Ecuador Volcanoes

20-31 Jan 2007 - by Julius Gawlas (view roster page)

In January 2007 during California winter and brief alleged dry period in Ecuador Jeff Fisher and I spent two weeks in Ecuador hiking and climbing in the 'Avenue of Volcanoes'.

We arrived in Quito late on Saturday Jan 20th and spent a few nights in the Cayman Hotel which is located in Mariscal (gringo) district close to many restaurants, shops and travel outfitters. On Sunday we visited mandatory tourist attractions around Quito including Mittal del Mundo, old town in Quito, several churches and we hiked to the top of El Panecillo to get a close view of huge Angel.

On Monday we began our acclimatization by heading towards Pasochoa. We had booked a car ride from Quito to the trailhead that starts just above the hydroelectric plant (S0.42797 W78.47792 3283m). We started hiking around 9AM, and followed several wide roads. The weather was wet: rainy, cloudy, with not much visibility. After a couple of hours we took an obvious path leading towards the summit and reached the ridge (S0.46065 W78.47558 3965m). We debated if the higher point is on the left or on the right and opted for the right summit that appeared to have a more worn path. We reached the summit just before noon (S0.46033 W78.48004) with my GPS showing 4178m. After a short break and taking some pictures we headed down, by that time it stopped raining but visibility was still quite limited. Quite nice acclimatization day number one.

Tuesday we headed toward Guagua Pichincha. The weather was a bit nicer since it did not rain but we still could not see any of the other big volcanoes. Same drill - our car shuttle dropped us off on the road to Guagua's refugio at 4137m (S0.18712 W78.58588) around 10 AM. With nice views towards Lloa valley and Quito we hiked up the road to the refugio Volcan (S0.17841 W78.59680 4558m). After paying US $1 to the guy in the hut and a short break we headed towards the ridge, following a well worn path, and then to the right towards the summit. On the ridge we could smell the crater but we could not see it: it was filled with a big cloud. We reached the top around noon (S0.17634 W78.59994 4781m).

That day we decided to move higher than Quito to help with acclimatization. The driver suggested Vladimir's hostel in El Chaupi at the base of Ilinizas. He told us that it is at around 4000m. When we got to the place my GPS showed that it was only at 3371m instead (S0.60104 W78.64355) - we had noticed that Ecuadorian people's estimates of altitude of various places were rather unreliable. Vladimir's place was actually rather nice - several guest rooms and a common area with a kitchen, billiards and ping pong table. Vladimir also provided us with transportation to the trail head for Ilinizas at La Virgen (S0.62938 W78.68849 3900m) the following day.

On Wednesday we started our hike towards Iliniza Norte from La Virgen at 8 AM. The trail is very well marked and goes quite nicely through the parano and steadily climbs up. Of course visibility was limited and we were walking in the cloud. This was a bit higher than previous days but we kept good steady pace and reached the refugio between Ilinizas in 2 hours and 15 minutes. The refugio is located between the two peaks just below the ridge (S0.65511 W78.71274 4745m). Before the trip I had read that it is usually very crowded but on that day there was nobody there. In the hut we put an extra layer and headed up towards the ridge. GPS showed the col between Ilinizas at 4778m (S0.65406 W78.71474), where we turned right and followed a faint path. The visibility decreased even more and we were losing the path and finding it again - general idea is to follow the ridge without dropping to low. Closer to the summit we dropped more to the right traversing on some exposed gullies and over a bit of snow on Paso de Muerte. Once over the snow it was up some scree and rocks to the summit. Overall we thought that it was class III scramble. We reached the summit of 5140m with a steel cross and people's droppings on the rocks at 12:30 (S0.64921 W78.72036). As I mentioned before the visibility was really bad so we could only imagine Iliniza Sur, Cotopaxi and other mountains. The hike down was rather uneventful, we lost the path few times but thanks to Jeffs orientation and the GPS found it back without any difficulties. It cleared up for just few minutes so we could almost see the summit but then it got cloudy again and started to rain as we were walking towards the trailhead.

Next day we were planning to move to higher ground to Cotopaxi National Park. Vladimir organized car transport for us to Tambopaxi and told us that it is located at 3900m. Well, as usual when we got there it turned out to be at 3750m. Anyway it was quite a nice place with good food and pleasant people. When we got there it was raining so even though it is just a few km from Cotopaxi, we could not see it. Despite the rain Jeff and I went for few hours walk towards Lake Limpiopungo - I think we were testing our rain gear. On Friday it was still raining but we decided on another acclimatization hike: we were going to bag Ruminahui. After several hours of hiking in pouring rain and losing the path, we scaled down our plans and turned back after reaching 4150m.

Saturday morning the guided part of our trip began. Edgar from Compania de Guias de Montana was picking us up from Tambopaxi and we were heading towards Cotopaxi refuge and attempting Cotopaxi next night. Up to this point despite being just a few km from Cotopaxi we have not seen it yet - but on Saturday it cleared up and we were rewarded with nice views and first pictures of its perfect, snowy cone. A short drive in Edgar's vehicle brought us to the parking lot (S0.65711 W78.43848 4609m). There were many other cars and many people in the parking area and walking the path towards the hut (S0.66381 W78.43841 4835m). The hut was crowded: some day trippers and people staying for the night, attempting the summit that night. If you intend to get any sleep take ear plugs. We woke up just after midnight and left the hut around 1:30 AM. It was not cold but again visibility was very limited. We followed the standard path from the hut - going to the right, through scree towards the glacier. After 1 hour we put on crampons and tied in together. It was snowing, wind blowing, walking in the cloud - the usual. Edgar sets up rather brisk pace and we move fast. Jeff and I ask for some water/food breaks but our guide is unfazed and but we were moving. In one of our very hasty stops Jeff lost one of his inner gloves but we continued on. Just before 5 AM we reached Yanasasha (S0.67858 W78.43987 5700m) and rest there behind an ice wall. Wind seems to pick up and visibility is limited to 10-15 feet. Our outer shells became frozen stiff. From Yanasasha we got into somewhat exposed part straight up towards the summit. No crevasse just a walk up. Finally we got to the top as the day was breaking just a few minutes after 6 AM (S0.68044 W78.43764). There were a few other people there, but it was a cold and unwelcoming place. We couldn't see the crater; it was still snowing and blowing hard. We took a picture that turned out commpletely blurred, spent maybe a minute or two on the summit and headed down. Back at the refugio before 8 AM. Quite OK day but felt a bit rushed. We thought that we could have started at 3 AM and go at a slower pace. After a few hours it cleared up and we could actually see Cotopaxi in its entire glory.

Next day the guide company designated as a rest day, so we went to the town of Banos and spent two nights there. Seems like this is the usual stop that people take between Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. Banos is OK but rather unremarkable, just a small somewhat touristy town with hot springs - next time i would no go there.

On Tuesday we left Banos and went towards Chimborazo (the guards are parked at the turnoff S1.49734 W78.87477 4353m). The drive to the lower Carrel refuge took several hours and we reached it in the early afternoon (S1.47524 W78.84582 4825m). We ate lunch there, packed up and moved up to Whymper Refuge at ~5000m (S1.47285 W78.83868). There was nobody in the hut other than the caretaker Julio: quite a different atmosphere than Cotopaxi. While we were in the hut it cleared up somewhat so we could actually see Chimborazo and the route up. There was some debate which way to go: the Whymper route does not have snow, the El Castillo leads through steep frozen scree and there are two icy traverses. Jeff suggested yet another way - to the left of El Castillo up the gully to the ridge and than to join El Castillo. Our guide Edgar decided to take El Castillo. We went to bed early and woke up at 10:30 PM. Quick breakfast and we started hiking. It was not very cold but again we started with clouds and limited visibility. We followed the path to the left alongside the stream. Around midnight we reached steeper frozen scree and we put crampons on and roped up. That night I did not feel well and I had some stomach problems. We talked about that and decided to give it a try and continue together. We zigzagged through loosely bound together scree and traversed across two unstable icy sections. At 2:30 AM we were on the snow-covered ridge at 5534m (S1.46577 W78.83282). From there the route is just straight up towards the summit. The skies cleared up and we could see a big, almost full moon. There were stars in the sky, lights of distant towns and clouds in the valley way, way below us. Unfortunately I did not feel that great and we were again going at faster pace than I would like, seldom having time to drink water. Going up got harder and harder and finally at 4 AM, feeling like I was going to throw up. I called for the retreat. Our high point was at S1.46609 W78.82841 at 5830 m. We were still several hours away from the summit and I am sure Jeff and Edgar would have made it... We went down towards the hut and passed some climbers going straight from Carrel Refugio, following the ridge. We reached the hut, and after a couple of hours of sleep we packed up, hiked down to Carrel, got in the car and drove towards Quito.

Notes:

1) We did not rent a car because we read about break-ins at trail heads. Seems like these might have been exaggerated and you should be OK renting a car, leaving it at refugios and thus having more flexibility.

2) We were disapointed with our guide. We both felt that the guide was just running up the mountain and not giving us enough time to properly hydrate, have a nice steady pace etc. Do you really need a guide on Cotopaxi or Chimborazo? On Cotopaxi with the conditions that we had certainly not, on Chimborazo it might have been sufficient to talk to the hut caretaker. On Chimborazo you might take a tent and sleep closer to the ridge around 5400m - that would make for a much easier summit day.

3) In Quito you can take teleferico to 4100m and do some acclimatization there - take a tent, spend a night or two and do some hiking. You can get to teleferico using taxi for $2.50 from Mariscal district.

4) We bought topo maps from IGM in Quito but one does not really need them.

5) During our time in Ecuador we had rather lousy weather: at some point we were doubting if they ever have blue skies. It might be better to go either earlier in Jan or Dec or during our summer months of June/July.


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