Cayambe to the Bone


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Text: Andrés Molestina

Andrés Molestina and Anna Nicole Arteaga invite us to touch the sky amid rocky slopes on a journey to one of the most inhospitable and unexplored corners of our planet…

We flank the northeastern face of Cayambe from the Ruales Oleas Berge Refuge, treading through a land without trails… in search of glaciers. Our initial objective was to walk all around the volcano; but reality showed us a different route, as expeditions like these usually do.

The ability to make decisions in the mountains is an indispensable tool. You can pay for a bad decision with your life. Teamwork is central. As the motto of expeditionism goes: “you are only as strong as your weakest member”.

The approximate 26 km route was previously traced on an app; we toured over the area on an ultralight aircraft to photograph the difficult segments that could not be made out with our satellite map; we also had a map from the 90s, dimension 1:50, from the Instituto Geográfico Militar (Military Geographic Institute).

We packed two suitcases –one 33 kg, the other 25 kg–, gas for our kitchenette, a first aid kit, flashlights, batteries, helmets, crampons, an ax, mattresses, sleeping bags, food for each day, water and dry change of clothes to sleep. In addition to our cameras, lenses, telephoto lenses, tripod, drone, GoPro… the mission is always to document the magic of an unexplored place with everything you’ve got.

The weather warned of rain in the afternoon, which didn’t worry us —our equipment was waterproof, of course— but the fog and possibility of lightning could become an unwelcome challenge. Above 4 600 meters above sea level, a lightning storm can be fatal. You become a live antenna and there is literally nowhere to hide! Another risk is falling rocks. You don’t want to find yourself in the middle of an avalanche… with fog.

Our adventure began as we made it through the first ravine and decided to reach the lowest area. We always walk together or with little separation, trying not to move the stones on which we lean. It is key not to throw debris to those who follow behind you. We made it onto a valley full of orange- and green-colored mud that stuck to the soles of our boots, leaving us with little to no traction. There was almost no vegetation. A lot of water gushed from a glacier located above us. The walk above 4 500 meters with heavy suitcases on our backs sank us in our own steps: but we advanced as slowly as possible, trying not to sweat.

Still quite far from our desired destination that day, we heard the warning call: it was barely three in the afternoon when the first ray of lightning struck… meaning it was time to set up camp and protect ourselves inside our tent. Only days before our departure, Anna had been instructed on what to do under a lightning shower and we were lucky she had the opportunity, as we tucked ourselves safely in our tent for two hours… The storm passed, we melted snow from ice stuck to a rock: our water to make dinner, drink… and to heat in a water bottle that we stuck inside our sleeping bag: a great tip to combat the cold at night!

At 5 am the next day, it was one degree Celsius, but we were warm in “bed”. We started the day before sunrise with the aim of gaining some kilometers. The passage between one valley to another is like entering a portal. One imagines that all valleys are the same. But no, each one is different: the wind and elements interact in a very particular way, like quantum divides depending on the mountain’s particular vortex. Walking carefully, we came to a slippery ridge. We climbed it, seeking to make it through to the next valley, where we found two waterfalls. We could barely make out the glacier’s edge from where the water was coming from; most of it was rock polished by the weight of the molten ice; rock that had only recently seen the light of day, now exposed right in front of our eyes.

The fog did not allow us to continue. We set up camp prematurely, a short distance from what looked to us like bear tracks; maybe a mountain lion…

Dinner was what I planned to make every day: pre-cooked quinoa, mixed with tofu protein and previously dehydrated pomodoro sauce; a nutritious mélange that tastes good; my go-to expedition meal.

Bad weather made it necessary for us to stay at our camp the following day; that is, time to exercise the mind. Being in a tent for so many hours prove just how patient one can be. The sound of rain isolates you; sometimes all you hear is your own breath… for hours.

We had oatmeal for breakfast with nuts the day after that. We started our journey planning to camp on a ridge at an altitude of 4 900 masl that promised an epic view of the valleys and the eastern summit of the volcano. The sunny day, perfect for moving forward, accompanied us to the highest section, where we were able to check our cell phones and send a note to our relatives. But the consequent descent into the valley began with zero visibility: a thick fog covered everything. Luckily it cleared up for a few minutes and we could see that about 100 m away a giant bull, the size of a car, probably wild and alone, stood in our way. For those who don’t know much about bulls, in a pack they’re not a problem, but alone they can become aggressive. We were ants next to such a beast. We searched our GPS app and reconnaissance photos and were able to spot a pass to avoid the animal. Despite the mist, we continued along the highest path; a tricky trail. The suitcases made mobility very difficult so we removed them and advanced looking for the mountain pass; but we never found it. As we returned, we found bones (perhaps a predator’s dinner). Further on, we notice the same animal footprints as before. It wasn’t a bear. Now we were sure it was a puma. It was hard to keep our calm as we made it back to our old camp. On the way, we came across more remains of a dead cow. The puma must have dragged its prey a distance of over 1 km!

The next morning, we began our journey out of this cloud kingdom. Instead of returning to the same camp as the first day, we climbed a ridge to our left. We knew that it would be a more challenging path, but the view would be incredible and indeed, it was amazing to have those endless valleys at our feet. Camping, however, was not easy. The wind was strong and we had to create a stone wall to protect the tent, which took three hours to set up! Around midnight, a tremor threatened to loosen more rocks from above. Luckily no material fell, but I didn’t sleep a wink…

Our last morning gifted us with a brief cloudless moment to enjoy. As if the mountain was saying goodbye. The mist soon returned, again muddling our swift return. We were lucky to find our tracks from the first day, though, which we followed to the end.

An expedition like this leaves you feeling deeply grateful. A connection with ancestral mountain spirits, with our nomadic past, with our animal instinct… having been exposed to the crudest elements of nature, having been vulnerable to predators, the ravages of the weather… Despite the fact that we went in search of glaciers, we were unfortunate to not find any. The maps we used to navigate showed us that they had to be located between 4 500 and 4 800 masl but we, who walked at those elevations, never came across them, a clear sign of their retreat up the mountain. The waterfalls we observed at various moments were like open water faucets flowing down the slope. How can a glacier survive such loss? A sad reality that afflicts our most glorious Andean cordillera…

Ephemeral Landscapes

Our mountains are much more than what we know and see from below. They have sandbanks and different-colored mud, swamps, rivers. They are home to many animals and rise and fall over valleys that have been carved by glaciers over centuries, places that ultimately have many faces, depending on the angle from which you look at them. It is certainly not easy to reach their heights. It is even more difficult to reach their glaciers or make it to their summits. “Ephemeral Landscapes” offers an intimate look at our mountains at their highest elevations, where they are seldomly depicted, revealing their changing “faces” and the effects of climate change as the years go by. If you want to know more about Andean glaciers and our project, contact @paisajesefimeros

Only in Ecuador

Only here is there snow on the equator and only here, in Ecuador, does the equator reach such high altitudes: the top of Cayambe volcano is unique in the world for this reason, a monument among monuments that few have admired as closely…

Photos: Andrés Molestina / Anna Nicole Arteaga

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