Monday, 16 June 2014

Ecuador - Cotopaxi

Cotopaxi in the setting sun - seen from the roof of our hotel
I had never seen an active volcano before I landed in Ecuador - now I am knocking them off at around one a day.
Cotopaxi is one of the best. If you ask a child to draw a picture of a volcano, they will draw Cotopaxi.
Max would say it was a classic strato-volcano, where ash and lava is thrown from a central vent, building a distinctive cone. Cotopaxi is high enough - at 5897m - to have a permanent snowcap; although it's thick ice and snow (glacial), of course, not snow.
We were lucky to visit the volcano on a wonderful clear day, when the whole mountain was visible and lucky, also, to see the setting sun turn the snow-cap pink as we sat on the grass at our hotel. From a distance, it doesn't look that high; it looks inviting, as if you could walk up it in an afternoon.
That is not the case, of course, climbing Cotopaxi is a serious endeavour. Lots of people climb it, but it's no picnic. Here, I'd like to give a shout to the British mountaineer, Edward Whymper, who, having climbed everything in the Alps, set out to "do" South America. Many first climbs in Ecuador are credited to Whymper, some he had to do twice before people believed him! He wasn’t the first up Cotopaxi, but he pioneered many climbs and many routes.
We'd driven to Cotopaxi from Quito that morning. It's not far and, in fact, southern Quito will be in the firing line when Cotopaxi goes off again (which it will). It's a short drive down the Pan-American Highway, following the line of Ecuador's main railway line (although we didn't see any trains) for part of the way.
After passing Cotopaxi, we went on to Latacunga, quite a large town despite being razed by an eruption in 1768 and again in 1877. In 1877 the entire ice-cap melted and lahars (mudslides) travelled as far as the Pacific Ocean westwards and east into the Amazon basin. Living near a volcano requires a certain optimistic outlook, but Cotopaxi hasn't gone pop for 70 years. The optimist would say "it's shot its bolt", the pessimistic would say "any day now .." It has erupted 50 times in the past 300 years, the last time in 1942. Such is the happy state of modern vulcanology that if Cotopaxi so much as clears its throat Latacunga and Quito would be the first to know. It makes flood insurance in Somerset seem quite trivial. Imagine the conversation with Churchill ...
Is there any risking of flooding? No.
Crime level? Low, very low.
Anything else we should be aware of? Well, there's this fucking great volcano ...
Lucy says there is a colour-coded warning system for volcanoes in Ecuador. Cotopaxi is currently snoozing, but if it ever gets orange, be very worried about your Latacunga real estate. If it turns red, head for Columbia or Peru.
On a more mundane level, in Latacunga, I experienced my first Ecuadorian shopping centre, unsurprisingly, very much like an English shopping centre, but with security guards on the car park entrance/exit.
The supermarket was dead quiet (they haven't really caught on in a big way yet). The liquor section had a fantastic array of counterfeit Scotch whisky and London gin, plus the local sugar cane liquor at a couple of quid a litre. We bought Chilean wine (just like we do in England).
Buying on credit is still quite new in Ecuador as a service that’s widely available. There were shops specialising in credit sales and they had everything from motorcycles to tumble dryers. In the UK, competition means we often get interest-free credit, but in Ecuador, there's a massive mark up for HP.
I can remember my parents, especially my Yorkshire mother, talking about HP. Her view was that if you couldn't afford to pay for it, you shouldn't have it. My mother's view hasn't prevailed, we now take it for granted - we get what we want when we want (within reason) - but I'm not sure rampant consumerism is such a good thing. Ecuador beware!
After picking up those provisions, we went back to find our hotel. Lucy had arranged this and also sorted a guide for the Cotopaxi National Park. Foreigners are not allowed into the National Park without a guide. This sounds like a scheme to ensure employment for locals (and it does do that), but it was also partly because so many people were getting lost. You also need a guide on any mountain above 5000 metres.
Our hotel - the Hosteria Alma Del Sur - was a complex of chalets surrounding a central building, which served as lounge, bar and restaurant. There's a field with goats and llamas and an amazing view of Cotopaxi. Rooms were great, our chalet has a massive window looking out on the volcano. It was $73 for a double room.
We drove up to the National Park and met our guide at the gates. He led the way in his 4x4 and we followed in the Chevrolet/Daewoo. The land surrounding the volcano is not unlike the Desolation of Smaug; the land is ash and cinders and, when Cotopaxi erupts, the first thing that happens is the ice cap melts, causing flash flooding (lahars) and dramatic valleys are cut by the meltwater.
My sister and Cotopaxi by the lake at 3800m
We drove up to a lake at 3800m. This was formed by meltwater from the mountain and it's home to a number of wading/moorland birds, including a South American plover. The wind was really strong when we got out of the car and we had a short walk along an observation platform. Our guide said we could walk around the lake or we could drive up to 4500m where there was a car park and you could then walk up a couple of hundred metres to a mountain refuge.

Such was the lure of the mountain, we wanted to be as close to the top as possible; although, for me, walking at over 9000ft means I'd be gasping for breath.
The track up to the car park is not too bad. The road winds up the mountain and is literally a cinder track. I took this video on the way up, you can see it here. I also took this from the car park at 4500m, although it's too windy to hear me.
At the car park, the views are amazing, although the strength of the wind meant you had difficulty standing up, let alone walking into it. Worse thing was that lots of ash and fine cinder was being whipped up and driven into your face. It felt as though you were being sand-blasted, you needed glasses on to protect your eyes and ski goggles would have been better.
My sister was not happy in these conditions and went back to the car accompanied by Margaret. Tom, Lucy and I pushed on towards the refuge with the guide. It was a tough climb, fairly steep, on loose ash and against that gritty wind. Part of the way was in a valley, which sheltered us from the worst, but just above half-way, it opened out and we met the full force again. I decided I'd had enough. The going wasn't too bad (I think I'm fitter now than I have been for some time), but the wind and grit made it deeply unpleasant. I didn't think the view or the overpriced cola in the refuge would be worth it, so I said I'd turn back. 

Tom, Lucy and our guide, heading down to the car park.
I think everyone had been waiting for the call. It's easier going down, you can dig your heel into the ash and it's soft like walking down a sand dune. Back at the car, Margaret was in the back with my sister, who said she was cold and was struggling to breathe. I think we need to acclimatise her before taking her high again.
As we drove up to the car park, you could see a large chunk of ice missing from the cap just above the refuge. I read later there had been an avalanche in 1996 following on from some earthquakes and 13 people had been killed. The avalanche struck the refuge and people escaped by climbing from windows. Our guide told us that he'd been up to the car park the day before and it had been covered in an inch of snow.
Back at out hotel, we were able to watch the setting sun turn the ice-cap pink. Tom wanted a higher vantage point to take a picture and asked the hotel manager if he could go upstairs into the restaurant (which was closed as we were the only guests). He came up with us and opened one of the windows so we could climb out onto the roof – can you imagine that happening at Travelodge?

Tom and Lucy on the hotel roof - and me as well, of course.