14 Feb

Pichincha Death Trap

I could make this story as long and drawn out as our hike up to Guagua Pichincha, but I’ll try to keep it short. Last week, Eileen and I met this woman named Judy, who started up a foundation called Kallari. She has been in Ecuador for 8 years. Kallari sells arts and crafts to American shops, nature centers, zoos, etc. directly from indigenous communities in the Amazon. They also have a café in Quito, where they sell crafts and food. Anyhow, there will probably be more to tell about Judy and Kallari at a later time; after telling us about her experiences in starting up Kallari and in dealing with US AID and other such internationally-minded organizations, Judy invited us to hike up Guagua (pronounced wa-wa) Pichincha. The plan: we’d leave town around 8:30 on Saturday morning. We’d catch a bus and then hitch a ride on a pick-up truck to a town called Lloa (yoa), and then we’d begin a 4-5 hour hike up to the “refugio,” a concrete building close to the summit of Pichincha manned by a park ranger. There, they have beds, a bathroom, a stove, and a fireplace. We’d spend the night, and then hike back down on Sunday. We’d be home by 12:00 or 1:00 on Sunday.

For me, the trip was appealing for a few reasons. One, it would be nice to get in a good hike. Two, Judy knows what she’s doing more so than any of us WorldTeachers, and it would be a good opportunity to tag along with someone more knowledgeable. Three, Judy and I had talked about attempting to write an article about her experiences and trying to get it published in a US magazine, and the hike would give us an opportunity to talk some more about it.

I departed on Sat. morning, having somewhat stressfully come to the conclusion with Eileen that she probably shouldn’t do a five-hour uphill hike. We had some minor snafus with the busses, but we got to Lloa just fine, and started the hike around noon. It was a pretty gray day, kinda foggy, and therefore lacking the view we might otherwise have. The first couple of hours were pretty uneventful. The landscape was still very pretty; it reminded me of Ireland – hilly, foggy, wet, and full of plush grass and livestock. I think around two or so, it started raining again. I got out my umbrella and draped my raincoat over my backpack. We continued on. There was a British woman named Maria hiking with us; she was not in great hiking shape, but her sense of humor and her attitude were impressive. Judy ended up carrying Maria’s backpack for most of the hike (in addition to her own), and she also slowed down and walked with Maria. The rest of us – Andy, another WorldTeacher; Jan, a middle-aged doctor from the states; Gabi, and mid-twenties Ecuadorian who directs a volunteer organization; and I – walked ahead. At about 5:00 and then again at 5:30, we started wondering where the refugio was. We had one false alarm; there was a small building that from a distance we kept hoping would be the refugio. And then shortly after being disappointed by our discovery that we hadn’t yet reached the refugio, we saw it up the hill a ways. We had been walking for 6 hours uphill; Andy, Gabi, and I arrived around 6:00. And here’s where things get bad. There was no park ranger in the building, and the kitchen and bathroom were locked. There was a little bit of standing water near the fireplace.

I dropped off my bag and went back down the trail to check on Maria, whose heart rate 2 hours into the hike had been 160 (our gym workout equipment starts to beep at you if you get above 160). I got to Judy and Maria, told Judy about the absent ranger, and walked with Maria as Judy sped ahead. I was hoping she’d be angry enough to break the locks by the time we got there.

Maria and I arrived at about 6:45, just as it was getting dark. Judy and I found a wood palette which we broke up for firewood. Andy worked on getting a fire started, but since the fireplace was wet, he had to restart it several times. It was frustrating. We lit candles and dispersed them throughout the refugio. The fireplace proved to have more problems than water; most of the smoke was coming straight out into the room.

We ate some tuna sandwiches for dinner and then filled a pot (Judy had brought one) with water and got it boiling on the fire. It was a precarious set up. We had to occasionally rotate the wooden platform upon which the pot was resting since it started burning multiple times. We ate some ramen noodles and squeezed in close to the fire. The rain had made most things slightly damp. Luckily, everything in my backpack was dry, but other people had to sleep in damp sleeping bags even.

The worst part of the night was the increasing quantity of smoke entering the room. I went to bed around 9:30, but I woke up several times feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Maria threw up about four times, blaming the smoke. I probably got a total of three or four hours of sleep. I woke up at 6:30 and got out of bed, thankful that the night was over. The ranger showed up at 7:30.

We hiked up close to the summit and looked down into the volcanic crater of Guagua Pichincha. Most of the photos I got were from the 30 minutes or so I was up there. It was a pretty impressive view. Guagua Pichincha is at about 15,000 feet, higher than any of the Colorado peaks, I think.

We left the refugio at about 10 or 10:30. The hike down was quick. In the first half hour, we covered what had taken us an hour and 20 minutes the previous day. We stopped briefly, snacked on some peanuts and raisins, and then saw a pick-up truck coming down the road.we caught a ride with it to Lloa. We probably shaved off at least an hour and a half in hiking time. I got home around 1:30.

(see pictures in the coppermine on pages 3 and 4 of “Excursions”)
(and here’s a webpage about
Guagua Pichincha)

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