The Day I Climbed a 14,000 foot Volcano in Ecuador and Didn’t Die
Our day started out simply enough, enjoying a cup of coffee while watching llamas graze on the grounds of our 16th century hacienda in the Ecuadorian highlands. Originally we had planned to hike around the base of Cotopaxi, the snow-capped active volcano south of Quito as popular with day trippers as it is with hardcore mountaineers, but the park was closed as a precaution due to Ecuador’s recent earthquakes. Our innkeeper pointed across the valley “You should hike at Pasochoa, I’ll let Flavio know”.
Our guide Flavio had spent his entire life in the pastoral farmlands that dot the valleys of Ecuador’s highlands, he was equally at home exploring the peaks of the volcanoes that surround his hometown as he was on the back of a horse tending cattle as a chagra, one of Ecuador’s famed highland cowboys. He had a shy demeanor and a warm smile; between my limited Spanish, his patchy English and a lot of gesturing Flavio proudly told us about the volcanic valleys he calls home. An hour’s drive along a dirt road, past crops of potatoes and small herds of cows, brought us to a small wooden gate that served as entrance to this dormant volcano.
The base of Pasochoa is covered by mossy woodlands, not unlike the Shenandoah Valley in my home state of Virginia. The climb started easily enough with the forests transitioning to shrubs to Ecuador’s signature elevated grasslands known as paramo. We came to a mountain stream and Flavio vaulted across and motioned for me to follow his lead, but with a 10 foot drop I opted to hike a bit upstream and cross over a downed tree bridging the gap. Each turn of the trail brought a new sight; a hidden waterfall, a seemingly bottomless gorge, a lone condor circling above. The Andes were slowly revealing her secrets with each step we took.
As we reached the first peak, at an elevation of 12,000 feet, Steve and I enjoyed the sweeping vistas shaped by the seven volcanoes surrounding the valley where were just hours before. It was then Flavio pointed to the summit above. That’s where we were going? I gulped, looking at Steve knowing he had the same reaction.
“I guess we’re doing this.”
Now I consider myself decently fit. I’m that crazy person at the gym at 5 am, I occasionally bike to work and I’ve run several half marathons. Just one thing though, all of this happens at sea level. My house in Virginia Beach is at a whole whopping 12 feet above sea level and just days before walking around the colonial streets of Quito(elevation 10,000 feet) had me a bit short of breath. We followed Flavio on our continued journey up, passing altitudes of 12,500 and then 13,000 feet my heart pounded a million miles per minute while my lungs huffed deeply in search of more oxygen.While this hike was not technical by any means the altitude was affecting my sea level adapted body and I suddenly had a whole new respect for mountaineers.
The terrain took a steep pitch upward. With an angle of 60 degrees at times, the trail narrowed so were were funneled into a singular line. To avoid vertigo from the steep drop to my right I kept my gaze strictly on where my next step would be with a death grip on the paramo grasses that lined the narrow trail. The feeling of the rugged grasses in my hand was not dissimilar to the mane of the hardy Andean horse I had ridden the day before. With each step my heart was pulsing more than it ever has in my life forcing me to stop every five minutes or so to catch my breath, Flavio looked as if he had exerted no more effort than most of us would on a leisurely afternoon stroll. Then, just like that, we reached the summit. Elated, if a bit short of breath, we surveyed what the world looks like at 14,000 feet. In addition to panoramic views of the seven volcanoes, the patchwork green valleys below and the city of Quito spreading out into the distance we had one other reward waiting for us.
Flavio handed each of us a bag whose contents immediately brought me back to elementary school with a ham and cheese sandwich, crackers, an apple and a juice box. We sat in the grass voraciously eating our lunches while drinking in the views along with our juice boxes. Thrilled and exhausted, I turned to Steve with a wink and a smile.
“Only half way to Everest”.