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Ascending Cayambe: An Andean Adventure

Updated: Jul 20, 2022

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you stop to look fear in the face…you must do the thing you think you cannot do.”  -Eleanor Roosevelt

It was a bleak, cold, rainy March in Tabacundo. The Ecuadorian Andes were consumed by the regular cloud cover, drifting slowly into the valleys swathed in verdant crops; a latticework of smallholder parcels resembling a patchwork quilt rolling along the countryside. Every morning I would awake to the bone chilling cold and run up onto the roof top terrace of my host family to see if the mighty mountain had revealed itself. Most days I was only mildly appeased with a sliver’s glimpse of the volcano’s glacier. But one bright morning, the desolate peak of the Cayambe volcano slipped away from the clouds and into my view. I remember thinking to myself “what a formidable peak; all 5,790 meters (19,000 ft) of it; the third highest mountain in Ecuador; the mountain with the worst weather in the country. Who would ever think to climb it?”

A rare glimpse of the icy summit of Volcan Cayambe from the town of Tabacundo, Ecuador

Eight years later I would return to ascend its icy ridges. After a failed attempt in 2010 at climbing Ecuador’s second highest peak Cotopaxi, I had intended to return to conquer what had conquered me. After having spent five days acclimatizing hiking around Cotopaxi National Park, I still could not fight off the mountain sickness that later plagued me at base camp. Severe nausea, tachycardia, and headache reminded me that it would be better to let my climbing partner Bridget pursue the journey on her own. I will always remember the feeling of defeat that consumed me the morning after her summit. How had I managed to be the only one with altitude sickness when we were in equal physical condition and had acclimatized similarly?

The crater of the active Volcan Cotopaxi. Picture taken by Bridgett McElroy.

In November of 2015, my best friend from Peace Corps Clay Martin contacted me with the intention of returning to that beloved country and summiting Cotopaxi. Upon further investigation, we learned that the park had been closed due to volcanic activity and that our hopes could not be fulfilled. There was another option, however. Cayambe. Clay inquired with local mountaineering guides and waxed enthusiastic recounting the possibilities: ice climbing not unlike roof of the world alpine treks, the circumvention of countless crevasses, a final summit climb up a steep staircase one would never forget. 

Honestly, my stomach churned thinking about everything a climb like that might entail. My fear of heights had been something I battled since I was a kid, and the inclement weather we could expect on our expedition was far from welcoming. Clay reminded me what a tangible, graspable reality this endeavor was. We were young and fit. It was the best time of our lives to do it. 

So I committed. I used it as a way to get myself back in shape. I started running hills in the cold. I doubled my time in the gym and endured cold showers as long as I could. I met up with Clay in Ithaca to hike and talk ourselves into adventure – one that our friend Wilcox referred to as “another level of intense”.

But I never really felt ready. Knowing what had happened to me on Cotopaxi in 2010, I was uncertain that the few days we would spend at altitude would prepare us for the trek. I decided to move forward and give it my all, unknowing of the outcome, much like the attitude and spirit that must be embodied by Peace Corps volunteers heading to an unknown land.

Clay and I both share this philosophy. In fact, when Clay was unable to complete his Peace Corps service in Ecuador in 2009, he later reapplied to carry out another full service in Panama. He refused to let the feeling of defeat rule him and accomplished his goal of serving a full two years in the Peace Corps. He conquered what once conquered him.

Day 1 and 2: Quito to Cotacachi and Otavalo

In mid-January of 2016, Clay and I met in Quito and began our preparations for the next few days. We hydrated and ate healthfully, paid the outfitter providing our guides, and caught up with our old friend Jhonny at his apartment downtown. The next day we set out early on a bus to the famous market town of Otavalo, known for its artisans who have found success promoting their crafts worldwide. We left our bags at a hostel and immediately departed for the village of Cotacachi, where we had planned on doing a hike around Cuicocha, a lake in the shadow of the Cotacachi volcano, to get some hiking in at higher altitude (around 10,000 ft).

Unfortunately, a driving rain and ill-preparation diverted us, but our afternoon was not tainted in any way. Instead, we ate an early dinner at a cheap restaurant and hailed a cab to the un-extraordinary haunts of Nancy, a local shaman and tarot card reader who Clay had visited on multiple occasions and had returned with friends and family to reassure his initial assessment of her uncannily crafty and all-knowing wisdom.

I’ve never been one to believe in extra-sensory perception, although I am credulous and open-minded to the powers of shamanism. Psychics and card readers have always seemed more appropriate for the likes of carnivals and fairs – much more a form of entertainment than medicine. Clay raved about the powers of Nancy, claiming she had meticulously and accurately read the cards for his mother, father, brother, and twice for himself. It was without a doubt worth another visit to see what she had to say about me.

Lo and behold, Nancy did not disappoint. In the mystical shadow of Volcan Imbabura, this woman’s magical whims came across us in dizzying proportions. As I waited outside her consultorio, I was joined by several residents of the surrounding communities, both mestizo and indigenous, who could not seem to say enough about her healing powers. One older man had come from as far as Quito because every other doctor fell short.

Sun setting over Volcan Imbabura behind the village of Cotacachi. Clay and I gazed up at the mountain’s heights, knowing our goal in two days was to reach its summit at 4,630 m (15,190 ft). 

She called me in and sat me down in from of her healing table, filled with candles, rocks, skulls, and feathers. She had required that I bring a candle and egg along with me, the former of which she used to assess my emotional spirit, the latter to assess my health. Rubbing both the egg and candle over my entire body, she hummed a soft melody through parsed lips, lit the candle, and broke the egg into a glass of water. We watched them both in meditation for minutes.

Then, without saying a word, she had me separate a deck of tarot cards and blow on top of them. She laid them out in some indecipherable fashion and began to inquire about the things she was seeing.  


“How long ago did you break up with your girlfriend?” she asked me without hesitation.

It was true that my breakup with Carol had been an aggravation to my senses and spirit; an emotional rollercoaster that left me flagging and disheartened. Part of the reason I had said “fuck yes” to Clay’s continual pressure to climb Cayambe was to set my mind on something greater that could help me ascend out of the depths of depression that the relationship had gradually forced me into.

“Just about two weeks ago” I responded.

She elaborated that she could see that my heart had suffered because of the emotional pain and burden I had endured. She mentioned that Carol was hurting too and that her thoughts were with me frequently. We would end up back together in each other’s arms in the little Panamanian town of Pedasi and we would both find temporary happiness together. These were all true predictions.

Nancy then commented that I had been advancing slowly but steadily in my career and that my financial wellness was average, but that I could benefit from saving even small sums of money, something that I had not been doing. She claimed that overall I was in very good health, but she could see a small ember of discomfort growing in my lower back and stomach. She warned me to take precautions so as to avoid any further discomfort, although it may have been too late.

Clay and I left the shaman’s house feeling equally amazed – no different from Clay’s previous perceptions. His battle with seemingly chronic GI issues had left him feeling helpless, but this visit seemed to give him newfound hope. We headed back to the hostel in Otavalo and got to bed early. The next day we would experience our first high altitude trek: the 4,263 m (13,986 ft) Volcan Fuya Fuya.

It was midnight and my stomach turned. Something wasn’t right. Minutes passed and it became worse and worse. An hour later I was in the bathroom heaved over the toilet that I had just emptied my bowels into. The double headed dragon was in full effect. The insult to injury was my consciousness:

“You know Ryan, vomiting and shitting out every last ounce of nutrient and water is no way to hydrate for a high altitude hike.”

After the worst had passed, I swallowed a few ibuprofen tablets and pounded a pedialyte. I tried to ingest as much water as possible, and toss and turned the remainder of the night, sleeping minimally.

Day 3: Fuya Fuya

After the long painstaking night, the morning eventually broke and we went up to the balcony to have breakfast. I could barely stomach the bread and cheese but tried my best to do so with Clay’s positive encouragement.

The cab ride out of town and up to the Lagunas del Mojanda was windy and steep. As we climbed from 10,500 ft to 13,000 ft, I could feel the air getting thinner and my breathing became more rapid. My stomach had regained strength, but I was apprehensive about the upcoming trek. The hike from the lake to the top of Fuya Fuya is a mellow, push up the side of a hill. If the hike were at 4,000 feet, children and their families would be summiting by the dozens. The challenge is the altitude.

Trekking through the high Andean grassland known as paramo on the flanks of Fuya Fuya. Laguna de Mojanda is behind me.

Immediately, I knew the Fuya Fuya adventure would come to an end rapidly, for me at least. My first few steps were accompanied by rapid breathing and a deep throbbing heartbeat in my head as we meandered our way along the trail into the paramo, the name for the tropical alpine biome dominated by bunchgrasses and bogs. Clay continued his encouragement, agreeing to wait as much as I needed.

“We’ve got to acclimatize, man” he kept saying. I knew it was true, so I pushed myself as far as I could go. That was a point several hundred meters up the trail. I lay on my back, and told Clay to go ahead. I would catch up if I began to feel better, or head down if I needed.

Within ten minutes dizziness and tachycardia had set in with a vengeance. My head pounded with each thundering step. I needed to head down fast. After a somewhat disorienting descent, I found a shelter out of the sun and lay down on two uneven wooden benches. All too soon, the sound of a rattling diesel engine invaded my headspace, and a family of Quichua Indians stepped out with tables, pots, and pans that they began erecting directly in front of me.

Estas mal de montaña,” a man with a green sombrero and a long braided pony tail said to me. I saw him through winced eyes.

Si. Terrible dolor de cabeza y nausea” I responded in lassitude.

The man smiled and held up a large aluminum pot. “Tengo justo lo que necesitas, pero hay que moverse aqui hermano.” He had just what I needed, but he needed me to move out of the way.

He pointed to the open door and the vacant passenger seat of the van they had driven. I got up and lumbered over to the van to rest. Minutes later, the man came to my rescue with a steaming hot cup of tea. Apparently, it was made from the very same grasses on the hillsides surrounding us. It was a remedy his grandmother had passed along and he assured me it would work like a charm.

Five cups of tea later and my head felt miraculously clearer. I could begin to think about where I was and when Clay might be getting back. He was up on the summit snapping this shot with the wildflowers he had collected along the trail.

Clay at the top of Volcan Fuya Fuya

Clay was back at the parking lot in good time and we made our way back to Otavalo. I hung my head thinking about our next two climbs; Clay was one up on me and I didn’t want to hold him back. I had to focus on getting rehydrated and mentally prepared. It would be an early morning.

Day 4: Imbabura

Fortunately, the dawn broke after a restful evening and I felt fully recuperated from the previous days’ affliction: food poisoning. Nancy had been right. Our guide met us early at the hostel and we set off for the Imbabura trailhead. I felt much stronger, but even so, our steps were short and slow accompanied with much more hurried breathing than one would expect at that pace. We hiked and hiked and hiked, mile after mile into the high reaches of paramo beneath the volcano.

Slowly but steadily we trekked forward, periodically packing new lipfulls of coca leaves, hoping to stave off the effects of altitude. Towards the top, the landscape grew much steeper, containing big scree fields speckled with surprisingly verdant vegetation.

Agricultural plots on the hillsides of Volcan Imbabura

The thinning air became ever more present, forcing us to stop periodically along the trail. My head began to throb relentlessly, but we pushed on in pursuit of the summit. On several pitches along the scree field, our guide required us to harness up and clip into a rope connecting all three of us. A fall at these heights would mean certain death. My anxieties of succumbing to the dizziness quickly circling my head and plummeting over the edge of the ridge encouraged me to quickly oblige to our guide’s request.

Around 1:00 pm we crested the last of the steep ridges to set foot on the summit of Imbabura. Although the clouds had moved in to obscure most of our view of the valley, we could appreciate the vast distance between us and the fields below. Clay and I high-fived and join hands in celebratory spirit. An invigorating thought then dawned on me: Maybe, just maybe, was it actually possible for me to reach the icy top of Cayambe.

Finally, we made it to the summit of Volcan Imbabura

We made a relatively quick descent from the peak, as afternoon storms threatened to pummel the rocky outcroppings around us. I remember reaching the trailhead where we had departed and learning that the truck was another half mile down the hill. With a headache that had seemed to intensify all afternoon and legs heavier than bricks, this news was unwelcome. The last twenty minutes stomping down that dirt road was hell. The rain began to fall and I questioned whether I had the strength to put one foot in front of the next.

Finally, we reached the truck, packed things away, and headed into town. Stopping at a local fonda, I could barely stomach the soup that Clay and our guide so eagerly anticipated. I ate a few spoonfuls and washed it down with a few tablets of ibuprofen. I felt like death.

Day 5: Quito 

That night we traveled back to Quito in order to sleep at a higher elevation. The next day we rode to the top of the teleferico, Quito’s high speed gondola (one of the highest gondolas in the world), and spent a few hours eating and chatting at 12,943 feet. The acclimatizing continued.

Day 6: Cayambe

Ever since I was a kid, I have been afraid of heights. Clay remembers the time we were hiking along a ridge outside of Vilcabamba in the south of Ecuador and I got down on all fours and crab-walked several sections of the trail in fear that I would lose balance and topple over the side of the mountain. Another time, when I was around 8, I was climbing up the face of Tuckerman Ravine with my parents in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Maybe it was the copious wooden crosses marking spots where people had died that triggered my fear, but for the next hour I could not seem to control the multiple paroxysms of angst and tears.

These are the moments I remembered when I gazed upon the summit of Cayambe on that March day in 2008. Never would I have imagined setting that fear aside by staring that very same fear in the face.

In the morning, we were fitted for climbing gear and introduced to a Japanese woman who would be climbing with us. Because we were unsure if both of us would make it to the summit, we figured it would be better to go with two guides in case one of us had to turn back. However, we vacillated whether or not to spring the extra $150 to get another guide. Upon learning that a Japanese woman would be attempting the summit on the same morning as us, it seemed like a good idea for the three of us to climb together with the assistance of the two guides. Before entering Cayambe-Coca National Park, we stopped at an eatery to have lunch and purchase provisions for the trip. Clay and I both noticed the Japanese woman smoking a cigarette in the parking lot after the meal. Did she know what she was about to embark on?

Riding in an old land cruiser with our two guides, we climbed high into the paramo that draped the sides of the volcano. We pulled into the base camp shelter without noticing much of the landscape around us; fog had concealed our surroundings. A gray fox wandered past us, un-phased by our presence, and we walked out to a rocky promontory where we admired the sound of a waterfall rushing through a gully. As the fog lifted, we realized that the water rushed off of the glacier high above us and the summit of Cayambe was closer than we had thought. We admired the stark beauty of the landscape for a brief window of time, for the fog returned in drafts that were even thicker than before.

A South American Gray Fox (Lycalopex griseus) greets us at the Cayambe base camp

That afternoon we received a short training on how to use the crampons and ice axe, two tools Clay and I had never used before.  The Japanese woman seemed to know what she was doing, as she had previously climbed Mount Fuji, a peak that is snow-capped several months of the year.

The darkness of the evening fell quickly and dinner was served at 5pm. We ate a hot meal and drank what seemed like endless cups of tea. Staying hydrated was crucial. I also needed to keep telling myself that the summit was a reality; that this was going to happen. The base camp refuge reminded me a lot of my experience at Cotopaxi, and it would have been easy for me to psych myself out by continually reminding myself about the altitude sickness I had while I was there. That night I fell asleep in the top bunk relatively quickly, but Clay tossed and turned, likely eager about the impending adventure.

The moonscape setting at Cayambe base camp

Morning broke (for us) at 12:15 am. The sky was clear, stars out in all their glory, and the mountain cheered us on. The first hour brought us tromping slowly up the sand and scree fields below the glacier. Unfortunately, our pace was slowed even further by the Japanese woman, who grew more nauseous by the minute. By the time we had reached the foot of the glacier, she was vomiting repeatedly and it was clear that she would have to go back. Clay and I stayed on course up the hill behind Andres, our guide. Left, right, left, right, crunch, crunch, crunch; slowly but surely creeping our way up the ice field. We could see a string of lights high up on the mountain, like some phantom train bound for the reaches of heaven. The headlamps on climber’s heads high above us illuminated our path; we had many meters to climb.

Roping in to our guide, we circumnavigated our first crevasse, an icy blue vacancy into the underbelly of the glacier. What a lonely feeling this ice gap invoked. To be trapped inside that ever-moving, ever-changing labyrinth would be a nightmare I would not wish upon my worst enemies. We watched our steps carefully.

One of many treacherous crevasses along the route

The trek up the lower portion of the ice field lasted a couple of hours. We stopped to rest at a rocky embankment and fueled up on snacks. My head was beginning to throb and I wondered if I would be able to tell the difference between a level 1, 5, and 10 severity headache. I wasn’t so sure I could. At that point, I was around a 5. I would strike on.

“Okay,” said Andres. “Just let me know if it starts to get worse. We need to be sure to come down if it does.”

This feeling was quite unnerving: to not know whether my headache was severe or not. I shrugged my shoulders and popped another coca lipper. We had come a long way.

The next two hours I will always remember: an extraterrestrial wonderland of oblong, wind-sculpted ice formations vaguely resembling marshmallows. At any moment, little smurf figures could have emerged from between the ice mounds and it would not have surprised me. Navigating this terrain was challenging; we had to pick our steps wisely.

Bizarre, marshmallow-dotted landscape near the base of the glacier

At the top of the marshmallow fairyland, we sat down in the shelter of a gargantuan snow berg above us.

“How you guys feeling?” said Andres. “We’re just about half way.”

“Half way?” I said in disbelief. “You have got to be kidding!”

Clay looked at me with disappointment, sincerity and exhaustion in his eyes. “You want to go back, man? If you do, it’s not a huge deal. We’ve come a long way.”

I took a deep breath and a bite of a snickers bar. “We’ve got this Lopito. We’ve got this.”

We forged ahead into the belly of the snow berg. Taking a giant step over a slushy ravine, we reached a ladder leaned against a steep slab of ice. At the top of the ladder, a steep boot-sculpted path directly over an abysmal crevasse provided the only exit out onto the lip of the berg. Our guide encouraged us to move up the ladder and up the snow steps without looking down.

At the top of the berg, we maneuvered slowly across a windswept ridge. The sky was growing lighter with the nearing sun on the horizon. I refused to let exhaustion overcome my endurance. “We’ve got this,” I kept thinking to myself. “We’ve got this.” The ridge continued into the sky, without apparent end, but we moved forward in faith.

Climbing up higher towards the summit

My headache worsened, accompanied by a growing feeling of dizziness. My heart raced quickly in my chest and increasingly I could feel each heartbeat in my aching head. This was certainly no place for humanity. I remember vowing to myself that I would never do another high altitude climb. I was miserable. One and done.

At around 7:00 am, we reached the summit push. The summit was still out of view, but we were nearing it slowly. The only problem was our energy level. Imagine that you have just finished doing as many pushups as you can do and you were then told to drop and do ten more. This was the level of fatigue Clay and I experienced at this point of the climb. It was necessary to keep telling ourselves that we could do it. It was that mental battle you have to play at the end of any race.

Once above the clouds, the many volcanoes of the region can be seen stretching out across the land creating what explorer Alexander von Humboldt called the "avenue of the volcanoes"

Keep pushing through. Keep pushing through the pain until the end.

Left, right, axe, pull.

Left, right, axe, pull.

Again and again and again. The motion became hypnotic. I began wondering if I was hallucinating or if I was really seeing stars. The sun had crested. How could this be?

Despite the winter heat I was generating from the climb, I could no longer feel my fingers. The summit of this volcano was a level of cold I never would have imagined I’d ever experience in the tropics.

Fifteen minutes later, as we nearly fell to our knees in exhaustion, we found ourselves on the summit of Cayambe at 19,000 feet. I looked around for the tops of the volcanoes I had thought we’d see from the top. After all, we were in the middle of what Alexander von Humboldt coined the “Avenue of the Volcanoes.” On our last push up to the summit, Clay snapped an unremarkable photo of Cotopaxi in the distance. Unfortunately, the weather had moved in quickly by the time we reached the top and our view of anything around us was obscured by fog. I hardly noticed the cone-shaped volcano in the distance. Perhaps this is a good lesson for me to learn to savor and enjoy the journey, not just the destination. 

Our brief period on the summit of Cayambe wasn’t as celebratory or euphoric as I would have guessed. Instead, I felt a tremendous urge to get down, my head and heart reminding me every second that ticked. Thus, after a few hugs and photos, we pointed our toes downhill and began the descent.

We made it!

At this point, Clay had reached his tipping point and he was no longer capable of thinking or doing things clearly. The lack of sleep he had gotten the night before, left him with an insatiable urge to close his eyes. He repeatedly asked our guide if he could just sit down and sleep for 5 to 10 minutes, in order to accrue the energy he needed to descend. Andres would not let him.

Our guide, Andres, with a rope connected to me and Clay

One time Clay tripped and fell on his butt. He was caught by Andres. As we approached the treacherous snow staircase above the crevasse, I worried that he would not have the physical tact or mental composure to descend without err. Fortunately, we made it down without incident.

Back at camp, we gasped at the thought of having to walk up the stairs to the bunk room where are bags were stored. We left are climbing gear in the foyer for our driver to grab and pack away into the car and made the final push up to the bunk room. Later in Quito, as we inventoried our gear we realized that our ice axes were missing. In sheer, utter exhaustion, we had overlooked packing our ice axes. We paid a nominal fee of $80 a piece to replace the axes, an equivalent to having gotten another guide. We looked at it this way and brushed it off as a slight hiccup in an overall extraordinary trip.

Thus, Clay and I brought 2016 in with a rush that I will remember forever. It helped continue to forge a strong bond between the two of us and create a platform of positivity and motivation that will carry us through into the future in all we do. Cayambe has held the flare of fear close to my face. It has helped me rise above levels that once constricted and limited my reach. Cayambe has fortified my spirit.

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