Living, Breathing Mountain
In early summer, Aspen-based skiers TJ David and Adam Moszynski hightailed it from the Rockies to the Andes to ski some of Ecuador’s largest—and currently active—volcanoes. In partnership with ASEGIUM, the country’s national guiding program, David and Moszynski took on high altitudes, uncompromising weather and sulfuric acid in their endless pursuit of winter.
It’s well before sunrise and I’m tied to the mountain. My mouth is saturated with the dry, smoky taste of coca. The leaf is working to keep altitude-induced nausea at bay, and, at 18,000 feet, beads of perspiration roll down my forehead, dropping to the frozen ground. My eyes wander through the monstrous shadows of the dark, glaciated landscape while my mind trails a few steps behind, trying to make sense of all that I’m seeing. The lights of Quito, Ecuador, roughly 60 kilometers to the northwest, are clearly visible. I breathe deeply, shrugging my shoulders to adjust the weight of the skis on my back. Finally, I’m high enough to see the city’s lights trickle into the darkness of the Ecuadorian countryside. But I have far to go before the climb is over.
Six days earlier, fellow Aspenite Adam Moszynski and I sat around a patio table at a small café in downtown Quito. In 2014, Adam and his wife, Darcy Conover, started a baselayer company, Corbeaux Clothing. Adam and I then traveled to Ecuador as part of Corbeaux Clothing’s Join the Flight campaign with nearly 100 assorted items of apparel to donate to the country’s national guiding association, Asociacion Ecuatorania de Guias de Montaña (ASEGUIM); however, that wasn’t our only mission. We planned to ski Ecuador’s three highest peaks—Chimborazo (20,702 ft.), Cotopaxi (19,347 ft.) and Cayambe (18,996 ft.).
We sat across from representatives from ASEGIUM, including president Juliana García, association secretary Sara Palacios and the Ecuadorian guide and friend who originally helped us contact the group, Jaime Andino. We were discussing the 2012 Ecuadorian legislation requiring guides to accompany climbers on peaks within the country’s national parks.
Our guide, Joaquin Andino, explained that they are “very strict” about allowing climbers, regardless of their ability levels, access to the park without guides. That enforcement, he said, has helped create a growing industry in Ecuador and gives validity to the guides’ association, which now boasts 64 certified guides operating around the globe with 16 more set to graduate in the coming months.
We shifted gears and began discussing ASEGUIM’s role in certifying and helping to outfit these aspiring disciples. But even as the conversation turned hopeful about Ecuador’s guiding future, I battled a sinking feeling about the current inclement weather and how it might affect climbing and skiing Chimborazo, Cotopaxi and Cayambe.
May and early June saw above-average rainfall in Ecuador, and even though we noted the clear weather when leaving the café that day, rain and snow in the mountains had plagued the country’s higher elevations. The 13,000-foot hillsides were green around us, but their banks hid an expansive cordillera of volcanic peaks masked in the dense grays of wind, rain and snow. The liveliness of Quito and its vibrant colors helped to disguise the truth beyond them; that over the last several years, the weather in Ecuador has been becoming increasingly less predictable.
The country’s volcanoes have also been becoming more active. Cotopaxi saw unprecedented amounts of recent volcanic activity. During May, 3,000 earthquakes were recorded on the mountain and sulfur dioxide emissions rose from 500 tons per day to nearly 3,000. With this in mind, Adam and I took off for a short acclimatization hike, climbing to 14,500 feet in the late afternoon sun. As we rose above the city, we were determined to not let bad weather damper our entire mission. We decided to narrow our goals and sights on solely skiing Cotopaxi.
I plant my foot firmly into the top of my ice axe and check the rope within the axe’s head. I’m belaying Joaquin across an ice bridge that will bring our three-man team to the other side of a crevasse. The crevasse expands past the outermost reaches of my headlamp where shadows take the form of monsters across the frozen ground. I dip my head and count each step in rhythmic meditation: “One and two and three and four and….” I follow Joaquin and Adam follows me, straight up the frozen mountain.
Joaquin knows the steep route well. He’s lost count of how many times he has summited Cotopaxi, let alone been on the mountain since he started guiding 10 years ago. As we continue to climb, Adam asks Joaquin how many times he’s taken clients up Rucu Pichincha (15,400 ft.), our first acclimatization peak.
“That was my first time with clients on the peak,” he says, waiting calmly for his answer to set in. Then, he adds “this week” with a laugh.
It’s no secret the mountains of Ecuador are well climbed, with paths beaten into the ice and volcanic rock every climbing season by hundreds, if not thousands, of eager mountaineers. But given my cognitive disarray from the high altitude, I’ve forgotten all about the guidebook that said this wasn’t a technical climb. The sun is finally shining, and the winds are calm.
After five and a half hours and a start time just before 2 a.m., we reach the top of Ecuador’s second highest peak and one of South America’s most active and famous volcanoes. I take in a huge mouthful of sulfuric acid steam coming straight from the earth. Cotopaxi’s crater, larger than seven football fields, sits just 20 feet away. I swallow, fighting the burning sensation.
Joaquin smiles as Adam and I take in the full scope of the Ecuadorian landscape. The glacier beneath us flows slowly toward the greenery of the countryside. The mountain exhales, emitting the gray haze of another sulfuric acid plume that steams the summit, my eyes and face. The plumes cloud my view until a light breeze blows it away. Our second acclimatization climb, the rugged summits of the Norte and Sur Iliniza’s, (16,818 ft. and 17,218 ft., respectively), stand tall on the horizon to our west. To the north sits Antisana (18,714 ft.), a jagged, complex combination of an old volcano eroded by glaciers and the growth of a younger cone that is now its summit. Behind me, the mountain continues to spit, blocking my view of the country’s highest mountain, ice-capped Chimborazo (20,564 ft.) to the south.
Acid steams from everywhere, as the plumes come in waves. We’ve hit our window, and Adam and I step into our skis for the first time this trip. I slide to the edge of the summit, peering through the gray haze one last time, hoping for a glimpse into crater. But it’s not possible, not today.
We skate to the horizon, peering down along the glacier and out into an area with the world’s single greatest concentration volcanoes. The snow’s chalky surface is just warm enough to arc turns. I’m more than ready for the descent, grateful to have it before the mountain is again engulfed in steam and clouds. ♦