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Saturday, March 7, 2009

Climbing and hiding a cache on Volcano Illaniza Norte, Ecuador






What a spectacular view we had from Illaniza Norte! It all started with a two hour drive south out of Quito along the Pan-American Highway to just south of Machachi. From there we took the cobble stone road through the town of El Chaupi for about an hour out through fields and dairy farms. Looming before us was the remnants of a once majestic and large volcano. Today only two peaks remain of what must have been a huge explosion. The southern peak is a beautiful cone-shaped peak. The northern peak is slightly lower in elevation and not cone-shaped. The southern peak requires a technical climb, then northern does not. We set out from the parking area known as “The Little Virgin” from which we would begin our 3.5 hour climb to the refuge building. Before starting the climb I hid a new geocache entitled, Illaniza, La Virgencita GC1N83W The hike up passed through three types of terrain. The first third of the hike was along an old washed out road. Heavy rains had carved large gullies big enough to swallow a large truck. The landscape was covered with shrub brush and a scattering of Quenual trees. I found the hike to be rather demanding. We were each carrying 30 lbs packs up the mountain. Although we knew of a refuge there, we had read a blog indicating that it is often unattended, with no gas to heat, food or water. This meant that we had to pack in all our water, food and sleeping bags. The next segment of the hike was along a long ridgeline running southwest. From the trail we watched two condors cruise the sky looking for prey. I was pretty tired and not sure that I wasn’t the prey they were looking for. The last segment of the climb was the toughest. The ridge trail dropped us off at the base of a steep grade made of volcanic rock and sand. It was very hard climbing. It was a joy to finally see the dull yellow refuge building in the distance. The refuge was pretty basic. There were two bunk beds with mattresses. There was a kitchen but no working stove for cooking or heating. We claimed our bunks just in time as a group of seven Ecuadorian university students arrived just behind us. The ten of us would share the refuge that night. The sun warmed us for the next two hours but when it began to set, the cold set in. We ate our small supper before the dark set in and were in bed at 7 p.m. thankful for the warmth of our sleeping bags. The night was not the most restful night due to the antics of our university friends and the headache brought on by a combination of altitude (15,500 feet above sea level) and dehydration. At 3:30 a.m. we were up and preparing for our climb. After a light breakfast we set out in the dark with our headlights guiding us up the trail ascending the northern peak. In the distance to the north we could see the reflection of the lights of Quito of the clouds. To the north we could see the occasional flicker of headlights on the university students as they worked their way up the southern peak. About an hour into the climb the sun began to push its light up on the horizon. There in the foreground, with a sea of clouds around it, stood Cotopaxi volcano in all its majesty. With every step and every moment that past the sunlight cast on the northern peak of Illaniza made it more spectacular. About two hours into the climb we arrived at a rock bridge with a precipice on each side. The bridge was a foot or two wide at most places. Now I’m a grandfather and I began to have some second thoughts about going further. Brett and Jeremy walked right across it and assured me that it wasn’t as bad as it looked. I told them to go on from there and I’d wait for their return. From where I sat I could see a glacier lake to the west, Antisana Volcano, Ruminahui  and Cotopaxi volcanoes to the east. As I sat in the sun and listened to the low wind I could also hear my friends conversation as they climbed further, even though they were out of sight much of the time. Then I saw them appear on another ridge about 200 feet above me. They were the distance of a football field away and their words were clearly discernable. When Jeremy said, “I’m done” I knew that I wouldn’t be sitting there alone much longer. They had reached a point where the climb really was becoming technical, requiring climbing gear. They worked their way back to my resting spot. They had reached 16,400 feet above sea level, just 400 feet short of the summit. We were back at the refuge at 8 a.m., repacked and soon on the trail headed down. This time we met up with a red fox who has obviously become accustomed to climbers and the scraps they leave. He seemed headed for the refuge. The hike down the mountain took a couple of hours. We departed the mountain as a different condor looped above us. If you get the opportunity to visit Ecuador, this climb is worth your time. Enjoy not only the geocache hidden at the base of the mountain; enjoy the beauty of the Andes mountains at their best! 

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