Category Archives: South America

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.






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.


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.


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 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′.


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.


Top of gondola and Quito

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.

Up in the rain

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.

Guagua summit view

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.

Ermita de la Dolorosa

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.

Laguna Mojanda

Laguna Mojando

I hadn’t liked the look of things south of Quito, so I decided to try something in the other direction. There are several volcanoes in the general vicinity of Otavalo, two of which caught my interest: Cotacachi, famous for its steep and loose summit block, and Fuya Fuya, the highpoint of a collapsed volcano containing a large lake, and an easy walk-up. If I felt good and the weather looked okay, I could do the former; otherwise, I could do the latter and sleep at the 12,000-foot lake for acclimatization. Fortunately the lady at the expensive airport bag check place didn’t charge me anything to take out my bag and put it back, so I was able to stash the heavy mountaineering gear before heading north. Unfortunately, my plan to sleep in the lounge was ruined by a lounge guardian who rigorously enforced the 5 hour stay limit for my card. So I took a shower, slept a few hours in the lounge, then tried to sleep a bit more in the food court before heading north.

Once again, the bus ride took a significant portion of the day, with a slow city bus to Carcelen, then a faster regional bus retracing part of the route before heading northeast through Tabacundo to Otavalo. Despite the mountains being hidden in clouds, it was a pleasantly scenic drive, with the road winding in and out of deep canyons beneath hundreds of feet of shored-up hillside. Ecuador apparently doesn’t do bridges. Unfortunately, the ride was also the perfect length to show a terrible Rosario Dawson car chase movie dubbed in Spanish, which I found hard to completely ignore.

Otavalo and its market square are well-known tourist destinations, so I saw the expected gringos and signs in English, but they were few enough not to spoil the place. It may have helped that Otavalo has been a market town since before the white man came to South America. I walked around the edge of the market, keeping a safe distance so as not to tempt the blanket-sellers, then bought a tasty chicken empanada for 85 cents on my way toward the Plaza Bolivar, passing along a wall covered in Simon Bolivar-inspired street art. I don’t know if he is as revered in other South American countries (except Bolivia), but it seems like just about every Ecuadoran town has a Bolivar square and avenue, and often others named for his generals. Even the country’s old currency, the sucre, was named for Bolivar’s compatriot Mariscal Sucre.

Along the way, I passed locals dressed in both modern and traditional clothes. The women’s fashion was particularly distinctive, with blue skirts, white puffy blouses, and either black bowler hats or what looked like folded lengths of felt on their heads. Many of the men also wore bowlers, but they did not seem to be as consistent. The women also carried children or loads on their backs in shawls wrapped over both shoulders and tied below the throat.

The sun finally came out in the plaza, and I sat on a bench to take in the church, city hall, and giant bust of Rumiñahui, the Incan war leader who took over after the Spaniards captured and killed the king. After observing the crowds for awhile, and talking to a couple of adventurous young Colombians backpacking down to Argentina, I went off to look for the bus toward Cotacachi. I found what I thought was the right corner, but the bus that came by was headed elsewhere, and after waiting another ten minutes, I gave up and headed toward Laguna Mojando.

Cobbles to Mojando

From this side, just about any car can reach the lake above 12,000 via a remarkably smooth cobblestone road. However, I had no car and too much free time, and I wanted the acclimatization, so I put on some listening material and started walking up the road. The rain started less than a thousand feet up, and I put on my poncho as it strengthened. It turns out that there is also a “Quechua bus” on this road, driven by a local man in a bowler, serving the native communities in the valley. He graciously stopped when I waved at him, and saved me most of a mile of wet walking for all of 30 cents.

Cheap house?

Higher, the road continues past more scattered homes, both occupied and abandoned, including one for sale for what I took to be “cheese and $200.” Not a bad place to live. The best house, however, was on the other side of the valley, and could apparently be reached by a massive zip-line. Nearing the lake, I finally got some views of Fuya Fuya’s impressive northeast face, one of the few surfaces in the area too steep for vegetation.

Fuya’s east ridge

Reaching the lake, I found one car parked, and a couple people fishing around the lakeshore with a boat. I also found a friendly stray dog who seemed to have chosen a less than ideal place to beg. After tanking up on food and water, I hid my pack, tied my jacket around my waist and started hiking up the trail to Fuya Fuya. Though it had signposts in a few places, the trail went straight up the hillside in a very unofficial way, crossing sometimes-tricky mud and wet grass.

Crux muddy crack

I reached the ridge east of Fuya’s east (easier) summit, from which I could admire views to both sides of… clouds, of course. This is Ecuador — what do you think I would see? Nevertheless, I continued over the east summit and on to the west. There was a fun little third class diagonal crack along the way, made somewhat more tricky in the wet, but I reached the west (true) summit quickly enough, and spent a couple minutes enjoying uniformly gray views before retreating to descend a trail from near the saddle between the two summits.

Back below the clouds at the lake, I filtered some water while the dog looked on, then continued along the road toward a campground and possibly hostel on its southeast side. The cobbles end at a shelter below Fuya, so the road from here on was a mixture of puddles and slick mud. My faithful companion followed at a safe distance, and I felt bad that I had not saved a piece of the sausage I ate on the long hike up the road. My hope to reach the official camping area dwindled as the light faded and the road climbed and descended maddeningly above the lakeshore. Finally, near dusk, I found an established campsite near the lake with a water diversion channel carved around a flat grassy area. It seemed like as good a place as any to put my bivy. The dog hung around for a few minutes, then, hungry and disappointed, took off barking after something I didn’t see. I covered my pack with my poncho and tried to get some sleep.

Iliniza Norte

Summit view

[Please excuse the longer-than-usual posts. This trip was tourism as much as peak-bagging, and descriptions of such tend to get wordy. — ed.]

The long approach began inauspiciously. Unbeknownst to me, there had been an ice storm the night before in Denver, and I slipped on some black ice just three feet from Ted’s front door while carrying my bags to the car. I landed unhurt on my rear, but could have easily banged my head on the doorstep, earning what could have been the lamest “not wearing a helmet” ever to appear in Accidents in North American Mountaineering. I carefully stood up, stubbornly refused to put on crampons or a helmet, then carefully put my stuff in the back of the car. Ted dropped me off at the light rail depot, from which two train rides and a lurching walk carrying my big bag o’ gear got me to the Denver airport well before my flight. I checked the BBoG, then pillaged for breakfast with my Priority Pass and twiddled my thumbs waiting for my flight, delayed by the need to de-ice every plane before takeoff.

Thanks to the delay, my transition in Dallas was somewhat rushed. I had just enough time to find the free food dispensary, scoot past the scarf-wearing Middle Eastern women streaming in and out of the Emirates lounge, and grab some mediocre sustenance before being the last person to board the plane to Quito. Fortunately the sardine-packing algorithm had screwed up, and the late-night flight was empty enough for almost everyone to have his own row, so I managed to get a bit of something approximating sleep before my midnight arrival. I needed it, because customs was oddly busy, and it took me an hour to make it out of security and get my bag. While switching my pack from carry-on mode to mountaineering/camping mode (bivy, bag, tools, boots, etc.), I talked to some older Americans with a tour group, then paid too much to stash the BBoG at the airport.

Now to find a spot to bivy. I was too tired to find the WiFi (pronounced “wee-fee” down here), so I blew up my pad and lay down near some signs in the main terminal around 2:30 AM, noticing too late that someone else was sleeping behind them. Waking up again around 5:30, I found the WiFi, and realized I could have spent a much more comfortable five hours in a lounge across the street. I spent a restless couple of hours there instead, grabbed some coffee and snacks, and began the long bus journey south to El Chaupi.

Of course there are llamas

Quito sprawls across several plateaus at the base of Volcan Pichincha, separated by steep thousand-foot-deep valleys, so roads around the city are windy and indirect. They are also impressive feats of engineering, with hundreds of feet of stabilized hillside above, and one significant tunnel. It took about an hour by local bus to get from the airport, on a mesa northeast of the city, to the southern Quito terminal at Quitumbo. From there, another hour in a nicer inter-city bus got me down the Panamerica Freeway to Machachi, where I got on another local bus to the farming town of El Chaupi. This was an all-purpose bus, carrying a mixture of adults returning from the city and Native schoolchildren of all ages wearing uniforms.

Perros on the way to the hut

I spent the rest of the afternoon walking the road and trail to base camp; later, I learned that a truck taxi (white with a green stripe) could have taken me to the trailhead for only $10. The day started out hot and humid on the good cobblestone road out of town, then became what I learned was typical Ecuadoran soaking drizzle as the road turned to dirt higher up. I could have walked right past the entrance hut, since the guard was having lunch in back, but I stopped in to check out the situation. He didn’t seem overly happy that I did not have a guide, but after I assured him I was only doing the north peak (true in retrospect), and that I had a helmet (false), he had me sign a waiver and let me by. Higher up, I met a stray dog, said a friendly “hola, perro,” and soon had three strays following me the rest of the way. I had planned to camp at the end of the road, but the drizzle continued, so I decided to grind out another 1000 meters’ climb to the hut between Iliniza’s two summits. The drizzle continued almost the whole way, but I was warm enough in just a t-shirt and my $5 poncho as I powered up the muddy hill through the paramo, passing a couple people going down and a couple going up along the way, the dogs easily keeping pace.

Starting out in the morning

Cheapskate that I am, I had planned to simply dry off in the hut before pitching my bivy outside, but the rain continued, and I met several friendly fellow climbers in the hut, including two from Santa Fe, so I paid the excessive fee for room and board. In addition to the Santa Feans, the night’s group included two local guides, a couple Chicagoans, and three Poles who probably should have tried for the summit, but instead descended the next morning. I had a surprisingly large and good meal of potato soup, queso fresco, chicken, and rice, then failed to sleep while listening to others’ thrashing and labored breathing above 15,000 feet.

Iliniza Norte ridge

It was cloudy in the morning, with a dusting of fresh snow on the ground and slightly above-freezing temperatures, so I chatted some with the guided groups and had breakfast and coffee before heading out for the summit a short 1000 feet or so above. I soon left the guided folk behind, fending for myself in the clouds. The route crosses volcanic choss left of the ridge lower down, but the recent moisture helped stabilize it, and I followed occasional cairns and boot-paths across the slope and up to the ridge. Most of the ridge was class 2, with a few class 3 steps made more interesting by the wet snow. Below the summit knob, I headed right of the ridge on what was supposed to be an exposed traverse, though it didn’t feel particularly treacherous. Shortly after joining another route up the north slope, I climbed some steeper terrain back up and left to the ridge, then continued a short distance to the summit cross.

Afternoon walk back to town

I “enjoyed” the traditional Ecuadoran summit view of clouds and mist, then retraced my steps, passing the lead guide as he installed a hand-line on the “exposed” traverse. I met the other guide and the climbers a short ways below, and learned that they had been a bit concerned that I was just some inexperienced yahoo getting into trouble in the hills. This is why I try not to make assumptions about people I meet in the mountains, and prefer to offer information instead of advice.

Back at the hut mid-morning, I debated my next move. The original plan had been to check out the higher, more difficult Iliniza Sur from the route on Norte, then climb the former via its standard snow/glacier route the next morning. Unfortunately I had seen almost none of the south peak, and conditions seemed less than ideal for climbing a rapidly-retreating and crevassed glacier, with fresh snow, warm nights, and low visibility. Also, I had no reading material, and the hut keeper’s English was as bad as my Spanish, so it was awkward to hang out. It did not seem worth my time to hang around the hut for the rest of the day and sleep out in the wet (or pay the hut fee again), so I hiked back to El Chaupi, then reversed my bus trek to the airport to swap gear, get a few hours’ sleep, and figure out somewhere else to go.