Greetings from south of the equator, aka Ecuador,
Yep, I’m in South America again, this time to “walk up a hill for a long time while feeling bad” (a not-so unaccurate description of mountain climbing from a friend of mine). The big goal is to climb Cotopaxi, which wikipedia tells me is a volcano that is 5,897 m (19,347 ft) tall. Should be a good time over the next two weeks.
I’m in-country now, after a minor snafu with my luggage. For future reference, when you try to be your own travel agent, you should really allow for more connection time between flights than I did. A mere 45 minutes from scheduled arrival of one flight til the scheduled departure of another flight means that you might have to run as fast as you possibly can from concourse A to concourse E, since in reality, you only have 15 minutes to catch that next plane.
Turns out that the airport baggage system doesn´t work quite that fast… Luckily, my giant pack with mucho expensive gear was on the next flight, and I only had to wait an extra 30 minutes at UIO (the airport code for Mariscal Sucre International Airport in Quito, Ecuador). Not bad.
I have a few days before my partners from Chicago arrive and the walking begins in earnest. Having just arrived means nothing exciting has happened yet, unless you count eating some questionable looking chicken at a typical local eatery. I’m sure you’re all waiting on tenterhooks to see what my bowels will do. I know I am.
Anyhow, just wanted to drop a quick line to my favorite BCC’ed people and let them know that things are afoot.
As always, let me know if:
- you prefer that I stop spamming you
- you prefer that I spam you at a different email address
And just like last time, these emails will be simulcast on my blog.
up in flames
“Throw some more wood on the baby; that’ll make it burn better.”
“Too bad we don’t have any gasoline…”
And such was the climax of several idyllic days whiled away in Quito.
It was a natural reaction after a hectic frantic whirly-bird couple of days in Las Vegas for a family reunion, the highlight of which (other than seeing the extended family again, of course) was spending the best $45 of my life shooting an M1A1 Thompson machine gun on full auto at a Vegas shooting range, while my brother blazed away with an Uzi in the next stall over.
But after binging on buffets and overcoming hedonistic saturation, the tranquility of South America was a welcome respite. For the first three days, the agenda was simple: visit one touristy thing in the city in the mid-morning, eat a simple lunch, and then arrive back at the hostel for an afternoon shower and nap in one of the numerous hammocks on the rooftop terrace.
My compadre the Deej arrived on the 30th just in time to help me celebrate my annual revolution around Sol, and part of my recovery plan the next day involved us searching for the perfect baby to burn.
Apparently, it’s an Ecuadorian tradition to create a flammable doll for New Year’s, put a funny mask on it, and then burn it to ashes right around midnight. It’s a way of burning the bad luck from last year, I think, but to our simple minds, anything involving fire gets an immediate four thumbs up.
After locating the perfect doll (we opted for baby size, although they do have life-size mannequins), disturbingly packaged in a blue onesie (note to parents — the plush nylon stuff that many baby clothes are made from is highly flammable), we relaxed at the hostel for an hour or four, to await the appropriate burning hour.
Half past eleven, a large international group from our digs wandered down to Avenida Amazonas where mayhem was ensuing. Fires were burning everywhere — on the side walk, in the middle of the street, what have you — and we simultaneously discovered that the locals have a penchant for fireworks too. Roman candles were the order of the night, although sadly, the Deej purchased a dud that refused to shoot wonderful flaming balls of firey enjoyment into the air. Worst dollar spent ever.
When we found an appropriate spot, we borrowed some fire from the next fire over, and lit our baby on fire. It started off slow, but some of the more enterprising members of our group found some wood and other assorted street trash which proved to be quite incindiary, and soon our baby was burning merrily. What a nice way to ring in the New Year.
Now though, it’s time to start the second part of the trip. More of our compatriots arrive tonight, and tomorrow we’ll bag one of the first peaks — Rucu Pincacha, 15,252 ft. I would hate to be one of the guys arriving from Chicago (aka sea level) tomorrow.
Thanks to the internets, which is on computers these days, I’ve managed to post some pictures for your enjoyment (although keep in mind that I haven’t had time to caption them):
Bursty. Things flow in dribs, drabs, and then deluges. All our lives, it seems the pattern is to work hard so that we can… rest. Fifty weeks of labor, two weeks of vacation; fifty years of toil, a few years of retirement bliss. Oddity.
Today we are sloth embodied. Well deserved, in my opinion. Bagged four peaks in five days…
First was Rucu Pichincha. Forgot what Pichincha means, but rucu is “old” in Quechua, the language of the Incas. Old indeed. On Rucu, one takes the new TeleferiQo (a very slow ski gondola) from 3800m up to 4100m. A nice scam they’ve got going there — you can pay $4 to stand in the “slow” line or pay almost, but not quite double ($7) to stand in the “fast” line. The time savings can be huge — 10 min. for the fast line vs an hour or more for the slow line. It should not surprise the readers of this email that I voted for the slow line. The hike itself wasn’t bad, a little bit of scree near the top, but otherwise, uneventful. Unfortunately, we were socked in by clouds at the summit (4698m or 15,413 ft.).
Next was Guagua Pichincha (pronounced wah-wah), which means “baby” something-or-other. The volcano is considered active, and volcanologists monitor it constantly. Getting there was interesting — we hired cabs to drive from Quito to the hamlet of Lloa (pronounced yo-ah), and from there, we haggled with a local fellow to drive us up the road to the dropoff spot in his pickup. The six of us piled into the bed of the truck, and held on for dear life as he rattled and farted his way up the twisty mountain road. Score one for Toyota engineering. The hike itself was trivial, starting around 4100m and ending at 4784m (15,695 ft.). The views from Guagua were the same as the views from Rucu, cloudy, natch.
A day of rest, which I thought was good until today happened.
Then, we hooked up with Safari Tours, the guide company that is to bring us up Cotopaxi. We’d scheduled 2 acclimatization peaks with them in addition to the big one. They are considered one of the best operators in Ecuador, which makes me wonder what can be considered “worst”.
First was Ruminahui, a supposedly easy peak at a mere 4722m (15,492 ft.). Maybe it’s easy if you hike the standard route, rather than bushwhacking for hours up the back side because the guides don’t want to have to pay the park entrance fee. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed saving the $10 too, but maybe I had unrealistic expectations that the guides would actually know the backdoor route rather than having multiple several-minute conversations amongst themselves about the best way to go up, with the resulting answer being “through some more bushes”. It turned out to be an all-day affair, starting with us clients helping push our van out of the ditch that the driver helpfully backed into, followed by tromping through bushes, and ending with us back at the car in full darkness. Awesome. Jawesome, even. The one saving grace was that we got at least a few minutes of good views before the clouds moved back in. Are you starting to notice a trend here?
Finally, yesterday, we hiked up Illiniza Norte (5126m, 16,817 ft), again with Safari. It went a lot smoother, mostly because the standard route is impossible to get lost on. We finally got to do some meaningful scrambling, which was a welcome relief for yours truly, who is somewhat sick of scree and talus fields. Views from the top? Same as it’s ever been.
If you want to simulate our experience, do the following:
- get on a stairmaster
- wrap a plastic bag around your head
- go for several hours with promise of reward at the end
- for your reward, go stand in a freezer and wrap yourself with a white sheet. Don’t forget to take a few victory summit pics.
If the above sounds too negative, then you may not quite be mountaineering material. On the other hand, if it sounds like fun, send me an email, and we’ll go hiking some time. I’ve got plenty of “guest” plastic bags that you can borrow.
For those playing along at home, we’ve gained about 3030m (9940ft) in the past five days, and feel strong. It was interesting to see how we went from a pace of about climbing 300m per hour on the first 2 days to about 400m per hour in the last two days. Today is beautiful sloth, and tomorrow we head for Cotopaxi.
wish us luck.
a crater with a view
And so it went for our 7 hour ascent, until we reached the Cotopaxi summit (5897m, 19,347 ft).
Apologies for the anticlimax, but frankly there isn’t tons and tons to report. I mean, normally, I’d try to add a little spice with the typical climber’s “and there I was…” sort of introduction, but when one is a guided client, the entire point is to avoid said “and there I was…” situations.
Oh, of course life has a way of always interesting. A few vignettes…
… such as yours truly coming down with a head cold and fever the night before the climb, resulting in much phlegm, coughing, general misery, more or less nullification of any acclimatization preparation, a slower-than-normal but still not-too-shabby pace (normal pace is 6 hours to summit), and a still clogged ear that has me screaming “what? what?” constantly, much to the annoyance of my friends
… such as having the distinct pleasure of being tied in with my friend the Falconer, who adopted the nickname “el oso” along with me as “el chino” to make things easier for our guide Miguel, and the distinct displeasure of having to tie in with Captain Kilimanjaro, aka the guy who kept name dropping all the mountains he had attempted to climb in the past (unsuccessfully, I might add), aka the guy who asserted that Missouri and Chicago were quite close to each other and that most of America was “pretty flat”, aka the guy who literally could not go 30 seconds without spouting off yet another inanity, aka quite possibly the most annoying person south of the Equator, aka the guy I yelled at on the way down because his lack of preparation and abundance of ego meant he didn’t turn around when the guides suggested he do so, which resulted in a super slow descent down a blazing hot snowfield (sounds weird, but try standing in a room full of mirrors pointed at you when the sun is overhead while wearing your warmest snow clothes and you’ll soon figure out what I mean), which resulted in yours truly getting sunburned and dehydrated unnecessarily
… such as seeing climbing legend Fred Beckey in the same hut and talking to his climbing partner Amar from Connecticut, and realizing that at any given moment, no matter where you are on the planet, John Peterson’s presence can and will be felt. (For those of you non-climbing history geeks aka pretty much everyone reading this, an Fred Beckey is a living legend; a pioneer of our sport, still going strong at 83 years of age. An analagous situation would have been if Eddy Merckx dropped in on your local bike ride, or if Pele wanted to play some pickup soccer at your high school fields, or if you went to get some extra help with your calculus homework and you showed up at the tutoring office, and the entire Mission Control from Apollo 13 was there just for you, but you get the point.)
… such as finally reaching the summit that smells like New Jersey (turns out sulfrous fumes emanating from a volcanic crater and the Meadowlands smell pretty much the same — home sweet home!), clouds beneath you, and other gigantic peaks peeking, pokingingly through — Cayambe, Antisana, Rumiñahui, the Illinizas, Norte and Sur. Surrealism lived.
Anyhow, we came, we climbed, and it was good.
exuent, chased by an oso
Landed back stateside on Saturday and spent the past few daysenjoying the USA. Now, as the day spent remembering the man whodreamed draws down, I’ve a few final flotsammy observations tofinish out our correspondence.
as always, I’m amused by small language differences. From my friend the Deej’s self-induced hypothermia due to using only one knob in the shower (he used the knob labelled “F” and avoided the one labelled “C”, except that “C” stands for “calor” aka “hot” while “F” stands for “frio” aka “cold”) to the ubiquitous copy shops that say: “Fotocopias: B/N y Color” (wait, what the hell does “N” stand for? Well, the “b” is for “blanco” aka “white”, not “black”, while the “n” is for “negro”, natch), one is constantly reminded that English and Spanish are linguistic cousins. Of course, if you end up marrying your cousin, something’s gonna be a little off, which is what it feels like every time I’m there.
best food discoveries: treating myself to a 10-cent icee from the omnipresent Bon Ice vendors to cool off during the day (it gets to be 25C (77F) on the equator every day!); eating animal crackers styled after the endangered animals of the Galapagos Islands, smothered in Nutella; finding an Argentinean steak house; 90-cents for a liter of beer
worst food discovery: Ecuadorian empanadas don’t hold a candle to Argentinean empanadas
undecided food discovery: a restaurant chain called “Menestres del Negro” (Beans of the Black man), whose logo is a stylized monkey face with a fork through its hair that looks very much like a racist caricature. We ate there, of course, and the food was quite good, but we couldn’t tell if we were supporting racism or protesting racism. For a $2.85 meal that included a pork chop, beans, rice, salad, fried egg, and plantains, I’m not gonna complain.
Bonus find: a soda called “Negrita” (little black girl) that was an odd off-flavored cola.
Not really sure how this sort of thing flies in Ecuador, but the companies making those two products would be sued out of existence in about 0.004 milliseconds in America, I’m sure of it.
the Deej, the Falconer, and I went to the tourist trap known as “la mitad del mundo” or the middle of the world, aka the equator. They had a bunch of pseudo-scientific experiments setup to “demonstrate” the coriolis effect, such as balancing an egg on a nail head, and watching water swirl clockwise down a drain south of the equator, anti-clockwise north of the equator, and straight down when directly on top of the equator but we were much too smart for them. (We felt the need to debunk their demos because the coriolis effect is a macro effect that affects entire weather systems and not little sinks being moved 1 meter to the left and the right of some magical line.) After playing with their sink setup for a bit, we determined that twisting the plug drain in a certain direction while removing it added enough force to influence the water to spin in either direction. There is no spoon, folks.
how I spent my last day “relaxing” in Quito: climbing at the Quito Rocodromo or rock gym. They have this 25m (75 ft) tall outdoor climbing wall with some pretty hard routes on it. Of course, there is no Spanish word for “waiver” — you just show up with your own gear, pays your $2, and start climbing. If you fall and die, you are an idiot, and it’s your own fault. Much better system than what we’ve got here, in my humble opinion.
death be to snorers, after having to share our dormitory room with two of them. When you’re splurging on the $5 / night room, make sure to pack your ear plugs. I think it’s a natural law that whoever snores the loudest, always falls asleep the first.
I’m staring out my window, looking at the snow that continues to blanket northern Colorado, with a giant pile of smelly laundry at my feet, remembering the man with a dream, and dreaming up new dreams of yet unknown horizons to visit and vistas to view.
Alas time marches on and I step reluctantly back on society’s treadmill. Loping along, not quite in step, not quite keeping up, I jones for the open skies and promises of adventure. The secret spot where I stash my memories keeps me grinning.
Thanks for reading along. Hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.