26 August 2011

The summit of Rucu Pichincha

Near the summit of Rucu Pichincha, after the hard, slow slog up the soft sandy ash scree — each step a fight to stop from slipping back — I reach solid ground and the walking becomes easier. The man a little way ahead leans on his poles, then heads left, but to the right, splashes of paint suggest a marked route. A small cairn confirms the way, and even if leftwards might be easier, this crosses solid steep rock — apparently not difficult or dangerous, but enough to provide the feeling of active climbing rather than mindless trudging. The route veers across the face, towards the ridge, and as I approach the edge, the feeling of height grows; the land seems to fold away, leaving me closer to sky and swirling cloud. Here the rock steepens, requiring hands as well as feet, and the feeling of easy climbing on sound rock on a high mountain delights me, bringing back memories of the Otira Face of Rolleston years ago with Jono. Different worlds, similar emotions.

Sunlight breaks through the cloud, warming my back. A sudden shadow passes over; I look up and there, only a few metres away, a bird — a raptor of some kind — slips sideways in the air, looks down at me and sails out of sight beyond the summit ridge. In this barren place of dry rock and sandy ash, to see something so alive seems both incongruous and an unqualified joy. What was this bird doing, sailing so close, apparently checking me out? I can't resist the thought that it was waiting for me to fall or just checking to see whether I was dead enough to eat, although this is clearly ridiculous. Later, when I've identified it as probably being a juvenile northern crested caracara (I see two unmistakeable adults later, from the summit), I decide it's probably checking to see if I've discarded anything edible (I haven't, and don't).

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.

I drink water and wander around, eating a banana and packing the peel away carefully in my bag, not wishing to add to the orange peel  and other reminders of how many people visit this summit each weekend. Another man arrives and sits a little way off. We've passed each other a couple of times — he taking the slow and steady approach, me the not-quite-as-slow but stop-and-photograph approach. We've exchanged a few words and smiles of acknowledgement, and already he seems curiously like someone I know, someone who could become a friend if my Spanish were much better. Even in his positioning himself at a little distance he seems to share something of my own preference for visiting these places either with good friends or alone.

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.

Photos and original text © 2011 Pete McGregor


Bob McKerrow said...

It is a joy to journey with you Pete right up to the summit of Rucu Pichincha and learn of what you see and feel around you.

Thanks for sharing and travel safely. Bob

pohanginapete said...

Thanks, Bob. :^)

Relatively Retiring said...

The view from the summit with cloud encroaching is so atmospheric - wonderful!
Such atmospheric writing too. You take your readers right into your experience. Now this is what I call 'armchair travelling'!

robin andrea said...

That summit shot is so beautiful, Pete. You make me wonder if the trails and summits are less crowded in the New Zealand high country. Our brother and SIL just returned from five weeks in Peru and Ecuador. They were surprised by the number of people trekking to Machu Picchu.

pohanginapete said...

RR, thank you. I wouldn't have been completely surprised to have found an armchair on the summit ;^)

Robin, I won't be going to Machu Picchu for that reason, and also because I feel the "restoration" has gone too far. Instead, I'll try for some of the other, less "developed" Inca ruins (e.g. Kuelap). You're right about New Zealand, too — while some of the popular summits and trails can get very crowded, to meet more than a handful of people in the Ruahine is unusual, and during the week in the less visited areas of the Ruahine, meeting anyone at all would be surprising.

Anonymous said...

Pete, when I converted 4696m to 15406ft I gasped involuntarily! Well trodden or not you did good and it was very enjoyable to be able to travel(vicariously) with you. Your photo of the Cinclode was excellent. I have never seen one here - (it's called an Ovenbird). Hasta pronto! Maureen

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

I can't believe that it's taken me this long to think to ask you what camera you are using. The level of quality in the pictures tells me it must be a good one

We recently got an Canon EOS and are highly impressed with the results.

As always i think human interest in a picture really adds something - so i love the shot of the vantage point with the two people staring out at the mountain

pohanginapete said...

Hungry pixie, I agree — people so often add a great deal to even a good landscape photograph. For a long time I used a Canon 20D, one of the early digital EOS cameras), and still an excellent camera. Early this year, however, I switched to a Panasonic Lumix GH1 because for this journey I wanted something small, light, with interchangeable lens, and of at least comparable quality to the 20D. I think the GH1 does the job fairly well, but to be honest, I much prefer the 20D and the lenses I've accumulated over the years. But, carrying the 20D, the 24—105 and the 300 mm wasn't feasible.

I'm not surprised you're impressed with your Canon. Enjoy!

pohanginapete said...

Maureen, thanks, and I managed 4800 m yesterday, visiting the Refugio on Cotopaxi (comfortably, too, despite the altitude and the fact the wind was driving snow at us at times). Saw the other Cinclodes, too!

Anne said...

Your beautiful writing lets an old woman climb with you -- a climb I will never be able to do otherwise. Such a pleasure. Your photographs are almost as beautiful as the pictures you paint with words.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete,
I too feel like I have walked along with you, and as I know a little what that is like brings back warm memories and a smile. I am heading into the Ruahine soon, and will raise a tin cup and say Kia Ora for you. Travel safe and well e hoa.

pohanginapete said...

Anne, thank you. Yesterday, on the way to Cotopaxi, I looked out the window and thought one of the reasons I travel is for my friends. Hard to explain, but I had the very strong sense that I wasn't travelling solely for myself. I'm very grateful for your words, which vindicate that feeling.

Kia ora Robb. I'm off to the jungle in a few hours, and I'll remember those words of yours and think of you there in the Ruahine — somewhere we can visit again when I return.

Donald said...

Hi Pete

Nice post - really enjoyed the atmosphere, and photos helped the feel too.

Many thanks for sharing such a special journey



pohanginapete said...

Cheers Donald — glad you appreciated it :^)

Lydia said...

I had to use a meters-to-feet conversion tool to determine exactly how high you were....wow! The only mountain I have ever climbed is also a volcano, Mount St. Helens, and at its reduced structure the summit is only 2549m -- and I thought that was high! Still, I can relate to your description of slogging through ash. For me it was quite grueling. Also, the stunning discovery of any life in such a desolate place. I saw a chipmunk on a rock and thought it was miraculous. :)

pohanginapete said...

Lydia, all life is miraculous, but I agree — particularly in places like this.

Lydia said...

Yes, indeed. <: