January 30, 2014
On Dec. 26, instead of sleeping off Christmas dinners and counting gift cards from extended family, five members of the Hamilton Outing Club departed for Quito, where they completed a three-week hiking expedition throughout northwestern Ecuador. Alex Doig ’16, Annie Emanuels ’16, Hanna Kingston ’15, Clair Stover ’14 and I landed in Quito, along with Director of Outdoor Leadership Andrew Jillings, bearing mounds of hiking equipment and sleepy but anxious eyes.
After spending a night in the small, friendly city of Otavalo, which stands at roughly 2600 meters, we set off on a five-day trek to and around the village of Piñan, a small community of mud huts that lies along a river in the middle of the Andes. The terrain was more or less flat and carpeted by yellow-green thatch with a few herds of unbothered cows munching along the trail.
We arrived at Piñan in the late afternoon. As is typical there, the altitude and the wind made for a frigid night. We donned thermals and wool socks to serve a feast of beef, soup, potatoes, cheese and popcorn to the 23 families of the village, some 250 people. The villagers gratefully accepted the meal with shy smiles and calloused hands.
“We all really enjoyed sharing a meal with the local community,” said Stover. “Piñan was the only place where we got to actively participate with Ecuadorian people in an authentic setting.”
In the three days that followed, we visited Lake Donoso, summited the nearby Yanaurco at 4535 meters and were lucky enough to see an unthinkably large condor (spotted by Jillings), all under the direction of a loquacious local mountain guide. The infinite landscape and simple, work-oriented lifestyle of Piñan were a powerful introduction to Ecuador. The trek also served as a period of acclimatization for the members of the Outing Club, most of whom are accustomed to a balanced life at sea level.
We returned to Otavalo on New Year’s Eve, where we happily celebrated with some much-needed laundry and playing several competitive rounds of Hearts. When night fell, we meandered the streets, and wide-eyed, watched as hundreds of cheerful locals sang and danced in the heart of the city. Homemade, life-size dummies, an Ecuadorian tradition to represent the passing of the year, sat in almost every doorway. At midnight, the families ceremoniously burned the dummies in the street and sent off an endless array of fireworks to bid farewell to 2013 and welcome the new year.
We kicked off 2014 by perusing the local and tourist markets in Otavalo, the largest open-air market in South America. Throughout the next few days, we completed day hikes in the area, each day climbing to a higher elevation. “We took the elevation gradually, and were lucky to acclimatize as well as we did,” Stover said. “It was crazy to see how our bodies reacted to the changes in altitude. We had to stop frequently to catch our breath because our lungs couldn’t keep up with our legs.”
On Jan. 4, we drove to Cayambe—a long, glaciated volcano that reaches an altitude of 5800 meters. At midnight, we put on our gear: rain pants, plastic boots, crampons, harnesses, helmets, headlamps and ice axes, all atop the warmest clothes we had.
There was rain from the onset. After about an hour of climbing up slippery volcanic ash, we reached the ice, where the rain had become snow and the conditions were less than ideal. At that point, we tied ourselves together—two Hamilton kids to one professional guide—and began the long hike. Though we moved at an impossibly slow pace, we breathed hard and deep with each rhythmic step. The guides navigated around crevasses and unsafe bridges in search of a gradual, unobstructed path.
“We had a few missteps, especially in the beginning when we were still getting comfortable moving with our rope teams,” said Emanuels, who fell into a crevasse at one point, but recovered swiftly.
Around 4 a.m., the guides deemed the snowy conditions too dangerous to proceed. We turned back at 5100 meters and made our descent in the dark, snowy morning. Though we did not summit, we felt strong on the ice, and many got a taste of the dizziness, headaches and loopiness that come with rapid changes in altitude.
“Climbing Cayambe was unlike anything I’d ever done before. It was amazing being out on the ice with only the light of a headlamp to see,” said Stover. “The climb was really challenging, and although it was unfortunate that we didn’t make it to the summit, it was still a great experience.”
The next three days were rainy. We enjoyed a full day of rest, and summited Pasochoa (4200m) before driving to Cotopaxi, another glaciated volcano that boasts a staggering 5900 meters. However, after days of rain and warmer temperatures, the snow on Cotopaxi had softened and was not suitable for mountaineering.
We wrapped up our trip with three days in the rainforest, where we stayed on the outskirts of a small village. We did it all in the rainforest – ate ants, climbed trees and slept with cockroaches.
We all boarded our respective planes home with a strenghtened new perspective. Doig, an Outing Club officer, was particularly struck by the whirlwind trip. “It was such a unique opportunity,” he recounted. One week we were climbing glaciated volcanoes at 18,000 feet and the next we were eating ants in the Amazon. This was my first experience with high-altitude mountaineering and now I can’t stop daydreaming about trips to the Himalayas or Kilimanjaro. I’d recommend anyone with a thirst for high adventure to apply for this trip when HOC offers it again in two years.”
We all returned to campus to begin the spring semester, happy with the plentiful oxygen and grateful for our time spent straddling the equator and moving, always, up.