July 29th 2012
We just completed a cool and exhausting trip to some of the famous Ecuadorian volcanos with Swiss Freerider Alban Aubert and photographer Patrice Schreyer.
Our goal was to ride each volcano from between 16000 to 17000 ft, about 5000 meters. The idea was to drive as high as we could with a 4×4 vehicle, then hike to the Refugios/ mountain huts, spend the nights at high altitude and then climb a bit further in the morning before descending into the low lands.
The trip was Albans idea and he organized most of it, I jumped on the opportunity since its usually me who has to do all the research and planning. We landed in Quito, the capital of Ecuador and stayed for two nights there, to acclimate and to get ready for the first volcano. Quito is one of the highest major cities in the world at 2900 meters above sea level. The first day we went sight seeing in town and took the gondala up to 4100m to get a first taste of the thin air in the Andes.
Our first volcano was Cayambe 18996ft / 5790m. On the way up the mountain was fireroad, we could drive to approx. 4500m, from there we had to go another hour uphill with our bikes and backpacks. I choose my GT Carbon Force with a Fox 36 fork and DH tires. On the way up, we crossed the equator from the Southern to the Northern Hemisphere. The wind was blowing strongly and the temperatures were around freezing.
Once we reached the mountain hut with its bunk beds, we set up night camp and enjoyed some nice views of the snow covered summit above. It wasn’t until the middle of the night, that the altitude got to me, I had a headache, couldn’t sleep and all of the sudden I became naucious and even had to throw up. It was a endless and missable night – the wind was blowing so hard, I was afraid the roof would rip of the hut.
Before sunlight we got up and got ready, I felt completely weak and the strong winds and icy conditions made it impossible for us to climb any higher, as we had initially planned. The ground was frozen and super slippery the wind was blowing so hard, I had to hold on to my bike with both hands, even riding was challenging in the gusty conditions.
We immediately started with the descent, with every foot of dropping down my altitude sickness started to feel better. They say, the best thing to do is to retreat to lower altitudes when it happens. For us it was on the way, I can’t say I enjoyed the downhill a lot and I wasn’t looking forward to climb back up another volcano that very afternoon. But that’s what our schedule had in mind for us. Diego our driver and one of Alban’s relatives (Alban is married to a Ecuadorian lady) picked us up 6000 feet below.
Next stop was one of Ecuadors most famous landmarks, Cotopaxi volcano 19,347 feet (5,897 m). A big road leads into the Cotopaxi National Park, one can drive a car to 4800m. I decided to sleep below at 3600m and to join the others in the moring, when we were also joined by a popular Ecuadorian TV program. Instead of riding down the road, we went straight down the slopes of the volcano. Quite a few mountaineers tried to climb to the top, which was over 1000m higher than the hut, for us it was all about the downhill. I was glad I packed my goggles, the wind was blowing again and the volcano dust was good for visuals but hard on us and our equipment. I was feeling a lot better after sleeping at lower altitude.
Next stop was Ilinizas Nord and Sur. This volcano has two summits, the plan was to get to the hut in the saddle, at 4770m. To safe time and 3 hours of a painful uphill we tried to make arrangements with a helicopter to drop us of at the saddle, unfortunately we had to abandon this plan for multiple reasons. Our drop off zone was too high for the helicopter, it was a cost factor as well as uncertainty with the weather. We couldn’t take the risk, therefore we bit the bulltet and started the long slug up to the mountain hut, 2000ft above the place where the truck could shuttle us. 2000ft might not sound like a whole lot of climbing, but trust me at this altitude its like 3 times harder than at sea level, where I’m used to ride in California. We reached the rustic hut, the weather was now on our side, and the winds had stopped. We dropped off our gear and continued on the South (Sur) Summit, unfortunately we couldn’t get too much higher, before the terrain became unridable. Beautiful views were our reward and a curious and hungry fox entertained us with its visits, before the sun went down. We cooked dinner and by 9 o’clock we were all in bed. It was beautiful morning and the temperatures were above freezing, which made everything alot more comfortable. We started the hike towards to the North summit (Ilinizas Norte) in the dark with our headlamps before the crack of dawn. We climbed for another 600 feet, before we turned around and pointed our wheels towards the valley below. This was my favorite descent, what took almost 4 hours to climb up – one step at a time, took only about 10 – 15 min. to get back down. Steep loose terrain on the top and great trekking trails further down, until we hit the doubletrack road for an additional 8km to the village of El Chaupi in the Eastern Cordilleras.’
Four volcanos done, one to go. We left the biggest and mightiest for last, Chimborazo 6310m / 20702ft. Again we could drive to approx. 4800m, we had a one hour climb on foot to reach the upper hut. It was a beautiful area, the snowcovered volcano was glowing in the sunset. The air was thin, it was hard going, especially taking photos was hard. Going up the hill again for the fifth time in a row was challenging, especially when i had to stop every 30 steps to catch my breath. Didn’t enjoy the night in the refugio, wind was hauling super hard, didn’t sleep a whole lot and was happy to start the early morning descent. Chasing wild lama and rainbows was the motto of the morning. Fun riding the slopes of the volcano. We had reached our goal – 5 high altitude descents in 5 days. Check that one off the bucket list.
Back to Quito for another day, it was cool to meet some of the local riders who all remembered me from when I used to do trials shows in Ecuador some 14 years ago. It was amazing to see the bike culture that has developed here in the past 20 years. Lots of bike shops and tons of recreational riders as well as sersious mountain bikers. Every sunday, the biggest road through Quito, Avenida Amazonas, closes for traffic and only bikes are allowed. It was so cool to see this happen.
All photos copyright by Patrice Schreyer
Check out a clip from Ecuadorian TV