Peak(s):  Cayambe, Ecuador - 18,996 feet
Date Posted:  07/01/2009
Date Climbed:   06/19/2009
Author:  DHatfield
 Tres Nevados, No Cumbres Nevado Tres - Cayambe (attempt, to ~19,900‘)  

Ecuador 2009: Tres Nevados, No Cumbres
Nevado Tres - Cayambe (attempt, to ~18,900')

June 16th & 17th - Quito (9,250')

After failed attempts on both Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, I was happy to spend a couple of low-altitude, low-intensity days around Quito. I made a list: (1) passports, (2) post office, (3) artisans' market, and (4) museums.

Doug sat down with the desk clerk at Hotel Embassy and a map, and twenty minutes later we had a plan:

(1) Passport copies: the hotel could do this for us: - but there are copy shops everywhere in Ecuador.

A note on passport copies: I lock up my passport, but always carry a copy on me (well, almost always), and leave another copy on my refrigerator at home. This came in handy when I had my purse (and passport, and personal copy) swiped at a bar in London a few years ago - I called my kids, got the passport number, and the US Embassy was able to help me out. I've been asked to present my passport at ad hoc, roadside checkpoints in Mexico and Ecuador - the police can stop you anywhere, and they tend to target vehicles that carry tourists, knowing that if someone has forgotten to pack their documents, they can shake down the driver for some quick cash.

A note on the hotel: this is a good, clean, safe place to stay in the Mariscal district of Quito. At $57 a night for a double room (including continental breakfast), you're located smack in the middle of hundreds of restaurants, nightclubs, and half a dozen gear shops, within just a few blocks. Also, the restaurant at the hotel is quite good, and the service is excellent. It's safe to walk around here during the day - just stay off abandoned streets and out of areas with no people. I wouldn't walk in this neighborhood at night.

(2) Post office: When I travel out of the country, I like to send myself a postcard each day, with a summary of that day's activities. It's fun to get them when you get home. You may want to send one to your mom too, and your kids. Just be sure to put the cost into your travel budget: at $2 a stamp, it adds up quickly!

(3) Artisan's market: A great place to pick up souvenirs, the markets offer a variety of handicrafts, objects d'art, and the usual logoed T-shirts and ball caps. If you ask the price of an item (quanto es?) and then don't buy it, the merchant will drop the price until you do - follow your conscience. We visited rows of stalls located along the corner of Wilson and Washington. At the far right end of the stalls and just across the street, there's a very nice shop where I found some beautiful handmade dolls for my mom. They also have an interesting collection of erotic sculpture, if you're into that sort of thing. My favorite item from this trip is a small painting that I bought for myself. It's oil on leather, stretched across a wooden frame, and depicts an Ecuadorian family enjoying a sunny day while animals frolic along the hillside. A snow-capped volcano looms behind, dominating the landscape. Five bucks.

(4) Museums: Museo Nacional del Banco Central del Ecuador () $2 for 5 rooms of Ecuadorian archaeology and art, pre-Colombian to contemporary. This is my favorite kind of museum - well-organized chronologically, approachable, and not so big (like the Louvre) that you have to pick and choose what to look at - in just a few hours, you can see it all. The placards are all in Spanish and English. A perfect place to spend an afternoon, between climbs. If I went back I would arrange a tour, to learn more.

All these places were within walking distance of the hotel and offered us an opportunity to stretch our legs - with no postholing or avalanche danger - and enjoy a little slice of Quito.

The next morning Franklin picked us up for a drive out of town, to visit the equator, and a couple more museums. This site provides a pretty accurate overview of the Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World) monument, Ethnographic Museum, and nearby Inta-Nan Solar Museum:

Ecuador's provincial flags at Mitad del Mundo, "Middle of the World."

Looking east from top of Mitad del Mundo monument.

The Ethnographic Museum in particular provides you with some insight into the varied peoples and cultures of Ecuador's provinces. It's fascinating to see a country no bigger than Colorado, with a city like Quito, as home to so many different lifestyles: from coastline to rainforest, Andes to Amazon, Chimborazo (the closest point on earth to the sun) to Galapagos (the cradle of Darwinism), there are tribes here that still run around naked in the jungle, hunting with blowpipes and curare-tipped poison darts; others that dance with bottles on their heads; another that doesn't look Ecuadorian at all but black, and is believed to comprise the descendents of a slave boat that crashed on the shores years ago - some (the Esmereldas) stayed shoreline, others migrated inland and created a new civilization. Another tribe prides itself on its secret shrunken head recipe - while another struggles with the devastation of an environmental disaster left behind by American oil companies. Each has its own language, art, music, clothing, colors. The newest province, Santo Domingo de los Colorado, is named for the red dye that the people there use to color their hair (Colorado = color red, get it?). No kidding. Google it.

Inta-Nan Solar Museum, which claims to be the actual location of the equator.

On the equator, you can balance an egg on a nail.

Franklin used to be a tour guide, so he knew a lot about his country's history and culture and was eager to share it with us. But my favorite stories were those of the peaks, like 15,706' Rucu Pichincha, accessible from Quito via "Teleferiqo," an aerial tram. "It's a very easy volcano," Franklin explained, "but there are many accidents every year. People take the Teleferiqo up, then hike down, unprepared - no water or food, inappropriate clothing. Just recently someone carried a "boom box" from the top - he was hit by lightning." Ahhh... I told him. We have one of those. We call ours Pikes Peak.

June 18th - Quito (9,250') to Ruales-Oleas-Berge Refuge (15,092')

This time we took the Pan-American highway north. Franklin had replaced a broken window and stolen CD player in the Land Cruiser (collateral damage from an incident just prior to our arrival in Quito), and was happily bouncing in his seat to an aggressive beat - the kind of beat, I thought, that might motivate me to get through an hour of housework from time to time. Where can I get that CD? I asked.

We stopped at a small shop, and Franklin and the clerk helped me and Doug pick out some CDs from Ecuador, Peru and Puerto Rico. They played a few minutes of music from each, to make sure we liked them, marveled at the fact that this was all new to us. "You've never heard this? Everyone's heard this - it's Puerto Rican, they play it everywhere!" Nope, we replied, never heard of it. The walls of the shop were lined with thousands of North American DVDs, in South American packaging. I asked if they had "Fight Club," thinking a Spanish copy of my son's favorite movie would make a nice gift. "Fight club? Like fighting?" Franklin gestured with his fists. He asked the clerk. He didn't have it, had never even heard of it. No one in the shop had. I discovered that there are a lot of movies that are just never released down there - Franklin asked me to send him a copy of "Into the Void" from the states, as he can't get that DVD down there, either. Ordering from or other online stores is also an issue, as the couriers often pilfer through items that appear to be of value.

The CDs were all bootlegs, a buck each.

Our next stop was for lunch, where I met a whole group of American missionaries. They knew of Colorado Springs, but nothing of Pikes Peak, or Garden of the Gods. They had visited my hometown to see James Dobson, of Focus on the Family. I didn't know what to say about that. They were very nice; one of them shook my hand for a long time and said, "We've been here for months - I get so excited when I see white people!"

Further up the road, a vehicle was stalled, out of gas. A man and several women, one of them pregnant, stood alongside. Franklin allowed the man to siphon a liter from his own tank.

There's a school on this road, and many small children walking, riding in truck beds and on bumpers.

School kids.

School horse.

OK, here's my final plug: Forty percent of the population in Ecuador lives below the poverty line. About half the kids under the age of five suffer from malnutrition. If you can spare $24 a month, consider sponsoring a child down there. My own sponsorship through the Christian Children's Fund (recently renamed "ChildFund") is one of the few investments I've made in my lifetime that hasn't depreciated - in fact, you will be appreciated over and over again.

Go to: Pick a kid: Ecuador, Bolivia, India, Kenya, USA - they all need sponsors. Set up a monthly plan - it's twenty-four bucks a month, a six-pack a week, you won't miss it. You'll get letters on a regular basis, and photos, and drawings, and hand-made cards. And a view on the world that you can't find anywhere else. You can even arrange to visit them, while you're in their countries, climbing their peaks. They will get food, and clothing, and medicine, and an education. Go ahead, take a look at the kids. They're all beautiful. No pressure

The road up to the hut is rocky, rutted, and rugged - fortunately, there was a "road crew" out this day, moving rocks around. For $1, they will move the wheelbarrow and let you pass.

Road work.

At one point high on the road we crossed the equator - it's marked on the side of the road, but easy to miss - Franklin pointed it out for us.


There were two other vehicles at the hut: one belonged to a driver who was waiting for two guides that had departed for the summit from the north side at 10 PM the previous night; they were traversing over the summit and descending the south side. They were late.



What grows at 16,000 feet.

Hut plaque.

The other vehicle belonged to guide "Oso" and his four clients: three of them were from Nebraska, one was from Alabama. One is also a member of Doug and I have both spent some time in Nebraska, and on too. What a coincidence!

The guys were friendly and talkative - relaxed, not all uptight and full of testosterone like some of the guys I saw at the hut on Cotopaxi. They just wanted to have a good time, and try to get a peak doing it.

We hit the bunkbeds at 7:30 and tried to sleep. The refugio on Cayambe is very clean and comfortable, and we all had plenty of room to spread out. But the wind was howling that evening - roaring outside the window, rattling the panes. I thought about the two climbers still up on the mountain, eight hours overdue. I thought about all that snow up there, and wondered about the avalanche danger - and if we were in for another day of postholey-hell. As the evening wore on and the wind buffeted the hut with increasing force, I just thought about the wind.

June 19th - Ruales-Oleas-Berge Refuge (15,092') to Cayambe (attempt, to ~18,900')

We got up at midnight, ate breakfast. Found out that the missing climbers had shown up at 10 PM - 24 hours after their departure from the north side. There had been an accident, but they were out and on their way to Quito - no details.

The weather was bad, and we didn't want to screw around with clothing adjustments. We hit the trail with full winter gear this time: base, fleece and shell layers, face protection and goggles on to protect our eyes from the wind. The approach here was interesting: a dirt, scree and rocky trail gives way to a 3rd class rock scramble, very short exposed traverse, and after a short hike, the glacier. It was much mellower than Cotopaxi and Chimborazo, but I could feel it immediately - that tired sense in my legs, telling me that I had not taken enough time to recover. I ignored it, pushed on.

The other team kept ahead of us and we watched their headlamps bounce in the dark - stopping to rope up, drink. It gave us a good sense of where our own resting points might be.

On a glacier, there are some general rules to follow, to ensure that your team mates don't - well, want to kill you. Perhaps most important is to keep moving, and when you do stop, keep it short. An extended rest is an opportunity to get cold, and once you're cold, it's difficult to warm up again. If you're forced to take a long rest stop, and have to put on layers to stay warm, you'll end up sweating in them when you resume the hike, and I don't need to tell you what wet clothing can mean in cold weather. Of course, you can repack them - but that just takes even more time. Another way to keep your team mates happy is with proper rope management - too much tension and you're yanking people around, too much slack and you can catch the rope in their crampons, trip them up. Consequently, you are constantly looking down at your feet, then up at the rope, down at your feet, up at the rope. I have yet to complete a roped team effort without ending up with a very sore neck.

And so we climbed, up the slope - through wind and snow. Postholing was minimal - the wind had blown all the loose stuff off the peak, and cramponing was good. This was the worst weather we'd encountered yet - but the summit was still a possibility! As it got light, we watched "team Nebraska" moving to the right, up a nice gentle slope above us. We went further north, paralleling their tracks a couple hundred feet to the left, along the top of a ridge. Franklin chose the steepest route - more direct, but - what was he thinking? I was tired. But the snow was good, and our steps held. I was warm and dry against the wind, packed inside my layers. Doug was doing well, looked strong today. I went with it.

Soon enough we hit the crevasses - yawning, obvious, we easily skirted them. Then an exposed section where I yelled at Doug to stop - my goggles, blasted by the snow, were coated in a thick frosty layer and I didn't want to negotiate this piece blindly. I pulled them down, looked around - the slope just ahead and to my right dropped off into a bottomless, snowy cavern while the left side stepped sharply up. I moved carefully along the narrow footing, heel to toe, while Doug kept the rope tight enough to arrest me if needed, but not so tight as to yank me off. Franklin was in a hurry here, and once I crossed, it clicked with me: he was trying to beat the other guide to the summit. The steeper route, hurried pace, all made sense now...

I don't have a problem with competition - I think it's good, and has its place (like greed), especially when it motivates people to do their personal best. I just don't enjoy being a part of it. I actually believe this is genetic - the aversion to competition. My kids - both boys - are the same way. We don't watch or engage in competitive sports, just don't enjoy it. I enrolled Joshua in soccer when he was a kid, and went to see him play one day. As I watched the ball roll across the gym floor, I noticed my son, sitting down! Get up, get the ball! I hollered. "Why?" he responded, "someone else will get it." A few years later, my younger son had a shot at competition, at the Boy Scout's pinewood derby. A friend of mine, an engineer, had helped Garrett build a pretty cool little block of wood on wheels - and my son really enjoyed that part. The day of the competition, he won - again and again. His friends were sad, one was crying. Garrett begged me to pull his car from the races: "Why do we do this? This is sick!" I understood, pulled the car. He brought home two ribbons. I found them later, hidden in the bottom of his sock drawer. It's just not for some people.

We climbed steeply, steeply, and stopped. The summit was just ahead - why had we stopped? The other group was there, too. Behind them lay a long, deep gash in the snow - an icy wall stretched high above. The bergschrund.

Popsicles at 18-9.

"We cannot cross," said Franklin, "the snowbridge is collapsed. There is no safe passage." Oso agreed - there was no way to make the final steps to the summit.

Guess what?



We all stood there, a bunch of popsicles, gazing down into the blue abyss. Our snowbridge lay down there, under a pile of snow, a slide from the summit burying it deep in the bergschrund, just out of our reach - useless. It was a cruel turn of events.


Snow bridge.

The rest of the snow bridge – down there.

Summit above the bergshrund.

I didn't care - not at that moment. I had already failed on Cotopaxi and Chimborazo - why not make it a Trifecta? It was almost comical. All that fresh snow had done us in on the other peaks - on this one, the wind had scoured the terrain for us, made it passable, given us hope. It had also destroyed the final crux of the route.

We took pictures, drank Gatorade. Got moving.

Going down.

Sitting down.

Coming out.

Everything was opening up in the morning sunshine - we followed the gentler route out, crossed a crevasse field, stepping gently, quickly. Made it off the peak in half the time. At the hut, we stripped - our clothes and packs thoroughly soaked through. On the drive down the peak, the road crew was taking a break, had left the wheelbarrow off to the side - no toll.

The hut at the end of the rainbow.


This was a tough trip. My goal was to summit an 18er, Cayambe - the highest point on the equator; a 19er, Cotopaxi; and a 20er, Chimborazo - the closest point on earth to the sun. Knowing how unpredictable the weather and snow conditions can be on peaks like this, I had decided before the trip that I would be satisfied with just one. I had none.

I thought about the positive aspects of the trip: all the great climbs I had enjoyed with my buddy Doug, in Colorado, training for these peaks. The fact that I had successfully given up TV dinners, and gotten serious (again) about the gym. And I had climbed 10,000 vertical feet in 8 days, besting my old altitude record - 18,405' Pico de Orizaba - by more than 2,000', on the Veintimilla summit on Chimborazo.

I had been introduced to a new country, new culture, a way of life that sometimes awed me, and other times stung me with the reminder of how easy life is for people like me, yet how I still held onto that sense of entitlement - to a good home, good food, good job, and a safe place to live. I had met some people here that had shown me enormous kindness and generosity, had humbled - and perhaps even changed - me. Was it really just about the summit?

Yeah, it is. Ninety-nine percent of it, anyway. It's what makes the rest of it happen. You have to want the summit, have to want to go higher, harder, suffer more, and always, always, get the summit.

I hate competition, think I'll stick it in my sock drawer. Till the next trip.

These are the seasons of emotion and like the winds they rise and fall
This is the wonder of devotion
I see the torch we all must hold.
This is the mystery of the quotient:
Upon us all a little rain must fall... Just a little rain.

-Led Zep

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):

 Comments or Questions

Great Read
07/06/2009 20:16
Thanks for putting this together; your outlook on the trip gives me a helpful perspective on my own time down there. We just got back last night. Ecuador wouldn‘t be such a bad place to go back to eh?


Thanks Joe
07/07/2009 01:17
Not bad at all... I couldn‘t help but think about the possibility of moving down there for two years, to teach English - and climb all those glorious volcanoes! And have easy access to all the other South American peaks... maybe next year. Yeah, it‘s an amazing place, in many, many ways. I‘ll be going back for sure.

Thanks for reading - looking forward to your reports!


Great Trip, Great Story, Loved the Photos
07/21/2009 14:36
I am sooooo jealous and green with envy...Next time, take me. Sounds like you guys had a wonderful adventure, and other than not getting the cherry, you certainly helped yourself to heaping servings of great mountaineering!

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