Category Archives: Ecuador

Chimborazo, Ecuador… A Lesson for Mrs. McDowell´s Geography Class

Mount Chimborazo, the farthest point from the Earth´s center, at sunset

Mount Chimborazo, the farthest point from the Earth´s center, at sunset

It seems that everyone and her ex half-sister comes to Ecuador and attempts to climb Mount Cotopaxi. And for good reason. It’s a lovely volcano that stares you down as you walk the colonial plazas of Quito.  But it also looks like every other big volcano I’ve climbed in the Americas.  Volcan Chimborazo, on the other hand, is a bigger, uglier beast, and has a nice geographical story, one that I use to share with my Earth Science classes.

Due to its rotation, the Earth is not a sphere but instead, an oblate spheroid; it flattens at the poles and bulges at the equator.  Although some 2600 meters shorter than Mount Everest relative to sea level, its proximity to the equator makes Chimborazo stand out farther from the Earth’s center than any other mountain in the world.  Standing on its summit at noon, you can be closer to the sun than other location on Earth (well, that is if you are there during an equinox).  I thought these facts were pretty cool, and certainly worthy of a climbing attempt, if not pictures for a future powerpoint.

With no acclimatization nor route description of any kind, I set out for Chimborazo quite ill-prepared.  What I did have was some worn out rented climbing gear, a dollar-fifty bus ticket, and a driver who promised he would drop me off somewhere near the access road by 6 pm.  Rather than hiking up to the horrifyingly high refuge (5000 meters), I planned to sleep in the forest without a tent.  But my plans once again proved faulty and I arrived to an open windy landscape, a perfect recipe for a long miserable bivouac.

Miguel and Isabella kindly took me in for the night

Miguel and Isabella kindly took me in for the night

Once I arrived to the access road a friendly indigenous man came to greet me.  His job was to collect the $10 park entrance, but for some reason he only asked me for five.  I loved him already.  When I told him of my plans, he offered me shelter for the night in a tiny refuge with his wife.  I happily accepted and we cooked together and shared stories until they retired for their 7:30 pm bedtime, and I huffed and puffed through the night, trying my best to sleep at 14,000 feet.  Although my lungs didn’t like the idea, the next day I trekked up the dirt road to sleep at the high refuge, and to scout out the climb.

The approach hike was quite desolate

The approach hike was quite desolate

As I took in the view at the 16,500 feet high refuge, I tried to think of other structures in the world that stood this high.  None came to mind.  Thus it felt like quite a reward when the caretaker left me to spend the entire evening by myself up there.  After a route reconnaissance on the glacier, I came down to see the most beautiful sunset of my life, even more impressive than the one in Bucaramanga, Colombia.  There were numerous thin layers of clouds just above the horizon, so I was treated to a 40-minute sunset show that repeated itself each time the sun dipped below another stratum.  And as the sun finally descended below the horizon, it shined an orange heavenly glow on the clouds above for another 15 minutes.  If Johnny Cash were here, he would certainly have a song to write about it.

Sunset #1

Sunset #1

And a few more like this!

And a few more like this!

And twilight!

And twilight!

I arose from my bed at midnight to climb Chimborazo, and for my first time in 8 months of travel I was hit with a stomach bug.  What timing!  Perhaps the altitude magnified its effects, but whatever the cause, I was not going to be climbing high that day.  After just 800 feet of climbing, I couldn’t stand up.  I rolled on the volcanic rocks, gripping my poor belly.  After I finalized my decision to turn back, my body woke itself up, and cruised down to the outhouse below.  I lay in bed for the next eight hours, contemplating another shot at Chimbo for the next day, while asking myself why I had been drinking water from the tap throughout my travels.  My stomach was not liking the idea of another summit attempt, and thoughts of the Galapagos Islands were dancing in my head.  Chimborazo will be here another day, I thought, and I soon packed my bags for the 3000 foot descent to the highway.

Amid a gusty hailstorm, I giggled as I pranced my way down the trail. If I had been in this situation three years ago, I would have been stressing about my failed summit bid.  In fact I probably would have been stubbornly sitting at the high camp, waiting out as long as it took to recover, and missing out on other Ecuadorian adventures for the sake of my climbing resume.  I giggled because that was the old me.

When I arrived at the dirt access road, I met up with a Special Forces troop of the Ecuadorian army.  They agreed to not only drive me back to the highway, but also let me hitch a ride in the back of their truck for the two hours to Riobamba.  As I sat in the back, taking in the hail and carbon dioxide, I listened to the soldiers’ stories.  They were on the mountain that day to honor their friend and colleague who had died on Chimborazo the week prior.  Descending a technical route of the glacier, he was struck by a refrigerator-sized boulder, tumbling down the mountain.  He was an experienced mountaineering instructor, but was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hiking out in a hailstorm, the Ecuadorian Army saved my day!

Hiking out in a hailstorm, the Ecuadorian Army saved my day!

Our conversation dwindled in the second hour of our return home, and I thought about altitude sickness, stomach pains, and the recent death on a mountain that was supposed to be quite straight-forward.  Just getting a glimpse of the planet’s highest would be good enough for me that day.

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H20 Ecuador

En route to Otavalo, a monument expresses the importance of water to indigenous communities
En route to Otavalo, a monument expresses the importance of water to indigenous communities
For the last two and a half years, I spent some 10 hours a day, studying, researching, and discussing water.  Field sites, spread sheets, and textbooks all were dedicated to water quality, glaciers, snow, stream gauging, groundwater, and water conflict.  Yet during the whole process I was blind to the faces of the very people who are most affected by the world water crisis…until today.
In the last two days, I have been working with Bruce Stern, a U.S. expat in Quito, who for the last twenty-eight years has engineered “Clean Water Projects,” a mission-based non-profit, serving the water needs of rural communities all around Ecuador.  Unlike the missionary groups that I have encountered in my travels, he and his Ecuadorian engineers run a top-notch program.  They are not there to proselytize nor run a bible school; they are there to get things done for the people.  Their support for community-run wells, drainage ditches, small dams, and water disinfection systems throughout the country is evidence of their good intentions and their competence.  I met up with Bruce to see his program and to explore the possibility of long-term volunteer work. On our second day together we traveled to the rural north to check in with some of his communities.
On a cloudy afternoon, we pulled up to the small indigenous community of Pigurlca, just outside of Otavalo.  The people of Pigurcla were scared.  Their neighboring town had recently seen a contamination of their water network, resulting in several deaths and over 200 illnesses.  They realized that their limited surface water supply was also at risk, and soon contacted Bruce and his engineers.  We showed up to a very welcoming and quite concerned population.
As we sat around the community table, listening to the concerns of the town leader, more and more community members joined the discussion.  Within 15 minutes more than twenty of the town’s 60 people were there to express the severity of their water shortage.  If we weren’t there during business hours, I’m positive that all of the town would have been present.  They feed us hearty servings of corn, beef, potatoes, and cola, and treated us like miracle workers (they obviously didn’t know that I was a nobody in this situation).
We then proceeded on a field trip to visit their springs; the people were hoping that these springs could be protected, captured, and serve as a replacement to the surface water resources they had above town.  On an arduous descent into a gorge, we tunneled through some dense vegetation, and I had several near face plants along the way.  A few older ladies carrying children giggled as they skipped by in their flip flops.  The spring, although full of algae, had some potential.  But the problem was that it feeds into another community.  This would make for a great case study for my water conflict friends at Oregon St.
We then moved on to option #2, a healthy, unclaimed spring, 4 km away, as the crow flies, from the nearest community structure.  To avoid a nasty bushwhack we needed to take the Pan-American highway.  As we climbed into Bruce’s small pick-up, no fewer than twenty of the locals piled into the cab.  About to get on a highway, Bruce asked if we could just go ourselves, but they were too excited, so he requested only eight in the cab. Two got off and we were on our way.
That evening, we sat around the community table once again to discuss possible future development of their water resources.  As Bruce spoke, there was silence in the room.  One could see the tension in the eyes of the community members, as if they were about to find out the results of an important medical diagnosis.  The fate of their community health, as they saw it, was dependent on what Bruce was about to say.
Finances, support from volunteers, the feasibility of using these springs, and community participation all were integral to making water for this community.  Although no promises were made, engineers would return to do further assessments, and the people were left with a sense of hope.  As we rode away on the dust road to the Pan-American highway, local children chased Bruce’s pick-up, until they were overcome with dust and fatigue.  I stared at their faces for as long as they were in view.  I naively thought about staying there, and making this community my project for the next several months.  Bruce, desensitized by so many similar experiences, did not even look in the rear-view mirror.  “5500 communities in Ecuador,” he said. “All with much the same problems as this one.”

For the last two and a half years, I spent some 10 hours a day, studying, researching, and discussing water.  Field sites, spread sheets, and textbooks all were dedicated to water quality, glaciers, snow, stream gauging, groundwater, and water conflict.  Yet during the whole process I was blind to the faces of the very people who are most affected by the world water crisis…until today.

In the last two days, I have been working with Bruce Stern, a U.S. expat in Quito, who for the last twenty-eight years has engineered “Clean Water Projects,” a mission-based non-profit, serving the water needs of rural communities all around Ecuador.  Unlike the missionary groups that I have encountered in my travels, he and his Ecuadorian engineers run a top-notch program.  They are not there to proselytize nor run a bible school; they are there to get things done for the people.  Their support for community-run wells, drainage ditches, small dams, and water disinfection systems throughout the country is evidence of their good intentions and their competence.  I met up with Bruce to see his program and to explore the possibility of long-term volunteer work. On our second day together we traveled to the rural north to check in with some of his communities.

A morning visit to the town of Carabuela, where community members are already reinstalling a new piping network

A morning visit to the town of Carabuela, where community members are already reinstalling a new piping network

On a cloudy afternoon, we pulled up to the small indigenous community of Pigurlca, just outside of Otavalo.  The people of Pigurcla were scared.  Their neighboring town had recently seen a contamination of their water network, resulting in several deaths and over 200 illnesses.  They realized that their limited surface water supply was also at risk, and soon contacted Bruce and his engineers.  We showed up to a very welcoming and quite concerned population.

As we sat around the community table, listening to the concerns of the town leader, more and more community members joined the discussion.  Within 15 minutes more than twenty of the town’s 60 people were there to express the severity of their water shortage.  If we weren’t there during business hours, I’m positive that all of the town would have been present.  They feed us hearty servings of corn, beef, potatoes, and cola, and treated us like miracle workers (they obviously didn’t know that I was a nobody in this situation).

Softening us up with some grub and cola

Softening us up with some grub and cola

We then proceeded on a field trip to visit their springs; the people were hoping that these springs could be protected, captured, and serve as a replacement to the surface water resources they had above town.  On an arduous descent into a gorge, we tunneled through some dense vegetation, and I had several near face plants along the way.  A few older ladies carrying children giggled as they skipped by in their flip flops.  The spring, although full of algae, had some potential.  But the problem was that it feeds into another community.  This would make for a great case study for my water conflict friends at Oregon St.
Investigating a spring that is unfortunately shared by another community

Investigating a spring that is unfortunately shared by another community

We then moved on to option #2, a healthy, unclaimed spring, 4 km away, as the crow flies, from the nearest community structure.  To avoid a nasty bushwhack we needed to take the Pan-American highway.  As we climbed into Bruce’s small pick-up, no fewer than twenty of the locals piled into the cab.  About to get on a highway, Bruce asked if we could just go ourselves, but they were too excited, so he requested only eight in the cab. Two got off and we were on our way.

That evening, we sat around the community table once again to discuss possible future development of their water resources.  As Bruce spoke, there was silence in the room.  One could see the tension in the eyes of the community members, as if they were about to find out the results of an important medical diagnosis.  The fate of their community health, as they saw it, was dependent on what Bruce was about to say.

Finances, support from volunteers, the feasibility of using these springs, and community participation all were integral to making water for this community.  Although no promises were made, engineers would return to do further assessments, and the people were left with a sense of hope.  As we rode away on the dirt road to the Pan-American highway, local children chased Bruce’s pick-up, until they were overcome with dust and fatigue.  I stared at their faces for as long as they were in view.  I naively thought about staying there, and making this community my project for the next several months.  Bruce, desensitized by so many similar experiences, did not even look in the rear-view mirror.  “5500 communities in Ecuador,” he said. “All with much the same problems as this one.”

Welcome to Ecuador

P1000651

After a night out in Cali I hopped on a midnight bus bound to arrive in Quito, Equator some 18 hours later.  As the bus moved slowly south, the valleys widened, and we transitioned from the steep mountainous terrain of central Colombia to the more open and dispersed volcanoes of Ecuador.  The border crossing was smooth, simple, and scenic, and it wasn’t until I was 15 minutes inside Ecuador that I ran into the familiar hassle of being the only gringo on the bus.  A police officer flagged down the bus and escorted me and my Colombian neighbor outside to a quite generous frisking and bag check.  As he proceeded to empty all of my stuff sacks, toiletries, and sleeping bag, he asked if I had carried any drugs with me from Colombia.  “Just the usual,” I replied.  “Antibiotics, anti-malarials, and a few ounces of crack.”  He giggled, declined my offer of a sip of Colombian rum, and I was soon back on the bus, feeling guilty about inconveniencing a busload of Ecuadorians.

Arriving to beautiful Quito in the late evening, I felt lucky to already have an accommodation with Lore, my friend from Oregon State (some use graduate school to acquire connections for work; I used it to acquire connections for travel).  I walked into Lore’s home only to meet her entire extended family, some twenty people, there to celebrate her cousin’s last night in Ecuador before he departs for a PhD in Spain.  I would have to save my recovery sleep for another night, as there was no way I was going to miss this party.  Her family was too much fun.  After finishing several bottles of whiskey, they danced cumbia until two in the morning.  The only rule was that no one was allowed to sit down, and the parents and grandparents definitely outdanced the youngsters.  The party continued the next day with a traditional Ecuadorian family barbecue. What a loving tight family Lore has, and I feel so grateful to have been apart of it that weekend.

Ecuadorian Family Festival

Ecuadorian Family Festival

I now (Sept. 7) sit here in Banos, Ecuador, a small touristy town, some three hours from Quito.  I came here with Lore’s dad, who invested in a hostel here.  Depending on who you talk to, Banos is either a beautiful, laid-back, mountain town or a tourist-trap nightmare (I’m more for the later).  After a series of nearby volcanic eruptions in the last ten years, tourism has taken a sharp decline, and Lore’s dad is looking to get out of it.  My job today was to be the translator for some gringos who are looking to turn it into a tourist cultural center.  I did my best, and hopefully we’re about to strike a deal!

Super scenic and super touristy, Banos, Ecuador

Super scenic and super touristy, Banos, Ecuador

Arriving to beautiful Quito in the late evening, I felt lucky to already have an accommodation with Lore, my friend from Oregon State (some use graduate school to acquire connections for work; I used it to acquire connections for travel).  I walked into Lore’s home only to meet her entire extended family, some twenty people, there to celebrate her cousin’s last night in Ecuador before he departs for a PhD in Spain.  I would have to save my recovery sleep for another night, as there was no way I was going to miss this party.  Her family was too much fun.  After finishing several bottles of whiskey, they danced cumbia until two in the morning.  The only rule was that no one was allowed to sit down, and the parents and grandparents definitely outdanced the youngsters.  The party continued the next day with a traditional Ecuadorian family barbecue. What a loving tight family Lore has, and I feel so grateful to have been apart of it that weekend.
I now (Sept. 7) sit here in Banos, Ecuador, a small touristy town, some three hours from Quito.  I came here with Lore’s dad, who invested in a hostel here.  Depending on who you talk to, Banos is either a beautiful, laid-back, mountain town or a tourist-trap nightmare (I’m more for the later).  After a series of nearby volcanic eruptions in the last ten years, tourism has taken a sharp decline, and Lore’s dad is looking to get out of it.  My job today was to be the translator for some gringos who are looking to turn it into a tourist cultural center.  I did my best, and hopefully we’re about to strike a deal!After a night out in Cali I hopped on a midnight bus bound to arrive in Quito, Equator some 18 hours later.  As the bus moved slowly south, the valleys widened, and we transitioned from the steep mountainous terrain of central Colombia to the more open and dispersed volcanoes of Ecuador.  The border crossing was smooth, simple, and scenic, and it wasn’t until I was 15 minutes inside Ecuador that I ran into the familiar hassle of being the only gringo on the bus.  A police officer flagged down the bus and escorted me and my Colombian neighbor outside to a quite generous frisking and bag check.  As he proceeded to empty all of my stuff sacks, toiletries, and sleeping bag, he asked if I had carried any drugs with me from Colombia.  “Just the usual,” I replied.  “Antibiotics, anti-malarials, and a few ounces of crack.”  He giggled, declined my offer of a sip of Colombian rum, and I was soon back on the bus, feeling guilty about inconveniencing a busload of Ecuadorians.
Arriving to beautiful Quito in the late evening, I felt lucky to already have an accommodation with Lore, my friend from Oregon State (some use graduate school to acquire connections for work; I used it to acquire connections for travel).  I walked into Lore’s home only to meet her entire extended family, some twenty people, there to celebrate her cousin’s last night in Ecuador before he departs for a PhD in Spain.  I would have to save my recovery sleep for another night, as there was no way I was going to miss this party.  Her family was too much fun.  After finishing several bottles of whiskey, they danced cumbia until two in the morning.  The only rule was that no one was allowed to sit down, and the parents and grandparents definitely outdanced the youngsters.  The party continued the next day with a traditional Ecuadorian family barbecue. What a loving tight family Lore has, and I feel so grateful to have been apart of it that weekend.
I now (Sept. 7) sit here in Banos, Ecuador, a small touristy town, some three hours from Quito.  I came here with Lore’s dad, who invested in a hostel here.  Depending on who you talk to, Banos is either a beautiful, laid-back, mountain town or a tourist-trap nightmare (I’m more for the later).  After a series of nearby volcanic eruptions in the last ten years, tourism has taken a sharp decline, and Lore’s dad is looking to get out of it.  My job today was to be the translator for some gringos who are looking to turn it into a tourist cultural center.  I did my best, and hopefully we’re about to strike a deal!After a night out in Cali I hopped on a midnight bus bound to arrive in Quito, Equator some 18 hours later.  As the bus moved slowly south, the valleys widened, and we transitioned from the steep mountainous terrain of central Colombia to the more open and dispersed volcanoes of Ecuador.  The border crossing was smooth, simple, and scenic, and it wasn’t until I was 15 minutes inside Ecuador that I ran into the familiar hassle of being the only gringo on the bus.  A police officer flagged down the bus and escorted me and my Colombian neighbor outside to a quite generous frisking and bag check.  As he proceeded to empty all of my stuff sacks, toiletries, and sleeping bag, he asked if I had carried any drugs with me from Colombia.  “Just the usual,” I replied.  “Antibiotics, anti-malarials, and a few ounces of crack.”  He giggled, declined my offer of a sip of Colombian rum, and I was soon back on the bus, feeling guilty about inconveniencing a busload of Ecuadorians.
Arriving to beautiful Quito in the late evening, I felt lucky to already have an accommodation with Lore, my friend from Oregon State (some use graduate school to acquire connections for work; I used it to acquire connections for travel).  I walked into Lore’s home only to meet her entire extended family, some twenty people, there to celebrate her cousin’s last night in Ecuador before he departs for a PhD in Spain.  I would have to save my recovery sleep for another night, as there was no way I was going to miss this party.  Her family was too much fun.  After finishing several bottles of whiskey, they danced cumbia until two in the morning.  The only rule was that no one was allowed to sit down, and the parents and grandparents definitely outdanced the youngsters.  The party continued the next day with a traditional Ecuadorian family barbecue. What a loving tight family Lore has, and I feel so grateful to have been apart of it that weekend.
I now (Sept. 7) sit here in Banos, Ecuador, a small touristy town, some three hours from Quito.  I came here with Lore’s dad, who invested in a hostel here.  Depending on who you talk to, Banos is either a beautiful, laid-back, mountain town or a tourist-trap nightmare (I’m more for the later).  After a series of nearby volcanic eruptions in the last ten years, tourism has taken a sharp decline, and Lore’s dad is looking to get out of it.  My job today was to be the translator for some gringos who are looking to turn it into a tourist cultural center.  I did my best, and hopefully we’re about to strike a deal!