Last Thursday morning I got up leisurely and hopped a bus to Riobamba with a full pack of things for sleeping in a cold refuge on Chimborazo. It was my one night to acclimatize... not much at all, but it's something...at least to get myself in the mindset of being slighly uncomfortable.
I went online, did a little food shopping, and had a juice at La Merced to wait. About a quarter to 1, I wandered to the office of the group I'll be climbing with later. They said to be there around 1, so I thought I was early. No... I missed them. I waited nearly an hour and gave up, got a taxi to the terminal for a bus to the park entrance. Turns out the terminal is being completely gutted for renovation, the terminal is now operating out of the parking lot and is a mess, and none of the buses stop at the park entrance. Even the Flota Bolivar that goes to Guaranda and passes right by the entrance refuses to make a stop here. So note to those wanting to go on their own to the park... it's a taxi for you unless you can fanagle a ride from a climbing company.
So I asked the first taxi I saw how much it would be to go to the refuge on Chimborazo.
Taxi: "Hmm...the refuge... $40."
Me: "No way, that's way too much."
Taxi: "$35. It's really far away."
Me: "The last taxi I was in offered me the ride for $20 and I won't pay a dollar more." (this is the genuine truth...that's the price he gave me)
Taxi: "No lower than $25. It's very far, there's no chance you'll get a better deal than this."
Me: "I only have $30 and I need to get home somehow. I can't use more than $20."
Taxi: "Just $25. You won't find a cheaper ride."
Me: "Well, we'll see..." (walked to the road to hail another taxi)
Taxi: "Fine. Fine, $20."
Feeling frustrated at being left by the free ride, I was nonetheless pleased at my haggling skills.
We raced out of Riobamba towards Guaranda, and the scenery began to look much like my site's. The rain began and trees disappeared as we drove higher, and soon we were cruising through a rocky, sandy land with just very short shrubs and vicunas grazing here and there. I began feeling just a little bad about how low I made the taxista go for a price...it really is a far trip. The park entrance was under construction so we continued on up without stopping. I imagined if the Guaranda bus let me off at the entrance, how much walking up to the refuge I would have had to do (a LOT).
Eventually we made it just as we hit snow fall, and I spent little time putting on more warmer clothes and walking up to the second refuge. Got my GPS out and started searching for the four geocaches sprinkled around this small area. At around 16,000 feet, I felt knackered already. The going was slow but with geocaches and vicuna photo opportunities, I took my time. The second refuge really isn't far at all...around the first corner, when the mist and snow cleared, it was perched on a hill.
I was shocked when I reached the refuge and hardly anyone was there. I thought the group I was supposed to go with would be there, but I actually beat them to it. Instead another guide of the group I'm going with greeted me and made me tea. We talked a little, then he wandered off to bring me back a big bowl of salty, buttered popcorn. Put my stuff upstairs and claimed a bed, then went uphill a little in gorgeous snowfall to find the last geocache at 5110 meters (16,700 feet). By that time the snow picked up a little and obscured the cliffs around me, but it was gorgeous and I enjoyed the walk immensely. Found the geocache and turned around to see the snow and clouds completely cleared to give an unobstructed view of the mountain. Of course, the bulk of the mountain hid the summit.
When I wandered back down, a huge number of people had arrived at the refuge. Most of the tables in the lodge were filled with climbers already devouring their dinners, and I said a "Buenas tardes" to them all and got little encouraging response, so I just took a table and flipped through photos in my camera not knowing what else to do. When a bunch of them cleared out, one (they're all obviously American) asked where I'm from. Turned out they were all very friendly and talkative, and they immediately offered me a slice of cake and a handfull of gummy worms (someone's birthday). They played Spades awhile and I watched til they headed for bed around 7. I tried to read but frustratingly I couldn't concentrate at all, and decided to beat the cold and boredom and go to bed myself.
Ohhh to sleep at altitude. How miserable. I was freezing at first but soon I was blisteringly hot in my bag. I tossed and turned because the low level of activity actually made my heart beat faster. At 10,000 feet in my site at rest, my heart beats around 52 BPM...at 16,500, it was racing. Eventually though I was able to sink into sleep until around 10 or 11 when the climbers woke up and began packing. When they left, I took a couple anti-nausea chewables and an Aleve, and tried to go back to sleep. Same thing...tossed and turned, and eventually fell asleep until a climber woke me up again. He was completely outfitted still and I asked if he'd already left or was going to leave. His partner got sick at a point in the route that demanded extra care so around 2 hours into their climb, they returned. I never really got back to sleep, so around 6:30 or so I got up, packed, and went downstairs where an American was hanging out. He too had felt not so good and had to return to the refuge, but we had a really fun conversation that was pretty enlighening for me - all about the route on Chimborazo, on Cotopaxi that I'll be seeing soon, Everest base camp that I plan to visit next year, etc.
We went outside to get a visual of his climbing teams that were just returning from the summit and were visible as specks on the long glacier ramp. The sky was totally blue, completely clear. I headed down to the first refuge to wait and find the last geocache. In just a short while, the clouds rolled in and made for some dramatic photography.
Teams usually get down around 10 a.m., which is when the tourist buses begin arriving. A lot of teams arrived just then but the American team came down around 11. The tourists were a little annoying...they were cold, loud, and several of them had to continuously run to the bathroom to vomit (really, if you only ever lived at near sea level and take a bus right to 16,000 feet, do you really expect to have a fun time?). The American team came and went to Ambato, and I waited for a couple climbers who would hopefully take me back to Riobamba. Those guys came, and sure enough I was thankfully given a ride back to Riobamba...actually right to my bus station.
The bus left shortly after... though standing water and very low storm clouds in my valley made me worry...when those things happen, the quebradas usually go crazy. Sure enough, we turned a corner and everyone stood up gasping, whimpering, and complaining...the road was gone and a gushing muddy river took the place of what is usually just a thin, clear trickle of water. It flooded the road more than ankle-deep. A bus was waiting on the other side presumably - rumor had it - to take us home. I was hopeful but realistic... if this quebrada was flooded, the next one over would be too. So some of us crossed this one on foot. It wasn't so bad, except one part was wide and unstable enough that you couldn't leap across and had to wade through. It was so fast and steep that large rocks were rolling through it, and one big one hit my foot as I crossed.
It took 15 or so minutes to reach the second quebrada, and what had happened was stunning. The road was REALLY gone, totally covered with logs and boulders. Only I couldn't see where all that debris came from... the hillside above was grassy and unbroken, and the stream coming from the crevice was somewhat small and contracted. There was hardly any mud in the debris flow. Curious...
Passing one settlement, a girl yelled out from far away as I walked by: "Gringita, stop here! You can't go on! You can spend the night here!" I yelled back, "It's ok, I live in Alao, that's where I'm going." They returned, "No, please, it's too far!" Me: "I've done this before. It's ok! I want to go home." As I continued walking they kept calling to me, and then just resorted to "Ayyy, Dios mio!" ...I laughed.
But for 2 hours not a single vehicle passed me going the right direction, so I ended up walking the whole valley back to my site. It was raining the entire time, and wow was I tired. At least I had plenty of food and water! Even a headlamp if it got much later.
Right when I reached my site, a trumpet blast honked out from up high and echoed around the valley. Haha... I was welcomed by trumpet. Actually, a trumpet is the instrument that announces to people that the workers' association is meeting.
My host Maria was shocked to see me, very worried that something had happened to me on Chimborazo or with the weather...especially because two ill-meaning signs appeared to her (the rooster made a gurgly cooing noise, and her dog in Riobamba howled a lot... both apparently mean someone will die - also, if you spot a condor perched, or if a black weasel crosses your path). The weather didn't spare my site either - wind direction came oddly from the west to east, so my room was flooded. Maria kindly swept the water out before it got too far in.
So it's Saturday now, the first I might have ever spent in my site (it's my day to talk with my folks on Skype and I have quena - Andean flute - lessons the same day) and I haven't heard any buses come or go. Maria says some small trucks are making the passage and she went to catch one to town but I'm not sure if they have any regularity. I wouldn't mind so much, except on Monday I need to be in Riobamba early to meet my climbing guide and get to Cotopaxi. So either the buses need to be running tonight or tomorrow morning, Sunday, to assure me they'll be going on Monday; or I catch a camioneta (small truck) tomorrow; or I walk out on foot... extremely not ideal. I really just hope the buses run so I can go on Monday.
Caught sight of the very large truck that comes here every day, so I wondered if it made the passage. However, not a single bus has made it to my site. Apparently camionetas are making the trip but again, without much regularity. I'll be getting up early tomorrow, hoping to hear some bus horns...if not, I'll be heading out on foot with all my climbing gear hoping to catch a ride from someone passing by along the way. At least it's mostly downhill!
Horray! I get to look like a lost tourist again with a backpack.