Volcán Tungurahua

January 1, 2023


Baños, Ecuador

The active volcano of Tungurahua rises over 3000 vertical meters above the small town of Baños and getting to this town requires descending almost 1000 m from Ambato down into the edge of Amazon jungle. The lower zones of this volcano are basically in the jungles while the upper route is free of permanent snow/ice due to the active nature. In some years this volcano is closed to climbing due to eruptions but when Adam and I decided to climb some peaks in Ecuador in December 2022 to January 2023 the peak was open, so we reserved our spots. The climb legally requires a guide for all foreigners even though the ascent is entirely non-technical. We weren’t very familiar with the politics in this country so opted to obey the rule. The ascent requires over 2300 m elevation gain and is usually done in two days with one night spent in the Refugio (hut) at 3800 m elevation, and the cost through Andean Summit Adventure was about 300 USD per person. As always the guides in Ecuador aren’t flexible with the weather so we paid our bills months ahead and took the gamble. The summit day was set to be the New Year’s Day. Given the fickle weather thank to the proximity to the jungles we knew the success would largely rely on our luck, but there’s nothing else we could do.

This climb was planned to be the final major ascent in Ecuador so by this point we had already climbed Chimborazo and were fully acclimatized. The transportation from Quito to Baños would take at least 4 hours and we needed to plan a full travel day on each end of the climb to take in account of contingencies. Instead of trying to figure out the public transportation system like many Tungurahua’s climbers did, we opted to simply hire a private driver for 70 dollars each way. Again, paying the cash was much simpler for us than dealing with the mental work in a foreign country. The driver turned out to be a reliable one and showed up in time. The traffic was easier than anticipated so we ended up arriving in Baños an hour before the check-in time so we waited at the Air B&B for the owner to show up. Right away I started to like this town. There’s substantial amount of tourism going on so the entire area felt more developed. Our home for these two nights was also better than the one we had in Quito. The only downside was the added walking distance to the downtown area. Adam opted to pick the edge of the town as it’s usually quieter but then we had to walk 20 minutes each way to the centro area for food. The first restaurant we tried was an Indian one. The food was excellent but the price was expensive (as expensive an in Vancouver). We then spent at least an hour to explore the town before walking back for a much-needed rest. The weather had been mostly sunny throughout the day so our stoke level was quite high.

Tungurahua is a big ass volcano…
Exploring the town of Baños
Our first restaurant in Baños was an expensive Indian place
The centro of Baños
Adam at our “home” watching for our objective…

A thunderstorm brew in overnight and we got some heavy downpours. It didn’t last too long, but when we woke up in the morning the peak, which was visible from our “home” was covered in fresh snow. Our guide informed us that ice axe and crampons weren’t needed but with the fresh snow I decided to carry crampons regardless. Adam had left his crampons in Quito but he had microspikes here. Getting picked up by the guide was the first crux of the day. The head person of Andean Summit Adventure, Elizabeth told us that the pick-up time would be 12:30 pm and we thought that’s a bit too late. The weather usually collapses in the afternoon and we didn’t want to do the approach in rain. Elizabeth eventually compromised our needs and changed the pick-up time to 11 am. The next challenge was for our guide Francisco to find our Air B&B. It seemed like his previous clients were all based in hotels so when we gave him the address instead of a hotel name he was confused. Francisco called Adam via What’s App and immediately spoke a bunch of Spanish that none of us could understand. Adam had to call Elizabeth (who speaks good English) to inform her the pick-up and communication difficulties and Francisco eventually showed up at around 11:30 am. Francisco actually spoke fine English but he assumed we would speak Spanish. This showed that Volcán Tungurahua isn’t a popular peak among foreigners. A separate driver showed up together with Francisco and drove the 4 of us to the park’s office near the trail-head, about 1000 vertical meters up. The road would require 4×4 on the upper reach but was overall not in a bad shape. We got there in about half an hour and had lunch that Franciso brought. The infrastructure wasn’t as civilized as on Chimborazo so we just ate the food inside the park’s office. It was drizzling lightly outside.

Volcán Tungurahua standard route. GPX DL

We had just over 1000 m ascent to the Refugio and the ascent was a rather no-brainer by simply following the well-defined trail. The trail was very steep at places but I liked that as we would gain elevation efficiently. There were “tree tunnels” on the lower zones that I had never seen before, as this was my first proper ascent in the jungles. Adam was actually the one leading in front to set a pace. About halfway up Francisco said that we should take a break but Adam and I didn’t feel the need to do that, so we went ahead. We made to the hut in under 2 hours from the trail-head and Francisco showed up 15 minutes later. It’s worth noting that we didn’t opt to hire a porter on this ascent so we carried all of our shits including the extra things that Francisco gave us. I had to use the BMG 105L backpack to fit them all in. It was a mistake to not bring a secondary sleeping bag in this trip. Using the -32C sleeping bag at such altitude where temperature would barely dip below freezing was too much of an overkill. Over the next few hours about 10 more climbers, all from Ecuador showed up and then it was the party time for New Year’s Eve. I might as well stay outside to make some new friends and it’s a good oppourtunity for me to practice Spanish. The Ecuadorians made a fire and burnt things to “let go the previous year” and I celebrated with them. Their decision was to start hiking by 2 am but Francisco decided for Adam and I, to wake up at 3 am. Francisco probably had noticed our speeds and determined there’s no need to start that early as we otherwise would be summitting in the dark again.

The jungle lands….
The lower zone of this peak is almost always in clouds
Hiking through the “tree tunnels”
Some kind of interesting flower or fruit.
Adam approaching the Refugio at 3800 m elevation
A couple hours later the weather cleared up briefly
The summit of Tungurahua looms above
Our dinner in the Refugio
Ivette from the other group preparing for New Year’s Eve
The fire’s already going
We were lucky to see an amazing dusk horizon
Our fancy Refugio. It’s almost time to party
The other group had their dinner much later than us
An amazing evening view down into the scattering towns
They burnt that traditional thing for the Eve
Looking north down into Palileo and Patate from our Refugio
Time to sleep, or at least try to sleep…

For this peak I opted to wear the trail-runners for the approach while carrying my Trango Tech mountaineering boots for the summit day. I knew the volcanic choss woud likely destroy the otherwise, brand new boots but I also didn’t want to haul the heavy ass 6000M boots for this ascent. About half an hour after starting we were above the treeline. The main “trail” was still easy to follow but there were already diversions here and there. Francisco seemed to know the route well so we just followed his lead. At around 4300 m elevation Francisco made us to don helmets even though this ascent was at most “class 2”. At around 4600 m we caught up to the Ecuadorian team and started passing them. Meanwhile the horizon was brightening up so that by the time we passed that entire team we no longer needed the head-lamps. The other team was short-roping the class 2 scrambling section. Francisco didn’t even bring a rope for us which I was glad. The terrain would be too “easy” to consider roping-up for Adam and I but we could see some of them were definitely struggling. This was shaping up to be an incredibly beautiful day despite the iffy weather forecast.

Adam at 4 am just before starting the ascent
Francisco leading the way
Started to pass the other team
One of the other team members with a sea of low clouds underneath
Four of them opted to short-rope
The roped team on the steepest stretch
Another one of them opted to scramble a different line
The morning horizon behind the peak. Note the fresh snow

At this point we were directly under the crater rim and started to encounter “vents” that indicated this volcano was definitely active. We made sure to hike through the sulphur fumes as quickly as possible and entered some intermittent mists on the rim. Some climbers would call it “peak enough” at this point but that’s not an option for us. We either tag the true summit, or it’s a failed attempt. The ascent to the true summit was still relatively easy but involved some route-finding. The final summit ridge was incredibly scenic with sunshine and a sea of low clouds below us. Volcán El Altar and Volcán Chimborazo stole the show and we lingered on the summit for at least half an hour.

Francisco leading us onto the crater rim
The other team shows the scale of the terrain
Francisco about to ascend onto the final summit ridge
Adam traversing the crater rim
Volcán Chimborazo dominating the skyline behind the crater
Summit Panorama from Volcán Tungurahua. Click to view large size.
Adam approaching the true summit of Volcán Tungurahua
The shadow of Tungurahua casting on the low clouds
Volcán El Altar to the south is the hardest of the Ecuadorian 5000M peaks
Me on the summit of Volcán Tungurahua
Volcán Tungurahua is the 6th ultra-prominent peak we bagged in this trip
Our group shot on the summit before starting the descent

The other team was just about to start the final ascent towards the true summit when we decided to descend. Francisco then led us descending the SW Ridge to loop into the crater. I thought we wanted to bypass the other team to reduce rock fall hazards but we later learnt that Francisco wanted us to go inside the crater to check things out. Adam was against that but I was open. In the end Francisco and Adam descended back to the standard route while I did a solo detour into the crater to smell more sulphurs. After regrouping we busted down the trail like mad mans. Francisco and I mostly just ran down the dirt trails like scree skiing in the Rockies while Adam followed closely behind. I felt sorry for my brand new Trango Tech boots but whatever. The rest of the descent to the Refugio was rather uneventful and we got back in time for breakfast. The chef in the Refugio made us some massive meals and we requested some additional eggs for a bit of extra money. For the hike-out I opted to dash ahead while listening to music as it’s incredibly boring, but at least it wasn’t a long one. Our round trip time sans the time spent in the hut was 7.5 hours and considering the 2300 m elevation gain, the heavy packs and the altitude I think we did reasonably well.

Francisco leading us down a different route
A zoomed-in view of Volcán Chimborazo
The vents and the fumes in the crater. I walked straight into them…
Chimborazo is the highest peak in Ecuador
Descending the class 2 and loose terrain
Adam making his way down the upper slopes
The chef cooking eggs for us
Hiking back through the tree tunnels
Back to the misty lower zones of this peak. Almost back to the trail-head

A different driver came to pick us up and we subsequently got dropped off at our “home”. We took a nap and went out to explore the town of Baños again and this time we opted for some cheaper local food. The weather completely collapsed in the evening and continued pouring cats and dogs through the night into the morning. I checked the current satellite radar and apparently a major system was blown in from the Amazon. Nobody would summit anything on this day. I was actually worrying about landslides and stuffs like that, but our private driver showed up in time without a problem. The traffic back to Quito wasn’t heavy and we earned ourselves several hours to repack for the flights. Meanwhile we made the last minute decision to squeeze another hike into the tight schedule on our final day in Ecuador.

Jan. 2nd actually marked the beginning of a prolonged period of unstable weather and snow conditions, such that not many teams managed to summit the high peaks in January, Chimborazo in particular.