Some folks may consider it blasphemous to say this but there is more to being in Ecuador than just kayaking. Each season we take time between trips to explore other areas of this diverse country. From the coast to the jungle, the Andes to the Galapagos Islands, there’s a lot packed into this wonderful land. One of my favorite places is the mountains, birth place of rivers and home to spectacular views.
It was with this in mind that after our Dec 1-9 kayak trip, Jack M, Julia G, myself, and my very good friend, Freddy Ramirez of Sierra Nevada, set off for five days of trekking in the El Altar region of Sangay National Park to the south of Quito. El Altar is an extinct volcano whose top and western flanks were blown open during a large eruption some time ago. The remaining shape is reminiscent of a tiara, with a multitude of summits, a wide open valley to the west, and the emerald green waters of a lake in the center of what was once it’s crater.Leaving Quito, two bus rides and a truck taxi landed us in a comfortable night at Hacienda Releche, a sort of self-serve guest house at the edge of the park.
The following morning we loaded our packs on our backs and set off on the 8 mile hike. This included a 3,000 ft. rise to the refugio (cabins) located in what is called the Collanes Plains. Due to the clouds shrouding the landscape, we weren’t treated to any views of the mountian but we did have pleasant weather for hiking. The guide books warned of exercising caution around the many wild bulls that graze in the area.
Arriving at the refugio at 3:00 pm, El Altar began to reveal itself a little bit at a time. The various summits have names such as the Bishop, Nun, Tabernacle, Friar and Canon. Looking up the valley toward the crater you are struck by the contrast of grassland meadows and scoured, boulder-strewn scars. It seems that in the year 2000, a huge slide of rockfall or ice crashed down the inner slopes of the crater and into the lake. The resulting wave (known as a GLOF, glacial lake overflow) was estimated to be over 160 ft. tall. It roared over the lip of the west end of the crater and sped across the valley. Estimates are that it took less than a minute for it to reach the far end of the valley and the refugio. Needless to say, the cabins were destroyed (and rebuilt in 2002). Since no one was in the refugio or the valley at the time, there was no loss of human life. I’m sure it was a different story for the cows and horses that were grazing in the valley.
Using the refuge as our base, we spent the next three days doing day-hikes to the lake and surrounding ridges. The views were spectacular, although the clouds continued their pattern of partial clearing then covering the mountain throughout our stay.
Back at the refugio, Julia provided us with the morning “ag migration report”, an update of the movements of the cows and horses visible from the front porch of the cabin. We added human voices to what we surmised the livestock must have been saying as they ran, butted heads, mooed and whinnied. We also concluded the cattle that grazed on the higher slopes were survivors of the 2000 flood, while the ones down in the valley were obviously newcomers. Freddy told us stories of his early years of serious climbing, and of his successes and near misses on the slopes of El Altar. He has a wealth of experience in the Ecuadorian Andes, as well as having made climbs in Peru, Bolivia, Alaska, and Nepal. Freddy also has a gift for languages. He is fluent in English, French, German, Spanish, and Quechua- the language of the Incas that is still spoken in many regions throughout the Andes.
Above timberline is where you find the paramo. This zone is made up of tall grasses, mosses and lichen, unusual sponge-like ground coverings, and bogs. Rubber boots are highly recommend, as is good rain gear. The reward for traveling here is the ability of hiking cross-country in almost any direction you desire while being surrounded by amazing scenery. We had the place to ourselves up until the last night of our stay. The hikes we did took us up to the 14,000 plus ft. with the refugio nestled at 12, 800 ft.
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