DREAM TRIPS 2009

Scale a Volcano in Ecuador

For big-time adventure, not to mention magical green landscapes, grab a pair of rubber boots and start climbing. No experience required.

We gaze up at the mist pouring off the surreally green mountains and the impossibly steep farms, which look like Nebraska would if a giant balled it up like a bedsheet. Now that we're finally here, I want to start climbing immediately.

"What do you think?" I ask Joseph.

"Let's do it," he says.

The woman at the hacienda doesn't think it's a great idea but hands me a ring of keys for El Refugio anyway. I ask her which cabin to sleep in, and she says it doesn't matter because the setup is unstaffed and there are no other guests tonight. Any tricks to getting there? "Todo a la izquierda," she says. Stay to the left.

"Do you want mules?" she asks. My brother and I laugh. This is a hike—why would we want mules?

Starting out, we notice right away that the trail is actually a cow and mule path, and it's sopping wet. So much for this being the dry season. Footing is unpredictable. Sometimes the thick mud withstands my weight; other times, I get sucked shin-deep into the muck, and the freezing water brims over the tops of my hiking boots. To top it off, our backpacks are weighed down with nonessentials: cameras, extra clothing, War and Peace. After 20 minutes of tough slogging, we reach a marker that says El Refugio is...another seven and a half miles away.

Joseph remains in good spirits. He bounds up the foggy hill and laughs when he falls. But several hours later, his pants and boots are soaked and his humor is fraying. I start to think about the things we should have done, like buy rubber boots in Riobamba and leave our big packs at the hacienda. And we should have stayed put for the night, maybe gotten to know the mules a little better.

We break for a lunch of sweet rolls, apples, and a fresh, salty cheese called Andino that tastes a bit like feta. Resting on giant rocks, we try a Zen approach: El Refugio is where it is, and we'll get there when we get there. With new pep, we set off, marveling at the gorgeous canyon far below us and—in the occasional clearing of fog—the solitary cows on the hillsides. We pass a cowherd bouncing down the trail bareback on a mule. And every so often we hear the rumble of Tungurahua clearing its throat.

If only I'd bought those rubber boots.... The refrain keeps going through my head. Hours later, my legs are caked with mud, and we haven't caught a single glimpse of El Altar. I know we didn't take a wrong turn, because there are no turns—just the same trail, zigzagging through the hills like a saw blade. Even though it's only 5 p.m., the light seems to be waning; I expected us to have at least a couple more hours of daylight. Feeling nervous, I take the lead and set an unforgiving pace. Joseph lags behind. And then he takes off his backpack and heaves it onto the trail.

"You don't want your bag to get all wet," I scold him.

"It's too heavy," he replies.

We sit down to nibble on some of Napoleon's sugar. Suddenly, as if a switch is thrown, the fog lifts and the blue sky and bright sun glisten. We look out on the vast riverbed below us and then up through the steaming valley at an austere snowcapped ridge.

"Capac Urcu," I say, awestruck.

My brother snaps photos like crazy. "Would we call this volcano almighty?" he asks.

"I think that qualifies," I say.

He puts down the camera. "But it doesn't look very close."

Ecuador, of course, is on the equator, where the days and nights are roughly equal in length. That means sun­down is not at 8 p.m. or even 7 p.m.—it's at 6:30 p.m. I can add another item to the list of stupid mistakes I've made today.

"I've got an idea," I say, trying to sound cheery. In truth, my heart is racing. "Let's drop our big packs here and go find the cabins. We can come back and get them."

I calmly put a few cookies and bananas into my day pack and tuck some bread and yogurt in my cargo pants. There's no way we're coming back for these bags tonight. We may never see them again.

Soon it's pitch-black, and I wonder if this is what disaster is like: anxiety (are we doomed?) accompanied by mundanity (the sound of our boots plopping through the mud). I can see the headlines: "Older Brother to Blame in Puma Attack!" or "Mummies Really Dead Americans!" We keep seeing what we think are cabins on the hills in front of us, but when we get closer, we realize they're boulders. A light rain begins, and we stop to rest in the shelter of a tall, flat rock.

"This wouldn't be the worst place to sleep," I say.

Joseph is no longer speaking.

BIG-TIME ADVENTURE

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