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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