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The Altar from Riobamba Joshua Jarrin

The Elusive Obispo

El Altar, a group of nine sum­mits con­nect­ed by the same base, is one of the most icon­ic moun­tains of Ecuador. For local climbers, its ascent rep­re­sents the entry exam to the real deal” league. This lit­tle” range presents a spec­tac­u­lar com­bi­na­tion of intim­i­dat­ing cliffs, long ice water­falls, and bro­ken glac­i­ers — all sur­round­ed by remote high­lands and hid­den lakes. It is no won­der the indige­nous and span­ish cul­tures always treat­ed the moun­tain with a respect reserved for the divine. 

The Altar from Riobamba.

These nine peaks cre­ate a horse­shoe shape fac­ing the open caldera to the west, towards the city of Riobam­ba. The Obis­po is the tallest of those sum­mits. It ris­es high on the south end, and offers no easy way to the top. It took the Ital­ians Fer­di­nan­do Gas­pard, Mari­no Tremon­ti, and Clau­dio Zar­di­ni ten days to deter­mine a pos­si­ble line for con­quer­ing the sum­mit on July 7th of 1963. This was cer­taint­ly quite late in the his­to­ry of alpinism.

Obis­po route.

Nowa­days, climb­ing Obis­po is still not an easy task. After deal­ing with a 4X4 road that ends at the Bocatoma de Ingisay, climbers must hire mules to trans­port equip­ment, and then approach by mud­dy trails for six hours to the base camp. Most times this is done in rainy con­di­tions. The moun­tain is very close to the ama­zon­ian basins where con­vec­tion works fast; it con­firms, more than oth­er peaks, the estab­lished say­ing: If you don’t like clouds, you have no busi­ness in Ecuador.”

The ever-cloudy Obis­po dur­ing approach.

Robert R. a long time MM climber, learned that well eleven years ago, on his first trip to the vol­ca­noes of the mid­dle of the world. That time, the weath­er didn’t work to the advan­tage of the climbers and they were able to reach only one of three attempt­ed moun­tains. The pur­pose of the trip was a moun­taineer­ing school, trip so the goal was still com­plet­ed. The par­tic­i­pants incor­po­rat­ed the nec­es­sary skills for enjoy­ing the high moun­tains, and in the case of Robert, that expe­ri­ence lead him to climb many oth­er sum­mits in the Andes through­out the years. Now he returns to Ecuador for his well-deserved chance on El Altar.

The view from base camp, with Pul­pi­to, Carme­lo, Obis­po, and Mon­ja Grande from left to right.

From base camp, the route nav­i­gates class 3 to 4 ter­rain to the entrance of the glac­i­er. Then, a tra­verse to the east beneath the sec­ondary sum­mits of Pul­pi­to and Carme­lo is nec­es­sary to arrive at the begin­ning of the climb. A cou­ple of pitch­es on steep snow lead to the first rock band, and on the high­er part, some mixed ter­rain has to be nego­ti­at­ed to arrive at the Cal­vario ridge. After this, it’s nec­es­sary to nav­i­gate the sec­ond (hang­ing) glac­i­er in order to access the final gully. 

Ascend­ing the final snow gully. 

Until this point, the climb is del­i­cate but noth­ing new for Robert. He has accu­mu­lat­ed enough ‑TD- ascents in Peru and Bolivia to deal with the climb calm­ly. How­ev­er, the Obis­po has a final chal­lenge near the sum­mit. Two pitch­es of loose ver­ti­cal rock are the gate to the top. The cram­pons scratch the rock, and the hands search for tiny cor­ners to hold onto for progress. The view is jaw-drop­ping. To the left, the 1000 meter cliff of the north face drops aggres­sive­ly, and the direct view into the caldera is intimidating. 

Climb­ing the final rock pitch­es before the summit.

Robert and Joshua on the sum­mit of Obispo.

The effort pays off. The Moun­tains Mad­ness team reach­es the sum­mit to enjoy a mag­i­cal morn­ing. From the top, it’s pos­si­ble to see Canon­i­go on the north side of the mas­sif, and in the dis­tance, Chimb­o­ra­zo and Cotopaxi. To the east, a mat­tress of clouds makes the team feel taller than any­thing, and they allow them­selves a moment of pure joy. How­ev­er, those clouds are also a silent reminder. The game is not over; it’s impor­tant to set up the rapels and quick­ly descend to the tents before a storm arrives. 

Nego­ti­at­ing the hang­ing glac­i­er on descent.

On the final rap­pel to low­er glacier.

Back in camp, the arriero’s (mule dri­ver) dog has been wait­ing for the team. He is hap­py see­ing peo­ple back. They rep­re­sent the meal of the day to him, and for the climbers, it’s a way to mate­ri­al­ize that they have touched the altar” of gods and returned to the world of humans.

~ Words and pho­tos by MM Guide Joshua Jarrin