzzzz´ and then ´poof.´ It didn't sound good."

We came around the corner and looked at a faraway slope of the volcano to the West and saw the immobile fluorescent orange wings of the ultralight. The Americans on the path below us started yelling out to their friend. We didn't see any movement at first but heard some calls back later on. We could see several hikers on the opposite slope running down towards the crash site.

We were too far away to help. A wooded, steep canyon seperated us from the other mountainside and we knew that the other group's guide would have cell phones.

A few hours later, we came across the other group's guides running back to the crash site. The pilot was okay but the woman with him had probably broken her leg. I wanted so much to go back with them and help but I had left my first aid kit back at the hacienda and was way too tired to make it back up and across a wooded canyon on the other side of the volcano.

As we were driving back to the hacienda, we saw a helicopter flying back towards the crash site. On the news that night, we saw that both the pilot and the woman survived and were in stable condition.

Funny how quickly a day in the mountains can turn bad so quickly.

Our guide told us stories of several deaths recently. Several lightning strikes on Pinchinchi recently which have killed around five people in the past month. We heard more stories about mountain climbing accidents the next day....

Day II: Las Ilinazas 17,272 feet

So this is when we started to realize that we were gettng completely sandbagged by the guides, the women who work for the agency in Quito and have never done these climbs before, and whichever person was in charge of writing out the pamphlets for the agency's tours...the bastards.

When I woke up on Day II, I was exhausted from the day before. I've forgotten often on this trip that I suffered from fatigue and health problems for around seven months of this past year so I really should be happy with all the hiking we've done already.

My calves, my neck, my whole back were in pain and it felt like hundreds of rubber bands were tied to either end of my calves stretching them apart. I didn't want to get up at 5:45 and hike anymore, let alone climb 4,000 feet above 13,000 in altitude in possibly bad mountain weather and only three days before we're supposed to hike to over 19,000 feet in the middle of the night on a glacier.

From the very beginning of the hike, I felt exhausted. The thing about fatigue is that once you burn through your reserves, you feel completely depleted. Every step was a labor for me and I could feel my life force spiralling out of me. It wasn't the altitude that was hurting me...I had no headaches and I wasn't dizzy and my pulse would slow down as soon as we stopped climbing...but my energy was completely gone. Every footstep was a battle between my body and my mind. The only thing that kept me going was my fierce desire to feel like we had achieved something that day. I wanted to make some sort of a goal I could work towards so I focused on the refuge (15,400 or so feet).

From the beginning of the day, Mom and I realized that making the summit of the North Face of the Ilinizas (17,272 on an exposed face with some climbing) was beyond our reach. It was simply too much to climb/hike two volcanoes two days in a row. We had spent seven hours of the previous day hiking steep trails at high altitude and here we were expected to do an even higher one right afterwards.

Secondly, I had done a bit of research about Las Ilinizas and discovered that many guiding agencies recommend that you hike halfway to the refuge, spend the night, then make the summit the next day. We had never been presented with this option and, although the climb may be straightforward to the Ecuadorean guides, it was a lot for us to make the summit in one day.

The moment, however, when we knew we had truly been sandbagged climbing Las Ilinizas was when our guide, Luis, pulled out some rope, harnesses, and climbing helmets at the trailhead.

We had been told in Quito that this climb wouldn't be technical (like Cotopaxi which requires ice axes, ropes, and crampons) and that it would be an easy hike up and back.


So we set our sights on the refuge which at arpund 15,500 feet, is more than halfway to the summit. Luis also told us that it was only about two hours away.


As I said, every step was a labor for me and as we climbed higher (thank god we could't see anything in front of us or how high we had to climb) we heard more and more of the truth about the Ilinizas coming out.

"Sinceramente," Luis confided in me..."this climb is much harder in my opinion than Cotopaxi is."

Great, thanks for the warning from the guide agency.

He also told us how dangerous lightning storms are late in the day and shared on our way home that there's a metal bar somewhere near the North Summit that sizzles and crackles in electric storms. Several Ecuadoreans recently died from lightning strikes on a neighboring volcano.

We also found out that one of Luis's best friends was recently guiding a tourist like ourselves and had a horrible accident close to the North Summit on the rock climbing section. The tourist fell and took the guide with him. The guide fell below the tourist and the tourist grabbed a rock, then threw it down on the guide (Luis isn't sure why). The guide dislocated his knee and fractured his pelvis and won't be able to work for a year.

All this on what was described to us as an "easy but exhilerating scramble."

Lastly, all but one of the climbers we ran into or knew were there to climb the North Summit had chosen to go to the refuge for the night and do the summit the next day...not try to attempt it all in one day...which was being asked of us.

So that said, we set our sights on making it to the refugio...which we thought would be a fairly moderate hike.

Another bullshit.

Mom started out really strong and was super patient waiting on me to take several breaks. My body just didn't want to hike, exercise, or move. She and Luis were superstars with their patience. I really hit a lowpoint when he kept saying "another forty minutes" and all I could see was a mountain climbing upwards...

At this altitude, the vegetation really starts to change and becomes the "paramo," characterized by clumps of waist high grass, and wind and cold resistant plants that look primordial. Mist and clouds climbed the mountainside around us twisting and curling around itself like dancing smoke...it felt like a beautifully morose, mysterious and deadly place. A place that you visit but you don't want to hang out in for long.

Within minutes the temperature seemed to drop and my icy fingers struggled for a grip on my walking stick. As the clouds moved in, we could barely see more than ten or fifteen feet away but enough to see the drop off to our right...the wind howled sideaways and blew tiny ice crystals into our bareskin like tiny pricking daggers.

I hit my lowest low when I realized I couldn't go any further. My body was just shutting down. Luis and Mom kept trying to talk me into having Luis carry my pack and I finally relented with humiliation. I knew it was the only way I could go up anymore.

As someone who has guided for years and someone who has had to help other people carry loads, this was particularly hard on my ego and pride but I was eternally grateful to Luis and really wanted to make it to the refugio and feel like we had accomplished something that day, if not the summit.

As we continued onward, Mom's fear of heights kicked in and she became more and more quiet as we battled the wind and tried not to get too close to the edge of the face. If we were only at around 15,000 feet and it was nearly whited out I couldn't imagine how cold and exposed the summit must be.

All those mountaineering books I've relished reading over the years about bivouacking on Everest or getting caught in storms on Annapurna had always sounded so adventurous but when you're at high altitude struggling to stay warm and put one foot in front of the other, somehow the glamour is lost. There are times when I'd prefer to just read about it.

After three and a half hours with several breaks (note: guide said it would take us two) we made it to the humble orange painted concrete refugio. Thank God!

When we stumbled into the concrete building (which was almost as cold as it was outside...we could see our breath when we spoke), I felt demoralized and brutalized by the wind, cold, and fatigue of my body.

We sat around an old table drinking cups of Ecuadorean hot chocolate. Inside the room were stuffed several bunk beds, a small kitchen where an Ecuadorean guy was posted for a week at a time to cook for guests, and the table and benches where climbers would all commune for their dinner or breakfast. Several sleeping bags were out on the beds signaling a climbing group from England who were making their bid for the South Face on one day and the North Face on the other day.

Neither of which were in our cards this time around.

We ate our sandwiches, took our pictures, and drained our cups of hot chocolate....limping back outside to make our way down the mountainside.

As the sun broke through the clouds sometime that afternoon, Luis pointed out the North Face of Las Ilinizas...it looked cold, foreboding, and exposed and I was very glad we were on our way home and not on our way to the top. At least not this time.

I kept thinking of something this wise Israeli guy once told us when we were all hiking together in Nepal to Everest Base Camp. We were talking about what a challenge it was for us all just to reach base camp at around 18,400 feet or so and how wild that for Everest Climbers, base camp was only the beginning of their struggle.

"To each his own Everest," he said.

I kept thinking of those words and how important it continues to be to acknowledge my own limits, to respect my body's needs, and to honor what I've accomplished without comparing myself to others.

Tomorrow we head to the lodge on the slopes of Cotopaxi. At midnight, we'll be suiting up in crampons and heading towards the summit. Whatever happens, I just want to enjoy the adventure with Mom and make sure we both make it back safely.

Hope you're all workng towards your own Everests-

Wish us luck and wisdom-

much love,
Rachel and Karen