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Trip Report – Doing Your Mountain Apprenticeship, Part 2 – Ecuador

By: Michael Thomas

Source: Australis (Australia Section) Newsletter (Sep 2017)

I spent a month travelling in Ecuador in 2011 and travelled practically the full length of the highlands from Ibarra in the north to Cuenca in the south. This includes the famous “Corridor of Volcanoes” section of the Panamericana highway. Compared to Mexico, Ecuador is very compact and it would take just a day to travel the full length of the mountainous spine of Ecuador by inter-city bus.

The capital city, Quito, sits at about 2800m elevation, so you’ll likely notice the altitude just walking upstairs in your hotel or hostel. Quito was not a particularly safe city at night and I found it more pleasant to stay in the regional towns. Nevertheless, while you’re in Quito it is well worth wandering around the UNESCO World Heritage “old town”. Many people used to start their acclimatisation by catching the Teleferico (gondola) up from town to 3800m on the walking track to Pichincha (approximately 4700m depending which summit you aim for). I didn’t attempt it because at the time there had been a spate of armed robberies of tourists trekking up here, so it would be worth getting up-to-date information if you are thinking about climbing Pichincha.

Ecuador has a great selection of peaks starting from 4000m and culminating in Chimborazo, at 6300m, whose claim to fame is that its summit is the furthest point from the centre of the earth, due to the Earth not being a perfect sphere and having a bulge at the Equator. The diversity and number of peaks over 4000m makes it easy to acclimatise without ever retracing your steps, excluding the descent from your chosen peak. My favourite peaks from the trip were Quilotoa, Avilahuayco, Iliniza Sur and Cotopaxi.

Not dissimilar to Mexico, the volcanoes of Ecuador sometimes roar to life. The last eruption of Cotopaxi lasted from August 2015 to January 2016 and, since then, Cotopaxi has been officially closed for climbing by authorities. Pichincha erupted in 1999 and blanketed the whole of Quito in a few millimetres of ash. In addition, Tungurahua has been sufficiently active since 1999 that all the permanent snow on it had melted, and it was officially closed from 2010 until it re-opened late in 2016. One of the enduring memories of my trip was from my climb of Iliniza Sur and, just when I summited, Tungurahua erupted into the dawn sky and, even at a distance of 100km, it was an impressive spectacle.  The ash cloud must have been several kilometres high!

Although you can climb in Ecuador year round, the best time to climb is during the dry months and, to confuse things, Ecuador has two dry seasons. One dry season period is June to August, and this is the most popular with northern hemisphere visitors, however, it is generally very windy on the mountains. December to February is the other dry season, which is less windy. My cousin climbed Cotopaxi in August and said that the wind-chill made it very cold, whereas I climbed Cotopaxi in November and, although it had snowed for several days in the preceding week, there was no wind and it was not particularly cold.

Nevertheless, the “dry season” in the tropics needs to be taken with a grain of salt – remember that the world’s largest rain-making machine, the Amazon rainforest, sits immediately adjacent to the east of the Ecuadorian highlands. The closeness of the Amazon was reinforced for me when climbing Cayambe. During the dark hours following my alpine start, lightning flashed over the rainforest that was within sight to the east. It felt disconcerting that there was such regular lightning flashes but that it wasn’t threatening the mountain, and also weird that I was standing on solid ground and looking down on the lightning. However, for the climb of Imbabura I was not so lucky with the weather. Shortly after arriving at the false summit (4500m), the clouds swirled in and with the first clap of thunder we went running down the trail, chased by lightning and hail that degenerated into soaking rain, and turned the black soil track into a slippery slide. The unpredictable nature of weather in tropical mountain areas means that it’s nearly always best to do an alpine start, even when soft snow is not an issue, to give yourself the best chance to beat the clouds and changes in weather that sometimes occur in the afternoon.

Global warming is having an impact, and the beautiful snow climb up the north face of Iliniza Sur is likely to become a pile of loose rocks if things continue the way they’re going. Judging by the decrease in snow cover from photos taken around year 2000 compared to when I climbed in 2011, it would not surprise me if there was no permanent snow cover by 2020.

Furthermore, the normal route on Chimborazo is becoming increasingly dangerous due to rockfall associated with melting of the permanent snow cover, particularly at a rock outcrop known as El Castillo at about 5400m i.e. the lower half of the route. It is only recommended to climb the normal route after a decent amount of recent snow has consolidated for at least 2 days and frozen the loose rocks more firmly into place and even then you should aim to complete the descent before the snow softens. Therefore, the best chance of reasonable conditions to climb Chimborazo will likely occur towards the end and immediately after the wet season when there is a substantial accumulation of consolidated snow, and when the freezing level is 4500m or lower.

Below is a summary of relevant information to help you start planning. Websites such as Summitpost (www.summitpost.org) and Peakbagger (www.peakbagger.com) also have more information.

Summary Information for Selected Ecuador Peaks:

Posted: 23/03/18

Posted By: Narina Sutherland