Baños and Cotopaxi Climb, Ecuador

August 12, 2008 - Baños, Ecuador

We left Canoa after a flying visit and jumped on a bus headed for the town of Baños. We had heard it was a good place to chill out for a few days and also a good base for doing activities (for cheap) and going on climbs or tours into the jungle.

Baños is a picturesque town set in the andes with beautiful green tropical valleys surrounding it and an active volcano called Tungurahua overlooking it (that errupted recently in august 2006 and still currently shows some activity). The town itself if you know spanish is named the same as toilet or bathroom (not the best name for a town i thought toilet!!) - but it is so called that after the thermal baths in the town (an example of multiple word meaning in spanish).

We stayed in a hostel called Plantas y Blancas which was fairly relaxed and over the few days we stayed there we did Quad biking up the volcano to the lava fields (which our mechanic/guide told us was quite dangerous place to be) I managed to break the front axle of my 1st quad on the way up. And then the starter went on my 2nd Quad on the way down so they weren't the best quality quads i don't think.

We also did some white water rafting on a nearby river which was really good as the river waters where very high and wild - and at one point the boat flipped up and landed back down again as we went over a drop - throwing everyone into the air or water - luckily i held into the boat by my foot under the rope as my thorso got dunked into the river and shane also landed back into the boat after being thrown into the air. Niall, Ger and our guide wen flying out - shane managed to get Niall back into the boat - but i couldn't see any sign of Ger as he went under water (and we where only at the start of a difficult section. So myself Niall and Shane had to steer the boat through some rapids and then to the side to pick up the guide who had managed to get to shore. Ger wasn't so lucky and the safety kayak had to chase after him and the go down straight through massive churning waves in the middle of the rapids for a few hundred metres - when we picked him up he was understandably shuck up a bit. We made it on down the river in one piece - was good craic and the spill made it for me i reckon!

Other than that i wanted to do a climb of a mountain especially as i had decided i wasn't going to get to the galapagos islands (because of time and money) But the lads didn't want to do the climb so I headed off to cotopaxi with a tour operator that organised groups to do climbs. Cotopaxi is the 2nd highest mountain in Ecuador at a height of 5,897 metres above sea level - i had thought of climbing Chimborazo the highest mountain (and also which is interestingly the furthest point from the centre of the earth as it is on the equator given the shape of the planet - i.e. being wider at the equator) But i decided against as i hadn't been at altitude for long after coming down from cusco i had only been along the coast and also it was the first time i had ever undertaken a climb of this sort, so instead i decided to climb Cotopaxi instead which is considered one of the worlds highest active volcanos.

I chose the two day option for climbing the mountain (with the tour company) as it was better for my budget but it meant i wouldn't have as long to aclimatise at altitude (although banos lies at around 1800mts high). We arrived to the mountain and proceeded to climb up to the refugio at 4,800 metres then from here after a bite to eat we got training in the use of Ice pick and Crampons on the Ice a bit above the refugio. In my group was a french journalist called Julien and a Israeli Student called Nir and also two german girls who had come just to see the mountain but not climb it.

The night before the climb we where warned that if conditions didn't improve enough we would not be going and that there where currently 3 people missing on the mountain (next day it was discovered they had desended the other side of the mountain and just hadn't checked in with the refugio) but this info scared me a little to say the least and it was a bit of a reminder of doing a climb of a high mountain where conditions could change fairly quickly.

We had dinner at 6 and went to bed early to get up at midnight and get breakfast and start the climb (in heading to do the climb i hadn't gotten much sleep the night before as the lads had landed in from a night out in the middle of the night and i couldn't get back to sleep - plus i had foolishly went for a few drinks the night before that - and to top it off i didn't sleep a wink in the refugio that night and in the back of my mind i wasn't sure if i had been aclimatised to the altitude for long enough - So all in all that morning i wasn't feeling the best prepared climber ever!!) We got prepared piled on the layers of clothes and our equipment and headed up - myself our guide Rafael and Julien in one group with three metres of rope tied between each of us in one group and the other Guide Carlos and Nir in the other group (this was because Nir had struggled a bit with breathing and the altitude the day before in the training even though he had taken the three days option for the climb - and because of this the guides guessed he might not make it to the top and they where proved right!)

The climb was a solid 6 hours uphill hike through snow and ice and over crevaces trailing three metres behind the climber in front by rope - the guide who led had put me at the back (which i think was a complement as i had performed best in the training with the ice pick and crampons - it also meant that i would lead on the way back down!). 

The climb itself was probably the hardest thing i've ever done in my life physically and I must have hit a wall 20 times or more but continue on out of determination or to not hold back others or whatever reason i could muster up in my head at the time. On the way up there was a number of steep sections in which the snow was very soft from the blizzards the day before and it just sapped your energy completely as it was like you moved a step up for every three or four taken as the snow slid away and you tried to use the axe to hang on. Plus the further we went up everything froze outer layers (jackets and trousers frozen solid) my bag, snacks, bottle of water and energy drink like slush puppies, my head torch froze so much i couldn't press the off button when the sun came up. Also the further you went up the more steep it got near the summit and the more draining it got as the air thinned. As we neared the top it felt like there was little or no air to breath in and my heart  rate which i had been able to control lower down was beating at frenetic pace.

When we finally reached the top I was absolutely shattered - felt like i had no energy left but i was delighted and chuffed to have made it to the summit. The visibility was poor as the there was a cloud/mist surrounding us and we could only see the edge of the crater and not down into it (so it wasn't good for photos - but i was just glad that my camera wasn't frozen solid and was able to take a few pics (while i took my 3rd photo at the top right in front of my eyes ice started to form from top to bottom quickly on the view screen it was like the scene from the film 'The day after tomorrow' where everything freezes in the eye of the storm - I definitely had never seen freezing of the speed before!)

On the way down I lead our group and i was absolutely shattered but I was running on auto pilot just throwing one foot in front of the other but using the slide of the snow underfoot as part of my movement and we headed down at decent pace - but for some reason the french fella julien who had been good on the climb struggled with descending and kept falling over in the snow (well maybe it was because he was shattered) but it was quite annoying as if he fell I would get a tug on the rope or myself and the guide would have to support his weight if he didn't get his ice pick dug in. But even so we made good time coming down.

On the descent though the visibility got really bad and it was hard to spot the tracks we had come up in the snow as blizzards where covering them up and at one stage I jumped over a small crevace in the snow which i had thought we had crossed on the way up only to be informed quite vehmently by the guide that it was the wrong way. When we ventured further down we could see that I had jumped onto a large over hang of ice which if it had of broken as the guide put it "muerte" (death in spanish!). Further on down the blizzard got worse and as the sun was coming up the snow and ice was softening making conditions worse (incidentally the reason these climbs start at night is because the ice is more compact and less treacherous) with snow falling away underfoot and hidden holes in the ice/snow to contend with. So it was a big reminder it was dangerous and to respect the mountain. Towards the bottom my energy was non existent also and you have to try and keep your concentration up as you are more likely to make mistakes. We finally made it back to the refugio in one piece (i was glad to have had a good guide who figured out the way down without benefit of the covered tracks and kept me in the right direction as I led) I was absolutely shattered but it felt good to have proved it to myself I was able to do it.

Later that day I arrived back in Baños and at last i got some proper well earned sleep. The next day i did a bungee jump with the lads off a bridge outside the town (no rest for the wicked). It was pretty cheap to do so i hoped they weren't skimping on safety but they knew what they where doing. As it was my first bungee jump ever - jumping off the bridge wasn't easy (i had thought it would be easier for some reason) it was kind of like taking a leap of faith (the count down definitely helped to make the jump) but it was all over very quickly and the just a bit of swinging around under the bridge til you where lowered down to dry land. The best thing about it i think was feeling the fear and then jumping anyway along with the drop before you feel the rope has got you. (but i definitely want to try the one in new zealand with a more springy elastic rope that dips you into the river below - the one we did was more like a rope swing under a bridge but it was cheap and cheerful at 15 dollars). The other lads all did it as well - Ger went first (as he had called first) he took it in his stride and didn't seem to have any fear - shane went 2nd and as he has a fear of heights it was more difficult for him to jump off and when he did he didn't think to much about his shape of his jump and got jolted around abit on the rope which looked fairly sore. Niall who was up next also has a bigger fear of heights and seeing shane getting jolted around spooked him a bit. He got up on the platform but chickened out so I went instead then as i came back up to the bridge Niall decided to try again - and this time without looking down and the help of a count down he managed to make the jump and conquer his fear (and avoiding the enevitable slagging he would have gotten from the rest of us ha)

The last day in Baños we went to a mirador to see the volcano behind baños but it was covered by a cloud as it had been the whole time we where there.

After Baños we headed north to the city of Quito for our last few days in South America.

(PS. the olympics where starting around this time where the greatest swimmer ever Michael Phelps set new records - but i was just glad with my personal best physical achievement of that climb) 


2 Comments

Brian:
September 4, 2008
Well done Brian, mountaineering and white water rafting, you are getting it all, good stuff,and congrats on your personal best.Above all be careful!
dont over do things, but enjoy.
Dad.
Bleddy:
September 8, 2008
some good pics there Brian but your louth accent at the start of that glacier video really ruined it for me
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