Volcán Cayambe

December 16-17, 2022


Cayambe, Ecuador

Volcán Cayambe is a gigantic volcano, the 3rd highest in Ecuador and an ultra-prominent peak that boasts over 2000 m topographical prominence. This was one of the major summits that Adam and I planned in the Ecuador trip. One problem with this country is that a guide is required for all foreigners climbing or even trekking in the national parks and the parks cover pretty much all of the major summits. I was initially planning to just hire the Peruvian guide from my Alpamayo trip as I knew he’s a very strong climber who also does not turn around easily, but Adam had his connection to some other friends who had successful experiences with a local company called the “Lonely Summits”. The price quote given by Edgar, the head guide of Lonely Summits was less than half of what my Peruvian guide would charge, so the decision was easily made. The one downside of this company is the lack of flexibility whatsoever, meaning we must plan the exact date for the exact peak and have the payment done more than one month ahead. There’s no refund for bad weather and we all know the weather in this country is rather fickle. We had 5 guided 5000+ meter peaks planned in this trip (4 of which through Lonely Summits and 1 through Andean Summit Adventure) but realistically I’d be very happy if we could get 3 out of the 5 done. Volcán Cayambe was the first. Prior to this climb we had done 4 different acclimatization hikes on our own outside the parks and the highest we did was Guagua Pichincha at 4784 m.

Volcán Cayambe is done over 2 days but the climb is rather just a day-trip from the refugio at 4600 m. The first day is mostly just the driving and transporting to the refugio. It might seem luxurious to pay the guiding company a full day for the logistics but I can tell you right here that the transporting to the refugio is a complicated one. Edgar informed us that the pick-up would be 11 am from our Air B&B and they came in time. Abraham would be our guide and we soon learnt that he had climbed this peak more than 500 times. I had been concerning about the ability of the guides given by these cheap companies (generally, I don’t believe in cheap shits) but the worrisome turned out to be unnecessary. Abraham, Adam and I stopped in the city of Cayambe at the base of the mountain for lunch before resuming the drive to the park’s boundary. Abraham then informed us that the access road needed some repairs currently and we had to portage our shits over a few kilometers of distance to another truck waiting at the upper end of the road. This forced me to repack as I was expecting to drive all the way to the refugio and hence brought a loads of extra shits.

We stopped in the actual city of Cayambe for food
Then we parked at the park’s office for some paper work…
This is a good dog who doesn’t bite you…

After some paper work we drove a few kilometers farther but parked Abraham’s truck soon. The portage started not far beyond the park’s boundary and was longer than expected. At least 200 m of elevation must be gained as well. We waited for two other climbers and their guide (from the same company) on the upper end of the portage before all piling into the next truck. The road from there to the refugio was one of the worst I’ve ever seen but the driver seemed skilled. Eventually after some slow-ass crawling over mostly rocks and creeks we unloaded all of our shits into the refugio. The guides and the chef in the refugio would cook for us so all we needed was to eat and rest. Abraham said that we should wake up at midnight and plan to start climbing by 1 am. I had brought my -32C Western Mountaineering sleeping bag for this trip and that turned out to be a complete overkill. The hut was actually quite warm. Sleeping seemed to be luxurious for our first night at this altitude so I mostly just laid down and waited for the alarm to go off.

The 3-4 km of portage began here…
Abraham and the upper end’s driver and our truck
The very rough roads leading to the refugio
Digesting food at 4600 m elevation was at least twice as slow…
That fish might look good, but has a zillion bones…
Volcán Cayambe standard route. GPX DL

The 1 am departure time was actually later than most other groups since we told Abraham that we preferred to not summit in the dark and we were fast. Only one group-of-two started at the same time and the 4 of us together eventually passed everyone else ahead. The initial 300 m elevation gain to the edge of the glacier was on rocks. There seemed to have two trails and we took the direct (eastern) option on the ascent and the other one on the descent. I’m not sure the exact reason behind this but maybe the guides want their clients to experience more of this mountain by making a small loop. There were numerous scrambling steps but nothing exceeded 3rd class and the exposure was minimal. We caught up to the rest of the gang on the edge of the glacier where everyone stopped to don gears. Adam and I were faster on the transitions than most people so even though we were the last to get here we were actually one of the earliest to actually step onto the glacier. The other group-of-two (either both were guides or just a local unguided team) was even faster and Adam, Abraham and I were now the second team in the gang. The monotonous glacier slog had officially begun. About an hour later on a 25-degree ish zone we heard a sudden and loud whump that clearly indicated the instability in the snowpack due to the recent snowfalls. The whumps came back a few more times so the guides stopped and made some adjustments to the route choices. Instead of taking the standard route we would aim for a variation on a rocky ridge. We then heard another load whump even while traversing across a flat bench.

Catching up to the midnight teams at the glacier’s edge

There’s one steep bowl to traverse/ascend to get onto the aforementioned rocky ridge and for the next while we would scramble some class 2-3 rocks. That was a bit awkward with crampons and rope. After the rocky ridge we came to the upper route. Instead of having a starry sky we now had some snow flurries so we stopped to put on more layers. Thankfully we did not hear more of those whumps on the upper route where things became quite steep (35-40 degrees for a while). We crossed several large crevasses and did more traverses and the true summit eventually came in sight. I thought we’d be summitting in the dark but the drag onto the true summit was more foreshortened than expected. We eventually got there at around 5:50 am about half an hour before sunrise. There’s no point in lingering as we were still in some snow showers and it’s not like we could see an actual sunrise anyway in this weather.

Ascending onto the rocky ridge variation
Numerous teams behind us in various stages of the ascent
Adam negotiating a rock step
We arrived at the summit when the other team-of-two started their descent
Me on the summit of Volcán Cayambe
Abraham and I on the summit of Volcán Cayambe

On the descent I would be leaving in front picking the route while Abraham staying behind to hold the team back in case any of us slipped. The fresh snow and the winds had mostly covered our tracks so the navigation was a little bit tricky at places. Abraham had to correct my bearing a few times. Lower down we opted to not take that rocky ridge and instead, Abraham went ahead to lead us down the standard route, and not to our surprises we heard more whumps again. We later learnt that most groups in the next couple days actually turned around so the mountains in Ecuador aren’t just subjected to the fickle weather. The condition is also quite tricky. The weather actually improved drastically throughout the descent so we stopped regularly for views. We could see Antisana and Cotopaxi dominating the southern skyline. We descended back into the clouds after exiting the glacier and with daylight we could now see some of the exposure that we actually dealt with in the morning. The snow-covered trail wasn’t that straightforward.

Tricky navigation in the white-outs on the descent
Passing several gigantic crevasses
If you look closely, you can see the other team
The seracs on the upper route.
The peaks to the north (Cusin, Imbabura etc.) were still engulfed in clouds
Volcán Antisana making a show for us
Only 4 teams summitted this morning, and two of them were behind us
More and more views opened up including Antisana and Cotopaxi
Abraham leading Adam and I descending the standard route instead of the ridge
After crossing that whumpping bowl
Almost down to the glacier’s edge now
Looking back at the extremely foreshortened route
The last bits of rope work
The better views of this trip were all from the glacier’s edge on the descent
The next team coming down to the glacier edge
Negotiating the undulating terrain after getting off the glacier
The weather was really clearing up for us now
We had to descend onto and around that obvious buttress
Adam in front of some beautiful seracs
A review shot of Volcán Cayambe before descending back into the clouds
Some exposed snow-covered ledges where the trail was supposed to be
Finally down to the refugio now

We got back to the hut after 8 hours of round trip and spent the next 1-2 hours eating, resting and packing. The chef in the refugio made us some breakfast and I even asked for an extra share as I was particularly hungry. The other two climbers from this same guiding company were also back and we again, shared the upper truck back to the portage. This time the driver was able to shave about half a kilometer off by driving on some mud, but we still had to walk the remaining distance. Needless to say, carrying a heavy pack after a tiring all-nighter climb was not very pleasant. I then slept through most of the drive back to Quito and I had no clue how Abraham managed to stay awake the whole time. The strength of these guides really impressed me.

We unfortunately had to walk ~3 extra kilometers with heavy packs
The end of the tiring portage
Nora the neighbour restaurant quickly became our favourate
We also went to that waffle place full of dicks again…