Volcanoes In Ecuador: Thwarted But Happy

Climbing volcanoes in Ecuador has been a long-held dream of mine. From January 13th to the 19th of this year, I took a few baby steps toward realizing it: I traveled to Machachi, Ecuador to try to hike and climb Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, Ecuador’s tallest volcanoes. I failed; both volcanoes were not prepared to receive me on their summits; the weather did not co-operate and was well and truly ‘socked in’ with persistent rain and snow higher up. I traveled partway up Cotopaxi, returning from 5300 meters after snow conditions were deemed unfit for us to continue; the Chimborazo attempt was called off before commencing thanks to reports that avalanche conditions prevailed on its slopes. Still, I managed to squeeze in hikes–of varying levels–of three other volcanoes in the region: Corazon; Illiniza Norte; Ruminahui. I also spent a rewarding week at a lovely hostel–the Hosteria Chiguac–in the town of Machachi, and a wonderful weekend in Quito with an old friend. Like all occasions to travel, this one changed me emotionally and physically; I fell in love all over again with the mountains and renewed my gratitude for the folks I meet when I travel,–this time around, a pair of fire fighters from Idaho, Canadian climbers, English schoolboys, a German young man–who fill my heart with their affection and amaze me with their kindness. The world is a big place, and I will remain in awe of all it contains.

I arrived in Quito on Friday, January 11th, and after being picked up by Manuel from Andes Climbing, was driven to Machachi to check in at the Hosteria Chiguac. Next morning, my guide Marco arrived to accompany me on an acclimitazation hike to Corazon. The hike begins from a parking lot at 4000 m above sea level and continues on to the summit of Corazon–with a funky little rocky scramble requiring some care along the way. The summit is at 4780m; we were accompanied by a dog–Senor Perro–who proved to be a remarkably skillful scrambler and hiker. After a quick lunch, we headed back down, or rather, we were chased off the summit ridge by an impending thunderstorm. The next day, Marco and I headed off to climb Illiniza Norte, the less-technical of the pair of Illinizas. This is a class 3 scramble that turned into an alpine adventure thanks to the fresh snow; the most excitement came along the traverse ‘El Paseo De Morte’ and in ascending the final couloir to the summit; we roped up and Marco expertly belayed me on a couple of sections. After the summit, we ‘surfed’ our way down a scree slope to pull off a little slippery, slidy, shortcut. After a day’s rest, Marco and I attempted to scale Cotopaxi.

The day before our attempted climb, Marco and I drove to the parking lot for the Jose Rivas Refuge, and hiked up to the refuge, our jumping off point for the summit push. We ate an early dinner, checked our gear and turned in for the night at about 630PM. Wake-up was at 11PM; I drank a quick coffee, geared up, and headed out. One indication of the trouble we were to face was that we had to put on our crampons at the refuge itself, as opposed to the usual ‘crampons-on’ point at the the glacier forty-five minutes up the slope. Later, the snow grew deeper, wetter, and slippier, making progress up the slope harder and harder. Two hours and 1300 feet up the slope, our luck ran out, as Marco and other guides with other parties decided that snow conditions made it too hard to carry on. Our Cotopaxi plans having fallen apart, so did our Chimoborazo ones; besides, scouting reports made it clear avalanche risk was too high. I settled for a substitute hike to Ruminahui Central on a day which summed up the weather for the week; it began and ended in dampness, and we were chased off the peak by an approaching storm.

My hiking concluded, I moved to Quito for the weekend to meet an old friend and spent a couple of days of blissful indulgence, eating ceviche and various barbecued meats, strolling around, drinking delicious black coffee with coconut oil and sugar, and enjoying, all over again, the sensation of being amazed by this world’s offerings. The mountains did not co-operate this time around; but I’m patient. I’ll be back.

 

Melting Glaciers And The End Of Civilization

These are the days of grim warnings about climate change, about an overheated, crowded, polluted planet, slowly cooking in a noxious stew of greenhouse gases, its rivers and oceans clogged with plastic and crude oil, its animals dying, its cities drowning, as floods and famine and hurricane and arctic freezes deliver blow after blow to its staggering frame, bringing it slowly to its knees, to an undignified and premature death.

I have become used to these warnings, to the visions of catastrophe and desolation they induce. Rather, my imagination has tried and failed to reckon with the dimensions of the disaster that is supposedly foretold.  It has retreated to lesser challenges, to conceptualizing and grasping situations more easily brought within its confines.

There are times though, when the evidence for climate change strikes the right chords, when its associated images stand out, brighter and starker than ever. A few days ago, as I watched a documentary on the Alps, I learned once again about the phenomenon of The Receding Glacier: that sad, familiar tale of how these mighty rivers of ice, which once filled valleys and crept up their walls with their accumulated mass, dragging millions of tons of ice, mud, rock, and assorted debris hundreds of miles, forming striated bands of grey, black, and white visible from space, before terminating in lakes and bays and calving off into icebergs. were now melting, drying, and receding, becoming diminished and marginal and pathetic versions of themselves, forced back up the valleys that held them, slowly threatening to disappear, leaving behind scars and tracks of their once mighty presence.

I had heard this all before. It was happening in the Himalayas, in the Andes, in the Rockies. Every mighty mountain range on this globe was diminished. But that was not all.

As I watched the mouth of a glacier give birth to a small stream, which thanks to all the tributaries from other melting points joining it slowly turned into a mighty, frothy cataract speeding down one rapid after other, bringing life and seed and color to mountaintop and meadow and down-valley field, I realized what had happened. The glacier had given birth to a river, one which would become grand and ponderous, heading for its flood plains and delta flats before flowing into the ocean. On the way, it would play its part in sustaining the human communities it made its way through.

And those communities and lives and cultures would be the first ones to go when the rivers that had so animated their regions, watered and fed them and brought them to life, would die once the glaciers and the snowpacks that gave birth to them, and which resupplied them every year, would dry up and vanish. Somehow, I had not realized, when listening to stories of receding glaciers, that I was also being told about rivers drying up. It was only then, when I made the leap from rivers to cities that I also made the most uncomfortable connection of all: the end of glaciers sounded like the end of civilization. 

 

From a Safe Distance: Reading about Mountaineering

Reading books about mountaineering–written by mountaineers–reminds me of reading books about physics written by physicists. In both cases, I’ve flirted–ever so lightly–with the subject matter: in the case of physics, I’ve done high-school physics, taken a graduate level class in mathematical methods for physicists, taught myself the basic mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics, read philosophy of physics monographs and journal articles; and so on.  In the case of mountaineering, I’ve done some high-altitude hiking and basic climbing in a variety of locales (the Himalayas, the Andes, New Zealand etc). In both cases, I know just enough of the difficulty of the work described to understand it and to be in awe of those capable of it: I am in awe of the pristine beauty of the theoretical foundations of modern physics; I wish I were capable of manipulating these structures that intrigue me so. I am staggered by the fearsome beauty of the world’s really big mountains; I only wish I were brave and skilled enough to attempt climbing them.

Among the many pleasures of my just-concluded trip to India–with my wife and daughter–was the chance to dip into my brother’s small, but high-quality, mountaineering library. So, while in India, I read: The Will to Climb: Obsession and Commitment and the Quest to Climb Annapurna–the World’s Deadliest Peak by Ed Viesturs; Everest: Alone at the Summit by Stephen Venables; Above the Clouds: The Diaries of a High-Altitude Mountaineer by Anatoli Boukreev; and Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. Viestur’s book details his attempts to scale the deadliest eight-thousander of them all, Annapurna; Venables’ the alpine-style ascent of Everest from the Kangshung Face in 1988; Simpson’s his memorable escape to safety after suffering a near-fatal accident while descending from a successful climb of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes; Boukreev’s is a collection of diary entries translated from the original Russian, which provide some insight into the mind of a man who found himself playing a central role in the controversy surrounding the 1996 disaster on Everest.

In each case, there are stories of extreme human deprivation and endeavor, and descriptions of unimaginably harsh environmental conditions: the mountains are no place for the faint-hearted. Every one of the mountaineers above is a brave man, but each finds and experiences terror in the solitary high reaches of a big mountain: Viesturs–arguably the most self-avowedly cautious major alpinist of all–finds it on Annapurna’s treacherous, avalanche-prone slopes; Simpson experiences it during his painful crawl back down the Siula Grande glacier; Venables during his exhausting descent from Everest’s summit; Boukreev on many a wind-swept face of the big peaks he so masterfully climbed during his tragically short career.

Thus, to read the physicist’s or mountaineer’s biography or autobiography is to create and sustain a state of admiration and awe. In the case of mountaineering, I experience another emotion: the stirrings of a very primal fear. The heights, the extreme cold, the loneliness, the sustained, persistent state of exhaustion, all these add up to an experience that strikes me as almost unbearably unpleasant and fearful. Those who can undertake it again and again are, as far as I’m concerned, easily worthy of admiration.

From a safe distance.