Volcanoes and the Equator

Of all of the Andean countries, Ecuador feels like the most sensible. Never how you want to be described is it? Here the Andes lose their grandeur and turn into green rolling ranges making it pleasant and fertile farming country.  The people are lovely, helpful and friendly but more subdued than the Argentinians, certainly than the Colombians. Quito is full of US chains, they use the US dollar and the roads are well maintained. It´s all very, well, sensible.

One thing Ecuador does have in abundance is a huge array of volcanoes and some of them are pretty large. In fact, their highest volcano, Chimborazo, is 6310m and because of the equatorial bulge its peak is the furthest point in the world from the earth´s centre into the atmosphere. This makes it higher than Mount Everest by that measure, certainly a good line to use if you’ve climbed it!

In my endeavor to do at least one decent walk in each country I visit, I decided to have a crack at Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest peak at 5897m, three metres higher than Kilimanjaro. I’ve climbed Kili, it was pretty full on and took six days to summit. What’s unusual about most of the peaks in Ecuador is that they are really easy to access. For Cotopaxi, you drive up to 4600m and then it is only a short climb to base camp at 4800m. This just leaves a 12 hour hike of pain to the summit.

The route to the top involves a glacial traverse. Because of this you need to wear crampons, use ropes and a carry a pick axe. It is not technically difficult so with a good guide you don’t need to have had prior experience, which was good for me. It was shaping up for a grand adventure and I even managed to rope in a fellow traveller, Maria Sykes, who also had never used crampons. In fact, Maria had only done her first hike a month before on the Inca trail in Peru.

We had to hire lots of mountaineering equipment before leaving Quito and I grumbled about having to get special mountain boots and snow pants – I thought my hiking trainers and long johns would do the trick. We approached the mountain in bad weather so we were not able to get a sense of its size. The first day was very straightforward – a 200m climb to base camp. We had a bite to eat, went to bed at 6pm and woke at 11.30pm for breakfast so that we could walk through the night and summit at day break.

To say I underestimated the scale of the venture would be quite an understatement. Crampons really enhance your ability to negotiate very steep terrain which was helpful because our path took us straight up! On exposed ridges the wind was unrelentingly ferocious and icicles formed on any exposed facial hair. The most beautiful part of the climb took us through an ice valley of massive stalactites and we had to jump across two crevasses before scaling a snow wall.

If I had underestimated the difficulty of the climb for myself, I had most definitely underestimated it for Maria. After much solid climbing and a valiant effort on her part we turned back at 5500m, 397m from the top. It would be fair to say that I was disappointed and got into a bit of a strop. Maria was exhausted and felt awful and our guide who had employed an aggressive manner from the start became even more dictatorial on our descent. We were not happy party on arriving at camp! It’s a shame really because the descent was absolutely stunning. The stalactite valley was beautiful at daybreak, we had Quito in plain sight below us and views stretching across to most of Ecuador’s major peaks.

After a bit of breakfast and a cup of coffee we all managed to get out of our moods in order (more correctly, I got out of my strop) and we had a laugh about the experience. As testament to how challenging the climb is, only two of the nine parties that tried to summit at the same time as us were successful and most of them had a lot more mountaineering experience than us.

From Quito it’s a short ride to the Equator. It’s a dusty, unpleasant sort of place but the Equator is a big draw especially in a country named after it. The official monument built in 1979 is actually 300m shy of the Equator but this hasn’t dampened a steady stream of visitors.

It’s possible to visit another site right on the Equator which is very gimmicky but good fun. Here I balanced an egg on a nail,
if you’ve never tried, it’s difficult. Apparently, because there is less
gravity on the Equator, it should be easier. This was one of many “scientific” experiments carried out. Our guide had a kitchen sink to hand with which to carry out three tests. First water was poured into the sink right on the on the Equator and it didn’t swirl when going down the plug hole, it went straight down. The same test was carried out in the Northern Hemisphere where the water swirled counterclockwise and it went down clockwise in the southern hemisphere. I was amazed but skeptics argue, and a quick google search reveals, it’s probably all a hoax and that the Coriolis force – which does exist and is attributed to causing this phenomena – does not impact how water drains. Dammit! But hey, I work in PR, why let the truth get in the way of a good story.

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