Category Archives: Tourism

Cain, El Bermeja

Trail along cliff

After taking care of various errands in León, we drove up to Picos de Europa, Europe’s oldest national park, arriving in Posada de Valdeón
sometime before Spanish dinner. The weekend forecast predicted a
significant amount of rain and thunderstorms, but I still hoped to get in some peak-bagging, or at least to see some peaks. While it would have been easy to dirtbag it by myself in the area, Mike and Linda would not have put up with it, so I stayed in a hotel and even had the prix fixe dinner at a restaurant. My chosen dessert course was a scoop of the local (and supposedly famous) Valdeón cheese, which was like a soft, pungent Roquefort, best eaten diluted onto crusty bread.

Head of canal

Saturday dawned looking like an indoor day, but Mike and I set out downhill anyways, first driving the steep, winding road down the narrowing canyon to Caín, then continuing along the Ruta del Cares, a trail along a canal mysteriously paralleling the Rio Cares toward the Atlantic. Both trail and tunnel were built around 1920; as was then typical with ambitious construction projects, around 40 people died in the process. As we started out, the river was clear and swift-flowing, with a tinge of the blue typical of a glacier-fed river: the Picos were home to some glaciers in the not-too-distant past.

Canal overflow

Both trail and canal are carved high into the walls of the narrow gorge, while the river drops away below. The trail starts off as a series of tunnels, with occasional tunnels and half-tunnels continuing along the way. The canal is similarly built, with overflow slots to limit the amount of water that makes it downstream. This being the melt season, many of those slots spouted waterfalls down to the river. The many warning signs along the canal alerted me to the fact that this would be an amazing inner-tube run later in the season, when the water might be low enough to avoid being drowned in the canal’s tunnel portions.

Natural arch

The rain started a short ways down the canyon, and soon became steady and drenching, filling the trail with puddles. I had fortunately brought my poncho, Mike had a semi-waterproof cycling jacket, and the air was warm down below 2000 feet. Still, I hate being wet, and probably would have turned around if Mike were not along. I am glad I did not, because the trail and gorge are both worth seeing, and because the rain stopped after about an hour, and mostly held off for the rest of the hike.

After contouring along above the river, the route drops about 1000 feet to the trailhead at its north end. A serious-looking ranger warned us about the rockfall danger along the trail, but couldn’t really do anything to us when we told him that we were returning to our car at Caín. We jogged many of the flat and downhill sections on the way back, passing many more tourists than on the way out, and reached the trailhead late in the morning. Despite the weather, the town was becoming overwhelmed, with groups of old Spaniards, some German-looking motorcyclists, and an American tour-guide explaining to her flock how to adjust a backpack.

Chamois

Afternoons are long in Spain this time of year — sunrise is around 7:00, sunset around 10:00 — so I decided to check out a trail I had seen across the river from Posada de Valdeón. Not sure what I was doing, I started out with just my phone and a water bottle in hand. Like many area trails, this one started out as an old roadbed to a water-tank, then became fainter as it continued above cow territory. However, it was extravagantly-cairned in most places, so I had little trouble following it as it traversed back south, then climbed up along a scree-chute and crossed to a bench hidden from town by some cliffs.

Summit marker

Near the top of the bench, I flushed a herd of Cantabrian chamois (rebeccos), which look like a cross between deer and bighorn sheep, and are remarkably fast on turf, scree, and rock. The weather continued to be iffy, but it did not look like serious rain, so I paged around the map on my phone, and decided to try climbing El Bermeja. The trail continued to a point south of the peak, going over and around some lingering snowfields, then faded without a line of cairns. I traversed and climbed around west, ascending a class 3-4 slot and class 2-3 ledges. While it creates imposing cliffs, the limestone also seems to create solutions to such problems.

The weather seemed to be turning as I topped out on a ridge near the summit, so I wasted little time jogging and scrambling to the top. I found a fake ice axe, a shiny summit plaque, and a register canister holding a few wet business cards, a novel yet reassuringly familiar marker for my first European summit. Worried about the rain and cold — I only had shorts and a t-shirt — I spent all of 30 seconds taking in the limited view before trying to lose elevation as quickly as possible.

I had seen a cairn near the top of a snowfield just below the summit, so I decided to descend that way, carefully sliding more-or-less directly toward my roundabout ascent route lower down. I made my way back to the trail on a mix of snowfields and horrible limestone scree, then hike-jogged past the chamois toward town, taking a more direct trail lower down. The whole descent took about 1h20 — not bad for 4300 feet — and landed me in town with a few hours to rest and clean up before dinner.

Bienvenidos a Benavides

Back of cathedral and tapas tables


Because my connecting flight took off at 6:15, and because I am cheap, I saw no reason to get a room in town when there was an airport to sleep in. The Dublin airport is not big and busy enough to sleep unobtrusively in a corner, as I have in Mexico, Ecuador, and the United States, but it looked like a few people were sleeping in the 24-hour food court. I tried my best, getting maybe 2-3 hours, and was fortunately awake when an employee inexplicably came around at 4:00 AM to tell people they couldn’t sleep there. I shuffled back through security, then made the most of a meager airport lounge before boarding the plane. Oddly, we boarded by taking a bus to a holding area, then climbing stairs from the tarmac; similarly, we disembarked via stairs and buses in Madrid. I assume that Aer Lingus saves money by doing this.

León’s old square

Finally reunited with my heavy and awkward bag of climbing stuff, my next goal was to get out of Madrid. After a mistake, I figured out that I needed to take the Renfe train rather than the metro to the central train station, where I bought an overpriced ticket to León on the Avila, Spain’s version of high-speed rail. The trains can do 300 kph, but only on suitable tracks, so with three intermediate stops and unsuitable track on much of the route, the ride from Madrid to León took a bit over two hours. Fortunately my travails with monolingual Spanish speakers ended here, as Mike and Linda picked me up at the station. While I know enough Spanish to have dealt with similar circumstances in Ecuador, some combination of sleep deprivation and fast Castilian Spanish was getting the best of me.

Cathedral under renovation

Since we were already in the city, it was time for a bit of tourism. First up was the León cathedral, an impressive structure built in the 14th century, when the city had a population of only around 5000. I am not a cathedral connoisseur, but I found it worth the entry fee. Next was the old city, a walled section of the modern one with very restricted car access. Unlike many old cities, which tend to become museums full of tourists, León still seems to serve its inhabitants. Many of the buildings in the old city show signs of centuries of repair, and even feature modern graffiti, though I saw none on the church or city wall. Some people were even playing some horrible music as a sound check for what turned out to be a youth flamenco performance on a stage in the church square.

From a dirtbag perspective, perhaps the best thing about León is tapas. Order a corto (small beer) for about $1.50, and you get free food. Sometimes it is the kitchen’s choice, but often you get to pick from various appetizer-like things like sausage, ham, or sardines on bread. From 8:00 PM to midnight or so, you can go from bar to bar among the Spaniards, assembling a leisurely meal. Sometimes tapas even appear in unexpected places. On a later visit, we stopped at a meat-and-cheese shop for some cecina (basically dry Spanish ham made with beef). Unprompted, and before we had even asked for something, the lady behind the counter gave us each a piece of bread with samples of cecina and two types of sausage. Score!

The next day, we combined bureaucracy and tourism with a trip to Avila, a cartoonishly perfect medieval walled town. I was duly impressed by the architecture, but unlike León, most of Avila’s old city seems to serve mostly tourists. There is even a fee to walk on top of the wall, which I did not deign to pay. I could imagine living in León, but never Avila. But enough of that — while I may circle back for some cultural musings later, you come here for the peak-bagging, so I will provide.

Go to Erin, brah!

Midnight at 65 north and 38k feet


Those of you who know me in real life probably know what this is about. For those who don’t, it will begin to explain why June was relatively quiet. My friend Mike moved to Spain this spring, and invited me to visit. Also, people have been telling me for awhile that I should try climbing in Europe, despite the terrible expense. Putting these two things together, I finally decided to make both happen during the months of July and August this year. With the significant fixed cost of getting here, it makes sense to go once and go big.

Greenland ocean-bound glacier

The first step was figuring out how best to fly here from a place where I could stash my car. Seattle seemed like the best place to leave the car, which meant that Aer Lingus was the cheapest carrier, with a hop through Dublin. The first leg may be the carrier’s only flight out of Seattle, which seems to be representative of its broader plan: gather everyone to its hub in Dublin, make them wait for sometimes terrible amounts of time, then scatter them to their destinations.

Flying west-to-east over the Atlantic is fairly pleasant: take off in the evening, have dinner, experience a short night, then arrive in Europe in the morning. At least, that is what I remember from the last time I visited nearly 20 years ago. This was the first time I had flown such a long arc so close to the summer solstice, though. Taking off from Seattle, we arced across the North Cascades, then crossed the Selkirks and Rockies near or north of Rogers Pass (all in the clouds, sadly). Beyond, the flight peaked at somewhere around 65 degrees north, crossing Hudson Bay and the southern tip of Greenland before dropping to Dublin, which lies at a sunny 53 degrees north. It turns out that it’s not very dark this time of year at 65 degrees north when you are 38,000′ above the Earth, so I did not have much luck sleeping, though I got some interesting views of northern Canada and Greenland’s eastern shore.

Rose garden

Landing in Dublin a bit after noon, I was planning to kill time in the airport lounge, then try to get a decent night of sleep, which would mostly reset my biological clock. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to like you doing this, so I instead went out through Irish customs. They were surprisingly probing, asking to see proof of my return flight, but thankfully friendlier than the Canadians, and I soon had permission to spend up to two days in Ireland. I had not planned to play tourist on the way over, so now I needed to figure out what to do. I used the airport wifi to get some idea of the city’s shape, then bought a bus ticket to somewhere fairly central ($12 round-trip) and began walking. My goals were to (1) get a sense of what the city and people are like, (2) see some old stuff, and (3) not end up ordering a pint of Guinness at the Irish version of Señor Frog’s.

Monster devil’s club

First up was the 220-year-old national botanical garden, because it was the closest interesting-looking thing to the airport, and because it seemed a good place to walk, relax, and avoid the midday heat. I have spent some time in Seattle’s botanical garden, and while the Irish one seems to have fewer exotic plants and be less beginner-friendly (many plants are only labeled with Latin names), its age has let it grow some giant trees, including both European things like yew and ash, and well-developed New World plants like California oak and cedar. Other highlights included a rose garden, a collection of orchids and pitcher-plants, and some heinous big brother of devil’s club with leavs 3-4 feet across.

From there, I made my way south and west toward the city center, passing through the historical things on my way to Dublin Castle, crossing the River Liffey on Capel Street, one of many bridges. Fortunately Dublin is fairly compact and civilized, so I made it across town without much suffering and without getting run over. I give a lot of credit to the cyclists and drivers for my survival, because the combination of left-side driving, one-way streets, and weird intersections had me never quite sure where to look for oncoming traffic.

Dublin Modular Castle

While I saw some nice church spires on the way, the castle was sort of disappointing. It consists of a single, large medieval tower, with a 19th-century gothic revival church bolted onto one side, and some other sort of 19th-century administrative structure coming off at 90 degrees to the church. I gather the incide is nice, but I was there too late, and they charged for admission.

Now to find food while avoiding tourist traps. I had no clue where to start searching for authentic Irish food (colcannon?), and assumed the chances of my finding an authentic pub by online means were essentially nil. I did see a Korean place nearby on Capel Street, though, which surprised me more than it probably should have. It looked fairly authentic, and a crowd of Koreans filed into a back room as I stood outside, so… what the heck? Being by myself, I ordered bibimbap rather than grilled meats, and was pleased to find the quality on par with what have eaten in Korean-rich cities on the west coast. I expressed my surprise to the waitress, and she said that while there is no Korea-town in Dublin, there are two other authentic places, catering to foreign students and some tourists. Based on both the food and the accents I heard in the streets, Dublin is diverse for its size, with a significant but not overwhelming number of tourists.

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…

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.

El Corazon

Summit view


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′.

Ridge-walking

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.

Short scramble-y section

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.

Bottom of Cotopaxi

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.