The CMC-HAMS in Ecuador

1 Jan 2002 - by Andrew White

Hola! We're safely back from Ecuador. San the shaky flight back from Miami. First time I experienced a re-takeoff from landing procedure. The wheels were "feet" from touching the tarmac, when the plane reclimbed, to avoid running over the previous plane -- which was still not finished with its landing. The pilot says this happens a lot at DIA. Why?

Anyway. Here is the full report, I promised. I broke it down into parts, for easier reading and handling. This CMC-HAMS sanctioned outing occurred solely in Ecuador, and included climbs up the following volcanoes/mountains:

Other destinations included:

The following CMC Members participated on this trip:

Quito was our base of operation, while we purchased food and fuel, and rested at the Hotel Ambassador (9 De Octubre + Colon, newtown Quito). This hotel was pleasant and comfortable, but had a peculiar sense of architecture and interior design. Toilets were not fully functional. Also, the hotel staff says they have a lost-and-found. But, don't trust them. Greg L. saw one of the teenage workers walking around wearing his missing NorthFace windpants. He mentioned it to the receptionists and got them back.

Great and plentiful breakfasts' were at the Magic Bean, within short walking distance. There are decent dinner places and numerous cyber cafes, nearby. Food and meals were cheap. Filet Mignon was only $5.00. But, Ecuatoranos need to work on the recipe. The papas fritas (French fries) were good. The "Steakhouse" gave me diarrhea, maybe mild food poisoning. But, Imodium cleared it up in 24 hours. When we needed to get food from the SuperMaxi, we took the taxi for ~$2.00/ride. Gasoline was much, much cheaper than white gas ($25.00/gal). But, it quickly clogged our multi-fuel stoves.

Traveler's Cheques were next to impossible to exchange Quito, at least on the weekends. But credit cards work at the ATM's (Filanbanco for VISA, and Banco De Pacifico for M.C.). To L.D. phone call back to stateside, we used Andenatel (about four blocks down, on Colon). Calls were only $0.35/min. The laundry lady, across from the hotel, did a great job with our clothes, and again, inexpensive.

We used Moggley Motors to commute to the trailheads. But, Elloy and his Ford van had difficulties getting us exactly where we wanted to be. So, we had to add one or two miles to our hiking distance. However, Alvin and his luxury charter bus were great for the longer commutes to Chimborazo, Banos, and Mitad del Mundo. He even got up early to drive us back to the airport at 5:00AM, on Saturday.

And now, the Climbs:

Guagua Pichincha [Dec. 29]. This was just a day hike, and got us going on our conditioning for the bigger, snow climbs later. After spending extra time looking for the route to the trailhead, we found the steepening road to the observation house, and began hiking around 10:00AM. The weather was partly cloudy and muggy.

By-the-way, the weather for the entire trip became quite predictable. Clear, moonlit skies at night and into the morning until 9:00AM. Warm and wet clouds then pulled in for the day, with winds picking up in the afternoon and evening. The Sun turned on at 6:00AM, and off at 6:00PM. This made for some long and boring sleeps in the tents and huts. The morning low temperatures never got below 30 degrees F.

We reached the house by noon and stopped for a snack and water. Two guys in a jeep were waiting for us at the house. This, according to the sign on the outside wall, was to ensure we each paid our dollar for the use of the house and trail. It is $2.00 if you want to spend the night, there. We could see Quito and the big mountains to the East. A quarter mile traverse, south, up a good trail got us up to the volcano's rim, where we could breathe in the warm, smelly Sulfur Dioxide gasses bubbling up from the crater within. There is a path into the crater. But, it is off limits. The last major eruption was just back in October '99. The hotel has great pictures of it. Our hike continued north for another half mile, along the rim, up class 2-3 rock and gravel to the summit. While at the summit, we bathed and ate lunch in the steamy clouds (~30 feet visibility).

Jerry C. had a Pulse/Oxymeter with him, which was secretly on loan to him from his wife's hospital where she works. We all got our fingers read. Mine was reading 72% Oxygen saturation and 120 beats/min. Everyone else's was reading at least 78%. Jerry said that 70% or lower was dangerous and required supplemental Oxygen. I was a bit nervous, but felt fine with no headaches or nausea. Just short of breathe.

A clean, gravely path along the north side of the ridge, between Guagua and Rucu Pichincha brought us back to the observation house and down the road to the van, awaiting. Rain broke out just as we were leaving.

Sincholagua [Dec. 30 - Dec. 31]. This climb required one night of camping, and would be the first of eight nights camping (five nights in tents + three in a hut). We all brought dry or dehydrated dinners/breakfasts from home and simply used the stoves to boil bottled or treated water. To get to the trailhead, we had to pass through Cotopaxi National Park. This was, for most of us, our first glimpse at the highly photogenic landmark. But, due to the afternoon cloud cover, it was difficult to get a good, initial, lasting impression. As we rode around the northern flanks of Coto, and out the NE border of the park, our good road quickly began to disappear into grassy doubletrack. Since Elloy had not driven much to our infrequently climb destination, we got lost, for about two hours. The map was difficult to match to the flat grassy, rock strewn landscape. We eventually identified a small, abandoned farm house, which marked the correct route to the trailhead. From here, the doubletrack became unmanageable for Elloy's van. So, we parked it and set up camp near good irrigation water, 1000 feet lower and 2 miles away from our intended campsite/trailhead.

That night, we got up for a 2:00AM hike to Sincholagua. The first 2 miles on grassy doubletrack, and 3 miles on a good western ridgeline to the north side of the mountain. On the way, we passed our intended campsite, where somebody erected the words "Feliz Amigos" out of large stones. As we reached the north side, morning daylight lit up the landscape and we finally got some really good views of Cotopaxi, Ruminahui, Tunguragua (blowing smoke), Guagua and Rucu, and Cayambe. Chimborazo was hidden behind Coto. The last mile was Class 3-4 loose rock, above 15,000'. The warm morning air was quite favorable for us. It was just like climbing Longs Peak in the summer. To get to the summit, from the north, we had to reach the ridgeline between the first and second rock buttresses from the north, skirt the east side of the second buttress, and climb up more loose rock on the third "main" buttress, to about 40 feet below the summit. From its north side, we hauled out our ropes, helmets, and harnesses, and finished our accent up mostly solid Class 5.2 rock, using a running belay from on top. We all displayed our mastery of technical R. C. as all nine of us reached the less than 20 square feet of summit, at 16,050'. I got a little dizzy when I looked over the ~2000 foot vertical drop on the south side. After a quick lunch, we rapped back down and hiked back to camp under continuing favorable warm weather. Elloy waited for us to break camp and usher us back to Quito.

Since it was New Year's Eve, we had the fortune opportunity of seeing the locals prepare for night-long festivities, as we made our way back to the hotel. This includes the igniting of fireworks, the street burning of rubbish and haybag effigies of old men ("the old year"), and crossdressing men begging for donations ("the widows of the old men").

Antisana 5,758 m (18,890'). The road to the trailhead, which goes east out of Quito and through the town of Pintag, was a lot better than the roads on the previous two climbs. But, our friend Elloy and his van still could not get us all the way in. We did have a second vehicle (4x4 Landcruiser) to carry our gear and our leader in, however. So, on Tuesday (New Year's Day), we had a pleasant walk across the tundra to where the 4x4 decided to stop, about 1.5mi/1500' from our sought after campsite, ate lunch, and packed full gear the rest of the way. As this was all going on, I was trying to recover from a bad case of diarrhea from the night before. I had a bad night's rest, did not eat breakfast or lunch, and "bonked" (low glucose) upon reaching camp, after crawling my way up. The site (15,500'), nestled in the rocks just below the glacier's base, had room for our five tents, and then some. The water in the nearby runoff stream was very silty. But, cleaner water could be found about a 1/2 mile up at the edge of the glacier. The weather did not amount to more than drifting clouds and a warm occasional breeze. The mountain, and its summit became visible in the evening. I was very impressed, and somewhat nervous. The number and apparent size of crevasses on its west face was more than I had ever seen (ex. Compared to Mt Rainier's Emmons Glacier). But, I felt I could do it.

Our goal for this climb was to spend one full night sleeping at this altitude, take it easy and "wand" out the first half of the route on the next day, and climb the next evening, with an additional night and weather day if needed. On Wednesday, Craig, Steven, Al, and Wayne set out to do the wanding, while the rest of us went back to our stash of bottled water, back at the trailhead. I was definitely feeling better, and eating food again. Thanks, to Steven's Imodium(R). Everyone was psyched for this climb. But, we could not help noticing the giant irregular "mushroom" cap at the summit, and wondered how we were going to get around and on top of it.

Then, at 1:00 AM, we set off for the glacier on the South side and started climbing. We still had good moonlight and were able to minimize our headlamp use. A good thing -- my was starting to short out. The rope teams consisted of Craig, Wayne, Sherry, Al, and Steven on the lead. And, Jerry, I, Kim, and Greg following slowly behind. The 500'/hr pace was good and timely, and we were all feeling strong. A couple of German climbers, who came up and camped near us on Wednesday, tagged along and helped us look for the route on the upper half of the mountain. The crevasses were not as bad as I thought (appearing to be no more than 10' deep), and proved to be easy to step over. There was, however, a lot of low angle ice. Had to work on keeping all twenty crampon points down. My rope team (the "second" team) reached 18,000' around 5:30 AM, when we finally caught up with the lead team. Craig had his team taking a break, while he was investigating the big crevasse we all had come upon. And it was big, and long. We could see the overhang of the "mushroom" cap just beyond it. Craig decided to lead us around to the West, while the two Germans went around to the East. NO LUCK! We could not find a safe way around. The information we got from the local guides, about snow bridges, was not coming through. And, the morning chill began to set in. So, we turned around and went back to camp. We were all bummed. And, I was feeling really good at 18,000'. Back at camp, we all went back to bed.

Later, Craig (feeling really miffed) decided he needed try it again and asked for any willing participants to go along. Sherry, Al, and Wayne were also feeling miffed and signed up. The rest of us decided to save our energies for Chimborazo and sleep in for a boring 12 hours, the following night. We kept in contact with them with our two-way radios.

Craig's new route would take the team up the North side this time, following the tracks left by a guided American group who had been there earlier. The rest of us packed up and headed back to the trailhead for one more "low camp" night on the tundra. On our way out, we finally got a call from Craig (~8:00 AM), and spotted his location. The team was at 18,200', on a smaller "mushroom", just to the North side of the main "mushroom". And once again, he reached another dead end. This mountain was not going to be climbed. That night, their tired bodies stayed at the high camp.

Back in Quito, we learned from some local climbing sources, that apparently, no one has been able to summit Antisana this year. And, the Germans. They multiple attempts did not get them there either. Yeah, I guess! Who knows what happen to the other American group.

Chimborazo 6,310 m (20,700')

We made an early return to Quito on Saturday (1/5/02), after four nights and days on Antisana. We were glad to get back to cleaner water and comfortable beds (note to myself: Next time, bring the Thermarest pad and leave the 4 qt. pot at home). And, a chance to finally get our clothes washed at the cheap, but great drop-off laundromat, across from the hotel. We were, also, looking forward to catching up on our email, long distance phone calls, and eating fresh food. But, this would last only one day. We were off to 'Chimbo' on Sunday, minus three crew members. After our letdown on Antisana, Kim R. and Steven J. decided that they had their fill of climbing in Ecuador, and made plans to return home. It would now be seven of us on the last BIG climb. Kim and Steven would try to get in a little sight-seeing before they left. But then, on Saturday night, Jerry C. got a call from his employer. Things were going down with a big contract of his, and he was needed stateside immediately. Boy, what a bummer (2nd note to myself: Never give my boss the phone number for the hotel)! So, now it would only be six of us: Craig, Sherry, Al, Wayne, Greg, and me.

The ride from Quito to Ambato, to Chimborazo took about four hours. It was fairly comfortable, in Alvin's cozy charter bus. I say 'fairly', because Ecuador's roadways need a lot of work, especially between Ambato and Chimborazo. Access to the main huts, on the South side, requires travel through a national wildlife preserve and is currently under construction. It is very sandy, and the route -- a bit confusing, especially in foggy weather. If you go this way, remember to stop and pay the park ranger, for your travel permit. Just look for two guys on a bicycle. The one in the gray camouflage fatigues, wearing a Kevlar vest and a .45 cal. revolver is the ranger.

We arrived at the lower hut by 2:00 PM, in thick fog, and hauled our gear up to the dusty loft, inside. This was not easy! The effortless ride from 9,300' to 15,900' left me feeling very dizzy. The lower hut has nice bunks and dining room, and a clean smelling kitchen (with running water). However, I have seen better lavatories in remote Italy. While we only intended to spend the first night in the lower hut, a tour of the upper "Whymper" hut made us decide to stay in the more quiet, less smelly lower hut for the entire climb. It would only add 500' feet and 1 hour to the total duration of the climb. There are enough beds for eight people, plus plenty of floor space. One other thing about the hut -- no lighting. The first night was restless for me. But, I did get about 4 good hours of sleep in the six hours we had the next night, before getting up for the 11:00 PM start on the mountain. I WAS feeling strong. The Diamox and decongestant seemed to be working. Since Jerry left, we were not able to check our pulse/ox. My saturation level had to be at least 80%, which is good. But, my heart was still running 100-120 bpm. We ate breakfast and started slowly up the trail to the Whymper hut. The air was warm and damp. Beyond the Whymper hut, we continued slowly up frozen rock (which became loose rock, later in the day). And, in 1 hour, we had already gain 1,000'. At 12:30 AM, we reached the famed step ladder to the snow ramp ("El Corridor"). Two 3" diameter poles with several 1x2's for rungs. It makes the ladder at Mesa Verde look great. Up to this point, Greg was slowly becoming less sure of himself for the climb. And, when we began up the ladder onto the snow, he decided to stop and return to the hut. Like me, he had not been getting good sleep. To bad! At the start of our "Four Mountain Excursion", I thought he was our strongest member. So, now there were only five of us. Shortly after getting on the snow, we put on our climbing gear and roped up.

We could see another group quickly approaching from below. The first mile or so, through "El Corridor" and upward to the ridge (Near the rock buttress "El Castillo") was straightforward switchbacking along a preexisting path, set by the climbers the day before. Moderate climbing angle, on snow. Once on the ridge, condition became steep and icy. Not what I was expecting. The guide book described it as a slow walk up from here. This ridge walk was technical. We even had a few crevasses to contend with. But, they all had good snow bridges. One required the use of ice tools to get up and over the back wall. This was no more than 4' of high angle ice above 4' of overhang. Wayne, the expert ice climber, did it with just his mountain axe. The second group (a guided group) finally caught up with us on the ridge, and passed us. In a rude way -- across our rope! I hate when they do that. I made sure the rope was slack and on the ground. They were making the fast, straight-to-the-summit ascent, and we let them. We crossed through our last crevasse at ~19,000', at ~7:00 AM. At this point, I and Al (both at the rear) stopped to look back down the ridge, as daylight illuminated the landscape. Since the sun was on the other side of the mountain, we got to see the giant, triangular shadow of "Chimbo" laid out across the low altitude haze, to the West. Just like the one seen in photos of Everest. At 19,500', I was really noticing the lack of air, and physical energy. I, also, noticed the upcoming start of the ice seracs that we would need to climb over to get to the summit. We took a break, and Craig asked us all on how we were doing. I told him I wasn't sure. I had not been eating much during the climb, except candy and a bite of a bagel. I was drinking, though. Al gave me an orange "Goo" packet, which is okay after the initial, hard swallow, and Wayne gave me a good pep talk. This climb, still, did not seem as hard as my French guided climb up Mont Blanc (Aug. '94). But, it was getting close. Craig said we did not have much further to go, and we would HAVE to take it slow through the seracs. We all continued on.

The seracs were steep and ice. I was constantly having to rely on my knees to mantle up on the big ice steps (bad habit!). Someone on our rope, ahead of me (guess that leaves Al out) was making awkward "side" steps. Hard for a "French stepper" like me to deal with. I really could have used an ice tool on this stuff. Mountain axes do not dig in well. Eventually the climbing angle was get shallower, and the sunlight was getting brighter. I guess we were getting near the summit. But, we were still stepping up and over the 4-6' seracs. Al compared it to trying to traversing an office full of cubicles -- the hard way -- straight over! And then, we were on top -- I think. We could not climb any higher. We could not see the horizon or surrounding landscape, either. I had to get on top of a serac to see. Yep -- we were on the summit! The "Veintimilla Summit" (6,260 m = 20,500').

This was good enough for me. I could see the true "Whymper Summit" at about 1/2 mile east. It looked bad! A lot more ice seracs, and an additional 500' of upward climbing. I told Craig that this was it for me. And, then I sat down to try to catch my breathe. We all were. 1,800' feet higher than I had been before. Not bad! Warm and sunny. No headache or nausea. But, for the others, this was not good enough. They had to go on. They had to make it up, for not reaching the summit of Antisana, on their TWO (2) attempts. Wayne estimated two hours, out and back. I was willing to wait that long. So, I took myself off the line, anchored myself into a serac, waved good-bye, and ate my lunch. But, it was not more than 10 minutes later, that Craig and Sherry reappeared. Without Wayne and Al. The terrain ahead was too technical for them. So, they decided to turn around and head back. Wayne and Al kept going on. Craig had to split the rope (his rope, not HAMS'). We had radio contact with them, which was good.

As the three of us made our way down the mountain, the clouds came in, and we were in thick fog. But, the weather was getting warmer and wetter. We were shedding or clothes. Right down to our base layers. I thought it was supposed to be cold at altitude! We down-climbed more cautiously than we up-climbed. Belayed on several icy sections. The 11:00 AM snow at "El Corridor" was beginning to stick to our crampons. But, soon we reached the ladder and was off the slush. Now, we were on loose, wet rock. And, still in the steamy clouds. We tried three times too contact Wayne and Al, but didn't get a response. We WERE a little worried. We did get through to Greg, back at the hut. He hadn't heard from them, either. Craig, Sherry, and I got back to the hut at 1:00 PM, and sacked out in our sleeping bags. At 2:00 PM, Greg finally contacted Wayne and Al. They HAD reached the Whymper summit and made it safely off the mountain. At 3:00 PM, they were back at the hut and we all went back to sleep.

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