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Trip Report (continued):
The beginning of this trip report is here.
Day 4: The ascent of Cotacachi. The day started with some really bad news. We all noticed Rob's frequent visits to the bathroom during the night and it soon became clear that he had serious stomach problems. In the morning, he was quite weak and it was evident that he had to remain in bed while we attempted Cotacachi.
We got up at 0400. The motel served us breakfast and we were on our way in Diego's Landcruiser by 0450. The road up to the trailhead turned out to be of very variable quality. There were sections that were pretty good, but then other parts that were really terrible. We admired Diego's guts and driving skills as he pushed the vehicle across large boulders and deep holes as well as close to places where water had taken the road away altogether. We reached the trailhead by 0600. More than one hour to drive 11 kilometer says it all.
It was a beautiful morning, crisp air and a mix of clouds and blue patches all over the morning sky. At 0700, after one hour we had our first rest at the col where parties sometimes establish a base camp. Adam expressed a bit of "weak motivation", he seemed more tired than on earlier hikes. We proceeded uphill and as we ascended a ridge that led uphill, we observed a small herd of lamas on our left side. Diego told us that they were not really wild, somebody would claim ownership. Higher up, it was time for a second break before entering the small valley further ahead and further left. The clouds parted and we had a very nice view back down to the lake Lago Cuicocha. Time to wear helmets as this area could have instances of rock falling from above.
We entered the valley and ascended up the slab rocks along the right hand side. "Swooosh", a small rock zoomed by my helmet about 1.5 meter away. Thus, the reputation of this area was fully confirmed. We came up on the level section above the rock ramp and ran into snow for the first time. Putting on crampons, we quickly observed that Adam had a very bad match between his light, leather hiking shoes and his crampons. The combination did not look very safe and Diego did not approve what he saw. Fortunately, this location was well protected by a steepish rock overhead, so no rockfall danger right here. We agreed that Adam should wait in this location while Diego and I would proceed and make a serious attempt to climb this somewhat elusive peak.
We continued across the first small snowfield, then downclimbed a crack/ledge of rock keeping the crampons attached. This got us onto a pretty large snowfield that we could continue to ascend leading us to a very distinct snow col. I approached this col with utmost care, not knowing if it could be corniced at the opposite side. Taking a careful peek above the edge revealed a completely safe and gentle downhill slope on the other side. Proceeding a few meter downhill, we were now on a pretty large snowfield that extended downhill as far as visibility permitted. We turned a gentle corner moving right and then followed a nice snow gully that ascended somewhat steeper uphill. Topping out from this gully, we were at the level with a small shoulder on our right hand side. We moved horizontally left and entered a very narrow gully that extended further uphill. Diego explored the first part, sort of frozen clay, it seemed like one might consider climbing with crampons despite the lack of snow or ice. Diego discovered an attached carabiner in this gully, so obviously, somebody had climbed here before.
However, the terrain was not very attractive and Diego suggested that we retreat and rather cross the gully and then attempt to climb the rock from that side. We left the crampons and ice axe behind. Diego climbed upwards, rather carefully as the rock was totally unreliable, but still quite efficiently. Eventually, he disappeared out of sight leaving intermediate belay points along the way. Finally, he shouted that I could start uphill. What had looked "simple" when he climbed, was suddenly not "quite" so simple. The climb was exposed and the rock was indeed very questionable. A "handhold" immediately got a new meaning: It is a "hold" that you reach for, take in your hand, then look at as you "hold it in your hand". What looked like plenty of holds turned out to be mainly loose and dangerous, fortunately, a few here and there seemed to last at least until you had moved on to new territory. Happily, I pulled myself up to the belay stance that Diego had established in a small notch.
From here, the route was much easier, (YDS) class 3 terrain. We proceeded carefully, but with good progress and before I knew it Diego sat down on the small and well defined summit. We shook hands and sat down, just enough real estate for two climbers. The weather was rather cloudy, thus the visibility was very limited. I could see part of the ridge that continued past the point where we had reached it. There were some blue patches of sky right overhead and in a good and memorable moment the sun hit us directly from above. We had arrived at 1010, a few photos and some drinks of water, we started down around 1020.
At the top of the climbing section, there was an old rappel anchor with an equally old backup. I pulled out a new sling and told Diego that we rather use a new piece. He ok'ed and I abseiled down on a single rope all the way to the steep protective rock wall across the gully. Half way down, another "swoosh", rock came hurling by me, possibly released by the rope higher up. Scary, scary. Diego needed to abseil twice, since we carried a rather short climbing rope. On top of this, the rope was rather unwilling when he tried to pull it down after his second rappel. Fortunately, the rope decided to cooperate and Diego joined me below the steep rock wall. Here, he pulled my sling from his pocket and handed it back to me. Diego !!, this was not good, I expressed my concern. He claimed the old anchor was good and that it would be a shame to leave my sling.
We cramponed down the snow gully on noteably softer snow and crossed the col. Before too long (at 1210) we were back where Adam was (patiently) waiting. We thanked him for his patience and continued with two easy rappels down the slope that we had ascended unroped. We continued easily back down to the col with the possible camp site and rested there before continuing down to the trailhead reaching it by 1305. Clouds were still obscuring the fine summit that we had just visited.
The drive back down the terrible road went fine and when checking with Rob, he was feeling somewhat better. In fact, well enough to move. We therefore decided to drive back to Quito and stay there overnight. Casa Helbling was fully booked, but we got a pretty nice hotel, Cayman, only a couple of blocks away. Rob continued to rest, while Adam and I went to our favorite restaurant, Mama Clorinda, and celebrated with another nice meal.
Tomorrow, we shall travel to the base of Cotopaxi. A rest day is planned before we attempt the really big mountains of Ecuador. Our planned stay is in the National Park named Cotopaxi. (This trip report continues there.)