Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ecuador Tales V: Mangoes, Limones, and Gloria Gaynor

January 30th, 2010
Vilcabamba, Ecuador
(close to the Peruvian border)

As our trip comes to a sleepy close, we're trying to soak up as much of the South's calm as we can before heading back to our respective homes. By design, the last ten days of our trip together since Steve arrived have consisted of long, restful days, peaceful walks, strolling through artesan mercados, and diving into expat culture.

Around a week ago, we flew to the southern colonial city of Cuenca, situated like Quito...among the Andes. I could tell immediately that Cuenca was going to become one of my favorite Latin American towns. A bit reminiscent of Oaxaca City and San Miguel de Allende, Cuenca's well-preserved old city has been declared a World Heritage Site because of its rich architecture. Wide streets paved with foot wide hand cut stone blocks and framed by two-story high colonial architecture...balconies, wooden shuttered windows, giant arched doorways and facades in muted turquoise, mustard, tangerine, cocoa, and avocado green evoking romantic images of Latin American culture. The main plaza is one of the most immaculately kept I've seen in a while....a foot high iron fence protecting lush gardens and leafy trees. On Sundays, families and gringos come here to visit a local ice cream shop...strolling through the plaza eating scoops of pistacchio, coconut, and chocolate ice cream sprinkled with fresh moras, strawberries, and chopped nuts. Every now and then you can hear the clip clopping of a horse-drawn carriage carrying young couples along the streets. Along the West side of the plaza is a row of archways where artists from Colombia, Guatemala, and Ecuador spread out their meticulously hand-made necklaces and earrings made from albaca (a lower grade silver) wrapped around semi-precious stones like crisacola, quartz, and turquoise...macramed earrings and necklaces in the shapes of butterflies and lizards, bracelets woven from horsehair, and loads of jewelry fashioned from hand-dyed and carved tagua (known as vegetable ivory) nuts in bright lime, orange, lemon meringue, and cherry. On weekend nights, buskers play folk music on accordions and guitars for street audiences and a group of Colombians dance with flags, ride unicycles, and perform to their own folk music played on drums and guitars.

We spent most of our time there strolling the streets and dreaming of our next meal. Out of all the food I've had in Ecuador, ironically, the most inspiring to me were the areipas that we found in a local, tiny, but extremely popular Colombian Restaurant called Cafe Moliendo. Areipas are thick corn pancakes (with lots of butter!) that are lightly fried then topped with a variety of high carb, filling personal favorite was the Areipa Ranchera which was topped with a slightly sweet, spicy ground beef mixture, slow-cooked pinto beans, and some crumbled queso. I can't wait to get home and try making these babies! They reminded me of a Colombian version of a Navajo Fried Taco...a carb-lover's delight! Other areipas are topped with fried eggs, fried plantains, slow cooked pork and beef, and lightly cooked fried vegetables. We also had fresh mora (blackberry) and papaya juice and a great horchada-like drink made of milk and cinnamon called Avena.

From Cuenca, we spent a LONG day of riding local buses (more on that later) to the rather remote destination of Vilcabamba (about fifty miles North of the Peruvian border). A relatively small town of Ecuadoreans and expats from around the world, Vilcabamba is set in a subtropical, lush valley surrounded by verdant hills and a sacred mountain (that reminds Mom and I quite a bit of the mountain overlooking Sedona). Our hospedaje Izhcayluma (pronounced eeshkailooma) has a million dollar view of the valley of Vilcabamba. Our rooms (about $15 per person with breakfast) have private patios and hammocks. Every morning we wake up to the steady chorus of songbirds and a rather unhappy donkey hee-hawing down the road. The stone pathways at Izhcayluma meander past whimsical blends of poppies, lemon yellow trumpet flowers, african violet trees, and luscious stands of palms and tropical trees. The moon has been nearly full this week and casts an other-worldly light over the whole valley.

We've been fortunate enough to socialize quite a bit with expatriates living here thanks to a friend of Steve's who has been living here for a couple of years now. The expatriate community of Americans, Japanese, Swiss, French, Chilean, German seems to be composed of artists, musicians, and truth-seekers who want to experience slower paced lives with more personal freedom and further away from the reaches of their increasingly Draconian governments. The Americans whom we've met here have been incredibly welcoming and highly aware individuals....we spent one night drinking wine, fresh passionfruit screwdrivers, and eating coconut macaroons and fresh pasta salad talking politics, of living abroad, and then ended the night with a raucous jam session of several guitar players, a few drummers, a trumpet player from the East Coast, harmonica, and cowbell...singing to Bob Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash, and Joni Mitchell.

My last inebriated memory was of riding in the back of a pick-up truck trying to remember all the words to Gloria Gaynors Ï Will Survive while one Romanian man--dressed in ä vest and camo hat that made him look eerily like Che Guevarra--belted out his favorite Muppets' Tune.

Ahh, the surreal moments of travel!

One of our favorite discoveries has been finding one of the best Mexican restaurants (El Jardin Escondido) we've recently come across outside of Mexico. Run by a Mexican man and woman, all of their food is made from scratch, many of the ingredients are brought back personally from Mexico. And just in case you're wondering what the big deal is with finding Mexican food in South America, let me just say that tortillas are not a South American food like they are in Central America and it's difficult to find really good beans in Ecuador here like you find in Central America. Mexican food is one of the cuisines I miss the most when I'm traveling (I could live on beans and rice for weeks!). Ecuadorian food is largely composed of chicken, pork, and beef accompanied with potatoes and or rice...a lot of the regional dishes are also based around deeply fried component. El Jardin has homemade mole negro enchiladas made with chocolate and spices, hand rolled corn torillas, perfectly seasoned tortilla soup with fresh lime juice, thick hearty tortilla chips, guacamole, and a perfectly made cold arroz con leche pudding lightly flavored with cinnamon.

So enough about food. We head back to Quito for some last minute shopping before catching our flight back to the U.S. Although it is near the end of our journey here in Ecuador, this wont be my last blog about Ecuador. I still have so much to share and process about our trip thus far so stay tuned for some upcoming stories including a list of bad bus journeys...

much love,
Rachel, Karen, and Steve

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ecuador Tales IV: Riding The Throat Of Fire

January 23rd, 2010
Quito, Ecuador

Attempting Cotopaxi....the "Throat of Fire"

Day IV/Day V
There's an aspect of masochism to mountain climbing that I don't quite resonate with.. I just don't find it's worth risking my health or safety for. It's so romantic reading about Ed Viesturs climbing Everest without oxygen or Anatoli Boukreev rescuing his fellow climbers late in the night during a white-out but it's easy to romanticize when you're not hypoxic, freezing your ass off, and fighting sixty-mile per hour winds on the side of a glacier in the middle of the night...

The morning of our scheduled Cotopaxi climb (world's highest snow-capped active volcano in the world at around 19,347 feet) started out on a really hectic, strange note. We hadn't showered in two days and spent forty minutes trying to get the hacienda to switch propane tanks for us. When we headed out to the shed with two Swiss-French girls who were also scheduled to climb the same night with us, none of the special crampon boots (that were supposed to be of the highest quality and keep us warm in subzero temperatures for eight hours of high altitude climbing) fit any of us. They were all worn out and varying of the Swiss girls who's a serious climber was practically in tears with fury at the equipment. Then we rented sleeping bags for the refuge that were also supposed to be good enough to sleep at 15,500 feet in winter weather...hah! They looked like cheap imitations of one-inch thick L.L. Bean sleeping bags maybe warm enough for a summer night camping trip in the backyard. Mom and I packed two of them each (and later slept in all of our clothes to stay warm!).

When we came back inside, we found a friend of ours passed out on the couch looking like death warmed over. This young Australian guy we had met a day earlier was supposed to have climbed Cotopaxi the night before us and for some reason he was back at the hacienda several hours early. Formerly vibrant and charismatic, he was pale and motionless, with his arms crossed over his chest like the dead. We realized he was extremely sick and had just been deposited there at the hacienda and abandoned by his guide. I was pissed! We woke him up and figured out what had happened. He is an experienced climber and had been summitting several peaks in Peru and Bolivia and was supposed to climb Cotopaxi the night before us. As soon as he got to the refuge (at around 15,500 feet) he started vomiting uncontrollably. A Canadian girl who was at the refuge the same night later told me that at first he was just a little sick but by midnight he was pale and completely weak, throwing up every fifteen minutes. Mark told us (in broken words and a weak voice) that his guide refused to take him back down and drive him back to the hacienda (it's a one hour walk down to the car and a two-hour drive back to the hacienda at 9,000 feet), saying it was "too cold." Bullshit. When someone isn't acclimating and they're weak, can't walk, and are throwing up uncontrollably, you have to take them down in altitude or they will get sicker and it can progress to cerebral or pulmonary edema and they can die if they're not treated.

As a new friend of his, my mother and I were pissed. But as someone who's guided on and off for the past 13 years, I was especially chafed that a professional mountain guide would be so negligent in the face of something dangerous and would then deposit him and abandon him.

I fixed him a diluted electrolyte mixture with some flavoring and brought him a wastebasket then told everyone at the hacienda including our guide that they needed to watch over him and make sure he kept drinking liquids. We gave him a banana and soda crackers to eat for when we could later start drinking solids. From talking to him, we both agreed he didn't have cerebral edema, which I do have meds for as well. Mostly, he needed rest and hydration.

Frustrated by the morning and the inadequacies of his guide, we piled into an old Toyota truck with our guide Ñato, the two Swiss-French girls (more on that later), and their guide, Lobo (it means "wolf!"). Fortunately, both of the guides seemed to be much more attentive and professional than Mark's had been. We drove for two hours--inhaling the fumes from a gas leak somewhere inside the truck and talking through the cloud of dust that swirled through the vents whenever we passed another car--towards Cotopaxi and ended up on this gorgeous, expansive, and barren highland plateau surrounded by volcanoes. The wind was screaming through the valley and clouds were swirling around the top of Cotopaxi's icy. There's something about the windswept open spaces of the Tibetan plateau, the Himalayan valleys, and the Atacama Desert that appeal to my inner poet and feel so utterly familiar and exhilerating. So few things can live at that altitude but there's a screaming sense of liberty that I feel in those spaces.

We climbed up as high as possible in the truck where we had to shoulder our backpacks and begin the one hour march up the side of Cotopaxi's steep gravel slopes. I grunted when I swung my backpack was loaded way to heavy with gear at around 45 or 50 pounds (which is a lot to carry at high altitude). An ice axe, mountaineering boots, two crappy but heavy sleeping bags, lots of water and snacks, several layers of fleece, a gortex jacket, gloves and mittens, hat, gators for the snow, a climbing harness (what the frick were we getting into anyway?!), and snow pants all were either stuffed into my backpack or swung to and fro with every step up.

In front of us, the clouds parted for a rare moment to reveal the glacier and snow-capped summit of Cotopaxi and behind us the valley spread out in cinematic beauty, the distant snow covered Antesanos, and a wide valley of rough toffee, avocado, and rust textures....

We were huffing and puffing with every step upwards, reminded of the agony of climbing mountains in hypoxic environments...part of me exhilerated by the prospect of pushing my body's limits and having the opportunity to commune with the giants and the other part of me wondering how I could so easily forget the misery of hiking under the weight of a full back in the barren cold while dirty and tired.

The refugio (15,500 feet) was a simple, rustic concrete building with bunk beds on the upper floor and tables and chairs and a kitchen that the guides used on the lower floor. Mountain refuges tend to be very basic structures which provide a little bit of comfort at high altitude in brutal weather but, which in the context of any other place on earth, would be complete dives and places to be avoided. There is no heat and no comfort save the hot tea in hand and the company of other trekkers suffering the same hardships. There is something very bonding about seeking the same difficult circumstances as others...over the years, Mom and I have made our best friends under similar circumstances...there's an intimacy of suffering that city travel can never compete with.

As we feasted on the most incredibly nourishing supper I could have imagined in such a depraved place (grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and carrots with fresh herbs, boiled potatoes, and a scrumptious, hearty vegetable soup) we saw several other climbers straggling in from the bottom and prepping for summiting that night as well. All but one of them were men...many of them walking in wearing professional clothing and climbing gear, speaking in French and German, looking to be in their 30s and 40s, their faces sunburnt and weathered, grisled with beards, and characterized by that intense focused stare only seen in men whose sole passion is to climb mountains and put themselves in harm's way as miserably as possible. They reminded me of the kind of men that climb Everest and K2 and for them, Cotopaxi was a baby hike to them...a training hike if you will.

Mom and I hunkered more deeply in our soup throwing each other's glances that said, "What the frick are we doing here with these people?" and feeling way in over our heads.

Our guide Ñato decided that Mom and I should get up at 11 p.m. that night for a midnight departure (an hour earlier than the Swiss girls and most of the other climbers). He had surmised from our pace up to the refuge that we would go more slowly than the others and wanted to give us a headstart. The whole reason climbers leave in the middle of the night is that the coldest part of the day is during the middle of the night. Once the sun comes up, it begins melting the ice and increases the risk of avalanches. The idea was to begin in the middle of the night and hike for 6-8 hours up the glacier until we summited at sunrise then made a two hour descent.

Mom and I went to bed at around 7 p.m. our bellies full. We were both excited and apprehensive about the night ahead of us. We still hadn't had a chance to learn anything about how to use an ice axe to arrest a fall, how to walk properly in crampons, or how far apart we would be tied to Ñato or in what order but we both trusted him and knew we'd have a chance when we started climbing.

We climbed into our super skinny L.L. Bean knock-off bags with all of our clothes on (long underwear, fleece pants, socks, down vests, and hats) just to stay warm. We slept a few hours as comfortably as can be expected when you know you have to wake up at midnight and put on a bunch of gear, snow boots that don't fit, climbing harness and wield an ice axe.

Around 10 p.m. or so I awoke to the sound of wind howling around the surfaces of the refuge. Whether in my mind or not, the wind only seemed to grow. I got up to go the bathroom outside and the sky was clear and brilliant with stars but the wind was only growing in strength. It was freezing outside and I went back inside to hide inside of my sleeping bag. I felt fine with the altitude...I didn't have any headaches or dizziness or difficulty sleeping at that altitude which can be characteristic of AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness). As I lied there, the wind only grew in strength, it was rattling the windows and the roof ominously, and I shrunk deeper and deeper into my sleeping bag. I had expended so much energy during the days prior...climbing Pasochoa and then hiking to the refuge of Las Ilinizas. My mind felt clear but my body still felt like it hadn't completely recovered.The wind chill brings the temperatures down either further, makes it difficult to get secure footing on the ice and snow, and exhausts the body even more than usual.

I knew that eight hours of climbing at around 16-19,000 feet altitude in high winds and bitter cold would require much more energy than I had used in the week previous and it might be enough to set back my health after I had so recently begun recovering. I realized then that the best thing would be to not go.

The proud part of me started to hope that Mom and I might have an excuse not to go. That one of us might have that creeping headache that signals an AMS migraine or that one of us might have stomach cramps from impending food poisoning...nothing so bad that we would be really sick but just enough of an excuse not to climb.

I saw her get out of her sleeping bag and creep over to me with her headlamp.
Maybe she doesn't feel well, I thought hopefully.

She leaned down by my bunk and whispered to me. "Do you feel okay?"

"Yes," I answered with disappointment. "I'm fine with the altitude. What about you."

"I feel great."

My heart sank.

She paused for a moment, laughter in her voice.
"So are we really gonna do this?"

I realized this was my window and that my mother had been thinking all the same things I had. That it was fricking freezing out there, that we had struggled enough and accomplished enought that week, and that the wind was growing in strength and was only going to add to the misery of the climb that night. And most importantly, she didn't want to go either (note: she is very vulnerable to cold air and smog and recently came down with a nasty case of pneumonia last September while trekking in Nepal).

"NO. HELL NO!" I answered.

"Thank god. I'm so relieved. I would have gone just so you didn't to go alone but I don't want to either. It sounds miserable out there."

We talked about what we might regret but neither of us could come up with a good excuse to actually start the climb that night. Reaching the summit wasn't worth our health and our bodies were begging us for rest. We talked to Ñato, who was absolutely understanding, and went back to sleep just as the rest of the climbers began preparing their gear.

By six a.m. the winds had picked up and were howling like mad. We went outside to investigate and were absolutely relieved we had the made the choice we did. The summit and the whole climb was completely exposed and would be even more brutal higher up. Mom estimated (from living in a notoriously windy part of the mountains in Flagstaff) that they were 50-60 mile per hour winds. I couldn't imagine how miserable it would be for the climbers right then.

We watched around 7 a.m. as some of the climbers were making their way down the glacier. To our surprise, out of all those griseled looking mountain men, the two Swiss Girls were the first to summit Cotopaxi! The only other girl in the group, a sweet Canadian, was the fifth to make it. All the women looked surprisingly chipper when they came back.

The second two climbers were identical twins guys in their 20s with bright red hair and beards....they were flush from the cold, their backpacks covered in frost, and they nearly collapsed in silence as they dumped their gear on the floor and fell onto a bench. Neither one of them spoke when we congratulated them. A few minutes later when Mom and I looked over at them, one of them had passed out at the table. The other looked deflated, grim, and exhausted. There was no happiness...only exhaustion. The rest of the climbers slowly filtered in over the next hour; the guides strutted in whistling as if to announce, "piece of cake! Look at how strong I am!" A few of the guides seemed to take pride in racing each other to either the top of the bottom and then showing off how "easy" it was. The foreigners who were climbing it for the first time slowly straggled in, looking much more tired and frost bitten. Mom noticed how grim they all were, even the gnarly looking mountain climbers with foreign accents. The German guy and the Canadian girl later told me on our hike down how scary it was walking along the side of the glacier in the dark along a narrow path as they heard the ice crackling and breaking off. The German guy said he was absolutely exhausted.

We made our way back to the car and piled into the eau de gas Toyota for our long journey back to the hacienda.

As we enjoyed our mint tea and a fresh set of clothes that weren't covered in dust from the journey and didn't smell like truck exhaust, an older American from Colorado came into the hacienda and shared a story of his own.

The same night we had been on Cotopaxi, he had attempted a summit of Chimborozo (the highest volcano in Ecuador). It was unusually warm that night (very different conditions that the ones we had on Cotopaxi). The trick with climbing is that you want somewhat good weather so it's not completely miserable but if it's too warm the ice can start melting.
He and his guide Jose had stopped for a sip of water around midnight just before they were to start climbing the glacier when they suddenly heard the explosion and crashing of an avalanche. In the darkness, they both saw the sparks above them as the giant boulders tumbled down the mountain and bounced off of the gravel slope. His guide Juan had run down the mountain and saw a large backpack size boulder tumbling straight towards the climber and just as it came to him, went around him and then continued down the mountain. The climber could feel the whoosh of wind as it passed within inches of his life.

They both decided that climbing anymore would be foolish that night. It was only getting warmer and the ice would be giving way even more. They had gotten a warning already. The climber had given up his bid for the summit but came out of it with his life. Later that night, they heard another explosion and then rumbling...the floorboards of the refuge were shaking violently. Somewhere above them, the glacier had calved or more rocks had been loosened and were raising the level of the creek outside. They were relieve they had listened to their instincts.

I have to believe that, in the end, our lives are guided by a mixture of our instincts, wisdom, our higher power, and a bit of good luck.

Cotopaxi isn´t going anywhere. Mom and I both pushed our comfort zones this week, have had many incredible adventures on this trip, and feel more bonded than ever in our support and respect of each other (she's been the oldest of anyone we've come across in the mountains by around twenty years!). We've upped the bar for what we can do and next time we'll push even harder. There are times, I am learning, when it's more important to adjust your expectations and to listen to your body's needs than it is to achieve something at the risk of your health and safety. Plus, there's always maÑana!

Hoping you're all doing well and in good health-

much love,
Raquelita and Mama Chihuahua

P.S. Tonight Steve comes in to join us for the last leg of our travels...we're going to rest and relax as we stroll the barrios of the colonial city of Cuenca, enjoy the artesan markets, and then hike and visit friends in Vilcabamba...

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'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 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 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

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Ecuador Tales II: Llamas, Volcanoes, and Fedoras

January 16th, 2010
Near Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador

I'm sitting in a 150-year old hacienda once owned by Simon Bolivar's grandson...listening to Spanish music....while Mom sits outside on the porch reading P.J. O'rourke.

We thought it would be a perfect introduction to the Ecuadorean Andes to trek through the mountains and Quichua villages of the Quilotoa Region....we took a local bus from Quito down to Latacunga and then into a remote region that can only be accessed by local buses (more on that later). As we traveled higher and higher, the landscape spread out into open grasslands and patchwork quilts of fields of potatoes. uchua men and women would hop off the bus and head to their homes, often simple structures in the middle of fields where alpaca and sheep grazed. Traditionally dressed Quichua men wear dark pants with wool ponchos and felt fedora hats with ribbon bands and a feather plume of some bird like a peacock. The women wear similar fedora-like hats, gold earrings and gold beaded collar necklaces, colorful shawls, knee-length velvet skirts embroidered with flowers, white tights, and tiny little loafers. Their long black hair is often tied back with thick woven sashes in pinks, oranges, and reds.

We arrived in the famous Quichua village of Quilotoa which is situated along a giant crater lake that is rumored to be bottomless and 13,000 feet, mountain weather is mercurial and we suffered from freezing rain throughout the first whole day. The weather only added to my grim impression of the town. It felt like a collision of cultures along this frontier where subsistence Quichua farming meets tourism...Quilotoa had a depressive, strange feel to hostals and handfulls of men trying to sell us their paintings and offering their guide services to us for our trek...we called them "gentle mosquitoes." They were kind but looking for money.

Fortunately, we were able to hide out from the weather with several farmers by a hot woodfire sipping cups of strawberry tea and talking to a motley crew of other trekkers by candlelight (the region was experiencing forced power outtages everynight due to an energy crisis)...a hilarious group of guys from Italy, France, Canada, England, Germany, and America...Mom and I were by far the oldest in the group. Included in our room price ($15/person) was a family-style dinner that Petrona, one of the owners of the hostal, provided for us.....a banquet of vegetable soup served in giant wooden bowl and accompanied by giant wooden spoons, smashed fried plantains, steamed potatoes, broccoli, rice, and chicken breast that had been rolled and stuffed with spinach, cheese, and various unidentifiable herbs but scrumptious! For dessert we enjoyed the surprisingly sweet new dessert, "tomates de arbol," a sweet type of tomato that's been stewed in its own juices.

In the morning, we set out for an incredibly gorgeous trek that quickly became one of the steepest and most gruelling we've experienced in a while....we hiked along the spine of Quilotoa crater and had the opportunity to see the Illinazas in a break in the of the volcanoes we're going to try and climb this week. It felt so good to get out of the town of Quilotoa and be hiking in the mountains again...the views couldn't have been more spectacular...the lake is a deep emerald and then sapphire depending on the lights coming through...and the steep rock faces reminded me of Big Bend and the Chisos Mountains along the Texas-Mexico border.
Once we made it halfway around the crater we descended the back of the ridge and saw the mountains spreading out into a series of valleys and vast canyons caused by erosion over thousands of years. We walked beneath pine trees, eucalyptus trees, past fields of blooming potato plants, lupine, and Quichua farmers working their fields.
The landscape was brilliant, a mosaic of lush fields, occasional trees, and farms dotted with sheep, cows, pigs, goats, chickens, and a few alpaca. We walked past the ruins of an old hacienda and a parade of young Quichua children walking to school.

As we descended deeper into a steep canyon, we passed a young man and woman herding sheep along a cliff face as the man played a flute either for his own or the sheep's enjoyment! The scenery was stunning but the hiking was treacherous. We made our way down about 1500 feet of a super steep trail cut into the cliff face with next to no switchbacks....Mom kept calling the trail "one sick joke" and swore she would never trek again (familiar words)...fortunately we never hit our low points at the same time...mine came later when we got into the next town.

After six long hours we made it to a little eden nestled along a small mountain overlooking the valley. We were so tired when we got into the little town of Chugchilan that Mom didn't even notice that our room had two bedrooms or that it's by far one of the cutest hostals we've stayed in for a while.

Run by a silver-haired woman who wears her hair in long braids and looks more Native American than Quichua, Mama Hilda's is made up of several adobe and brick buildings with cute little wooden-framed windows, hammocks, gardens, and a stellar view of the outlying valley and mountains. We stayed there for three nights taking a few smaller hikes to the local school's soccer match and then to a neighboring village where we befriended a sweet little burro and tried to tame a rather skittish alpaca tied up to someone's tree.

Mama Hilda's became a home away from home for us. We feasted on the most incredibly tasty, homemade food that her young workers Marta and Mayra cooked....slow-cooked chicken in a tomato sauce, beef, the most creamy, buttery mashed potatoes that I've ever had (potatoes come from the Andes originally and they have over 1,000 different varieties there...much more flavorful that our spuds), fresh salads of avocado, tomato, and lettuce drizzled in sweet lime, homemade dumpling soup, pasta soup with fresh herbs and vegetables, and homemade pastries made by a local Italian woman (lucky all those who live there!).

We spent a day or two just lazing away in our hammocks and reading our books knowing that this next week is going to be the most challenging yet.

We've signed up for a five-day mountain climbing acclimatization trip during which we´ll be climbing three super high volcanoes (15-17,000 feet) with the finale being Cotopaxi (20,000 feet and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world)...

Holy shit, I don't know what we were thinking when we signed up for this but we're going to give it a shot and try to go as slow as possible-

all our love,
Rach and Karen

Friday, January 08, 2010

Ecuador Tales I: "Gringas In The Mist"

Saturday, January 8th
Quito, Ecuador
Altitude: 9,000 feet

"Where everything is possible and nothing is easy."

Since landing in the second highest capital in the world, Quito (9,000 feet), we've been falling more in love with Ecuador every day. The people have been amazingly warm and proud of their country. The capital is really tranquilo and easy to get around whether by foot, taxi or bus. Food and lodging are really inexpensive...our private room and bathroom only costs $10 and we can eat a meal for under $5 each.

Ecuador has been a perfect choice for our trip this year....while it's a small country for South America (it's around the size of New Zealand) it has an incredible variety of climates within only several hours away...the coastal plains, tropical forest, cloud forest, a portion of the Amazon basin, the Galapagos Islands, and the crowning glory of the Andes which stretches right down through the middle of the country. Named a biological hotspot, this little country contains some of the largest diversity of plant, animal, and insect life in the world. They have 1600 different species of birds (more than all the birds found in North American and Europe combined!).

In addition to their physical diversity, Ecuador is home to over a dozen different ethnic groups who speak at least twenty different languages. Around a quarter of all Ecuadoreans are Quichua and speak Quichua as their first language.

Gringas In The Mist

Although we would like to spend the majority of our trip here exploring the mountains we thought it might be fun to go for a sojourn into the cloud rainforest for a few days to acclimate and chill before we start hiking, trekking, and climbing our butts off at altitude. We signed up for a super cool trip to stay in a small, humble cabana several hours from here called "Cocoa Lodge." The small cabana is nestled along a river and a two hectar tropical fruit farm and is run by Ecuadorean Gabriel and his wife Maira. Together they have six young kids who run around the farm like wild monkeys and are so adorably cute that Mom teased Maira about stealing the littlest one away in her pocket. Although Gabriel and Maira don't have alot of money, their kids seem to have such an incredible quality of life there eating fresh foods grown organically, running around barefoot through the selva, playing with their dog and cat, and giggling as they swing across the river.

It took a day or so to get acclimated to the extreme mugginess, heat, and heavy rains that come through in the afternoon but life is super tranquilo there and the experience was unforgettable. We laid in hammocks and listened to the rain crashing down on the palm thatched roof, drank fresh melon and pineapple juice, swam in the river with Gabriel's adorable kids, learned how chocolate is made from cacao beans grown on the finca (farm), carved and sanded our own rings made from a palm nut, and walked for hours through a tropical fruit farm sampling over a dozen different fruits cut straight off the tree by Gabriel and his ever-trusted machete...starfruit, the floral essence of pera australiano, Ecuadorean pineapple, fresh coconut water drunk right out of a green coconut, the sweetest orange I've ever tasted, limes, mandarin limes, starfruit, the outer sweet flesh of a cacao bean (before the bean is fermented in the chocolate process), coffee beans (too bitter to eat), giant toronjas (grapefruit), slivers of green mangoes which taste like a cross between a Granny Apple and a barely right mango, Arasha which reminded us of a lemon with a chalky aftertaste, and coca leaves which I chewed on for energy when the heat started to wilt me (they're supposedly really good for acclimating at altitude as well).

The Food, Oh The Food!

For several days we feasted on the best food I've yet had in Ecuador (much of the typical comida here includes intestines and multiple parts of chickens, pigs, and cows which is then deep fried and mixed with rice, potatoes, or yucca). Gabriel's wife (who is as tiny as a doll and looks to be about 13 years old but is almost 30) created these fantastic meals which were largely vegetarian and often starred fruits grown on their finca...fresh squeezed juices (melon, pineapple, tomate de arbol, limon), broccoli empanados (broccoli which has been rolled in egg and breadcrumbs then fried up until its so tender and crispy on the edges that it melts in your mouth and nearly caused a fight between Mom and I for the last pieces), fresh bits of banana, pineapple, and melon, fresh coffee grown on the farm without any chemicals, empanadas de verde (an Ecuadorean specialty in which a green plantain is fried, mashed up and rolled into an empanada dough, filled with cheese, and then fried), homemade salsa, pasta with steamed cauliflower, and pan de yucca (homemade bread made from mashed yucca, stuffed with cheese, then deep-fried).

The Art of Chocolate Making: From Bean To Table

One of our favorite moments was Gabriel's chocolate demonstration in which he taught us about the cultivation, fermentation, and process of cooking with chocolate. We took locally grown cacao beans, heated them over a burner for fifteen minutes, then separated the thin shells from the beans, and laboriously ground them in a chunky grinder until a thick, shiny cacao paste came through. It was bitter and dark and so fresh tasting. We mixed it on a stove with milk and panela (cane sugar) until it bubbled and thickened then we enjoyed bits of banana dunked into our very own homemade chocolate fondue. Mom moaned as she ate every bite and spent the following afternoon threatening to break into their kitchen to see if any other chocolate had been left behind.

Although Chocolate comes from MesoAmerica originally and was used by the Aztecs...Gabriel proudly claimed that the best chocolate in the world is made in Switzerland but that the best cacao beans in the world are grown in Ecuador! I have to agree that his chocolate fondue was incredibly rich and even more magical to taste when we'd been a part of its process from bean to table.

Though the tropics are not a place that are good to my body...I seem to suffer a lot from the heat, the cloying humidity, and the insect life (I have over 150 bug bites on both of my legs up to my thighs...and yes, I actually counted them!) is especially hard on me...the mosquitoes and little black flies think I'm some sort of postre...I enjoyed meeting Gabriel and his family and being reminded of how bountiful the rainforest can be and how magical it is to have such a close connection to where your food comes from. Gabriel has such pride living in the rainforest and having the opportunity to teach extranjeros about the different plants´culinary and medical uses. We couldn´t help but be caught up in his enthusiasm even if we were sweating like crazy and scratching our legs til they bled.

We're back in the cool, high altitude city of Quito again where we're getting the chance to make some red blood cells and prepare for our trekking at even higher altitudes. We're planning on trekking through a couple of Quichua villages in the Andes and then head to Cotopaxi National Park where we're going to take a high altitude mountain climbing course and try to summit three volcanoes (from 17,000-19,000 feet with snow and ice).

In the meantime, take care of yourselves and enjoy all the work that went into the chocolate you might be enjoying this week...and be thankful you're not living in a biodiversity hotspot that requires a litre of bugspray everyday....

con mucho amor,
Raquelita y Su Mama Chihuahua