| 1 of 4, GUAGUA PICHINCHA
Traveling to Quito – Ecuador's 9,200-foot capital city – was rife with setbacks. The series of problems began on the day we were supposed to leave, when we got a call from American Airlines at 1:30 a.m. to tell us our 6:30 a.m. flight was delayed about an hour. It took me more than an hour to fall back asleep.
After enduring the long flight to the Miami International Airport, or what I like to call The Biggest P.O.S. Airport in the Nation, I ended up helping an old, 4-foot-tall Peruvian woman with her connection to Lima by pointing out which way she should go on a map. She spoke less English than I speak Spanish so this was no easy task. Plus, her connection was on Concourse E, so I pronounced it correctly as "A," but that may have complicated things.
After we said our hasta luegos, Jen and I went in search of some decent beer in the airport because we had a couple hours to kill. Twenty minutes later, while still wandering around that craft beer wasteland, we bumped into the old, 4-foot-tall Peruvian woman. It was obvious she was lost, so I grabbed her bag and we quickly walked her to her gate. I heard her utter at least a couple dios mios as she tried to keep up. But it was a good thing we walked fast because she barely made her flight.
I thought those good karma points would help us with our next flight, but I guess American Airlines doesn't believe in karma. Shortly after boarding the full flight, the captain said we'd be delayed because they were waiting for some late connections.
And the problems didn't stop there. After we taxied out to the runway, we sat there for almost an hour while waiting for some thunderstorms to pass.
The weather finally cleared up, but because we burned so much fuel sitting there, we had to taxi back to the gate to refuel. Fuel is important, we thought, so we were OK with that. But it took the fuel truck almost an hour to arrive, and by that time our flight crew had exceeded their eight-hour limit, so everyone had to deplane and wait for a fresh crew.
Long story short, our flight was delayed almost six hours.
Fortunately, our driver was waiting for us at the Quito airport when we arrived. Unfortunately, he dropped us off at the wrong hotel at 2:30 a.m., and he drove away before we had a chance to realize it. One taxi ride later and were finally in bed at 4 a.m. – at the correct hotel.
After a full day of traveling and a very short night of sleep, Cosme, our Sherpa-height Ecuadorian guide with oxygen-rich Incan blood running through his veins, whipped us through the smog-infested streets of Quito. "We have to drive fast through this area," he told us. "A couple weeks ago a friend of mine had his window smashed in and his rucksack taken from his passenger seat on this street – while he was stopped at a red light."
Here's a typical street scene on the outskirts of Quito:
And some other images from the drive to the Pichinchas:
Even though you can drive all the way to Guagua Pichincha's hut, or refuge ("refugio" in Spanish), we started our climb much lower on the road. After all, this was an acclimation hike, so we wanted to give ourselves as much time on the mountain as possible.
In this pan, you can see where we parked on the left; Quito is in the background:
The gently graded road/trail made the hiking easy.
Approaching the refugio:
Once we gained the ridge, Jen and I were both surprised by how exposed some sections were, and we were also surprised to encounter some Class 3 scrambling (though none of the more challenging climbing sections were very exposed).
Just beyond a false summit (where most people turn around, as we were told) is the crux of the climb, which is a steep chimney of rock, roughly 20 feet high. For us, it wasn't much of a problem, and it was actually a lot of fun.
As damp clouds enveloped the mountain, we all gained the summit without too much trouble. The views from the top were much better than I imagined, and I couldn't believe how steeply the summit dropped down to the crater, which was thousands of feet below us.
We spent about 10 minutes on Guagua Pichincha's summit, absorbing the views and gulping in the thin air. We were about 1,200 feet higher than the highest mountain in the Lower 48.
Cosme kept telling us how strong we were and that we were very conditioned. I suspected the 10 fourteeners we climbed in Colorado over the past couple months had something to do with it. But our acclimatization regimen was nothing compared to Cosme's. Just a few weeks prior, he climbed Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest mountain and the farthest point on the Earth's surface from the center of the Earth (due to the Earth's bulge at the equator), and then spent a few nights on the summit with a friend who was acclimatizing for an Annapurna attempt.
As we down climbed off Guagua's summit, Cosme kept asking us if we wanted to be belayed with his rope, but neither of us needed the assistance. I don't think he's used to guiding people that are used to scrambling unroped on Class 3 and 4 rock.
Here's another look down into the abyss from the ridge:
A little fun fact: This volcano's last eruption was in 1999.
Our shortcut descent down a sandy scree field went fast. So fast that I had to consciously force myself to stop at times to check out the amazing views.
Shortly after making the long and bumpy ride back to Quito, we were sipping light lagers and preparing for our next adventure: Iliniza Norte.
By the way, I apologize for not getting a photo of the guinea pigs roasting on the side of the road in one town. They kind of caught me off guard.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):