Petzl supported professional big mountain skier Caroline Gleich and climber and guide Nate Smith on their recent trip to Ecuador. The two learned a lot on their travels and condensed some of their wisdom into the following blog post.
Gear selection is crucial for a trip like this. Caroline Gleich doing some final packing before departure. Photo: © Mike Schirf
Nate Smith and I just got back from a successful trip climbing and skiing the three highest peaks in Ecuador in seven days. As with most trips, we encountered many logistical challenges, and itineraries were changed time and time again. Just getting to the mountains was half the battle. Despite the challenges, we stayed flexible and accomplished our goals.
We climbed and skied the first peak, Cayambe (5,790 m/18,996 ft), on November 23, 2013, Cotopaxi (5,897 m/19,347 ft) on November 26, and Chimborazo (6,310 m / 20,702 ft) on November 29. Cayambe is rumored to be the only snow-capped peak that lies directly on the equator. Cotopaxi is the world’s highest snow-capped active volcano, and the summit of Chimborazo is the farthest point from the earth’s center. Each presented different challenges. Overall, it was an exotic, exciting opportunity to push our ski mountaineering skills in heavily glaciated terrain at high altitude. After sorting out the logistics, here are some of the things we learned.
Caroline and Nate’s 10 Tips for Success on Ecuador’s Volcanoes:
1. Set your alarm. Be prepared to wake up early (really early), as you’ll need the time for summit-day success. The sun at zero latitude is hot and intense and the glacier heats up rapidly. The weather window at sunrise was short and fog and clouds would normally move in by 9:30 a.m. For each peak, we woke up around 10 p.m. to eat breakfast and start climbing between 11 p.m. and midnight. I used the Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp to keep the path illuminated through the night. The self-adjusting Reactive Lighting worked beautifully as night slowly turned into day.
2. Steel yourself. Often in these fast-and-light pursuits, people go with aluminum crampons and ice axes. On this trip, we found steel to be more dependable, and an absolute necessity for our final objective, Chimborazo, due to the rapidly receding glacier. The receding is exacerbated by a neighboring volcano that spews ash onto the snow of Chimborazo, causing increased melting and mixed rock and ice conditions. When we climbed it, Chimborazo was literally black ice. I used the Petzl Summit ice axe and Irvis crampons.
Left: Be prepared to wake up early (really early). Right: Navigating a forest of penitentes high on Chimborazo. You'll want a high level of fitness before coming to tackle these objectives.
3. Hire a guide. Currently, it’s the law and the only way to gain entrance to the mountains in Ecuador. There are roughly 150 locally certified mountain guides, 12 of them are internationally certified by the IFMGA. Consider a fully certified guide for your trip. For maximum enjoyment, take time with your guide before you start your climb to discuss your ability level and clearly explain your expectations. You are going to be partners on the mountains, so get to know each other.
4. Get acclimatized. If you’re flying in from sea level, you’ll want to spend a few nights in Quito (9,350 ft) before moving higher. There is a cable car in Quito that takes you to around 13,500 feet. From there, you can hike to the summit of Rucu Pichincha, (4696 m/15,638 ft). It’s a strenuous five-hour round-trip hike. Although we went straight to Cayambe from here, other groups head to Illiniza Norte (5,126 m/16,818 ft) for further acclimatization. If you’re feeling good, head up to the refugio at Cayambe and sleep around 15,000 feet for a summit bid on the 18,996-foot peak in the morning. After that, hit Cotopaxi, then Chimborazo. Be realistic with your acclimatization plan—these mountains are high and you want to be feeling good.
5. Get rollin’. If you’re confident with your navigation and 4WD skills, you can probably drive yourself, but you need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to get to Cayambe. Cotopaxi’s road is paved but it can get icy. Consider hiring a driver or taking public transit and let them take the wear and tear. The mountains are located one-and-a-half to three hours from Quito. They can be ascended and descended in one day, but don’t think the logistics are easy. The park entrances close between 2-5 p.m., and many require permits from a guide in advance, so you'll have to spend a night inside the park, either at a refugio or basecamp/hostel-style accommodation.
Back on the trail after a successful climb and full ski descent of Cayambe. In Ecuador, you definitely want to have an adaptable and technical layering system to adjust to rapidly changing mountain weather.
6. Take refuge. You can stay at the refugios, which are small, rustic huts (similar to what you'd find in Canada or Colorado), on the mountains, if they’re open; two of them were closed for remodeling during our visit. On Cayambe, the refugio is the only option. A nicer option for pre-summit day rest on Cotopaxi is to stay at Tambopaxi , where they have more comfortable hostel-style lodging and delicious food. For Chimborazo, check out the Mountain Lodge “Estrella del Chimborazo” at Chimborazo base camp.
7. Eat healthy. If you want to be successful in climbing Ecuador’s high peaks, consider abstaining from alcohol, as it can interfere with the body’s ability to acclimatize. Other nutrition tips: make sure you eat a lot of food (we joked that our trip was just sleep, eat, and perform). High-carbohydrate meals are best before summit day. While you’re exercising hard at elevation, your body can’t process much. Plan on gels and energy chews and a few bars. We used Clif Shot Electrolyte hydration drink mix, Energy Gels and Shot Bloks. Also, there’s no running water on the mountains so pack extra just in case.
8. Get anchored. Ice screws vs. pickets. Plan to bring both – consider a Petzl Laser Speed 17 cm ice screw and a Yates picket (more durable than a traditional MSR Coyote) for these conditions. A third tool, such as a Petzl Sum’tec, may be useful per party with a hammer for putting in pickets.
The terrain starts to change as we near the summit plateau on Chimborazo. On a trip to these altitudes, consider abstaining from alcohol, as it can interfere with the body’s ability to acclimatize.
9. Layer it on. We found the near-freezing temperatures at 19,000-20,000 feet to feel moderate, due to Ecuador’s equatorial positioning. That said, you want to have an adaptable and technical layering system to adjust to rapidly changing mountain weather. We often encountered heavy rain and snow. The layer you don’t want to change is your pants, because you have a harness on. For this reason, we both used a hard shell pant. For upper layers, have a variety of light and heavier layers. Here’s what I used: On bottom, expedition-weight base layer and Gore-Tex Pro Shell pant. On top, a merino wool T-shirt, expedition-weight base layer, Patagonia Houdini, Gore-Tex Pro Shell hard shell, and a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket (for Chimborazo, the highest peak, I used a heavier down belay parka). I also used Gore-tex gloves with Primaloft insulation (and hand warmers, which worked at even the highest elevations), polarized sunglasses, photo chromatic goggles, helmet, beanie and balaclava.
10. Shape up. Going to altitude is difficult on the body, especially when you do back-to-back peaks with heavy backpacks. You’ll set yourself up for success by achieving and maintaining a high level of fitness before coming to tackle these objectives.
Overall, climb high, be safe and have fun!
Ski mountaineering equipment
- About Caroline Gleich
- About Nate Smith