Strolling to Struggling – Climbing Quito’s Pichincha

First few days in Quito. A backpacker group forms, from the hostel. Pretty standard sort of thing when you travel. Around 9 of us decided to head to Quito’s Cable car or telefornico for a nice view. Some wanted a short hike that went higher than the cable car. In the end, we all decided to go. After being told it was merely an hour and a half to the top, we didn’t think much of it. The first part was tougher than we thought, although looking back, was easy. After the first hour of Scottish looking yellow colored hills, we began to reach the bottom of the rock volcano. 4 of us decided to head back, not keen on the hike, nor the misjudgment of the steepness of the declines. 5 of us marched on to what we thought wouldn’t be much longer.

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We got to the base of the mountain, adrenaline pumping and eager to skip to the top. It began there to get a little tricky. First of all the donkey path got narrower, and the drop beside you alot deeper. Then some slippery rock climbing obstacles approached us. Nothing too difficult, but a slip of a foot and you would be falling or at least rolling down hill for longer than what would be good for you.

It begins to get colder, the altitude increases, the air thinner. There was 5 of us. 5 Guys. UK, Australia, Canada and Denmark. Our pride and determination doesn’t allow us to stop, turning away from a hike, is something we’ve never done. We wanted to keep going, for the challenge now, rather than the viewpoints. We had infact had a fair few viewpoints on the way up, taking photos and towering over Quito. It reminded me of bonny old Scotland. The shape of the mountains, the temperature, the color of the grass and hills alike. It was nice to remember that for a short while. By now, we were going into steep, vertical lands of hiking. Some hikers, who had a guide, not to mention they were very equipped with hiking gear and thermal attire, passed us on our way up, as they descended. “One more hour” they said. Warning us of the cold, the scrambles to keep up straight, as there was sandy, rocky paths and facing literally an uphill task. I wasn’t so sure of continuing on. I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t psyched to do this. I had wanted a nice stroll, a good viewpoint, a relaxing day. Now it had become technical,  un-warranted and for me a bit unnecessary. Yet my own pride told myself that I shouldn’t turn around. Para Que? They would say in Spanish. What for? To do similar things I do everyday. This was different, and the idea of climbing my highest summit, a rumored 5000m spurred me on.

We began our climb of the volcano, pounding slippery sand, loose rocks and steep hills. The air and altitude making it harder than I expected, and in some parts, more worryingly difficult to finish. We managed to hike up for about 30 minutes to the second last point of the summit. I was struggling, but kept on. Altitude sickness had never hit me, but I could feel it a little bit. The worry of the steep hills, with no guide, no preparation and alot of experience pondered my thoughts. We met some more descending travellers, who said they had reached the second top, and most people made it there then returned.  I was happy with that. We all made it to the top, now by climbing rocks and using our hands on feet, 4500m steep on a volcano side. Surely, we should have been warned about this?  From a guide or worker at the telefornico point? In other countries, I’m sure we wouldnt be allowed to hike without a guide. It seemed unreal that we hadn’t heard, read or been told about how technical it got. It got worse and difficult after that. Alex, a Canadian guy, a true activities man, was good and continued on. We had picked up a wandering French guy along the way. Turned out he was younger than me at 26, but he looked in his 40’s. The Aussies Max and Leo I had met in Cali, Colombia, had plodded on for the sake of it I think. They were wanting altitude experience for some upcoming hikes. The Danish guy, he was wearing a leather jacket, jeans and swade shoes. Yet he had been remarkable. It seemed he had loved to climb, but given his age and body language, I don’t know whether he was that naive or had something to prove.

We began climbing, the last point. By now, the altitude had hit me. I hadn’t had much food and my stomach hurt. The climb got steeper and by boyish confidence decrease aswell. I didn’t like the look of the rocks and gritty sand that I hated walking on in straight pathways, nevermind almost vertical. Looking down, if you slipped, you are bound to hit a rock and hurt yourself. Even more.

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More climbers and hikers came down on the descent, looking well equipped. I sat on a rock which wasn’t loose, whilst the others trailed on. I was 15 minutes away from the summiet. But everything for a moment seemed to have left me. My confidence, desire and energy. I looked up to the sky, and wondered why I got myself into this. The climb above me was to be done steadily, and virtually was rock climbing without the equipment. It was you either make it or you don’t. It felt like that anyway at the time. I remember trying a few climbs and just didn’t feel comfortable. I couldn’t believe I was going to trail back down, so close from the top. Alone. It was getting cold and had been snowing at that point, so I had to keep moving. I then decided to have a go and try find an easier route than climbing sharp, relentless rock mounts. I just kept on, something just a little inside of me, kept me thinking, ‘you’re better than this, if these guys can, you surely can”. I made my way up, not knowing which way the official summit was. I heard Spanish voices to my left, which went kind of downhill. ‘Could this be the way to the summit? Did I climb too far, go the wrong way?’ Luckily, I heard Alex’s Canadian voice from my right. I shouted to which he replied. He said I was a minute away from the top. I cleared my head and seen a little path that required some easier climbing. Over the rocks there was the summit. I couldn’t see because of how low I was and close I was to the land. I made it to the top, eventually, after 15 minutes, alone, in the cold, steep, not confident, kind of afraid and feeling unwell. It was challenging, I was sweating because of the challenge to myself, not the obstacles infront of me. I made it to the top, wrote my name on the summit board ‘ fromtommywalker 20.10.14’ and then slowly climbed back down.

It was actually 4696m to be precise, still the highest i’d reached. And the last minutes of this hike was the most challenging and probably technical of any hikes I’ve done, given the circumstances. I was hoping for a nice stroll, but it felt I had reached the North Pole. That’s what its like in South America, always expect the unexpected.

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