Sometimes in the mountains you have foul weather, dubious rock and things don’t go quite to plan.
Sometimes you have a great time anyway.
Sometimes the words resonate so strongly and evoke the memories so well it is worth reading about them again and be taken back to the heights.
The weather started so perfectly, and ended so ferociously, that our climbs in Ecuador are best told from last to first, a count down to all the successful climbs we had at the start of our journey.
On a series of mountains where you are lucky enough to summit them all, the mountain experience can take priority. But when faced with storms in the night and retreats by headlamp with clothes armored in ice, the collective experience; facing challenges together as a team, rises to the fore. We finished the expedition with three for five on the summits, but as a team I’d give us five out of five.
Cinco, Cuatro, Tres, Dos, Uno
5. Cotopaxi – 5,897m (19,346ft)
4. Cayambe – 5,790m (18,991ft)
3. Iliniza North – 5,216m (17,108ft)
2. Pichincha – 4,787m (15,701ft)
1. Pasochoa – 4,200m (13,776ft)
Volcano Cinco: Up at midnight, a dark and airy refuge at 4,800 meters, roof panels banging and clanging in howling gusts of wind and snow pelting the plastic skylights. Double boots clunking the planked floor, toes warming inside. Then porridge, helmets, headlights, harnesses, gaiters and out the thick wood door just after 1 a.m. Our torches flickered and outlined our progress, a circle of lights holding us all together.
Steps in the unbendable boots, over volcanic flows and up sandy scree rivers, trail left, then right and back again. Hands freezing around the ski poles, glasses fogging, ice building on the gloves, a sheath of shattered white crackling when we spread our fingers for warmth.
The higher we climbed, the greater the wind, cutting straight over the ridge. An hour, then two, ice of the glacier now surrounding us. A huddle of minds; higher up would be more exposure and even stronger winds, colder, maybe even darker. We were being knocked around by the wind, coated in ice; retreat was the only logical decision. We scuttled back from 5200 meters to the warmth of the hut, steaming and melting, breathing fog, bursting back through the door, the mountain taking our summit but not our mountain spirit away. We retreated to our bunks upstairs in the rafters and pulled our sleeping bags over our heads.
Volcano Cuatro: Glacier training is always a good excuse to revert to kid-dom and play in the snow. The crampons which will get you up anything, the ice axe to stop you from going down too quickly, the rope so you can keep your friends close by and a torch so you can go out exploring in the dark.
We had a day of that, in the classic Ecuador weather: a snowstorm, then pure sun, a burst of clouds and wind, a descent over ice-covered rocks. Then at midnight when we were all ready to really start climbing, the storm came in, with fog and sideways ice. A drift built up at the door of the hut. Back to bed and up at 4 a.m. The drift was deeper, the headlamp wavered in the fog, not really good volcano climbing weather, or even close.
We retreated to the Hacienda to gallop ponies over the Pampa’s, bounce mountain bikes through the forest and toast our toes by the fire.
Volcano Tres: Tres we were lucky, hiking up at dawn in muted light, some cloud higher, but an early lunch at a tiny hut refueled us and 15 minutes of walking took us to the base of a ridge rising 500 meters above us that looked decidedly un-volcano like. It was steep, solid, dark volcanic extrusions, cut with orange. The climb wove up through cliffs and along airy ridges with drops disappearing into the fog.
A rope led sideways on one steep section, traversed with heels over the edge, then another rope led steeply up over blocks to the final summit pyramid. A rim of icy tentacles, a giant’s claw in white shrouded the rim of the summit crater, then a single piercing summit of black stood out in the cloud. We huddled about in the mist, a few shivers and slid off down the ridge to rappel the rope and land back on a more earthly place. Tres was lucky, tres was airy, tres was fun.
Volcano Dos: There was a cross high on the ridge above, perched out over a volcanic lava flow that etched the earth and carved far out into the plain. When acclimatizing it is good to have something far above to shoot for, heavenly or not.
Of course the cross wasn’t quite at the top, more of a false summit really, where the trail soon disappeared and a hard right was taken, through sprouting volcanic pillars, with the sandy scree to scrabble in between, to a plinth, overlooking a drop of monumental proportions, the eye falling to a crater hiding in sunrays below, an immense black donut of lava that looked a little too alive.
We were higher than anything in the continental U.S., surrounded by Ecuador’s 71 other volcanoes. We strung flags; we photographed a happy family of our mascots alongside our team of equally smiling climbers.
Volcano Uno: A steel gate, sky high and black let us in. Then a rough road, to a trail, to an umbrella of thick trees woven through, to a pasture of ponies, to a traverse through thigh deep grass, wading upwards.
A wind, clouds scudding by, still warm sun, a ridge with volcanic ripples of black, a summit smile, that memorable moment of having set out to get to the top, and doing it, and looking down on so much of the world from above. Then a lunch, a photo, a canter down the hill.
Should all summits be so simply enjoyable.
Best not to step back.
From an account of a climb with Jagged Globe to the Ecuadorian Volcanos