Ecuador Exploration

Even with my meager Spanish comprehension, I understood we had just run into a major issue.

“La montaña está cerrado para el esquí,” explained the stern-faced guard. “Hubo un accidente en diciembre.  Si tratas de entrar en el parque con sus esquís , vamos a confiscar.”


Despite our aspirations, this uniformed administrator at the main entrance of Ecuador’s Chimborazo National Park was plainly telling us that if we wanted to climb the massif, we would have to do it without our skis.  It was a disappointing moment, heavy with frustration as well as astonishment that none of the guides we’d spoken to over the previous week had mentioned this new rule.  What to do?  After dismissing several (invariably illegal) options, my four friends and I discussed the merits of a ski-less ascent, and decided, “Well, we’re here anyways…might as well climb it.”


It was Saturday, June 14th, the eighth day of our equatorial mountaineering adventure.  Logistical hiccups had resolved into grand success all week.  Yes, I’d had a ‘taxi-dent’ in Quito…and, inaccurate highway maps were turning every outing into a mission of uncertainty.  But our first acclimatization peak went without a hitch: no guides, few regulations, no paperwork.  Beyond the top of the telefériqo, my friends and I scrambled the mist-covered 4th-class East Ridge of Rucu Pichincha above Quito.


Around 15,000’ above sea level, Andy Thien led the way across the “Pass of Death,” a dramatic and exposed knife-edge section of the ridge.  Our team included Jason Halladay, my long-time adventure partner from Los Alamos, NM; Elliott Larson, my mountain companion from Aspen and now Boulder, CO; and, Jason’s friends from Los Alamos, Andy and Sarah Thien.  On the summit, we posed for pictures, bumped fists, and descended to snack on some empanadas and Ecuadorian beer at the tramway station.  Later, our huge dinner featured potato pancakes called llapingachos, and these became a delightful meal-time fixture.


The next morning, we miraculously managed to escape the tangle of highways and traffic of downtown Quito to arrive in Machachi, the small town at the base of the Illiniza peaks.  At the Andes/Alpes Café, we luckily made the acquaintance of Fernando who arranged our passage to the trailhead.  We had to sign waivers and put our names in the logbook at the one-man entrance station, but thanks to Fernando, we were able to proceed without a guide.


Hiking up into the clouds, we caught a needed break and warmed up in the hut near 15,500’.  The visibility improved slightly and winds eased enough to let us find our way to Illiniza Sur’s summit ridge.  Maneuvering through another “Pass of Death” section, we scrambled across a series of ledges and chimneys at 16,500’ that were covered in rime ice on top of volcanic dirt to reach the blocky peak, socked in by clouds once more.  Back in Machachi, we lounged at Fernando’s café, enjoying stories of his European climbs as well as his tasty cappuccinos.  Based on Fernando’s recommendation, we decided to postpone Cayambe till later in the trip, if at all.


After two more cloudy acclimatization days stuffing our bellies with guanabana smoothies and trout at the Tambopaxi Lodge, we had amazing luck with the weather on our climb of Cotopaxi.  Clear night skies yielded to a brilliant dawn.  A cloud filled Cotopaxi’s summit crater, where – at 19,346’ – we clicked into our skis (a snowboard for Jason) and made some exhilarating turns down the glaciated volcano.  Weaving through seracs ringed with twenty-foot-long icicles, we skied the iconic peak, including jumping over a few small crevasses.  Jason and Andy got bonus credit for linking one last ribbon of dust-coated snow down to just a hundred yards from the mini-van.  Though the dining room telescope at the lodge, we could see the white stripes they left on the black snowbank fifteen miles away.


En route to the Estrella de Chimborazo Lodge, we made dozens of wrong turns, and spent several hours bouncing over 30 kilometers of cobblestones of the Old Pan-American Highway.  (The new PAH is paved.) With indispensable help from the owners of the Estrella Lodge, we overcame the prohibitively complicated process of arranging three mandatory guides for our final climb of the trip: Ecuador’s highest mountain, Chimborazo.

Perhaps it was for the best that we didn’t take our skis: winds blasted the route from midnight till dawn.  It was hard enough to climb in the thin, cold air without having sails pulling us off-balance.  Even as it was, the bitter conditions forced Sarah to turn back at about 19,700’.  For the four of our team who persevered, the sun treated us to two magical experiences over the next couple of hours: watching the peak’s conical shadow casting off into the indigo horizon; and, then, finally, wending our way through six-foot-deep troughs of rime ice sparkling with dazzling sunrise light to the Veintemilla summit.  At 20,561’ above sea level – higher than Denali! – the exertion, hypoxia, and beauty combined with my gratitude and happiness to overwhelm me.  Tears flooded my eyes under my goggles.