One of the activities I've been looking forward to the most since arriving in Ecuador is trekking in the Andes. Don't get me wrong, I've loved everything else I've done so far, and the good people of Quito have been incredibly accommodating and friendly. On top of that, over the past couple of days, I've had the opportunity to mountain bike down Cotopaxi – a 5897 meter (19, 347 ft) volcano – and visit a lake inside a volcanic crater that is simply breathtaking. But I love to hike and climb, and was ready to really stretch my legs in the high country. That opportunity came today, and I was reminded of the old adage "be careful what you wish for."
This morning I checked out of the wonderful Patio Andaluz hotel, and waited for my trekking guides to arrive. They were coming to pick me up for the day's adventure, which included a climb up a 4200 meter (13, 779 ft) mountain by the name of Pasochoa, followed by a traverse of the region that would end with a descent into the Pita River Canyon. The trek promised spectacular views and a wonderful nature experience in the Ecuadorian highlands. To say I was excited would be an understatement.
The trek is offered by Tropic, an adventure travel company that can provide just about any Ecuadorian travel experience that you can imagine, including lodge-to-lodge trekking though the mountains. Tropic has a reputation of being incredibly professional, as well as innovative in their approaches to sustainable travel. True to that reputation, my guide showed up exactly on time, introducing himself with a hearty handshake. After introductions were exchanged, I jumped into the large van, where a driver was eager to get underway. I was informed that we would be stopping for some other guests who would be joining us on the hike, and with that we were off into the Quito traffic.
Before long we had stopped to pick up a sales representative from Tropic, as well as six mountain guides who I would have the pleasure of hiking with today. Most of them had not taken this particular trek before, so they were learning the route from Fabian, our lead guide. Once everyone was collected, we were off to start our adventure.
The ride out to the trailhead took about 45 minutes, with the road going from a modern highway, down to a cobblestone trail over the course of that time. At one point, we even had to stop to clear a large tree that had fallen over our route. It took a group effort from all of us to open the route back up, but soon we were speeding along toward our destination once again.
Eventually we hopped out of the van gathered up our gear and box lunches, and started up the trail. In the beginning, it was a path that was very easy to follow, and while it started off a bit steep, it soon leveled out some, giving us a chance to catch our breath along the way. It was also an early opportunity to take in some of the scenery, which was striking, although a bit muted due to low hanging clouds, and the threat of rain.
Soon, the trail turned upwards at a steeper grade once again, and we moved out of the Andes forest and into the marshlands that cover much of the upper sections of the mountains. This proved to be tough going, as the tall grasses that grow on the side of Pasochoa can conceal uneven ground, slick mud, dense roots and a host of other obstacles waiting to trip you up. On top of that, the grass is so thick, and soft, that it almost makes using trekking poles impossible. Not only do the tips of the poles snag on the grass itself, they also sink deep into the blades, sometimes providing no real assistance at all.
It took about three hours to reach the summit of Pasochoa, with the altitude and terrain being the biggest challenges of course. The route, which was often lost in the grass, was a test for the legs and lungs, with a fairly steep angle to the approach ridge. While the altitude certainly left me gasping for air a few times, it was the grass that ultimately proved my biggest nemesis. It would continue to do so throughout the day, but on the last push to the top, I simply gave up using my trekking poles, and resorted to pulling myself upwards using the dense plants as my method of stabilizing myself.
At one point, we moved off of the grass, and onto the rocky summit, and it was far easier moving across the solid ground than it was the unpredictable marsh lands below. Once on the rocks, it was an easy climb to the top, where we took a brief break to enjoy some snacks, and take in the view. Unfortunately, the clouds that has been following us that morning were still around, so there wasn't much to see from the top. 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