Going Places: Tales from the road: Volcano skiing in Ecuador, cont.

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Volcano skiing erupts in Ecuador
A local delicacy:
Fresh roasted guinea pig

German mountaineer Wilhelm Reiss first climbed Cotopaxi in 1872, and the volcano was summited regularly during the latter part of that century. One notable expedition by English climber Edward Whymper (who notched the first ascent of the Matterhorn) spent a night in the mountain's crater. Despite their 100-plus years of climbing activity, the volcanoes in Ecuador are rarely skied. And the prospect of skiing off the world's highest active volcano kept us gulping for air and remembering why we dragged our skis across continents just to get another few feet of vertical.

The rising sun shed a golden light across the glaciers and icefalls surrounding us. Above, impossibly close in the clear air, loomed the summit, a whipped-cream mirage that we could almost reach out and touch. As I trudged after Adam up the headwall, I felt like collapsing, every breath an effort, each step a wonder. My only consolation was that he was suffering far worse than I was. We stopped every ten feet or so to recover and marvel at the other team members' stamina as they cruised past us on the final pitch.

Kasha shot us a maddeningly cheery grin. "How you guys doing?" she asked, then vanished ahead in a flash of blond hair. It was painfully obvious that Adam and I weren't doing too well. Our chests heaved to suck oxygen from the sky, out lips were cracked and bleeding, and our voices made a harsh rasping in the still air. No, we weren't doing too well at all.

We reached the top wheezing and choking like a bunch of geezers. We could smell the sulfur and almost hear the earth groan in the pit of the caldera. As the glowing sun rose higher, we took one last look at the crater behind us, then tightened our boots and took the first tentative turns off of the ridge.

That first section was a velvet layer of frost that caressed our skis. We picked our way down the headwall, the gaping fissure of a crevasse inviting us to miss a turn. We dropped lower and skirted the sinister opening by traversing to open slopes. The snow was hard as marble, and our edges skittered nervously. Lower down, as we zipped through creamy, wind-packed snow, breathing became easier. Dodging crevasses and catching modest air on wind lips, we were soon in sight of the hut, winding down the last soft snowfields toward hot tea and a fire. Bob, true to form, unearthed several bottles of cervesa he'd stashed in the hut.

The celebration began in earnest, however, when we headed back to the relative luxury of Quito, where Bob announced we'd be feasting on local delicacies. That night, after too much local music (3.5mb .wav or Real Audio) and tequila, and a dinner of fresh roasted guinea pig, Cotopaxi and the lush valleys below it already seemed impossibly far away, mythical, and more a fantasy than real in my mind.

Tom Winter is a renowned fry cook who occasionally writes for Powder magazine and other outdoor publications.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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