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South America, Ecuador, First Ascent of Mt. Sangai

First Ascent of Mt. Sangai, Ecuador

Mt. Sangai in Ecuador is an active volcano, which for many decades has borne the reputation of being one of the most violent in the world. Detached from the main chain of the Andes, it juts out into the Amazon basin, a lonely sentinel, 17,464 feet above sea level. Although only about one hundred and fifty miles south of the equator, the last half mile of altitude is covered with a crown of ice and snow, which precipitates millions of tons of water and ice down the steep slopes at times of the irregular major eruptions. It is not the altitude which has prevented the attempts on its summit during the past two centuries from proving successful. The cause lies in three things: first, the labyrinth of mighty ash canyons which circle it on the three approachable sides with 500 square miles of difficult terrain; second, meteorological conditions which maintain almost constantly a pall of mist and cloud over the whole area and render even the locating of the volcano difficult; and third, the superstitious fears of the native Indians who never explore the labyrinth of canyons and on whom one must depend for cargo bearers.

All early attempts to reach the summit failed far short of the objective. Not until 1925 did anyone reach a high point on the ice cone, when Commander George Dyott, an Englishman, after months of effort finally explored a route through the canyons and came to grips with the ice-field. On his first attempt he was stopped by snow blindness and on his second he got entangled in a crevassed area on the southeastern shoulder, while his companion was incapacitated by “siroche.” His following of Indians refused to proceed beyond the snow-line.

On July 15th, 1929, a zoological expedition, headed by Robert T. Moore of the Department of Vertebrate Zoology of the California Institute of Technology, and accompanied by his son, Terris Moore of Williams, Lewis Thorne of Yale and Waddell Austin of the University of California, left the last inhabited Indian village of Alao and plunged into the water-soaked wilderness to the north of Sangai. The party was beset by many difficulties—daily rains, loss of equipment, desertion of the Indians at critical moments and reduction of food supplies to the danger point on several occasions, when fortunate killings of deer or tapir made possible a continuance of the attempt. After eighteen days of constant rains the party worked its way through the maze of canyons and climbed above the shroud of mist to the snow-line and to blinding sunlight.

After two unsuccessful attempts from a camp at about 15,000 feet, on the third, the party set out at about 6 a. m. on August 4th and succeeded in cutting steps up the steep frozen slope of the cone to the north of the crevassed area, which had stopped Commander Dyott, and at 1.50 in the afternoon, the leader gazed for the first time into the crater. Dense clouds of light-colored gas poured from the orifice. The leader and his son proceeded together to the highest point on the precipitous rim. In spite of mountain sickness which affected one member, the entire party of Americans reached the top, but such Indians as had not deserted earlier, feared to cross the snow-line. The 15,000 ft. camp was on the northwest side of the peak and the route took them on a traverse of the steep slopes towards the south until the area of crevasses and hummocks was reached, when they zig-zagged back towards the western side again. From the top the party made a rapid descent past the 15,000 ft. camp to a larger camp 1,000 feet below the snow-line. Moving pictures, under clear conditions, were secured of the summit crater and its surroundings.

R. T. M.