I had taken my skis up to Denver, hoping that enough snow would fall in two weeks of winter to make some easy peaks skiable. Buckskin is one of the last of Colorado’s top 100 peaks I have not climbed, and possibly the last I will bother with. Located near the town of Alma, with a high winter trailhead well above 10,000 feet, it should be skiable from the car this time of year. I slept at a parking area near the mill on the way to Kite Lake, then got a late start because it looked cold outside. I skied about 100 yards up the side of the road, saw bare dirt ahead and bare slopes above, and returned to the car, driving most of another mile up the road before parking near where I almost got stuck in a snowdrift. I set off again, this time with just mountain boots. Other than the occasional drift, the road was dry with patches of ice all the way to the summer trailhead.
The patches of snow were annoyingly breakable crust over sugar, up to knee-deep in the willows, but they were mostly easy to avoid. I slogged up a talus-slope, then made a short, windy traverse to what I guessed correctly was the summit. After looking around a bit, I decided to plunge-step down a snowy gully for a change, then retraced my steps to the road and the car. The drive home down highway 285 showed more bare slopes, even on the eastern side of the Sawatch where they would normally be wind-loaded. Overall, conditions in central and southern Colorado seem to be about like early November of a normal year. No skiing for me this winter.
One final image post from the South America trip, this time from San Cristobal Island in the Galapagos. While doing some island peak-bagging, I found my one souvenir from the trip. Amazingly, though US customs was very unhappy about the two small pieces of fruit I took from the airport lounge, they had no issue with my bringing an enormous tetanus-blade into the country.
I don’t normally do image posts, but in this case it seems appropriate.
After getting done with Cotopaxi around 7:30 AM, I hung out a bit, got a ride back to the park gate, then spent the rest of the morning finding internet and rejoining Ted. We continued south on the freeway, then stopped at a chicken place in Ambato before heading up an impressive road that climbs to over 14,000 feet on its way around Chimborazo and neighboring Carihuairazo. The weather was improving, and we were lucky enough to see their peaks in their entirety. Much of the area around the peaks is a breeding facility for vicuñas, a smaller, wild relative of the llama that was once extinct in Ecuador. The program appears to be working well, and we passed hundreds of the muppet-ish creatures on our drive across the high plain. Unfortunately, our luck with petty local bureaucrats had worn out. We pulled up to the Chimborazo park gate at 4:15, to be informed that the park closed at 4:00, with no exceptions. The guard did not seem susceptible to bribes, and was not going home for the evening. We pulled across the road, and sat to watch the sunset and debate whether to hike the extra 4.5 miles each way to the peak. Neither of us really wanted to sneak into the park, and unfortunately the trip’s tight schedule would not allow us to try again the next day, so we took off for a long, winding drive dropping 14,000 feet to the port city of Guayaquil to be tourists.
Unlike Quito, where driving is easy thanks to good roads and lane markers, driving in Guayaquil can be stressful. For one thing, many of the streets are one-way, enough that the two-way streets are actually signed as such. Even some of the nominally two-way streets can end up a single lane wide, with solid lines of cars parked along both sides. Most of the wider streets do not have lane markings, and traffic flows in an unorganized mass, drivers communicating via frequent friendly honks. Buses, of course, do whatever they want.
I’m not a very good tourist, but I did manage to amuse myself for most of a day. The city has turned part of the Rio Guayas’ shore into a pedestrian mall, with various shops and Simon Bolivar statues. One end has a free museum of both contemporary art and native artifacts. I was able to mostly puzzle out the Spanish signs, and spent several hours looking at various sculptures and pots, including what I think were whistling ceremonial drinking cups. The shoreline south of the museum was a pleasant walk, with the nearby water moderating the otherwise oppressive heat and humidity. One park-like section was populated with local flora, waterfowl, and iguanas. I would rather have been climbing, but… oh well.
Cotopaxi is an almost-perfect cone rising 7000′ from a 12,000′ plain, clad in snow and shrinking glaciers. Though it is not Ecuador’s highest mountain, it may be its best known and most sought-after. It is also a fairly active volcano, and although it has been open to climbers since last October, the stink of sulfur was distinctly unpleasant even at the hut. I had about 3,500 feet to climb from the hut to its 19,300′ summit. Given my performance on Orizaba, and my understanding that the snow turned to horrible mashed potatoes once the sun hit it, I conservatively allotted four hours for the climb, starting at 2:30 AM. Burrowing into my bunk at 9:00, I set my alarm for 2:00 AM and pretended to get some sleep. This was of course impossible, since I had forgotten my ear plugs, and guides allocate 6+ hours to drag clients up the peak. So I lay in bed until 11:00, listened to people clomping up and down the stairs in rented plastic boots until 12:00, then lay in bed until 2:00 before suiting up for the climb. Unsure what to expect, I dressed more warmly than I had for just about anything else: long johns under soft-shell pants, four layers on top, double socks with bread bags in between on my feet, and chemical hand- and foot-warmers in my pack just in case. I moved fast through the common area, worried that some official-ish person would try to stop me, then stopped at the bucket-flushed toilets before heading up the boot-pack. There are two semi-standard route up the peak: a direct one through the crevasses, and a longer one to the right which mostly avoids them. Being solo, I started up the latter, but ended up following a slightly more direct boot-pack with only two crevasse crossings. I put on some aggressive music, and was prepared to try to outrun anyone who shouted at me for breaking made-up laws, but none of the groups I passed gave me any trouble. The lower climb was surreal, slogging up a high-altitude snow slope under the light of the moon, stars, and headlamps of the groups ahead of me. My super-bright BD Icon headlamp contended with my tinted goggles, and the swirling clouds deposited frost on my jacket.
I eventually passed the leading group, and was on my own below the northwest ridge. The big crevasse below the ridge was nicely bridged. I panted up the steep snow-slope above it, then continued to follow the tracks along the ridge’s right-hand side. The sulfur fumes were unpleasant, but not bad enough to make me gag or vomit. I suffered from the altitude on the steeper pitches, but the temperature was just about perfect, cold enough for the snow to remain solid, but warm enough for my hands and feet to be comfortable.
At around 5:20, I reached something that seemed like the summit, though it was both cloudy and dark. I had badly overestimated the time it would take me to complete the climb. Since I would never return to this place, and had plenty of warm clothing, I put on my down parka, turned off my headlamp, and sat on my pack to wait for sunrise.I stuck around the summit until about 6:00, occasionally stomping around to keep my feet warm. I had hoped to see the classic sunrise shadow on the plains below, but the peak was creating its own clouds, so I eventually gave up and started descending without even seeing the summit crater. I passed two Americans on the way, wearing masks against the sulfur, who were probably the only others to summit that day. The clouds broke up a bit at sunrise, allowing me to see some of the neighboring volcanoes, but it was getting colder as I descended, so I hurried back to the hut.
The Canadian woman was waiting outside the hut; she congratulated me on my summit and informed me that her Danish companion had succumbed to the altitude. His 30-year-old rented plastic boots, non-waterproof army suit, and wooden-framed pack might have also contributed. I hung out in the hut for awhile, eating an undeserved, weirdly meatless tamale, then embarked upon an odyssey toward civilization and the next mountain.
Rumiñahui is an unglaciated peak just north of Cotopaxi within the Cotopaxi Park. Ted wasn’t feeling up for the big one just yet, and we didn’t want to give the guards another chance to keep us out of the park, so we shoved our wet sleeping stuff in the back of the rental, got a jump from the friendly Canadian/Danish couple camped next door, then drove up to Laguna de Limpios to start our hike. We spread the various wet things out inside the rider mower as best we could, watched idiots get scolded for crossing the well-signed “do not cross” fence to look at birds, then took off around the lake and up the Cotopaxi evacuation route, which doubles as an approach to Rumiñahui. The route is no joke: Cotopaxi was closed to climbers until last October, and has destroyed the town of Latacunga multiple times in recorded history. For some reason, they keep rebuilding. We followed the trail past some springs, eventually reaching one of Rumiñahui’s southeast ridges. Ted was still feeling the altitude, so I cruelly ditched him to potentially traverse the peak’s three summits. I found numerous trails crossing the east face toward the north summit, and chose the one that seemed to have the most cairns. There was a fair amount of sand and volcanic choss, but the exposed conglomerate rock was surprisingly solid. I reached the ridge, followed a path along the east side that included some slimy fourth class sketchiness, and eventually reached the summit without a guide, and with zero deaths. For the first time, I had a summit view on an Ecuadoran peak. The clouds started somewhere around 17,000′, but I had clear and partly sunny views of Latacunga and Machachi below, and of Rumiñahui’s other summits. I also caught a glimpse of most of Cotopaxi, and decided that it deserved to be climbed. I would probably never return to Ecuador, and almost certainly never get into the park again, so this was my one chance. Deciding to save time and energy, I skipped the lower summits and returned directly to the car. I expected to see Ted on the way back, but it turned out that he had chosen to climb the middle summit instead. Thus, I had plenty of time to hang out at the car. I spread his tent out on the windshield, to both dry it and shield myself from the high-altitude sun, then settled in for a nap. I was half-awakened by a couple of young people on bikes, asking for some reason if I had a lighter. I dug it out, and they proceeded to crouch in the lee of the car and smoke a joint, offering me a toke which I politely declined. They then continued their downhill ride out of the park, and I went back to my nap. Ted wasn’t feeling up for Cotopaxi, but he is a generous soul, so he offered to drive me as far as the mower would take us up the road to the refugio. I switched from hiking mode to “real mountaineer” mode behind the car, then we took off toward the mountain. To improve our chances, we stashed our luggage in the bushes at the base of the peak. Amazingly, the little thing made it to a sign at 15,150′, only one switchback below the end of the road. I bade him farewell, then started hiking toward the mountain-palace at 15,750′. I briefly tried going up the down-path, then thought better of that and switchbacked up the better-packed up-path. It was annoyingly windy and wet near the hut, but I eventually found a semi-sheltered place just above it to set out my bivy. Then I made a $17 mistake by uncharacteristically seeking human interaction in the hut. The Danish/Canadian couple were not around, but I got into a conversation with a guided group consisting of a German (?) man suffering from altitude sickness, and a British woman who had “acclimatized” by partying in Quito for a few days. Yikes. About 15 minutes in, a guy who was either a guide or some kind of official accosted me. He claimed that I was not allowed to camp near the refugio, and threatened to call the park rangers. I am not sure if there are rangers, but it seemed like I might be in some amount of trouble, since the guides and hut staff would probably side with my current enemy. I told him that “my group” was coming up tomorrow (true-ish) and that I was just acclimatizing (false), paid $17 for a bed ($2 more than sticker price?), then fetched my stuff from outside and deposited it by a bunk. After that, everyone seemed friendly; the cook even gave me some tasty potato soup on the house. I talked with the couple we had met earlier for awhile — the Danish guy was not enjoying the altitude — then turned in for some very comfortable non-sleep around 9:00. Bottom line: the Cotopaxi hut is nice and worth the money, but you have to be unpleasantly deceptive unless you’re with a local guide.
El Corazon is an extinct volcano just northeast of the Ilinizas, and another good acclimatization walk-up. After waking up and climbing off the building, we drove the car back down to a flat spot and took another run at the hill, managing to reach a bend a half-mile or so farther than where we slept. Just as we were about to start hiking the road, a guy and his mom drove up in a very capable Land Rover and offered us a ride. He was a guide who worked part-time in the States, so his English was pretty good, and the relatively easy conversation on our drive to the trailhead was a welcome change. El Corazon is in the large Iliniza reserve, and weirdly, unlike Iliniza itself, it has a gate and an entry fee. We paid the $2 apiece, then drove on through up an increasingly rough road to the trailhead sign around 13,200′. Corazon sees much less traffic than Pichincha, though there is enough to create a well-defined trail through the paramo, and we leapfrogged with a guided group for most of the ascent. The route starts off meandering through knee-high grass and some durable ground-cover, then climbs to the peak’s southwest ridge. The ridge-walk is no doubt spectacular on a clear day, with views of the old crater to the west, Iliniza to the south, and perhaps Cotopaxi across the valley to the east, but we of course saw none of that. Thankfully it was not raining on the ridge, but it was chilly, windy, and cloudy the whole time. Though the ridge looked narrow, there were only a couple of short class 3 sections, with most of the climb being an easy walk. We eventually reached a cross, which we assumed marked the high-point, and hung out for a couple of minutes before retracing our steps. The Land Rover was gone, so we had some road-walking to do to return to our weak little car, but it was easy going downhill, and we even got glimpses of the lower snowy parts of Cotopaxi peeking out under the clouds, the closest thing to a “view” I had seen in five days in the country. Now the hard part — getting close to Cotopaxi. There is a manned gate at the park entrance, which is locked after hours, but fortunately we got there mid-afternoon. Ted and I had confirmed that there were no guiding requirements from three sources: ASEGUIM, the Ecuadoran mountain guide association; AAI, an American company that guides in Ecuador; and Gregorio Nuñez, a contact at the Environment Ministry (Ministerio de Ambiente). Just in case, we told the entrance guard that we were planning to climb the lower, non-glaciated Rumiñahui instead of Cotopaxi (sort of true). We should have just said we were going bird-watching, because both the gate guard and the local Ambiente representative claimed that a guide was required even for Rumiñahui. Fortunately Ted had the email from ASEGUIM on his phone, so after 10 minutes of arguing, they had us sign some waivers and let us go, not even charging an entry fee. The gate guard impressed upon me that the rule was “absolutely no climbing without guides.” I can’t say what the actual rule is, but I suggest that however you plan to climb Cotopaxi, you bring some form of written permission to the park gate.
Anyways, once we made it past the gate, we found a gift shop and cafe selling some good-smelling soup, and nice free camping in some trees between Cotopaxi and Rumiñahui. Here we settled in for another wet night.
Pichincha is Quito’s local “workout peak,” with a network of semi-official trails leading up to and around its two 15,000-foot summits, and a gondola running from an amusement park in town to just over 13,000 feet. The hike to its lower, closer summit, Rucu Pichincha, is popular with the locals, and we had plenty of company on our weekend stroll up the trail from the tram. Ted had flown in the night before and obtained the rental car, as powerful and spacious as a rider mower, so we drove over to the base of the gondola and took one of the first cars after it opened at 8:00 AM. Conditions started out cloudy, with the usual drizzle starting about half-way to the summit. Ted was coming from 5,000 feet, so I had a big advantage in terms of acclimatization. We hiked together for awhile, then I left him to tag Rucu and continue to the high-point, Guagua, on my own. The final 100 yards to Rucu’s summit involved a bit of easy class 3 rock partly covered in rime ice, causing some people a bit of trouble. I took in the summit non-view for a few minutes, then returned to a gap in the ridge where the trail splits off toward Guagua. Right at the fork, I caught up to a fast-looking trail runner apparently headed the same way as myself. We talked a bit in broken Spanish and English, to establish that I wanted to run with him, then we took off down the volcanic sand, running the flats and downhills, and walking the uphills. I learned that he was indeed fast, with a 2:38 marathon PR, but fortunately the stretch we ran together was mostly downhill, so he did not have a chance to crush me with his cardiovascular skills. He was carrying only a Gatorade bottle for a 20-mile run, while I had my mountaineering pack, but I managed to keep up without suffering too much. We parted ways at a split in the trail, he to descend and make a loop, me to continue along the ridge to Guagua. After more easy going along the ridge, the final 500 feet up Guagua was a grim, loose sand-slog. I reached what I thought was the high-point, checked out the clouds, smelled the sulfur from the crater, then headed back for the tram. The sand was much more fun on the way down and, inspired by my running pal from before, I jogged the flats and downhills on the way back, reaching the tram in the mid-afternoon.
We headed back to town, got our stuff from the hotel, then visited a weird equator museum north of town, “El Mitad del Mundo.” We closed the place down, then drove back through Quito and south, retracing most of my earlier journey through Machachi to El Chaupi before turning off on a side road toward El Corazon, a lesser neighbor of the Ilinizas.
Here we were bedeviled by our car’s incredible lack of power. It could climb the dirt and cobble road, but only if we stayed above 20 km/hr. If we slowed below that, we had no choice but to coast back down to a flat spot and get another running start. We were also frustrated by a lack of good places to camp. After checking out some flat-ish fields full of cow pies, I eventually spotted a fenced-in concrete structure with a flat roof, which we made our rainy campsite for the night. Fortunately no police or locals bothered us, and I even got a decent night’s sleep.
[I would have more photos for this mostly-boring entry, but my phone croaked. — ed.]
It started raining off and on around 2:30 AM at Laguna Mojanda, so for the rest of the night I did not sleep so much as cower in my bivy, managing the wetness trade-off between rain and condensation. During a short break in the rain around 7:00, I quickly packed up and hit the road, climbing one more rolling hill around the lake, then passing the turnoff to the refugio on the longer climb to the high-point near Cerro Negro. Near a shelter at the crest, I startled what I think were two Caracaras, a colorful type of Andean raptor, which flew off before I could get a photo.Just past the crest, I stashed my pack in the grass and carefully made my way up the pseudo-trail to Cerro Negro’s summit. This would normally be an easy climb, but with the fresh precipitation, it had turned into third class grass and mud, making the climb and especially the descent a bit tricky. The final ridge included several false summits and a bit of third class rock, tempting me to turn around early, but I persevered to the true summit, took in the non-view, then carefully returned to my pack. About half-way down the road-walk to Tabacundo, a rental car pulled over and the driver rolled down his window to ask a question. After a bit of language negotiation, we determined that our best means of communication was French — he and his wife were from Marseille. On the one hand, this helped us communicate, since my French is much better than my Spanish; on the other hand, this really messed up my Spanish-learning effort, refreshing my confusion of both vocabulary and pronunciation. It was worth it overall, though: after realizing that their rental car would not make it anywhere near the lake from this side, they gave me a ride about half-way back to Carcelen.
Returning to the airport earlier than expected, I took a shower, changed into street clothes, retrieved the BBoG, and hired a cab to the fancy downtown hotel Ted had arranged with point shenanigans. Thanks to the ride from the French couple, I had some daylight to kill, so I decided to do a couple errands. I quickly found cheap groceries along Avenida 6 de Diciembre then, with a bit more searching, found a mountaineering store that sold expensive gas canisters. I deposited my goods at the hotel, then went out to find dinner and check out the city. It was a Friday night, and Quito seemed to be a happening place, but I was there to stand on top of piles of dirt, not to party.