Friday, October 28, 2011

Dogs of Ecuador

This post is dedicated to a particular friend who also loves the dogs of Ecuador. They are a special group of animals, to be sure. Contrary to the cringing, bony, uniformly tan dogs of Central America, Ecuadorian dogs are proud, relaxed, and surprisingly heterogeneous. Here are a few I've met.

Ha! Gotcha!

The (poor man's) Inca Trail

I have zero interest in hiking the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu. During this season there would be fewer than the maximum of 500 people per day starting the trail, but I still can't stand the thought of the hullaballoo, dust, jaded guides, haughty tourists, poor Spanish, poor English...ugh. Instead, give me Ecuador's own Inca Trail, where on the day I started from Achupallas, bound for the ruins at Ingapirca 40 km away, there was exactly nobody else on the trail. Armed with three mortadella sandwiches, three peanut butter sandwiches, water purification drops, and my lightweight camping gear, I set off into beautiful countryside:
After an hour and a half I got to the head of the valley, where it closed into a rocky defile with a waterfall. This was the way through. Good thing I'm a skinny dude with a small pack.
Above, the valley opened back up. Now I was at about 12,500'. The actual Inca Trail, remains of the Incas' road from Cusco to Quito, followed on contour about halfway up the mountain on the right. I followed cowpaths in the dell below and met up with the real trail a few miles farther along, near the mountain you can see in the distance.
At the valley head there was a small lake with beautiful red algae (pictures didn't come out well; I wished I had John Warner's talent) where I got water. Then the trail climbed up to this saddle, complete with cairn.
From there it climbed to a ridge at about 14,500' with stunning views on both sides and a fierce wind from the east.
The clouds spit a bit as I hiked, but never properly rained until late in the night. By that time I was camped in a little sheltered bowl on the side of the mountain. It was freezing cold. The rain froze into a sheet on my tarp, but I stayed warm enough in my super-lightweight sleeping bag to sleep through most of the night, barely. I can attest that sleeping in cold weather at high altitude makes for some crazy dreams.
The view from my camping spot in the morning. The sun couldn't arrive fast enough! The lake in the distance was called Little Serpents.
Soon after hiking past Little Serpents Lake I arrived at these Incan ruins. The stonework looks ramshackle compared to the famous photos of Macchu Picchu, but inside there were beautifully crafted niches in the walls for storing what-have-you.
Soon after this photo it started to rain again and I put away the camera. I hiked for about three hours in the rain, through more páramo (moors), past ingenious acequias (aqueducts dug into hillsides), and then on dirt roads through a lightly settled area until I finally arrived at the ruins of Ingapirca, totally spent. 40 km in two days at high altitude with one bad night of sleep = serious fatigue. The ruins cost $6, it was still raining, and there was a bus leaving for Cuenca immediately, so for me the choice was obvious: time to be a bad tourist yet again. I skipped the ruins, catching only a glimpse through the bus window as it pulled out, bound for a hot shower and a bed.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Last night I climbed Chimborazo. The ascent started at 11:30 PM from the refuge pictured below, where my guide Patricio and I had spent the afternoon lounging around while hail beat on the roof. The weather for the climb, however, was clear. We got to the top before sunrise after 5 1/2 hours of gargantuan effort, most of it on a 50-degree slope of snow and ice.
On the summit, my smile belies my addled wits and churning stomach. Altitude of almost 21,000' is nothing to shake a stick at.
Patricio. Not addled.
Once again, looking far more put-together than I felt, although my eyes do show a bit of the desperation that distracted me from appreciating the stunning sunrise. That lump in the background is the true summit, where the previous two pictures were taken.
The start of the way back down. Looks like the end of the world, doesn't it? Our route led straight down this drop-off and eventually we ended up on the tiny ridge you can see, about 2,500' or 3,000' down. Patricio's advice: "walk normally." Right. Note the mountain's shadow.
Chimborazo was a worthwhile sojourn into mountaineering, but in the end I think I'll stick to rock climbing, hiking, and other less masochistic pursuits.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Iliniza Norte

Yesterday I came to El Chaupi, a barren little village an hour or so south of Quito, hoping to climb Iliniza Norte, which at 16,800' is probably one of the tallest mountains on earth that can be done as a day hike with no special equipment or training. A head for heights, though, is essential, as you'll see below.

Upon arriving I poked around for leads on a ride up to the trailhead, 9 km from El Chaupi. I wasn't sure I could swing 15 km and 7,000' elevation gain, and then back again, in the daylight hours. I soon ran into a German-Polish couple who were planning to climb Iliniza Norte as well, and they had a guide with a truck. Perfect! I invited myself to dinner with them to ask the guide's permission. He granted it, and we arranged to meet at 4 this morning. I went to bed in my chilly hostel (which I had all to myself), my cell phone's alarm set.

But woe unto technology, my fully charged phone found a way besides battery death to monkeywrench my plans! "SIM card not found." What!? I woke up at 5:03 to this message, panicked, threw on my clothes and pack, and sprinted to the rendezvous point--but to no avail. I would have to walk the 9 km after all, and if I walked them fast enough I might have a chance of catching up with the Europeans and getting a ride back down. Here's what the view behind me looked like as I began walking (that's Cotopaxi).

...and as the sun began to rise.
The mountain on the right was my objective. The left one is Iliniza Sur, possible only with crampons and an ice axe.
Is morning alpenglow also called alpenglow?
I was up on the páramo by this point, after 2 or so hours of hiking. The route up Iliniza norte follows its left (southeast) ridge. The descent is down the orangey loose stuff in the middle.
I made it to the refugio in 3 1/2 hours, despite the estimates I'd read that it should take 5-7. And I'd caught up with the Europeans! I was assured a ride down. I rested for a while, chatting with the refugio caretaker, who works 8 days on the mountain, 8 days off. Hiking and cell phone games are his antidote to boredom.
The Europeans and their guide making their way along the ridge. I eventually passed them, and then had trouble finding the route. I ended up climbing up the north side too early, past several pitons, knowing it was way too steep to be the proper trail. But I never left my comfort zone. Nor did the altitude make me headachey or dizzy. I was just plain having a blast.
I had the summit, marked by this doodad-bedizened cross, to myself for a half hour or so. There couldn't have been better weather for this hike. Clear views in all directions except the west, where a layer of cloud several thousand feet below obscured the forests on their way to the Pacific. The snow peaks of Cayambe, Antisana, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo were all crisply visible, not to mention Iliniza Sur right in my face. This last view reminded me of surmising Hozomeen from Desolation Peak in the North Cascades.
Chimborazo as seen across the flank of Iliniza Sur.
What a nerd.
A nice view of the beginning of the descent, showing the steepness and exposure.
Lower down on the descent skiing in the dusty volcanic material was the fastest way down. I wished for a pair of gaiters.
Finally we got back into vegetation. After several hours on desolate rock and dust, it was a revelation.

Seen behind this perky little fellow is the trail down from the summit.
Thank goodness for the ride back down to the village! Since we got back to the parking lot at around 1:15, I would have had plenty of time walking, but my dogs were barking loud. This is one of the greatest day hikes I've ever done, right up there with the Sahale Arm in the North Cascades. Gorgeous, inspiring, challenging, fun. Here's to mountains.

I also took three video panoramas which you can watch here:

...A Couple More from Quito

Although I stayed five nights in Quito, I was as per usual a bad tourist. I spent most of the time working on grad school applications and being on the winning team of a Gringo Quiz Bowl (proudest contribution: correctly ordering Brazil, Australia, and the U.S. minus Alaska according to area, which I feel deserved the $10 gift card I received). Nevertheless, I did take a walk around the Old Town and a glance inside the absurdly opulent Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús. Check it out.

Interior Design in Quito

I couldn't resist sharing these photos of the unique apartment where I stayed in Quito. I particularly love the wallpaper and cinderblock with and enthusiastic stained glass between them. The sculptures are by the owner.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Páramo Adventure

Upon arriving in the border town of Tulcán, Ecuador, I was presented with a decision. I could either make the haul straight to Quito or try to find an adventure on the way. So of course I stopped into a cíber to look at Google Maps. There I saw something called Reserva Biológica Guandera not too far away and determined to go there by hook or by crook.

The bus driver let me off at an intersection and pointed me in the right direction. I walked a few kilometers and then caught a couple of brief rides through country that looks like this.

Eventually I got to this town, called Mariscal Sucre. A lady sold me three bananas and a bottle of water. They were head and shoulders above any bananas I'd ever had, simply the best. She said the guide for the reserve, José, lived up the hill a bit. I walked on and found his house, but he'd already gone up to the reserve. However, his friend Antonio helped me find a ride on the back of a motorcycle farther up the mountain. The driver was José's nephew Carlos.

This is José (picture taken the next day).

After 5 km of jolting along cobblestone roads, Carlos stopped the motorcycle and pointed the way up a trail. I soon found myself in cloud forest enshrouded in mist. After a half mile or so José appeared out of nowhere and declared himself a kidnapper before giving me a warm handshake. The jokester. I liked him right off the bat, as soon as I knew he wasn't really going to kidnap me.

The house was a funky structure with plenty of bunks and blankets. Besides José there was Rocia, the cook; Nina, a lovelorn Finnish volunteer who was relieved to speak English with someone; two law students from Quito; the dog Beethoven; and a cat. Rocia's dinner was delicious, and afterwards José and the two students taught me the card game of cuarenta.

The next morning I donned a pair of borrowed rubber boots and charged up the mountain with Beethoven as hiking partner.

The cloud forest was spooky and beautiful, with tons of Guandera trees, with roots that grow from the upper branches, and myriad epiphytes.

After an hour and a half or so, having climbed from 10,800' to 12,500', we suddenly popped out into the open páramo.

There were frailejone plants as far as the eye could see (which wasn't all that far, because of the clouds).

I don't know very much about the páramo, but apparently it is a delicate high-altitude type of landscape that provides most of the water for urban areas in the Andes.
It was great to have an enthusiastic hiking partner. And I was pleased with how well my lungs and legs did up to 12,500'! That's the highest I've ever been!
After getting back down I showered, ate another delicious meal cooked by Rocia, walked back down the mountain, and hitchhiked to Quito. What a day!