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Off Peak in Ecuador!
by Tom Smallwood

Ruminahui's three peaks

From the marketing in Latacunga, one might be forgiven for thinking that the only reason for coming to this part of Ecuador is to climb Cotopaxi (5897m). Outside doorways stand billboards with bleached photographs and price lists offering guided trips to the summit. Every man and his dog apparently trying to cash in on the tourist industry which, along with a blooming trade in roses, exploits this fertile piece of land. Cotopaxi stands ominously, an incongruous backdrop to the half built houses and jutting concrete pillars of unfinished buildings that make up the Latacunga skyline. There is no doubt it is the centrepiece of the eponymous national park but, I wondered if we couldn't get a better view of the mountain from the summit of its humble neighbour Ruminahui (4712m) than if we actually scaled its snowy flanks.

Two days and two nights of almost incessant rain later, my girlfriend Izzy and I were ready to leave Cotopaxi National Park. We had seen some beautiful wildlife but our plan of climbing Ruminahui and spending three days photographing Volcan Cotopaxi was ending in abject failure.

We had started off on the wrong foot, struggling to even get into the Park. Our first driver was turned back at the entrance for not having the necessary documents. The second saw us limping back to Latacunga with broken suspension before the third, Juan, managed to get us as far as the Laguna de Limpiopungo (3880m). And so our first afternoon was spent walking around this large, quiet Andean lake, home to a variety of waterfowl and a watering hole for white-tailed deer, horses and cattle. A couple of scavenging birds tackling the carcass of a horse on the edge of the lake occasionally broke the stillness with beating wings, and ducks scooted over the grey pane of water. Higher up there was little to be seen. Mist obscured Cotopaxi as we walked around the lower flanks of Carachaloma, wandering through the grassy paramo, camera hidden from the gentle drizzle. With Juan's assurance that the 'NO CAMPING' signs were not applicable to Gringos, we set about finding a relatively sheltered spot for two nights in the wilderness.

Next morning, Ruminahui wasn't even visible, let alone Cotopaxi. After a speedy brew we left the tent on the north western side of the Laguna at 6:00 am and headed roughly west up a valley into the hanging mist. The paths we followed were many, varied, and probably made by the black cattle or horses which wander the valleys and passes around Ruminahui. Visibility was minimal and it was by luck as much as judgement that we stayed roughly on course. A brief burst of sunshine brought a tempting reminder of what lay around us. The mist dispersed and the summit of Cotopaxi hovered ethereally above a soft white blanket of cloud. As it came, so it went and the rain was spitting loudly on the hoods of our waterproofs by the time we reached a flat area of marshland beneath the south and central summits of the mountain. Andean gulls and lapwings circled in the sky above us as a long-tailed humming bird criss-crossed our path like a large super-charged dragonfly.

From this desolate, flower rich wetland, we climbed steeply through dense tufts of thick spiky paramo grass, at times up to our waists. From a distance, this grass appears soft, with a gentle green and purple hue, but rising to a few feet in places it is very tough and, on this particular day, very wet. On the next ridge a path, which we had succeeded in 'mislaying' shortly before, set us back on course heading straight up towards the Central Peak (4631m) below which it is necessary to traverse right towards the North Peak.

We were now well over 4000m and the heavens opened again. Crossing the slope, below narrow rocky aretes, towards a gully of reddish sand, claps of thunder and a flash of lightning added to our misery as we plodded up a path of crushed black volcanic rock. Somewhere between 4500 and 4600m we stopped for a rest and to ask ourselves whether it could be any less enjoyable. "At least there's the summit, and its pretty close" was the best rallying speech I could muster. Izzy looked concerned as, guide book in hand, she sat down beside me and pointed to a passage; "the stone is heavily laced with metal, so you should descend if an electric storm threatens". Everything was conspiring against us and the words of Juan as his 4X4 slip-slided its way up the grey silty track resounded in my head; "No worry, good weather above Laguna de Limpiopungo!"

We called it a day and turned back, not entirely sure what an electric storm was but not wishing to hang around and find out whether this could be classified as such. Frustration turned to anger as the rain grew heavier and we contrived to lose our way on the descent. It took two and a half hours (about the same as the ascent) to get back to the relative comforts of a tent and dry clothing. Any enthusiasm was left outside along with rain sodden socks and trekking pants. Anger turned to depression and the once pleasant sound of water pitter-pattering on the tent's skin lost all its attraction. Time wasted away. Afternoon ran into evening ran into night and I began to question our judgement and understanding of Ecuadorian weather forecasts.

Day three inched its way into our lives after a night of steady rain and what I can only imagine were remarkably vociferous toads calling to each other in the darkness. Bright light filtered through the tent walls. Was it sunshine at last? No! Our hopes dashed again, I cursed the tent for being yellow. Nevertheless the drumming on the fly sheet had stopped and this morning the sky was a little lighter. We rose hurriedly and inartistically crammed everything into our rucksacks, taking advantage of the slightly more clement weather and, with a few weak rays of sun beginning to break through, set out to lose altitude, see some different scenery and at some point run into Juan, on his way to pick us up, later that afternoon.

Striking camp we made our way to the south-western side of the Laguna de Limpiopungo, across a plain of short green and rust-coloured grass sporadically cut by the lake spreading out a few wide, shallow, mirror-like branches of water. As the clouds and mist began to give in to the equatorial sun we became transfixed by the unfolding spectacle. In front of us Cotopaxi gradually came into view. A grey veil was lifted, revealing the ever-steepening blue white cone of the volcano, to the west sliding into paramo and forest, to the east flattening out into a brown and grey expanse of old lava flows. We slowed to take in the landscape and let the camera have its fill of postcard images.

The sky became clearer above us. To my left, reflected in the dead waters of Limpiopungo, Sincholagua (4893m) appeared, its steep summit laced with fresh snow. Over its shoulder Antisana poked its snowy mass over the horizon. Behind us the three peaks of Ruminahui, dusted white, emerged from the thick grey sky and glistened in the sunlight. Fortunes and moods reversed, I remembered the enduring attraction of the wilderness. I knew why I had to be there. Izzy and I stared, wide eyed, about us, and launched into a thousand well worn cliches as we gasped at the majesty of the mountains. Nature needs no composition, everything is in the right place and the eye can roam forever without finding fault. It was perfect and uplifting, everything was visible in dramatic conditions. Now we didn't want to leave.

Half an hour later the clouds had reconvened and a huge rain storm raged. We were, once again, ready for the beaming smile of Juan and the comfort of his 4x4, but this time with a spring in our step.

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