The Andes of Ecuador run as two parallel and impressive chains of peaks, rising dramatically from Pacific coastal lowlands on the west and even more abruptly from the Amazon Basin on the east. Our flight into Ecuador gives us a grand view of the entire range as we cross the country's north-west coast and pass just over the Pichinchas, 15,700-foot volcanoes standing right above Quito, then drop down to the capital's airport at 9400 feet. It is an exciting entrance into a spectacular country and beautiful city.
The program begins with climbing team members travelling to Ecuador and meeting our guides that evening for an initial program orientation. The following morning, after an early morning gear check, we head out to explore Quito, South America's second highest capital, after La Paz, Bolivia. The city fills a gently sloping valley beneath thirteen to fifteen thousand foot peaks, and from several points, just above Quito it is possible to look up and down the "Avenue of the Volcanoes," as the Ecuadorian tourist industry is fond of calling it, and see most of the country's major summits.
Our city tour explores some of Quito’s remarkable architectural sites including some of the main colonial churches in the old part of Quito such as Basilica, la Compania, San Francisco, as well as visiting Quito’s colourful central market. During our additional time in Quito, your guides will continue the program orientation with discussions of the itinerary, high altitude physiology, and a final equipment review and check.
Our first acclimatisation hike is on 13,776-foot Cerro Pasochoa, an extinct volcano about twenty miles south of Quito. Its large, eroded crater opens to the west, and its north-west flanks support a forest like those that once covered the entire Quito basin. We establish a very easy pace on this day hike as we begin to get our bodies used to altitudes above 10,000 feet. Our second acclimatisation hike is on Guagua Pichincha, and though its summit rises to 15,670 feet, our time in Quito and on Pasochoa make this a good next step for us at altitude. Our primary goal on both of these days is to give our bodies a chance to begin their further adjustment to the altitude while we enjoy some beautiful hiking and photographic opportunities. These rocky ridges, high grasslands, and summits provide great views of the entire cordillera and an excellent orientation to Ecuador's geography.
ASCENT OF CAYAMBE
Cayambe is Ecuador's third highest peak. Forty miles northeast of Quito, it stands at 18,997 feet, looking out over Reventador ("The Exploder", one of South America's most consistently active volcanoes) and over the Amazon Basin. Cayambe's glaciers are large and among the most active of all equatorial ice flows, and the varied glacial terrain here provides an excellent training ground and a rewarding summit climb.
Having spent at least seventy-two hours above nine thousand feet, group members should be well enough acclimatised to begin sleeping and climbing at greater altitudes. Driving north to the mountain we pass through high, rolling grasslands with wildflowers and occasional herds of sheep and llamas. Leaving paved roads, the track we follow passes several working haciendas, steadily narrows, and becomes more rugged as it climbs higher and higher, finally to reach a point within a half-hour hike to a large stone hut which serves as our base on the slopes of Cayambe at 15,290 feet.
As we continue our adjustment to the altitude, we spend our first afternoon and the following day in moderate activity on a low section of the glacier where we work on glacier travel skills, protective systems techniques, and the general procedures we will use in our ascents. The route we will take is not technical, but the number and size of the crevasses make the route serious and the route finding and overall climbing very interesting.
Climbing with headlamps, we leave long before dawn in order to have firm snow conditions throughout the ascent. For the first four hours we make an easy glacier climb to a saddle and then continue onto steeper and more exciting ground. We traverse around large crevasses, many with enormous tropical icicles hanging from their edges, pass some spectacular seracs, and climb 35-degree slopes with occasional and short, steeper sections as we work our way to the crater rim. The final climb to the summit follows a photogenic line along the glaciated edge of the volcano's crater, a fittingly dramatic ending to an ascent that is varied and scenic throughout.
ON TO ANTISANA
We leave Cayambe and drive through the remote Andean village of Pintag. We follow the winding mountain road up into the páramo and through land recently incorporated into the Antisana Reserve. This day allows for rest and recovery after our ascent of Cayambe, and we enjoy a night at a local hacienda.
We then have another easy day as we drive through a remote region of old hacienda lands, enjoying the views of Sincholagua (4873m/15,988ft) and Cotopaxi (4099m/19,347ft). We visit the Nature Reserve’s office at La Mica Lake where we present our climbing permits and then drive further before establishing our camp near the base of Antisana (4100m/13,448ft), where we spend the night.
After an alpine start, we begin the day with a drive of 30 minutes to the start of our climb at 4600m/15,092ft. We take advantage of the firm route conditions, starting on easy terrain before donning crampons to ascend the glacier. We gradually make our way up the glacier to the saddle between Antisana Cumbre Maxima (highest summit) and Pico Sur (south summit). As we near the saddle route, it becomes integral to finding access to the upper reaches of the mountain. Ultimately our route will involve a combination of moderately angled glacier travel and short, steep sections that require the use of a full range of snow and ice techniques for intermediate terrain. The varied gradients and glacial configurations make this a particularly interesting and enjoyable ascent. Upon descent, we return to our vehicles and drive back to Quito for the night.
ASCENT OF CHIMBORAZO
Chimborazo is Ecuador's highest peak. A massive, five-summited mountain rising nearly 11,000 feet above Ecuador's central valley, it is visible from Colombia in the north, from near the Peruvian border in the south, and from far out on the Pacific Ocean. This is a much more complex volcanic peak than most all others of its type, showing many faces that offer a wide range of challenges to alpine climbers. The one that we climb, the Southwest Face, is moderately steep and pleasantly varied, including slopes from 25 to 40 degrees, a short gully climb, and time on both névé and hard glacial ice. This mountain's great height combined with our route's requirement of diverse climbing techniques make this ascent a significant accomplishment.
From Quito, we drive south and then move up onto Chimborazo's eastern flank to reach a small lodge at 4023m/13,200ft, with views of the altiplano surrounding Chimborazo and Carihuarirazo. Our vehicle then takes us to the western side of Chimborazo and at around noon, we reach the Carrel Hut (4800m/15,700ft) where we enjoy some lunch. The afternoon is used to complete a two-hour hike to Stubel Camp (4907m/16,100ft) where we will spend the night. Climbers carry their own personal gear to camp while porters carry water, tents and food.
Of our days spent in Ecuador prior to our summit climb of Chimborazo, seven are normally at 4,500m /15,250ft or above, and by this point in the itinerary, members of the group should be well acclimatised. That acclimatisation plus the additional conditioning that has occurred while on the other peaks, allow us to make this ascent in a single day from the hut. Though it is a long climb, these factors have brought an extremely high rate of success to our climbing teams.
Starting the climb at midnight, our route will take us up the tongue of the Stubel Glacier through sections of 40-degree snow and ice, eventually bringing us to the crux of the route. This varies with conditions but can be a short pitch of belayed climbing on snow and ice between 50-60 degrees. Our goal is Ventemilla (6267m/20,561ft), one of Chimborazo’s four summits.
From the summit, the panorama encompassing Ecuador’s many other glaciated peaks is superb, and the views during the climb, the intricacy of the route, and the variety of moderate technical challenges encountered make the ascent of the world’s highest equatorial summit an important achievement for both developing and experience alpine climbers. Summit day will take between 10 and 14 hours return. We will descend to Carrel Hut and then continue on to the town of Baños.
After our ascent we return to Quito or most commonly if we have an extra day because of good weather during all of our climbs, we spend a day in the mountain valley town of Baños, where the lush vegetation is home to an unusual variety of orchid, butterfly, and hummingbird species. Based in a hotel near waterfalls and natural hot baths, we will enjoy swimming, relaxing and exploring the Rio Pastazas Canyon that flows with some drama to the Amazon. Our visit to the Baños provides an exotic ending to an exciting and richly varied high altitude climbing trip.
If weather forces us to climb on day 15, we will camp on the night of day 14 before returning directly to Quito.
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