My Latest Adventure in Ecuador and Beyond… (Part 1)

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Climbing Guagua Pichinca (4,784 m) volcano, Ecuador (photo credit: Berta Tilmantaite)

This is a long overdue post I’ve been meaning to write for a year but found a million of reasons to postpone. Here it is…

Since I came back from Nepal last summer, I’ve spent most of the year in Italy. Besides work, I’ve had an incredible time with Mark exploring the Apennines. The mountains are just an hour or two’s drive from Rome. We discovered a feast of beautiful peaks for limitless weekend adventures. We set out to compete all 2,000 meter peaks in the Apennine range (249 in total). By now, we have completed close to 50. Read more about our Apennines adventures on Mark’s blog.

I heard many great stories about climbing in Ecuador and waited for an opportunity to go there. This opportunity came last Christmas/New Year, when Mark and I were both looking for ideas on where to spend our upcoming holiday break. Mark had been to Ecuador once before but was keen on returning there for another volcano adventure. He got in touch with Javier, the owner of the Andeanface adventure company, who signed us up for a nice 14-day extended climbing expedition. We had a fantastic time! You can read about my first (second for Mark) adventure in Ecuador on Mark’s blog.

Every year I have a month break in service (a mandatory leave from work due to the HR rules of the UN system) which I time to coincide with the spring climbing season. For the past six years, I spent my spring breaks climbing in the Nepal Himalayas. However, during the last two seasons, terrible tragedies happened there: in 2014, a huge avalanche swept away lives of 16 Sherpa in the Khumbu icefall, the incident followed by the Sherpa strike. In 2015, it was the Nepal earthquake!

So this year I decided to go somewhere else; some place that is safer and more predictable (or so I thought). My friend Margaret was also looking for ideas to go climbing at the same time. Since I had such a fantastic time in Ecuador, I suggested to Margaret going there for our spring climbing (although we weren’t aware that April was the rainy season!) She agreed.

I got in touch with Javier/AndeanFace again and he put together an interesting itinerary for our private expedition: Papallacta, Guagua Pichincha, Illinizas (Norte and Sur), with Antisana to finish as part of our acclimatization. Chimborazo was going to be our biggest objective. Although I climbed the normal route on Chimborazo earlier in the year, this time we were going to climb a more interesting alternative via the northern Meyer Glacier.

We landed in Quito on the evening of April 7th. We were greeted by Javier at Arrivals, which was a special treat. He usually sends his driver to pick up his clients.

The following day we spent in Quito, exploring the city and its colonial architecture. We loved the old town and its narrow streets, buzzing with people, cafes and restaurants. As part of our ‘cultural experience’ and to speed up our ‘acclimatization’, Margaret and I decided to climb some 145 m up to the tower of Basilica del Voto Nacional, the largest neo-Gothic basilica in the world.

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Margaret is taking seriously her training and pre-acclimatization at the Basilica del Voto, Quito

Next morning, Javier came to pick us up from the hotel for the trip to Papallacta Springs. There we were to start our acclimatization by climbing our first volcano, Papallacta (4,300m).

Quito is about 2,800m in altitude, and getting above 4,000m was a part of the acclimatization program. Papallacta volcano is next to the Amazon rain forest. It rained the entire day. Low clouds hung around the whole morning and afternoon, and we could hardly see a thing. Papallacta receives a lot of rain most of the year, but especially in April during the rainy season.

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Margaret, me and Javier on the way to Papallacta (4,300m) summit

On the morning of day four, Benno, our lead guide, came to pick us up from the hotel. Originally from Switzerland, Benno has lived in Ecuador for over 20 years. He UIAGM-certified, and is one of the most experienced guides in town.

That morning we left Quito and would not be returning until we climbed the remaining five volcanoes: Guagua Pichincha (4,768m), Illiniza Norte (5,125m), Illiniza Sur (5,280m), Antisana (5,704m), and Chimborazo (6,268m).

My Lithuanian friend Berta, a very talented, award-winning photo journalist, joined us to document the expedition and to make a film on the volcanoes of Ecuador. She happened to be in Ecuador, on a road trip across South America with her Argentinian boyfriend Lucas. They were living and driving across the continent in their van!

I last met Berta in Kathmandu in 2013, when she also happened to be passing through on her way to Tibet during a trip across Asia. She interviewed me for the Lithuanian news portal, 15min.lt, before I too left for Tibet to climb Everest.

During the following days we had ups and downs with the weather on Pichincha, the Illinizas, and Antisana. Guagua Pichincha was fun – some rock climbing/scrambling, and some easy trekking.

When we got to Ilinizas, it rained and snowed a lot. We stayed for two nights at the refugio of Nuevos Horizontes, at 4,700m. From here we launched our summit bids for both Ilinizas.

It snowed all night. When we got up for our summit push in the early hours of the morning, the slopes of Illiniza Norte were covered in snow, very unusual for this peak. The snow turned into the rain on the way down. We were soaked when we returned to the refugio, but pleased we had all made it to the summit.

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Margaret and I on the summit of Illiniza Norte (5,125m)

Initially, Berta had no intention of climbing past the refugio, but when we set off for the summit, she came with us, and ended up climbing all the way. This was the first time she had ever climbed a ‘real’ mountain on a ‘real’ expedition, and we were extremely proud of her!

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Berta climbing down Illiniza Norte

The following evening we went to sleep hoping the snow and rain would stop during the night, giving us a good chance for Illiniza Sur. When my alarm clock went off at 3 AM, I could hear that it was still snowing outside. Margaret and Berta decided to stay in bed.

I was more determined and did not want to give up on Illiniza Sur so easily. Benno and I set off at around 4 AM. It was dark and misty. The mist reduced visibility even more. We were drenched before we reached the glacier after a few hours of climbing. Here we heard a loud avalanche rumbling down from the mountain. We couldn’t see where it was coming from or where it was heading to.

We put our crampons on and started up the glacier. The snow was deep and unstable. We decided it wasn’t safe to continue and we turned around.

My dream of climbing Illiniza Sur was over, but this story has another chapter. As chance would have it I returned to Iliniza Sur a month later – but more of that later.

After we were done with the Illinizas, we came down to recover for a night in Chuquiragua Lodge, El Chaupi. We were in a celebratory mood even though we had only climbed Illiniza Norte. Margaret liked the climb so much she said she wanted to go back up and climb it again! But she hated the rain.

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Margaret on her iPad at the Chuquiragua lodge, Chaupi, recovering after the climb of Illiniza Norte

The next morning we headed for Antisana base camp. We were not so optimistic about the weather when we first arrive. The sky was grey and cloudy as far as the eye could see. Fortunately, in the evening the weather cleared.

To Be Continued – ‘Antisana climb’ in the next post…

More photos from my Ecuador Volcano Adventure here.

 

 

 

 

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