Mountain Climbing in Ecuador
...the use of the specialized equipment such as crampons, ice axes, cords and harnesses...
The famous Avenue of the Volcanoes crosses Ecuador through the center of the country like a perfect backbone and provides more than a dozen venues for some of the most exciting and challenging mountain climbing in Latin America, with opportunities for beginners, intermediate and experienced hard-core mountaineers. During the last two centuries and increasingly on the last decades, conquering the summits of Ecuador’s fabulous volcanoes has been a dream for many explorers, geographers, adventurers, scholars and professional or amateur mountain climbers.
A select group of specialized licensed mountain climbing operators offer a variety of tours, packages, special programs and custom-made trips of different durations to one or more of Ecuador’s superb mountains. They provide land transportation, lodging at established mountain lodges and camps or makeshift portable camps, as well as food, specially trained guides and all the necessary equipment (some included in the tour cost, other items for rent), in order to accomplish these adventurous and greatly rewarding voyages of mountain exploration.
Lucky me and my colleagues, for our trip this weekend, we have as our guide and trip organizer, one of Ecuador’s most famous mountaineers: a respected geographer, photographer, writer, mountain guide and scholar, who has taken the Ecuadorian flag to the summits of many Himalayan mountains; Kilimanjaro in Africa; McKinley in Alaska; some of the most important Alpine peaks in Europe, Iceland, Greenland, Latin America and even Antarctica. Marco is a living encyclopedia and someone with an unparalleled knowledge and a contagious passion for his country: Ecuador.
We leave the colonial and historic city of Riobamba, in the center of the Andean region, and in a little under one hour drive we reach the parking area which provides the closest access to the Carihuairazo Volcano, the most frequent peak utilized as a training post before going to the conquest of Ecuador’s highest mountain, the mighty Chimborazo Volcano. Earlier in the day we made our altitude acclimatization with a trek between 12.500 and 13.500 feet around the moorlands of the Chimborazo Fauna Reserve, one of Ecuador’s numerous protected areas, a unique ecosystem dedicated especially to preserve the habitat of the Andean’s native camel-related mammals: llamas, alpacas and vicuñas of which we saw several herds. We were very fortunate also to see and film the rare “Star hummingbird”, the species that lives at the highest elevation possible for these birds. Now, under the full moon and millions of stars, we have a lively bonfire dinner enjoying Marco’s amazing wealth of information, charisma, warmth and fascinating stories about his more than 500 ascensions to the Chimborazo summits, before we retire to our tents for the night. A small army of porters have prepared a comfortable makeshift campsite for our stay.
Well before dawn and equipped now with our mountaineering boots, hard-shell pants and jackets, insulated parka, woolen hat with ear-covers, mountain gloves and mittens, plus glacier glasses to protect our eyes from the intense shine of the white snows and glaciers, Marco instructs us regarding the do’s and dont’s of mountain climbing. We all have some experience but we pay special attention to the instructions: the use of the specialized equipment such as crampons, ice axes, cords and harnesses; keeping together, precautions, following the leaders, breathing techniques and other useful tips. Two more licensed guides accompany Marco and our group.
Still before sunrise we slowly begin the ascension, following a trail that Marco knows well. One hour later, we reach the glacier’s lower frontier. The sight of the imposing wall of solid volcanic rock and ancient glaciers with its sparkling whiteness is simply awesome. A short break for resting and munching on granola and chocolate bars precedes the start of the steep and challenging climb over snow and glaciers, getting steeper and steeper. We make full use of the special equipment and we take every single step testing first for ground firmness. It takes concentration and patience but it becomes an adrenaline pumping and fascinating experience enhanced by the sunrise views of the splendid Carihuairazo and its gigantic neighbor, the grand Chimborazo, towering at 20.700 feet of elevation right across from us. We make many stops for filming and picture taking while the scenery becomes more breathtaking as we get higher. Two hours later and with sun already shining over a blue sky with a few scattered clouds, we reach the higher summit of Carihuairazo, called “Josefina”, at 17.000 feet of altitude. We leave our expedition’s flag as testimony of having been there. We sit for more than an hour over lava boulders, watching in awe the magnificent cordillera and the row of snow-capped peaks and volcanoes.
After a light snack and lots of water from our portable bottles, we begin the descent, with equal care, yet always discovering a new sight or an amazing angle. By the latish afternoon we find ourselves at the western foothills of the Carihuairazo (which translates from the kichwa language into “mountain of wind and snow”). A small glacial lagoon sits right at the bottom of the volcano’s wall and reflects its rugged profile in the water, creating a superb view which we rapidly capture on film. A huge full moon disc appears from the east, over the volcano’s top, as if trying to let us touch it, while, at the opposite end, the totally clear summits of the Chimborazo provide us with incredible views of a magic sunset, changing the colossus’ white snow cover into rosy, orange and ruby-red colors as a flaming sun disc disappears behind the mountain travelling rapidly, as it happens on the Equator, to plunge within minutes in the depths of the Pacific Ocean.
Mind-boggling; out of this world; fantastic and other superlatives are the words we keep on repeating after such a day of extraordinary experiences, emotions, sensations, unimaginable and memorable sights and scenes. Sadly we make our way back to where we left our land-rovers to return to Riobamba for the night after this unforgettable expedition.
To learn more about Ecuador and its magnificent landscapes, click here.
Marco Cruz is a renowned Ecuadorian mountaineer, read about him here.