Writings by Deia Schlosberg
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Writings by Gregg Treinish
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On The Trail In Ecuador
By Deia Schlosberg

July 24, 2006


Every day is so full that time seems at least three times as long as it really is. We started our most recent chapter getting dropped off by a ridiculously overcrowded bus a couple hours west of Latacunga. Again, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Our topo map showed it as a small town called Capagua, but the reality was a building and a few huts on the dirt road that ran south out of town -- also our route for the time being. Gregg and I spent the first few hours of the hike discussing development aid, initiated by a string of emails with my cousin Kate (currently in Senegal through Peace Corps). We later came across Cesár, a man collecting fire wood near the road into a bundle on his back about the same size as our packs. We began talking to him, and he invited us down the steep hill toward a small cluster of dwellings--a small cinder block house and three circular straw huts. Our expectation was that we would rest for a while, visiting with Cesár and his family (his wife, Maria, periodically running out the door to shoo the pigs away from the huts) and then continue on our way to find a campsite before. The night turned into the most phenomenal demonstration of kindness that I believe I've ever been a part of. Several families--at least eight adults and five kidlets--packed into the small cinder block house, which had a front room--the kitchen, and a back room--the bedroom/ storage room, for an incredible night of trading curiosities and mutual appreciations. We were invited to stay first for a feast of rice and potatoes and meat and soup, and the experience continued to include: a trumpet performance by Juan, the father of the second family (which Gregg reciprocated with one of the harmonica variety); the playing of music (their only CD, an Ecuadorian horn band, on a completely anomalous CD player); the taking of photographs; a trading of notes (written Spanish was much more clearly understood by both sides, as their Spanish has a strong Quechua influence, and ours is, well, just not that fabulos yet); goofing around with the little ones; and lastly, we realized that the second bed that they had been making up throughout the night was intended for us. Seven people slept in the first bed in the room, while we used the second . Earlier in the night, Juan explained to us that their community (which included many other small clusters of buildings and huts, a school, and the surrounding valley of fields) was a government potato commune: Comuna Mucata. In exchange for the use of the land, the people had to give the government a small share of their potatoes. Juan said they were happy with the setup, and from the amount of laughing and smiling throughout the night, it seemed that we really were amongst people that had very little but were truly happy.


In the morning, we said our many thank-yous and continued walking south along the dirt road over a windy mountain pass and down the longest downhill ever. On the way into the very small town of Angamarca, we passed hordes of church-goers, walking back up the hill to their homes, each greeting us with a very hearty handshake (both hands bracing both hands), and kind greetings, half in Spanish, half in Quechua. I am probably a foot taller than all of them. We continued steeply climbing as the sun set. By dusk, we had found perhaps the most beautiful campsite either of us had stayed at. High on the side of a ridge, hanging over a valley covered in quilted fields, layers and layers of the steepest ridges and deepest valleys continued out in all directions, and over all of this, the new moon allowed a dense cloudy milky way to step forward as the sun got farther around the backside. High winds howled around us, making even more dramatic the scene.

The next day was unquestionably the most frustrating of the trip. Trails that ended in thick, knotted vegetation on 50 degree slopes, directions from the few people we encountered leading us in opposing directions from each other--all of which disagreed with the compass reading (well, it's volcanic rock, is there magnetite here?), countless futile trips up and down 3500 ft. deep valleys, and on and on. Yet it was still beautiful and amazing and we knew it. And though frustrations surfaced, it was still possible to appreciate where we were and what we're doing and find some humor and a nice campsite in a narrow river valley.


Another day of similar hiking followed, though this time more clearly on the right track, as we ended up in our goal of the very elusive town of Simiátug. Our estimate of elevation climbed in these four days is 27,000 ft. The town treated us very well, as if it knew what the past few days had dished out. We were given use of the town assembly hall to sleep in, as the restaurant owner declared that it was too cold to camp outside. It being late and us being exhausted, we took her up on the offer, and ended up sleeping on the stage of the big room, wind rattling the metal roof above us. The wind in the mountains of Ecuador is as much a feature as the mountains and valleys themselves. It does not go unnoticed.


Our subsequent trip back to Quito was due to our desire to climb Cotopaxi, the 19,000 ft. volcano we had hiked to and around on our first trek. Santiago, a man we had run into at an alpaca hacienda near the base of Cotopaxi gave us the number of his son, who would probably be able to guide us up the mountain and teach us skills for future ascents. However, as he was busy, his climbing partner friend Juan Carlos volunteered to help us out, and so we met up with him and his friend Nicholas as the bus station in Quito. More amazing Ecuadorian kindness had us staying at Juan Carlos' family's house for the night, before heading up to the national park and the refugio the next day. The refugio is a mountain hut that serves as the base camp for climbers: a place to cook and rest before the alpine start (early AM) necessary to do the climb. Our first day there was spent practicing on the glacier--crevasse rescue techniques, anchor building, self-arrest, and other mountaineering skills we will need to be safe in doing future ascents. The first day was also spent getting over a nasty stomach bug that had both of us in the bathroom for absurd amounts of time and in severe pain. Swell timing. By midnight, after a restless rest, we were ready and gearing up by headlamp for the climb. It was a completely surreal feeling . The towering behemoth of a mountain stood over us, and the only way to know it was there in the dark was the obstruction of stars in a mountain-shaped patch of sky behind the refugio and the line of headlamps getting fainter as they got farther up . Crossing the cinder screefield for half and hour before getting to the glacier was a sad reminder of global warming's reality. Huge areas all over Cotopaxi are now bright red from minerals left behind where the glacier has melted for good. This is not seasonal change on the equator; the glacier here is gone for good and losing more all the time. The old postcards hanging up in the refugio, in which the entire mountain is white, show this even better. Once we get to the glacier, the climbing is steady and steep. We get a good rhythm going, even passing other teams. Trekking at 14,000 feet has definitely helped us acclimatize for this one. It's hard work, but not as hard as I was expecting; neither of us are noticeably feeling the effects of the altitude. Looking down, we could see a long string of headlamp dots, and looking up, the same. Because there was no moon yet, only from those lights could I tell how very steep the grade was. We get to a long, steep, exposed stretch and the winds kick up quite a bit, dropping the temperature. Extremely frustratingly, my hands are losing feeling and I can't warm them up. My crampons have also loosened because the rubber of my boots has shrunk in the cold. Climbing up and working our bodies, it didn't feel that cold out, but seeing the physical evidence of my boots and then trying to drink from my frozen Nalgene made the low temperatures evident . I don't think I can explain the amount of frustration I felt at knowing that every second that we were stopped I was getting colder but also knowing that to keep going into the wind I would keep losing feeling and not be able to use my ice axe. I was already having trouble feeling it in my hand and knew that I was getting unsafe . We make the decision to keep going up to see if I can warm up enough to regain feeling, but after another ten or so minutes, I only loose more. We have to go back. We all have the energy and the strength and are acclimatized enough to summit, but my damn circulation painfully cuts our goal short. We make it to 5,500 m (18,000 ft.), higher than either of us has been by far, but I can't feel happy about it yet. The decision to go back had to be made very quickly, leaving a lot of room for regret, even though there was really no question about it. The way down was bittersweet. Drenched in loss, but I think seeing the sun rise to my right, over the steep, white glaciered face of Cotopaxi was one of the most beautiful things I've ever witnessed. For the first time since we set out, there was enough light to see what we were really doing, and looking up, to see where we had been. Even feeling like I had just failed, now being able to see, I was surprised and impressed at what we had done. But way beyond our accomplishments or not, I felt completely blessed to be on such an incredibly beautiful mountain, presented with sights I could not have imagined, especially knowing that the place that I have frozen in my memory as a vision is changing so quickly, and won't exist as such for much longer.