It was only my third day in the country and I had already seen more lightning than I had after many winters in the Northwest. Every afternoon a vessel of black clouds descended onto Quito and spewed flashes of energy onto the drowning sprawl. By nighttime the storms had passed, but the humid air that breathed from the alleyways was a constant reminder of the recent torment. Wanting to avoid electrocution, we started the trip to Rucu Pinchincha early.
The taxi dropped Tyler, Nuria and I off at the bottom of the teleferiqo as the sun began to burn through the morning fog. The lift line was empty save for a lone Ecuadorian woman heading to work. She shared our gondola and we had a nice conversation, her mentioning how heavy my boots looked, me reassuring her that they were actually amazingly light. We exited the gondola and immtediatly saw signs warning against the effects of altitude. We were at 4100 meters. “No corre” said the sign, no running. I didn´t really have the right footwear anyway, so we began walking up the trail.
The Ecuadorean paramo–cloud forest–was more like a plain than a forest. Tufts of long, hearty grass held the earth so tightly that the constant rains dug only shallow gutters between them. Tiny rabbits bounced among the grasses and black-and-white eagles, the Andean gull, surveyed any movement. Along the trail we met a young man from Columbia, Luis, who was also traveling in Ecuador and two Chilean men, Jaime and Pau, who had eaten some of the cactus that Pau grew on his window sill and were now enjoying the hike with wide open eyes. All three of our companions were extremely kind and generous, and told us many stories from their home countries. Pau, in particular, was disposed to the comical and as we came closer to the summit his laugh-filled stories reverberated and were then muffled by the mossy rock.
As the four others waited not far below, Tyler and I scrambled up the few hundred feet to the true summit of Rucu Pinchincha. His altimeter read just over 4700 meters. My head ached a little, a throbbing behind the ears, but otherwise I felt great. We were much higher than Mt. Rainier, higher than anything in the lower 48 and this was just a day hike. We descended as the clouds drew closer, denser. On the ride down I realized I was sunburned, even though we hadn´t seen a hint of blue all day, but the throbbing in my head had stopped and I knew how to cure the grumbling in my stomach: a plate of pork and potatos from the Mercado Santa Clara.
The next day the three of us left Quito, enduring a two hour bus ride south to the town of Machachi. From here we hired a camioneta–a truck–to take us to La Virgen, a camping area within the Ecological Reserve of the Illiniza mountains. The road from Machachi to La Virgen, at 4000 meters, was extremely rough. We crossed two strems, the water rushing against the wheel wells, and innumerable ditches that almost caused the truck to tip over. We made it to La Virgen by three o´clock that afternoon. The rain started just as I was guying-out my tent. A few minutes later we heard the thunder.
After an hour of standing in the rain, away from the tents in a gulley below the road, we decided that the lightning had passed even though the rain had not. I cooked dinner for us–roman noodles and salami–in the shelter of my vestibule that night. Sleep was difficult due to the pounding of the rain and the slight throbbingin in my head, the shortness of breath that wouldn´t be quenched no matter how deeply I breathed, but I was dry and warm in my tent and eventually I dozed off.
We spent two nights at La Virgen, twice climbing to the refugio–hut–at 4800 meters, below Illiniza Sur and Illiniza Norte. Both times, our ascents were cut short by the impenetrable clouds, the cloying mist that seemed immortal. One early morning, after being halted at the refugio by poor weather, Tyler and I huddled together under one sleeping bag to wait, hoping that the rising sun would burn through the clouds. We spent three hours shivering on the floor before deciding it was hopeless and retreating to our tents, laughing maniacally the whole way down, crazed by lack of sleep with no reward, made brutally self-depricating by the stinging of our bruised egos. “I used to be tough,” said Tyler, over and over, with me reassuring him that no, he never really was.
A tuna sandwich brought little clarity. After pondering various options we eventually decided on the most appealing if least ambitious one: go to Baños, where the thermal baths are too hot to tolerate and the beer is cheaper than the cost of more nights spent contemplating failure in the rain. Three hours of bus rides later, still without sleep, we ate curry and potatos, sipped pilsner, and watched the Superbowl on Spanish television. The Cardinals were losing, which meant the Steelers were winning. Nothing seemed to be going right. I chugged the last half-glass of my first beer and became immediatly drunk.