HIGH ANDEAN ADVENTURES IN ECUADOR
Words & Photos by Ed McCord
You know the story. Stellar blue skies on the bush flight in and the same on the flight out, with absolutely horrendous, miserable rainy weather sandwiched in between. Such was the tale of my 2019 Mt. Drum summit attempt that ended up thwarted by extreme avalanche conditions.
The Wrangell-St. Elias range in southeast Alaska was a place I had been to twice before in previous years during a first ascent duo and a Mt. Blackburn attempt. Blackburn taught me several lessons, one of which is that a heavy pack certainly does not guarantee a successful summit. In fact, it’s downright detrimental. Every ounce counts! Also, keeping things dry is critical. This seems obvious, but a fact many backpack manufacturers overlook via slick marketing.
So, following Blackburn, I delved deep into backpack research–fabrics, coatings, simplicity of use, weight, durability, quality of construction, US-made, etc. I ruled out a custom pack as absurdly expensive. Ultimately, I zeroed in on the Ice Pack 70. I choose the 4400 pack for several attributes; namely the light weight, its ability to carry expedition weight loads yet compress down tightly for a summit push, the fabric’s durability, and because it’s almost entirely waterproof.
First, I should mention that my thoughtful, wonderful wife purchased the Hyperlite pack as a Christmas present in 2018, and two Hyperlite pods for Christmas 2019. Surprised? Somewhat? Maybe? Talking about it and leaving the Hyperlite website up on our computer screen for hours on end possibly influenced her decision. (Hint, try it, it works!)
Oh yeah, Mt. Drum. A seemingly endless scree and boulder field approach, stream crossings, rain, snow, hail, graupel, endless snow slopes and domes, crevasses, and did I mention rain? Bottom line is my gear stayed dry. I felt thoroughly wet for most of the climb. A change into dry clothes in the tent at the end of the day is a reward unto itself. The rain changed to snow way before high camp, only to dump about a foot of snow overnight. Shoveling out the tent was mandatory. The following morning our summit attempt was aborted as layers of snow peeled away with each boot placement.
Fast forward, January 2020. My climbing partners and I had been talking South America for the past eight months. Sunshine, culture, exotic locations, and hopefully dry weather. One climber, Serge, had some unfinished business on the Antisana stratovolcano in the Northern Andes in Ecuador, as weather denied him the summit seven years ago. It was settled. Ecuador it was, with a two-mountain objective; Antisana and Cotopaxi.
We hired a local company, Andeanface Mountaineering, as our guide service, with Fredy Inty Tipan as lead guide. Our itinerary was a five-day, horse supported acclimation hike to reach the base of Antisana. What a gorgeous mountain. Two summits.
The first three days were a mud fest. Knee deep. Wallowing. Slick. Nasty. My pack and I endured thorns, rocks, branches, and stream crossings along with that mud, and snow, grapple, high winds, and intense sunshine days as well. Everything came through unscathed.
As we wove among seracs, cornices, and crevasses, and crossed snow bridges heading for the Antisana summit, I could not help but think about how I didn’t think about my pack. It was as if I wasn’t wearing one. That’s odd as I took it off and on numerous times to get food, water, and clothing! Not to mention the convenience and quick access to my tools and crampons. Safe, Simple. Quick. Secure. Which only proves that weight–every ounce–really does matter! The obligatory summit photos were snapped as we looked across the valley toward our next objective. The perfectly cone-shaped volcano Cotopaxi.
And finally. Cotopaxi, the cherry on top of the expedition, with a bonus of an overnight in the Refugio Jose’ Rivas at 15,960 feet. In this hut are flags displayed from countries around the world. If you are lucky enough to summit, you can sign the flag of your home country. My name now appears on the flag of the USA. Reaching 19,347 feet was a milestone for me.
And speaking of milestones, I turned 70 after this trip. I will keep climbing until I can’t.
Packs, like climbers, take a lot of abuse. Airline baggage handlers, rooftop vehicle racks, four by four tailgates, horse saddles, rock, mud, sand, ice, snow, water escapades (stream crossings), sharps of all types–axes, picks, crampons, poles, knives, etc. Yet, despite this, somehow, my pack and I survive. Intact, dry, and together.
Out of the blue, our lead guide, Fredy, asked how I like my Hyperlite 4400 Ice Pack as we weaved our way down towards the green and brown terrain lurking below the white. My response was quick, short, and to the point – I Love It!
Ed McCord found his passion for climbing in his early fifties. He relishes Alaskan First Ascents and anyplace wild and adventurous. When not climbing, you can find him mountain trail running, road biking, or running half-marathons. You can find more info here and here.