In one of those random encounters that can make – or break – a trip, we have landed a skiing atheist for a mountain guide in a country that’s more than 80 percent devoutly Catholic and not exactly renowned for snowsports. Evening sun recedes on 5,704-metre Volcán Antisana, the fourth-highest volcano in Ecuador and considered the most challenging to climb. I examine the web of tangled ice looming above camp, while trying to mitigate an altitude headache with a second beer.
Two days earlier, when I landed in Quito, my waiting taxi driver had commented upon seeing my skis: “I did not know we have this sport in Ecuador.” Reasonable observation. While Steve Ogle, Cam Shute and I prep our packs in the fading light, guide Ramiro Donozo examines his 1980s-vintage 185-cm, pink and orange Dynastar Radicals like someone thrown into the cockpit of a plane for the first time and told to land it, at night.
“The skins are still on from the last time,” Ramiro says.
“When was the last time?” Steve asks.
“Hace tres anos,” he replies.
Three years ago.
The sun drops at the Equator with the suddenness of a switched light. Across from camp, Antasanilla, a black plug of volcanic rock, claws the darkening sky above tiny Laguna Santa Lucia. In minutes it’s coal black and we’re scrambling for sleeping bags and a night of insomnia. After a restless night, I chase morning light into the mess tent where Ramiro’s right hand Diego is conjuring up pancakes and instant coffee.
A few coffees later, and with bellies full, we start puffing up a scant path, following the beams of our headlamps toward a crumbling moraine. The dull glow of pre-dawn slowly floods the vast highlands of Ecuador. The air feels desperately thin; a week ago I languished at my sea level home pondering the absurdity of fleeing an inbound Canadian winter to ski crud and wind-tortured slab at the Equator. Volcanoes are weather magnets; they’re appealing more for their geologic symmetry than for snow quality. In less than an hour we reach the glacier. I heave my pack onto a flat rock. Ramiro swigs water from his plastic bottle then looks up toward the summit, still clear.
“Earlier this season another guide got turned around. He could not find a route around a big crevasse near La Cumbre,” he says.
He holds his ski and fumbles with a pair of museum-ready Silvretta 404s. Ramiro is a study in unassuming composure. I realize this two hours later, after we have skinned up the low-angled apron of snow-covered ice and encounter our first obstacle – a gaping chasm threatened from above by truck-sized seracs.
“I’m thinking we go this way,” he says, pointing his ice axe at a steep tongue of snow between two tottering ice blocks.
We surrender reluctantly to local knowledge, or faith. With skis off and crampons on, we punch a plumb line through the seracs, weaving, ascending and descending, until once again reaching easier terrain. From there we thread large crevasses, leaving wands to mark the route should we lose visibility on the descent. Far below, puffy clouds scud the blue sky leaving shadows on the tan-coloured plateau.
As we climb on, the altitude puts a vice grip on my lungs. A straightforward headwall leads to an intimidating mess of disintegrating seracs – the only way forward. Ramiro drops nonchalantly into the glacial junkyard, which amounts to about 30 seconds of roll-the-dice objective, then leads up a tongue of clean hard snow toward a more forgiving glacier above.
Suddenly, he stops.
“Wait, I take photo,” he says, while Steve and I ponder mortality at the foot of an improbably balanced ice tower.
Briefly, I detect the pungent scent of sulfur, a reminder that Antisana is dormant but poised to pounce, having last erupted cataclysmically in 1801. Soon the summit is in tasting distance. A long ascending traverse gains us the mellow south ridge. Six hours after stumbling out of camp under darkness, we ascend un-roped to the broad summit of Antisana. The weather holds, but clouds already boil up from the Amazon basin a few vertical miles below us and to the east. Our summit stop is brief.
We click in and swish down the summit plateau, the horizon dominated by Ecuador’s iconic chain of volcanoes. As we slide to a stop, I gaze upon one of the most enticing natural terrain parks I’ve ever seen, with the icy cone of Cotopaxi piercing the bright equatorial sky at 5,897 m. We drop in one by one, executing tentative, oxygen-starved turns, before a gaping slot forces a right-hand traverse to the ugly icefall that got my palms sweating on the ascent. A few jump turns down the steep sliver and we’re back in the firing line, quickly removing our skis and sprinting beneath the seracs now in full sun. With skis back on, I breathe easier once again. The headwall is smooth, sliced by narrow crevasses that are easy to avoid, and far less steep than it seemed on the ascent. Then we’re back to weaving among the big bus-eaters: a game of snakes and ladders on skis. Ramiro follows far behind, stoically doing his impersonation of a skier, and slowly regaining some shreds of skill he left behind on Bariloche a few years ago. Even from a distance I see his beaming white smile on a brown weathered face; though he has climbed Antisana many times it’s his first on skis, which makes our shared experience even richer. I point my tips downward and recall the taxi driver who questioned whether or not there’s any use in Ecuador for those P-Tex sticks called skis. Turns out there is – on volcanoes that scrape the sky a mere 80 km from 0˚ Latitude.