Avenue Of The Volcanoes - Ice climbing on the Equator

12 Jan 1999 - by John Zazzara

During the period of December 19th thru January 12th I traveled to Quito to try some of the peaks that had tantalized me on my previous climbs in 1996. The plan was to team up with my friend and Guide from Bolivia, Yossi Brain. Yossi in addition to being the "Mainman" in La Paz, is also an accomplished journalist and author of the Bolivian Climbing Guide and Bolivian Trekking Guide (Try Chessler Books, buy two!). Yossi and I both had similar peak lists, with Yossi's list came pressure from his publisher to get the routes documented for his forthcoming Guide to Ecuadorian Mountaineering. In a general sense my plan was to climb on technical routes only. Ecuador has a reputation for walkup climbing, and if you do what most folks do, bag Cotopaxi, Chimborazo, and the other commonly climbed peaks, that's what you'll get. However, there is a lot of difficult technical climbing available if you want it, and that was my plan for this trip.

I dug in at the Magic Bean in the center of Quito, and sorted out gear and shopped for food and fuel on the first day. For those who haven't been to Quito its worth pointing out that this section of town is hot and hoppin in a big way: Bars, Cyber Cafes, Dinner spots, Outfitters, Shops, and lots of climbers from all over the world. Its common to be on the side of some 18,000 ft peak in the morning and be back at your hotel room and in the discos by nightfall. All night Lavanderias allowed me to return from one peak, unpack, wash clothes, and be packed again for a morning departure to another peak.

When I arrived in Quito Yossi was guiding one of the trade routes (Cotopaxi) for Safari Ecuador, so I took a jaunt off to Machachi the morning after my arrival to do an acclimitization peak. The new Electric trolley in Quito cranks up about 6am and I was on the way to Terminal Terrestie where the buses to Machachi (and everywhere else) depart. After a 2 Km hike I was in the foothills of El Corazon and promptly stopped by hacienda owners who firmly reminded me that they owned the immediate time zone and all the drainages therein. Sweet talk, extended chewing of the fat, and some promises not to torch the parjamo, bought my passage through. All that remained was 1000 meters of Ichigrass and 100 meters of class 3 rock. With zilch acclimitization time under my belt the last bits hurt more than they should of, so I bagged some sleep on the summit and returned to The Magic Bean. Yossi was there having just dropped off a note, asking "Where are you?". Not that I could possibly have the same question of him, being 6 foot tall with blond hair down to his arse, he can be seen from low earth orbit among the stout locals.

Blending in is just not Yossi's style anyway. We hooked up with Ray a teacher at the Collegio Americana and made some plans to hit the direct face of Illiniza Sur, an infrequently climbed route lately, consisting of 60-80 degree ice for half a dozen pitches. Somewhere in here I bagged another couple of peaks, Guagua Pichincha, and Padre Incantato using the same Electric trolley-to- bus scam. An additional taxi to the town of Lloa was needed, along with traction encouragement for the driver (mas altura, mas altura!). I eventually did Guagua three times during this trip, being there once for an eruption of this fickle volcano. This peak was used as filler between larger peaks, and with 1000 meters of hiking from the village outskirts it served to keep the legs tight as well. The refugio on this peak makes a nice penthouse for any andinista wishing to avoid the inevitable debauchery of Quito night life. I kept myself pure and unsullied with these hikes to 4800M, also a bit bored.

The road to the Illinizas is probably worse than no road at all, but it offers a good prelude to the sandy 500m slogfest that leads to the Col. At 3am or so we started up the ancient and rocky black ice of Illinza Sur's Ruta Directo. This was Ice that was about as bad as it gets, and I mean bad as in not good. At some point in this climb I actually stopped swinging my picks all together, just sort of leaning on them for balance while I stuck my crampons with as much authority as I could muster.

Belay stances were chopped and insured with screws, Yossi lead the way and actually enjoyed displacing his own body weight in dinner plates with each perch. Ray and I were standing less that two feet apart near the 80 degree crux, but Ray seemed to have some sort of magical magnetic power which attracted banquet sized platters of rotten ice. He must have been hit twenty times for each tiny bit that found me. I actually moved closer to him out of guilt, but Yossi's target zone just shrunk. The trip off the summit was in a total fog, thru, under, around and into huge crevasses and down endless 45 degree slopes with just enough slimy snow to prevent facing downhill. I got a stiff neck from looking through my legs at where the hell I was going. Gapers on the adjoining walkup of Illinza Norte served as a gallery and were quite generous in their approval. Although I was later to take heat from local guides for the 10 hour time span of the climb. This was, however a good start to the climbing, with only a week gone I had four acclimitization peaks of about 16,000 ft completed and one of the most technical climbs in the area under my belt.

Must have been another one of the filler trips to Guagua in here, then it was off to El Altar by way of Riobamba. Yossi had plans for several of the summits on El Altar, and we brought enough food at the Supermaxi to open our own at Campo Italiano. Campo Italiano proved to be too good for us, so we scrambled to a boulder field where we pitched our tent on terrain that might have been used for lunar landing exercises.

Part of Yossi's scheme to get ever closer to the peaks we intended to do after El Obispo, which is the highest peak in the El Altar Massif. Obispo is also billed as the most difficult and technical major summit in Ecuador. El Obispo proved to be every bit as nasty and scary as it was said to be.

Off at 2am for the summit we lost an amiable Ecuadorian doctor friend on the second pitch up the glacier. He looked up at the massive icewall from across the gentle lower glacier and said "No Way!". Ray, Yossi, and I made our way to the hidden and rather wonderful couloir which leads to the upper seracfalls. This couloir was really nice ice, the best of the whole trip, and at three pitches of 70 degrees plus was good enough to deserve us a round of Choco-chips and Banana Chifle at its top. From here 50 degree climbing of indiscriminate nature led to a huge serac wall, around which we found a narrow, steep and rotten gully which might have reminded me of a Scottish gully I once climbed, but it didn't because I've never been to Scotland. The rock on top of El Obispo is so lousy I actually used crampons to dig into the 5.7 Lava/Mud/Crumbcake finale.

Back at base camp our Ecuadorian Doctor friend had bowls of soup waiting so we kicked back, fattened up for Moncha Grande the next day while enjoying the scenery. This scenery was really spectacular, every bit as good as we were told it would be. Our camp sat above the snout of the large glacier beneath the Monkey Hippey and El Obispo massifs, and right out of this glaciers pointy bit a "Cascada" more than 500 meters long dropped down into a huge blue/green lake. Things took a turn for the worse, as a hard cold rain set in. From my sleeping bag I was encouraged when the noise from the rainfall ceased at about 10pm, when I went out for a leak at midnight I found that it hadn't stopped raining, just metamorphosed into snow. The morning dawned with 20 cm on the ground and more coming down... so much for Moncha Grande. We Burned our excess food and strapped on 60 lb packs for the hike out.

I inserted another jaunt up to Guagua Pichincha in this rest day, and shared the taxi to Lloa with a nice guy named Tyler from South Carolina. I was then poised for a spell of "normal" climbing up Cayambe and Chimborazo, in that order. Cayambe was a lot of fun, Cosme from Safari Ecuador was enlisted due to the fact that all other partners were either working, or had done that peak before. This turned out to be a good move, as a lot of snow had fallen here also, and a very thick fog set in making route finding, even for Cosme, a real challenge. We later bragged that we bagged all three summits on this peak, which we did, but the true story was that it took three tries climbing up, then down 300 meters to the various summits to find the Cumbre Maxima at about 19,000 ft. Even though this was a non technical, "One Axe" peak, I felt good about making all three summits in pea soup fog and deep snow, other groups leaving the hut that day did not summit.

That night it rained big time in Quito, enough to eliminate the possibility for bagging Chimborazo the next morning which had been my plan. Not to worry cuz at this time Yossi showed up with an offer to try a first ever summit of Antisana from the east side. This is one of the few firsts left in Ecuador and so I enthusiastically said yes despite the soggy and complex approach to the east of this most remote peak with its famously wild and active glaciers. On my past summit of Antisana I had been fascinated with the eastern side of the peak which was said to drop off like a rock to the jungle below, and contain the worlds largest equatorial glacier mass.

After a major and soggy approach we arrived at 5000 meters on the east side just as the snow really started falling. The next morning we bashed our way up vertical serac walls and deep snows to a point still several hundred meters below the summit which was blocked by really colossal serac walls. These were not gonna yield to us in these conditions, in which several centimeters of snow was falling per hour. Back to the tent we slogged, our disappointment punctuated with numerous drops into the well disguised crevasses with which this glacier was so amply endowed. When we returned to our tent it was crushed to ankle level by the heavy snow that had fallen.

Yossi and I committed to try this route again next year feeling that firsts such as these don't come easily and this one was worth a second try. I bagged another, and final, summit of Guagua Pichincha in here about now, which gave Yossi just enough time to concoct another scheme to bag Quillindana, known as the Matterhorn of Ecuador and said to consist of 5.7 rock of prodigious dimensions. Since all the glaciated peaks were hammered with major snows and blows, I said something intelligent like "OK" and we were off across the pajramo again thru some really impressive Haciendas to the base of Quillinadana.

Quillindana was a most scenic peak, and offered the finest views of the "Avenida Volcan", it seemed like all the major peaks were visible from there, Sangay, El Altar, Cayambe, Chimborazo, Coxapaxi, The Illinizas, Corazon. It was neat looking at all these peaks that I had climbed, and a few that still remained. As we pulled into a camp at 4300 meters, the heavens opened up and it poured rain long and hard. The next morning we dashed enthusiastically for the main summit of Quillindana and realized after some time that 5.7 rock coated in snow and ice for that number of pitches was gonna be out of the question - it was of course raining/hailing again. We settled for the Ventanimilla summit of this peak. This one is really tops on my list for next year, the face looks like the Eigerwand, and from the Cotopaxi side was really intimidating.

So this was the trip in a large nutshell, all in all something like 11 summits in the 3 plus weeks, two misses, one on Antisana, and settling for the minor summit on Quillindana, but overall a good trip. It proved to me, what I had known, that despite Ecuador's reputation for non-technical climbing if you want technical climbing it is there in abundance, just don't follow everybody else around.

I still have much to climb down there and cant wait to return to finish off more peaks. I will defiantly spend New Years 1999 there, no town does these holidays like Quito, a great town in a location that's pure heaven for big mountain enthusiasts.

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