Climbing three volcanoes in Ecuador was a pleasant, rewarding experience. One that I would repeat. I found Ecuador to be filled with a rich history, friendly people, great scenery, challenging climbs with convenient access and quite affordable. We climbed three of their 32 volcanoes located on the mainland: Cayambe 18,997 feet/5790 meters, Cotopaxi 19,348 feet/5897 meters, and Chimborazo 20,703 feet/6310 meters. We used Mountain Madness and I found them excellent in all aspects and would climb with them again without hesitation.
These three volcanoes are quite popular for a guided trip and for some independent climbers. As I will develop, Ecuador is a foreigner-friendly country with excellent hotels (haciendas) located near the peaks. The mountain refugiós are nice, similar to what you would find in Europe. And the local guides are excellent.
Ecuador has proven oil reserves and is cashing in with China as a partner at the risk of their environment (Amazon Rain Forest), it is still considered a developing country with the wealth gap, government corruption, petty crime and the need to only drink bottled water. All that said, I felt very safe there. They cater to tourists primarily based on visits to the Galapagos Islands (still on my list) but seeing and climbing the volcanoes, especially Cotopaxi is near the top of the list. Also, a large part of Ecuador is taken up by the Amazon Rain Forest. So the country has quite the eco-diversity.
Almost all the major guides across the world offer packaged climbs of the Ecuadorean volcanoes. The pricing is similar ranging from $3,500 to $4,500 for two or three peaks. Most use local guides but some have their foreign national as the lead guide – unnecessary use of clients money in my view as the local Ecuadorean guides are outstanding both in soft and technical skills. Almost all companies follow a similar pattern of a few days being a tourist, then a few days of acclimatizing on the local 14,000-foot peaks before starting the volcano climbs usually ending with Chimborazo. As usual, if you have the skills, experience and risk tolerance, you can try to climb these independently but Ecuador requires a guide for any climb over 5,000-meters so be aware.
So why did I want to climb these peaks? I’ve never climbed these peaks but they are perfect for some of my Summit Coach clients looking to build their skills at modest altitudes so I wanted to climb them myself. Also, I’ve never climbed with Mountain Madness but they are one of the best guide services out there and have been developing their South American programs for years. In 2017, I did an interview for this blog with Mark Gunlogson, their CEO, were he discussed MM’s business, Scott Fischer and Christine Boskoff. Next, Robert LeClair and I have summited almost all of the Colorado 14ers together as well as Mexico’s Orizaba. He signed-up for these climbs almost a year ago and invited me then. Finally, my Island Peak climb in October 2018 was a bit more difficult than I had anticipated so I want to get back to that 20,000-foot level and figure out what’s going on. Glad to report no issues this time.
We had three local Ecuadoran guides and no America leaders. The team was small made up of six people: four Americans and one Polish and one Canadian member. The pre-trip communication with MM was excellent. They provide all the information you needed from gear list to route details and local contracts well before I left the States. I flew from Denver to Quito, the capital of Ecuador via Copa Airlines through Panama City and on to Quito. Others flew United or American airlines from Houston or Miami. I would not use Copa again due to inconvenient connections. I had a 12-hour layover in Panama City.
Welcome to Ecuador
I was met by a MM representative at the airport and driven to our amazing hotel, the Hacienda Rumiloma. This is a Mountain Madness exclusive as it’s owned and run by Ossy Friere and his wife Amber. They live two minutes up the road with their four daughters on this 100-acre former rock quarry. While connected with MM, the Rumiloma is open to everyone and many people use it as a base for their Ecuadorian adventures – highly recommended.
Ossy is MM’s Latin American Program Director, has climbed Aconcagua’s South Face, summited Everest without supplemental oxygen and guided throughout the globe. His English is perfect, perfectly polite and holds a UIAGM certification. He also runs one of Ecuador’s climbing clubs and trains other guides.
If you go to Ecuador, getting Ossy as your guide and staying the Hacienda Rumiloma, is worth any slight premium you might pay and will make the trip extremely special.
We started with a tourist day in Quito learning about the history of Ecuador, their chocolate, and rose industries plus enjoyed local food in the city center. In spite of the touristic aspect to the day, we were acclimatizing as Quito is at 9,350-feet/2,850 meters.
Next were acclimatization hikes to 15,407-feet/4,696-meters and the summit of Pichincha Volcano. The next day to Fuya Fuya at 13,986 feet/4,263-meters. In between, we spent a morning visiting the local, very colorful market in Otavalo where I bought several Llama wool blankets and scarfs for gifts back home.
Finally, after six days in Ecuador, we were ready to attempt our first volcano, Cayambe.
As with all these climbs, we started at a fairly high elevation. We drove with Ossy, and his fellow guides Joshua Jarrin, also UIAGM/IFMGA certified, and the third guide, Ecuadoran Camilo Jose Andrade Davila to the excellent hut, Refugio Ruales Oleas Berge at 15,420-feet/4,700-meters.
We had visited the hut the previous day hoping to get some ice time but strong winds and rain kept us in the hut all afternoon. We retreated lower to spend the night at the newly built hut/climbing school complex built by the Mountaineering Club of the Jesuit school San Gabriel. It was about half an hour away from the Cayambe Hut. This was another Mountain Madness exclusive offering a quality environment and outstanding food.
We returned to the refugió on Monday, January 21, 2019, had a simple dinner and went to bed at sunset just as the clouds broke giving us a beautiful view of Cayambe. Up at 11 for a midnight departure, we ate breakfast, downed some cocoa and coffee, put on our helmets, harness, mountaineering boots and multiple layers since the winds were quite strong this evening.
The first couple of hours went well. The climb started on rocky terrain, mostly class 2 with class 3 scrambling on some short sections. I was surprised at the level of rock involved, albeit, quite doable. Soon the terrain somewhat flattened into a sandy loam before intersecting with the glacier. So far, so good. We put on crampons and swapped trekking poles for ice axes. We roped into three teams for safety as the upper part of the mountain has many crevasses, again, not a huge issue as most are easily stepped over and present little danger … but you never know.
Again we made good time and were on schedule for a six-hours summit push when everything fell apart, quite literally.
I felt moisture on my face but didn’t see any rain or snow falling. I pointed my headlamp towards my down jacket sleeve and was surprised to see it saturated. It was soaking wet. And goose feathers and water does not go together as down loses its warmth when wet. We were experiencing Hoarfrost, defined as “a deposit of ice crystals on objects exposed to the free air, such as grass blades, tree branches, or leaves. It is formed by direct condensation of water vapor to ice at temperatures below freezing and occurs when air is brought to its frost point by cooling.” We stopped to add layers, including Gortex jackets to ward off the moisture. About this time low clouds overtook the upper part of the mountain.
Joshua turned back to us and said: “It looks bad and it’s still 3 hours to the summit plus more to get back in these conditions.” Soon Cam arrived and then we caught up with Ossy and collectively we made our way down from the high slopes of Cayambe. Our high was 17,100-feet on this 18,900-foot volcano, and everyone was happy. So a small disappointment not to summit our first of three peaks, and we all felt it was the correct decision.
We drove back to the Hacienda Rumiloma for one night before heading over to Cotopaxi. It was a lazy morning in comfort before leaving for the several hour drive to our next hacienda, Los Mortinos – another outstanding establishment with excellent food. Plus the sunset pictures of Cotopaxi were magnificent.
We left Los Mortinos for the refugió that many expeditions use, the Hacienda Tambopaxi where we had lunch before driving to the end of the road about a 1,000-feet below the Jose F. Rivas refugió located at 15,744-feet/4,800-meters.
Again, early dinner then to bed at sunset for an 11 pm walkup call. This night we awoke to clear skies and light breezes. There were only a few other parties climbing this Friday night.
As we left the refuge, the lower part of the route was on red dirt with switchbacks but soon met the glacier. There we put on crampons and donned ice axes. The temps were in the lower 40sF but the wind kept you alert. Climbing Coto is not technical as in using extra climbing gear (protection, cams, pitons, ice screws, pickets, etc) but is what I would consider “sustained”. After all think of a volcano’s shape – it’s basically a cone with steep sides all around. Cotopaxi is no different. The route starts somewhat steep and increases in angle as you gain in altitude. In general, the last third of the climb was the steepest with angles ranging from 30 to 50 degrees. It was a bit exposed and in some sections, a fall would be serious.
There are multiple switchbacks as we climbed higher, roped together in groups 2 to 3 to protect in case of falls into a crevasse. There were several but two that were quite large. Both had stable snow bridges that allowed for easy crossing but in some years, ladders are put across the open cracks. After about 6:30 hours, we reached the summit of this recently active volcano. You could still smell sulfur in the air and smoke arose from the caldera.
The down climb was scary fast – 2 hours and we were back in the hut for a 9 am breakfast of corn tortillas and fresh fruit. We hiked down the road to our cars and back to the Hacienda Tambopaxi for the night before moving on to Chimborazo for a Monday summit climb.
Once again, we drove in two Toyota 4Runners along the highways of Ecuador to Chimborazo National Park. The scenery was fantastic. We stopped for lunch in a local town and enjoyed pizza before arriving at a small, quaint hotel, the Bienventidos Lodge, unlike the plush places before. But this was a nice change of pace. It was simple, clean, great food and felt a bit more like a real expedition.
The next day we had another lazy morning but left for the two-hour hike to the tent-based High Camp on Chimborazo. There are two huts on Chimbo but the high camp is located at 17,500-feet gave us a head start on the summit.
As usual, we got up at 11 for a midnight start, the Milky Way looked like a long narrow cloud and the billions and billions of stars made even the best-known constellations like the Southern Cross, Orion, the Big Dipper almost invisible. We made good time as we began following a nondescript path under an unstable rock wall aka the Castle for about an hour. We were swift and deliberate with our movements. Soon we left the wall for the flanks of this extinct volcano.
The wee hours of the morning passed as we navigated the route to the light of the stars. An impressive glow soon emerged on the summit as a half moon said hello. The climb was challenging, more so than Cotopaxi. The snow was hard and icy at times and the angles were relentless, a constant 35 to 55 degrees that became more aggressive as we closed in on 20,000 feet.
With seemingly no warning, the stars disappeared, our calm morning gave way to high winds, extreme cold and snow squalls. Our group of eight held an impromptu conference at 20,433 feet on Pico Veintimilla, one of the sub-peaks of this “volcano”. We were a quarter of a mile away, 131 vertical feet, from the invisible main peak of Chimborazo standing at 20,564 feet. We called it good and began to retreat.
We returned for soup at the lodge and started what should have been a three-hour drive back to Hacienda Rumiloma but a commercial truck driver protest blocked all the roads so it took us eight hours. I had a 1:20 am flight the next morning but made it back for a quick shower and dinner and an easy ride to the airport to make my flight.
I really liked Ecuador – the people, country and mountains. The logistics were easy, convenient and affordable. The climbs were a challenge yet achievable. Mountain Madness did an outstanding job. Their guides were some of the best I’ve climbed with. Their home office was efficient and easy to work with. Their price was a bit lower than others and offered more based on the “Ossy” and Hacienda Rumiloma factors. Overall a solid value.
Ecuador and Mountain Madness are now on my “must” list for everyone, including myself.
In my next blog post, I’ll do a comparison of climbing in Nepal to Ecuador.
Memories are Everything