Category Archives: Activities

Outings by activity type

Hector (and Fairview)

Fairview

Cliffs are dangerous, yo

I thought it would probably be good to give my seldom-used ski muscles a rest after Columbia, so I drove south to Lake Louise to play tourist for a day. I even treated myself to some Montreal Smoked Meat, which is a bit like pastrami without the pepper coating, and only seems to be sold in Canada. Since I prefer “fitness tourism,” I looked around for an easy peak, and settled on Mount Fairview, a 1000-meter trail climb from Lake Louise. The lake was still slightly frozen, and the trail was snow-covered from the beginning, but Canadian tourists are a hardy lot, so there was a good boot-pack most of the way to the saddle between Fairview and Saddleback.

Thank God for this

Near the end of the bootpack, I met a half-dozen college kids, including a couple girls in short-shorts, debating whether to continue. I made some encouraging noises, but I don’t think they went much farther, which was probably for the best. The last half-mile or so to the saddle was fairly wretched, with stretches of crotch-deep postholing through slush. I tried a direct line toward the peak, failed, then continued up the bottom of the depression farther toward the saddle, where the snow was slightly more consolidated. Fortunately, there was a bare rib leading from the saddle nearly to the summit — I would not have had the energy or patience for another 1500 vertical feet of wallowing.

Sheol, Lefroy, Victoria

The view is actually better than “fair,” with Lake Louise below, and greater peaks to the south, west, and north: Temple, some of the Ten Peaks including Deltaform, Sheol, Lefroy, and Victoria. Having nothing better to do, I sat in a sheltered spot on the summit for awhile, then returned the way I had come. The snow was even worse than on the way up, sometimes even too soft for a sitting glissade, but at least it was downhill. I passed another group of kids, these at least all wearing long pants, and encouraged them to try for the summit before skating down the icy trail through the woods to the teeming hordes of tourists by the chateau.

Hector

Hector’s summit at last


What a difference a week makes. When I first tried Hector seven days ago, there was (awful) snow almost right from the road, and I was almost completely dysfunctional with the flu. Today, I was able to hike the first 600 meters or so (to above the waterfall) in trail runners, and finished a bit after noon. The previous night looked like the last cold night for awhile, and I was just about done with the area, so I figured I might as well stick around an extra day to finish Hector. It is one of the Canadian Rockies’ 11,000-foot peaks, an ultra-prominence peak, and best done as a ski, so it would have been lame of me to leave it un-bagged while I was in the area.

Looking down to Bow Valley

I got a semi-alpine start around 6:20, finding two other cars parked in the small pullout across from Hector Creek. It took me a few minutes to adjust to my new dimensions with both skis and boots on my back, but I was soon making steady progress up the good use trail toward the waterfall without getting stuck on trees. Below the waterfall, I climbed a cone of avalanche snow, then a little third class cliff. After a few more minutes of trail, I reached nearly-continuous snow in the hanging valley around 2200 meters. I skinned up the lousy snow, then stumbled across 50 yards of rocks to reach the continuous snow to the summit.

Skinning toward glacier

The snow below the Hector Glacier was steep enough to require some boot-packing, but fortunately it was early enough for it not to have turned awful. Above, it was low-angle enough for efficient skinning. Rounding the corner, I finally got a glimpse of the well-hidden summit, and spotted a team of four on the upper glacier. They had taken a line well to the left, but it looked like most skiers followed a lower-angle line to the right. At the base of the glacier, I passed their four pairs of snowshoes, their tails stuck in the snow next to a red-flagged wand.

There were scattered clouds wandering slowly eastward, and as I reached the upper glacier, one of them parked on Hector. I wasn’t about to get lost — I had a map and GPS, and there were old tracks — but it was a bit annoying to climb with no visibility, and would be downright unpleasant to ski down in those conditions. I plodded on, eventually finding the party of four’s boot-pack, though I neither heard nor saw them descending.

Summit rock band

I stashed my skis and poles below the summit knob, then took on the final 100 feet of rock, ice, and snow with my axe and no crampons. I had them in my pack, but it would have taken time to adjust them to my ski boots, and this made the climb a bit more of a fair fight. I finally spotted the group of four descending the snow above the lower rock step. They turned out to be three novices and (probably) a guide, roped together and moving slowly. It seems like they had been going at a leisurely pace all day, since they had started around 3:30. I booted past them, then climbed a final 6-foot rock step to the summit, becoming slightly more comfortable climbing in plastic boots.

Time to go fast

The summit was better than I expected: a narrow ridge above the clouds, with a register and some dry sitting rocks. I spent some time looking down to Hector Lake and willing the clouds to depart the Hector Glacier, then carefully downclimbed to my skis. The group ahead of me had maybe a 10-minute lead, and I had to ski carefully up high while in the clouds, but most of the glacier was clear, and I soon flew by them, briefly hitting 50 MPH on a steep section with a good runout. I briefly screwed up below the glacier, heading too far right and having to hike some rocks to correct my error, and the snow was absolute garbage below 2400 meters. Still, Hector is an awesome ski, and would have been even better a month ago, when I could have skied all the way to the car, a vertical mile below. Canadians are so spoiled…

Columbia (10h52)

Columbia summit pyramid


Mount Columbia is the second-highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, and the highest of 11 11,000-foot peaks that ring the Columbia Icefield. Unlike Mount Robson, whose 10,000-foot south face is visible from the highway, Columbia is a shy mountain, seen only from parts of the Icefield and its surrounding peaks. Therefore most people never see it. The standard route climbs the Athabasca Glacier to the southeast side of the Icefield, then makes a mostly-flat traverse to Columbia at its far west side. Depending upon the exact route chosen, it is about 25-26 miles round-trip.

Snow Dome

I had been hanging around the Glacier Discovery Center enough that people were starting to recognize me — never a good thing — but the weather and my cough finally both cooperated, so I could finally tag my peak and leave. The result was painful, as I am not used to long ski tours, but ranks among my favorite days in the mountains. In addition to some incredible and unique scenery, this outing and my other two trips up to the Icefield helped dispel my irrational fear of the Athabasca Glacier approach and the Icefield itself. It’s serious terrain, but as is often the case, it can be managed with caution and mountain sense instead of gear and partners.

First view of Columbia

I had a quiet night in the Sunwapta Lake parking area until a few minutes before my 4:15 alarm, when two trucks pulled in to either side of me. They proved to contain two parties headed across the Icefield, a pair headed for the Twins, and a group of four headed for I-don’t-know-where. I consumed my cup of sadness and started just after the first group, shortly before 5:00, catching them as they put on their skis at the toe of the glacier. Figuring that I wouldn’t be carrying my skis much, I took my new daypack, which has enough room for gear plus stash pockets for food.

Castleguard and points south

I slightly gapped the pair headed for the Twins on the way up the familiar Athabasca Glacier, topping out in around two hours. They had been making good time, but disappeared somewhere in the middle, perhaps taking the long detour left instead of going under Snow Dome’s seracs. I, of course, took my chances on the direct route, and saw no ice fall in the hour or so that I could see the seracs. Judging by the debris, I might get hit if something big came loose, but it would bounce and roll first, cutting its momentum and giving me a chance to dodge. Plus, the detour looks way sketchier, as it parallels a number of crevasse fields.

Bryce from the Trench

The light clouds were breaking up, and I finally got direct sun a bit after 8:00, stopping to put on my hat and sunscreen. With no fog obscuring my view, navigation was simple: head more or less straight on from the top of the glacier, then turn slightly right as you see Castleguard. When Columbia starts emerging, aim at or a bit left of its summit to hit the highpoint of the trench. This part can be a grind, skinning across slightly-undulating, nearly-flat terrain with only distant landmarks. Getting around Snow Dome takes forever. However, the views of Bryce, Castleguard, and the Icefield lit by the sun breaking through patchy clouds kept my mind occupied, and the snow was in near-perfect condition.

Slog, slog, slog

I actually overshot the highpoint of the Trench a bit, and had to backtrack slightly before switching to ski mode to dive in. I tried to gather some momentum, but ground to a stop before making any progress up the other side. From there, it was an interminable skin up the nearly-flat ice peninsula leading to Columbia’s base. The scale of the place makes itself felt on this stretch: the summit pyramid looks small, but is actually almost 2000 feet high, while the almost-flat approach above the Trench is nearly three miles long.

Columbia Glacier

Columbia’s east face had been baking all morning, so despite the cooler night, it was starting to become posthole country. Fortunately, it looked like a couple groups had summited in the last few days, and their boot-packs were still relatively firm. Unfortunately, they seem to have been very tall, because the steps were placed awkwardly far apart. Based on a trip report I had read, I had anticipated stashing my skis and booting both up and down. However, I saw ski tracks on the face, and it is both broad and not too steep (about 45 degrees), so I decided that it should be skied. To my delight, I found that my new daypack can carry skis cross-wise using some external straps, though I doubt that is their intended purpose. Lacking a serious waist-belt, the pack is not super-comfortable while carrying heavy skis, but… good enough.

The Twins

Unfortunately, I basically imploded on the 1500-foot boot-pack to the top. This being May, I had packed fewer calories than the math suggested, so perhaps rationing contributed. More likely, I was just worn out after doing more skiing than I have done in years, perhaps decades. I made my pathetic way up the face, cheered by the view of the Twins to my right, and the prospect of skiing down this thing.

Summit cornice

Following the herd’s tracks left of a 30-foot summit cornice, I sketched across a bit of shallow snow over ice, then popped through the short part of the cornice to emerge on the summit plateau. I could not have asked for better conditions: it was calm, clear in all directions, and probably right around freezing. I spread my windbreaker on the snow, rooted around my unused crampons to dig out my down parka, and sat down to admire the views. Far to the east, I could make out the head of the Athabasca Glacier in the distance, between Andromeda and Snow Dome. Next door to the north rose the South Twin, presenting its fearsome 6000-foot south face. Directly to the east, the Columbia Glacier falls in double ice-falls from the Trench to the headwaters of the Athabasca River. Unknown mountains stretched to the horizon in all directions: the Rockies to the north, south, and east, and the Selkirks barely poking above the cloud deck to the west.

About to dive in

After a sandwich and a brief summit nap, I switched to ski mode, then pitched over the edge onto the east face. My quads were tired from the climb, and the snow was heavy, so I had to stop every dozen turns to recover. Still, going down made up for the horrid slog on the way up. The snow was starting to soften, and the flatness of the plateau back to the Trench made itself felt. Though it was not worth switching to skins, I was forced to do some exhausting skating to get through one stretch. Things improved once the plateau started dropping to the Trench, and after a screw-up where I drifted too far left and ended up on the edge of a huge crevasse, I righted myself, and managed to hit 43 MPH in a tuck down the final slope.

Parting view

Now it was time for the slog. I ate my last granola bar, then began skinning up the other side. I followed an old track for awhile, then switched to navigating by landmark, aiming for the left-hand skyline of an unnamed peak southwest of the Athabasca Glacier. This long traverse is a trade-off between elevation gain on the direct line nearer Snow Dome, and distance on a slightly longer and lower route farther south. The snow was starting to soften, and I was out of water; the day was becoming distinctly less fun.

At last, I reached a point where I could switch to ski mode for the rest of the way home. After a fast, easy descent to the head of the glacier, I took the current line skier’s left of its head, which is now a crevassed disaster, then linked turns down the headwall. The snow was getting sticky, so I couldn’t match the previous outing’s speed, but I still made good time all the way to the lower, flat part of the glacier. Unfortunately it was mid-afternoon, and the snow had been baked to a wretched, sticky state; even following the morning’s skin track, I had to constantly double-pole to keep moving. The final stretch was even slower, as I stumbled across the moraine with my skis over my shoulder, crossed the rope barrier right next to the “you will fall in a crevasse and die” sign, then clomped through the tourist hordes to reach my car.

Despite the slow finish, I was surprised to make it to the car faster than I had expected — just under 11 hours. As I have established before, I am usually 10-20% off what an elite athlete can do, even at things I should be good at like uphill running. I was therefore very satisfied to be less than 20% off the 9h18 FKT for Columbia, set by members of the Canadian national ski mountaineering team. Ill-timed illness has kept me from doing as much skiing as I had hoped while in the Great White North, but what I have done has been high quality. Hopefully we’ll have a decent winter wherever I end up in the States next winter.

Snow Dome

Snow Dome from near Wilcox Pass


The Columbia Icefield, between Banff and Jasper, is the largest piece of ice south of Alaska, and one of the Canadian Rockies’ most impressive features. Snow Dome, as its name suggests, is one of the area’s least impressive peaks. Still, it is one of the hydrological apexes of North America, along with Triple Divide Peak in Montana, and offers impressive views of Mount Columbia, The Twins, Mount Bryce, and other high neighbors.

Yours Truly coughing up a lung

When I did Kitchener last summer, I thought that would be my only time on the Icefield, since the normal access is via the heavily-crevassed Athabasca Glacier. So when Bob suggested ski touring up to Snow Dome, I jumped at the chance. When I woke up feeling a bit off on my first morning in the Tetons, I thought I had a minor cold, and skied the Spoon Couloir the next day. When I felt worse the next morning, I suspected something more serious, and began conserving my energy, taking a couple days off on my way up to Canada. Though I was useless and NyQuil-dependent the next day, I managed to cough my way up Snow Dome on a day with near-perfect conditions.

Walking the coach road (photo Bob)

Bob and Matt rolled into the Glacier Discovery Center from Calgary around 10:00, and we set our alarms for 4:00 AM and a short night’s sleep. We started walking up the snow coach road around 5:00, with no need for headlamps so far north. Though it loses some elevation dropping to the receding Athabasca Glacier, the road is still probably faster than skinning up from the toe of the glacier, especially when the road down to the glacier parking lot is closed.

Ramp through third crevasses

From the graded tourist area, we skinned across to the north side of the glacier, then began making our way around the three bands of crevasses leading to the icefield. We easily passed the first, then continued past the second on a good skin track, choosing to scurry beneath the seracs instead of navigating the crevasse around the glacier’s south side. The serac was more active than any I have seen, letting loose twice while we climbed, but there is enough on the glacier’s north side to avoid a direct hit by falling ice and snow. The ramp up the third crevasse band was an easy climb up a good switchbacked skin track, with only a few crevasse issues near the top, where the current track will probably soon have to be re-routed.

Columbia emerges

With no features other than the occasional human, it is hard to judge distances on the Columbia Icefield. We climbed endlessly to a broad ridge northwest of the glacier’s head, with Mount Bryce’s intimidating north face finally coming into view to the southwest. The direct route to Snow Dome’s summit is a broken mess of crevasses, forcing skiers to circle around to its southwest side before climbing. As we circled and climbed, Mount Columbia, the Rockies’ second-highest peak, came into view on the far west edge of the icefield.

Summit conditions

Once we finally had a straight shot at Snow Dome’s summit, it was just an endless slog to get there. The “peak” is not a perfect dome, but an endless series of false summits. Even when we finally reached the summit, we were not sure we were there until we passed it and saw neighboring Mount Kitchener’s south face. Despite magnificent views of Columbia and the Twins, we stayed only long enough to switch to downhill mode. The headwind that had started a few hundred feet below the summit had grown vicious, and none of us wanted to hang around.

Sailing off the summit (photo Matt)

After being helped off the summit by a tailwind, I enjoyed carving fast turns down the hard-packed slopes, roughly following our up-track back toward the head of the Athabasca Glacier to stop for lunch in a more sheltered spot. Other than a bit of cautious skiing at the head of the glacier, we had a wonderfully fast run down to its flat lower section, then an easy cruise to the toe. Taking off our skis, we clomped across the morainal debris, then stepped over the ropes back onto the tourist path, ending our day by climbing the road back to the parking area in the mid-day heat. The whole outing was about 6 hours up and 2 down, and far less intimidating than I had expected. Hopefully I can recover quickly enough to make another visit soon.

Spoon!

Amphitheater


After Drift, I rallied up to the Tetons hoping to do a lap or two on Buck Mountain’s east face, a broad, fun, moderate ski I had done last June. Pulling in after dark, I found that not only was the Moose-Wilson road closed just north of the Death Canyon trailhead, but the road to said trailhead was blocked as well. I suppose I could have walked the road or driven around to another trailhead, but I was feeling lazy and a bit under the weather, so I just slept there, then bummed around Jackson for the day. I have only seen the town during its hellishly crowded tourist season, and found it pleasantly quiet in the narrow window between when Jackson Hole Ski Area closes and Yellowstone opens. Grand Teton is similarly quiet and pleasant — I seem to have finally figured out how to spend the month of May.

Booting up from the trail

Anyways, I drove up to the Lupine Meadows trailhead to camp, figuring I would ski either South Teton or Teewinot the next day. Some guys I met there suggested accessing Garnet Canyon via the winter route between Braggart and Tadley Lakes, but I stuck to the devil I knew. I also stayed up way too late watching Westworld, so in the end I had a late breakfast and headed for the Spoon Couloir on Disappointment Peak instead.

Guys descending the Spoon

There was intermittent snow on the trail right from the trailhead, but not enough to ski, so I hiked to the Burt Wagon Gulch junction in trail runners, then continued up the lower shortcut a ways before hopping onto the snow in the couloir to its left. I tried skinning at first, but it was too steep, so I put my skis back on my pack and slowly booted up the thing, roasting in a t-shirt in the morning sun. I found myself “racing” two men with snowshoes who were headed in the same direction, and chose the ridge to the right for some reason.

View up the Spoon

My aim was a little off, but close enough, and I soon passed Surprise Lake on the right and Amphitheater on the left, not daring to skin straight across. I saw two men making a very slow descent of the Spoon, and picked up their skin track and bootpack as I neared the base of the couloir. There was a bunch of avalanche debris at the bottom, and a nice runnel in the center, but it didn’t seem to be actively sloughing. The bootpack had been partially covered by slush, probably unleashed when the men skied down, but I still found useful stairs most of the way up. I was still dripping sweat in a t-shirt.

Snake River from above the Spoon

It was late enough in the day that I was concerned about snow conditions, so I skipped the summit and transitioned to downhill mode in a lower-angle spot left of the couloir. I saw no sign of the snowshoers, who had been headed for the standard ledges route left of the Spoon when last I saw them. That looked like a bad idea to me, with multiple small recent wet slides, but who am I to judge?

What are you doing?

Transition complete, I cautiously dropped into the Spoon. There was still quite a bit of slush hanging around the upper couloir, so I had to ski defensively, making a couple turns, traversing to one side, then waiting for the slush to stop moving. The surface had been better scoured lower down, so I was able to ski more continuously, but I still made frequent stops to rest my thighs, since the sticky slush made for exhausting skiing.

The open woods and chute below Surprise Lake were decent, and would have been a lot of fun with better snow. This early in the season, continuous snow extends to within 50 yards of the lowest Garnet Canyon switchback, so I only had to walk from just above the junction. After a warm night, the snow on the trail had been just barely supportive in the morning. On the way back, it was less so, and I had to step carefully to avoid postholing. I returned to the trailhead to see 5-6 cars’ worth of skiers hanging out, who I passed in silence to prepare a pot of glop. And to chase a marmot out from under my car — I have no idea what he was up to, but I’m sure it was no good.

“Drift”

Face to be skied


Welcome to the 2018 season! The early part of this season should be a bit different, because thanks to my “Scott sponsorship” (the man, not the brand), I have AT skis. I was hoping to use them this winter, but the dismal winter in the southern Rockies, among other things, scuttled that plan. Maybe next winter I will pick somewhere likely to have a better winter.

Jacque from parking lot

Instead, I started my ski season in May. Just like last year, where my first run in several years was a survival-ski down the Middle Teton Glacier, I chose something hard enough to guarantee more survival than fun. When I climbed “Drift Peak” near Leadville last spring, I traversed from Fletcher, then plunge-stepped down something I thought might make a good ski run. Since I needed to break up the drive north, I decided to return to Mayflower Gulch and try skiing it.

Moonset over popular run

Mayflower is a popular backcountry ski trailhead, so there was one other person camped there, and two more trucks arrived before I started skinning up the road around 6:30. There were the usual spring dog turds melting out of the track, but still just enough snow coverage to ski from the parking lot. I took my time skinning up the road toward Boston Mine, passing one side-road before taking another that seemed to get a fair amount of traffic. I eventually emerged from the woods at the bottom of a broad, gentle slope that looked to be a popular ski.

Sketchy ski-track

There seemed to be several possible ways to reach Drift’s northwest ridge, so after some annoying sidehilling, I switchbacked and booted up one of them at random. I had come up too early, and had to walk along the ridge a little before picking up the skin track, which made its way somewhat precariously along the ridge crest. No doubt this avoids avalanche danger earlier in the season.

Upper north ridge

From below, I had seen a couple of people switchbacking up the ridge’s headwall, and indeed there was a nice zig-zag track. However, it was steep and side-hilled enough that perhaps it was meant for ski crampons. I carefully followed it for awhile, back-sliding occasionally, then put my skis on my back and slogged up the exposed talus to the summit ridge. A combination of lack of fitness, a heavy pack, and altitude made the climb shamefully slow.

Annoying snow in chute

I sat on the summit for awhile, watching people summit nearby Quandary, then switched to downhill mode and carefully side-slipped around some rocks to the face. This seems to be a popular ski run, showing 4-5 recent tracks made by people much better than me, i.e. able to link nice S-turns. I struggled a bit with the crusty powder and frozen snowballs, making a few cautious turns, then stopping to pant and plot my course.

The slope steepens near the bottom (50 degrees?), and splits into several narrow chutes separated by rock buttresses. I almost started down the wrong one, then followed the tracks skier’s right across a few to the correct one. It was still steep, narrow, and slow, but it went. Finally, on the smoother apron below, my old ski racer instincts kicked in, and I was able to carve some nice super-G turns and then shoot straight down the low-angle slope toward the parking lot. I had planned to spend another day in the area, but the spring snow was obnoxious enough that I decided to try my luck farther north.

San Cristobal

My one souvenir (photo by Ted)


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.

Santa Cruz

I don’t normally do image posts, but in this case it seems appropriate.

Birds

Iguanas

Tortoises

Crabs

Miscellany

Chimborazo and Guayaquil

Sunset on Chimborazo


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.

Vicuña

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

Summit view


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.

Sunset on Cotopaxi

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.

It sucks up here

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.

Sunrise on descent

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

Rumiñahui


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.

Upper north summit

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.

Central peak from north

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.

Solitary sandpiper

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.

Most of Cotopaxi

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.

Cotopaxi refugio

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.

Sunset on Cotopaxi

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.