Sunday, February 9, 2020

Ecuador and an attempt to touch the Sun

     Ecuador has been on my bucket list for a long time mainly due to its mountaineering.  Chimborazo is a volcano that is the closest point on the planet to the sun or the furthest from the center of the Earth.  The Earth is not round.  Due to the centrifugal force of the planets rotation it bulges at the equator.  I have had this dream to climb it at the perihelion (when Earth and the Sun are the closest) at noon and then reach up and touch the Sun.  Unfortunately, this year that day was 4 January and I was not able to get to Ecuador that soon.  Also being on the summit at noon would be dangerous with avalanche hazard.  While I was at it, I also wanted to climb Cotopaxi which is the third highest active volcano and erupted as recently at 2016.

     I had 3 weeks to be in Ecuador.  Kathleen had a business meeting and was not able to come.  In the past she had been to Ecuador and had already climbed Cotopaxi so I took the opportunity to do some new things for me without making her do repeats.  That said, this is the first time I have traveled without Kathleen since I did the 52-day Sea of Cortez kayak and I didn’t like it.  I am very used to traveling with her and it felt REALLY REALLY WEIRD to both be traveling and climbing without her.  My hope was that I would be able to climb the peaks in the first 10 to 12 days and then have the rest of the time to explore Ecuador.  Due to a combination of guide issues, weather, and then park service permitting problems it ended up taking me most of the 3 weeks to get up the 2 mountains.  I did go down to the coast for 3 days during a bad weather section but otherwise I was in mountain towns the entire time.  Ecuador has a rule that anyone climbing above 15,000’ has to have an Ecuadorian guide with them.  Since it was the end of high season, I had attempted to organize this before I left.  I had talked to a guide on the phone about 2 weeks before I left and everything was seemingly set up.  However, after that phone call none of my emails or messages were answered.  By the time I had to catch my flight I still had not heard anything and figured I would just fly to Quito and figure it out on the ground there if I needed to.  To my pleasant surprise there was a WhatsApp voice message when I landed in Quito and everything was still on track.

      I first flew into the capital Quito which is at 9000’ so a good place to start my acclimatization.  I spent a day exploring the old town
Basilica del Voto Nacional
View of Quito historic district    

and then the next day climbed a volcano that Quito wraps around called Pinchincha (15,413’).  There is a gondola that goes up to 12,000’ so it was a great way to get some additional altitude so my sea level body would start to adjust.  The weather was horrible that day with rain and I was inside a cloud all day so there were no views.  
View from top of Pinchincha     

This unsettled weather pattern ended up continuing for most of my trip.  Quito has a reputation as being a tough town but there is a pretty heavy security presence around the historic district so I never felt nervous about anything.

     My initial plan had been to do Cotopaxi as a warm up climb and then do Chimborazo next.  When I actually met the guide operator (John) and sat down with him to set out the plan we switched things around.  The weather forecast for Cotopaxi that week was bad and better on Chimborazo.  Despite not being that far from each other the two mountains can have very different weather patterns.  It is possible to drive to the Refugio on Chimborazo at 16,000’.  
First view of Chimborazo       
Refugio Carrel                        

This was a really nice Refugio with clean bathrooms and a warm dormitory.  I spent two days and nights there acclimatizing and hiked up to 18,000’ both days to further get my body used to being so high.  The first night I had an altitude headache (Imagine a bad hangover) but by the second night it had completely resolved.  It snowed the first two afternoons I was there which made conditions on the mountain worse.  
Fog was a common phenomena                 
Fresh snow made conditions more difficult

Both those days the reports were that a couple of people made it to the top but that most had to turn around.  To avoid avalanche hazard people start this climb at 11pm to time getting to the summit around sunrise.  It is not good to be on the mountain after mid-morning as the sun warms up the snow.  While at the Refugio I was pleasantly surprised to find out one night that the climber sitting next to me was from Iran.  The Ecuadorians got nervous about an American and Iranian sitting next to each other but we rapidly showed them that the Iranian people are actually big fans of Americans.  He was amazed when I was able to turn to him and say in Farsi, “My name is John.  I am pleased to meet you.  I am a friend of Iran.  I only speak very little Farsi.”  Saman was one of only 2 that summited the night before my attempt.  The night I climbed it was windy and the entire mountain was inside a cloud.  From the Refugio it is a long way and 4500’ of vertical to the summit.  The first third of the way is on dirt and then the rest is straight up a huge glacier.  
View of route from acclimatization climb 

I call this a Nepali route.  No switchbacks, just straight up the mountain.  I was warm enough but it took every layer I had – two shirts, a wind breaker, a puffy jacket, my shell, and then my high altitude big down jacket on top of that.  All my clothes were covered in frost and ice from the cloud around us freezing on me.  I had double boots and crampons on my feet and high-altitude mittens for my hands.  I could not really take my mittens off without my fingers instantly getting cold and we were always in the fog so I didn’t take any pictures.  The fresh snow from the previous days had created some crusty wind slab which made the footing more difficult and was a potential avalanche hazard once the sun came up.  We got to the first summit just at dawn.  It was really hard to breathe on the last 1500’.  I would take two steps forward and then have to stop and take 6 breathes to recover.  From the first false summit it is another 30 minutes of walking across the summit plateau to get to the true summit.  Only me and a German guy (with our guides) made it to the summit.  The other 6 people that started with us from the Refugio ended up turning around.  Even going down was a struggle in the thin air.  I made it back to the Refugio but was completely spent by the time I got there.  Both my water bottles had frozen so I was dehydrated and the climb had pushed me to my physical limits.  My guide that night was Juan Silva who had climbed the mountain over 600 times.  For this climb I didn’t really need a guide but it was nice to have him since he knew the route despite the thick fog. 

     I then went down to Riobamba to recover.  I definitely needed some time but once again my tour operator John went radio silent on me and I ended up spending 2 more days there than I had wanted to.  It turned out that he was on another mountain.  His office was very close to where I was staying and I found out from a neighbor when he was returning.  I went over to his house when that happened and we made a plan for Cotopaxi.  The weather forecast was not good for the next 5 days and reports were that people were not even able to leave the Refugio there due to the high winds and snow.  I decided to go down to the coast and sit on the beach while waiting for a weather window.  I caught a bus to Puerto Lopez which is a small (but growing) fishing village.  It was much hotter on the coast then it was in the highlands.  I found a great hotel a block from the beach.  I would run the beach every morning and then come home and float in the pool.  
Recovery pool in Puerto Lopez

It was the perfect temperature – not hot or cold.  I would float on my back for an hour after the run and almost fall asleep.  The hotel also had an excellent kitchen with Spanish cuisine.  I could have spent a week there but only had 3 days before the forecast told me to get back up into the mountains. 

     It took a tuk tuk and 3 buses to get from Puerto Lopez to the park entrance of Cotopaxi.  The bus basically just dropped me off after dark in the middle of nowhere on the side of the Pan American Highway.  At first I wasn’t even sure I was in the right place but a park ranger drove by and offered to give me a ride to my hotel.  
First view of Cotopaxi             

Everything seemed to be on track for heading up Cotopaxi but when the guide came to pick me up it turned out that the park service would not issue me a permit.  There was a backlog of climbers trying to summit from the previous bad weather and there were too many people on the mountain.  The tour operator John made some phone calls and switched me over to another guiding company that did have permits for the next night so it only ended up being a 24-hour delay.  My guide for this climb was Flavio Armas who was very experienced and has climbed all around the world.  The Refugio on Cotopaxi was also nice but cold.  During the day it was colder inside than it was outside.  The weather was perfect for the summit attempt.  The moon was out so there was some light and you could see the lights of Quito not that far off.  
Lights of Quito on summit night

There was some light wind but it was a warm night.  I never needed my thick parka.  Like Chimborazo, the lower third of the route is dirt and then gets onto the glacier.  This mountain is much more complicated than Chimborazo.   There are multiple crevasses, seracs, cliffs, and steep icy slopes.  It is also an active volcano.  
Not a simple route up the mountain

It seemed much more dangerous than Chimborazo had been due to these hazards.  Despite this, Cotopaxi is the most popular climb in Ecuador.  I saw people with very little mountaineering experience that night as some of them didn’t even know how to put their crampons on.  The foot path that was tracked was only 8 to 12 inches wide in most places.  If you slipped or tripped with your crampons there was often spots where there could be drastic consequences.  Being fully acclimatized and it being a shorter route and mountain I felt good that night.  I was able to keep a 1:1 ratio rest step going all night – 1 step, 1 breathe.  I kept a pace where I never got light headed and was able to concentrate on my foot placement so I didn’t accidently catch a crampon in my pant leg or something stupid along those lines.  All the snow bridges over the crevasses were solid and there were no issues.  Most people who started that night made it to the summit.  We topped out just as the sun was coming over the horizon.  
Sunrise from Cotopaxi summit

The caldera of the volcano was much bigger than I expected and huge clouds of steam and sulphur were swirling out of the ground.  It is a weird feeling looking down a giant hole that connects to the molten center of the Earth.  
View into cauldera                  

In the distance the other volcanos of Ecuador could be seen including Chimborazo.  On the way down it was in brilliant sunshine and under dark blue skies with low clouds in the valleys below.  
Crevasses on the way down   
Gorgeous views on descent   

Breakfast was waiting at the Refugio and then shortly afterwards we hiked the short distance to the parking lot and drove back to town. 

     After Cotopaxi I only had time to catch the bus to Quito the next day and then fly home the day after that.  I would have liked to have had more time to explore Ecuador but the climbs were the main reason for the trip.  The mountaineering here was excellent and I would highly recommend it if you like doing this sort of thing.   I know that this will not be the last time in this part of the world.  The Andes are my favorite mountain range in the world and since they stretch the length of the continent for 4000 miles there is a lot to explore.  However, next time I come back it will be with Kathleen.  We have a lot of good memories from all over the world but we always seem to have an even better time in South America.



Saturday, January 18, 2020

Reflections on India

      It has been a few weeks since we got back from India and have been digesting about all the things we saw and did there.  When visiting India you are able to witness things from the super fancy to the poorest of poor.  As tourists, India hit us in every sensory ending.  Visually everywhere you looked there was something foreign to look at – from the people, to the buildings, and everything going on in between.  Aurally there was a constant din of sounds – from the shouting of the people, the incessant car horns, to parrots and monkeys chattering in the trees.  The olfactory senses were usually being overwhelmed.  Depending on the location and situation the smell could be either amazing…..or amazingly not.  Taste buds were often pleasantly stimulated from the spices in the food but at other times the air was so polluted that you could taste it as you breathed.  Tactilely the heat and humidity, even in November, made us sweat so hard that as soon as you stepped outside your clothes would stick to your skin.  India has 1.3 billion people living in an area 1/3 of the United States.  As a tourist you stand out in a crowd and as a result always have people wanting to talk to you and usually hustle you for one thing or another.  It is not a restful place to travel, especially the way we travel.  We had just been in Iran for a month where there had been the talk of war due to the Saudi Arabia oil refinery explosions and then had spent a month walking across Lebanon while the country was going through a revolution that overthrew their government.  We were tired when we arrived in India which may have not been the best condition for the month to truly enjoy what we were experiencing. 

     We initially flew into Delhi to see our friend Georgina who we had first met when traveling through South Africa and had been a big help when we did the Drakensberg Traverse there.  India has some of the worst air pollution in the world and Delhi is at the center of this.  AQI is the measurement of air pollution.  Above 50 is considered moderate air pollution and anything above 100 is considered severe.  Delhi had readings in the 500s while we were there.  From Georgina’s apartment balcony you were only able to see a few blocks before the city disappeared into the haze.
Delhi smog                                                    

The week before we arrived they even had to cancel airline flights due to the poor visibility.  People wear masks or scarves over their faces in a vain attempt to not breathe the air.  Georgina works for the British embassy and they have made the posting there a ‘danger post’.  Families and children are not able to be posted there as the air is so poisonous.  When in Delhi we would hide inside next to large HEPA filters that had to run all the time.  We did get brave and hired a driver to take us the several hours out to Agra and the Taj Mahal Palace.  At the Taj Mahal we saw a display where there were consecutive pictures of the palace.  In the old days the pictures were black and white.  Once the 1960’s arrived there started to be color photos.  In that series you could see that especially since the 1980’s the pollution has gotten consecutively worse as the sky turned from blue to grey in the photos.
Entering the Taj Mahal grounds                    
Taj Mahal                                                       
Taj Mahal                                                       
Stone inlay on Taj Mahal                              
Mosque adjoining the Taj Mahal                  
Reflecting on the Tajh                                   
Agra Fort - this moat used to have crocodiles

     The day after we arrived it turned out that Prince Charles was in town to meet with Indian government officials.  This was a few days after 11 November which is Remembrance Day in England (their Veteran’s Day).  The British embassy delayed their Remembrance Ceremony in order that Prince Charles could be there.  Georgina was able to get us an invitation, so we ended up getting to sit 14 seats away on the same row as the Prince.  Wreathes were laid at the British War Cemetery by him and a number of Indian and Commonwealth military and government officials.  It’s not every day you get to rub elbows with Princes, Lords, Ladies, Knights, Ambassadors, Generals, and Admirals.  Luckily, we were able to borrow some clothes to be dressed appropriately. 
Prince Charles laying wreath                      

     The next day we flew out of the toxic cloud and headed to the Southwest coast in the state of Goa along with Georgina and 7 of her friends.  A mix of Brits, Aussies, Canadians, and us representing the US.  They are all hardcore swimmers and had come to Goa to do a 10km swim around an island.  John paddled a kayak and Kathleen rode in the support boat as they did this swim.  In the distance dolphins jumped out of the water.  Large rocks lined the shore of the island.  The sun shone and the water was warm and calm.  The entire group successfully completed the swim.  We stayed at a cute boutique hotel along a river with a pool and a honor system bar where drinks taken were marked down in a notebook.  It was a nice place to spend the weekend.  In the mornings we would go for a run along small country roads to a 400 year old church.  
Running in Goa                              
They all flew back to work at the end of the weekend.  The next days there were multiple texts and pictures of an itchy rash that most of them developed after the swim.  It never was determined if the cause was pollution or some sort of parasite.  The two of us stayed in Goa though we moved further south along the coast to a quiet area called Kola Beach.  It was a secluded cove about a 40 minute walk to the nearby tourist beach town of Agonda.  This was a typical Indian beach town with a lot of Europeans there to relax on the beach, eat, drink, and do yoga.  As in most of India there are large numbers of cows that just roam around so the beaches have cow poop that washes into the water every high tide.  
Agonda Harbor                              

Cows on the beach                        
Fun for all ages                           
Kola Beach didn’t have this so we ended up staying there for a week.  We would run in the morning and then in the afternoon walk into town to eat, shop, or run whatever errands we needed to.  It was hot so it was nice to jump into the warm ocean or the cooler river that flowed into the sea right there.  It was a mellow existence and was a nice break after the previous hectic months we had had in Iran and Lebanon.  We had a bungalow right on the beach and fell asleep to the roar of the surf every night.
Khola Beach bungalow                     

     Eventually we had enough relaxation time and it was time to move on.  We next visited Hampi which is a religious area full of ancient temples and palaces.  It reminded us as a smaller version of Angor Wat in Cambodia.  We took an overnight bus to get there.  That was an adventure unto itself.  The roads of India are narrow with cows, dogs, chickens, monkeys and people wandering in them.  There was a lot of yelling, swerving, and brake slamming as we tried to sleep on the bus.  We managed to get there in one piece but we later found out that a traveler whose blog we monitor was on the same route as we were years ago where the bus crashed and broke into three pieces.  He walked away with cuts and scratches but 2 people did die.  We were glad we didn’t find out about this until after the fact.  Hampi was one of our favorite places that we visited.  The ancient sites are scattered over a wide area.  We hired a local man (Viru) and his tuk tuk to show us the best sights.  
Hampi temple                                          
Statue of Ganesha                                  
Hampi temple                                            
Hampi temple and market                         
Scary Hindu god                                        
Queen's bathtub                                          
Man cutting grass by hand                          
Elephant stable                                            
Stone car - pulled by thousands of pilgrims

Viru showed us the main archeological places but also knew of some good hikes and swimming holes in the area.  
River disappearing underground               
Viru showing us a cliff jumping spot                                     
Hampi swimming hole                             

Hampi also has a lot of banana and coconut plantations in the valleys between the hills covered with large rocks and boulders.  
Hampi landscape                                      
Banana plantations in Hampi                   
Common sight in Hampi                            

It has become a famous place for rock climbers to visit and is very scenic.  The only drawback (for some) is that since it is a holy area both alcohol and meat (in most restaurants) are not available.     

     Our next stop was Mumbai.  A large city and the financial capital of India.  There were a variety of things to do here.  We did both a slum tour and explored the rich areas where the Bollywood stars live,
Chowpatty Beach (nice beach, toxic water)

took a boat out to Elephanta Island where there are caves with large carvings from an ancient civilization,
Boat ride to Elefanta Island                        
Elefanta Island caves                                  
View from Cannon Hill on Elefanta Island

and explored the areas in downtown where there is old British architecture and the Indian Stock Exchange.  
Mumbai street barbar                                 
Mumbai street cricket                               
Public newspaper library                         
Mumbai shopping area                           
Streets of Mumbai                                  

One of the highlights of our time there was seeing the movie ‘Hotel Mumbai’ the night it came out.  This movie was based on the terrorist attacks that occurred there over a 4 day period in 2008.  This was a coordinated attack on 12 different areas in the city including the train station, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, the Leopold Café, and a hospital.  This attack was the equivalent of India’s 9/11 where 174 people were gunned down and over 300 wounded.  We watched the faces of the Indian people as they filed out of the theatre and realized that most of those people had been alive and living here during the attack.  It was a very somber crowd that left.  Leaving the theatre was a surreal experience.  As soon as we walked out the door to our left we could see the train station where the attack occurred.  We knew that the Taj hotel was only a 5 minute walk to our right.  
Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gate of India

The next morning when we were catching a local train within the city we walked by the bathroom where the initial 2 terrorists came out of and started spraying the train station platform with bullets.  It was recent enough that it gave us goosebumps to think about.  A few days later we were eating at a café and realized that it was an Iranian café from some items on the menu and from the decorations on the wall.  We noticed a white-haired man sitting next to the bar whom we decided must be the owner since he looked Iranian.  We went up to him and this turned out to be the case.  It also turned out that he was one of the owners of the Leopold Café who had not been there the night of the attack but he did have some employees who had died that night.  The film had a powerful effect on us as we explored the city. 
Parsee (Iranian) clock tower in Mumbai        

     For our final days we flew back to Delhi to see our friend Georgina again.  As our ‘high society’ coordinator she had arranged that we could go see the polo match the next day between the Indian and British Army teams.  It was another fancy event with large hats, suits and ties, leather couches to sit on, catered food, and a bar.  The Indian team won the match soundly but the British army was on borrowed horses and made a good game of it.  Polo is a cross between croquet and hockey on 1000 pound animals.  Horses are galloping at full speed as they bump into each other with large mallets swinging through the air.  Only one British soldier ended up hitting the dirt and luckily was only stunned and not seriously injured. 
Polo - India vs Britain Army      
High speed horse hockey           

     The next day we flew up to Amritsar on the Pakistani border with Georgina to visit the Golden Temple.  There are interesting things to see here including the Partition Museum which covers the violence and trauma that India and Pakistan went through when the countries were split when the British left.  
Partition museum entrance         
Armitsar statue                           
Amritsar sculpture                     
Amritsar sculpture                     

The main attraction is the Golden Temple which is the holiest shrine in the Hindu religion and therefore the town has a constant stream of pilgrims visiting it.  The shrine is on a spit of land that juts into a large man-made lake that is considered holy and many of the people purify themselves in the water.  
Golden Temple                          
Bathers in holy pool                  
Temple guard                            
Pool cleaners                            
Golden Temple complex         

Even more interesting to us than the Golden Temple was the border closing ceremony that takes place every day of the year in the nearby town of Atari.  I went expecting a formal military ceremony with bugles, marching, saluting, and such.  What we ended up seeing was the most nationalistic (and antagonistic) spectacle we have ever seen.  On the Indian side is a horseshoe shaped stadium that holds over 12,000 people.  On the Pakistani side the stadium is ½ to 2/3 of the size.  Both stadiums were packed.  
Outside of stadium                             
Inside of stadium - full by show time

At the beginning both sides were trying to drown out the other with loud music.  When the ceremony was about to begin there were soldiers that were encouraging the crowds to shout chants back and forth between each other.  We could not understand what was being said but it was obviously not friendly.  As the ceremony started on the Pakistani side there was the Call to Prayer.  As this was happening on the Indian side a bunch of women were let into the area who started to do a Bollywood type dance with a lot of butt shaking and ‘raising the roof’ with their hands at the Pakistani side.  
Pre-show activities                          

Then the iron fence between the sides opened up and the military part began.  To start with 2 Special Forces type soldiers on each side marched toward each other in bullet proof vests with assault rifles in their hands.  They marched to within 5 feet of the border and then just stood there and stared at each other through dark sunglasses.  Then the ceremonial troops in fancy uniforms and large ornamental hats began their show.  This involved a lot of high kicks where they would march and be hitting their foreheads with their legs.  The two sides basically puffed their chests, shook their fists, wiggled their hats, and had some of the most aggressive mustache twirling possible for at least 30 minutes before the flags were finally lowered and the gate was closed again.  
Mocking the other side
Fist shaking                  

This ceremony began in the 1950’s as a statement that while the two countries might go to war it would not be because of this border crossing.  That said the ceremony does not seem to be doing much to decrease tensions between the two nations.  The three of us sat throughout the ceremony with our mouths hanging open at the spectacle we were witnessing.  Do a search on YouTube to really appreciate what we saw. 

     We then took the train back to Delhi and flew home the next day for the holidays stopping in Seoul, Korea in between.  We initially were going to do a quick tour into Seoul during our layover but John managed to catch a cold 2 days before we left India and since he was possibly febrile the quarantine checkpoint in the airport would not let us out.  We managed to survive a month in India with no gastrointestinal distress (despite eating salads and things we couldn’t peel) but did get to spread the Indian crud (cold/flu) from one side of the world to the other. 

     We would return to India to visit Ladakh in the Himalayas as we have heard very good things about trekking there but being November was too late in the season for us to go there.  Otherwise we felt like we had a good sampling of the country even though it is very large and there were many areas that we were not able to see.  We have traveled a lot and found India one of the more difficult places to travel in.