The Bishop and the Man of Wind and Snow — Part One
A bishop, two nuns and four friars walk into a tabernacle, arguing over canon.
Sounds like the start of a bad joke? Probably. No doubt it actually started out that way (those wacky Ecuadorians). It also describes the remnants of an Ecuadorian volcano that blew itself apart about 600 years ago and left a horseshoe-shaped string of high peaks around a 3 km wide caldera. A perfect description, if you look at it just the right way (and apply sufficient imagination).
Volcán El Altar. David Torres Costales photo
The mountain known as El Altar is actually nine individual peaks, each over 5000m high. They are generally considered to be the hardest of the major peaks in Ecuador (for varying levels of “hard”). The nine peaks are Obispo (the Bishop), Monja Grande and Chica (Great and Small Nun), Tabernáculo (the Tabernacle), Fraile Oriental, Beato, Central, and Grande (Eastern, Devout, Central, and Great Friar), and Canónigo (the Canon). Located in a very much off-the-beaten-track part of Ecuador, the mountain receives only a few trekkers and even fewer climbers.
Actually, it was named by the Spaniards, but clearly they were doing their part to contribute to the nascent eccentric Ecuadorian culture.
Obispo (5,319m, Grade IV/D, 5.6) is the highest of the menagerie and also generally considered the “easiest”. Most of the other peaks have only seen a handful of ascents. Obispo itself is rarely climbed, due to its technical difficulty, sometimes questionable conditions, and notoriously flaky weather resulting from its location on the jungle side of the range. The views from the top, over the caldera and shattered remnants of the volcano, with the giant Chimborazo lurking to the west, are unparalleled.
Obispo. Marvin Hirth photo
So how does one warm up and acclimatize for such a peak? I’m glad you asked! The answer is: go climb three other 5000m peaks (and maybe a 4000m peak for good measure). Because, why not?
Illiniza Norte (5,105m, Grade I/F, Class 3) and Illiniza Sur (5,245m, Grade III/AD) are located just southwest of Quito. Located adjacent to each other, they are climbed from a refuge located in the col between them. The similarities end there, however: Illiniza Norte is primarily a rock heap involving scrambling, with potentially a few sections of easy rock climbing and/or snow depending on conditions. It is often ascended by hikers. Illiniza Sur, however, is a glaciated peak whose ascent requires technical snow and ice climbing skills and is much less frequently climbed.
In my last trip to Ecuador in 2013, we actually tried to go climb the Illinizas at the end of the trip, after getting shut down on Chimborazo by weather (and a healthy desire to not get electrocuted). Sadly, we never even got to see them since the weather system blanketed the entire country for several days.
View of Cotopaxi looking southwest from Antisana. MM file photo
From there, we head to Antisana (5,758m, Grade II+/AD-), the fourth-highest volcano in Ecuador, and ranks about there by number of attempts as well. Which is to say, far fewer than the higher three, but it has become more popular since Cotopaxi was closed for climbing due to volcanic activity. This is a bit misleading since it is (or can be) a much harder climb. In some years, it can be a (relatively straightforward) steep glaciated ascent; in others, a notorious bergshrund that surrounds the summit can be nearly impassible, and often only passable by those with steep ice climbing skills. Even before then, the upper mountain can be a complete maze of seracs and crevasses, such that a route cannot even be found to the top. Nevertheless, its location gives the promise of spectacular views of nearby Cotopaxi from its summit. Will we find a way to the top, or will the maze defeat us? The fun starts December 11, when the Canadian team invades Ecuador!
~MM Expedition Member Alex Beattie