Ecuador has extremely changeable weather, and you really do get to experience four seasons in one day...one hour even! This meant we had a very exciting thunder storm on Rucu Pichincha, our first target at just under 4700m. A couple of the guys were suffering from the altitude, so half of us turned tail just before the summit, and I am glad we did, as the storm that we were in/under was quite something, with hail and deafening cracks of thunder, lightening striking all the hills around. We had to take shelter off the ridge line, but the nature of Ecuadorian weather meant it passed within an hour or less. Phew!
We had a more gentle day on Pasachoa 4200m, and had a lovely surprise as we reached the summit ridge and the collapsed caldera - Pasachoa did not erupt upwards, it sank, leaving a distinctive valley formation that looked spectacular from the summit.
Next was the rocky Ilinizas Norte at 5116m, on which we managed to get to around 5000m on a lovely clear, cold but windy day, before having to descend. A good night in a traditional mountain refuge aided acclimatisation despite our not making the top.
Then it was off to our first glaciated mountain, Cayambe 5790m. Different rope teams made it to between 5300 and 5600m before the deep fresh snow and altitude beat us back. Again, at least we were getting acclimatised.
We were luckier with the weather on the famous Cotopaxi, the highest active volcano in the world at 5897m. I made the summit, along with guides Pancho and Miguel, and clients Magda, Darren and Leanne. A great day out, starting at just after midnight, and summiting at 7am.
Our final and biggest challenge was Chimborazo, nearer to the Sun than anywhere else on Earth. It had changed considerably recently due to volcanic activity, and the PD grade given for the normal route involves a lot of loose ground, then scrambling, followed by some very steep ice indeed, needing ice screw protection. Two ropes had to turn back in the early hours, reaching 5600 and 5700m respectively, due to altitude, cold and fatigue. One other rope party of Pancho, Darren and Magda made the summit, and were were all really proud of them as it was a tough pull.
The Ecuadorian volcanoes are often advertised as easy high-level mountaineering, but I would challenge that. Yes, it is fantastic to be able to sleep relatively comfortably in great refuges, easily accessed, and this certainly enables you to climb higher than would otherwise be possible. But, (and it's a big but), the weather is notoriously unreliable, and extreme cold, poor visibility, difficult route finding and the effects of altitude make them serious propositions despite the touristy feel. I and the rest of the team really enjoyed the food, hospitality and organisation of the local guides, and I hope to go back one day to summit those peaks we had to miss out on. I certainly won't underestimate them though!