Cayambe, Arista Santa Barbara (Ecuador’s best TD!)

Cayambe via the Arista Santa Barbara is part 4 of 4, in Ecuador the Hard Way


Technical Climb Info:

  • Mountain: Cayambe
  • Elevation: 5,790 m
  • Route: Arista Santa Barbara
  • Length: 1,100m
  • Grade: TD (très difficile / very difficult),  AI4, M4+

Forward note

To be honest, coming off of Cayambe’s Santa Barbara Ridge, the last thing I felt like doing was writing about it. I was exhausted. After 15.5 hours of hard climbing (plus the previous 10 days), just sitting at our table in the hut’s dining room was difficult. Aside from a few notes, I opted to forego writing anything about this climb for another month.

The final challenge

Nacho and I had just come off of our successful climb of El Altar, and I was feeling really good, or at least much better than expected. We did not use our weather contingency day, so I was happy that I booked an extra day at the hotel in Quito in case we came back early. At this point, I was a “valued customer”, and I was given a pretty swanky corner suite on the top floor. My pile of sweat-stained mountain clothes somehow didn’t look very fitting sitting on the hotel room floor. I pulled out a stuff sack and relegated it to dirty laundry duty. I debated between going to dinner at a really spectacular fusion sushi place I had been to a couple times earlier in the trip, or a place that had huge burgers about 4 blocks away. Burgers won.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am not a big fan of rest days. In the moment, my body does not seem to believe that they are necessary. My mind gets frustrated and tells me that I should be on the mountain or go home already. Between the mind and body, I get pretty antsy. I texted Nacho that night to see if he wanted to go to Cayambe a day early to maybe give us a better shot with the weather.

“Amigo, it’s better if we rest.”

Okay, that’s fair.  The extra day in Quito also gave me the opportunity to catch a critical error in my flight home on United’s booking agent’s part.  With their online booking service down when I changed my flight, the person I had spoken to over the phone somehow booked me to fly out of Bogota, Columbia, rather than Quito, Ecuador. After another 7 hours on the phone, I finally had a plane ticket confirmed to get me back home.

Roses are red

The following morning I met Nacho for our last hoorah of the year.  The plan was to leave Quito around 11am, drive to the town of Cayambe to have lunch, and then plop down at the hut. We would then eat an early dinner, wake up at midnight, and go for the summit. Going for the summit via the Santa Barbara Ridge is less trivial that it sounds when stated like that though. It is considered to be one of the hardest and most technically strenuous routes in the country.  Only 20-30 people have ever climbed it successfully to date.  (There are some extremely physically strenuous routes in the country, like traversing the peaks of Chimborazo.)  We would be approaching the northern route from the hut in the south, requiring us to circumnavigate around the mountain’s lower glaciers.  Then we would climb the pair of mixed alpine ridges on the north aspect of the mountain.  We would then traverse over a large and steep snow slope to connect with the summit. Finally we would book it down the Normal Route back to the hut.

Nacho and I stopped at a little restaurant in Cayambe. He said that they had a great burger, but they were often closed.  They were not closed, and they did have great burger.  I was actually surprised by how nice this little restaurant was, it wouldn’t be out of place sitting in Capital Hill or Ballard in Seattle.  The town of Cayambe had obviously experienced some significant gentrification since the last time I had been there.  The town itself is basically the global provider of roses.  I recently learned that because the sun is so directly overhead in this region, the roses grow very vertically, making for those almost artificially perfect looking roses we can buy back home. The rose business must have been booming.

All about the weather

The Cayambe hut is a legitimately nice mountain hut. The rooms are small but not cramped, so you can take one privately for your team but still lay your gear out. The restaurant and dining areas are warm and always clean. The whole place is buzzing with climbers.  Since Cotopaxi’s eruption in 2015, Cayambe became the main climbing attraction in the country. Cotopaxi had just recently opened its doors to climbers a few months ago, but many people remained skeptical about the health impacts of the huge plumes of sulfur and ash that the volcano’s crater was still spitting up. I could physically see the plumes generated from the mountain, and I personally would not find that as an acceptable health risk.  With all of that, Cayambe has maintained its popularity, especially for the well-known American and German mountain expedition companies.

Nacho and I were not 100% confident in the weather as we arrived to the hut. The forecast was uncertain, and the clouds had a bit of a drizzle going on.  We agreed that if the weather was not at least “very good”, we would go for the Normal Route instead. In fact, the two of us would still shoot for the Normal Route if the weather was downright bad. The last time I was in Ecuador, Cayambe totally owned me, and I didn’t even get a chance to climb it.  During that trip, the weather was bad enough that we just stayed in the hut, and my lack of altitude experience allowed for altitude sickness to set in.  My altitude sickness seems to mostly manifest in the inability to sleep, so I stayed awake for 4 days straight.  I’ve never felt worse in my life.

Coming back to the mountain with much more experience, sleeping at high altitude is a problem that I’ve figured out how to squash (Benadryl+melatonin).  However, I still felt that I needed to prove to myself that I could get to the top of this thing. I popped my pills and got in bed around 3pm, knowing that we would be waking up at 12am. Nacho woke me up at 6pm for dinner. I ate a nicely cooked trout in a bit of a daze, chatted with some anxious beginners on an AAI team, and went back to sleep. (I’m going to take a second to food-nerd out here. If you haven’t tried Ecuadorian trout, it’s something you’ve got to try if you are in the country.  The fish is somewhere between a traditional American trout and an Arctic char. To get the best experience, ideally you’d have it in a good high altitude rural restaurant or hacienda rather than in a mountain hut.)

We’re on

12:30am came around fast, and when waking up to my alarm, I was surprised to only hear silence.  No wind howling over the hut. No hail smashing onto the roof.  I ran down the stairs to check outside.  The night was clear, the temperature was cold enough to keep the mountain for toppling on itself, but it was still warm enough to be comfortable. Perfect. We’re on.

Once we began moving, we could see the strings of headlamps illuminating the Normal Route.  Talking to a few people during dinner the previous evening, I was happy that all these people would have a better first time experience here than I did. Climbing a big mountain like this for the first time is just such a cool experience.  However, sentimentality quickly faded with the headlamps as we navigated away from the Normal Route towards the back of the mountain.

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.

Not so easy after all

Getting onto the rock spine was an ordeal into itself. It was nowhere nearly as easy as it looked like it would be. From the surface, it appeared to be a snow slope with a bit of mixed climbing.  In fact, I was surprised when Nacho said he wanted to pitch it out, and even more surprised how slowly he moved over it.  Upon getting on it, I quickly recognized that this was not a snow slope. It was a slope or loosely frozen pebbles, scree, and other glacial scrap, with a thin layer of snow over it.  Not so easy after all.  We had 3 pitches of climbing over this glacial garbage, basically setting up a belay anchor wherever even the shoddiest protection could be placed.

We made our way onto the main ridge, and climbed a few pitches of good winding mixed terrain. The mixed climbing conditions here made for much more stable climbing than on El Altar a few days before. Cayambe is much higher in altitude and further away from the rainforest, so it stays colder and more consolidated. This made for some solid type 1.5 fun that I would equate in level to going down a harder but reasonable run on a ski resort.

As we pushed higher and higher up the ridge, we climbed toward an almost certainly impassible crux above us. The plan was to find the weakest point between the ridge we were on and a parallel ridge just 45 meters or so to the east and make the traverse in between. As we set up to pitch out the traverse, we both knew that this was going to be the crux of the climb.  If something bad were to happen, it would likely happen right here.  The last party to be here was with Nacho almost a full year earlier, and it looked like they pulled some aid-esq traverse moves leaving a blue Omega Pacific cam behind. We could see the blue draw sparkling in the rock looking impossibly far away. There was an obvious bulge in the middle of the traverse that would clearly be the crux.

L1030101

Try again.

Nacho cautiously led his way across the traverse, placing protection in the rare instance that he could find it.  After some time, he was on the other ridge.  He took a quick pee break.  Then yelled, “You’re on, amigo!”

I began to move.  I knew that falling here would result in a big pendulum swing over nasty terrain.  Falling here wouldn’t result in certain death, but you’d be super f**ked.  Spiral fractures down the legs would be likely, and say bye-bye to ligaments.  Rescue would be an ordeal.  Maybe you’d get frostbite and loose some digits while the guiding association scraped together anybody who even knew how to get to this route.  Better not to fall.  Get that out of my brain. Focus.

Making my way over the crux was indeed difficult.  It was probably some of the sportiest mixed moves I had done to date.  It took me about 10 minutes to make the sequence – just long enough for the little demon in the back of my head to whisper a few times “You are going to die here today. Was it worth it?”  Shut up.  Focus.  Those thoughts were replaced by my rock climbing instructor from a while back, Matt Denton, saying, “How are those feet? If you don’t like them switch em up man. Try again. How about now? Try again. How about now? Try again.”

Nacho, in real life, yelled over, “Amigo you are close! Your left foot! Go down and wide!”. After a few sketchy dry tooling moves above, I got my left foot down and wide, completed the sequence, and was off the crux. The rest of the traverse was straight forward enough for me to pose for some photos.  I clipped into the anchor.  We agreed that reversing that was not a reasonably possibility anymore.  Nacho was happy to have his cam back though.

L1030108

Shut the f*** up

I find it amazing how just a few minutes of extreme struggle can take so much out of the body.  I went from feeling 99% before the traverse, to feeling… well… a lot less than that.  I opened my pack, grabbed a couple Caramel Macchiato Gu packets and took them down.  I chased them with a good amount of water mixed with Gu powder.  After a few minutes, I started to feel my energy come back.  (It would not fully come back for a quite a few days after getting home though.)

The climbing dipped down in difficulty for a few pitches, it was now mostly on steep but good ice, and the fun dipped back into the type 1.5 level.  We could see the top of the route coming up quick, and we were both moving consistently again.  As the route began to top out, we would have to make a long traverse over to the summit ridge.  Normally I am fine traversing steep snow faces, it is almost mechanical to me, but this snow was terrible.  It was fluff with a shoddy layer of crust, and there was a looming cliff of doom below the entirety of the thing.  Each kick was critical, and with the snow being too soft for protection or self arrest, we both knew that a single mistake by either of us would surely rip the two of us off the face to our deaths.

Nacho yelled back at me, “Remember, companero! The best belay is your feet and your partner!”  Okay, that’s not completely true.  The best belay is a fat sling around a school bus.  But I appreciated the encouragement.

Every little shift in the snow, every kick that did not fully hold, felt like it was going to kill us.  My heart was racing.  I could hear Nacho breathing hard up ahead, broken up with “La mierdaaaa!!!”  Don’t lose focus. Stay consistent. We were not moving fast – the long route, the many days of climbing, the altitude, and the sulfur in the air, it was all getting to us.  That was not good, considering a tiny slip from either of us would kill the both of us.  Focus.  Again, the little demon in the back of my head began to whisper “You are going to die here today. Was it worth it?”  Dammit shut the f*** up.  Focus.

L1030116-Pano

A few more minutes

As we made our way off the traverse onto the last steep snow slope, both of us were flat out exhausted.  Our movements reminded me of those videos of people climbing Everest.  The sulfur in the air was so thick that both of us were coughing relentlessly.  We finally merged with the normal route.  Safe(-ish), finally.

We stopped to take a break.  The summit was a simple walk from where we were standing.  We debated whether or not we should go touch it, or just head down.  We thought of our summit on Artesonraju where we had the same feeling but pushed through.  It was worth it.  What’s a few more minutes of struggle anyways, let’s do it.

We didn’t spend much time on the summit.  In fact, I hate summits.  They only remind me that my least favorite part of the climb is yet to come, the descent.  The sun was beating down on the mountain, and the glacier below was looking warm.  All the other parties had disappeared off the route already, and we had a long way to go still.  The descent was not enjoyable.  The sulfur stayed present, and the sun got even hotter.  We made our way down the giant Slushie, both of us falling leg deep into hidden crevasses a couple times.  We were tired.

We got back to the hut.  Nacho went directly upstairs and disappeared in his bunk.  I collapsed onto a dining room chair.  The dining room was full of nervous but excited new climbers with Mountain Madness and the Alpine Institute, preparing for their climb the following day.  I could see a look of fear in their eyes when they saw the state I was in when I walked into the room.  The Mountain Madness guide announced that Nacho and I had just climbed the Ridge and for them not to worry.  They clapped.  That was cool.  “Where is Nacho?”, he asked.  “I think he died…in his bed. Haha I’m going to die here now.”

L1030124
Couldn’t miss our classic summit photo

Epilogue

Nacho and I headed back to Quito pretty quickly, as my flight was leaving that night.  Once I got back to my hotel room, I packed up, grabbed dinner, and ordered a cab to the airport.  Nacho and I said our goodbyes with the hopes to see each other again in the summer to climb in the Cordillera Blanca.  These back to back climbs really exhausted me, but in a good way.  It would take me a week or so to have the energy to get back to my normal workout routine at home.  I realized that without my protein powder that I normally had, I lost a lot of muscle mass during this trip as well.  Time to build it back up!

GEAR: You can check out my gear list and full review here.

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