Stories from the Andes of Ecuador, getting schooled and knowing when to turn around
By MM guide Mallorie Estenson
My watch begins beeping, piercing the tranquil darkness around me. I hear a few sighs. Someone rolls over in their sleeping bag. My illuminated watch face tells me it’s 12:00am. Go time.
Outside my window, the wind whistles through Refugio Ruales-Oleas-Berge. My instinct is to nestle deeper into my sleeping bag. Instead I add an extra layer before putting on my hardshell layers. By now, everyone is awake and there’s an excited, nervous energy in the air. For several people on our team, this will be their first Ecuadorian volcano and first experience with thin air at high altitude.
We make our way to a communal dining room for an alpine-start breakfast: grilled cheese, granola and yogurt. We sip sugary teas and instant coffee. Carabiners make tinkling sounds as we pull our harnesses on, attach our headlamps to our helmets, and make final adjustments to our boots.
The wind whips around me as I step outside of the hut. I see faster teams ahead making their way up the rocky steps to attain the glacier. My rope team of three falls in step and we begin the journey up. We walk slowly, giving our bodies a chance to respond to the altitude. The day before, the team was shuttled up to the hut at 15,092 feet (4,600 meters.) My heart beats faster and my breath is heavy. I’m surprised by how quickly my body reacts to the altitude; I’m constantly aware of it and drinking water accordingly.Step by step, we make our way to the glacier more than 1,000 vertical feet above the hut. We travel as a team, which helps regulate our slow and steady pace. Above 16,000 feet, the precipitation comes in the form of snow, which feels like less suffering than facing the rain. In the time it takes to apply my crampons to my boots, I become acutely aware of the fact that it’s time to put on my heavier ski gloves instead of returning to the softshell gloves I’ve been using.
Together, my rope team and I find our comfortable rhythm. It’s slow, steady and sustainable. Only seeing what’s contained Mountawithin the small halo of light emitted from my headlamp, the night passes slowly. The snow is firm beneath my crampons, which aids my uphill progress. However, the wind remains constant and shortens communications. It frees us all up to focus on walking, breathing and motivating our way higher on the glacier.
Gradually, the light begins to change. Instead of just simple, utter darkness punctuated by distant headlamps simultaneously ahead and above me, I can begin to make out the form of the rock, ice and snow around me. We arrive at a bench for sunrise. In the distance, I can see Cotopaxi and Antisana parting the clouds that hover beneath us around 16,000 feet. It’s a beautiful morning. After some photos, water, smiles and some high fives, we carry on toward the imposing snowdomes that comprise the summit. Almost as soon as we start, we see the faster teams coming down the hill. The wind prevents distant communication, so we wait for them to approach. We learn that avalanche danger is such that a summit is out of the cards. A thick wind crust sitting atop sugary, faceted snow indicates that today is not the day to travel in avalanche terrain.
Having climbed to 18,000 feet, nobody is disappointed. We feel accomplished for pressing on through challenging conditions and rewarded by the gorgeous views at sunrise. And besides, we still have two more volcanoes to climb: Cotopaxi and Chimborazo. Missing the summit on Cayambe represents an opportunity to become more acclimatized and prepared for those to come. A win for the team.