Trek de Condor
January 10-13, 1999
part of muellerworld
I had to repack my gear this morning because we were out very late last night, and didn't have time to do it. John and I put the gear we weren't taking in our extra duffel bags. We talked with an older American guy for a while over a contineltial breakfast at the Fuente de Piedra. Then we ran into Ronald and Remke in the lobby and said goodbye.
Maurico was to pick us up at 8:30am, and by a little after 9:00 he showed up. The first order of business was to stop past the Embassy Hotel to drop off our gear. Mauricio had made arrangements to have us store our unused gear there until we returned in a couple of days.
We left Quito heading southwest in the Ford Econoline van. We were heading towards El Tambo Just past the 4,100m Papallacta Pass. After loosing about 1,000 feet of levation along a steep and winding road, we stopped at a Super-Maxi geocery store for supplies for our 4-day trek. It wasn't open yet, so we hung out in the parking lot for a while. I jumped into the rear seat in the van and laid down to catch up on some sleep. Bruce did the same in one of the middle seats while John and Mauricio went shopping. They got a lot of food and spent about $200us in there!
The Condor Trail starts along the road where a hair-pin corner is. Slightly up the hill from that we stopped and met three young men who would do the trek with us. Santiago was our local guide, Luis and Danny were our horse handlers. They all looked to be about 15 or 16 years old and didn't speak much English. As soon as we unloaded, Maurico said he'd be back in a little while, and hopped in the van and drove off down the road. We sorted gear and prepped our packs, and waited around for a while, taking photos of the valley and playing around with a couple of cute little dogs.
It alternated between clear and beautiful and cloudy and rainy. The changes came fast and we knew that we'd be getting rained on a lot during the next few days.
The Trek de Condor is known as one of the best treks in Ecuador (if not the best). It is also know as a muddy slog over the paramo past Antisana, Sinchologaua and up to Cotopaxi. We were told that we might see condors later in the hike, but that there is certainally no way of knowing if they'll be out.
We were ready to leave when Maurico returned, we got our gear ready, the horsemen left and it was announced that it was lunch time!
The small hut we had been near was also a restaurant. It was small and had a thatch roof and was very dirty and didn't look very inviting. We went inside and were offered chicken soup or truches (trout). John and chose the fish and were amazed by how great it was. The whole fish was served on a small plate with some tasty potatoes. It was wonderful.
Finally, we were off. A short walk down the hill brought us to the hair-pin corner where the Trek de Condor started. It was muddy from the rain as we passed through a small fence and started following cattle trails up the valley. Within 15 minutes we stopped to put on rain gear. As we were doing that, it started to hail. Within 30 seconds, the ground was covered with small white spheres. It was not an encouraging start.
There was a small river that we were near called the Rio Tambo, which we crossed not too long into our hike. My guide book said that the trail follows the river for an hour or so, before crossing it and heading towards El Tambo, a 4,134m flat-topped hill. This section of the trail generally heads southwest, but as we reached the area near El tambo, we slowly swung towards the southeast before heading downhill to Lake Volcan and our first camp on its southwest shore.
We passed many cows and slogged through many muddy stream crossings en route, and were very ready for a rest that afternoon. I had heard that the first day of hiking is 4-6 hours, but we did it in three because there wasn't any scenery beyond the clouds and grey skies. I suppose the difference is in the leisury pace that most groups take under clear skies, taking many scenic breaks and lots of photos. We kind of rushed through the rain and only took a few damp breaks.
Mauricio pointed our camp as we descended towards the lake (at 11,900'). Luis and Danny had set up a mess tent that was blue and yellow and looked a lot like a circus tent. The horses were wandering about the area grazing and the horsemen were fishing in the nearby stream as we arrived. There was another forign (Austrian or German?) group camping on the same side of the lake. They were quite a ways off, but we could tell that it was a well-equiped outing, with large, heavy tents, chairs, and lots of horses. While we were definately relying on our two horses, I perferred our smaller, less fancy approach to a locally-guided trek.
John and I were to be tentmates and started to set up our red "Reinhold Messner" signature tents that Mauricio had for us. They were pretty nice and were a great size for us.
My low-cut trekking shoes were pretty well soaked, so I propped them up hoping that the sun might dry them a bit. I walked around a bit in my bare feet, but there was so much horse poop, that I didn't fully investigate the area. Bruce had a great idea, and I copied him by putting two stuff sacks on as footies, then I was able to walk around and not worry about what I might accidentially be walking through. I spent some time writing in my journal and talking with the others.
Dinner was prepared by Mauricio and Santiago. It started with an appetiser of popcorn, then we had a delicious veggie soup, fried pasta and chicken. After our meal was cooked, Luis and Danny fried up their trout and ate as well.
I was in my sleeping bag by 7:00pm, ready for some shut-eye. The night was incredibly long, and both John and I took many pee breaks (we were hydrating like crazy to help our acclimization process).
Day Two along the Trek de Condor. I woke up at 7:00am, and john noted that the temperature was only in the mid-30s. As we got ready, Mauricio preparred a quick breakfast that featured fruit, yougurt, cheese, granola and hot tea. It was a great way to start the day.
I have now expected to be late for everything, so it didn't even matter that we didn't leave until an hour and fifteen minutes after when we thought we would. By 9:15am, we were underway (the larger group had left at 8:00am).
Today the weather was better, and the skies were clear, affording us better views than yesterday. As we gained altitude, Bruce fell behind dramatically. By lunch he was very tired and his feet were hurting a lot. Our lunch spot was beautiful. It was on a large slope with large boulders sprinkeled about. John and I took many close-up photos of the plants and rocks. Luis and Danny and the horses passed us as we ate.
I wasn't too thrilled with lunch: mangos and a pina were pretty bad, but I filled up on cookies and crackers. Antisana was to our right (east) and Cotopaxi was obscured by a ridge and some clouds to our left (west).
Shortly after lunch, we reached the high spot on the trek: 4,411m (14,470'). John and I yelled to Santiago and told him we were going to run up the hill. He looked puzzled as to why on earth we would do that, but, it was important to us to mark a new high elevation. I had climbed Mt. Whitney, California 18 months before and we were within 26' of that elevation, so John and I scrambled up the hill until 14,500' appeared on John's altimiter watch. As we came down off the pass, there was an engine and some landing gear from a plane crash back in 1981.
We had hoped to see condors today, but we never did. The area we were now in was also know as the "restaurant of the condors". Apparently, the park officials shoot of few of the older horses that roam the area so that the condors will have food without killing too many of the younger horses.
We took a short break and then descended a few hundred more feet and crossed a small stream before arriving at our camp site. Bruce appeared to be nearing death, and John and I set up our tent really fast, then headed up a hill just past our camp to have a little excercise before dinner. We were hoping for a good view of Cotopaxi. After 40 minutes of climbing, we were very close to the top at 14,160' but the cloud ceiling was dropping and I decided to go back down. Immeadiately after taking a photo or two, the rain started, and we hustled down the hill. I arrived about 5 minutes before John did, and he was soaked when he returned.
Dinner and tea warmed us up and we retired early again, at about 7:30pm. Mauricio told us that the group that we had camped next to last night was just down the stream from us. John tld me that he saw the camp when we were up on the hill, but I had missed it. It was a colder night, and I used my fleece liner for my +20F sleeping bag, but it was quite a hassle and it kept twisting and rotating in the bag as I tossed and turned. I was much more restless then the night before, and used my pee bottle instead of getting out of the tent 3 times during the night. The first time I filled it to the rim, narrowly avoiding a spillage disaster! "BIOTA", John said: "Blame It On The Altitude."
In the morning it was 25F and my shoes were frozen solid. Before breakfast we walked up a slight rise to see if Cotopaxi was visiable. Most of it was obscured by clouds, but we got our first glimpse of it. I was quite amazed by how symmetrical it was - much like Mt. Fuji and Mt Hood, Oregon (only a lot taller). A little bit nearer to us, Sinchologua was clearly visiable and I was quite taken by the mountain. In conrast to the glaciated slopes of Cotopaxi, Sinchologua had no snow on it despite being 4,893m (16,049').
We had a quick breakfast, filtered some water and took down our tents. At 9:15am, we were on our way across a long sand bar. To our right was a large field that changed from being empty to being full of sheep with in a few minutes. Mauricio told us that it is a private farm and we would have to pay $10us each to cross the short green strip. We whistled and waved to the ranchers, but they never noticed us, so we just continued across the field. We passed the other group's camp that was still being packed up by their horsemen.
Sanitago got some money from Mauricio and headed over to pay the ranchers for our crossing. We came around a small mountain and crossed a road that serves as access to Cotopaxi National Park.
The trail headed down a long valley towards Sincholagua. We crossed another 14,000' pass and kept walking up a huge valley for a couple of hours. At the end of the valley was a shear wall with a few tents below it. There were a couple of waterfalls, and all the high, dry ground was already occupied by the other group. We walkd around for a while, but found only wet ground and wet ground covered by tussocks.
Luis and Danny knew that we were unhappy with the site they selected and they made an extrodanary effort to make us comfortable: they cut down many of the grass tussocks and made a foot-thick bed platform for us. It seemed to raise us off the ground enough to keep us dry, so we pitched our tents on the soft bed and took the extra precaution of putting our sleeping bags and Thremarests inside our bivy sacks.
By now Bruce seemed useless and John and I had several conversations about what to do with him and what may happen with him as part of our team.
I was right about the group next to us being from Europe, they were Austrian. A few of them wandered over and said hi. They spoke French and Itailan, but finding that out was the extent of my language skills and I called John over who spoke enough of both to talk a little. They were acclimatization, same as we were, before heading off to the mountains. Their plan was to start with Cotopaxi, then attempt Chimborazo before heading to Argentina for an attempt of Acongua.
After writing in our journals for a little while, John pulled out a small bottle of Hagermeister. We shared it in celebration of seeing our first condors that afternoon.
Midway through the night I was awakened by a strange sound right outside our tent. When the tent shook a little, it really weirded me out. I had visions of one of our horses tripping over a tent wire and falling on us, or something crazy like that. John and I shook the tent from inside, but the snorting and shaking continued. I remembered camping in Alaska when a bear was outside my tent, and then I couldn't sleep at all. I eventually drifted off to sleep because the next thing I remember it was morning.
John complained about having slept on a rock and was a little sore. The best theory we could come up with about the mystery sound was John's. He figured that the sound was made by the lead ropes hanging off the horse's mouthpieces. Bruce added some information about a local bird that sounds like a UFO, and he thought that was the sound.
We managed to get up early, eat breakfast, strike the camp and leave by 8:15am. When we were taking the tent down, we discovered the hilarious truth about the "rock" that John had slept on all night: it was a large horse patty.
The Austrians left just before us, but we were quickly in line with them heading up the steep hill towards Sinchologua. Antisana was huge at the end of the valley behind us, and Sinchologua loomed large over the saddle we were climbing towards.
We labored up the trail for about 45 minutes gaining over 1,000 feet! We were very happy with our progress and impressed by how well we seemed to be acclimazating.
Cerro Sinchologua is 17 km north east of Cotopaxi and rises to 4,893 meters (16,049'). It lies just outside the park boundary and is one of the many mountains that Edward Whymper made a first ascent of (via the northwest ridge which is still considered the normal route). Mauricio told me that the last 20 meters or so near the main peak are very exposed, but managable on the loose scree. Despite its rocky appearance, Sinchologua was previously covered by a "permanent" icecap.
I was totally fascinated by the peak, and just kept looking at it and asking Maurico more and more about it. I was even ready to delay our return to Quito and have a go at the summit, but I knew that that wasn't going to happen.
I was the first one in the party to reach the saddle and get the magnicificent view of Cotopaxi. It was difficult to realize that I was going to attempt to put myself on top of the huge mountain in one week. We took a long break for photos and thinking. I wrote a postcard and made some notes in my journal. It was a great place.
We marveled for a moment then traversed to the right and started the long downhill walk to the end of the trail. After five minutes we came across an Austrian taking a dump about 5 feet off the trail. We backtracked for a minute and waited for Bruce to limp along. He was really hurting.
The gully we were descending looked like it got a lot of flow during some parts of the year. Today it was dry and rugged. Every 20 minutes or so, we'd stop to wait for Brunce for 10 minutes. It was getting to be tedious for all of us. Even the slow horses passed us on the way down.
At 11:50am we broke for lunch and waited for Bruce. While he rested Maurcio, John and I tramped up a grassy slope to a triangular survey marker. Unfortunately, there wasn't an elevation on it, but the spot offered a great view back up to Sinchologua and across the planes to the cloud-covered Cotopaxi. Maurcio pointed out our pick-up spot well below us. It was a farm that was set far off any main road. He estimated that we only had 50 minutes to go and 1900 feet to loose (according to John's altimiter, it was only about 1,000 feet...).
We met back up with Danny and John and I moved ahead quickly with him down the Jeep trail. Mauricio said something to him as we moved ahead and it became clear in a few minutes that whatever was said was something like "slow them down". He was helpless as we hopped into the other wheel track and passed him. We stopped in a few minutes and waited for 10 minutes in a pasture for everyone to catch up.
Bruce was the only one absent as we reached the gate of the farm. Mauricio had told us that the last day would be a 3 hour hike; with Bruce it stretched to just over 5 hours. After a short walk up a driveway, we came to an open area near a stream where we waited for 10 minutes for our van. The horsemen took a quick sponge bath in the creek and when we were done we tipped them 50,000 sucres each (about $7 US). Mauricio had suggested that 30,000 Sucres would be appropirate, but we wanted to be a little more generous than that. I think that Mauricio was a bit worried that Santiago, Luis and Danny might become accostom to good tips and start to demand a higher price from Mauricio in the future. We were also cautious to heed a warning in a guidebook that said that Americans throwing cheap money around has changed many standards for the residents and also has led to an artificial increase in fees for tourist-related activities.
On our way off the farm, I noticed a large rock with 3,620 meters painted on it. The "road" (and I'm using that term loosely) off the farm wound through fields and crossed streams and large puddles, and eventually brought us to a main road that led back towards Quito.
There was a student protest in a small town south of the capital. There was a large group of kids gathered on one side of the Pan-American Highway and they thrown stones all over a 200' stretch of the road. We slowed down and passed peacfully. We continued north, got lost, drove around in circles for a while, then made it back to Quito and checked into the Embassy hotel after about 3 hours in the van.
The Embassy was just down Wilson Street from the hotel we stayed in when we first arrived. For some bad reason, Bruce, John and I were assigned Room 13 - a large 3-bed dormatory that we promptly filled with stinky gear. John and I gathered some of our worst-offending clothes and found a laundry across the street. Because we wanted quick service, we had to pay a premium - $10 US Dollars for 2-hour service (we had 20 pounds of clothes to clean). The man said he'd deliver it to us at 7:00pm.
John and I found a currency exchange on Amazonas that was heavily guarded by men with shotguns. They would not accept my traveller's checks because I had not signed them since I bought them at the Houston Airport.
We ate an extravagant dinner at the Cafe Columbia. The waiter spoke no English, our rudimentry Spanish failed us, and John's translation book proved to be worthless. I ordered a steak and got a 30,000 Sucre Pork Chop. John was presented with a 29,000 Sucre T-Bone Steak. A fine bottle of Reserve Chillean Wine was served with a damn good mixed salad. After much talk, eating and a few deserts, we paid our 250,000 Sucre bill and staggered to an internet cafe to check in with our families and friends. I got 6 and sent 10, knowing that I wouldn't be able to use a computer again for most of the next week.
As we packed for our 8:30am departure, I made the ridiculous decision to not shave my scraggly beard that had accumlated in the last 4 days. I was curious if I could grow a beard, and I figured it didn't matter how stupid I looked in the mountains.
|Please contact me with corrections, questions or comments: Matt Mueller||
revised: 4 January, 2001