Ecuador Mountaineering - January 2007

Cayambe - 18,996 ft

Trip theme: "Wind" or "Why are they throwing rose petals at that box with a doll in it?"


Loading up our things into the back of the Land Cruiser

Today, after Yoga of course, we got to wonder whether Javier was going to actually pick us up or not. We started to get a little nervous when he was late, but he eventually showed up. Our transportation wasn't built any where near to this decade but it seemed sturdy enough, a well worn Toyota Land Cruiser. Today's first order of business was to drive back to Safari where we would load up with water, food, and a variety of strange Ecuadorian snacks. Our bags went from the back of the truck to the top of the truck to make way for all the junk we picked up at Safari. We stood around waiting for quite a bit while Javier went to park some other truck when he finally came back and said we had to go pick up our other guide Diego. They never really said exactly, but Diego had not worked for Safari in a number of years. I think what happened was that Safari couldn't come up with anyone and Javier called up one of his friends who he knew guided on the mountains and that's how he got the gig. We drove over to an adjacent part of town and picked Diego and his backpack up on a street corner. Cayambe it turns out is north of Quito while Cotopaxi and Chimbo are south of Quito. The distances aren't very far by US standards but it takes forever to get anywhere in Ecuador. We spent what seemed like forever before we could even get out of Quito, stopping along the way at a gas station which of course had armed guards with shotguns. Finally we crossed the equator and split off for the road to Cayambe. The road to Cayambe was easily the worst road we were on in all of Ecuador. Once again I was very glad to be making use of my Sea Band wrist bands. After an eternity we arrived at the Refugio at 15,100 ft. Now this was more like what I was expecting. The Refugio was very nice with lacquered hard wood through out, a spacious common area, nice padded bunks, and even running water with indoor plumbing. The weather was warm and very pleasant. We unloaded our stuff and then went out for what was suppose to be our glacier school. One of my main goals for the trip, outside of bagging summits, was to learn crevasse rescue skills and also practice descents on hard steep terrain. The original intention was for this glacier school to provide for those goals. Well the answer to that question was once again NO. Our school consisted of us practicing skills that we already knew and little else. In fact I was surprised by some of the techniques that the two guides were employing. While I'm by no means worldly or highly experienced in alpine climbing, their methods sometimes seemed to contradict what we had learned here in the states and what I had read in Freedom of the Hills. I was already at a state of heightened awareness when we got randomly selected guides, but now seeing them I was on maximum safety alert for the climbs to come. I have no doubt that every guide we had was a capable and strong climber, however I don't think any of them had the level of training I have come to expect in a guide. Similarly we did not share a common idea of what is acceptable risk. On the upside I did get to practice a little bit on a short steepish slope and we did "learn" a skill that would turn out to be critical on Chimbo, how to climb vertical ice. We practiced a couple of times ascending and descending a short section of near vertical ice which actually turned out to be much easier than I thought it would be. At least in the daylight at 15,000 ft any way. After our "school" we ate, hydrated, and tried to sleep. One of the really strange things about the Ecuadorian guides was that none of them seemed to have a sense of urgency about getting to bed at a decent time. I'm accustomed to trying to sack out at 6PM for a midnight departure, but we didn't even get dinner until around 7:30. Originally I had planned not to climb Cayambe at all, but rather to go back down to the Hacienda this night. However I was feeling extremely good and very strong so it was an easy decision for Ed and I to stay and try and bag Cayambe.

I "slept" quite well for the little time we had, certainly better than I was expecting. Our initial wake up call at midnight was greeted with the declaration by Javier that the mountain was "wet". Wet? You mean its raining? I looked out the window and it was difficult to tell what he meant. What I saw was that the window had moisture on it and we were incased in clouds. I now realized that the strange sounds I had been hearing all night and mistaking for something unknown, had in fact been the wind howling against the Refugio. Javier said that we would wait another hour and then decide if we would make a summit attempt at all. An hour later Javier said that the mountain was "dry" and that we could get ready to leave. At least when I looked out the window I could see that it was clear, however the now unmistakable sound of the wind was present. Strangely we were the only ones on the entire mountain this morning. No one else had shown up during the course of the night, so we set out alone as a group of 6 into the moonlit morning. The glacier has receded to the point where the first 1,000 feet or so of Cayambe is strictly dirt, rock and boulders. I was enjoying this initial part of the climb but none of the others were. I seemed to be the odd man out initially on the fun factor. However the big problem was the wind. I estimate that he wind was 40 - 50 mph sustained with gusts around 65 mph. Now I'm no meteorologist, but I know from a Mt. Washington climb what 55 mph sustained feels like and what a 75 mph gust feels like. The 75 mph gust will lift me off my feet and knock me to the ground. I never got knocked off my feet but I was knocked off balance at times, hence my 65 mph estimate. Even though it wasn't very cold, it became quickly apparent to me that we would not be summiting today. There was no way we could chance being on a steep potentially exposed slope and getting knocked off our feet. Not to mention that the summit was completely engulfed in a nasty looking fast moving cloud bank. At about 16,000 ft we reached the foot of the glacier and it was time to put on crampons. I was trying to decide whether it was safe, and worth the effort, to continue up or not. Jim wasn't feeling that well and wanted to turn around, while Ed and Greg wanted to continue. Javier and Diego indicated that while the summit was most likely out due to the high winds that at least we could climb another 500 ft or so before turning around. The fast moving cloud over the summit also appeared to be moving back down the mountain. At first I was ready to just turn around for safety, then I was all set to keep going as long as we could. I was feeling extremely strong and was very torn on what to do. Us being completely alone on the mountain entered my mind about now too. I had made a promise that I would always go with my instincts, which granted were mixed, but finally I decided to err on the side of extreme caution and go with my initial reaction which was there was no point in continuing. Though if everyone else had wanted to continue I would have gone on as well. Jim wanting to go back made it convenient for me to make that decision. In retrospect, one of my regrets for the trip was not climbing on as far as I could go on Cayambe. I let my fear of the unknown in the dark get the better of me and cause me to make too conservative of a decision. Would I have made the top? No. But I would have given it my best shot instead of wimping out. On the other side, you could argue that I made the right decision by not wasting energy on a doomed summit attempt. If I had made the other summits I would probably feel different about Cayambe, but now that its all over I regret the conservative decision. So moving along, Jim and I turned around while Ed and Greg continued on for another 500 ft or so. Based on Ed's description and pictures, I was in fact ultra conservative in my decision. The clouds stayed away and the slope was very moderate. It was interesting to note though that Diego was placing wands every so often, so he was concerned that the nasty cloud might be coming down too. Jim and I made pretty good time back down towards the Refugio. Occasionally we could see three headlamps moving slowly higher up the mountain. Once back at the Refugio it was nearing sunrise. I decided that I wanted to stay outside and watch the sun come up. The wind was blowing so hard at this point that I had to hide behind big boulders so the dust wouldn't batter my eyes. I found a good spot and spent a half hour or so watching the stars and the sunrise. It was nice and a small consolation that I got to watch it unfold instead of climbing through it. After that I went back to bed, might as well catch as much sleep as possible. I really was surprised how much longer Ed and Greg were out. I even thought once that maybe they had been blown off the glacier. But around 7:30 they safely returned to the Refugio and our attempt at Cayambe was over. I took a picture on the drive out that really showed what we were up against today. Cayambe had a cloud tail miles and miles long that was moving so fast you wouldn't believe it. There was no way we were going to summit today. The worst part about Cayambe was that I was feeling very strong. Who knows what would have happened higher up, but at 16,000 ft that morning I felt stronger and more energetic than I had ever felt before at that altitude. In better weather I know (or at least strongly suspect) I would have made the summit. This was the bitter taste of defeat #1.

After Cayambe we drove down to the Hacienda Guachala which is apparently the oldest continuously operated hacienda in Ecuador. It is a very nice place with a pool, and internet access. We spent the morning exploring the Hacienda and resting from our morning activities. In the afternoon we finally got to play Hearts for the first time on the trip, Ed was ecstatic. We were fortunate that on Saturday's they have a BBQ at the Hacienda which we could buy into for $10 a piece. We all signed up and it turned out to be a good decision. The food was excellent! It was served buffet style and the serving ladies found it immensely amusing that all four of us asked for each and every item that was being served. I flat out stuffed myself and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing. During our card game we kept hearing fireworks in the nearby town. Being the restless sort, Ed wanted to go for a walk and found out what was going on. We thought maybe they were having some sort of festival and we could check it out. Well they were having some sort of festival alright but we had no idea what it was all about. We walked over to where all the commotion was and found a bunch of people in a courtyard outside a church and a band playing music. In the center of it all was a clear glass box suspended  by two long poles. People were occasionally throwing rose petals at the box. (Note: Ecuador is a large exporter of roses) My first thought was funeral. The strange thing was that everyone seemed to be happy and people were encouraging us to get closer to the action. All of a sudden the box was picked up and carried out of the court yard right past us. We could see in the box now that it was a plastic baby doll inside the box. So maybe its celebrating a birth? The box, the band and all of the people proceeded to start walking down the street through the town and we followed. The flower petals were repeatedly flying and the band never stopped playing. How the guys on the wind instruments didn't pass out is beyond me. We walked right up the main street of the town, traffic be damned. At several points people were handing out alcoholic drinks from a bucket which they offered to us which we politely declined. I forget the name of the drink but it is historically sugar cane that is partially chewed and then spit back out into a bucket. The saliva from the mouth being the catalyst for fermentation. We were assured that this is no longer the way the drink is made, but still, I'm not drinking something out of a bucket in Ecuador. We were still speculating as to what this was all about. Another theory was that it was a coming of age party for young children, but the birth seemed to make the most sense. We wound around town for a long time following the large crowd of people. The road turned into a dirt road which turned into a smaller dirt road. Eventually we were heading for what looked like somebody's house. Ah, its gotta be a birth. We figured it was time to stand to the side, but the people were insistent that we come into the house. Well OK, why not? We went inside, which turned out to be a mistake, and figured out that this wasn't someone's home. It was the local community center. We were more or less trapped in the room, which was the overflow room, until the ceremony was over. The music stopped, they opened the box, and everyone started to pray. Ah, this has something to do with the baby Jesus. We eventually confirmed that the march we followed is in celebration of the three wise men finding the baby Jesus on Jan 6th, The Day of the Kings. This is apparently a popular celebration with the Christians in Latin America and we would later see smaller versions of this all around the country. It really was very neat that we got to see such a large celebration and that the locals freely welcomed us into the festivities. We managed finally to duck out of the community center and found our way back to the Hacienda in time for dinner. Dinner at the Hacienda was OK, but nothing exciting.

The next day we were to drive from the Cayambe area to the Cotopaxi area. Javier and Diego had dropped us off at the Hacienda and had left the previous day. It was a complete mystery who would be picking us up that morning to drive us south. The only thing we knew was that someone was coming to pick us up and that Javier and maybe Diego would be meeting up with us the next morning. Greg had been reading his guide book and wanted us to visit a pyramid ruins that was basically on the way down to Cotopaxi. I really wanted to visit the equator monument that we had passed along the highway. We were very dubious as to whether either of our desires would be fulfilled. We figured there was a 50/50 chance that the driver would be under strict instructions to take us to the next hacienda and that's it, or he could be persuaded to take us on a couple of excursions for a healthy tip. It turned out to be the later. A fellow in a very nice/new white van showed up who spoke almost no english. We had the owner of the Hacienda talk to him for us and explain where we wanted to go. $20 later and we had ourselves two excursions. The equator monument turned out to be neater than I thought. It was still in the process of being built but the monument was going to be a fairly complicated sundial and calendar. The man working there turned out to be the husband of the lady who owned the Hacienda. Interestingly this particular spot, according to the man, is the only spot on the equator that has been precisely measured to within 1mm. How cool is that! I got to stand exactly on the equator and my engineering juices were flowing. From here we also had a good view of Cayambe. Oh no.... The weather is absolutely perfect today on Cayambe! I can't believe we had junk yesterday and then perfect weather today. But that's the way it goes when you only allocate one day per mountain for an attempt. We all bought DVD's explaining the project, Quitsato. Oddly enough standing on the equator was one of the highlights of the entire trip for me. From there we hopped back in the van and headed off to the pyramids at Cochasqui. The pyramids were supposedly used as astronomical observatories or a ceremonial ritual center. From the looks of it it could have been both. The pyramids aren't what you normally think of. In this case they were more like earthen mounds in a sort of T-shape that at one time may have been a taller structure, but now they look like oddly shaped hills. The sign clearly indicated that we could pay $1 to enter, but the man selling the tickets insisted that we pay $3 each and get a guided tour. Whatever. Our guide spoke absolutely no english whatsoever. This made our guided tour a little more authentic. Actually between the four of us listening to him I think we generally got the gist of what he was trying to say. The pyramids were generally pretty interesting and I'm glad we stopped at them. Back in the van and we were on the road again. The driver never seemed all that interested in stopping for lunch and we were famished. Greg gave me his guide book and I looked in the back for some Spanish to say that we wanted to stop for lunch. I found what I wanted and said it a few times to the driver to no response. I figured we weren't going to stop but he was just going a little further to find a place he knew. We bought him lunch and I had some more of the local BBQ. Ed went absolutely crazy and started eating local salad, surely a death sentence for getting sick. Back in the van we wound our way down to our room for the night at La Estacion de Machachi.

Reloading up our things on to the TOP of the Land Cruiser. Hope it doesn't fall
The less than inspiring offices of Safari Ecuador
Ed points out the irony on the white board outside Safari Ecuador
The rolling hills along the road to the Cayambe hut
We stopped in a flat spot for a break. Our guides, Diego and Javier are on the left
Mark overlooking Cayambe. It was quite warm out of the wind
Ed, Mark, Jim & Greg overlooking Cayambe at around 15,000 ft
The glacier extended all the way down to the bottom of the picture only 5 years ago
Getting ready to practice climbing skills on what's left of the glacier
Looking back down the path of the glacier
Mark stylin' on the glacier
Please can we play cards now? I'm going crazy!
Cayambe Refugio, 15,100 ft
Mark at 16,000 ft on Cayambe after deciding to turn around
Ed on Cayambe after deciding to go a little further
Man it is much nicer out of the howling wind
Diego says its time for everyone to turn around
Ed's high point on Cayambe, probably around 16,500 ft or a little higher
I turned around where the rock stops and the glacier stops at the top part of the rock
Mmm, these Ecuadorian snacks are awesome
Antisana on the left and Cotopaxi on the right
High altitude rainbow
This is great, I'm done for the day and its only 8AM
Inside the bunk house at the Refugio
A nice little valley along the unbelievably bumpy road from the Cayambe hut
Ecuadorian traffic jam
Pictures don't do justice to how fast the clouds were flying from left to right
The square at the Hacienda Guachala
Outside the main drive to Guachala
The box getting carried across the bridge into town
Following the march through town. Whatever you do don't drink the stuff being offered in the buckets
The trail of rose petals behind us
Where in the heck are we going to wind up?
The march wound up inside what we think was the local community center
Our spacious accommodations at the hacienda
The greenhouse area out the back of our room. It was at least 20F warmer in here when the sun was up
I took this after morning yoga at the hacienda square
Yes Ed, the llamas are inspiring....
This way to the equator.
Mark standing on the exact line of the equator
No dude. The actual representation of the globe should be at an inclined angle relative to the sun, not sideways rolling along the equator
An absolutely perfect day on Cayambe the day after our attempt. Damnit, damnit, damnit!
Checking out the ancient pyramids (er, covered dirt mounds) at Cochasqui
Are you sure we're not walking across the burial grounds by mistake?
This is the biggest pyramid. Underneath the metal sheet they had excavated a piece where you could see the original stone work
A model of what all the pyramids looked like back in the day
Couldn't shake a stick without running into llamas
I'm not sure I can say enough times how beautiful Ecuador is
The look of total comprehension as we listen to our non-english speaking tour guide


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