Having lived in and around mountains most of my life, I’d only ever studied altitude sickness in first aid courses, or heard of it happening to other people. I knew it was a real thing, of course, but having never experienced it myself the knowledge was only second hand. After driving the stunningly beautiful 4x4 route recommended to us by the Tucks, our campsite on Volcan Cayambe’s flank at 15,100’ greeted us both with a predictable inability to breath along with splitting headaches and a little queasiness.
Aside from the particularly striking visuals of the mountain itself and the glacial fed valleys below, part of Cayambe’s allure is the year-round equatorial snow. Its glacial sheet is the only place in the world where you can hike through the white stuff at zero degrees latitude. We’d planned to make the one-mile trek up from our camp at the refugio to see the snow for ourselves that afternoon, but elected to let our bodies rest a bit and try to acclimatize to the thin, cold mountain air after all that time at sea level.
Our original intention after entering Ecuador was to hike and camp at Laguna Cuicocha, then head to Volcan Cayambe, followed by Cotopaxi National Park. Since I decided I wanted to learn how to kiteboard and the wind decided it’d be leaving for the season soon, we had to interrupt our mountain plans with nearly a month on the Pacific coast. Significantly more tanned and with our Advanced Open Water SCUBA certifications, and my IKO card in hand we’ve finally made our way back into the Andes.
After our brewery shenanigans with The Long Cruise we headed north to Mindo, a hippy-birder paradise in the cloud forests of Ecuador where we rented mountain bikes, took an excellent cacao tour demonstrating the chocolate production process, and generally detoxed from the cheap beer, rum, and seafood that had fueled our last few weeks.
We also stopped at the Mitad del Mundo equator site, where we did touristy things, avoided eating $25 guinea pig, and enjoyed the surprisingly good (though small) craft beer museum. It seems that Ecuador has a burgeoning craft beer scene we hadn’t expected, but are fully prepared to enjoy regardless. We’re detoxing from “cheap” beer. IPAs, pale ales, reds, porters, and stouts obviously don’t count.
I’d hoped that the few days we spent climbing back into the mountains through Mindo at 5000’ and Quito at 9000’ would help us re-adjust to the altitude. Unfortunately, after an evening of delicious soup, cacao tea, and card games followed by a chilly night where I only woke up feeling suffocated once, neither of us was feeling 100%. Taylor though, was affected much worse than me. Altitude sickness is a serious issue and can be fatal in rare cases. Even though her symptoms were nowhere near that serious, we decided that I would make the short climb a few hundred feet higher to snap pictures for the both of us while she rested in the warmth of the camper, drinking plenty of water, and chatting with me periodically over our two-way radios.
Even though the path to the glacier’s edge was only several hundred feet vertical and well under a mile long, it took me close to an hour to reach the top. Slowly clawing my way up Cayambe’s shoulder, scrambling over boulders, and stopping to catch what breath I could every few minutes I silently vowed to myself to never climb so much as a staircase again.
Until I reached the top.
I had the mountain to myself. The last thousand yards were easy, flattish hiking. The glacier and small Laguna Verde felt magically close after staring up at the mountain all night, and the peak and valleys below were truly breathtaking. To the South I was looking out over the tops of clouds, standing at 15,985’. Far higher than I’d ever flown while studying for my private pilot’s license. I silently rescinded my vow to avoid climbing things in the future.
The path down was much faster than the path up and Taylor and I were on our way to lower altitude by mid-morning. We were astounded how much better we both felt at 13,000’ as we descended back toward Quito. By 9000’ we felt superhuman.
So far, this was one of my favorite little side-trips of our time on the road. We got to air down and use 4-lo, camp in a stunningly beautiful location most tourists don’t get to see, and do a little hiking for some great pictures. We also coined a new term- “The Utah Condition”, where every part of the landscape is so heart-achingly beautiful you can’t help but take countless pictures and stare out the windows in rapt wonder. This is really only our first experience with the high peaks and glaciers of the Andes, so we’re expecting a lot more wonder to come.