Tuesday 13 December 2011

Ecuador - Living the High Life

Much of my time in Ecuador was spent with my head in (or above) the clouds - traipsing back and forth along the Central Highlands that form the country's lofty spine - I rarely spent a night far below 3000 metres. It's not that the mountains are all Ecuador has to offer - in fact, there are plenty of beach towns and jungle expeditions to attract the tourists too - but I'm finding myself increasingly drawn into the hills on instinct. This instinct was exaggerated somewhat as I developed a borderline obsession with the looming figure of Volcan Cotopaxi - visible from all over the Central Highlands. This bulking, rocky monstrosity would come to define and dictate my time in the country.

At Altitude

Jonny reaching the summit
I was introduced to Ecuador already on something of a high with Quito, at 2850 metres, the second highest capital city in the world (although, by the time I left the country, this would seem like a wholly poor excuse for altitude). Even on arrival, the first thing to catch my eye was Volcan Pichincha (4696m) - brooding over the northern edge of town. With a cable car up to 4100m and then a fairly straightforward and well-marked path to the summit, there was no question that this mountain would be my first ascent of SAm. The temptation to scale had to be resisted for at least a day or two, though, as my first task in Ecuador was to pick up a new visitor - Jonny, a friend from Uni, was flying out to travel with me for two weeks. I realised that, coming from the flat plains of Inglaterre, he might not be ready for an immediate ascent up to near 5000m. So, I thoughtfully allowed him time to acclimatise until his second day in town, before attempting 'Subir'. Approaching the summit at an increasingly slow pace, accompanied by the not-so-pleasant altitude sickness symptoms of nausea and headaches, we realised that maybe a little longer than 36 hours is required for proper acclimatisation. But, Jonny did successfully make it to the top (with my helpful instructions to 'breathe more') and, at the time, this was actually the highest point I'd ever reached as well. This was also when I caught my first glimpse of Cotopaxi's snow-capped peak hovering above the clouds in the distance; triggering the fixation that consumed many of my thoughts for the rest of my time in the country.

Back down to city-level, there was just enough time to explore Quito's wonderful Old Town - a maze of cobbled streets with grand cathedrals, museums and plazas sprinkled liberally throughout - before hopping on a bus to Latacunga, 2 hours south.

Old Boys in Quito Old Town
Latacunga sits at a respectable elevation almost identical to the capital, but our sights were once again set on higher targets: The Quilotoa Loop is a collection of small villages and traditional markets linked in a broadly circular fashion by a series of bumpy dirt tracks, traversing the spectacular highland scenery between the dwellings. The hiking on offer here is reputed to be amongst some of the best in Ecuador, if not SAm. With this knowledge, Jonny and I (along with two Dutch girls - Marloes and Saranke - who had the same plan) dumped our mochilla grandes in Latacunga and set out for 'The Loop'.

Transport to Quilotoa
After an interesting journey partly spent on the bare floor of an open-top truck, out first port-of-call was the village of Quilotoa (from where the loop takes its name). As well as being the highest point (3914m) on our expedition, the main attraction here is Laguna Quilotoa - a huge volcanic lake framed by steep, stark cliffs that shoot down from the crater rim. We slid down the nearest slope and arrived at the lagoon shore with the intention of hiring kayaks to take out on the turquoise-green water. However, the availability of a giant four-person raft was too tempting to ignore. We jumped in and paddled enthusiastically to the centre of the lake. This turned out to be a much harder task than expected - our chosen vessel was absurdly heavy and almost impossible to propel at any real speed with our flimsy wooden paddles (a motor had definitely been used for this task in the past). We barely reached 100m from the shore before half our allotted time had expired and we were forced to turn back. The possibility that the girls weren't pulling their weight was also raised.... (and passionately rebutted!).

On the lake in Quilotoa
After admiring the astounding beauty of the lake and surroundings in the crisp clarity of an early morning - down to the deadly-placid water surface and out over distant snow-capped peaks - we were on our way to Chugchilan by 8am on day two. It was fortunate that we took such an early start - with no guide and all the signs having been burnt down (possibly by the locals who stubbornly countered any requests for directions with an offer of a guide - stubbornness only matched by our own insistence that we didn't need a guide) we were soon hopelessly lost. Lost, that is, amongst some of the most mind-blowing and richly bewitching natural scenery I've ever seen. But lost all the same. So lost, in fact, that we resorted to using a shoddy hand drawn map and keyring compass to try and find our way. None of us could have claimed to be expert map-readers or masters in the art of compass-try, so we were lucky to eventually stumble across a local farmworker who was willing to divulge the correct route to Chugchilan (3200m). Who knows where we'd have ended up with just the map and compass, but, after having clambered right down to the valley bottom and back up to the mountain peaks (twice), we eventually arrived at our intended destination.

Saquisili Market
There had been vague plans to trek for another six hours or so the next day, but after our self-made, prolonged hike to Chugchilan, none of us particularly fancied more of the same. So, instead, we rose early enough to catch the 4am bus to Saquisili market (2996m), 3 hours back towards Latacunga. A riot of colour, culture and craft: thousands of inhabitants from the surrounding indigenous villages - the women instantly recognisable by their stylish, felt hats, eye-catching ponchos and the obligatory small child strapped to their back - descend on the town of Saquisili to sell their traditional wares. We all unearthed at least one souvenir to take home - practical woolly hats, super-soft alpaca jumpers and local paintings - before going our separate ways (the girls back to Quito and Jonny and I down to the southern end of the Central Highlands). But not before, casting a final look up to taunting Cotopaxi, I vowed to return and finish business in the near future....

Back Down to Earth

The city of Baños is one of Ecuador's primary tourist destinations and comes with everything that entails - unnecessary numbers of tourist agencies, pushy touts, crappy clubs and soulless pubs (with one or two exceptions). However, there is a reason for this over-exploitation: the surrounding peaks, valleys, waterfalls and thermal baths provide a wonderful antidote to the 'meh-ness' of the town itself.

Cable Car
It's still technically in the highlands at a fairly respectable 1800m, but after our time hovering closer to 4000m, this felt positively diminutive, and we descended substantially further towards sea level on our first day in town. Mountain bikes hired; helmets on; we took the spectacular paved road that exits Baños and hugs the mountainside, following the flow of the valley all the way down to Puyo - a hot and humid town on the edge of the jungle, 60km from and 1000m below Baños. It may have been primarily downhill-coasting, but there were still enough energy-sapping inclines to make us extra grateful for the regular stops at cable cars that sweep across the valley tops and the numerous spectacular waterfalls that thunder down from the peaks to the valley floor.

Monkey Sanctuary
Lazily, we opted out of the uphill return - taking a truck with the bikes on the roof instead - and arrived back in Baños with just enough time to sign up for a three day jungle excursion. This expedition kicked off the next day with a visit to a Monkey Sanctuary en-route to La Selva. I'm often a little uneasy visiting these 'animal sanctuaries' - there's a suspicious surplus of them located suspiciously close to popular backpacker hangouts. What exactly have these animals been 'rescued' from? And why do they require continued 'protection' - wouldn't they be better off released back into the wild? Some are definitely more curious than others and the monkeys here seemed to be well-cared for and our guide had satisfactory answers for most off my questions.... and I do LOVE monkeys so it was hard not to enjoy the visit. Still, it's always a good idea to approach these places with an element of caution.

Jungle accomodation
Our accommodation for the next two nights was rustic to say the least - a stilted wooden-hut by the riverside, surrounded by thick jungle, illuminated only by candlelight and with vast mosquito nets over the tiny beds. This all helped to increase the wild, jungle effect and I have to admit to being a secret fan of sleeping under the cover of a mozzie net. Possibly this is some sort of mental throwback to boyhood - hiding in 'dens', protected and covered from the outside - or maybe even a deeper unconscious memory of the comfort of the womb.... or perhaps the Psychology degree causes me to read too much into this - we'll move on.

Prepared for a rainy night hike
Despite arriving at a late afternoon hour, we still headed out for two short jungle treks before bed: The first (in the pouring rain) was concerned mostly with which of the plants and the berries in the immediate vicinity of our accommodations could be utilised for survival, and the second (in the pitch black) was a search for night-time crocodiles in the nearby lagoon - their bright, red eyes beaming back as the light from our guides high-powered torch swept across the water's surface. This was all just a warm-up for the second day's excursion: A 6 hour hike through dense, sweaty jungle. We were led by a wonderfully knowledgeable and informative young guide called Richard (only 19 years old - his dad had taught him everything about this unique environment since he was old enough to comprehend). Richard took us up to a lofty mirador and then down to a secret, secluded waterfall - only accessible via a long trek and then swimming blindly around a sheer rockface. The plunge pool was fantastically refreshing after our humid hike - framed by rocky ledges and vegetation all imaginable shades of green, back-lit by the sun's rays as they tried to force through the leaves and infiltrate the watery paradise below. Another short walk brought us to a second waterfall - an impressive 50 metres high, but there were plenty of other people there (rude!) so it didn't exude quite the same mystical ambience as the one before. This was followed by a final, hour-long canoe ride back to the lodge. I really enjoy slow-paced water travel (almost as much as I love monkeys and mosquito nets) - it's the most wonderfully tranquil and relaxing mode of transport; the gentle movement of the boat as the waves lap against the exterior, easy to lie-back, trance-like, losing track of time along with your worries.

Third and final day in La Selva, we only really had the morning to explore. Still, Richard found time to drag us up, up, up to a couple of outstanding lookout points, passing over (via rickety logs purporting to be 'bridges') crocodile and piranha infested waters along the way. The climax featured a set of perfectly-placed hammocks - overlooking the seemingly endless jungle, dissected only by the wide, winding path of Rio Pastaya - and the worryingly-named 'death swing' (Jonny opted out of his turn after I came very close to finding out why it was christened thus).

On returning to Baños, we headed out for a final night on the town and many beers as a reward for Jonny tolerating all the physical activity I'd forced him to do (it definitely wasn't the traditional, relaxing holiday he might have been expecting...). Then it was back to Quito for his flight home, and I was alone again. The empty guttural feeling I mentioned in my last post that often occurs when you're suddenly solo following a period in constant company was there, but nullified somewhat by the single-minded focus I had developed for how to spend my last few day in the country..... now, where was that volcano that has been looking down, mocking me for the past couple of weeks....?

Cotopaxi Challenge

First distant glimpse of Cotopaxi
As already explained, Volcan Cotopaxi (5897m) demanded my attention since almost my first day in Ecuador - ever since the initial, distant glimpse I caught of its snowy peak during the ascent of Volcan Pichincha. It really is a mesmerising, beautiful mountain - almost perfectly cone-shaped, a dark, ashy brown in the lower slopes, abruptly switching to bright white as the snow-line and glacier begin about 1000m below the summit. The aura of this astonishing outcrop is increased by the fact that the volcano is still active (the most major recent eruption occurring in 1940) and considered by some to be the highest active volcano in the world (I was personally under this impression during the ascent, but post-climb research revealed that a volcano in Argentina - Llullaillaco, 6739m - lays claim to this official title. But, can you really claim to be active if you haven't erupted for 135 years!? Scientifically speaking, yes, but, for the sake of argument [i.e. my ego] let's say no).

The gear (including my giant boots!)
Whatever the details, I was determined to reach the top, but equally aware that this would be the most difficult ascent I'd ever attempted and on a completely different level to all the previous peaks I'd summited on this trip. So many aspects and experiences were completely new and novel to me: the sheer altitude - 1200m higher than I'd ever been before (1400m higher than before I'd climbed Pichincha two weeks previously) and with the base camp from where the climb starts already 100m above my current record - add to this the snowy and icy conditions of which I had no previous experience (sledging in Northampton doesn't count) and it would also be my first time wearing crampons, using an ice axe and being roped to other climbers for safety. All fairly serious gaps in my knowledge and experience. Possibly the biggest worry in my monetary mind, though (I prefer the term 'budget-conscious', although other people may say 'tight-fisted' or 'stingy') were the costs involved - $170 for the overnight climb, plus $40 for the reccy up to Base Camp two days previously to help with acclimatisation - all completely non-refundable if I returned unsuccessful. There were other barriers to overcome beforehand as well - for one, a minimum of two people is required for the climb (unless you can afford to pay $250 for a solo expedition) and I had two climbing partners sign up and drop out, leaving me almost resigned to the fact that my mission was doomed to failure, before Greg strolled in and signed up at the final hour, clutching my dream from the jaws of defeat. Additionally, there were issues with hiring suitable gear - the tour agency took a whole day to find boots big enough for my feet and still returned with a pair one size too small, claiming these were the biggest in town! Greg's more experienced mountaineering-eye also spotted faults with the harnesses we were initially supplied with, which were eventually swapped for more suitable versions. We had even more fun with the equipment later, as you'll see....

4500m Car Park
The main excursion began late on a Sunday afternoon - there was no crushing need for an early start as we only had to reach Base Camp in time to begin the night hike proper. However, the 300m vertical stroll from the 4500m high car park (that had been a breeze on my initial ascent two days previously) was a darn-sight tougher now that we were carrying all our gear - boots, crampons, helmets, ice picks, harnesses, thick jackets, thermal underlayers, many other layers, and 18 litres of water that Greg and I guess-timated we would require between the two of us over the next 24 hours. This may seem like an excessive amount of agua (and our guide thought so too) but this huge intake of fluid was one of the primary reasons we were able to cope at such altitude - the crushing headaches that are almost inevitable over 5000m can often be remedied by guzzling a litre or more of water in one go, and the very regular stops required to relieve ourselves of said liquids also helped break up the journey and allowed more opportunities to breathe deeply.

Up to the glacier from Base Camp
We finally clambered into Base Camp (4800m) by mid-afternoon, allowing enough time for food and a little crampon-walking practice, before the sun made its way to bed and we followed suit soon afterwards. Because of the climate and snow/ice conditions on the upper-half of the mountain it's only considered safe to climb at night, before the sun appears again, beating down, causing the snow to melt and glacier to shift. Under such conditions a frankly preposterous 11pm wake-up call is required (very strange getting up before midnight) in order to commence climbing at 12am. In the cramped bunk-beds, with dozens of other people twisting and turning trying to deal with the altitude, it was nigh-on impossible to get anything approaching real, quality sleep. Still, we forced ourselves out of bed and began preparing for what lay ahead.

On returning from the outdoor toilet, I joined a group of other climbers standing outside, transfixed by the mountain summit in the starlit distance. They all seemed to be attempting to 'stare down' the volcano, treating it like a sentient foe about to be tackled, rather than the inanimate object it really is. It may sound strange, but I can completely understand and it's hard not to get this feeling before a big climb - you have to give the mountain the respect it deserves, prepare physically and mentally and recognise yourself as an intruder in a foreign environment. Willing Cotopaxi to grant me safe access, it was time to get down to business.....

Julian (guide extraordinare)
.....and this was when the second round of equipment malfunctions commenced. First, my jacket zipper broke clean off as I tried to secure it. Now, it's not ideal to ice climb near 6000m overnight in freezing conditions with an open jacket, but there were no spares in the Base Camp, so we had to rely on trusty duct tape. Still not ideal (especially as the tape restricted my chest expansion and therefore stopped me breathing as deeply as possible) but at least it wasn't flapping open, exposing me to the elements. Less than half an hour into the trek one of Greg's crampons dislodged from his boot and refused to be reattached. This was a more serious problem - there was no way he could continue with just one cramponed-boot - but Gracias a Dios, Julian (our guide) spent 20 agonising minutes fiddling with numb fingers and managed to secure it again. We were back on track.

In basic terms, we only had 1100m to climb in order to reach the summit, but at this altitude, nothing happens quickly or easily. The pace was frustratingly, but necessarily, snail-like; ice pick thrust into the ground, one foot forward, breath in, other food forward, breath out, ice pick dislodged, repeat.... for 7 hours.

Greg, early on in the climb
The night sky was a deep, jet black, but crammed with millions of effervescent stars, competing to give off more light than the vast illuminations of Quito, glittering 30km away and 3000m below. There was little opportunity to appreciate this other-worldly environment, though, as the three of us crept forward, roped together, heads down, headlamps illuminating just a small spot of sheer white snow directly ahead; attempting to keep our breathing steady and staying at a regular pace with ice picks and crampons crunching into the ground in unison. When I did glance up, the vastness of the seemingly insurmountable glacier (just visible in faint outline up ahead) along with the pinprick headlights of climbers higher up on the slope; the true scale of what we were attempting to do was almost too much to comprehend, and it was better to just look down again, and try to drift along with the gentle walking rhythm in a semi-conscious state.

Full mental faculties were required whenever we reached one of the numerous glacial crevasses, though - our oxygen-deprived brains struggling to focus on Julian's demonstrations of how to leap across, digging in crampons and ice-axe on the other side to prevent falling back into the sheer abyss below. Fortunately, we were both able to summon sufficient concentration and energy to overcome these serious obstacles without mishap.

Around 5 hours into the climb, we still had a way to go and my head was starting to squeeze from the ever-increasing altitude. On raising this point to Julian, he instructed me not to focus on the discomfort, but to think about chicas instead (a very effective remedy, as it turned out). It was at this same stage that the climbers who had been ahead of us on the mountain since we departed from Base Camp suddenly appeared in front of us, heading back down. They weren't returning victorious from the summit, but rather the going had become too tough for a couple of the group and they'd all been forced to turn back. A disconcerting development in part, but this just made me more determined to succeed where they had failed.

Sunrise begins...
By the time sunrise began to caress the tops of distant mountains to the west, we were still 300 metres from the summit and the window of time when it would still be safe to descend (while the sun wasn't too hot) was getting smaller and smaller. After one final break - stopping to admire the perfect conical shadow cast by Cotopaxi down over the flat earth nearly 6km below - we went for it. This last hour or so was possibly the most gruelling physical challenge I've ever undertaken. So very, very tired, this ultimate ascent was the steepest part of the climb, with the thickest snowfall underfoot. More than once, I felt I could go no further, but drew on every last reserve of energy to persevere. Every seemingly final peak dropped away to reveal another one a little higher behind it - incredibly frustrating! It was torture - physical and mental - and it took a while to realise we had reached a small plateau with nowhere further to climb - we'd made it! Standing at 5897m on a sun-drenched, snow-covered summit, with perfect blue skies and panoramic vistas over hundreds of kilometres in all directions around us; the towering peaks of over 20 other volcanoes visible to the naked eye (one even in the process of erupting as we watched!). Truly awesome.

Greg & Julian on the summit
At the time, though, I have to admit that there was no real burst of ecstasy and sense of achievement filling my brain and body. Instead, it was just unrelenting exhaustion, a little nausea and slight dizziness from vertigo. We were high, for sure. Perhaps a little too high. After posing for the obligatory victory summit photos, I had to sit down to stop my head spinning and force down a chocolate bar for a final energy hit before beginning the descent. Julian only allowed us 20 minutes on the summit - the sun's rays are incredibly powerful when you're close to 20,000 feet (both for melting snow and burning skin) - and it was something of a relief when we were able to start descending again.

Getting back to Base Camp took only two hours, but it was increasingly uncomfortable going as the sun beat down harder and harder - we couldn't strip off too many layers because it was important to keep most skin covered, and various sections of the glacier were already visibly dripping away. It was quite stupefying to witness what we'd overcome the night before in the stark light of the early morning - I'm unsure if we'd have been so confident if the giant walls of sheer white and deadly crevasses had been so fully visible during ascent. Finally back at camp, we discovered that out of the 20+ tourists who'd set off with us the night before only 3 other people had successfully reached the top - something that illustrates how hard the climb really was and made us even more proud of what we'd achieved.

The last of the 18 litres drunk, and with a final, respectful glance up to Cotopaxi's now-conquered summit, I felt I could now turn my back on the mountain, and Ecuador as a whole. It was time to get on with my travels... but I know that from now on I'll always have one eye on the sky, looking for the next big peak to climb - onwards and upwards!!

LOADS more photos below (including some of my favourites from the whole trip). Click to enlarge....

Quito Old Town

Quito Old Town

Sun through a stained-glass window

On the roof of the Basilica in Quito
Behind the clockface in the Basilica

The route up Volcan Pichincha

Come on Jonny!!
Pichincha crater

Glimpse of Quito through the clouds from the top of Pichincha

Me, on the summit of Pichincha

In the back of the truck - Quilotoa Loop

Local Quilotoa lady with baby

Quilotoa youngster (with the lake in the background)

Not a bad spot for your morning coffee - Laguna Quilotoa

On the trek to Chugchilan

Trekking - Quilotoa Loop

Trekking - Quilotoa Loop

On the valley floor - Quilotoa Loop

Having a break (and posing for a photo)

Trekking - Quilotoa Loop

Local kids playing football - Quilotoa Loop

Local kids running in for the lunch bell! Quilotoa Loop
Baños to Puyo - Mountain Biking

Waterfall on the biking route

Jungle guide Richard with his favourite Spider Monkey

Monkey Sanctuary

Monkey Sanctuary - chillin'

Monkey Sanctuary

Monkey Sanctuary

Monkey Sanctuary - smelling food in the kitchen
Croc on the Jungle Trek

Jonny getting some traditional indigenous face-painting

Face paint fun! :)

Richard, the Jungle guide

Jonny & Richard jungle trekking

Waterfall on the jungle trek

Canoe ride back to the Jungle Lodge

Survived a day in the jungle!!

Beautiful mirador

Me, nearly dying on the death swing...

Candlelight and mozzie nets

Beautiful Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi and ancient lava flows

Cotopaxi, reflected...

View from Cotopaxi, just below the snow line

View back down over Base Camp

Cotopaxi shadow at sunrise

On the Summit - made it!!! :)

Cotopaxi crater

Vista from Cotopaxi summit (volcano erupting to the left)

Back down at Base Camp, victorious....