|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.