Tuesday, January 11, 2011

FTA Ecuador Volcanes Jan 2011: A rest day at Tambopaxi Lodge...we need it!

From Brad, Field Touring Alpine

Tambopaxi Lodge, Cotopaxi National Park, Ecuador

Good day FTA Jan 2011 Ecuador Volcanoes blog followers!

I sit in the Tambopaxi Lodge following a lunch of creamed lentil soup, vegetables, mashed potatoes, chicken and blackberry mousse...life seems very different today that it did at this time yesterday.

I'm gazing out of the window of this wood heated, straw bale constructed structure at the perfect cone of Cotopaxi as it fades in and out of the clouds. The sun is pocked with intermittent rain showers. The terrain surrounding this beautiful place is old volcanic moraine peppered with rocks ranging in size from a football to that of a VW bus. These were blown out of the volcano during its last major eruption in 1877 according to our geologist in situ Jeff. There are other looming peaks that are more jagged than Cotopaxi but it is hard to divert the eyes from our next target! If it isn't apparent by now today is a rest day.

We awoke this morning at the base of the Illinizas in the village of El Chaupi at a quintessential climbers hostel that is run by a veteran Ecuadorian climber, Vladamir. Over the years this place has grown from a one room hostel to one that includes numerous fireplaces, a pingpong table, satellite TV, hot showers and amazing food! The community bull ring is just across the street. Unfortunately we were unable to enjoy any festivities there.

Moving backwards...yesterday was a long, classic, alpine mountaineering day. The route that usually goes up Illiniza Norte at this time of year is dry with perhaps one small traverse that is eye opening that ultimately culminates with a rock scramble to the summit. This was not the case this year. Due to the massive amounts of snow in the last few months the route was completely changed and at altitudes above the refugio (15,250 ft) it was completely covered in snow! This added a new element that although was a bit surprising, didn't disappoint us. We had heard that this was the case and so had planned accordingly with proper technical gear.

Knowing the snow covered route would likely take longer than the usual ~7 hours we awoke at 430 am and were walking by 600 am. We gained the refugio at about 10am, had lunch and hot drinks, dawned technical gear (harnesses, helmets) and started to move up the ridge. Initially the wind was biting. It blew small bits of ice off surrounding rock into us and caused our backpack straps to whip us in the face. Thankfully we quickly ducked behind the ridge and moved into the lea. It wasn't long before we found ourselves on knifelike rock spines traversing soft snow. We even had the benefit of some sun at these middle altitudes. In fact, the goggle/helmet strap tan has become our new fashion statement.

The final hours towards the summit were marked with snowy traverses, lowers down couloirs (snow filled gullies), and steeper climbs up snowy slopes. We ended up with most members on the top though we didn't stay long as the views were shrouded in clouds, the wind blowing and our watches telling us that we needed to move down toward the base.

The descent is always the most exhausting and potentially dangerous part of the day so we took great care as we eased into more moderate terrain where we were able to glissade (slid on our bums using our ice axes as breaks) to the moraine below. The walk out seemed to take forever and for many of us put our arrival at the truck well past dark. It was all we could do to eat dinner, shower and head off to bed!

Today proves that you must always expect the unexpected in the mountains! There was some nausea at higher elevations and general fatigue from the long day but all in all members are doing well! We are grateful for the rest day today...naps, reading, and pushing water is the name of the game as we laze in the sun under the looming cone of Cotopaxi!

This takes us back to Sunday, another rest day prior to the Illinizas. We had the luxury of sleeping in and having a lazy morning post our summit of Rucu Pichincha (though Sarah and Kellie decided for a morning run...really??? Crazies.) We lazed around till noon when we were met by Victor (driver) and Nacho (local guide) and transported to the small, classic Ecuadorian village of Machachi which is actually where Victor resides with his family. We ate a huge, European length lunch (2.5 hours) at a local restaurant that included chicken rolled in bacon, filet mignon, and a platter of cow kidneys, liver, stomach, heart and intestines. When in Rome they say, when in Rome. The restaurant was packed with locals. In fact, there were no gringos to be found in the entirety of the small town!

After lunch we walked around the two grand markets that exist there. One is food based and the other is durable goods based. Anything you could possible want existed here. In fact you can get your clothes hemmed while you shop for your weekly rice, fresh chevre de chivo (goat cheese), spices, fruit, vegetables and just about anything else one could desire. Members carefully sampled various juices and foods right off the fire as we wandered the narrow passes in between tables and tarps. Trucks full of bananas backed right up to the market and you could purchase entire bunches of bananas. This was an amazing place but extremely hard to blend! We left the market wander and moved to the small village of El Chaupi and our hostal for the following few nights. Yet another amazing, three course dinner and afterward we spent some time prepping gear and practicing knots before retiring for the night.

That pretty much sums up the last 3 days here in Ecuador! As I wrap up the summit of Cotopaxi has decided to fully show itself...the snow line extends past the refuge on its flanks which will hopefully make the first portion of the accent a bit easier. Tonight, steak is on the menu.

From Cotopaxi National Park,

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