Ecuador volcano fail times and lessons learned

I just got back from Ecuador and there’s some snowpocalypse happening outside right now so I figured I’d sit down and write this post about some volcano climbing fail times.  


View from the roof of the Basilica in Quito old town

The fail times for this trip began pretty early on.  David and I booked our flights and mountain guide back in early summer, and the original plan was to climb Cotopaxi.  Of course, Cotopaxi rudely decided to become active again only a few months after that, so our plans were already shot.  There are several other volcanos in Ecuador in the ~19,000 foot range, so after speaking with our guide company we decided to stay the course and climb one of the other volcanos instead.  Welp, as you can tell from the title of this post that didn’t exactly work out as planned, either.  But more on that later…


Cool smooshy plants that Rene called the Andes version of a cactus (PC: David)

We arrived in Ecuador last Sunday and pretty much immediately our mountain guide company went off our carefully planned acclimatization itinerary.  I tried to “go with the flow” but being on the OCD spectrum just meant that I was fretting about it the whole time 🙂


View of Antisana from the high pass between Quito and Papallacta

Instead of a hike, our first day became a bum around Quito day.  I was pretty apprehensive about exploring Quito as a gringo, since according to the internet, there is most likely someone waiting RIGHT OUTSIDE YOUR HOTEL WITH A KNIFE READY TO MUG YOU, NO SERIOUSLY, YOU WILL GET MUGGED.  Because of my paranoia, we carried about $10 total at any given time and practiced CONSTANT VIGILANCE.  Lo and behold, we were not mugged/pickpocketed/stabbed/etc.  I’d like to think it’s because of my mad street smarts and not just luck/internet exaggeration 😉


View from the top of the hill at the high pass

The next day we escaped the city to traipse around Antisana park.  Antisana is one of the ~19,000 foot volcanos on the backup volcano list, but there are hiking trails at about ~14,000 feet around the park and it’s a popular bird watching spot (we saw many a binoculared gringo).  We began hiking up to a viewpoint on a hill and I almost immediately felt like I was dying.  Thanks, altitude!  I wheezed up to the viewpoint and we walked around the lake until we lost the trail and had to bushwhack it back to the trailhead.  This was pretty exhausting if you’re unacclimatized at 14,000 ft, but we soon figured out bushwhacking would be a theme of this trip…

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Rucu Pichincha rainy fail times (PC: Rene)

On Wednesday the weather was foul but we planned to hike up Rucu Pichincha in the name of acclimatization.  As we took the insanely overpriced Teleferico cable car up to the trailhead (BONUS: NO VIEWS), the mist and fog turned into plain old rain.  This was going to be fun.  We donned our Gore-tex pants and jackets and out we went.  The trail follows a ridgeline for the first few miles with some gentle ups and downs as it slowly ascends to the rocky base of Rucu Pichincha.  Those gentle uphills felt like death (thanks again, altitude!) and as a bonus I got rain splattering on my face.


Happy grassy hills at 12,000 ft along the road to Guagua Pichincha (Cotopaxi in the way back skyline on the left)

As the rainy hours passed, each piece of my rainwear inevitably began to fail.  My 9-year old jacket was the first to go, and my shirt got soaked.  Then the shoes went and I was walking in little ponds with every step.  I wondered how long it takes to develop trench foot.  Our guide Rene informed us that we’d turn around when David’s underwear was wet (why not mine?!??!?) and David DID NOT INFORM US.  Underwear wet, we still climbed.  We climbed to over 15,000 and I was swaying around like a woozy baby deer while the ponds in my boots grew to small lakes and I more closely resembled a drowned rat.  Sick from altitude and a destroyed will to live, we reached the base of the rock scramble, about 300 feet from the summit.  Small waterfalls were coming down the rocks, and this is where Rene finally allowed us to say f*** it in the interest of sanity and not breaking our faces.  Destroyed and waterlogged, we returned to Quito to recover.


Starting to get some nice views climbing higher on Guagua Pichincha (PC: Rene)

The next day mocked us with its sunshine, and Rene drove us on the road between Quito and Papallacta, a popular destination for hot springs.  At the high pass of the road we were informed that we were getting out of the car and climbing one of the hills on the side of the highway, about 14,000 ft high.  Rene’s distaste for the road frequently traveled became apparent again as we trampled unique mosses and plants on our trail-less journey to the summit (sorry, plants).  Although not exactly a wilderness experience, the view from the top was quite lovely and we could see Antisana in all its glacier-covered glory.


View near the top of Guagua Pichincha

I had made the mistake of telling Rene that I don’t get enough cardio at the gym so he decided the next day would be a low altitude (read: 11,000 ft) cardio run around Cuicocha lake.  The lake sits at the base of the Cotacachi volcano, and is actually a crater.  There is a long trail that runs around the ridgeline of the lake, and we huffed and puffed* around the rim to the other side (*okay really just me, David was fine).  Feeling more like regular exhausted instead of altitude exhausted, I thought maybe I was finally getting somewhere in this acclimatization game (spoiler: HAHA, NOPE).


Guagua summitttt (PC: uhhh… Rene or David)

On Saturday, my delusions about acclimatizing were quickly destroyed when we climbed Guagua Pichincha, the taller of the two Pichincha mountains.  We took a 4-wheel drive up the dirt road to about 12,000 feet, and were kicked out of the car.  Rene continued up the road in the 4×4 (LAZY) and we were left to climb to 15,700 on our own two feet.  Quick progress was made up the gentle road, but that all ended once Rene joined us again and we were trampling more plants to get to the steep, sandy side of the mountain just below the ridgeline.  Feeling more and more like death with every struggling breath, I was starting to get really concerned about my foolhardy attempt to make it to 19,000 feet in only a few days (spoiler alert: this was a valid concern).  I somehow made it to the summit, very frequently muttering “muerte” under my breath.  The views were pretty spectacular, but it was hard to enjoy them with my high altitude headache and delirium.


Headed down Guagua to some thicker air (PC: David)

Sunday was a rest day to save up some energy and produce more red blood cells for the upcoming climb of Cayambe, our chosen backup volcano.  On Monday, we headed up the rough dirt road to the Cayambe refugio at ~15,000 feet, where we would “sleep”, wake up at 11pm, and start our climb at 12am.  If you’ve never done an alpine start before I will tell you a little secret.  It’s dumb.  Waking up at 11pm is dumb.  It feels about as awful* as you would imagine waking up at 11pm feels after 2 hours of sleep (*David was fine).  Already wondering how I was going to climb 4,000 vertical feet in thin air, we were out the door and on our way in the dark.


Cayambe and refugio

The first ~1,000  vertical feet of the climb is over rocky terrain due to the rapidly receding glacier on the mountain.  Relatively decent progress was made over this section and soon enough we got the the glacier and it was time for the crampons, ice axes, and rope.  We roped up with Rene in front, me in the middle, and David in back.  Rene warned that because of the numerous crevasses we’d have to be “efficient” over this terrain.  The word “efficient” brought a distinct terror to my gut as I was sure “efficient” meant “faster than you’re going right now”.


Closeup of the dry, broken, glacier

Travel over the glacier was rough.  Rene explained that it was so dry that we were seeing an “x-ray” of what the glacier looks like, since it’s usually covered in snow and the ascent is more of a snow plod.  Instead, we had crevasses of varying sizes at literally every other step.  Some were a quick hop, some were generally terrifying.  Every hop and scramble over the uneven terrain took tremendous effort* and I was quickly reaching hyperventilation-level breathing trying to keep up with Rene’s long legs (*David was fine).  On top of that, my general midnight malaise was turning into some grade-A nausea.


Sunset from the refugio

Feeling like i would puke/stumble into a crevasse/puke while stumbling into a crevasse, I had to ask Rene for more frequent and frequent breaks until our progress slowed to a crawl.  At about 17,000 feet, I was feeling pretty hopeless and defeated.  Unable to catch my breath and really wanting to barf, I was evaluating whether or not I could continue.  I’ve never quit on a mountain before, but at that point all I wanted to do was stop moving up.  I made the difficult decision to turn around.  Doing this for the first time in my hiking career felt really awful, and I especially felt awful because I know David could’ve made it no problem without me (get a better climbing partner, David).  Really hating myself, we carefully descended over the crevassed terrain back to the safety of the rocks.  The only silver lining was a beautiful view at sunrise.  We could see Antisana and Cotopaxi poking out from the clouds in the valleys as we descended back to the hut.


Cayambe at first light.  I was told we were near the rocky outcrop before I gave up on life

As we descended we could see the team ahead of us also turning around and making their way back down.  We found out later that they had to turn around higher up on the mountain because they couldn’t find their way through the densely packed crevasses, so perhaps the summit of Cayambe wouldn’t have been in the cards for us anyway.  We took the bumpy road back down to the dense air in Quito at 9,000 feet and I felt much better (and therefore more angry at myself for turning around, forgetting my malaise).


Descending Cayambe at dawn.  Antisana and Cotopaxi visible on the horizon

Our trip to Ecuador didn’t go as planned but I’m not giving up on high altitude climbing just yet.  For the next trip, I’m going to plan on more acclimatization hikes than we had on this trip, and also take my training more seriously (because I’m not genetically gifted in the endurance department like some people… ::cough::).  Lessons learned.  Until next time, y’all.  Thanks for reading.




7 thoughts on “Ecuador volcano fail times and lessons learned

  1. Hey, you’re still alive and, as you say, you’re not as genetically gifted. Been struggling with that one for years. I always arrive on the summit of the lowly 14ers way after someone else. Bummer!!!!


  2. Eagle-2 says:

    Can someone please make David aware that hiking pants have been invented and that he need not persist with blue jeans? This attire does lend itself to his “hipster” image, however.


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