A short section of steep rock with enormous holds, then the summit — almost an anticlimax, with its enormous "Bienvenidos" sign, graffitied, lumpy boulders and earth packed hard by the feet of thousands of visitors. The man with his walking poles has just arrived and is already sitting, looking slightly flushed, with his daypack resting nearby. He removes his large watch, checks it, makes some adjustments, then gets up and hangs it on one of the splintered poles holding up the welcome sign. He wanders off, returns, photographs himself with his phone. I glance across at his pack and notice his Teleferico ticket lying loose on the ground.
"Su tarjeta?" I say, pointing.
He exclaims and rushes over before it blows away. As it turns out, the ticket isn't necessary for the descent, but I don't know that, and judging from his reaction, nor does he.
The latter, however is not an option today. After 15–20 minutes and a few photographs, I hear someone talking below; shortly afterwards a man in his twenties arrives, ebullient with success. He starts calling out instructions and encouragement in English to his friends below, pointing out the easy way up, congratulating them on their accomplishment when they arrive bent over and puffing. Further down the slope, groups of people plod slowly upwards. Cloud swirls overhead and sends wisps trailing over the pass between Rucu Pichincha and the nearby summit; patches of sunlight race over the páramo between Rucu and the fractionally higher Guagua Pichincha. My hands have begun to chill and the relative solitude of the summit has vanished like the caracara — now only a memory. I sling my bag over my shoulder, put my hands in the pockets of my jacket and start down the mountain.
1. Rucu Pichincha is an extinct volcano near Quito, Ecuador. The usual route is to take the Teleférico (gondola) from the outskirts of the city to the páramo grasslands at 4100 m, then follow the very well-worn trail to the summit at 4696 m. While the power pylons, occasional trail bikes and crowds mean the route feels only marginally like a true mountain environment, the weather's a different matter, and visitors should go prepared for anything.
1. Rucu Pichincha from the lower part of the trail.
2. Mike and Serena enjoy the Avenue of Volcanoes from the top of the Teleférico.
3. One of the Bar-winged Cinclodes we watched foraging near the rent-a-horse place.
4. The summit of Rucu Pichincha.