Monday, May 11, 2015

Hiking matters #459: Nice and easy, Volcan Pasochoa (4199m) in the Ecuadorian Andes

Volcán Pasochoa (4199m) a popular acclimatisation hike
in the Ecuadorian Andes
AVENIDA DE LOS VOLCANES - Volcan Pasochoa (4199m) is a popular first acclimatisation hike before doing the big mountains like Cayambe, Chimborazo, or Cotopaxi. I went straight for Pichincha and Illiniza Norte - but I didn't want to pass up the opportunity to climb another mountain in Ecuador so I went anyway.

This time I had some companions who were also doing a hiking program with the same company I booked my hikes with. From our basecamp in the Avenida de los Volcanes (Avenue of the Volcanoes), we went to a rather long and circuitous road to Pasochoa, taking 1.5 hours. Along the way we had views of Corazon and Ruminhaui.

The hike is basically like the ascent up Mt. Pulag's summit from Camp 2 - easy trails and gentle slopes. It eventually gains some incline, but still very easy - I didn't miss my trekking pole that got wrecked in Illiniza Norte!
Eventually we reached a saddle, and there was a choice between two peaks. Our guide led us to the higher one, and we entered a short but nice section of mossy forest, before emerging at the summit. This forest was a refreshing sight after seeing mostly steppes, prairies, grasslands, scree slopes, and boulders!

The summit, though taking us just over an hour to reach, was wonderful! Unlike the other peaks I've reached where a ravine is just a step away, there were actually some flat ground where one can sit or even lie down.

A little bit past the summit proper, there's a ridge, beneath which lies the collapsed caldera of the volcano. It is breathtaking, with views of Ruminhaui, and occasionally, of the mighty Cotopaxi and Antisana. Given its rewards and its ease, I can understand why Pasochoa is a good first hike in the Ecuadorian Andes. And even if it were already my fourth, it was still a worthwhile activity.

Hiking matters #456: Volcán Rucu Pichincha
Hiking matters #457: Volcán Quilotoa
Hiking matters #458: Volcán Illinizas Norte
Hiking matters #459: Volcán Pasochoa

Hiking matters #458: The ascent of Illiniza Norte (5126m) in the Ecuadorian Andes

AVENIDA DE LOS VOLCANES - Having acclimatised for five days, with 4698m my highest point thus far in this trip, I accepted the challenge of climbing Illiniza Norte, at 5126m one of the high peaks of the Ecuadorian Andes. There are two Illinizas - Norte and Sur - with the latter more challenging to hike because of the glaciers at the top. Illiniza Norte, however, can still be a tough challenge, with the snow and loose boulders at the top.

From our basecamp, I was accompanied by my guide Jaime Valdez, an accomplished mountaineer who has summitted Aconcagua thrice! It was already 0930H when we reached the trailhead and started the hike. Just like Rucu Pichincha, it was initially grassland with beautiful flowers, including the yellow chuquiraguas. The trail was clearly marked and in terms of cleanliness and maintenance, at par with those of Switzerland.
After 1.5 hours of the grassland, however, we were confronted by a scree slope of several hundred meters. As in many scree slopes, for every one step forward, you also make half a step backwards as the rocks slide through. It reminded me a lot of Stok Kangri in the Indian Himalayas. I knew that there was no way but to persevere - even as the cheap, foldable trekking pole I bought in broke halfway!

Eventually, we reached a saddle, where, after donning helmets and harnesses, we proceeded to do the few hundred feet before the summit. The rocks were somewhat loose and cold: some were laced with snow and ice. But it was manageable. Finally, at 1344H (0444H + 1 day PH time) we reached the summit of Illiniza Norte!
As is often the case with high peaks, one could only stay for a short time. After a bit of a clearing and some photos, we descended carefully through the loose rocks and rested for a while at the saddle. It was, come to think of it, our first real rest (i.e. > 3 minutes) throughout the whole hike. (The guide, of course, is perpetually acclimatised, while for my part I'm always worried about the weather so I just participated in the non-stop march up.)

What came next was fun: the scree slope that probably took us a couple of hours going up took no more than 30 minutes going down, as we let gravity the work. All that was needed was for us to move dynamically, essentially sliding with the rocks that were once the bane of our efforts.

After the rocks, the grassland was practically a cool down. Surprisingly, the skies were even a bit clearer compared to earlier, and I felt blessed that I haven't had a raindrop so far in all my hikes (to think that May was supposed to be "rainy"!). By 1620H we had reached the trailhead. In its entirety the hike took 6 hours 50 minutes -- which I felt was not bad considering that I usually move slow on altitude.
I was back in my basecamp an hour later, very thankful for the outcome of the hike. Breaching 5000 meters once more gives me confidence for the challenge that lies ahead. Meanwhile, the adventure continues in the easier Volcan Pasochoa (4199m) the next day! Continued in Hiking matters #458.

Hiking matters #456: Volcán Rucu Pichincha
Hiking matters #457: Volcán Quilotoa
Hiking matters #458: Volcán Illinizas Norte
Hiking matters #459: Volcán Pasochoa

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Hiking matters #457: The beautiful crater lake of Volcan Quilotoa in Ecuador

An alpaca (a South American mammal that resembles a small llama)
stares at the turquoise waters of Volcan Quilotoa's Crater Lake
AVENUE OF THE VOLCANOES, ECUADOR - The day after the Rucu Pichincha hike (Hiking matters #456), I joined a tour to Volcan Quilotoa which included a trek down to its crater lake. At 3914m, the volcano would be a good place to acclimatise, and it will also be a chance for me to see the Andean countryside.
From Quito we drove towards the direction of Latacunga and first stopped at a market where we saw 
llamas and got to try all sorts of fruits, and encountered the Quechua (Kwicha) people, many still wearing their colourful costumes. 
As we drove up the volcano rim, we passed by the Rio Toachi Canyons (2591m) which offer interesting scenery. These canyons are actually part of the larger Quilotoa Loop, which make for a two- or three-day hike around the volcano.
After Rio Toachi, we proceeded to the crater rim mirador (viewpoint) in Quilotoa. The view of the crater lake, with its turquoise waters, was magical! We took the wide trail down to the lake itself, seeing the lake in various vantage points, as the clouds play with its appearance.
After 30 minutes or so, we arrived at the lake and canoed for about half an hour. Then we trekked up the 300 meters back to the rim - it took longer this time around. After a nice lunch at one of the restaurants at the rim, we headed back, and I began my stay in a hacienda-turned-hotel located in the "Avenue of the Volcanoes". 

Hiking matters #456: Rucu Pichincha (4698m)
Hiking matters #457: Volcan Quilotoa
Hiking matters #458: Illinizas Norte
Hiking matters #459: Volcan Pasochoa

Hiking matters #456: Rucu Pichincha (4698m) in Ecuador, my first hike in the Andes

Pichincha, one of the prominent volcanoes of the Ecuadorian Andes
QUITO, ECUADOR - It feels great to finally reach six continents! Of course, I am aspiring for seven, but still, being in South America is significant for me. Culturally, we have much in common with many countries in this continent, as we share a similar colonial past under Spanish rule. And of course, as a hiker, there is the great Andes - the second highest mountain range in the world, next to the Himalayas.
The popular choice is to go to Macchu Picchu - or perhaps the Patagonia, but I am not in a hurry to visit those places. I just wanted a short break and decided on Ecaudor, with its countless hiking possibilities. Though not as famous as Peru or Argentina, Ecuador actually has some of highest volcanoes in the world including Chimborazo (6311 MASL) and Cotopaxi (5897m).

Moreover, the Ecuadorian capital Quito, at 2800 MASL, is a perfect place to acclimatise, while at the same time a great place to do some sightseeing (the Old Town is one of the first-ever World Heritage Sites). Today, after two days in Quito, I did my first Andes hike, Rucu Pichincha (4698m), one of the three peaks of the Volcan Pichincha.

I took a taxi from Quito ($4 one-way) to the TeleferiQo (round trip $8.50) which brought me up to the trailhead, 3945 MASL. I started trekking at 0846H. It was an easy walk along a vast expanse of grassland slopes, with great views of Quito throughout. The only challenge was the altitude - though I thankfully did not feel anything (yet), I was careful to move slowly but steadily.

At the base of the peak itself, however, the foot trail ended, and there was no way up but to go through a scree slope, then go past the "Paso del Muerte" (Pass of Death) - a narrow sliver of rock with ravines on both sides. Given the fact that the peak was surrounded with clouds, it was quite challenging going up not knowing what to expect beyond the next few meters!

Fortunately I managed to reach the summit, at 1048H. In the end, it didn't take too long -- but it certainly felt longer while I was trying to scale the summit! The phone died down after a couple of shots, but in any case I could only stay for a few minutes as it felt very cold. There was still a bit of excitement on the way down the rocks and the scree slopes, but otherwise it was a smooth return to Quito. A great start of my hiking trip here!

Hiking matters #456: Rucu Pichincha
Hiking matters #457: Volcan Quilotoa
Hiking matters #458: Illinizas Norte
Hiking matters #459: Volcan Pasochoa

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