Why Summiting a Volcano Never Goes as You Planned: Rucu Pichincha

Two hours into our second attempt to summit Rucu Pichincha, we arrived at the base of El Arenal. We had blasted through the first part of the trail that leads along the ridge line of Pichincha’s slope and the north face of Rucu’s summit. We were tired and sucking air as we tried to regain our composure for the hardest part of the hike. Danielle’s lips were blue. The quick change in altitude (~14,500 feet at that point) and reduction of oxygen in the air had given me a headache for the first hour or so of the hike, but it quickly went away as I focused on getting us to the summit before the clouds and weather turned bad. As Danielle and I sat and rested, eating our lunch for the day, I slowly became more apprehensive watching the dark, ominous clouds billow into the valley just below us.

“Not again,” I mumbled under my breath.


Pichincha is a 23 kilometer massif that is composed of two stratovolcanoes. It is located in the Cordillera Occidental de los Andes in Ecuador with the capital city of Quito slowly rising up its eastern slopes. The two highest peaks of the volcano are Wawa Pichincha (~4,784 metres (15,696 feet)) and Rucu Pichincha (~4,698 metres (15,413 feet)). In Kichwa, the pre-Incan language spoken by the indigenous people of the Andes Region, wawa can mean ‘child’, ‘baby’, or ‘small’ and rucu can mean ‘old’. Both peaks were named this way because Wawa Pichincha (erupting and releasing ash in 1999) is still an active caldera on the west side of Pichincha while Rucu Pichincha’s volcanic crater has essentially gone dormant.

N.B. – Access to Wawa’s crater has been prohibited, as recently as of May, 2015, due to the release of water vapors and gasses that could affect hikers and mountaineers who decide to enter the crater.


Our first attempt to summit Rucu Pichincha was on May 9th, 2015. It was a beautiful, sunny morning as we hiked the ridge line to the summit rock directly to our west. It was my first time seeing a volcano, touching a volcano, and hiking a volcano. Moreover, I had never hiked anything higher than 11,000 feet in my life so a chance to hike a volcano that filled the view just outside our apartment window was too enticing. It was also an opportunity to challenge myself and test the effects of altitude on my ability to acclimatize. If I could acclimatize here, I felt that with enough training I could prepare myself to summit some of the tallest peaks in Ecuador.

As we hiked, I took in the beauty that surrounded us. In the valley below, Quito sprawled out in a vertical line from north to south, much larger than I originally imagined. I spotted our apartment, Parque Carolina, Centro Historico, and the edifice of la Basílica del Voto Nacional. The Basílica’s prominence in relation to the buildings around it (some of which are multi-storied) strikes quite the impressive figure–all the more monumental when you see it up close. To the south loomed the volcanoes of Cotopaxi, the Illinizas, Atacazo, Corazon, and Pasochoa, the clouds wisping and tearing over Cotopaxi and the Illinizas. To the north, I saw clouds rolling over the Cordillera Occidental and into the forested regions beyond. In the east, the Cordillera Oriental dominated the horizon. Tears welled up in my eyes. I considered then how lucky we were to find jobs in Quito–or in Ecuador for that matter–because of the area’s natural beauty and our proclivity for contact with nature.

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Cotopaxi on the southern horizon.

After three or fours hours, we reached the north face of Rucu Pichincha and started coming across some strange flora. Spongy masses of prickly, star-shaped grass covered the ground and even supported parts of the trail along the lower edge of the rock face. As we walked along, I was reminded more and more of coral reefs and the diversified life of the sea-floor that we saw when we went scuba diving in the Philippines. How amazing biology is at the extremes of our Tierra!

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The trail lined with interesting flora.
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Some tuber-like flora growing from the ground.
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An up-close picture of the star-shaped flora.

Eventually, we arrived at El Arenal, a scree-fall beginning at the col between the summit of Rucu Pichincha and a lower peak left over from Rucu’s volcanic crater. The entire scree-fall is approximately 50 meters, at a slope of 45-55 degrees, from the col down to the point where the trail meets the larger rocks at the bottom of the scree–envision a 15-story staircase made of sand and you get the idea. It was approximately 1:00 p.m. when we started making our way up El Arenal. As we hiked up, the wind began to blow up from the valley below us and the temperature dropped quickly. We donned our jumpers and trudged on, focusing on the hike ahead of us instead of the weather behind us. Stopping to take a break for a moment and catch my breath, I turned to take in the vista below us. Instead of glimpsing mountains off on the horizon, I was confronted by a dark cloud slowly rising up El Arenal toward us. Having never been slapped in the face by a cloud, I promptly took out my camera and started taking pictures (as well as filming) the cloud’s ascent up the mountain top. To put it lightly, the cloud made short work of the hike and overtook our position in about a minute. Being the ostentatious obstinate that I am, I pushed on toward the top of the scree-fall hoping that the storm would blow over the peak and we would be free to scramble up the last 100 meters to the top of the summit. By the time we reached Eagle Rock at the top of the col, we were completely hemmed in by storm clouds and I couldn’t discern the rest of the path up to the summit (or anything else for that matter). Ominous rock formations climbed into ominous clouds that slowly disappeared into an ominous abyss. I was too ominous-fied to feel sure about completing the climb. Moreover, I had recently finished Krakauer’s, “Into Thin Air” and was thinking about what often happens to mountaineers, trekkers, and hikers when they ignore the warnings of mother nature. We turned back and I felt the pangs of defeat from what I saw as an innocuous climb.

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Danielle hunkered down at the edge of the col near Eagle Rock.

 


General Antonio José de Sucre slowly marches his forces up the slopes of Pichincha on the outskirts of Quito, hoping to flank the Spanish Royalist forces who occupy the city below. The date is May 23rd, 1822. The night is cold and rainy. The undergrowth and forests of Pichincha stall Sucre’s advance up the mountain-side. By dawn, Royalist sentries have spotted Sucre’s forces and the Spanish commander, Melchor Aymerich, decides to meet Sucre’s forces on the slopes of Pichincha rather than be outflanked. Three hours later, Sucre’s forces push Aymerich’s men down the slope and back into Quito, and in effect, surrenders Quito to the Independence movement. Independence becomes a reality for the region, as well as the catalyst that will eventually birth the Republic of Ecuador.

Exactly one-hundred and ninety-three years later, Danielle and I are pushing our way up the slopes of Pichincha for our second summit attempt. As we hike, I think about General Sucre and his men hiking up the same slopes loaded down with supplies, hiking through muck, suffering from altitude sickness, and without the convenience of pre-cleared trails. Although they were never making a summit-bid, they did manage to make their way up half the mountain. At the base of El Arenal, I wonder if we will conquer the summit today or if the clouds will overtake us and we will be forced to retreat back down the mountain just like Aymerich’s forces.

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The summit of Rucu Pichincha as seen from the Teleferico.

After making it to the top of El Arenal, we snap some quick pictures (the weather is clear this time!) and prepare for the scramble to the summit. Laboriously, we climb our way over the volcanic rock. We are taking a line along the edge of Rucu’s volcanic crater–great for picture taking and vistas, not great for scrambling. I arrive at an out-cropping of rock that I must hustle over in order to help Danielle climb a crack off to our right. As I stretch my feet over the gap below the outcrop, I reach my hand over the top of the rock and slap around for a hand-hold. I find one, test its strength, and pull my body up. I straddle the edge of the outcrop, my right leg flailing in the wind. I look down at sharp volcanic rock below and the 200 meter tumble I will take if I fall.

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The northern rim of Rucu’s volcanic crater.

‘What the hell am I doing over here?’ resonates through my mind. ‘Why didn’t we take the touristy route up to the summit?’ I try to compose myself–it’s been a long time since I’ve rock climbed and ballerina-ed myself up the sides of cliffs. I’m not wearing proper gear and my boot is twice the size of my foot. I can’t feel anything through the thick rubber as I search for better footing so I can propel myself over the outcropping. A verse from Herbert’s Dune series floats through my head, “Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.” ‘Well, I’m not interested in total obliteration,’ I think to myself. I find my footing (based more on faith than touch), pull up, and squirm across the top of the outcrop like a beached whale. After my silent success, I look over the edge down at Danielle. She is patiently waiting below, unaware of the moment I have just had. I look to the right over her shoulder at the rocks below and pray to my climbing friends who have taught me how to overcome these situations. I reach down and help her up the crack as she scrambles with her other limbs. I mention the butt-hole puckering moment to her and we move on.

Climbing up, I glimpse the edge of a wooden sign and shout to Danielle below, “I think we finally made it.” I scramble up a couple of more feet of rock and finally the mountain levels out. There is a heart made of rocks on the ground in front of me.

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The summit sign.
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It speaks for itself.

For the next hour or so, I run around the summit like a little kid, snapping pictures, checking the views, and even sharing some cake with a local hiking group. I look off to the southwest and see the gigantic crater of Wawa Pichincha, a future summit attempt. I think about General Sucre’s success on this day, Ecuadorian independence, and my liberation from failure. In the west, clouds are slamming into the Cordillera Occidental thousands of feet below us. I look into eternity’s eye and she stares back at me.

 


 

Hours of Operation:

The Teleferiqo operates from 8:00-18:00 (Mon-Fri) and 8:00-20:00 (Sat, Sun). The official opening time is stated as 9:00 am but people are usually let in around 8:10.

How to get there:

You can get to Pichincha from anywhere in Quito. Flag down a taxi and tell them you want to go to the ‘Teleferiqo.’ Once you arrive at the Teleferiqo, go inside the building and purchase your tickets. Keep your ticket so that you can make the return trip down the slope. The tickets are $4.50 per person for adult foreigners (Recently, I’ve been told that there is a path that you can take to get to the top of the slope without taking the Teleferiqo. It is on the south side of the station, but I have yet to confirm the use of this path from personal experience). The ride to the top of the slope is approximately 15 minutes. Once there, follow one of the two trails that heads west toward Rucu Pichincha. To save energy, take the southern path that passes by the church since it skips a hike up the first ridge. However, if it is your first time, you should take the northern trail as it affords some spectacular views of Quito and the surrounding area.

To return to Quito, take the Teleferico back down the slope to the bottom station. Exit the station and look for a taxi in the parking lot. Sometimes there is an extra taxi waiting for people and sometimes there isn’t. If there is no taxi, you have two options. First, hike down the road to Vulqano Park (you probably noticed a theme park as your taxi climbed the hill up to the Teleferiqo station). Near the entrance to the park is a bus station that you can use to take you back into Quito. There is also a tourist/shuttle bus that parks on the road opposite of the entrance. For $.50, the van will offer to drop you off at multiple locations around Parque Carolina.

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