Behind us, across the chilling valley, the frozen glacier of Cotopaxi glowed orange. In front, the blue day set behind the Northern Iliniza peak as we climbed out of the quaint mountain town of El Chaupi with its few stores and little fame. The only reason tourists know the town is because of the snowy Iliniza peaks that sit in a cold blowing mist boldly behind it.
We decided to climb the Northern Iliniza peak, opposed to the more popular peaks like Cotopaxi and Chimbarazu, because we needed to kill time on a very low budget and we didn´t have the expert mountaineering skills required to climb the big glaciated peaks guideless (or on a budget) . Guide companies own the monopoly on Ecuadorian mountains, charging fees that our weary pockets couldn´t afford.
We heard about the Ilinizas from the website of a guide company and decided not to hire them. We didn´t need them to drive us out there; we could take a two dollar bus; we didn´t need them to put our tents up for us; we have arms and fingers; and we didn´t need them to let us use their unnecessary mountain climbing harnesses, helmets and boots. Aleana had a pair of twelve-dollar shoes with the word Sport written in blue letters across the tongue. Obviously, we had all the equipment we needed.
We had our canned tuna, our bread, our granola, and our cookies, all necessary food for a three day hiking trip without a camping stove.
Our plan was to enter the park under the cover of darkness to avoid paying the exorbitant five dollar entrance fee into the Iliniza reserve. We figured the guards would be playing cards or fast asleep as we passed their little headquarters.
We marched up the dusty farm road like American soldiers in France during the Great War, me motioning with a strong fist held high in the air to quiet down the troops. Alex, Aleana, and our demolition expert, monkey, approached the guard station.
There was a freshly warm truck sitting in the drive with its door open. We´re fucked, I thought.
We had another problem that could have compromised the entire operation. Monkey made friends with a loud, especially aggressive, long haired, dirty, white-eyed, black dog with a single white spot who had three giant dred-locks hanging from his asshole. We called him Spot.
Spot and Monkey ran ahead of us through the cow fields that surrounded the guard house, arousing the barks of the vicious dogs that guarded the park. Bark. Bark. Bark. Piercing canine bellows hurt the drums of my ears.
We passed the rangers in the house quietly and with purposeful heedlessness. We looked forward and kept walking. They didn´t say a word. They just went along with their business and we went along with ours. We had won the battle.
We found a field higher up in the mountains that night and I slept restlessly due to the lack of a proper sleeping bag and the frigid temperature.
I awoke to Spot and Monkey barking at the local farmers and their dogs. I poked my head out of my tent and waved at the Quechuas as they began their day planting wheat. Breakfast was dry granola and raisins. We packed and walked the rest of the sixteen kilometers to El Virgen, the campsite near the base of the mountain.
The trek to El Virgen was less than what we anticipated. We walked so much the night before that we didnt realize we were half way there.
The campsite was green and sat on the edge of a small gorge with a little stream trickling through the bottom. There was only one other tent when we arrived, but by the early evening, after a brief hike and a lot of personal reading inside my tent, there were enough tents for an entire legion of the Roman army.
However, the people staying in the tents were not the steel-chested gladiator types of yore, but guided middle aged tourists with yurt-like tents, hot meals, fast drying north face pants, harnesses and dual walking sticks.
We ate our plain tuna sandwiches and went to bed early, hoping we could beat all the others up the mountain the following morning.
My alarm rang at 5:40, but I slept until six. I heard Alex from the other tent.
“Zach, wake up. We have to climb a big ass mountain.”
I arose from my tent after another sleepless night in the frigid mountain air.
During the night, I repositioned Monkey all over my feet and legs trying to achieve optimal body heat from the freezing animal. She shivered all night even when I covered her with the blanket.
We dressed. We looked more like three homeless people and their dog, than four who were about to summit a peak. Monkey wore a dirty maroon hanky around its collar. Alex had on his baggy rainbow gypsy pants, a pizza carlo shirt, and his bright turquoise rain jacket. I was in my tight maroon corduroys, my brown striped wool coat, and a dark green north face rain jacket. I wore socks on my hands because it was cold and I had no gloves. Aleana, with her subtle wit and dubious personality, wins with a light blue ski bib that she probably had since she was a child, her twelve dollar shoes with sport written on the tongue, and an eight dollar poncho that waved in the wind, the entire time, like a flag during a hurricane.
We began our ascent during the morning sunlight through the shrub forest across the mini gorges made of sand. Alex and I jumped across the six foot gap like Indian Jones while Aleana and the animal walked down and up to the other side. We wandered over mini streams and passed cliffs and over trails. The altitude didn´t get to me, but there were times when Aleana was stopping to catch her breath, and then we would all fall in line and go slower to catch our breath. In the meantime, the dog was, literally, running around in circles, not even stopping once even to get a drink from one of the many streams we passed.
As we climbed higher into the thin air, the clouds moved faster and faster. As the clouds consumed, the minutes passed. The minutes were met solemnly with gracious mountain dew-rich clouds, and the next minutes with blue cloudless requiems.
The trouble came when we entered the Great Golden Gulch of Sand. We had taken a wrong turn. We meant to take the easy way up passed the refuge and up the saddle, but there was a fork and we took what looked to be the less traveled route.
Alex and I just went.
Our feet sunk in the cold sand, each step, almost to our ankles. We crawled slowly on all fours and searched with our naked eyes for some semblance of a trail, but nothing was clear. Eventually, I made it to some rocks on the right side of the sand and began scrambling over them while Aleana and Alex fell behind.
I screamed for them to come to the rocks, and they did, but by the time they made it, Aleana just plopped down in the sand as Alex made it over to me.
I thought Aleana was done. The way she sat in the sand and huffed for air. But, it wasn´t long before the three of us were all scrambling to the heavens. The peak exposed itself in front of our blue and brown eyes as intermittently as the white clouds would allow.
We could see tiny specks, walking with sticks, trekking easily to the rocky peak as we struggled on the rocks and sand.
We finally saw the trail, and it took us up a skinny golden ridge that sat to the right of the Golden Gulch of Sand. We walked up the hairline ridge. At the end of our gasps for the thin air, an opening of grey and black rocks opened and in between were crevasses of snowy ice.
There was a group of fifteen or so, middle-aged French tourists descending with tour guides. They had harnesses and were repelling down the flat rocks with the help of their guides. We walked passed them with the dog and Aleana´s sport shoes.
We all climbed up the rocks following the dirty foot prints in the snow and to the tiny peak, with only enough room for the three of us. The dog yelped from twenty meters below as Aleana took Alex and I ´s picture, in our Pizza Carlo's shirts, in the white haze, of our 16,728 foot summit. We were happy.
Monkey made another summit with strangers. She left before we woke up and didn´t return for five hours. We were stuck waiting for her. But we loved her. The tiny children asked,
And we replied, yes, "Somos Gringos."
¿Donde esta nuestro perro?
"En la montaña," they answered.