Many hours of my previous life were spent climbing things; rock, ice, and mountains big and small. So standing on top of Rucu Pichincha volcano, high above Quito, was an unexpected pleasure and a definite trip down memory lane. It was interesting how my comfort with exposure and scrambling on fractured rock wasn’t there at the start of the hike but by the end it was a little like old times…
Quito has one of the highest altitude gondolas in the world. Rising to about 4000 metres from a high neighbourhood in the west of Quito, it provides riders with an amazing view of the city (and the big volcanos of Chimborazo and Cotopaxi if the weather cooperates). It also provides easy access to a number of higher altitude trails, one of which goes to the summit of Pichincha. I hadn’t planned on doing the hike as I really hadn’t enough time and was alone, so I was up there in my street shoes and jeans. But having met two Spaniards in the teléferico were going to do the climb, I decided to walk part way up with them and turn around whenever needed to make it back to the hotel in time to check out. One of the Spaniards had only this past January climbed Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest peak in the Western Hemisphere, so we had something in common!
Acclimatization is an interesting phenomena – once having occurred it makes one feel like a super athlete. On my first days in Quito (at 2800 metres) I was winded going up a short flight of stairs, and a bit fluey feeling as well. Now after 10 days in the higher parts of Ecuador (riding above 4000 metres on 4 of those days) I could essentially run along the less steep parts of the trail and had no problem scrambling as fast as I safely could at nearly 4700 metres at the summit of Pichincha. To put this in perspective this is significantly higher than all the peaks in the Canadian or US Rockies, with only the highest mountains of the Yukon and Alaska topping this elevation.
At any rate I walked with my new found friends for a few hours and then could sense that the summit was attainable, even with my tight time line. But I’d need to hustle. So I quickly left the guys behind (thanks to those wonderful physiological changes that come with time at altitude!). The upper reaches of the mountain require scrambling or outright rock climbing, depending on the chosen route. With the clouds streaming in and reducing visibility I ended up taking a somewhat more challenging climb on the way up than the slightly easier but slippery way I subsequently found on the way down. This would be considered more challenging than the average hike.
My street shoes weren’t the best for the technical stuff, and without laces on them they moved around a fair bit and I had developed a raging blister in the way up. The descent was tough as this amount of climbing over the 11-12 km round trip wasn’t something I’d done in the past very many years… Like I said, this was a trip down memory lane! Something I’d recommend to anyone who is somewhat fit, acclimatized, and able to deal with heights (or rather the drops!). It is a great way to spend half a day in Quito and an especially helpful way to acclimatize if doing higher peaks.
I have borrowed one photo from SummitPost.org to show the section in the higher reaches that I followed to the summit. With me climbing alone and the poor visibility I have no photos from there.