Current Location - Quito, Ecuador
On a bus back from somewhere, I forget where, but I think it was the market is Saqusili, while visions of llamas danced in my head and we passed Mt Cotopaxi, one of the largest volcanoes in South America, someone mentioned to me that it could be climbed. But doing so required a good bit of training, preparation, acclimitizing, however the outfitters who run the trips provide all the gear you need like ice shoes, ice axes, jackets, etc. It sounded like fun to me so I looked in to it when I got back to Quito.
Turns out that Cotopaxi at over 19,000 feet is a pretty challenging climb. In order to do it, it is necessary to do a couple smaller climbs to 15,000 and 17,000 feet first for a couple reasons. First, it gets you used to the altitude, which some people can have violent reactions to. Secondly, it allows you to see if you really enjoy or are able to climb to those heights. However, these little treks can be expensive if you book them on your own. If you have more than one person, the price drops considerably. So when one of the tour agencies told me they had someone else in town looking to work their way up to Cotopaxi, I decided to find them.
Rob was the other guy interested in climbing Cotopaxi, and had a plan of 2 other mountains to work his way up to it. I met up with him and we discussed the plan. Head to Mt Corozon at 15,093 feet, summit that on Sunday, do Iliniza Norte at about 17,000 feet mid week and try to summit Cotopaxi on the weekend. Sounded perfect. Rob had also gotten information on climbing Corozon and felt that it was easy enough to summit without a guide.
So Rob and I, along with another person interested in climbing, Melanie, from my hostel headed out Sunday morning from Quito to climb Corozon.
We arrived in the small town of Machachi and took a pickup to the Hosteria closest to the base of the mountain and checked in. The place is called Hosteria de Estacion, and has to be one of the most amazing places I have ever seen. Tucked in nicely at the edge of this small town at the base of a mountain in the Andes, it is just one of the most amazingly tranquil places I have ever seen. Lush gardens inside beautiful walls. The place is a frequent stop for the wealthier people of Ecuador.
We got back to find the Hosteria completely packed with dinner guests. From what I gathered, the majority of the guests were from Quito, but they were all from Ecuador, and a couple from Chile. The Hosteria is a family run hotel/resturant and the sons and daughters of the owner come down from Quito to help out whenever it is a big weekend. So when the dinner guests all left, it was just us and the family. They were kind enough to feed us for free after we had asked if we would be able to borrow thier kitchen, being as the $12 dinner they served was a little rich for us. After we ate, I headed downstairs to the bar with the family, and stayed up a good bit of the night talking, dancing, and sharing stories about Ecuador and the US. Some really fantastic people, and hanging out with them really made the trip to the mountain worth it alone.
One thing I discovered on these hikes, is that I seem to have a bit of a knack for trail finding. Something I didnt know I had. But reaching a point where a trail dissapears, I can usually find where it picks up again, or find a print in the dirt somewhere. We had summited the mountain using a hand-drawn map on a scrap of paper, and trying to match up the route with what the drawer tried to indicate wasnt always easy. In the end, we had an incredibly good complementary team of the 3 of us and all helped each other do as well as we had done that day.
We took a rest day in Quito before heading out to do Iliniza Norte. Another girl, Leslie, had checked in to the hostal in Quito who was interested in climbing. She asked me what my plans were and I told her we were going to book a trip up Iliniza Norte with a guide and she said she wanted to come along. However, she was also a member of a group called South American Explorers who had an office in Quito and had a lot of information on area climbs, free to members. Her and I went over to check it out. When we got there, we ended up meeting another member who had done a lot of climbing, and told us that Iliniza Norte could be climbed without a guide and that there were places we could rent the necessary gear from. After a long talk with this guy, we were both pretty confident that it could be done.
We went to talk to Morgan, the owner of Moggely climbing, who we were going to book our tour through to see what he thought of the idea. Morgan is a real straight guy. He'll be honest with you, and tell you if the idea is safe or unsafe, regardless of if that means he loses the business. He said that it is possible for us to do it on our own, and agreed to rent us the gear we needed. He said the trail was fairly beaten and we should be able to find it. He asked if we wanted to rent ice shoes in case we needed it, which depended on the weather. We said no, that if the hike got that technical, we would just head back down. The only map we had with us was a picture I took with my digital camera of a photograph of the mountain with Morgans finger pointing to where we wanted to head towards.
Iliniza Norte is a 2 day climb. The first day, you make the 3 hour climb to the "refugio" at about 15,000 feet. The refugio is a small brick building with bunk beds set up so climbers can sleep there and try to make the summit leaving at 5am, the best time to go. The climb to the refugio is tough, but not technically difficult as the summit is.
We caught a bus back to Machachi, and from there found a truck to take us to the base of Iliniza. Unlike the base of Corozon, there is no hotel there. There is simply a statue of the Virgin Mary, and the small patch of grass it sits in is called La Virgen. From there, it is a 4 hour walk back to the nearest town. As the truck drove away, I commented that we were just dropped off in the middle of absolultely nowhere. We had a rufugio 3 hours up the mountain, and a town 4 hours down the road and a ride that would be coming the next day at 1pm, and until then no other human contact.
We stopped for a rest in a wooded area with trees about 5-6 feet tall at about 4pm. Thats when we heard the first crack of thunder. It was our first hint of what the next few hours would bring.
We climbed out of the wooded area, and started climbing the rocky trail leading up the mountain. At about 4:30, we started getting hit by a bit of hail. A few minutes later, what had been a nice hike turned in to a painful march up a mountain in a hailstorm. If you've never read Jon Krakauers "In to thin air", its an amazing book, one of my favorites. Its about the disaster of the 1997 Mt Everest expidetion. I can remember him saying that you cant imagine how suddenly the weather can change on a mountain. I dont think you can appreciate that statement until you witness it.
All of a sudden, we were in a hailstorm which turned in to a snowstorm with almost no visibility. The snow, although less painful than the hail was getting us wet and also obscuring what little hint of the path we had up the mountain. It was also slowing us down. We stopped to put on our wet weather gear, but at that point it was a bit too late.
With that in mind, we told him that we were ready to still make an attempt at Cotopaxi this weekend.... but with a guide. :) The plan for Cotopaxi was always to go with a guide, but the surpise storm made us realize the importance of having them.
We went to our favorite place with $2 indian food, and spent the rest of the night doing absolutely nothing.
So the plan as of now... Rob, Mel and I will try to summit Cotopaxi on Sunday. Leslie has had other things come up, and wont be able to make it. I think we've got a real good group, and weather permitting, we should be atop 19,000 feet Monday morning.
Realize that I didnt get pics of any of the really tricky spots as it was either too cold or tricky to get a camera out, or visibility was too low.
Current Location - Lima, Peru
We had a day to kill in Quito before doing our Cotopaxi hike, and I stumbled across information on the Pollodrome, and with a name like that, I had to go. We were told fights started at 2pm. We got there and they were closed. The beauty shop adjacent to the Pollodrome (I'm sure the Colosseum had one attached to it as well) said they opened at 5pm. So we spent the afternoon walking the city and going to an amazing church.
We went back at 5pm, and the guy in the Pollodrome told us to come back at 7pm. So, we grabbed some sushi (sushi in Quito? - yes, and it was actually good) and then headed back for the nights main event.
Returning to the Pollodrome, the guy told us not enough chickens had turned out for the evening and the fights were canceled. The mob outside went crazy. You could feel the tension in the air... people had come for bloodshed and they wanted it. Okay, maybe thats a bit of an exaggeration. It was just us and one other guy, and we just kind of shrugged our shoulders and went home, but I guess you could call that high tension.
The next morning, Rob, Mel and I went in to Moggely Climbing to set off for our Cotopaxi climb. This was the first time we had done a climb with a climbing company, and it was nice to get a ride from Quito to the starting point. No buses and taxis and walks. And, to add to that, as we reached the entrance of the Cotopaxi national park, our driver (and our mountain guide) Abraham stopped and told us we could take a look around the museum and grocery store while he prepared lunch. Prepared lunch?? Wow, this was the way to go. On our other trips, lunch was a pack of Ritz crackers in the bus on the way.
After lunch, we drove to the base of the mountain. From there, it is a 1 hour hike to the refugio base camp. Unlike the refugio at Iliniza, this one is more like a fancy ski lodge. Cotopaxi is rather famous in this part of Ecuador, and many people from the area come and make the 1 to 1.5 hour hike to this refugio for the views, after all it is at 4700 meters. It had everything except heat. It had wood burning stoves, but no wood. The refugio could sleep about 100 people, as compared to the 15 or so possible at Iliniza.
Once we caught our breath, we needed to hike around the side of the volcano to practice with the ice gear. For the hike we are given hard-shell boots which look and feel like ski boots, but instead of taking skis they take crampons which are spikes about 2 inches long for digging in to the snow. We are also given ice axes. For most of the hike, you will hold the axe part and dig the shaft in to the snow, like a walking cane. On the steeper parts, you grab the axe by the handle, and slam the axe part in to the ice and pull yourself up by it. Getting used to using it both ways is a bit tricky.
We headed back to the refugio for dinner, which was an amazing spaghetti with meat and pepper sauce. Having a guide and tour company has its advantages.
Unfortunately for most of the people in the refugio, it was too cold to sleep. People told me they could hear about 4 people snoring all night long. I didn't hear anyone, so I guess I was one of them.
1am is the best time to summit the volcano, so everyone wakes up at midnight or so. It was a real cool feeling. Its the middle of the night and teams from all over the world are waking up to make this summit up this volcano. I guess I should clarify, that I have heard Cotopaxi referred to as Mt Cotopaxi, when in fact it is a volcano which is actually topped by a glacier. The glacier changes shape from year to year, but always rests at the peak of the rim at 19,347 ft. In any case, there were climbers from the US, Australia, Belguim, England and Germany, all getting ready for their ascent in the cold eating room of this refugio.
We were actually the last team to get out the door, which was fine by us as we had wanted to go a bit slower. Our plan was to take it slow and easy and reach the top.
Heading out of the refugio at that hour is amazing. At 4700 mts, you're above the clouds, so you can see all the stars shining so brightly.
The first hour of the hike is on gravel-ish rock. For this, the ice-axes and crampons aren't needed. We left the refugio at 1:15 and reached this point slightly after 3am. What should have taken an hour, took nearly 2 hours. Whats more, I couldn't really warm up. I wanted to conserve my energy, but the fact we weren't moving fast was not making my body able to warm up. I asked the our other guide, Pato, if we could go a little bit faster, and he said sure.
So, after putting on the cramp-ons and getting out the ice axes, I was roped to Pato, and Rob and Mel were roped to Abraham. Pato and I went up the hill at a much faster pace, and stopped occasionally for Rob and Mel. Unfortunately, this wasn't doing me any better. Now I was warming up, but the stopping was causing the muscles to slow down and build lactic acid and begin to cramp.
About another hour in to the hike, we waited for Mel and Rob. When they reached us, Mel said that she was pretty certain that with the effects of the altitude, she would not be making it to the top. Rob felt that he had a very good chance of making it, but only at Mels pace and not at mine. Unfortunately, this presented us with a problem. The guides were not allowed to leave us go alone. Yet, one person is pretty certain they are not going to attempt the summit, another wants to make it at a fast pace and another at a slow pace. Rob and I had to make a decision. Either he would stay with Mel and return when she returned, or he and I attempt the summit at the slower pace. In the end, Rob told me he wanted me to go ahead. This was a very big thing for him to offer. At that moment, he knew he would not be summiting Cotopaxi. A big part of me wanted to protest and tell him to come with me, but I had 2 reservations. I felt that with the slower pace, my legs might not hold out as well, as the majority of my pain had come while stopping. Secondly, I had concerns that at that pace, we might not be able to make it before weather turned bad or other factors kicked in. No one really knows.
So Pato and I set off full blaze for the top. Pato has been climbing Cotopaxi and other mountains in the area for 15 years. Abraham has been doing it for 6 years and could count 150 ascents on Cotopaxi, and probably similar numbers on the other dozen or so peaks in the area. Pato said he couldn't begin to count all the times he'd been to the top.
The next stretch we did was the hardest. It was 1.5 hours going up an incredible incline, and with no shelter from the wind. You're on the side of the glacier, and it just hits you with everything. However, at about this point, the sun began to rise, and with the rising of the sun, your spirits are given a bit of a lift, and a new type of energy seems to appear.
At this point in the hike, we reached the ice caverns. Some of them have drops of 30 to 40 feet straight down. Over them, are narrow single-file paths of snow and ice, about 15 feet long that you need to walk over. It was very reminiscent of a video game, except there were no mutant polar bears chasing me. However, as I am crossing them, I realize the only thing attaching me to safety is the rope attached to my guide. If I go, its just up to him to dig in and catch us both. Worse yet, if he slips, I have to catch him.
Beyond this point, there were a couple of ice faces where we had to get out the axe and dig in and climb up, one of which was through a tunnel. Then back to a steep part. It was now after 6am. I was tired, beat, cold, tired of being whipped by the wind, tired of walking, tired of not being able to breath and tired of climbing. The air had gotten much much thinner, and I wasn't used to being so out of breath. I told Pato I wanted to stop. I was really beat.
Pato told me only 2 more minutes to the ice caves. The ice caves are a wave shaped formation of ice. The wind had blown through to create this cave, then as the sun hits it in the afternoon, the top melts, drips, then forms huge icicles in front of the cave, enclosing it. Someone has beaten away some of these mammoth 8-foot icicles about a person-width wide so you can crawl inside this little cave and sit. There was another team just reaching it as we were. We all went inside.
I ate a few of the candy bars and clif bars I had, and shared them with the other team, and they shared their hot tea. I told Pato I was having my doubts. He said we only had one more hour to go, and then we'd be at the top. For some reason, it almost didn't seem worth it. But I thought of all the races I had done in my life, and that one more hour was do-able. If I could finish an Ironman, I could certainly do one more hour up a mountain, right.
Well, maybe right.
We set out from the ice cave, and the wind hit me like a ton of bricks. The wind that carved the cave originally came from the back side of the mountain, and now that the cave was iced over in the front, the wind hits you with a fury as you walk around it. Pato had gone ahead. I called to him that I wanted to turn back. He was 10 steps ahead and couldn't hear me with the wind. I shuffled as fast as I could to catch up with him. By the time I caught up with him, we passed the windy spot. I think that was his plan. He may have even heard me.
The trek up the final stretch was the hardest part of this climb. It got steeper, it got colder, and I had less breath. At no point were my steps long enough to make the heel of the moving foot go past the toe of the stationary foot. Which means I am moving forward about 8 or 9 inches a step. Every 10 steps, I would jam my ice axe in the snow, rest my hands on it, and rest my forehead on my hands and stop for 5 or 10 seconds. Then Pato would tug the safety line as if I was a puppy who decided to stop mid walk in the park. C'mon lil Ricardo. I'd trudge forward for another 10 steps.
As excruciatingly slow as this sounds (and it was), we passed 2 other teams on the way up, making us the second team to reach the summit for the day.
At what felt to be hours later, I asked Pato how much further, the way a little kid asks dad how much further on a long road trip. 5 minutes. I really didn't care. This was close enough, I wanted to turn back. As far as I was concerned, this was close enough to the top. Pato insisted we do the last 5 minutes. I wont say those 5 minutes were harder than an Ironman or marathon, but definitely a different kind of agony. Not just exhaustion, but all the other elemental factors. Add to that, high altitudes have a similar effect on your brain and mental capacity as large amounts of alcohol. Despite all my hard training in *that* area, I think it still had an effect on me. Races at ground level, you can still stay mentally in the game. Mentally, I just didn't care anymore, which is unlike me. This is actually the same reason some of the worlds best climbers have died on Everest. The altitude has such drastic effects on the brain, that you lose the will to care sometimes.
(Pics with red dots were taken from other Cotopaxi sites, as my camera wasn't working well in the cold)
I could remember the conversation I had with someone on a bus about climbing Cotopaxi. The mere mention of using crampons and ice axes sounded cool. I reflected on that, and looked at the ice axe in my hand and crampons on my shoes. It didnt seem so cool now. :)
But I turned off the brain and followed the guy at the other end of my rope for 5 more minutes and reached an uneventful summit. I looked at my watch. 7:15. For some reason, it occurred to me that a year ago, my Monday morning at this hour (8:15am, east coast) would have been very different, and that people were having that morning right now. Why that thought came in to my head just then, I don't know, but it did. Turns out it was a holiday (I think) and I was wrong. Anyway...
My camera does't work well in the cold, and after taking one test picture, it shut down. I put it inside my clothes for 2 minutes to warm it up, and handed it to Pato to take a picture before it froze again. Unfortunately, the camera was set to "movie mode", which means I have a really bad 5 second movie of me trying to hold up our hand-drawn sign in the wind which says "Cotopaxi Summit" and and incorrectly stated "19,330 feet".
After a couple minutes, it was time to go back down.
I thought going down would be a breeze, but it was perhaps harder than going up, despite the fact it took 1/3rd the time. My knees had taken enough and decided they didn't want to support me. Sometimes they just buckled and I fell. I was dizzy and the rapid decent gave me a headache and upset stomach. I reached the refugio at 9:30 completely miserable, but oddly smiling. I had made it.
I really was so thankful to Rob for letting me go with Pato. Its hard to say what would have happened otherwise, but it was a gesture way beyond what I could have asked for, and I was extremely grateful for it.
We still had to make the 40 minute trek back down to the truck from the refugio, and I decided that the less I stopped the better. We spent only 10 minutes at the refugio and just headed right down.
After periodically dozing off in the truck on the way back to Quito, we arrived about noon. Leslie was heading back to Lima at midnight so she could catch her flight, and as I planned to wind my way to Brazil in a month, I figured I would take advantage of having a travel buddy and join her.
That left us homeless in Quito for the day. No sense checking in to a place that you'd leave at 11pm. But at the same time, you just cant sit around in coffee shops for 11 hours. I wandered around Quito dazed and visited various people at thier hotels until it was time to leave.
Our plan was simple. Midnight bus to Guyaquil, Ecuador, getting in at 9am. 2pm bus to Lima Peru which takes 24 hours. 24 hours on a bus? Are you kidding? No, for longer international bus trips, you can take a first class bus. They're modern double decker busses with more legroom, seats that recline almost in to beds, complementary tray meals like they serve on airplanes, movies all day long, and 2 L-shaped couches up in the front of the upper section. I could do 24 hours on one of those.
Well, we got to Guyaquil and found that the labor strikes in Peru were stopping all busses for 24 hours. We'd have to spend a day in Guyaquil, and go tomorrow.
I had transferred through Guyaquil when we went to the beach and it seemed like a dirty little town. Leslie had been there before, but knew the better areas. We picked a hotel, Hotel Ecuador, but our cabbie said it was in a very dangerous part of town and recommended somewhere better. When we got there, Leslie said it was way too far from the part of town that had anything going on and insisted he take us somewhere closer to the center of town. So I showed him my book with the hotels in it and said "Here, you pick something in a safe part of town". He pointed to Hotel Sander. He said its in a very safe area. We got there and it had a safe feel, it looked nice and at $10 we were happy. It even had a balcony. A balcony from which you could see right across the street to... Hotel Ecuador. Good thing we were on the safe side of the street I guess.
Guyaquil did turn out to be pretty neat. There was an Iguana park in the center of the city which had Iguanas just running amok. I dont know why they didn't leave the park. They could have walked under the gates, but they didnt. Anyway, Iguanas all over the lawns, the trees, the sidewalks, everywhere. You had to be careful not to step on them, some of them being 1 meter (3 feet) long.
Afterwards, we spent the rest of the day down at the waterfront. Guyaquil doesn't get many tourists, so you're looked at more by the average person, but left alone by the sellers and the beggars, as they're not sure what to make of you.
The next day, to no-ones surprise, the strike was still on. Leslie did not have another day to wait, she would miss her flight. We looked in to flights, and I debated waiting for the strike to end to take the bus, but the idea of spending a week or more in Quyaquil out of stubborness and a desire to save the $40 difference in bus and plane fare, I decided to fly as well. In order to fly, we'd have to take a bus to Tumbes, Peru and get there by next morning. No problem.
We caught the 2pm bus for the 3 hour ride to the border, which closed at 5pm. We were cutting it close. At a little before 5 we were getting nervous. I asked the guy if the border did indeed close at 5, and if we were close. He said we were 2 hours away. Then he said something about needing to catch another bus once we got to the border. I kind of knew that. Buses from one country are not always allowed to operate in another, unless they are specific international busses. So once you get to the border, you walk across and catch another bus. But I couldnt understand if he said it closed at 5pm or not. It sounded like it, but didnt sound like it. I was confused. We settled on the idea of just getting to the border, and checking out the situation. If it was closed, we'd find a hotel, and wake early and cross in to Peru in the morning.
About 30 minutes later, the guy I had asked about the border looked at me and motioned with his head for me to get off. Or maybe he was looking at someone else. I couldn't tell and the guy got off the bus. I asked the guy next to me if this was the border. No, its further he told me. Ok, so this isnt my stop. The bus pulls away. 20 meters later, it stops. Someone else points to Leslie and I and tells us to get off. Wha??? Ok, we get off. The bus begins to drive away, and our bags are still in the luggage hold below the bus. With a closed fist I pound with all my might on the side of the bus and he stops, I run over to the hold where are bags were put, which was in the back of the bus. Our seats were in the front, so we were unable to see this luggage hold, and were unable to see who or when our bags were removed. I just saw the empty compartment when I opened it up and my heart sank. Then someone yelled. It was the first guy from the bus, standing in the middle of the street with our bags, motioning for us to come get them.
We went over and asked if this was the border. He said no, handed us $1.50 back and said to wait here and mumbled something else and began to run away. Wait!!!! When you're on a bus you dont pay much attention to where you are, especially when the last stop is your stop. So here we were, standing in the middle of a street in some town (or semblance of a town) without a clue where we were, nor where we wanted to go, or really what direction we had come from as we entered through a roundabout. Our bus guy pointed to a guy in a yellow shirt and yelled something at him. It was clear this guy in the yellow shirt would put us on the right bus.
Then it all made sense. There are 2 border crossings. One is convienently on the main road, but closes at 5pm. The other is out of the way, but open all night. We were shuffled off the one bus, so we could get a bus to the other border. Sure enough, the other bus came and we made it through the border and in to Tumbes by 8pm.
I had been in the Tumbes airport years ago on a trip to Peru. Never made it to Tumbes the city, though. I just assumed by the airport that it was a little nothing town. It actually turned out to be pretty quaint. There was a little pedestrian mall with tons of teenagers about, and artists selling their wares. It just had a neat little feel to it.
The next day we headed out for the airport and caught our flight to Lima, getting in at about noon. We did a bit of shopping here and I ran in to some friends that I had met in Nicaragua. Unlike other travelers, these girls were in Nicaragua for just one week on spring break, and were now in Lima for just 3 days for a school project, making it a pretty amazing co-incidence. Leslie made her flight that night no problem.
The next day, I called a friend of mine from the last couple times I visited Peru, a girl by the name of Olenka. Olenka defines a high-energy person. I called her up about 1pm and asked what she was doing. She said she was headed to the beach *right now*! And that I was free to join. Assuming she wasnt currently working, or had the day off, I thought that sounded like a cool idea. Actually, this was just her lunch break. As a die-hard surfer, she takes off during lunch to go surfing. I asked if she had more than an hour. She said they gave her an hour and that she was supposed to be back at 2:30, but was going to come back at 3:30. I figured she must have a good long relationship with her boss to allow her such freedom. Nope, it was her first week at the job. But you see, she hadn't used her lunch break all week to surf, so she was going to do it now, and explain to her boss upon her return that this type of thing might happen frequently. We got back to her office at 4pm. I still havent found out what the reprocussions of that were, if any. I just hung out on the beach and watched the surf and other surfers. Wish I still had my board.
That night, and again last night, I got together with Barry from www.ihana.com. When I was planning my trip in my 4runner, its hard to find information on driving around Central and South America. So when I found Tom and Barrys website about their trip around Latin America, I had to email them. That was about a year ago, and they're still going. They came through Central America, then took a clockwise loop around South America, and have almost reached the end. I went through Central America, and am now beginning a half-hearted counter-clockwise loop of South America. Lima is where our loops crossed and we decided to meet up.
Last night, we headed out to a party at the house of a freind of Barrys. It was about 20-30 minutes from Miraflores. Miraflores is where most travelers base themselves out of. You see a fair number of travelers (easy to spot) here. The further out you go, the less travelers and the more you'll stick out. Its safe to say that where we went to, no tourists go. The party was ok, but we opted to head out to a nearby discoteque for a couple hours. It was a cool crowd. It ended up being good night that got us back to Miraflores around 5am.
Which puts me here at the internet cafe rather sleepy. I think I will head east to Lake Titicaca in the next day or so, then continue east to Boliva and Brasil. I'm not much a fan of large cities, and as I have been to Lima a couple times before, I don't have plans to spend long here.
Hope all is well, -Ricardo