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.

 

Winter Climbing In The White Mountains, Redux

This past weekend, I traveled to New Hampshire’s White Mountains for a little guided winter climbing. (This excursion took place almost exactly a year after my trip last year–which had featured some basic snow and ice skills lessons in bone-chilling cold and a failed summit attempt on Mt. Washington; this time around, my guide was Carolyn Riccardi of Eastern Mountain Sports, who had also guided my family on an outdoor rock climbing trip to the Gunks this past September.) We had planned to do some snow and ice climbing on Mt. Willard and Mt. Webster on Friday and Saturday; the first plan came off, the second was modified. This was my first stab at multi-pitch ice climbing and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

On Friday, Carolyn and I met at EMS in North Conway, got our gear together (ice tools, crampons, a climbing rack; I already owned a helmet, harness, and mountaineering boots), and discussed objectives and expectations for the day. Once set, a short drive brought us to Crawford Notch from where our ascent to Mt. Willard began. A short approach hike brought us to the lower section of Hitchcock Gully, which required some moderate snow climbing. From there on, we traversed to the right across some snow covered rock slabs to Left Hand Monkey Wrench for our first ice climb; this was a good learning experience for me (though I didn’t help matters by dropping an ice screw while dismantling an anchor; I had to rappel down to bring it back up, a mortifying experience.) Thereafter, we moved on to The Cleft; the crux move on this involves moving over the Chockstone, a boulder that blocks the slot and presents an interesting obstacle. It took me several tries to get over this and my final move was an undignified one that saw me plant my face right in the snow. Good times. Thereafter, a short climb brought us to the Mt. Willard summit trail from where we made a right to head back to the car. (A short walk would have taken us to the summit, but time was running out–thanks to my learning curve on removing anchors, tying clove-hitch knots etc–so to avoid the dark, we high-tailed it.) All in all, a very satisfying day.

(Below: In Left Hand Monkey Wrench. Photos by Carolyn Riccardi)

On Saturday, we dropped our plans for Mt. Webster and headed instead to the Silver Cascade–a frozen stream bed and falls–for some more ice climbing. The snow here was quite thick, making our movements quite slow at times. Still, the ice climbing was relatively easy and enjoyable. We headed up for a bit, exploring the Cascade’s different features before finally calling it a day and bushwhacking it back down to the road.

Below: Climbing in the Silver Cascade:

I’ve still got a very long way to go on winter climbing; I’m still struggling with moving smoothly and keeping all the various pieces–equipment, clothing, my body–together. Still, it was an amazing experience to be able to make progress on some alpine skills, and I look forward to putting these together on some bigger routes in the future.

On Being In A Quandary On Quandary Peak

On July 19th, my wife, my daughter (aged four and a half years), and I set off to hike Quandary Peak in Colorado–one of the state’s fifty-three fourteeners. We awoke at four a.m., left at five a.m. and after a longer-than-expected drive, were on the trail at 7:50AM. By Colorado standards this was a tad bit late for hiking a 14’er; the truly wise depart the trailhead a little after six so that they can be safely off the mountain in case of an afternoon thunderstorm–a very common occurrence in the Rockies. The hike up to Quandary’s summit is considered an ‘easy’ one by 14’er standards; there are no scrambles, no technical climbing is required, just a hike up to the top.

But that hike still requires you to gain some three thousand feet of elevation in a little over three miles, which can be a reasonably sized task if you are: a) not used to the altitude; b) a young human being with short legs. Both these conditions were true of my daughter, so our progress up the trail, and especially on Quandary’s East Ridge which offers a rocky path over talus, was markedly slower than the other folks heading on up. On several occasions, as my daughter complained of tiredness, and as I glanced up at the imposing East Ridge, I wondered if our plan to hike the mountain was truly practical. At about noon or so, we ran into some acquaintances heading down after having reached the summit. We stopped to chat; their closing remarks were, “You’ve got glorious weather today even if you’re a bit late!”

Famous last words.

We finally made it to the summit around 1:30 PM. Between 1 and 1:30 dark clouds rolled in as we ascended the final few steps to the summit; I reached first, my wife and daughter followed. My heart sank as we ate a hasty lunch; we were late, and our fortunes had changed for the worse, all too quickly. A storm was brewing, and we needed to get down, off the ridge, down among the trees, quickly. Thunder and lightning were threatening and an exposed ridge was no place to be.

Unfortunately, and entirely expectedly, our descent down the ridge was tediously slow; my daughter was exhausted and spent; her mood had changed for the worse. Getting her down a rocky trail with big steps was hard work; it was made harder by the rain and by a whipping wind that chilled us quickly. Up and around us, thunder rumbled, and lightning flashed. We continued on down, slowly, nervously, trying to keep our daughter’s spirits up as best as we could. She was not shivering, but did complain about the cold; we quickly threw on all the layers we had on her and continued walking. A bearded hiker walking down past us issued a chilling warning; he had noticed my wife’s hair standing up on end, a sign of static electricity in the air, and advised us to throw away our hiking poles if we heard a buzzing sound ‘like bees’–a warning of an impending lightning strike. We hurried on as best as we could through the intermittent sharp rain and wind, casting longing glances at the pine trees and sundry bushes below at treeline.  At 5:30 PM, I started to wonder if we would be able to get to the trailhead before it turned dark; our place was glacial and daylight was not unlimited.

Finally, once we made it to the treeline and as the weather improved, and temperatures rose, our pace quickened, and my daughter’s mood improved. She became receptive to humor again, and we even indulged in some horseplay as we approached the trailhead. We made it to our car at 6:30PM, damp and bedraggled and exhausted. But safe. A hot meal in Frisco restored our mood; my daughter dozed off in the restaurant, and only awoke once we had reached ‘home’ in Louisville.

We made several miscalculations: a) we should have done a ‘warm-up’ hike to ease into the rigors of this ascent, especially because we were hiking with my daughter, who has hiked a bit before but would have still found the learning curve steep on a hike that involved three thousand feet elevation gain; b) we should have found a way to start earlier; c) we should have made a snap decision sometime between 1 and 1:30 PM to have turned back–we were definitely guilty of a little ‘summit fever,’ perhaps understandable for we were very close to the summit when the bad weather did show up.

Still, in the end, like all ‘good’ adventures, the  hard times ended safely, and we had a stock of stories for the future. And my daughter has bragging rights to her first 14’er.

 

On Seeking Out The Unpleasant For The Subsequent Relief

This past Saturday afternoon, after I had completed my abortive attempt to scale Mt. Washington, I returned–exhausted, bedraggled, and freezing–to my motel room in North Conway, NH. It was about 3:30 PM; I had stopped off on the way to pick up a cup of coffee (and had my car get stuck in the parking lot snow for a while; some good samaritans pushed it out for me.)

Once inside my room, I began peeling off my various layers of clothing, all inflicted with varying degrees of wetness from sweat and melting snow: a pair of soft-shell climbing pants, a pair of hiking pants, a ‘base layer’ of long-johns for the bottom, and then, up top, a heavy fleece jacket, a mid-weight jacket, a lighter jacket, a wool sweater, another lighter jacket, then a matching ‘base layer’ for the top. Off came the two pairs of gloves, one light, one heavy, and then, two pairs of ‘smart wool’ socks. I had planned to shower once I was indoors, but all I did was slip into a pair of shorts and get into bed. And there I lay for several hours, reading Nicholas Howe‘s Not Without Peril: 150 Years of Misadventure on the Presidential Range of New Hampshire, (a superb read, which I finished that night itself) and occasionally checking the news on CNN and MSNBC; later, for dinner, I ordered in some pizza. My fingers and toes cramped repeatedly; four fingers and two toes still burned and tingled and ached, showing signs of incipient frost-nip/bite (a diagnosis grimly confirmed now by blisters on two fingers); my throat was parched and I drank water by the liter.

It felt awesome.

And I couldn’t wait to subject myself to the same grim business I had subjected myself to earlier in the day: the rising at 530AM, the ‘gearing up,’ the exhausting plodding through deep snow, the freezing cold on my face and fingers and toes, the biting wind, the clumsy climbing and slipping, the constant reminders of my lack of co-ordination, the persistent doubt and fear about the venture I was undertaking. And I was willing to do this again because I knew that at the end of those trials and tribulations would lie the pleasurable recovery, the basking in the glow of aching muscles and a slowly warming body. I had ‘failed’ to reach the summit; I had been beaten back down by a combination of bad weather and my own weaknesses. A stronger, fitter, more skilled climber might have made it to the top; I hadn’t. But that didn’t stop me from ‘enjoying’ that late afternoon and evening of recovery.

Very often, we voluntarily subject ourselves to the painful and the uncomfortable not just because we can, because we want to find out whether we can endure those states of being, but also because we know that the relief station at the terminus of the unpleasant is especially salubrious. The ordinary pleasure becomes extraordinary within those precincts; we enjoy a form of sensory and perceptual enhancement there quite unlike any other. We have altered our state of consciousness radically; pain is understood differently now. It signals not trauma now, but something else altogether.

The prospect of such relief might be compelling enough to make us want to subject ourselves to the trials required beforehand; that pleasure is sweet enough is to draw us on, upwards and onwards through zones of persistent discomfort. And to make us want to go back again for seconds.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – II

Yesterday, I made note here of my activities on the first of a pair of days of guided climbing in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Our plan for the second day was to try to summit Mt. Washington, a beastly business in the winter. I had hoped a) to become proficient enough in climbing to attempt one of the gullies in either Huntington or Tuckerman Ravines as an ascent route and b) that the avalanche risk in those ravines was low enough to allow us to do so. Neither conditions were realized; I was still far away from being competent enough in climbing to try to do a gully ascent, and moreover avalanche risk ran high in those ravines (the Forest Service assesses the ravines’ conditions and posts updates on their website.) We would stick to the standard Lion’s Head Winter Route.

On Saturday morning, Nick Aiello-Popeo (of Synnott Mountain Guides) and I geared up at the AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center and set off; the snow lay thick about us, and kept falling lightly. I found the going hard; winter hiking is slow and tedious at the best of times. I was also still coming to grips with the cold-induced clumsiness and stiffness; everything–putting on crampons, changing layers, grabbing a quick snack–was harder to accomplish. Once the Winter Route began, the slope pitched steeply upwards, and some caution, including roping up, was required on a couple of sticky sections.

lionshead1

 

lionshead2

We slowly cleared the treeline, heading for shrubs, which is where we encountered a fierce wind and swirling snow. We pushed on for a while; our steps were slow and labored. The wind–which had been forecast to pick up during the day–was strong enough on occasion to push me back down the slope I was attempting to move up on. I followed Nick, who kept breaking trail, but even his steps were quickly wiped out by the snowdrifts that came cascading down. My goggles were fogging rapidly, and my slightly shortsighted vision meant that I kept misjudging the depth of the snow in front of me. Indeed, the swirling snow and poor visibility meant that at one point, I lost sight of my leader and had to call out to confirm his location. (Thankfully, Nick was only a few meters ahead.) Finally, Nick walked back down the slope, and suggested we call it off; unsurprisingly, I agreed. Conditions were pretty hostile; we were moving too slowly; we ran many risks in pushing on. (Especially as, I suppose, Nick must have reckoned that my inexperience was unlikely to be an asset in pushing on.)

Our return wasn’t much easier; I kept slipping and sliding, finding it hard to internalize the simple lesson to place my cramponed heels first on the downward slopes. At one point, the endlessly patient Nick’s patience ran out, and he suggested I rope up for going down as well. I agreed; I had had my ice axe knocked out of my hands once on one slip, and a repetition would not be pretty. Fortunately for me, my slip-sliding adventures ended quickly thereafter, and we made it down to the end of the trail safely. We had been unsuccessful in making to the summit; a disappointment for sure, but it wasn’t clear to me that I could have pushed on in those conditions. (This photo gives some indication of what it was like in the Dragons’ Lair just below the Lion’s Head; as you can tell, I had my head down as I tried to move on.)

dragonslair

I was cold, exhausted, and sore all over once we had finished; I drove back to my motel, changed out of my wet clothes, stripped off the multiple layers (five on top, three below), and tried to warm up. Four of my fingers and two of my toes still complained about their treatment by the cold; one blister on a finger showed I had acquired a little frost-nip. Sustained further exposure might have made things worse.

All in all, winter climbing was an educational and humbling experience.; I need to be stronger, more practiced, more flexible, mentally more resilient. Like most things pertaining to the mountains, you get your ass kicked, but still harbor a curious desire to repeat the dose. Which I will, soon enough.

Notes On Winter Climbing In The White Mountains – I

Last week, I drove up to New Hampshire–more specifically, to the White Mountains in New Hampshire–to do a little guided climbing. (With the endlessly patient and tremendously knowledgeable Nick Aiello-Popeo of Synnott Mountain Guides in Intervale, NH.) Climbing in the winter is supposed to be hard work; this past weekend turned out to be just that. Friday saw some of the coldest weather of the year as temperatures fell to below zero Fahrenheit; Saturday featured steady snowfall, and then later, up on the higher reaches of Mt. Washington, high winds that eventually forced us back down, aborting our attempt to make it to the summit.

During my drive from Brooklyn to North Conway, NH, on Thursday I sensed, from the falling temperatures during the day, that the guided climbing that lay ahead of me would be good and frigid. My impressions weren’t mistaken; my abiding memory of my time in the White Mountains was the bone-chilling cold. Nick and I spent most of Friday practicing some elementary moves on Willey’s Slide and Frankenstein; on the former cliff, we did some basic ice axe and crampon work, moving up and down a snow and ice slope to get comfortable with controlled moves on those surfaces.

williesslide

I made a small belayed ascent using some front-pointing and low-dagger technique; the slope featured some thin ice over rocks which made this interestingly challenging for a total novice like me. We also spent a lot of time just trying to warm up: windmills galore issued from our freezing bodies. We then changed venues to a): warm up a little by returning to the car and driving to a new location and b) work on a steeper slope to do some ice climbing.

At Frankenstein, Nick set up a bottom belay–anchored to a tree a little way up the slope–and I made two ascents using a pair of ice tools and my crampons. (I rappelled down while being belayed by Nick.)

frankenstein

This was very hard work. I was clumsy and uncoordinated, and frequently slipped. To make things worse, the ice on the rock face was not very thick, making most of ‘sticks’ into the ice of not very good quality. My poor technique didn’t help either as I often forgot to front-point and ended up standing sideways on my boots, which had the bothersome effect of scraping off more ice and snow than was useful for my next move up the face. At one point, I heard Nick reprimand me gently from below, “Ice climbing isn’t a sport in which you can jump or lunge!” I took short breaks to rest and warm up my hands; I was learning in short order just how hard swinging an ice-tool can be when your hands are frozen. (Nick also provided a couple of quick lessons in ice anchoring; I continued to marvel at the amount of gear he carried, and how deftly he was able to manipulate it all while wearing heavy mittens in the freezing cold.)

Finally, with the light starting to fade, we packed up our gear and headed back to the warmth of the car. I headed back to my motel to get some sleep and rest before trying our ascent of Mt. Washington on Saturday. A report on that failed attempt follows tomorrow.

No One ‘Conquers’ An Eight-Thousander

Despite the dozens, if not hundreds, of mountaineering tales that talk about the ‘conquest’ of mountains, especially the fourteen eight-thousanders that are the world’s tallest mountains, no one ‘conquers’ them. Not the mountaineers who climbed them first, who ‘deflowered’ their ‘virginity,’; not the ones who climb them by new routes, each selected to be harder than others, each with its own peculiar and particular challenges; not the ones who climb them in the dead of winter, in short days and freezing weather. No matter how bold, how adventurous, how pioneering and revolutionary the ascent–without oxygen, without porters, alpine-style, at breakneck pace–the mountain remains unbeaten, unconquered, and unconquerable.

Those that make it to the summit, all the better to plant a flag, take photos, burn incense, pose for posterity, and sometimes bury souvenirs, they do not conquer the mountain. They do not stick around to assert dominion; they do not dilly-dally to set up camp, to settle down to a new residence; they do not triumphantly stake out a parcel for themselves, asserting that this will be theirs till someone dislodges them. Instead, they leave. The smart ones leave quickly, setting off down the slopes they have just painfully and slowly ascended, back to the safety of their last camp, into which they will stumble, exhausted, their physical and mental reserves rapidly running down to empty; they know the mountain has been kind enough to let them in for a quick taste of glory; an extended dalliance on its slopes could mean death. (The frozen, perfectly preserved bodies, still clad in their colorful mountaineering clothes and boots, which litter the otherwise pristine acres of the world’s greatest mountains are ample testimony to this fact.) Conquerors do not behave like this; they do not leave the scenes of their triumphs so quickly; they do not retreat with such haste from the domains that are supposedly theirs. Conquerors are far more immodest. These supposed conquerors only speak of their conquests once they are off the mountain. They know the respect due the mountain.

Despite the genial contempt that some expert mountaineers direct at the ‘easy’ eight-thousanders–speaking relatively of the differences in technical difficulty involved in climbing them–none of them, consummate professionals each and every one, would dare, in their working hours, to show anything other than the appropriate respect to these peaks. They have been ‘up there’, they know what time it is.

The mountain is no place for man (or beast.) It may let you in for a sneak peek at its inner sanctorums, a quick glimpse of the most breathtaking vistas possible, but you do this on sufferance. You do not conquer the mountain; it merely permits you access; a truce is declared, and you are ushered through for a temporary reprieve. And then, time’s up; you must leave. Back to the bottom; back to the safety of the plains. Off the mountain; now left to its own devices, to its solitary splendor. The summit is no one’s to take, dominate, or retain. It is the mountain’s alone. No one and nothing, except the snow and the winds, retains dominion there.