Escaping the Pandemic
Just like most people in the world, the Pandemic had been weighing on us. We had gotten a lot of climbing in this past year, but our international plans had all been canceled. And with Jessica’s green card application in the USA moving forward, we knew there would be a long period ahead where travel on her end would be 100% restricted. The weather in the PNW had been particularly bad this winter, and it only looked like it was getting worse. After a number of failed climbing attempts due to conditions, we made the call to go south for a bit.
This would be my 3rd time coming to the country. I’ve always loved Ecuador for so many reasons. The people, the food, the beauty of the landscape, the ease of access of climbing, the fact that the climbing season lands perfectly during the off-season in the PNW, and so much more. I’ve also used the relative ease of access to altitude from the city as a place to test acclimatization techniques. When I was here in 2017, I did my first experiments with very-fast acclimatization heavily supported by Diamox. This time, my acclimatization experiment would be with pre-acclimatizing in a hypoxic tent.
My primary goal was to climb a number of sub-peaks on El Altar. I had been here with Nacho in 2017 on a very successful climb of El Altar’s main summit, El Obispo. We planned 8 days to be in El Altar this time around, with the hope of climbing Monja Grande and 2 additional sub-peaks (that will remain nameless for now). I also really wanted to climb Cotopaxi, a classic that I had neglected to give attention on my previous trips.
1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 * 1/2 = 6.25%
I estimated that my chance of success on each peak of this trip was about 50%, so 6.25% was the calculated probability that I estimated to be 100% successful as originally defined coming in. That’s pretty low, so managed expectations and the ability to call things off when unreasonable, and change objectives when reasonable, was the name of the game.
Especially when approaching extremely unknown peaks on El Altar with, being reasonable and rational would be not just important for climbing peaks, but also coming home. While most peaks in Ecuador are the closest thing to drive-in dining that the mountaineering community can get, the sub-peaks of El Altar are deep in the Cordillera Oriental, towering over the jungle of the Sangay National Park. With a muli-day technical approaches, help would not be coming quick, if at all.
PRE-Acclimatization For 5000m at 0M
Last time I was here, I tried acclimatizing rapidly with medication. This time, I would be trying pre-acclimatization in a Hypoxico tent at home. We had been using them for the past 5 weeks before landing in Quito, with the only “cheat days” being the days before and after climbs at home. I had it cranked up to 5000m for the last week, which in itself was hard to get used to.
Aside from my first night where I accidentally cranked my machine up to 4600m, the pre-acclimatization was initially fairly easy on the body. Starting at 3000m, I would fall asleep with my O2 sat at 92(ish) and wake up with it at 96(ish). I’d crank the elevation up the next night by 100m. My body seemed to have a breaking point at 4900m in the hypoxic tent. My first night at the “elevation” was very unpleasant, I was in and out of sleep all night. My second night was somewhat better, but I was still lacking a lot of sleep. Oxygen at that elevation is 11.4%, as opposed to 20.9% at sea level. So at this point we are sleeping with 45% less oxygen than we are accustomed to.
Only the next few weeks would really tell if this system works.
- January 22 – Arrive in Quito
- January 23 – Hike up Rucu Pichinca
- January 24 – Drive to Carihuairazo Hut
- January 25 – Climb Carihuairazo
- January 26 – Rest in Quito
- January 27 – Drive to El Altar and trek up to El Campo Italiano “The Italian Camp”
- January 28 – El Altar
- January 29 – El Altar
- January 30 – El Altar
- January 31 – El Altar
- February 1 – Rest in Quito (original plan: El Altar)
- February 2 – Hike to Illiniza Hut (original plan: El Altar)
- February 3 – Climb Illiniza Sur (original plan: El Altar)
- February 4 – Rest in Quito
- February 5 – Drive to Tambopaxi Lodge in Cotopaxi National Park
- February 6 – Climb Cotopaxi
- February 7 – Fly back to Seattle
Spelling the name of this peak seems to be just as challenging as pronouncing the name. I practiced in my head, but when I’d open my mouth, unstrung syllables just gobbled out. The indigenous people’s story goes as such. Carihuairazo and El Altar entered an epic battle against Chimborazo over the love of Tungurahua. Carihuairazo and El Altar were left battered and destroyed, only remaining as the calderas that they are today. This peak had been on my radar for a few years now, but it was more of a question mark than anything else. […]
January 25, 2021
Nacho and my expedition to El Altar was planned for 8 days, much longer than we spent last time here in 2017 when we climbed the main summit, El Obispo. We would hike in supported by horses to the Italian Camp, and setup (and likely tear down) a base camp. Then the plan would be to do an alpine style smash and grab of Monja Grande, and 2 further peaks (to remain unnamed for now), inaccesssble from the base camp. […]
January 31, 2021
Coming in from 5 days on El Altar, 2 of them being harrowing, I was exhausted. A single rest day wasn’t enough, but that’s all we could really take if I wanted to join Jessica and David on their next climb. They had not succeeded to climb Illiniza Sur a few days prior due to poor avy conditions, turning around at around 5100m. Jess had messaged me on the inReach asking if I thought it would be possible to change up our plans a bit so they could re-attempt it. The permitting this season in the parks was pretty strict, but Nacho thought that with a persuasive enough call directly to the park warden, he might be able to bend the timeline. […]
February 3, 2021
My 3rd time in Ecuador. My 6th week. Around my 40th day in the country. And I had still not ever stepped foot on the famous Cotopaxi. I swore that this trip, I would change that, I wouldn’t leave before giving it a shot. I say “a shot” because our luck with the weather and conditions has been fairly poor so far. A few years ago, coming to Ecuador looking to climb more technically challenging routes, Cotopaxi seemed to not have any on the list. The perfect conical shape left no nooks and crannies for “imperfections” like ridges or faces. […]
February 6, 2021
The climbing: Well, we came back home alive, one piece, and happy. That ultimately means the climbs were successful. By definition of “did we reach the top”, our primary goal of climbing the sub-peaks of El Altar had massively failed. But failing to reach a summit is an easy trade for failing to come home to your loved ones. I am personally very happy that we climbed Cotopaxi, for being an “easy walk up”, I thought it was pretty cool.
The acclimatization: This one was more tricky. Overall, I think I can say that the pre-acclimatization “kind of worked for me”. I think that without it, doing what I did would have been absolutely impossible. So going forward, I think it is something that I will do, but will also need to supplement with other aids for very rapid trips like these. On the other hand, this seemed to work for Jessica extremely well. So I think just like everything at high altitude, each person is different.
Overall: I’d call this trip a success. I was extremely happy to share one of my favorite locations with Jessica. A+