El Altar is part 3 of 4, in Ecuador the Hard Way
Technical Climb Info:
- Mountain: El Altar, El Obispo Summit (main summit)
- Elevation: 5,319 m
- Route: The Modern Italian Route
- Length: 800m
- Grade: D+/TD (difficile/difficult – très difficile/very difficult), AI4, M4
Can I ride your horse?
I knew that the trek in would be interesting when we stopped by a hardware store in Quito to buy rubber boots. We also made a quick stop at the grocery store to pick up 30 liters of water as the Campo Italiano has only a trickle of running water. It was hard for me to believe when I first heard it, but because the camp sits on a ridge, very little of the glacier melt is directed its way. Yet another reason wonder why this climb is unpopular, I guess.
Nacho arrived to my hotel at 4:30am. We had to make an early start because the drive would take around 5 hours and we were planning to meet our horse guy, Angelo, at 9:30am. Apparently Angelo is a very punctual man, as opposed to the other horse guy who sometimes shows up hours late and possibly drunk. We didn’t want to be late. I was a pretty bad driving companion and fell asleep for the solid first 2 hours of the drive. I intended to sleep a lot earlier than I did the previous night, but I got caught up trying to change my flight to an earlier date so I could spend a day at home before going off to Vancouver to spend Christmas. For the 3 hours that I was awake during the drive things were pretty uneventful, minus getting slightly lost in Riobamba. We did take the opportunity there to buy 20 loafs of bread and a few breakfast empanadas. In hindsight, the 20 loafs was an overkill, but we were both hungry at the time so it seemed to make sense. The meal plan was to have ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch and couscous with freeze dried chicken and peas that I brought from the USA for dinner.
A lot of Andean “expeditions” (anything not hut supported) are supported by a cook, but I feel like that detracts from the alpine experience. On the other hand, I have no problem using animal support for load carrying – because screw load carrying. I even inquired if we could ride a couple of the horses up to our camp. The answer was no. Apparently if one is not a seasoned horse rider, a long ride like this is pretty rough. The city-slicker in me was showing.
The most beautiful worst trek ever
The trek itself was pretty interesting with the Ecuadorian highlands bordering the rainforest, although I wouldn’t have called it enjoyable. There is a lot of humidity in the region making the ground one large marsh. Even if we had wanted to have split the 17km/1000m trek into two days by camping in the middle there would be no viable campsites with how swampy everything gets. I felt happy with the choice of renting the horses rather than carrying gear. It was hard enough walking through the mud without any gear on our backs. The ground was sticky enough that it gave me the impression that it “wanted” to suck me in whole. It was pretty much the worst.
After 5 hours of trekking, we finally made it to the ridge that we would be camping on. Not a bad time actually. The horses still beat us though because when we arrived Angelo was already unloading our gear. As a (self-proclaimed) alpinist I hate to be beat by the horse guy, but I’m not going to lie, it was nice! As no climb can ever be too easy, we were with with a bit of tent drama. One of the poles seemed to be in pretty bad condition, and it ended up snapped at the joint when we tried to pitch it. We purchased a last minute roll of duct tape at the hardware store and wrapped the cracked joint. The pole just cracked in another spot. Eff. Nacho had went through the trouble of renting a higher end tent from a very well-known and reputable North American climbing company. Apparently tents are so infrequently used here that their poles expired! We managed to jerry the pole together with a few spare parts of our cook tent. We set the poles on the loosest setting and crossed our fingers for no wind.
La Pharmacia de Chris
Although I stayed active until then, at this point I was starting to feel physically quite bad. I had picked up a cough on Illiniza and it was beginning to get worse. I couldn’t tell if it stemmed from inhaling too much scree while descending Illiniza Norte, or if I picked up a sickness in the tiny hut filled with 18 people, or maybe a little bit of both. All I knew was that I was not feeling good. I quickly got some food and water into me, and began preparing dinner with Nacho. Dinner was a much welcomed activity, made easier by not having to melt snow for water. I started to feel better, maybe it was just the lack of food and sleep from the night before. Never the less, La Paramecia de Chris was open for business and I popped a Ciprofloxacin, a bunch of vitamins, a couple Bennies, and half a Diamox. I dozed off by 7:30pm.
A lot of people have poked fun at La Paramecia de Chris (my stuffsack of pills) but if that’s what gives me the best chance at summiting the peak and getting home safely, I’ll take that deal. I’ve learned that so much of mountain climbing is knowing how and when to take care of yourself, versus when to push yourself to the very limit.
I woke up at 6am the following morning feeling 98% better. I never really feel 100% at high altitude so this I could deal with! While we were taking our 11 hour beautify rest, it snowed on us overnight. I woke up pretty cold with condensation all over my sleeping bag with lots of the down having soaked through. That’s the price you pay for going ultralight, aside from the literal dollar amount.
Nacho and I crawled out of tent and shook off the night’s snow. He quickly jumped into the cook tent and I could hear the Jetboil fire up. I knew what was on his mind after sleeping for almost 12 hours: coffee. Nacho is a bit of mountain coffee coinsure, I guess he is living up to the true Ecuadorian persona. He had the horses bring up his French press along with a bag of local specialty beans. I personally don’t drink coffee while climbing except for the summit morning. We brought granola and powdered milk for breakfast, but the bread was still 70% and we had a lot of it so we made sandwiches instead. We spent the morning discussing keeping the mountains clean in Andes, which has become a real problem.
When noon rolled around, we figured it would be a good idea to cross over the ridge between the Campo Italiano and the glacier to actually get eyes on the route. We made the 40 minute walk over with a bit of scattered easy solo-able rock climbing. Campo Italiano is placed on the ridge between the Sangay Park, which is essentially the ridge separating the rainforest and the highlands. Lots of humidity and clouds come off of the forest forming clouds that then blow over the camp, so this was the first time we could really get a clear picture of the route and its condition.
The original Italian Route is no longer a viable option, as its couiloirs have melted out creating shooting ranges waiting to take out the bold climber who attempts it. We would be taking a variation of the route which crosseed what appeared to be much more treacherous glacial terrain. A number of obvious bergshrunds looked menacing form where we were standing, but we were too far to gauge the crossing possibilities. A lot of people I spoke to said that the climb is not too hard, and that it’s just not popular due to the access. Well, none of those people had actually climbed the mountain, so I think they had bad information. From the bottom, the D+/TD grade looked well deserved.
We could see the bootpack of the previous party that had been here the week before. We could see where they turned around as well – just a few meters ahead of where we were standing. We sat in front of the mountain for a good 30 minutes going over our strategy for the following day. The route is actually pretty clear when looking at the mountain, there don’t seem to be many options within reason to get to the top when looking at it. We took a few photos, drank some water, and made our way back to camp for lunch.
Indie Rap and Country
Any climb above a flat grade D imposes some anxiety in me the day before actually getting at it, so I offered to make lunch to keep my mind busy. I fired up the jetboil to get our mashed potato and cheese game on. We accompanied that with a bit of Maggie chicken noodle soup and ham on crackers. I popped another antibiotic and more vitamins with lunch just to be safe with my cough. Earlier in the day, we came across a memorial plaque on a rock a few minutes above our camp for a young Ecuadorian man who died there from HAPE; I did not want to repeat history. I double checked my emergency Dexamethasone in my pack for the following day.
I crawled into our tent to begin packing for the following day. I busted out my single offline Spotify playlist which is a mix of Indie Rap and Country music. I couldn’t tell if Nacho enjoyed it or if he was just being polite. We shared a really good Ecuadorian chocolate bar by the brand of Pacari, I made a mental note to myself to buy a few of those before leaving the country. While packing our camp was graced with sporadic rain showers which felt a little ominous for the following day. We hoped that our good luck with the weather so far didn’t run out as we crawled into our bags for an attempt at napping.
A little left, a little right
The morning began at 12am. We unzipped our sleeping bags and immediately began changing into our mountain clothing. I actually managed to get a good amount of sleep and my cough seemed to be 100% gone. That was a really good start. The weather also was perfect – cold and clear, without even a breeze of wind. The stars overhead illuminated the mountain. No matter how well one sleeps, wherever they sleep, getting up at 12am is not ideal, so we ended up leaving 30 minutes past schedule. On the flip side, we did make great time repeating our recon hike from the day before and moving all the way to the base of the face. I brought an extra liter of water and an extra layer and neither of them seemed to weigh me down. All good!
We simulclimbed the first number of would-be-pitches of steep snow which was also in perfect condition. Our first obstacle came as expected from our recon yesterday- the lower bergshrund. We could easily pass it on its left hand side. A little ice climbing with my right hand and foot, and a little rock climbing with my left hand and foot. Although it was not too intense we decided to begin pitching things out. From there on out, the climbing became true to its quoted D+/TD grade with plenty of mixed pitches over loose terrain.
As the night started to turn into day, the mountain seemed to change its disposition towards us and began to snow quite heavily. With the mountain being so close to the rainforest, the snow is not very powdery and it melted as soon as it hit our clothing. As the climbing got harder and the weather got worse, things felt more and more real. On one particular tricky section, I had a large rock and a sheet of ice sheer out from under me. I took a little bit of a swinger. I thanked my guardian angel for my ankles being unharmed. I ended up in a weird spot where my only way up was executing a sequence of mixed tool jams up a crack which made for some sportier climbing than I expected. (The GoPro video would have been sweet.)
After my little swinger, the climbing mellowed out a bit with mostly steep snow and easier mixed terrain. We managed to get up the rest of the route pretty fast. What felt like in no time, Nacho was gearing up to lead the final crux pitch: a loose vertical 30m rock face to the summit with very weak available protection.
“We will see.”
Looking at the rock pitch above us, we knew that it would need to be climbed with crampons and probably gloves. In rock shoes it would have been fast, but with the crampons and gloves it would be pretty real. A lead fall would result in certain significant injury with all the ledges below, and at 5400m on one of Ecuador’s most challenging and remote peaks rescue would not come soon.
“Nacho, I wouldn’t be heartbroken if we turned back here.”
Nacho quietly looked at it for a bit, reached for a Strawberry Banana Gu, and took off his backpack.
“We will see”, he said.
Both of us were pretty exhausted by this point, we had been climbing this sustained route for the past 8 hours. We had only taken two breaks. The first on a tiny snow patch sitting on top of a large serac hanging above the lower route. The second on a lip of a crevasse. I also downed a Gu. Caramel Machiatto is my Gu of choice when I know I am about to do something serious.
Nacho began up the very awkward and exposed first few meters of the face. I didn’t want to psyche him out, but what was going through my head was “You don’t have to do this amigo!”. Rather than saying that, I tried to give as much encouragement and foot placement help as possible. On the other hand, the weather wasn’t helping at all. Nacho spent a good 15 minutes trying to negotiate the first few meters. Nacho’s huge sigh of relief was audible even with the heavy winds when he got his second piece of protection in the rock. I grabbed my camera to snap what would be a pretty awesome photo, but something during this climb killed the lens motor. (I usually carry a Leica Q that is a quite a bit heaver and much more robust than the D-LUX 109 that I was carrying.) No photos I guess. Sad face.
After the security of the 2nd piece of placed protection, Nacho quickly cruised through the last 15 meters with only minor swearing about the cold. I was up next. Because I was on top rope the pitch was way less dramatic for me. I did end up pulling out a number of holds so I was pretty glad that I wasn’t leading it. It takes special sort of climbing experience climbing rock in these areas to identify which rock can hold more than 50lbs. I guess the route is a little harder today after I pulled out half the holds.
By the time I pulled my way up onto the ridge my Caramel Macchiato Gu was totally expended. I was not feeling amazing and I should have probably taken a 5 minute break. My first few steps on the summit ridge were not as deliberate as they should have been. I paused, took a bunch of deep breaths to center my mind for the last little bit, and we walked over to the summit. After sitting there for a few seconds and drinking a bit of water, my breath started to come back, but the thought of descending the route began to weigh on me.
The one thing that I hate when unnecessary is the weight of a GoPro on my helmet. I snapped it off, but I guess I wasn’t feeling to well because it zipped through the air and slid all the way down into the caldera. We briefly though about rappelling down that side of the face to retrieve it, but we had a long descent ahead of us and I made the call with ease – second camera KIA, and we would not attempt to retrieve the body. The GoPro is now for the mountain. The weather was bad enough that we figured spending more than a minute on the summit would be irresponsible and that it was time to get down. We rapped off a big rock on the ledge of the summit ridge to begin the descent. Nacho actually brought along a few locking links and a fresh 10m cordillete to donate to the route. He is really only one of the few people who climbs it though, so I guess it was more of a donation to himself.
How is it hot down here?
We rapped the upper part of the route in bad weather without any problems. However, what did surprise us was that although the weather up top was flat-out horrible, the sun was beating down on the bottom half of the mountain, specifically one of the very exposed areas we planned to downclimb. The mountain was quickly turning into a huge Slurpee, and now more than ever, were we glad that we managed to climb route as fast as we did. Downclimbing over melted steep exposed snow slopes is not really my idea of fun, but I also knew that if I took my time conditions would only get worse. As I mentioned way earlier, so much of mountaineering is knowing when to take care of yourself versus knowing when to push yourself to your limit. This was the time to push myself in keeping solid deliberate movements, even though we had now been active on technical terrain for 12 hours.
We later realized that we could have actually probably rappelled over the large hanging serac to cut out the significant majority of the downclimbing for the small cost of one single picket. We both agreed if we were to do this again that would probably would be a better choice. We made our way over the relatively featureless slushy glacier at the fastest speed we had gone all day with the draw of hot food and soup back at camp bringing us in. In the excitement, Nacho took a little hip-deep fall into a hidden crevasse. We moved a little more slowly after that.
13.5 hours since we left in the morning we arrived back to camp, our minds, bodies, and souls fully exhausted.
The Mother’s Union
We sat in our cook tent for a solid 20 minutes and completely zoned out. Our clothes were wet, our boots begged to be taken off, and I had to go to the bathroom since the summit (número dos). But we sat there. Slowly we began thinking that we should eat something and tell our loved ones that we were okay. With the limited amount of information about the climb on the internet I inadvertently communicated to my family that this would not be a very difficult climb, so I knew that they probably wouldn’t be very worried. I sent a happy “We are safe!” message. On the other hand, Nacho’s mother was well aware of the challenging nature of this mountain as his father had climbed it some decades back so she was quite worried. She asked him to double check with me that I told my mom that we were okay. I gave him the thumbs up. The Mother’s Union.
We fired up the Jetboil, I had miso soup and Nacho brewed coffee. We also made a little pot of mashed potatoes that neither of us really had the stomach to finish. Nacho called Angelo, our horse guy, to confirm that we needed his services the following morning. I finally went to the bathroom. We then crawled into our sleeping bags and ate ham, cheese, crackers, and Pringles. I popped a couple bennies and decided to write this while waiting for them to kick in.
It was disappointing to lose the video of this peak’s ascent. Not only would it have been a cool video, but it would have also been the first video to document the technical climbing section of this mountain. With my camera having also broken, the peak will have to still remain a ghost. However, this is not a climb I will forget, so I will selfishly keep it to myself.
It was later confirmed that we were the first party to summit the peak this year. That was pretty cool.
Casualties of the climb:
- 1x Leica D-LUX 109 (mechanical failure)
- 1x GoPro Hero4 (fell into the crater)
- 1x Black Diamond Carbon Alpine Pole (snapped in the mud)
- 1x Outdoor Research Extravert Glove (torn)
- 1x Soft Nalgene (torn)
“… The glaciers away from the Normal Route of Cayambe are wild. They are rarely crossed, maybe once a year. The crevasses are legitimately big, so we left plenty of rope between the two of us, and we even had to pitch out a nasty sections. We finally made our way to the base of the massive rocky spine running up the north side of the mountain.” [read full, Cayambe via the Arista Santa Barbara]