2005 Ecuador Volcanoes Expedition
Directed by Phil Ershler
Trip Report – Ecuador Volcanoes/IMG
Traveling and climbing in Ecuador with Phil Ershler and IMG was a unique and fascinating experience. Working with a world class guide and organization as Phil and IMG are, you clearly expect top notch mountaineering. What went beyond this was the incredible introduction to the beauty, people and culture of Ecuador combined with the opportunity to climb two 19,000 summits.
The trip starts at a modern hotel in Quito located more or less in the heart of the city. The morning is spent touring churches and other sites from the 15th and 16th century. The highlight is a short hike to view the Virgin of Quito a modern statue dominating one of the hills ringing the city. We then moved on to the Otavalo hotel and the chance to visit a huge open air market. There is no way to describe the noise, sights and smells of a giant open animal market and the native crafts markets. We spent time at a local weaver with a special visit to the weaver's grandmother who demonstrated the art of spinning thread from lamb's wool. It was also our first introduction to indoor guinea pig herding.
Shopping in Otavalo
Back to Quito and the Embassy hotel. While all of this seems quite relaxed for serious mountaineering it is an important part of the acclimatization process and a particularly fun way to accomplish it. The morning brought breakfast at a beautiful restaurant set on a dramatic piece of countryside and operated by friends of Phil.
The first real hike was the 13K climb of Pasochoa a pretty hillside not far from Quito. Romulo, an incredibly accomplished guide from Ecuador led the group up along with his son. The summit was our first introduction to feeling a bit out of breath at altitude. From Pasochoa we continued the acclimatization process at Volcano Land, a pretty lodge located at 12,000 on the edge of the Cotopaxi national park. What I remember most is our first view of Cotopaxi a huge classic mountain dominating the landscape.
In the morning we drove to the trailhead on Cotopaxi and spend several hours on the glacier practicing and watching Phil and Romulo scamper up and down the glacier like goats. After practicing walking like ducks (canard) we head back down to Volcano Land for dinner and well deserved rest.
The next day it is on the hut at Cotopaxi. We manage a separate hut for the team and try and get some sleep before the climb. We make an alpine start for the summit at around 1:00 AM after a quick breakfast and not quite enough coffee. The weather was perfect for the climb with a crisp and clear night. It is impossible to describe the stars with numerous shooting stars and the beautiful Milky Way and the Southern Cross hanging in front of you for the climb. The initial ice fields are steep and long but don't present any particular technical challenge. The top of the climb becomes more technical and certainly feels more exposed but everyone is able to move past it to the summit. We reach the top around 9:30am.
Looking off the summit you see a sea of clouds with the other volcanoes jutting up like islands through the clouds. The top of the mountain is a spectacular volcanic crater covered in snow and ice. It is an incredible feeling of elation to be there.
Descending required some quick protection for the exposed sections then a bit of a slog down the ice field. Snow conditions were a bit slushy and balling up was clearly an issue. Phil demonstrated a forward leaning approach to descending that required more faith then most of us could muster at that point so we amused each other by slipping and falling into the snow regularly. Reaching the hut again completed a long and successful day.
We descended down from the hut to the Land Cruiser and headed to a beautiful hacienda at La Cienega for clean-up and a great dinner. The next day brought a trip to another Indian market and dinner at a spectacular Incan ruin turned into another hacienda. The dining room was one of the most unusual I have ever eaten in and the hostess was both the granddaughter and the niece of Ecuadorian President's. A truly unique evening.
Chimborazo was originally our next objective but it was in no condition for safe climbing with significant ice at the summit. One guide who had attempted it earlier that week described it as lethal. We were able to substitute another 19,000 foot mountain called Cayambe. It is great to be in a country with spare climbing objectives all around you.
We decided to add an extra acclimatization day at the 15,000 foot level hut on Cayambe to provide every one on the team the best possible opportunity to be ready to summit. A French team attempted the summit on our acclimatization day and turned back due to the weather. This certainly made us all feel better about choosing the next day for our attempt.
We left the hut at 12:30 AM and headed up on another beautiful night for climbing. The first part of the climb is over rock with some class 4 scrambling. The ice slope is not as steep as Cotopaxi however the stars were every bit as beautiful. The final pitches to the summit required running belays but again did not present any overwhelming challenge to the team. Again the summit was breathtaking and beautiful.
Easy descent with much better snow conditions. A bit tricky through the rock with a tired team but no real incidents. Back in the truck and on to a hot springs resort on the edge of the Amazon basin. Another gorgeous resort with beautiful and private units for rooms. Beer and hot mineral baths is the perfect setting for relaxing after a hard climb and felt truly earned. Romulo continued his story telling with the details of one adventure after another. I've never met anyone who has lead as exciting a life as Romulo and his compatriots. We will be telling Romulo stories for years to come.
The next day was back to Quito, the Embassy hotel and email. The more adventurous team members joined Romulo for a traditional Ecuadorian lunch which included Guinea Pig. I can report that it really does taste like chicken. Dinner that night was at yet another fabulous restaurant specializing in sea food. How Phil talks these places into allowing scruffy groups of climbers in is one of the real mysteries of the trip.
Dining room at Hacienda San Augustin
Back to the modern Quito airport and quickly, perhaps too quickly home again.
A great trip with a unique blend of experiences. The mountains are high and very challenging. The country is beautiful and the people open and friendly. The accommodations are top notch and the food makes you wonder if you could really gain weight on a trip that includes two 19,000 summits. Everyone left Ecuador with a strong desire to come back and see more of this little known country.
Robert Alger, IMG Climber
The author Robert Alger at the Hacienda San Augustin
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