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MOUNTAIN CLIMBING
A volcanic tour
Dominic Hamilton (with some first edition text by Derek Davies)
Extracted from the Traveler's Ecuador Companion The Globe Pequot Press. Reproduced with permission.Photos by Dominic Hamilton.

Taita Chimborazo lours above the countrysideEcuador possesses some of the tallest and most active volcanoes in the world. The country is bisected by two parallel mountain ranges, rather like a ladder, with hoya valleys separated by nudo highland rungs.

The road south of Quito was dubbed the "Avenue of Volcanoes" by the indefatigable German explorer Alexander von Humboldt in the nineteenth century. On clear days, the lofty, snow-capped peaks do indeed form an avenue as you travel south.

Ecuador’s volcanoes, and its accompanying sizeable seismic activity, have defined its history in many ways, looming like talismen above the fields of hard-working Indians who have inevitably personified them — the great Chimborazo, for example, is known as ‘Taita’, father.

Towns such as Latacunga and Riobamba south of Quito have been founded and re-founded as a result of earthquakes and lava flows over the centuries.

More recently, scientists monitoring Volcán Tungurahua had the spa-town of Baños evacuated for fear of a major eruption, and in October 1999, Volcán Guagua Pichincha exploded, creating an eighteen-kilometer (11-mile) high atomic-like mushroom cloud above Quito.

If you spend any time in the country, you’ll soon find yourself confronted with white-shrouded, amazing mountains, rising up from the cultivated patchwork of plains. As you do, like keen birders, you’ll find you create a sort of list, ticking off the volcanoes you’ve seen as you travel the country.

At one point in my Ecuadorian travels, I became unhealthily obsessed with capturing Cotopaxi on film. I once spent the best part of a day at the car park, just waiting for the weather to clear. It didn’t. You’ll be lucky to spot all of Ecuador’s peaks — even if you’re in the country for weeks. They’re more often than not skulking behind banks of cloud. In Ecuador, it’s worth getting into an early-morning routine, since that’s when the mountains are most likely to reveal their full glory.

With an almost perfectly symmetrical cone, the beautiful Volcán Cotopaxi, at a height of 5,897 m (19,655 ft), is the second tallest mountain in Ecuador and considered to be the tallest continuously active volcano in the world. It’s probably the country’s most famous volcano. To get the feel of Cotopaxi you can drive through the wild and beautiful Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, and up to the parking lot on the mountain itself at 4,600 m (15,332 ft).

Serious climbers continue upwards to the refugio where they rest before attempting to climb the peak in the wee hours of the morning. For something more laid-back, check into the Hacienda San Agustín de Callo, from where you can enjoy the view from a comfy armchair, whiskicito in hand.

Next on anyone’s list is Chimborazo, the country’s highest peak and at 6,310 m (20,697 ft) — trivia buffs get your pens out — the farthest point from the Earth’s center (due to the bulge at the equator). Until Mount Everest was discovered and measured, it was thought Chimborazo was the highest mountain in the world. In the nineteenth century, Humboldt climbed it, writing afterwards that the ascent ranked among one the most spiritual moments of his life. Even Bolívar had a go, but his ascent, like his dream of a Gran Colombia, failed. The first summit was made by the intrepid British climber, Edward Whymper, in 1880.

Approaching Riobamba, Chimborazo appears gargantuan: the extinct volcano is up to 20 km (12.5 miles) wide at its base alone. As with Cotopaxi, you can drive up to its breath-inhibiting refuge at 4,800 m (15,744 ft), within a fauna reserve peopled by shy vicuña.

Opposite Chimborazo, Carihauirazo (5,020 m or 16,466 ft) challenges even the most experienced mountaineers.

On the other side of Riobamba, the incisor peaks of El Altar (Cupac Urcu or "sublime mountain" in Quechua) bite into lapis skies. Within its amphitheater crater of jagged peaks, a stunning yellow-green lagoon can be reached on a three- or four-day hike from near Riobamba.

El Altar is just one of the three volcanoes which puncture the wilds of Parque Nacional Sangay. The most famous of these is Tungurahua, on its northwestern border, and currently highly active. Although intrepid climbers are starting to return to the peak, most visitors are content with a visit to the various viewing stations. These are spectacular at night, when the volcano lights up the sky with firework explosions.

Volcán Sangay, the third volcano, competes with Cotopaxi for its photogenic, symmetrical cone, rising to 5,230 m (17,154 ft). However, unlike Cotopaxi, Sangay is an angry mountain, considered to be one of the most active on the continent. Although climbing it is not discouraged per se, because of ash and rock explosions, the ascent is regarded as very high-risk. Hikers wanting just to get near to the volcano, and camp around its base, can arrange guides at the village of Alao, southeast of Riobamba. Arguably the best views of Sangay park’s volcanoes is from Macas, or on the eastern skirts of the Andes in the Oriente. On a clear morning or evening, the snow-capped peaks seem to float above the tumbling forested hills.

To the north of Quito rises the country’s third-highest volcano, the mammoth Volcán Cayambe. The 5,790 m (18,991 ft) peak is regarded as one of the hardest and most dangerous climbs in the country. The beautiful volcano glowers above the vast Reserva Ecológica Cayambe-Coca, protecting some ten life zones as it descends from dizzying heights, through dense cloudforest and on down to the jungle of the Oriente. For the best views of the mountain, take the old road round from Cayambe on the Panamericana towards Zuleta. The refuge at 4,700 m (15,416 ft) can be reached in a four-wheel drive jeep.

Southwest of the capital, on the road down to Coca, or else in the Oriente itself, lucky individuals can spot the four great glacier-tipped peaks of Volcán Antisana at 5,753 m (18,870 ft) soaring into the sky. The best view of the volcano however has to be from a hot spring at the thermal baths of Papallacta on a brilliant bright morning.

South of Quito, you can also tick the Ilinizas (two for the price of one!), the twin peaks 5,248 and 5,126 m (17,738 and 16,813 ft) high, often lacquered with fresh snow. Though not capped in snow, Volcán Imbabura (4,621 m or 15,157 ft) which dominates the weaving towns around Otavalo, is nonetheless an impressive sight, and one of the country’s most famous. By now, you will have ticked off all of the country’s ten volcanoes above 5,000 m (16,400 ft). These are Ecuador’s most touted peaks, and explain why the country is often known as "Volcano Land." Get ticking!

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Hundreds of people now climb these and other Ecuadorian peaks each year. Conditions vary from mountain to mountain, though climbing is usually best from June to September and in December to February.

There are refugios on the high slopes of most of the big mountains where climbers rest, preparatory to making their ascents around midnight — in order to reach the peak at dawn when visibility is at its best and before the sun softens the snow. Weather conditions also tend to be favorable during the full moon, aiding night-time climbs. Proper acclimatization and experience is essential before climbing any of the higher peaks.

The Ecuadorian mountain guides association is called ASEGUIM TEL (022) 568664, Calle Juan Larrea 657 and Rio de Janeiro, just off Parque El Ejido, Quito. They run a rigorous training program monitored by other experienced mountaineering associations. All guides carry two-way radios for contact with the nearest town or city. The ASEGUIM guides are also the only ones which have a mountain rescue service. This is costly (so come with adequate insurance!) but reassuring. Unfortunately, due to squabbles in Baños, not all the guides there are members of the association. Some that aren’t are still very good, while others are cowboys. Check carefully who you’re dealing with.

Some of the most experienced and reputable climbing operators for the country include

Alta Montaña Tel/fax (022) 504773, Jorge Washington 425 and 6 de Diciembre, Quito, in riobamba TEL (03) 963694 fax (03) 942215, León Borja 35-17, e-mail aventurag@laserinter.net;

Safari Tours TEL (022) 552505 or 223381 fax (022) 220426 e-mail admin@safari.com.ec web site www.safari.com.ec , Calamá 380 and Juan León Mera, Quito;

Surtrek TEL (022) 561129 fax (022) 561132 e-mail info@surtrek.com web site www.surtrek.com, Amazonas 897 and Wilson;

Andinismo TEL (022) 223030, 9 de Octubre 479 and Roca; and

Sierra Nevada TEL (022) 224717 fax (022) 554936, Pinto 637 and Amazonas.

In Riobamba, contact the Asociación de Andinismo de Chimborazo TEL (03) 960916, Chile at Francia and Andes Climbing and Trekking Z/fax (03) 940964 e-mail ppurunca@ecu.net.ec , Colón 22-25. This list is by no means complete! Most of these also sell or rent climbing equipment.

Contact the SAE for a list of the Quito-based climbing clubs which meet regularly and can be a great source of advice. There also some Ecuadorian mountaineering journals, such as Montaña and Campo Abierto which are worth looking out for, as well as the great photographer-mountaineer Jorge Anhalzer’s mountain guides to the five most-climbed mountains.

 
To celebrate the deal, Guide2Galapagos is offering Ecuadorial visitors an exclusive offer: Book a Luxury class yacht with them, and they'll give you THREE AIRPORT TRANSFERS FOR FREE; two for first class and one for tourist-superior. So, what are you waiting for? Check out their highly-informative site. Blue boobies, giant tortoises, sealions and marine iguanas are only a click or two away!

SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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