American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

South America, Ecuador, Sangay

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1990

Sangay. Although Sangay (5323 meters, 17,463 feet) was no first ascent, it will be useful to give information for anyone who decides to go there. Jim Velie, my brother Dana and I set off from Quito to Riobamba by bus, where for about $8 we hired a taxi that took us three and food and equipment in two hours to Alao, a tiny village. There we met up with Casimiro Lema Quillay, an excellent guide. He had hired four porters for $4 a day. One must inquire a week in advance to hire Casimiro, whom we highly recommend. The next morning we set out up the valley to an obvious notch in the southern side of the valley. We were in ankle-to knee-deep mud, which was to be our daily companion. The Amazon jungle air mixes with the cool mountain air to produce constant moisture, from fog to drizzle. I recommend knee-high rubber boots for the mud and numerous stream crossing. They are available in Quito up to about size 9. Porters should carry all your gear since the mud takes getting used to. On our first day we gained 3000 feet to the cloud-shrouded pass and then descended a long, steep-sided ridge to drop 4000 feet to the Río Culebrillas. If you are lucky, the clouds will part and give you a spectacular view. In the evening it tends to be clearer and the view of Sangay becomes spectacular. The bright red lava constantly weeps, flowing and bouncing down a 4000-foot wall from the northwest crater. After a rest day, we set off in the rain for Yana Yaku, where we entered a dense temperate rain forest on a trail, if you can call it that. It wanders up and down badlands. Vertical mud steps with only grass to cling to require leather gloves to prevent the grass from cutting hands. On that day, we crossed 33 rivers and streams and wallowed in mud in constant drizzle. The next day we found that the best terrain feature to follow was ridge crests that usually are no wider than a foot with steep sides you wouldn’t want to fall down. It finally brought us to an ancient lava flow, a welcome relief from the arduous trail. We camped in La Playa, an area already showing signs of too many campsites. From here when the weather is clear, Sangay is awesome with reverberating booms of eruptions, huge glowing rocks cascading down and plumes of volcanic ash and gas soaring thousands of feet into the atmosphere. At night the show was even more outstanding. Luckily we had ten straight hours of clear skies. The next morning it was drizzling again as we set off through sulphur steam and vegetation that made you wonder if a dinosaur might not appear. The forest gave way to grasslands, then to petrified lava towers covered with moisture-weeping mosses and lichens and finally to barren lava scree and boulders. Casimiro went no further and warned us of cannonballs of stone even on the safest route. We changed rubber boots for mountain shoes. We stuck to thin waves of snow that gave better footing than the lava scree. We climbed unroped to be able to play dodgeball when the rocks flew. Lava scree and snow finally gave way to sand-like black ash. The sulphur smell and gasses made our eyes water and our high-altitude breathing painful. Finally, we arrived on the saddle next to the middle crater, inactive at the moment. We could hardly see in the impenetrable ground fog created by the vapor and steam. I explored toward the lava-spewing north crater, feeling my way and leaning on lava towers for support. The heat became unbearable and my gloves sizzled on the rocks I leaned on. I returned to the others and we started up the last hundred feet toward the true summit which is the lip of the third crater. When we were not more than three feet away from it, a huge eruption occurred. Ash, small rocks and noxious gases nearly overwhelmed us. Yet we kept our cameras going. In the 45 minutes we spent on the summit, we witnessed another eruption. We did some fantastic giant-step glissading in the lava scree on the descent. It took us three days to return to Alao. Casimiro and the porters agilely ran on slime mud downhill with heavy packs. Some hints: Use rubber boots. Buy food in Quito where the variety is great. Take lightweight, ventable rain gear. Plastic bags are a must. Cotton clothes never dry; use polypro. No technical gear is needed other than a good helmet. You’ll never find your way in without a good guide.

Steve Untch

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.