Lead/Co-Lead – John Stevens/Michael Lafleur
Participants – Jim Nupp, Pat Murphy, Per Frost, Stephen Corcoran, Howard Gaston, Ken Hodges
1/2/16 – Arrival day in Quito. A few of us braved New Years at a backpacker’s hostel…with some regret due to the all night partying. The last of us arrived late in the day on the 2nd. We had a good day and a half to walk around and enjoy the local street culture. Those steps up Secret Garden Quito with a duffel bag on your back…tough training for us lowlanders!
1/3/16 – We toured the Old Town of Quito in the morning. Some of us split off to see the Equator Museum, some to the Angel Statue that gazes over the city.
1/4/16 – We left Secret Garden Quito promptly at 8:30 am mostly due to the help of Tarquin, who appropriated transportation for us to the Teleferico. We arrived at the tramway and were some of the first passengers up to 13,000′ on Rucu Pinchincha. With the exception of one headache for the eight of us, we all felt like a million bucks. Howard occasionally mentioned that he felt as if he had traveled eight kilograms already, but we blamed it on his poor math upbringing in the states and not on the obvious and massive hematoma he was dealing with!
All told, we made short work of our first acclimatization hike, with a round trip time of 4 1/2 hours from the tram. There were some new high points for Mike, Howard, Steve, and Per at over 15,400′!
1/5/16 – After a relatively uneventful journey from Quito to Cotopaxi…not minding the 1.8 million paving stones meant to jar our teeth loose from our heads, we arrived at Secret Garden Cotopaxi. We we were awestruck by the setting, the quality of the accomodations, and the food..but more succinctly, we were struck by how warm it was climbing below 14,000′. On our 4th full day in the country, the manager of SGC, Victor, led us up to Pasachoa, a beautiful and cloud-swept ancient volcano. Of all of our hikes, this one was the most below treeline and it felt like a thoroughly sub-tropical jungle environment.
It had rained the night prior and it was very humid as we hiked uphill. Victor was very enthusiastic and led us uphill briskly and the combination of humidity and pace led many of us to feel more burnt out than we expected for this peak.
1/6/16 – On Wednesday we awoke to beautiful skies, with some valley fog rolling in and out as the sun climbed higher. Our destination for the day was Rumiñahui. At over 15,400′ and only five miles or so away, this peak is very closely located to Cotopaxi itself. We met Diego and he took his time with the pace, an enjoyable departure from Victor’s. As this was our third day of climbing in a row, we all appreciated taking our time, climbing at around 700′ per hour.
The clouds came and went and the temperatures were very nice, except for a short period of time on the summit where you could feel the intense equatorial sun burning into us…very shortly thereafter a thunderstorm approached and we had to move out quickly under a mix of sleet and rain. As we left the summit we had a briefly terrifying moment as Per Frost tore a handhold free, slipping towards a precipitous drop only 20 feet away. Never trust volcanic rock!
1/7/16 – On Thursday we had planned a rest day which included a transfer and drive over to the Los Illinizas refuge. One thing that was noticeable was the amount of inconsistency on starting elevations/ending elevations. Originally we were expecting a short hike between 13,700′ and 15,000′ to get to the refuge. Truth be told, the parking lot was at 13,100′ and the hut was at 15,600′. We ran into fellow club members Laura Alexander and Jim Donahue who were just descending from their climb of Illiniza Norte. Laura’s words were prophetic, “we slept like shit”.
1/8/16 – We had spent less than a week in country at this point and spending over 18 hours above 15,000′ is a straight up guarantee to encounter AMS. Despite the refuge caretaker’s amazing soup and popcorn, nobody really slept. Six of the eight of us opted to go for the summit after an alpine start at 5:45 am. Snow conditions being extremely icy, bony, and otherwise horrible on Illiniza Sur, we took the standard route up Illiniza Norte (16,800′) instead. After a 2 hour climb, the six of us summited just after sunrise. The climb involved some class 5 terrain, including some descending rope work and some rappelling. Route finding would be a challenge if you hadn’t been there before.
1/9/16 – After recuperating a bit at Secret Garden Cotopaxi, we departed on a four hour drive to the Cayambe region. We were sad to leave as it was such a beautiful and peaceful hostel.
Well as the old adage goes about best laid plans, it turns out that the vehicle that was meant to take us all the way to the Cayambe hut broke down several miles from it. We got out, tried to push the vehicle, but it was pretty clear that the clutch was burnt out. Not looking forward to extra climbing, we all dourly headed uphill…until salvation arrived in the form of a nice gentleman in a pickup truck! We all piled in and had a great time bouncing up and along the road. I never did catch that man’s name, but he saved us at least an hour’s worth of slogging.
1/10/16 – Sunday was a big day. After a very early wake up, all eight of us departed for the summit of Cayambe (18,993′) at midnight. It had just finished raining but soon the temperatures dropped and we climbed through some rock bands into increasing snow flurries. We climbed for well over an hour and finally put on crampons and roped up above 16,000′.
Cayambe’s slopes were steep, for hour after hour we climbed against the relentless angle. As we crossed 17,700′, Steve indicated that he was going to turn around. After some debate, we said goodbye and continued upward. Howard and Mike had gotten about 20-30 minutes ahead of the main group and we could see their headlamps high up upon Cayambe’s summit cone. As the last five of us neared the summit, we heard a familiar voice behind us, Steve had decided to turn around and head back UPHILL!
It is hard to explain to anyone who has not climbed at high elevations just how difficult it can be. As the last of us made the summit just before 7 am, I looked down and saw that the barometric pressure read 14.90 inches, less than half the amount of pressure than at sea level. It is a true testament to the strength of everyone on the team that 100% of us succeeded.
1/11/16 – Today was probably the first true rest day of the entire trip. After summiting Cayambe on the morning on the 10th, we embarked upon an eight hour drive south to Chimborazo. We arrived at the Estrella De Chimborazo after 8pm and after a short dinner, we all collapsed into bed. We had some brief views of Chimborazo during breakfast, then most of us spent the rest of the day reading and walking around the local area.
The lodge itself is dedicated to mountaineering history, as it is owned by Marco Cruz, a renowned Ecuadorian climber. All the buildings are filled with climbing artifacts from the 20th century, it is truly a remarkable place to recover and reflect.
1/12/16 – After sleeping in, we transferred to the Carrel Hut at 15,800′ on the slopes of Chimborazo. This is a newly renovated hut and was by far the nicest we stayed in. We did not have much time to enjoy it as we got up at 9 pm to get ready for our climb! Several of us opted to not begin the climb due to injuries, symptoms of AMS,etc…so five of us set out at 10pm to conquer Chimborazo.
The winds were light and temperatures mild, and we slowly gained elevation up to around 17,000′, where we had another person turn around. Just above this, we gained a ridge line and winds started to increase steadily as the temperatures dropped. We quickly went from two layers to down jackets and face masks in the increasing crosswinds.
Above 17,500′ we entered a corridor of fractured and extremely dangerous rock that involved a traverse below 400′ cliffs, with another set of cliffs below. You had to be very careful as simply touching a refrigerator sized boulder with your trekking pole could send it onto someone below you.
We navigated the hazard with little difficulty other than the increased pace. As we emerged from this zone, we had to cross several narrow ridge lines in a now buffeting wind. Due to the exposure and fall hazard, occasionally we had to bend down and use our hands to touch the ridge to avoid losing balance. By this point, we were also being sandblasted by loose volcanic gravel and grit and exposed skin was starting to look waxy. Conditions were definitely becoming borderline to continue.
Our Ecuadorian guides scouted ahead to see if there was a reprieve from the wind, but none was to be had and we were forced to retreat. On a nicer day, our team would likely have put 3-4 climbers on the summit, as we were approaching 19,000′ when the decision to pull the plug was made. A more experienced Russian team led by Ludmila Korobeshko was also forced to abandon their summit attempt shortly after we did.
1/13/16 – Despite mother nature’s victory on Chimborazo, all of us returned happy and healthy to Quito by midday. Overall, our trip was graced by excellent weather, great climbing, delicious food, and excellent companionship. I think we all learned a lot about climbing high and climbing outside of the United States.
Personally, I want to say thank you to the 2016 Summit Sensations Ecuador team and to Michael Lafleur for helping me organize this expedition. Everyone was at their peak and it showed.
Thanks also to Tarquin Hill, owner of the Secret Garden in Ecuador, without him our trip would certainly have had more hiccups.
Lastly, thanks to Victor and Diego Cumbajin, our guides and companions. It was nice to find so many kindred spirits and so many friendly faces on our trip.