Trip Log :

This trip log is broken into 3 sections. In and Around Quito, Ecuador starts right below and describes my time before after in in between the trek and the climb. Part 1: Oyacache describes the jungle trek. Part 2: Iliniza Norte describes the climb.

 

In and Around Quito, Ecuador

Tuesday, December 31, 2002: Flying into Quito Ecuador, our base for the trip

It's New Years Eve and I spent most of it on a plane.   But, I was lucky enough to get into Quito Ecuador right around 11:00 and I got through customs and baggage fairly quickly. 

*** I officially am a world Traveler! ***  I got my first ever stamp in my first passport. 

I hopped in a taxi and caught a 5 dollar cab ride to the Crossroads hostal where my group was staying.  All along the road, there are the signs of the yearly tradition of burning full man sized stuffed dummies that resemble local and world famous personalities in sports, politics, musicians and Disney world characters amongst others. These stuffed yet fully clothed puppets are also known as "Años Viejos" (old years) and they symbolize the end of the old year.  They are burned in the main streets in midnight bonfires as lucky omens for the coming new year.  Often apartment owners position their dummies on their balconies in windows or on the streets in the days leading up to New Year's eve.

Once I signed into the hostal and dropped my bags and packs in the room, I went back outside to take in the new year.  I headed out with a guy from across the hall in Ecuador to do some kayaking.  We headed across the street and grabbed a Pilsner, which is basically "the" beer in Ecuador.  I jumped over a few dummy fires and avoided a few stray bottle rockets and flirted with a few Ecuadorian chicas.  Then, I headed back to the room and met up with the others from my group who were in early.  A judge, an Air Force Para Rescue guy, a grad student at Bloom U and a Volunteer Fire Rescue guy from the Hampton's who's main job is owning a tree farm. What the hell have I gotten myself into?  I work for a software company!!!!!

 

Wednesday, January 01, 2003: Acclimatizing, resting and preparing for the trips ahead

It is new Years and there is not a thing open!   Except for a few bodegas to get Agua "SIN GAS" and the restaurant across the street called the Magic Been.  Apparently, it is the place to catch Americans and Europeans who are in Ecuador.  Lots of paddlers, lots of climbers, and a few free spirits who just came down to check it out!!  The beautiful thing is that you can eat pretty much anything on the menu without worrying about getting sick because everything is washed in water that has been either boiled or treated or comes right out of a bottle.  And the place is clean.  The food was great and the portions big. 

Everyone in my group raved about the Huevos Rancheros, but I was partial to a good ol' McBagel Sandwich!!  I also had some of the potatoes and they were really good too.  The fruit in the yogurt and honey was great, but lactose intolerance prevented me from purchasing it for myself rather than simply sampling humbly from someone else's bowl. 

The market is cool if you want to pick up some knick knacks.  Since I collect Chess Set's, I headed over and lo and behold found a nice little wooden carved set of Ecuadorian Indians.  The bargaining was brutal  : ) but I came away with the set for $11.

The other thing we did was visit a women's prison for foreign girls, most of whom are incarcerated for drug trafficking.  It amazed me that the standard sentence is 8 years! Lucky for some of the girls they were sentenced before the good behavior half time off was taken away.  I was surprised that they all admitted that they were there for drug trafficking!  I guess in Ecuador, there's no chance for parole so why bother with the subterfuge. 

We brought them some food and feminine products and some fruit, since they have to pay for everything themselves.  The food is supposed to be horrible too.  They get some bread in the morning, and a piece of meat and rice in the afternoon and some thing else later on.   But what they do is put Phosphorus (or something) in the food to make them feel full and get bloated.  It's the same thing they give to pigs!  And that is why many of the girls are slightly overweight!   Needless to say, I won't be drug trafficking anytime soon.    

 

Thursday, January 02, 2003: A training hike and a trip to the equator

Today we had our first taste of trekking.  First, we took a bus to the Equator (or at least the tourist one, which is a little off) and took some pictures standing on both sides. 

Then we flagged down a guy with a truck and got him to haul us up the hill to the top of the volcano so we could trek down into the valley.  On the way we got stopped by a police road block, and got a ticket for having more than the 6 person limit in the back of the truck.  We each gave a buck a piece for the ride and then gave extra to pay for the ticket ( which the man tried to refuse but ultimately relented and was very grateful). 

At the top there are a few Indians selling little articles and a man sitting on the side with a serape, the traditional hat and a book which explains the history of the volcano and other unique Ecuadorian facts.  His English was very good and he answered some of our questions and took pictures with us.  Then off into the valley.   I got great pictures in the valley of the farmers and their children.  Also, the thick clouds that gather around the rim of the valley make for great shots as well. 

On the way up was the first I really felt of the thinner air.  I couldn't believe how hard it was to climb back up. It took about 30 to 35 minutes of consistent walking and by the time I got to the top, I was discouraged at how breathless I was. But I quickly recovered and realized that at this altitude, it's really all about the pace because no matter what, you're going to feel winded. 

I have explained the reasoning for my particular choices in the gear section for this trip. 

Trip Log : Ecuador Trip Part 1

Oyacache Gorge

 

Friday, January 03, 2003: Driving to Oyacache

Today we took a bus to the Oyacache Village on the Rio Oyacache.  The Ecuadorian countryside is awesome.  The higher you go, the more astounded you become at the farmers who farm slopes of 45 degrees and higher at elevations that make even farm animals less productive.  We actually got to camp at the same time as a choir group who had come to sing at the village church.  Very interesting. 

We crossed the bridge to the site where we would be camping, which was just past the hot springs!!!  The "President" of the village came over to welcome us and offer us guide services for our 3 day trek. Apparently, the volcano had erupted a little while earlier and left about 6 to 10 inches of ash on everything.  And although it had pretty much been washed away from most of the village, they prompted that the rainforest would still have a great deal of it and that most of it would have turned to thick mud by now.   After a long discussion with our default group translator, it came to be that we were offering too little (since we didn't want nor need guides anyway) and they simply relented to offering us a trout dinner for about 2$ a piece (it might have been a dollar but I forget!)

It was damn good. 

 

Saturday, January 04, 2003: Day 1 of the trek

Today we trekked in the rainforest from 8:30 to about an hour before dusk.  The trekking was great preparation for mountain.  There were some great sites too.  Especially the herders with the 10 cows!!!

The coolest part of the day.  Taking a bath in the river in pitch black night with only the stars to see and the sound of the river crashing down in the background and no one else around. 

 

Sunday, January 05, 2003: Day 2 of the Trek

Today we trekked from 8:30 until well after dark.  I was dying. The mistake I made was wearing my hat.  Since the volcano erupted, there is ash all over everything.  And today the trails were overgrown so I kept rubbing and hitting and getting caught on every low hanging vine, fern and tree that was in my path.  So I kept my hat on to keep all that from getting on my head.  But in the process, I overheated myself and committed the cardinal sin of trekking at high altitude ...I started sweating.  

But once I decided to just take it off and deal with it, I got my mojo back.  Good thing too, because by the time we stopped, it was already dark and we still had to set up camp, pump water and cook.  All this while wearing a headlamp and trying to avoid the millions and millions of gnats, flies, mosquitoes and moths that were flying into our faces because of the lights.  The only way to escape them was to turn off the lights and work in the dark for as much time as possible. 

 

Monday, January 06, 2003: Day 3 of the trek

Thank god for thermarest Sleeping pads.  If not for it's great padding, I think the rock I ended up sleeping on would have crippled me.  But I really have nothing to complain about.  My tent mates had it worse off than I did.  Nothing really was outstanding today. Another hard day of trekking. 

Oh.   Wait.  Sarah, one of the people in my cook group, made the best apple crisp I eve had.  I couldn't believe how good it was.  My god.  It really hit the spot. 

 

Tuesday, January 07, 2003: Hike out of the gorge

We ended up camping very near the diver crossing, which pretty much marked the end of our trek.  We crossed the river, with the help of a ridiculously heavy fallen tree thrown into it.

Then we made or way down the carriage road on the other side to the bridge at Santa Maria. 

Then all 20 of us caught a ride with a guy who was delivering kayaker's to the river in a van.  Most of the packs and 2 of us on top and the rest in the van, we headed down to El Chaco where we caught another bus back to Quito.  A very long ride but interesting since we got to see not only the countryside, but also some of the ritzier areas with some very nice houses.

Back at the hostal, we took our first hot showers in three days.  Sleep.  In a comfortable bed. 

 

Wednesday, January 08, 2003: Resting up before the Iliniza Norte climb

Steak in Quito can be every bit as good as in the states.  Well, for $5.90, it's pretty close anyway.  You can taste the difference, but it's not that noticeable.  And after 3 days of trekking in the rainforest, eating granola bars, tuna and mashed potatoes, it was a welcome indulgence. 

I also did laundry and learned a valuable lesson.... If there are two laundry shops on the same street, make damn sure you know exactly which one you're going to use, and don't, under any circumstances go even remotely near the other.  Otherwise, you may end up between a shop owner feud.  I swear, I thought they were gonna throw blows.  I'm far from fluent in Spanish, but I know the words those two women were using and they weren't to be repeated!!!

To see part 2 of my Ecuador adventures... Ecuador Part 2: Iliniza Norte Climb

 

 

For another perspective on the adventure...

The Lost Trail of the Incas: From the Andes to the Amazon Basin

Written by: Roy H. Smith

The upper reaches of the Oyacache Gorge lie in the high, windswept Paramo region to the southeast of the glacier cloaked volcano of Cayembe, a 19,000' mountain that dominates the landscape of the region.

We had failed to ascend the Oyacache River gorge the previous year after mistakenly attempting to ascend the Rio Santa Maria Gorge, a fast flowing tributary of the Oyacache (The Rio Santa Maria gorge had progressively narrowed forcing us to clamber over house sized boulders and repeatedly cross a river that sported a succession of intimidating class five rapids. Dense, river- bank vegetation defied our attempts to forge an alternative route away from the river's bank. It was just as well we had turned back. We were in the wrong gorge.)

Now, in January 2003 we were back with a different strategy. To avoid the problems associated with our previous attempt we decided to descend the Oyacache gorge - a much more practical and less physically demanding strategy.

We were to start close to the Rio Oyacache's origin near the highland village of Oyacache and head south throughout the cloud forest towards the Amazon basin.

There were 19 of us - seven women and 12 men - with ages ranging from 19 to 62. The group included three Pennsylvania judges, a chiropractor, a manager from Parade Magazine; an attorney, a computer software developer, a serving member of the US Air Force Special Operations Team, a high angle rescue team leader and volunteer fire chief from Long Island, an insurance agent from Danville, a swimming pool consultant, a software sales women and students from Bloomsburg University. Two of the team were from California; Liz Harvey a former native of Berwick, where her mother still resides, and Raoul Carlson from Palo Alto This was the largest Quest group to ever engage in an undertaking of this nature.

Team names:
Bill white, Alison White, Brett Bellis, Gordon Miller, Cathy Miller, Jim Walls, Matt Tomeo, Lael Hassinger, Lila Jones, Liz Harvey, Todd Butler, Mike Marzana, Raoul Carlson, Amy Risen, Roy Smith, Sarah Fox, Jules Roy, Barry Feudale, Dave Conlan.

The route from Oyacachi to the rain forest has historic significance and is believed to have been a trade route used by pre-Inca and perhaps the Inca people themselves, between the cool highlands - dominated by the snow capped mountains of the Andes - to the hot, humid rain forests of the Amazon basin. 17th century Jesuit priests are also thought to have used the trail to service their missions on the far flung fringes of the rain forest. Descending more than five thousand feet the trail is a sinuous, sometimes elusive pathway, paved with interlocking rocks. The trail is still intact over most of the distance through the cloud forest but much of it is slowly being consumed and overgrown by trees and a phalanx of impenetrable vines.

From the outset there was no guarantee we would successfully navigate this route or, that at the journey's end we would be able to successfully get the group across the fast flowing Rio Santa River - a major tributary of the Oyacachi. If we couldn't cross the Rio Santa we would be trapped. Unable to exit we would be forced to retreat and ascend the 5000 feet back to the village of Oyacachi. It was a gamble. The very beauty and intriguing nature of this kind of adventure is that so much is unknown. There is no certainty of success, just a hope. The pace and agenda would be determined by the difficulty of the environment. Success would depend on the collective response, strength and wisdom of the group.

For a paltry seven dollars each we negotiated for a bus to take us on a journey through the Andean highlands to the village of Oyacachi. The driver didn't know how to get there and had to stop frequently along the way to ask directions. Signposts have apparently not yet taken hold in the countryside where most of the people cannot read or write. Leaving the balmy warmth of Quito we gradually ascended on deteriorating roads into the temperate highlands where subsistence farmers grow potatoes and beans, and then even higher into the cold, unpopulated and treeless paramo region where low, wind blown clouds perpetually shroud the grey mountainsides. We climbed over a 13,000' pass, and leaving the Pacific drainage behind, descended rapidly into the watershed of the Amazon Basin. The village of Oyacachi appeared unexpectedly, a thousand feet below like a re enactment of Brigadoon, the fairy tale apparition of a village that appears only once every 100 years - and then only for a day. On our approach to the village we were surprised to be joined by another bus carrying an evangelical Swedish choir, comprised mainly of young women, whose minister had been born in this valley and had married a visiting Swedish missionary a few years earlier. He was now returning with his wife and small child to present his new family and a "pumped up" choir to a very excited and receptive village.

We paid our driver the money we owed him. He then departed in high spirits for Quito. He failed to show up for work the following day and apparently made off with the money we had paid him. He hasn't been seen since.

We camped across the river from the village. The minister kindly invited us to join the community for an extraordinary evening of singing and cultural exchanges in the village hall. We had the great fortune of being welcomed into the Oyacachi community of indigenous, Quechua speaking Indians at an event that was at least comparable to a Carneagie Hall extravaganza.

It was the village head man who suggested we would need a machette to cut our way down the trail. This information was a hint that the trail through the forest is rarely visited. He insisted that we take government issued face masks to deal with a nearby and re-occuring volcanic eruption that was spewing vast quantities of fine dust across the region. An erupting volcano was a contingency we had not anticipated. We accepted the face masks with skepticism and thanks.

For the first few miles we walked through a landscape of small fields carved by machettte and axe from an encroaching forest whose upper slopes soared into the clouds. As we descended the trail became narrower and we slowly began to leave behind all signs of human intrusion. We entered a world of moss draped trees, vines and broad leaved plants some bearing exquisite flowers. Our first camp on the north side of the Oyacachi was at a point where we finally left behind much of the evidence of human intrusion and entered an undisturbed, primeval like world of inpenetrable forest, vines and an uncanny silence. A map was of no value. A GPS unit might have helped to tell us where we were but would have been little assistance in helping us find a trail that was becoming increasingly more elusive. Fallen trees, fast growing undergrowth and landslides - caused by frequent earth tremors - all contributed to obscuring or destroying the trail. It was always a pleasure after hours of cutting through the undergrowth to discover the paved trail again, undisturbed by centuries of disuse. Why would these early people build a trail that was much too narrow for wheeled traffic or a man on horseback? This was a trail that was obviously designed for foot traffic. Perhaps it was on account of the rugged terrain in much of the Andes that the wheel was never deployed, or perhaps and more convincingly it was the absence of the horse or similar draft animal. It was not until the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century that the wheel and horse came to South America.

As the terrain became more rugged the trail became even more obscure and unpredictable. We were now forced to climb over fallen trees and clamber up and descend steep section using vines and exposed tree roots. The trek was becoming an adventure. By now we were convinced that the person who had first described the route could not have done it. Our consensus was that the route description might have been written in a bar by an inebriated, though imaginative writer.

Because of the large size of our group I asked Jules Roy, who had experience in the Brazilian Rain Forest, to take charge of the front of the group along with Brett. Their job was to locate the trail and open up a passable route with machettes. David was stationed in the middle with Mike and I at the rear making sure we left no one behind. On the hour and every hour Jules, Mike and David made radio contact to share information.

By 6:00 PM on the second day we were still in the thick of the forest. Light was fading fast. The steepness of the terrain and dense vegetation precluded any place to camp. It had been raining all afternoon. We were drenched. The muddy trail was making it increasing precarious to climb some of the steeper sections. The situation was beginning to look unpleasant. We made radio contact at 7:00 pm by which time it was already dark but were delighted to hear that Jules and Brett had carved out the trail that had descended to the river and that we that we would be there in an hour. What a relief! Prepared for such an eventuality we all carried headlamps - a wise precaution - and like an army of lost fireflies we pushed our way through the rain drenched vegetation towards the boulder-strewn banks of the Oyacachi River.

The incessant and tumultuous roar of the river consumed our thoughts, invading our consciousness as we searched for a bed of sand between the large boulders where we could place our tents and rest. We had been going for 11 hours with only a break for lunch.

I was awake in the pre-dawn hours thinking about the river crossing we would have to negotiate the following morning across the Rio Santa. I was concerned. The steady rainfall would had led to rising river levels. We would have to cross this river to exit the cloud forest.

Dawn brought all the promise and hope of a new day, dispelling the fears that lingered through the night.

Today the trail became even more rugged. Around mid-day we crossed a wide swarth of the forest that had been carried away by a fairly recent landslide. The trail had vanished. Small trees and shrubs had re-colonized the bare earth. We had to reconnect with the trail without any clue as to where it might be. Faced with a dense wall of vegetation Jules and I set about to look for where the trail might connect. The task looked hopeless. Jules investigated the section above where we had emerged from the forest. I went down to the river and worked my way back towards Jules. It continued to rain and we were getting tired. I kept thinking about the rising rivers and the crossing we had to do the following day. I was becoming too preoccupied with problems that would eventually speak for themselves. For now we had to find the trail or we were trapped.

Guided by pure instinct, I tried to imagine where a pre-Inca trail builder might have proceeded. I shouted to Jules and asked him to look at what might be the trail. It was just a hunch. Jules came over and we both moved from the clearing and pushed our way onto the forest though a phalanx of vines and branches. Enveloped by the darkness of the forest, drizzling rain, and so much vegetation, created an odd sensation of isolation. No sunlight penetrated to the forest floor. Every plant in its fight for survival had to reach for light at the forest canopy, far above. This unyielding wall of vegetation can be an intimidating obstacle. Constantly probing and searching for a trail that was built more than four centuries earlier became a frustrating and daunting task.

We were in luck! We had found the trail. The journey continued through terrain that was becoming even more challenging. On one section I was near the front with Jules and heard a crash. I looked behind and Bill, who had been there just moments before was gone. I was momentarily stunned. We couldn’t afford to lose a judge in the equatorial cloud forest. How would I explain this calamity back in the States? A muffled voice came out of the undergrowth ten feet below the trail. All I could see were the vibram soles of a pair of boots. Lucky again! Jules and I scrambled down to discover Bill with his back against two small trees that were slowly giving way under his 220 pounds and a 40 pound pack. We had to work fast. Bill was poised to take another more serious plunge. Jules, following his para-medic training, told Bill not to move in spite of Bill’s protestations that he was fine. As Jules checked Bills vital signs I strained to hang on to Bill in case the trees gave way. Detecting no breaks or dislocations we worked to get Bill upright and back onto the trail. It had happened so fast and I figured it could happen again and to anyone. One moment he had been there and then gone. We had to be careful.

You can tell a person over and over again to be careful but your best ally in this endeavor is always the person’s own sense of self- preservation. No one wants to get hurt. But, the combination of fatigue, running on emotional empty, and an unfamiliar and difficult terrain, creates a ripe environment for trouble.

The last light of day was fading fast - as it does in the tropics - and I was concerned that someone might get hurt if we continued to push on in the darkness. We had to reach the banks of the Rio Santa Maria for open ground where we could camp. I asked Jules to slow down the pace so we could compress the group along a two hundred yard section. This way it would be easier for us to communicate and keep an eye on everyone. In spite of the darkness, the heavy packs, constant rain and general fatigue after another eleven hour day, there were no complaints; just silence and the occasional distant sound of the machete hacking through a tree limb. And then, when it didn't seem possible, we made radio contact with Jules to discover he and Brett had finally exited the forest and had reached the banks of the Rio Santa Maria. It was dark when the last of the group finally emerged from the forest. We had made it! We searched around in the darkness to find a space for our tents, cooked a quick meal, crawled into our sleeping bags and passed out. What a day. All we had to do now was get the group across the rain swollen Rio Santa Maria. That could thankfully wait until dawn.

I awoke early. The sun still lingered below the horizon of the rain forest to the east. We had barely been able to cross this river the previous year when we had mistakedly tried to forge a route up the Rio Santa Maria Gorge. Now the river was higher. While the group ate breakfast and packed, oblivious to the last remaining obstacle, Jules and I searched the river for a place where we might cross. We had to find a place where, in the event of someone being washed downstream, we wouldn’t lose them in a class five rapid. There were few prospects. All the possible crossing places had serious white water rapids immediately downstream. We would have to be innovative. The water was almost waist high and fast. We might have tried the New Zealand technique of lining up the group in teams of six to eight, parallel to the riverbank, and slowly crossing. This technique relies on the upstream member of the team breaking the force of the water while being supported by the rest of the team who lock arms and hold onto the pole. Only three of on the team had used this technique before and this was no place to practice. There had to be another way. Along the banks of the river were large tree trunks, bruised and stripped of their bark by the violence of earlier floods. Jules Thought that maybe we could use one of the logs to create a safe causeway across the river. I was skeptical. The logs looked too large to handle, but it was our only option. We had to give it a try.

We waited for the group to join us and then collectively lifted a three-foot diameter log and ran it up-stream into the fast current where it was swung around and pushed downstream. The plan worked. The tree trunk lodged itself against two mid-stream boulders. All we had to deal with now was ford a narrow, waist deep channel of the river that raced between the home bank and the safety of the jammed log. To ensure the log didn’t get washed downstream, Mike waded out and straddled the log to provide additional weight. Forming a human chain, and one at a time, we were able to support each person as they fought their way across the narrow channel to where Mike waited for them on the log. The rest of the passage across the river, though not easy, was safe.
Roy H. Smith
February 2003


"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."    — Robert A. Heinlein

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