Guest post by Craig Smith
It’s not everyday that you get to climb an active volcano, unless you live in Quito Ecuador. Just to the west of the city is Pichincha which last erupted in 1999 covering the city in 2cm (about an inch) of volcanic dust. Here is what an inch of volcano dust looks like on its way up…
(Thanks to Colby.edu and Josh Morris)
The Teleferiqo is one of the highest cable car systems in the world. You ride in little gondolas suspended from a steel cable (a very thick one to be sure) up the side of the mountain. At each suspension tower the little car glides over the pulleys. I watched over and over on both trips. Fascinated as I realized there was just one metal clip holding the cars to the wire and absolutely no back up system if the wire broke. I didn’t mention that to Lauren, although more than once she caught me staring at the cars passing in the other direction. I was struggling in vain to calculate the instantaneous velocity of a falling cable car if it dropped 100 ft (30.48 meters for you metric diehards) to the mountainside below us. I realized it didn’t really matter because the mountain was so steep we would roll all the way to Peru if the cable snapped.
The top of the Teleferiqo is marked 4100 meters. That is about 13,451 feet above sea level. The peak of Rucu, the nearest of the three Pichincha peaks is at 15,696 feet. Ha – what’s 2,245 feet? Where the cable car ends, the path begins. Many local guests stroll around in t-shirts and tennis shoes barely noticing the 40 degree temperatures or 20 to 30 mph wind gusts. Having already visited, Lauren and I were not fooled. We brought backpacks with raingear, fleece, wool touks, gloves and enough food and water to last for three days if rationed carefully. I even packed space blankets, those tiny tinfoil things, in case we decided to camp out overnight.
Lauren and I both knew that the paved walkway and lovely chapel at the trailhead are just decoys. Once you round the church and get out of view of the visitors center, the first of 187 steep, sharp, torturous inclines appears. At 13,541 feet, the air has become thin. So thin you resent the young hostelers who jog past for wantonly wasting the tiny amount of available oxygen. With coats and packs and boots it doesn’t take long for the heavy breathing to start. The wheezing and gasping comes next, followed by the need to stop and wait for overtaxed lungs to absorb enough air to stop your heart from racing.
Lauren and I have been in Quito long enough now that we were able to make steady progress up the steep path. But I needed to train for the much higher climb to Cotopaxi – almost 20,000 feet. Our plan was for me to forge ahead and to meet again for lunch near a power line that seems to be about halfway up to the summit. I set off at as brisk a pace as I could manage, and after the third undulation, I was no longer able to spot Lauren when I looked back. After waiting a few minutes at the rally point the wind got the best of me, and I decided to head back down the trail to meet up with Lauren. It made me feel a bit unchivalrous to have left her on her own on the side of a steep windy volcano. Plus I just plain missed her.
What had taken 45 minutes to climb took 5 minutes to descend. When I found Lauren, I was not surprised to see she had made a new friend. Karin is from Austria and has taken a year to travel Fiji, New Zealand, and now parts of South America. They were progressing up the mountain together and Karin kept up a steady stream of talk about her adventures so far. A lifetime in the Bavarian Alps made the altitude tolerable for her.
We paused for lunch just above where the power lines crossed the trail. It turns out Karin was headed to Otavalo to see the local arts and crafts market this coming Saturday. We have plans to be there, too, so we agreed reconnect and visit a nearby waterfall. Karin decided to head back down after lunch, but Lauren and I strapped on the backpacks again and headed up once more.
Refreshed by lunch, we scrambled over the next section of trail with ease. Both of us seemed delighted in our capacity and stamina. Until the family caught us. A family with small children in tow. A family that dawdled and paused for loose shoe laces and dropped toys. A family that ambled by at the first set of inclines after the level bit.
The previous Saturday on our first visit, a young couple passed us by. The girl was wearing a tank top and blue jeans. And 3″ high heels. As I struggled along om my $200 Marmot all weather coat, high tech base layers and Afghan battle tested boots and socks, this girl wandered by like she was at the mall walking over to the Orange Julius. And despite there only being one real trail up the mountain, I never saw her again. For all I know she is still hanging out up there.
The family disappeared too.
At one point high up on the peak, Lauren and I reached a spot where you needed to scale a rock face to get to where the trail continued. Normally, you would set anchors and attach ropes and then carefully climb hand over foot to the other side. We sized it up before the closing weather “forced” us back.
The nearer to the peak, the rockier the terrain. Glass-like lava had burped up from the earth in strange patterns. The peak itself appears to be one huge mass of basalt blasted from the earth and frozen in time. What had been a fairly broad trail up a steep but manageable ridge becomes a narrow (both my feet side by side would fill the whole path) goat path. Vertigo becomes a real issue.
Just off the start of this part of the path, was a rock face with a platform. Lauren and I had seen others perched up there, so I decided to venture up it. At first well defined “steps” lead the way, but as I went further up the rocks, the steps become less and less defined. About 3/4 of the way up, I began to wonder about getting down. Prices are reasonable in Ecuador, but I wasn’t sure I had enough small change for a helicopter rescue. Big bills are hard to break and I had no idea if a helicopter pilot would even take a $20.
On the way to the pinnacle, we were passed by numerous groups of young people. Often in shorts and t-shirts they would literally race past us. On the steep sections you could see their calves bulging as their legs pumped furiously up the climbs. It was impressive. And Lauren and I comforted ourselves with the knowledge that 30 years from now their pace will probably more closely match ours.
What was more disconcerting was their constant wishes of “good luck” as they sauntered past on the way down. Eventually we began to wonder what lay ahead. We tried to ask to no avail but occasionally one of them would laugh.
We never reached the absolute peak, stopping about 50 meters vertically from the top and maybe a kilometer from the trails end. Forced back by “weather”. But we did learn from a group of young men who did get higher that they eventually gave up when they reached a sheer rock face populated by llamas with talons. I think they made the talon part up but why take chances?
Close to the peak, an enormous black and white falcon gracefully flared its wings and landed a few feet away from us. I had my camera out and snapped a few pictures. The bird waddled around among the rocks near a sheltered cave. As awkward on the ground as it had been graceful in flight. It had a distinctive reddish face and somewhat hooked beak. As we drew nearer, it eyeballed us, decided we were too big to consume and launched back into the mountain drafts. At home Lauren identified it as the dreaded Carunculated Caracara. A somewhat rare and mysterious bird with an awesome name you can easily brag about to your friends. I survived an attack by a Carunculated Caracara – you?
You can take a horse ride up the mountain. And each horse seems to come with a wool poncho and its own personal guide dog. The dogs gleefully bound up and down the mountain, delighted to be gainfully employed. The horses on the other hand seem to be cursing their fate and hoping for the taloned llamas to put them out of their misery caring lazy tourists up the stupidly steep mountain.
My knees were made in 1963. I still have the originals. And after 50 years of use they still work pretty well. But they are closer to their “Sunday driver” phase than their “Conquer Everest” stage. The downhill trek took half the time of the upward climb, but incurred twice the discomfort. In protest my left knee simply stopped bending fully. Once we got home and cleaned up, Lauren was able to massage it back to an acceptable level of function.
The return trip included another mountainside picnic and recurring “Holy Crap” moments when pausing to take in the view. The cable held on the Teleferiqo ride down off the mountain, but the cabby could only find his way to the public square 4 blocks from our apartment. In metric measurement that is too damn far. Our landlord/host could hear us gasping and groaning up the final hill to our apartment from his hammock in the courtyard. We managed to shower and fix a snack before collapsing in bed.
We survived the volcano. We outlasted the weather. We outsmarted the sky ponies and wild beasts of prey of Pichincha. And enjoyed another magnificent day on this amazing adventure.