Friday, December 8, 2017

Climbing the Volcano

Mountains and the mist

On our final expedition, we made our way from Palugo, through the wet páramo of the eastern Andes on the edge of the Amazon basin. We made it all the way to the glacier of the inactive volcano, Antisana. From there we left in two groups on solos, navigating the tricky maze of the páramo on our own. This post will consist of tips and tricks and a couple stories from our last expedition together.

Goals in sight
Cowboy encounters

Charly and Hannah in the paja 
The crew

Top 10 Tips for Hiking in the Páramo
1.   When taking a short break, it may be wise to resist sitting down in the paja. It might be more comfortable than a bed, and could make you never want to stand up again.

2.    Don’t be fooled by the vegetation. Underneath there may be a mud pit that when stepped in goes up to your thighs.

3.    Although you may think it’s a good idea to bring sneakers for comfort, don’t. Rain boots—no matter how clunky—are the way to go. Even if they make you twist an ankle.

4.    When resting, don’t be still too long, for the Condors (massive birds of prey that are three meters in wing-span), may mistake you for a dead animal.

5.    Always, always, set up your tent on high ground, for a storm may come in the night, and you could wake up in a puddle.

6.     If you get cold, move. It’s never a good idea to plunk yourself down wearing wet clothes in below freezing weather and wait for a rescue that’s not coming.

7.    Get creative with the tarp setup. It’s worth having a communal dry place for cooking and eating, no matter how low the tarp is—sometimes creating a little bit of pressure on your now wet head. Use trekking poles, or any branches you can find (good luck with that).

8.    If you get cold in the night, it is perfectly reasonable to jam pack five people on one side of a four-person tent. You may not get any sleep, but you will be warm.

9.     Bring plenty of hot cocoa mix and herbs for tea. Hot drinks are much appreciated at night. Be sure to boil the water that is most times gathered from stagnant pools in areas where cows graze.

10.   Be supportive of one another—lend an extra layer, let someone put their cold feet on your stomach to warm up, take some weight from someone’s pack if they’re struggling. Be warmth and joy for the people around you.

Charlie and Whitley- making peace with the rain
Windblown Tikko!

During the second night of our trek, an unexpected massive storm hit. The ground we had picked for camp was a little damp, but no one thought anything of it. It had been sprinkling on and off all day. After we settled down to sleep, it started pouring so hard that water fell from the roof of the tent. Eventually we were able to fall asleep.

A couple hours later, Hannah and Hyim discovered they were sleeping in a puddle. They moved to the left side of the tent, where Bryony and I were, which was on higher ground. We lay awake, not able to sleep from the adrenaline and from thoughts of others who we knew had set up their tents on even lower ground.

All of a sudden, we realized all sides of the tent were being pressed down from the outside, as if four people lay on the walls. Slowly, Hyim reached his hand out of the tent. A couple of inches of slushy snow lay piled. The walls of the tent were frozen solid. And it was still raining.

A little while later, we saw headlamps outside. Whitley’s voice appeared to inform us that the tent she shared with Zoe, Tikko, and Katy, had turned into a lake. She asked if we had room for more people and we said yes right away. Zoe and Tikko burst in, completely soaked and violently shivering. We soon realized only five people would fit squashed to one side. Zoe volunteered to run to the boys’ tent, who we had just heard were completely dry and on high ground. She ran out of the tent in bare feet.

That night we didn’t sleep much. We were all extremely warm, due to the many bodies in a very small space. But the constant close breathing on your face and the cramping of your legs, your back, and your arms, was not the most relaxing.

The next morning, it was still raining. Everyone was cold, wet, and tired. Five of us had sleeping bags that were soaked through. We gathered together and decided that we wanted to evacuate back to Palugo and dry our things, then head to Antisana by car. This decision was based on utter discomfort, which was preventing us all from seeing the bigger picture. As we began to pack up camp, the sun started to come out. Two condors flew over a nearby ridge. It seemed they were telling us something. We called a meeting again and after much discussion, decided that we would push on.


        As we hiked, the sky became more and more clear. We climbed across a beautiful ridge that looked out across the swamps, the paja, and the mountains. People hung their wet clothes and sleeping bags from their backpacks, and by the end of the day, all of our belongings had almost completely dried. It seemed the condors had been right.

Katy and Griffin- feeling the warmth of the sun.
Jule and Mathias- enjoying a little rest and laughter!

        At the foot of Antisana’s glacier, we set up our base camp. It consisted of many colorful tents. Looking down from the glacier, it reminded us of a small circus.

In awe...
Either on the moon or somewhere in Ecuador...
        We spent a couple of days partaking in “glacier school.” Using crampons, ice picks, and belay systems, we learned to climb up vertical ice walls. We got used to walking in crampons, and learned different techniques for climbing on ice. One day we did a exercise in self-arrest. We slid down the glacier (as if we had fallen in an accident) on our stomachs and backs—sometimes head first. We held our ice picks in our hands, and to stop we plunged them into the snow. We did this over and over again, and when the end of the day came around and it was time to go back down to base camp, we did not not want to leave.

Glacier bound
Glacier studies
Whitley, enjoying the ice
Ice exploration
Nica- looking stylish!
Practicing ice axe skills
Our fearless leader Nora
Working in rope teams
Glacier school

        One afternoon we got back from the glacier and the sky was completely clear. The sun began to set and Antisana started to glow. The sunset made the sky turn colors of aqua, making it look like an ocean over the mountains to the west. We were on the same level as the clouds, which were huge and puffy, so it seemed as if we could just walk up them like stairs.

Attacking Thomas with a group hug!

        After we had completed glacier school, it was time for “The Big Push.” We planned to wake up at 10:30 in the night and go as far up the glacier as we could. We needed to leave at this time so the glacier would stay cold while we were on it—when the sun starts to hit, the ice can start to shift which is potentially very dangerous. After Hyim mistakenly woke us up at 9:00 PM, he realized his horrible wrongdoing. We hiked up to the glacier together, a half moon hanging in the sky directly above us, and stars all around.

        Climbing up the glacier was very difficult. As we got higher and higher in altitude, the wind got stronger, all of our energy began to diminish, and people went a little crazy (this often times happens in extremely high altitudes, due to the lack of oxygen). Hannah and Nica started yelling every pop song they knew and called themselves a radio.

Zoe and Katy- bathed in the blue hue of the ice
Jule- climbing high
Hyim- on top rope

        When we had made it to around just over 5,000 meters, we came upon an avalanche site. Thomas and Matias concluded that the avalanche had occurred within the last day. Not wanting to risk it, we decided it was time to head back down. On our way, both Jule and Zoe dropped their water bottles. We watched the bottles slide down the ice, eventually falling into 60 meter crevices.


At one point we all stopped to watch the sunrise. The light slowly changed, making everyone shine dimly against the contrast of the stark white snow. We watched the colors of the land appear--the blues, greens, browns, yellows, grays, and blacks of the mountains, the fields, and the lakes. The sunrise reflected oranges and yellows off the land. We could see the great mountain Sincholagua clearly, our end goal for group solos in the days to come.

Tupac teaching us the ropes (and the knots!)
To Be Continued...

Looking silly with beautiful Cotopaxi in the background
Aisha! Showing off her ice climbing skills.
Evening walk
Class by the stream
Mountain inspirations

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