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The Kirwan Twins Adventures We've finally graduated, so we're setting off for three months to backpack around India, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand before entering the "real world."

To Climb, or not to Climb

ECUADOR | Saturday, 1 December 2007 | Views [1067] | Comments [1]

"Are you still coming to Riobamba tomorrow?"
"Si, si. We are still coming, but just one question. Is it raining there?"
"Well, not really. It's been bright and sunny every day, and rains sometimes in the late afternoon."
"Ok good. Hasta manana!"

Most people suffer a quick and curious bout of cold when I explain to them that part of my work is based out of Riobamba. "Ooooo, friobamba," they say, shaking their heads, "hace mucho frio alla, tienes que estar bien abrigada!" The thing is, it simply is not cold. The weather rivals Quito with a sun that is daringly stronger. Afternoon showers are more predictable, but usually descend after people arrive home from school and work, and pass by the time youths stream forth from their homes for the evening's festivities. With this observation, I encouraged my friends to come climbing for the weekend. After all, el Alcantilado, a gorge about 40 minutes outside of Riobamba, is considered one of the best climbing sites in Ecuador. Unfortunately, I gave little consideration to the fact that this site was comfortably nestled in the parámo (though in my opinion, this should have been observed by one our Ecuadorians crew members).

My friends and I met on Friday evening in one of Riobamba's hot spots, a pizza shop (though clearly not for the pizza). Tyler and Brian are American students studying abroad for the year, and Fabricio and Sebastián are Quiteños. Undaunted by my measly climbing skills and lack of gear, I was adopted by the latter pair as a third climbing partner shortly after my arrival in Ecuador. Though, needless to say, the climbing community is all-inclusive, hence our party of five.

The weekend began over several Pilsners and continued until four in the morning until select members of the group had finished the weekend's supply of cerveza. Furthermore, and contrary to popular belief, Fabricio carried out his promise to wake everyone up at the crack of dawn to be on the road by 7am. Groggy and discombobulated, we made a first rate nest in the back of Sebastián's father's pickup truck. The crash pad served as our mattress and several packs bulging with camping and climbing gear made sufficient backrests. In piled five sleepy, but animated bodies and off we meandered through the countryside. Stuffed under our sleeping bags, we smiled like babies at the brilliant hues of the campo beaming under promising morning rays. Ah yes…this is what we came for, a weekend in the mountain air, pure energy, real beauty, sipping Zhumir by the campfire.

Ploddingly, gentle spats of rain began to descend from encroaching clouds. With urgency, Fabricio, Sebastián, and I began to chant away the storm: "San Isidro, labrador, quita las aguas y pon el sol!" Quietly…louder… and finally with an unrivaled force that stripped away dark patches of cloud to reveal blue skies above. This success gave way to a new chorus of songs consisting mostly of trova, or protest, music ranging from Silvio Rodriguez to popular melodies applauding Che Guevarra.

We arrived at the gorge with full fervor where Sebastián's father dropped us off on the roadside with a designated meeting point and time for the following day. Our campsite was within view, the green trim of a river coursing through the valley below. Each boy was allotted an impressively heavy pack, while I was in charge of the crash pad. Though the lightest option, a crash pad offers the least equilibrium and agility, with about 5 feet in diameter and 4 feet in width. I set off down the hill, flailing my arms and bracing against the human-sized contraption clutching my shoulders with basic straps, lurching over stubble and boulders as the pad clanked along behind me on the vertical slope.

We descended on the riverbank and began to set up camp. It was quickly determined that Tyler and Brian's $18 rental tent, with an abstractly long pole longing for an absent frame and a second pole splintering midway, would garner $2 on Ebay. Furthermore, the resulting contraption proved useless in subsequent matters of climate. Fabricio's $50 tent stood with solid grace, a red chariot of fire in the parámo. Tyler attended to the important task of refrigerating our evening's beverages by strategically placing the Zhumir in the river. Having carefully stowed the rest of our gear in the event of rain, we scurried up to the rock to scout our first ascents.

In minutes, Tyler and Fabricio were tackling a trad climb and Sebastián was sport climbing an intermediate route for Brian and I to follow. Meanwhile, San Isidro must have been sucking on ice when his lips went numb, and down drooled pebbles of hail. Spontaneous hailstorms are not uncommon in the Andean highlands, but for a play date in the mountains, this bully is definitely not allowed. We cowered under an overhang and Tyler gave us an introduction to placing gear. Intermittently, we cursed San Isidro. We attempted various bouldering problems that were sheltered by slight inversions in the rock, tiptoeing over the crash pad to avoid drenching our climbing shoes. Alas, the saint was merciless, and we recoiled from the sweeping winds and water chutes coalescing in the sorry crags and cracks. To the tents…

And there we stayed. We slept and chatted, and slept more. We cooked lunch and slept more again. We lay placidly, listening to the rain dance. A ballet of agile pixies leaping through the air, lifted off by angry trolls charged by gravity. We slept again. At dusk, or what appeared to be dusk, the rain finally abated. According to the group's calculations, this gave us sufficient time to recover our spirits and cook a feast.

We marched down to the river, which by now was logically three feet higher and rushing towards an infinite destination. Likely, the Zhumir had joined the ride. Taking advantage of the dry spell, we stretched our legs along the banks, searching for our lost friend to no avail. Now, this was hardly an issue of postponed festivities, but a matter of warmth and sleep. With the night and temperature quickly descending, and wide-awake from a daylong nap, we were not opposed to the warmth and slumber often inspired by liquor. Unfortunately we were forced to resort to alternate measures.

We cooked a second feast and then piled into one tent for campfire-less games and scary stories. I'm embarrassed to admit that Sebastián managed to extract a pathetically girly scream from yours truly which Fabricio has yet to let me live down. The stories gave way to Ecuadorian myths of duendes, or dwarfs, and the horrors they have imposed on various upright citizens, including members of Fabricio and Sebastián's families. Brian, doubting these legends, challenged Fabricio to a bet: a plate of food would be left for the duende outside in the middle of both tents, and if it was empty in the morning Brian would owe Fabricio $5. If it was untouched, the debt would be Fabricio's…

Brian lost the bet. In the morning, the plate was licked clean and had not moved a centimeter from where it was placed. Meanwhile, the garbage bag, pots and pans, and food had been scattered as far as 50 meters from the tent, shredded to pieces as if to intentionally challenge the "leave-no-trace" gurus of the pack. If you ask me, it was a mountain cat.

As the pack slowly woke up, I raced to the rock to tackle a bouldering problem I was unable to finish the day before. In spiritual and physical solitude, I mastered it on the second attempt. Sometimes and frustratingly, I am truly a product of the mind; when I am surrounded by external influences, I dwell on others' thoughts and suggestions. I seize up and flounder. Alone, pursuing and enjoying selected challenges with mental clarity, I succeed for myself, peacefully without competition.

Our morning climbing session was limited to about ten minutes as we scrambled to take down camp and head to Riobamba before the impending rains. We heaved and hoed up the hill to the roadside, thumbs brazenly lifted to the sky. Sebastián's father wasn't due for several hours, so like custom; we piled into the back of one truck after another with our gear and various indigenous passengers.

We arrived in Riobamba and met Sebastián's father to borrow his car for the day. Off we went in search of a second climbing site: Guano. According to Fabricio, this was one of several rocks kept secret from tourists, and we were the first gringos to climb here. So we climbed until it was time to return to the car to Sebastián's father who would drive us back to Quito. We passed on the hitchhiking karma to a family of ten with whom Brian shared the back and the rest of us piled into the cab. We rolled into the outskirts of Riobamba, and puttered to a stop.

Concurrent with the weekend's theme of "false hopes," the truck had broken down. Likewise, not a single cab driver, truck driver, or police station within five minutes walking distance had jumper cables. To be expected. What followed were several failed attempts to push the car in neutral at maximum speed until the ignition started. We shoved forward, panting and breaking into fits of laughter and sweat until finally arriving at downhill stretch of highway. Wait…wait…wait…ok go! We staggered forward onto the road, racing to beat distant specks of cars on the horizon. Brian held back to snap a picture, and quickly joined us, gaining momentum…the car coughed forward and began to hum. Fabricio swung around the round about and picked us up at snail speed. We met Sebastián's father, rearranged our nest, bought a collection of cerveza and set off for Quito.

To fully appreciate Ecuador, one must indulge in certain experiences that are completely illegal in the US. Lounging in the back of a pickup truck, cold beer in hand, the wind mischievously playing with your hair and swallowing your words as you pass through a landscape so stunning that all you can do is sigh, and then smile.

Tags: Adventures



...wish I could have been one of the agile pixies in the corp de ballet...sounds like you're having an amazing time!!

  Jen Gorman Dec 10, 2007 4:43 PM

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