My year of climbing volcanoes: Grand Finale in Ecuador

Lassen, Shasta, Mt Rainier, and finally, Mexican Volcanoes in October. Until I noticed Rick kept mentioning how the safety of traveling in Mexico did cause him some concerns, especially considering he has family responsibilities. So, after a few phone calls we decided to switch to a Mountain Madness trip to Ecuador during Thanksgiving week with the ultimate goal to climb Cotopaxi.


I should give you some background information why this trip was so remarkable. I used to go hiking in the Austrian Alps with my mother until a malignant brain tumor in her right motor strip first took her ability to move, and then her life. This was followed by 12 turbulent years in my life which left no time to take off to the mountains. Early in 2003, I attended a conference in Napa. During one session, I ended up sitting next to a Radiation Oncologist from the Cleveland Clinic. He was in the process of organizing a benefit trip for the Cleveland Clinic to climb Aconcagua. I was clueless about big mountains at the time, but listened with fascination and awe. This short conversation re-ignited my love for the mountains, inspiring me to first go backpacking, then peak-climbing, and finally learning about glacier travel. Well, Rick never organized that trip to Aconcagua, but we kept loosely in touch over the years.

Somehow in the beginning of this year, I don’t know how or why, the idea of a joint climbing trip took shape. Almost 9 years after the Aconcagua chat, we met in the airport in Houston to continue on to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador. Half of Rick’s luggage never made it to Quito. He creatively made do with what he had for the first three days, until it became clear all hope was lost and new gear had to be bought. The first two days were spend sightseeing in the Old Town of Quito, acclimatizing to 9,200 feet/2100 m at the same time. The churches, city museum, lively streets, good food make for a very enjoyable experience.

The floor in the City Museum of Quito shows the map of the Old City.

Monday we did our first training hike to Guagua Pichincha, which last erupted in 1999. Our guide, Ossy (Oswaldo Freire) told us about hot springs he used to climb to with his father before the last lava flow covered them. The most fascinating part of this hike for me was to see the layer over the Pacific Ocean and the thunderstorms building over the Amazon at the same time.

The caldera of Guagua Pichincha. A sulphur steam vent is a reminder the mountain is still active.

After the hike, Ossy dropped Katherine and me at the Hacienda La Estacion, a former train station turned B&B. Rick went back to Quito with Ossy for a shopping excursion to Andes 6000, a local climbing store. We saw Rick again on Tuesday morning, his wallet much slimmer, wearing new mountaineering clothing, and mentally much more relaxed. I still admire his equanimity in face of dealing with the lost luggage; I would have been way more stressed while teaching the group a choice selection of German words they really should not know.

Hacienda La Estacion

Illiniza Norte (5,126 m/ 16,818 ft) was our next goal.  The horses were already waiting to carry up our packs, so we could just enjoy the hike to the Refugio with a daypack. What luxury compared to the 35-45 pounds I am used to have on my back! The hike itself was easy, although incoming weather made the air moist and chilly. We were much amused that our snack break halfway up to the Refugio found us sitting at higher altitude than the summit of Mt Rainier.The Refugio was small but cozy. I secured a spot on the 3rd level bunk, high up and therefore warmest space in the hut, and also the most private corner. A gap in the slats allowed me to nestle in and sleep with slightly elevated upper body, making the breathing easier. Rick joined me on my perch despite concerns of safely navigating the ladder at night to find the restroom. Waking up in the morning, I found Rick alive and with no broken limbs 🙂

The Refugio on Illiniza.

Sleeping at 15,500 feet feels very strange because of the effects of low blood oxygenation. Ossy’s pulse ox reported resting heart rates of 80 and oxygenation levels of 80% for the three of us. The two physicians jokingly admitted each other on oxygen and antibiotics. I did not wake up gasping for air, which was nice. Instead of my usual good nights sleep though, I seem to drift in and out of consciousness, the line between dreams and lucidity blurred to be indistinguishable. As Ossy had told us before, I did wake up well rested nonetheless.

Steepest section on Illiniza Norte.

On Thursday morning, the weather was clear. We quickly gained the beautiful ridge line leading up to the peak. The two climbers on the glacier of Illiniza Sur made good progress as well. The traverse to the other side of the mountain was way less exposed and steep than I had expected, although I can see how this could be a nasty bit of work in icy conditions. There are 4 bolts to put in a fixed rope if needed. After this spot, the rest of the hike to the summit was a steep scramble, but easy to find and not very exposed. I frankly was very surprised that Illiniza Norte is rated class 3. It was way easier than even the easy Sierra Class 3 peaks, e.g. Whorl Mountain. We took a slightly different route down, boot-skiing down the ash. It felt like we were back at the car in no time.

Summit of Illiniza Norte.

One more night at Hacienda La Estacion, and then we were finally off to Cotopaxi National Park. Lunch was at a restaurant/hacienda which lies enclosed in the National Park. We enjoyed very well prepared trout, and while the others had a lively lunch conversation I found myself fascinated by watching the hummingbirds feed outside the window. I have always imagined hummingbirds as very tropical species, so to see them at high altitude in cold, drizzly weather was enchanting.

Over dessert, we had a short discussion on summit attempts. The weather the night before had been bad on Cotopaxi, with snowfall and whiteout. About 40 people had to abort summit attempts, 2 people made it and got lost on the way down (they managed to find themselves after a few hours). The weather forecast for the following two nights was mixed. We decided after a short discussion that we would go up to the Refugio anyway, stick our heads out and midnight and see what the sky looks like. Worst case, we would spend two nights in the Refugio. The only drawback of a Friday night attempt would be no availability of a second guide, because everybody was still busy with the other groups 2nd summit attempts. Which was ok given the size and strength of the group, but left no margin for the unexpected.

Hiking up to the Refugio was indeed an easy 45 minutes. I took it extra slow, because I still felt a bit off due to a unilateral sinus infection from the dusty days before. I was also once again really sad thinking about how much fun it would have been to have my Mom on this trip with me. She loved the mountains and took me mountaineering as a 4-year-old. Being slow, though, proved an invaluable asset that afternoon. While I was hiking up by myself, an Andean wolf trotted by, making a little noise at me like my German Shepherd used to.

Andean Wolf

Dinner, then bed, in our own little cabin in the Refugio. At midnight, Ossy woke us up to a clear, starry night. Katherine’s favorite, Orion, was right above us. Breakfast at midnight, and up the snowfield we went starting a 1:15 am. I felt really good despite the issues with sinusitis the day before, and had another really good nights rest even at this altitude. We were the very last group leaving the hut, more than an hour later than I personally would have preferred. The snowfall from the recent days had not had time to settle yet. Therefore, the walking was a lot more slippery and soft than I would have expected; in stretches, it felt to me like walking on packed sand at the beach. The corollary to these snow conditions was that in some of the stepper sections, the intermediate steps were not available, forcing me to consistently take very high steps compared to my moderate height.

Cotopaxi from the Refugio

About an hour into the hike, we had reached the upper edge of the snowfield, where it was time to put on crampons and rope up. We also ate some snacks and drank. I had hot electrolyte solution in my water bottles; snacks were stacked into the many internal pockets of my hardshell, making me feel like a giant hamster. Another hour went by, with yet another 5 minute snack break. Still feeling good. Third hour, and the first major crevasses started to appear. One I liked in particular: It was preceded by a walk over a 3-foot wide wall of ice, a very short downhill stretch, and then a jump 2 feet across and 3 feet down. Rick asked how we would get back up the crevasse on the way down. Well, I kind of wondered that too but did not want to spend energy to think about it. Oxygen was more important in the legs than the brain 🙂 Otherwise, the climb is very pleasant with great views into the surrounding mountains. I found the glacier to be moderately steep, similar to the Disappointment Cleaver route on Mt Rainier. There were much fewer crevasses than on the Ingraham glacier, but they were much larger.

Soon after, a blood-red sun started to rise above the horizon. The landscape got more dramatic, with glacial ice formations softened by the recent new snow providing always new sights to marveled at. We were just about at 18,000 feet and not far below the headwall, when I hit the wall. Until then, I had no idea what marathon runners talk about when they speak of the wall at around 20 miles. Within 10-15 minutes, that changed drastically. Now I do, and I do not like it! It felt like someone had sucked out all energy out of my body. Oxygen did not seem to be the problem, just energy. And then something else new happened: I got REALLY cold. Mind you, I am usually not the icicle of the group. I never get cold. I sleep hot. I am the first one to pull off the thick gloves, scarves, and layers. Our guide, Ossy, must have been very attuned to this as well, because as soon as I spoke the words “I am cold” he got us to the next wind-protected spot to have the group huddle around me to warm me up.

So, it became quite clear at 6:30 am at 18,300 feet that there was no sense for us to go on, given how I had slowed down and being slightly hypothermic. There were other groups still moving up, but there was no group coming down our guide could have send me down with. Now we could have really needed the second guide to give the other two at least a chance at the summit attempt.

I was so bummed, primarily because it was me who cost the other two the summit. Also very disappointed because unlike Memorial Day, this really came out of nowhere for me. I felt strong, I was comfortable, I knew from the last two hikes that my speed matched the group pretty well, especially when it came to rock scrambles. I had slept well, was on the lower range of expected altitude symptoms, ate and drank much better than I had on Rainier, and even used the same brand electrolyte and favorite flavors of GU. Argh. You can imagine my mood was subdued on the way down, in addition to the physical recovery of simply warming up.

At this point, I really have to thank Katherine and Rick about being so kind and gracious. They had all the right to be upset about what happened. Good bedside manners they have as physicians (and just being the wonderful people they are), both even found words to make me feel a bit better. Ossy did as well, telling me the more you climb, the more you will run into situations like these. And he was the first person ever to help me take crampons off my boots, because I simply had no energy left in me to release the buckles!

Of course, I have spend a few hours since to think about what I could have done better. Speaking up for an earlier start is the only variable I can think of that was under my control. The soft snow was unexpected. Fitness – maybe? The high steps at the beginning might have cost me more energy at altitude than I thought at the time. My friend Emilie actually had spoken about this in preparation for the Shasta trip. I wonder if that contributed, but the only way to know is to work even harder at getting fitter and stronger. It will take me a bit (and maybe not working at a hyper-competitive academic medical center) to improve this aspect of my fitness.

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm (Churchill)

Less than one week later, I found another piece of the puzzle: Vertigo caused me to fall of my bike while riding to work. It had started Sunday evening after my return from Ecuador. At first, I attributed it to a day of air travel and the high partial oxygen pressure. Over the work week, the dizziness grew increasingly worse though until said bike accident scared me enough to pay a visit to my physician. There, I learned there is such a thing as labyrinthitis: an inflammation fo the inner ear caused by viral or bacterial infection, sometimes aggravated by stress. Got the stress part, my work stress was beyond range for the last two years. The virus? I came to learn there was a flu going around in the schools in my area that caused many instances of vertigo in the schoolkids. Given that the symptoms appeared within 48 hours of the Cotopaxi summit attempt, my immune system must have already been in combat without me knowing. It took 4 days of bedrest to recover enough to not be a fall risk any more! Now, a week after bed rest, I am ok enough to make it through a workday and even one Bikram Yoga practice, but my hearing and balance is still on the mend. I sure hope I never have to go through that again!

Back to Ecuador. For the last two nights, we stayed at the B&B with restaurant our guide Ossy owns, the fabuluous Hacienda Rumiloma. The rooms are decorated in colonial spanish-ecuadorian style. While you have dinner, the friendly staff will light the fireplace in your room and tuck a hot water bottle in your bed. Cuddly. Ossy’s wife, Amber, is the life of the place, even bringing parts of her truly Irish Pub from the Emerald Isle all the way to the basement of Rumiloma. If you get to stay there, which I highly recommend, ask them the story of how they met! Quite remarkable. There even is a resident herd of llamas which have adopted a black horse as one of their own.

Llamas at Hacienda Rumiloma. Notice the two-week old youngster?

Saturday, we spend some time at the airport to continue the hunt for Rick’s luggage, once again unsuccessfully. We then spend some time in several markets to buy some souvenirs, and also to pick up some locally made climbing equipment at lower cost than the USA. I managed to find two brands of Ecuadorian chocolate my friend Sunita from The Chocolate Garage has not tasted yet! A hailstorm turned the streets white for half an hour, which we used to have a tasty Japanese lunch.

Time to say good-bye with a dinner and good wine at Rumiloma. Rising at 3:30 am after two truly special nights at Rumiloma was hard. I will long remember the wonderful time I had there, and wherever we stayed in the week before, with my roommates and climbing companions. I hope sometime in the future we will meet again, and climb together again.

Breakfast at Rumiloma.

I will definitely go back. Not only do I have to still settle with Cotopaxi, but I fell in love with Ecuador, the culture, the beautiful mountains. Already, I have talked to some of my climbing friends to think about possible future trips. Going with a guide company was a new experience for me. Ossy was an exceptional guide, going above and beyond what I expected. I am still a bit puzzled to place this experience, because from local trips in the South and West of the USA I am so used to roughing it and sleeping in a bivy that I can’t quite make sense of Refugios and Haciendas yet. Even climbing itself was different. With the PCS, I am quite used to be the least experienced, and often positively challenged to grow my skills almost every day I am out with them. Even approach hikes are tough. On this trip, I encountered no technical challenges, and except for hitting the wall on the last day I very honestly found the hikes to be moderately challenging (with exception of breathing, of course). By now, I also usually know at least a few people on local trips. Travelling and climbing with people I had either never met, or just met a few times before, was a social stretch for me. I am better at doing activities with others than being an entertaining dinner conversationalist. The PCS folks have trained me so well in preparedness and efficient packing that I occasionally found myself being mentally focused on getting my backpack ready, rather than enjoying my time being with people. I am really glad my companions were Ossy, Katherine, and Rick, because all of them were truly wonderful, enjoyable, supportive, and lots of fun to be with. Thank you for sharing this week of your life with me!



Ossy (yes, it's legal action)

Snow Turtle

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3 Responses to My year of climbing volcanoes: Grand Finale in Ecuador

  1. Marissa says:

    Wah – Sonja, this was such an entertaining account of your trip! Really appreciated the details about the haciendas & refugios, as well as your harried Cotopaxi summit attempt. So sorry you didn’t make it, but really impressed _again_ at your straightforward thinking even when you are compromised.

    It was also lovely to hear more about the story of your mom. It really touched me to hear about how mountains were rekindled from a conversation with Rick many years ago. Look how far you’ve come! I know _for sure_ your Mom WAS with you, in spirit, on these climbs, and she was looking down at you with a huge smile on her face.

    It would be an honor to climb Cotopaxi with you! Not sure if it’s on “Mickey’s List”. Either way, I’ll put it on – what’s one more peak? 🙂

    Take good care, sister – and don’t “stress” too much about improving for next time. Make sure to give yourself a pat on the back for how well you _did_!! I’m sure proud of you! Your body took you to exactly where you needed to be. Trust that.

    Hugs from your climbing friend,

  2. Hey friend, thanks so much for the advice for winter-depression! It helps to hear from someone who is successfully overcoming it. I think once Derek and I settle down somewhere more perminant (i.e. not our car, lol), I will be getting some full spectrum lights.

  3. Aaron S. says:

    What a fabulous trip, from the high on Illiniza to the disappointment on Cotopaxi. I enjoyed reading about it, hearing about it, and remembering my own trip to Ecuador back in the 20th century. You’re a strong, spirited adventurer!

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