"Every planet has its own weird customs. About a year before we met, I spent six weeks on a moon where the principal form of recreation was juggling geese. My hand to God. Baby geese - goslings! They were juggled."

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The catching-up post of our first 5,000 meter peak

How about a happier post about a past experience? This happened weeks ago...

We (PCV Caro and I) summitted both mountains - El Corazon (15,718 feet) and Illiniza Norte (16,818 feet) right in a row. Both pummeled us with bad weather, they challenged our endurance, they tested our route finding skills, and they let us summit.

The more I do this, the closer I feel to knowing myself.


The hike to the top of El Corazon begins generally at the new but unused railroad station in Aloasi. At the very start of the trip we could see all the mountains around us completely clear - Cotopaxi, Ruminahui, Sincholagua, Pasochoa - except El Corazon, which had an ominous gray crown of stormclouds. We began later than we would have liked, around 7:30 or 8 a.m., and set off on a cobbled road to look for a dirt road turn off. Neither of us seemed very positive we'd summit and were resolved just to enjoy a nice day of hiking. The first dirt road was wrong and we just met a bunch of mean dogs. The second dirt road was right, and it led to a big gate operated by some random guard who wanted $2 from each of us to pass.

The dirt road climbs up and into farmland where suddenly we reached a hub of paths not described in the guidebook. We had four options besides the way we came, and decided the direct path was right. Sure enough it kept climbing up, then took us alongside a potato field. At the top of the field the path ended with a T intersection - we could go right or left, but not up in the way we wanted. We went right, and this road slowly began switchbacking up the hill.

At this point we were more enthusiastic we might make it to the mountain - the switchbacks were easy and brought us to the top of the hill feeling not so bad. Then one more switchback around the hill gave us a perfect view of Corazon rising up between the notch in the hill we were hiking. It was...shocking. A perfect resemblance of Strawberry Peak in New Mexico, totally perfect. And it was still really far away.

One more switchback and we came to the 'plateau', the hilly base of the actual mountain. Clouds rolled in and out, at once covering the mountain and then in a second completely gone. They weren't yet to the point of being a threat - no rain, no snow, no lightning. So we went on towards the saddle of Corazon and minor peak, here losing a great deal of enthusiasm and energy until we popped out of a long gully and saw again how much closer we were. We rallied each other to push ourselves to the saddle and eventually made it, though by this time a cloud had settled over the mountain for good.

We followed the path from the saddle up into the fog, through pincushion plants and eventually scree. We had a rough idea of where we had to go but it was a lot more difficult not being able to see our next move. Cairns were everywhere...reassuring and not so much. The scree lasted ages until finally we reached the base of a ridge and followed that around to the left and soon gained the rocks. Much easier to follow. Faded white arrows sometimes appeared to point the way. The summit was supposedly guarded by a 30 meter high class 3 scramble so when we reached a rock scramble we thought maybe we'd arrived...but it was too short, and the route continued on. Freezing rain began falling and the wind picked up. At this point I really wanted to be off the mountain.

We came up to 5 or so false summits, each tricking us into thinking it was finally over and we could turn back. At one "top" we left our bags, and shortly after we finally reached the true scramble section and left our poles. The scrambling wasn't hard but I worried about finding our way back the right way. Beyond that was a bit more easy walking on sloping gravel until the ground became flat and wide. All the rocks were covered in yellow graffiti...and then we spotted the giant summit cairn with exhausted relief. We took some pictures and began descending. I was freezing cold and wanted nothing more than to be safe.

Following the way we came wasn't too hard but we ended up getting off the ridge too fast and descending the scree too soon. We ended up locked by cliffs unable to go down. It turned out we weren't far from where we should be, and I used my GPSr to help us get exactly back to our familiar route. From there we let it guide us back to the other few points I had, significantly reducing the time it would have taken trying to get back blindly in fog. We reached the saddle soon enough and followed the trail back to the road. Except near the road the trail branches into dozens of possible pathways - luckily again, the GPSr led us right to where we needed to be despite heavy fog.

I had deliberately avoided knowing the time, but now it was obvious - we had to hurry. It would be dark in an hour. We speedwalked down the road and over the edge of the plateau, began switchbacking for an hour and half or so until the light really faded. We tried hiking as long as possible until it was really dark, and decided to bring out the headlamp. Except, there was no headlamp. Really panicked, totally freaked and unwilling to spend a night outside, we nearly ran in the twilight. We still had a few long switchbacks to go, and now the brush alongside us was just black outlined slightly against a deep black-blue sky. We reached the T-intersection and made a left, following the field down, then the road, until the tunnel-like path. It was solid-black now, and I brought out a crappy $1 flashlight I bought from a bus salesperson. It got us beyond the tunnel and a eucalyptus forest before it began fading. The road turned back to old cobblestone, and we reached the guard shack. It was totally dark, not a light on, and worried I called out "A ver!" when two guards hiding in the shadows called back. Creepy! But they let us through.

Streetlamps lit the way now and the dirt road again turned off to the main cobblestone road, and then another, leading right to the Hosteria La Estacion where we ended the day with the most amazing cup of hot chocolate ever.


We spent the night in El Chaupi, in a hostal called La Llovizna ("the drizzle"). The family was just putting up Christmas decorations, but without a fire in the fireplace, it didn't feel quite there. They had a large flatscreen mounted on the wall playing Timeline in Spanish, and a gas-powered slightly terrifying but wonderfully warm furnace was lit. It had the feeling of a rustic lodge, but no one else was staying there so it felt a little lonely.

At 7 a.m., our guide (required by Peace Corps) showed up at the hostal and waited for us to finish breakfast. We piled into the hostal owner's new truck and made our way up to La Virgen, the high parking lot. Pretty long, rough road. At this point all the surrounding mountains were visible.

Feeling good, we took off hiking. The guide set a great pace and liked to talk and chisme, and pointed out things of interest. When it got to decision point about what route we'd take - the "normal" route that takes the ridge to the summit, or the "direct" route that climbs up in steep scree - the guide decided to go direct. The normal route would be wet and slippery, and the direct route would be wet enough to make scree climbing not unpleasant. So... around and up we went through the scree. It was normal going until we reached the large gully to the top which suddenly went straight up - just like the scree on Cotopaxi, only without any kind of switchbacking. It was just ridiculously steep scree. This part took us a while but with relief for our legs we finally got on rock.

We hiked a bit and then stopped to rope up the guide and Caroline together - he had me climb free. At this point with total shock I realized my camera wasn't in my bag. My good camera, the one I use to sell prints and such...I was suddenly numb. How could I have been so stupid...? The guide assured me no one else was climbing this route today and we'd find it... but where? I wanted to go back but I wanted to go on and trust that it would be somewhere, waiting. So I pushed it totally out of my mind because this was the hardest part of the climb. Thunder began rolling around us and hail started falling. Scrambling got a bit more difficult but it wasn't anything too bad for me. But the hail got bigger and the thunder closer. Our guide kept listening to metal objects for humming sounds and told us that if we didn't make it to the summit, it wasn't the end of the world. We kept on, though, and it felt like we were close as the route began turning tighter and tighter...and then I saw the summit cross! And I admit it, I squealed for joy and surprised Caroline, who hadn't seen the cross and didn't realize yet we had done it. Our guide took our picture and we began down immediately.

It wasn't as frightening as I thought descending some of those rocks. For me, actually, it wasn't bad at all. The bad part was the weather. Our guide nearly had us sliding down the rocks when suddenly he heard a buzzing in his ear. Shortly after, a loud, short crack told us Illiniza Sur was just hit by lightning...suppose that's what it feels like to be genuinely afraid of being struck by lightning. A thick layer of snow had fallen, making the descent ever trickier. But with each foot lower the mountain calmed and soon we were on safer ground with snow lightly falling around us, the summit behind us clear and coated white.

It was fast going after that, and now I could only think of one thing. I nearly ran along the path, hoping my camera was beyond the turnoff from the main trail so no one else would come across it. And sure enough...there it was. Relief washed over my immense feeling of stupidity and I just wondered how that could have happened.

Back at La Virgen, both peaks were completely clear and covered in a new mantle of snow. Really gorgeous.

So that's how we finally reached the summit of our first 5,000+ meter peak. It's really a sentimental thing; Illiniza Norte to me will always be an extra special mountain. It's funny too because that first mountain was supposed to be Cotopaxi.

But there's always 24 January 2012 for that. YES.

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