The story of our Ecuador volcanoes expedition

     It seemed like just yesterday that I grabbed my big, black, EMS duffel bag and dragged it across the floor at Logan.  I quickly hopped in line and began to settle in with the familiar sounds of Ecuadorian people, laughing and saying goodbye to their loved ones.  I loaded my bags and passed through security without incident. My flight to Ecuador only had a short layover in Panama City and before I knew it, I was in Quito.

     As I got off the plane, I quickly checked my phone to see how our 2 climbers this year, Carrie and Becky, had fared on there flights.  I noticed that Becky had sent me a message that her plane had had "engine problems" and she was taking a different flight.  I pondered for a minute what to do before shuffling through customs.  As the sliding doors open I heard a familiar voice say "Jamie".  It was Estalin, our Ecuadorian partner and certified IFMGA guide.  I had not expected him at the airport, but he came anyway.  We talked "shop" for a while before heading to the hostel to drop my gear before returning to the airport for Carrie and Becky.  Carrie got off the plane and we grabbed her gear and loaded it in the car for safe keeping.  We killed some time drinking a Club beer while waiting for Becky in the airport, reminiscing of last years trip.  Not long after, Becky came through the doors and we were on our way to the hostel for some R&R.


    The next day we heading up for breakfast before doing a little exploring.  We headed over to the Old City to check out the Basilica and get a great view of the city from it's towers.  After an hour or so of sketchy ladders and steep stairs, we decided we had our eye on a glass building way up on the hill.  We wondered the streets for a while, using terrible Spanish to eventually find our way to Itchimbia park.  It was a beautiful park, with great views of the city., and even though I'm pretty sure a little boy was about to rob us, a pretty safe one.  Once we got our fill of the views, we hoped in a taxi and headed back to the hostel to grab diner and get horizontal.  After all, tomorrow the climbing begins.

   The next day after breakfast, Estalin picked us up and we were on our way to Cotacachi Reserve, a beautiful hiking trail around an extinct volcano.  Although the trail was easy, this was our first time moving our legs at altitude and we could sure feel it.  We took in the views as we walked around the crater rim and before we knew it, we were back at the car.  After a couple of hours of trying to navigate closed Ecuadorian "roads" we arrived at La Luna, a beautiful mountain hotel with everything you could need.  We unloaded our bags and settled in for our first real peak the next day, Fuya Fuya.

     Fuya Fuya was our first real peak, and it was a great one to start on, with such a short drive from our lodge.  Although the hike usually takes only 4-5 hours, there are some steep sections and certainly some "no fall" areas.  We worked our way up the ridge and hit the first of the two peaks.  Fifteen minutes or so later, after much needed snacks and water, we continued along the ridge to a rather "spicy" area just below the summit.  Once the hard part was over, we took in the views from the summit before heading back down.  We made a quick stop at the famous Otavalo Market for some trinkets, and headed back to the lodge in time for dinner.  Tomorrow, we climb an even bigger mountain Imbabura.

     Imbabura was going to be a much more significant hike, it was easy to tell it's size right from our lodge.  We met early and had breakfast, did last minute gear checks and hoped in the trusty Chevy Rodeo.  It took us nearly an hour to reach the base of the hike, with bad cobblestone roads the whole way.  As we began to climb, we all had started to notice the last few days outings and altitude, but we soldiered on.  The first section was typical high Ecuadorian grasses, followed by some rocks and some fairly easy scrambling.  Before we knew it we were on the top of Imbabura in the clouds.  We didn't get much for views at the summit, but the clouds did break a bit to give us a peek.  After a few minutes at the summit, we began to head down through the rocks and back into the grasses.  Tomorrow, we get a rest day.

     Finally, a rest day.  We spent part of the day hanging out in the hammocks outside of our lodge and reading.  After a slow start to the morning, we decided to take a short hike to a local waterfall.  This hidden gem was beautiful, in a jungle like canyon just down the road.  We drank a Pilsner and relaxed for a bit near the falling waters.  A few hours of messing around later, and we headed back to the lodge for dinner and a movie.  Tomorrow we set our sites on Cayambe.

         Early next morning we grabbed our gear and said goodbye to La Luna.  If you are ever in the Otavalo area, check them out, it was a fantastic basecamp. After our goodbyes, We drove over to the infamous Cayambe road and met 2 nice men at the gate.  Estalin and I did our guiding paperwork, while our other two brave souls filled out their climbing forms.  Things were getting real.  We bashed, bumped, jostled, and jumped our way up the deteriorating mountain pass.  Fortunately for us, Estalin's trusty Rodeo had been here before.  We arrived at the hut without incident and once again shuffled in gear.  We spent the night breathing in the thin air and drinking hot tea and eating soup before heading off to our private room.  Life's pretty sweet at Cayambe hut.

      The next morning we took a peak outside to see we were in a thick set of clouds with a potential for rain.  One thing I have learned about being cold from all my Mount Washington climbs, is wet and 33f is colder then dry and -50f.  We decided to spend the day relaxing and preparing for our summit bid instead of taking a energy sucking, rain soaked, hike up to the glacier.  We pulled out a few mattresses and started up the fire with some damp jungle wood, and put on a movie on my laptop.  It was a casual day for sure, but we did have the possibility of a wet 8 hour summit push later.  We prepped our gear and got into our sleeping bags for the usual 3 hours if you're lucky summit nap.

     At 11am the alarm went off, it was time to check the weather.  We had decided to give ourselves a few hour gap for our start time for the summit push.  That way, we might be able to stay dry and pumped instead of damp and sad.  It was cloudy and damp, and felt like rain.  So we waited an hour and found a little break at around 12am and decided to go for.  We put on our headlamps and backpacks, and out the door we went.

  It was misty outside, and the rocks were damp.  We headed up the ridge with a bit of slippery scrambling, and found our way to the start of the glacier.  We threw down our packs, pulled out our harnesses, crampons, and ropes (helmets were already on) and tied in.  The familiar sound of crampons on a glacier was music to my ears.  We steadily worked our way up the glacier, reaching around 17k before taking a break just below the rock buttress.  We sipped some water and ate some snacks quickly, as there was still a lot of mountain to climb.  The next section went much slower as we reached around 18k, just in time for some real crevasses. 

   The upper mountain on Cayambe is stunning, with glaciers and dangling icicles all around.  At this point, we had pushed through the clouds and were getting some beautiful undercasts.  We scurried over snow bridges and up the final 45 degree ramp to the summit ridge.  A mere 10 minutes later we were on the top of Cayambe. We threw down our bags, high fived, and took a much needed seat on of backpacks.  After a few minutes of celebrating and relaxing, we rucked back up for the descent.  The decent went rather smoothly with gravity on our side.  Before we knew it we were back at the edge of the glacier.  We took off our crampons and harnesses, and scrambled our way back down to the refuge.  With just a few moments of rest, we shuffled our gear back into the rodeo and were on our way back to Quito for some R&R. A summit climb of Cayambe is a magical experience, like something you've seen in the movies, but with your own eyes.  I highly suggest it.

Summit photos courtesy of Estalin Suarez of Andengipfel Reisen

  Finally, it was spa time.  Our check in time was at 3pm, and with a 1 hour plus drive, we had a cab called for us for 2pm.  After another great breakfast,  we went over to the familiar local Supermaxi for some snacks and drinks.  With a few hours we still needed to kill, we stopped in a local restaurant for a coffee and a long island iced tea.  It was nice to sit for a bit and just relax after the long day before.  We got our check and headed back to the hotel where our cabbie shortly shuttled us over to Papallacta. After a long, winding drive we were finally there.  We said our goodbyes to the cabbie and checked in.  Our bungalow this time was actually the same one we had last year, with private pools just outside our door.  We quickly changed into our bathing suits and headed for the main pools.  An hour or two later we headed back to get ready for dinner, as our skin had seen enough heat on Cayambe.  After a great dinner, we jumped into the spa outside our bungalow door before turning in for the night.

     The next morning we grabbed a buffet style breakfast and re-packed our gear.  The cabbie from yesterday was already scheduled to pick us up at 1pm.  Our cabbie was promptly on time and a hour or so we were back at our hostel.  The team all met up at around 6 or so that night and headed over to the Magic Bean, a spot I had been to every time I have come to Quito.  It was nice to meet Karla, Estalin's wife and manager of Andengipfel Reisen.  We had a light dinner and headed over to a Irish Pub (I know) for a few Cuba Libres.  Shortly after, we headed back to our hostel and settled in for the night, as 2 of us had early morning flights the next day.  It was a great way to end the trip.

    On the long flight home I got to reflect on this years trip, and all the beautiful places we went.  From the bright lights of the city, to a tranquil mountain lodge, to grassy summits, and big glaciated summits. An Ecuador Volcanoes expedition is truly the experience of a lifetime.  If you haven't been to Ecuador yet, be sure to keep an eye out for next years trip in November, and a possible trip to Peru this July.  There's something very magical about these places, I hope to see you all there.