Ecuador Mountaineering - January 2007

Acclimatization Hikes

Trip theme: "Ecuador: The land where the answer is always NO" or "Oh, you wanted to have guides?"

 

Driving around Quito.

Originally Ed and I were thinking about climbing the Mexican volcanoes as our next big climb. I posted some emails in climbing forums and talked to a couple of guide services and found out that the general consensus was that the volcanos were in poor condition and the country wasn't much better. So my thoughts then turned to Ecuador as a next logical destination. Ed and I went back and forth and decided that a Cotopaxi only climb in January with an American guide service was our best plan. In exchanging emails with my Uncle Jim (my mother's brother), I learned that he too was planning on going to Ecuador for some climbing. It seemed only logical that we should join forces. He told me that his plan was to go with the same guide service, Safari Ecuador, that he had used last year to climb Cotopaxi and also the same exact guide. I had my reservations about signing up with a local guide instead of an American guide. Finally after many emails back and forth with Jim, and a little soul searching, I became accustomed to the idea. The thought of spending 1/3 the money ultimately won out over any of the other downsides that I could come up with. Our plan also evolved from Cotopaxi only to a Cayambe / Cotopaxi / Chimborazo combination. In our previous plans Ed had said that he thought more than one mountain would be too much. So to my great surprise when I cautiously approached him with the drastic itinerary change, he was not against the idea. Rather he was all for it, "I'm up for anything" is the exact quote. Well this came as quite a shock to me, and the last vestiges of my doubts about the plan faded away. I needed a few things that I had rented on Rainier, so I went on an Ebay shopping spree and picked up a down parka and a pair of expedition mitts for 50% off retail. I also splurged on a new pair of gloves just because I wanted new ones. The first adventure was paying the deposit for the guide service. They seemed a little lackadaisical about wanting a deposit but finally asked for 25%. They wanted us to make an electronic transfer directly to their bank account. Unfortunately they don't take PayPal or anything convenient like that so I had to go down to my bank to wire them the money. It was more than a little confusing filling out the paperwork but we crossed our fingers and pushed the Send button. I found out later that the money somehow arrived intact.

Plans then were made and airline tickets purchased. Our group met up in the Houston airport consisting of myself, Ed, Jim, and his friend Greg. Jim and Greg had climbed Cotopaxi together the previous year so they were already familiar with some of what we were to encounter. The flight down to Quito was uneventful and we found ourselves moving quickly through the typically loose customs you find on inbound American flights to third world countries. I found that our hotel in Quito, Hotel Sierra Nevada, had a website where it said they offered a 24 hr shuttle service from the airport. I had sent them an email the night before we left indicating that if we couldn't find a cab that we would call for a shuttle. To my great surprise there was a man holding up a sign with my name on it as we exited the baggage claim area. How great! They dropped us off at the hotel and our trip was officially started at 9,000 ft in Quito.

Our first day in Ecuador, the plan was to ride the cable cars at the Teleferico and then hike as high as we felt like we could in order to start to acclimatize to the altitude. I was taking a different strategy this time to the altitude and was going to try the drug Diamox, as opposed to just Gingko Biloba like on Kili, and see if that improved my ability to function at high altitude. I typically have no trouble going from sea level to 9,000 ft, but today we would find out just how high I could go only 1 day removed from an elevation of 50 ft. We had the hotel call us a cab and we were off to the Teleferico. The car huffed and puffed up the hill and deposited us in the parking lot. We asked how much for the ride and he said $5. Jim thought that meant $5 each and handed the guy a twenty. Well the cabbie's eyes lit up and he was making a break for it when we stopped him and got the twenty back and gave him $5. We later found out that cab rides from the hotel were about 2X the going rate as it was probably somebody's friend/relative who was giving us the ride. We purchased our cable car tickets and then queued up for the ride to the top. The cable car ride was nice and dropped us off at 13,300 ft. There seemed to be a path that most people were hiking on so we headed in that general direction towards what turned out to be Rucu Pichincha. The weather was very nice and generally pretty comfortable as we wound our way up the trail. The main topic of conversation revolved around these series of stones embedded in the side of the hills that we finally decided had to be erosion control. Everyone was feeling very good and eventually we got to the base of where the rock scrambling started. We decided this was a pretty good place to stop for the day as it turned out to be at 14,250 ft. Again everyone was feeling good and strong which is pretty amazing for having just been at sea level only a day before. After enjoying the splendid scenery for awhile we headed on back down and rode the cable cars back down to the base. Finding a cab ride back to the hotel turned out to be a little difficult as every cab we found already had passengers and wasn't interested in us. After walking at least halfway down the steep road we finally got a cab back to the hotel. On the way back we discovered a local souvenir market in a park near the hotel. Ed, Greg and I went back there to do some serious shopping while Jim stayed behind to take a nap. I managed to do very well at the market and acquired all of the gifts that I would purchase on the entire trip. It was at the market that I first learned how currency would work in Ecuador. A $1 bill was generally safe, a $5 was pushing it, a $10 bill was iffy, and a $20 bill was outrageous. I found the same thing consistently throughout the country, NO change. It seems as soon as they got any bills they were whisked away to some unknown location leaving the merchants without any way of making change. We walked back to the hotel and explored the touristy area along the way, which included sampling what turned out to be the only beer you could get any where, Pilsner. I found an accurate quote on the Internet describing Pilsner, "This beer really is shit, but it is one of your only choices while in Ecuador." That about sums it up.

When we got back to the hotel, Jim informed us that we needed to immediately go to Safari Ecuador and pay the rest of our bill along with finding out the details for the rest of the trip. The place is within walking distance of the hotel and we had directions along with an address. However it turned out to be quite an adventure to find the place as the directions were totally wrong. It also seems that street addresses in Quito reference intersections as opposed to just numbers and streets. This was very confusing and we wandered around for a long time trying to figure out where the place was. Eventually we stumbled across it and went inside. To say that Safari's place of business was underwhelming was an understatement. I don't know what I expected, but it was more than what they had. We sat down and talked to Jean, who is the owner. It was at this time that she informed us that the guide that we had reserved and confirmed was NO longer guiding with Safari and was unavailable. She also said that she wasn't sure at this time who would be guiding us on any of the mountains or even if it would be the same guides for the whole trip. To say that I, and certainly Jim / Greg, were annoyed would also be an understatement. We were pissed! It was fairly obvious that she had known well ahead of time that the guide we had reserved was NO longer available and that she had simply lied to us when she confirmed his reservation with us. I guess what really made me angry was her lack of an apology for the problem. I'm guessing she knew full well that once we got to Ecuador that we wouldn't be backing out, and she was right. However I am active on a number of climbing forums in America and have made it a point to put the word out to stay away from Safari Ecuador (so there Jean!). At any rate I choose to stay to the side and let Jim / Greg duke it out with Jean.  At the end of the conversation we found that we had a trekking guide for the next day, one confirmed guide for Cayambe and Cotopaxi (Javier who we met) and that was about it. It would be a continuing theme for the rest of the trip wondering which guides we would have for any given day. Next came paying. It seems that in Ecuador that travelers checks are as good as dirt. Nobody wants to take them as there is typically a 2% fee for cashing them in. Safari would take them however it also seems that the banks are very particular that the signatures exactly match on the check. Well Ed being a dentist, his signature is unintelligible. And to boot he couldn't manage to make any two of his chicken scratches look the same. Jean said NO to every single one of his travelers checks. So now he had a fistful of checks that he couldn't do anything with. We would have to find someplace to cash them before we left for Cayambe. After leaving Safari I was bummed, one of the main reasons I had agreed to a local guide service was gone. The fact that we had personal experience with our guide. That night we ate in what I thought was a terrible American restaurant around the corner from Safari. Never had so much gristle in a steak in my life.

The next day we got up and did Yoga first thing in the morning, also a recurring theme. I had left my annoyance from the previous day behind and was determined to just go with the flow. Today we were to be picked up by our trekking guide (no idea what his name was) and driven to Guagua Pichincha for an acclimatization hike to the top. He made it interesting by showing up a little later than we thought he might, but at least he showed. We piled into a van along with several other people that we didn't know and drove off through the streets of Quito. We got quite a tour of Quito that morning as the guide and driver seemed to run numerous personal errands on the way out of the city. Eventually we took what seemed to be a side road but what turned out to be a back way to gain access to the pass we needed to cross. This was our first experience with non-paved roads in Ecuador. Sometimes the road was cobble stone but most of the time it was dirt full of pot holes. I was armed with my Sea Band wrist straps for nausea and was extremely glad to have them on. After what seemed like an eternity we gained the pass and could see our object for the day. The valley was absolutely beautiful and in some places it looked like the world just fell away at the end of the valley. After a bit more driving they stopped along the side of the road an indicated for us to get out. I forget the altitude but I seem to recall it being around 13,000 ft. The "trail" to Guagua Pichincha is actually a road all the way up to the Refugio. We jumped out of the van and headed off up the road leaving the guide and the driver behind. The other people in the van took off like a bat out of hell up the road. I distinctly remember wondering why this short girl with an enormous butt and another carrying a designer purse were pulling away from me walking up the road. Figuring they must be more than 2 days away from sea level I just let it go and kept my own slow pace. It was kinda funny in that I felt the altitude at first, but then about half way up I hit my stride and flew to the front past everyone. By the time we got to the Refugio most everyone had caught back up to me and we arrived more or less together. With the notable exception of the girl with the designer purse who had bonked hard a thousand or so feet back. The Refugio was situated at the end of the road and looked to be nothing more than a place to get out of the wind at around 15,300 ft. They had bunks and everything but it sure didn't look like any one ever spent the night here. One of the other tour groups was already here, but then again they road halfway up the trail and were getting a ride all the way down. Pansies. After the Refugio the trail actually becomes a trail and gains the final elevation to the rock scramble to the top. The weather was a little cloudy and colder above us too. Jim had been feeling under the weather since before the trip had even started so he said that this was as far as he was going to go. I on the other hand was feeling very good and announced that come hell or high water I was going to the top. I guess peer pressure won out as all four of us ultimately set out for the top. The hiking from here wasn't too bad, up some switch backs to a ridge and then over some rocks to the top. I was a little wobbly going over the the last 100 ft or so of rocks as the lack of proper acclimatization showed. Finally we spotted a marker in the clouds and figured it must be the top. Problem was we were totally encased in clouds and couldn't see the spectacular view down into the crater. We could however see the precipitous drop off behind us and smell the sulfur fumes. After a bit, everyone made the top and we took what turned out to be our only group summit shot of the entire trip. I also found out that we were not standing on the actual high point of the mountain, but rather the established trekking high point. The actual high point was the next pile of rocks over. Our trekking guide, who finally showed up after the whole time, said that it was considered to be too dangerous to go to the high point due to the volcanic activity. OK, I can accept that. On the way down we elected to take the short cut which went straight down the side of the hill instead of the trail. This was great right up to the point that I slipped and bent my trekking pole underneath me at a 45 angle. I spent a couple of minutes sitting in the scree trying to bend my pole back. This is like the 4th time I've seriously bent the same pole and its a miracle that it keeps bending back without breaking. The rest of the walk down was mostly uneventful. The others in our group seemed to be feeling the altitude and were in a big hurry to descend as quickly as possible. The ride back into Quito was also mostly uneventful and it turned out there was a perfectly good paved road you could take instead of the back road we had taken that morning.

Once back at the hotel we set about the task of getting Ed's travelers checks cashed so he could pay off Safari. We figured it couldn't be too hard as we had seen at least a dozen banks just down the road. Well think again. Banking in Ecuador was somewhat of an experience. Each bank had at least one armed guard who was carrying anywhere from a pistol, to a sawed off shotgun, to a sub-machine gun. English, like most places we went, was only partially spoken which meshed well with our only partially spoken Spanish. So every time we went into a bank the armed guard would ask us what we wanted and we would say we wanted to cash travelers checks. He would look at us and say NO, the bank will not cash them. This happened repeatedly as we worked our way through the dozen or so banks. We started asking people on the street if they knew somewhere to no avail. At one bank we actually managed to get a big bill turned into small bills. The armed guard was very amused and was sure we would be turned away. We got a $100 turned into $10 bills and completely ran the bank out of 10's. I'll say it again, we ran the bank out of $10 bills. The bank! Finally we found a place that said they specialized in cashing travelers checks. The fee was 4% instead of 2% but we were desperate. They were very suspicious of Ed's chicken scratch on the checks. The lady behind the bullet proof glass (guarded by the guy with the sawed off shotgun) was on the phone with somebody trying to find out what to do. They had Ed show his ID and then resign each check a third time, to prove that he can't sign his name the same way three times in a row much less two. Somehow she finally decided to take our word for it and cashed all of the checks he needed to pay off Safari. Greg went ahead an cashed some checks here too. Back to Safari we went to pay them off. Apparently Jim & Greg were having some difficulties arranging their Galapagos portion of the trip with Safari as well. While this was going on I chatted with Jean about how I was going to tip the guides with travelers checks. She of course said "NO, you can't do that". Just like us the guides would have hell trying to cash the damn things. Well that was the last straw for the travelers checks. We found out about a a bank that for sure cashed them for a 2% fee and decided to completely cash out in the morning, assuming the bank had enough cash. That night we ate in a nice Ecuadorian restaurant around the corner from Safari. We had some very interesting food and I was introduced to Llapingachos which are sort of like a fried potato pancake with cheese blended in with the potato. Very good. On the way back to the hotel I discovered the wonders of the Internet cafe in Ecuador. Phone calls to the US were six cents a minute, and Internet access was about 20 cents for 20 minutes. I was generally able to find Internet just about everywhere and sent back almost daily emails to the home front.

The cable cars at the Teleferico
Nobody shake the car too hard
Jim, Mark, Ed and Greg at the top of the cable cars
The way up to Rucu Pichincha
Overlooking Quito
Snack break
The final rock scramble to the top of Rucu Pichincha
Mark at our high point for the day: 14,250 ft. Not too bad for being at sea level the day before
Overlooking the trail back down to the top of the cable cars
Amazing how it cooled off when the sun went behind the clouds
A tourist market in a park near our hotel. I did all of my souvenir shopping here
Overlooking Guagua Pichincha
This high valley seemed to be predominantly grazing land
Can't go any where in the world without finding a fence
Greg says this is more like it
Cows and horses, living together, total anarchy
Stop taking pictures already and lets go
And their off!
The Refugio. Not sure why they need one here
Fueling up for the last push to the top
Mark on the summit of Guagua Pichincha (15,686 ft) on 1/4/07
The only group summit shot of the entire trip. Little did we know at the time.....
Mark after falling down while coming down the short cut. I'm bending my trekking pole back straight again at the moment
Heh heh, you fell on your butt
Looking back towards the Refugio and the summit
Clouds rolling in on our way down
Our spacious accommodations at the Hotel Sierra Nevada

 

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