Chronicles of the Wayward Moot

WELCOME TO THE MOOT, oh world-wanderers and word-whisperers. After two years of Peace Corps. After 2,200 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. What. Comes. Next?

13/08/2007

I know this will kill some of you because there are no photos yet, but be patient...

August 13, 2007

 

Chronicle of the Cerro de Arcos to Huertas Crossing, August 9-11, 2007

 

            The idea to undertake such a trip had been cemented in my thoughts for months, since I first unrolled and spread out six topographical maps depicting the Zaruma Canton and noticed that a mountainous arc traced counterclockwise from Cerro de Arcos west and south to the parroquia of Huertas, apparently connected by ancient paths over ridges and high Andean plains.  Crawling over rolling paramo grasses and past high altitude pine plantations, the route would traverse a long extinct and eroded volcanic system still evidenced by outlandish igneous rock outcroppings riddled with caves, twisted spires, and countless hidden crevices all spilling down the slopes toward any number of ever-greener valleys hiding waterfalls and rugged untouched forests below landforms with intriguing names like Filo Mal Paso (Bad Path Ridge) and Cerro Hueco Obscuro (Dark Hole Mountain).  Upon asking neighbors and coworkers about the feasibility of the route, responses varied.   "Oh, that would only take two days.  The people who live up there are quite friendly and would invite you into their homes," said one Zarumeño.   "Those mountains are BIEN frio y ventoso (VERY cold and windy).  You'd better be careful," said another.   Yet another spoke of crumbling ruins in the highlands, built by the Cañari Indians before the Incas and later the Spanish arrived and changed the face of the landscape and the people in this part of what would become the Southern Ecuadorian Andes.   All of this I had to see for myself, and the physical challenge of battling unknown territory, biting winds, uncertain water sources, and prickly Sierran plants while descending more than 2,300 meters (7,500+ feet) sounded like nothing more than an added bonus attraction.   Seeing as my Chuffmate is at least as intrepid as I am (probably more so), it was natural that she and I would hit the trail together.

            And so we intended to back in March.   Our schedules were unclogged one long weekend and in our Zaruman base camp we had amassed an impressive pile of food and expedition equipment.  There was shelter, clothing up to the task of protecting us from the frigid blasting of the Andean winds, and food enough for four days.   We had maps, compass, water purification supplies, and energy to spare.  What we didn't have was cooperation from the elements.   This corner of Ecuador has two seasons:  Rainy and sunny.  March finds itself in the rainy season, and on the night before we were to catch our early AM ride up into the mountains 8,000 feet above Zaruma, we witnessed the worst storm I'd seen since moving here almost a year before.   Rain fell in punishing liquid onslaughts while lightning ripped through the sky barely able to illuminate the drenched city under its pall of swirling angry clouds limiting visibility to an arm's length.   I thought of what the steep trail conditions might look like after a sustained rain like that.  To slip in mud and break a femur on a fogged-in 45 degree mountainside ten miles from the nearest dirt road could be extremely inconvenient at best, fatal at worst.   For a number of reasons that night I felt a growing internal warning telling me in no uncertain terms that the trip should wait.  It was eerie and unsettling to feel so strongly that we ought to call off the hike after planning and purchasing and preparing so much, but something deep inside was insistently tapping me on the shoulder and saying "Let go of your attachment   and see that this trip, at this time, is a bad idea."  Luckily my Chuffmate was understanding and supportive.   We let the trip go for the time being and decided to hold out for a weekend with less malevolent energy.  The wait ended four days ago.

 

August 9-        The ride up to Sabadel, a tiny mountain community just before the drop-off point for the hike up to Cerro de Arcos, was exciting to say the very least.   The rural bus threaded the dirt road for two and a half hours past raging boulder-strewn rivers and thick fern-laden cloud forest, then along the undulating green slopes of steep pastureland below the sacred cliffs plummeting from the Cañari peak of Cerro Chivaturco.  Soon Chivaturco was shrinking in the distance behind us and the mossy trees and clinging epiphytes tapered off and gave way to drier grasses, spiny achupalla blooms resembling swords arranged into bouquets, and hardy gnarled tree species with waxy leaves.  We were in the Sierra now, no mistake.   Rosy-cheeked toddlers in bright knit hats peered from between the branches used as fencing in front of their mud brick homes as skin and bones dogs yawned in the rising morning sun, dust from the passing truck settling onto them blanketlike.   Unperturbed, they went back to their dreams, perhaps running on beaches they would never see just a few hours down to the west.  Fewer margins for error here, and the people and animals live vibrant and sensual lives despite their relative material poverty.   A few minutes past Sabadel we disembarked, our packs caked with dust despite being held in the closed cargo area of the small bus.  The ayudante handed us our wooden hiking sticks and the bus rumbled off to cross the Río Negro and then descend to Guanazán in the folds of the mountains to the north.  A quiet surrounded us, left on the side of a lonely dirt road.   We wrapped up in our windproof jackets and munched apples, the only sounds being the crunching in our mouths and the wind whooshing over the grass.  Soon we were on our way up a smaller unpaved two-track, the familiar ascent to Cerro de Arcos.  In little more than an hour we emerged upon the base of the imposing grey formation to collect and purify water.   Where we crouched filling our Nalgenes the altitude was higher than the plane from which I'd gone skydiving five years ago, and the air was clean and crisp, perfect for putting noses on the run.   No matter though, as visibility stretched all the way to the horizon and so the two of us sat down on the leeward side of a mossy boulder to go over the maps and plan a route around the yawning chasm boiling with clouds and dropping down to the Río San Jose thousands of feet below.   A quick snack later we headed down into unfamiliar territory that would continue providing wonderment and escape for this and the next two days.

            Picking our way among clumps of sub alpine grasses we descended, aiming for the best way to cross the shallow valley that spilled over the seemingly bottomless void on our left.   Glancing back up at Cerro de Arcos, the perspective we gained changed the shape of the formation and made previously large stones and long distances seem tiny insignificant features of a much bigger picture.   The Arcos formation itself has enough holes and passages and mini-peaks to keep an adventurer busy exploring for days, but now it became just one cluster of shapes and colors speckling a must vaster landscape.   Rising onto a wide and flat plain edging the chasm below, we passed a group of wary horses that trotted across our path and kept a close eye on us, clear invaders of their windswept territory.   Later, sweating but feeling great, we sat near the edge of the void and fixed a lunch of bagels, mozzarella, and salami as the sun and clouds danced above.

            The map showed the possibility of finding some reliable water to the southwest past the base of a mountain we'd been calling "The Pyramid."   To reach it we made a steady climb from the valley and skirted above the sheer cliffs we'd seen on our descent.  Following a small footpath between the pyramid above and the empty vertigo of the cloud-filled gap below, we became two specks drifting silently and unnoticed over the rippling surface of the highlands of El Oro Province, Ecuador, South America, Western Hemisphere, Planet Earth, The Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy.   A distant glint of color materialized as a rooftop, then a large L-shaped building, then a school or rural community center swarming with what appeared to be at least 30 kids and a few adults, horses, and dogs.   We kept our distance, not wanting to disturb their boisterous activity or attract unwanted attention.  Step by step our bodies, backpacks, and walking sticks moved as one climbing westward and then southward away from the building and the people.   Ahead we could see a much higher mountain rising to nearly 4,000 meters (~13,000 feet) and were able to use it to fix our position on the map.  Just another few kilometers and we'd be in the vicinity of more water and could look for a campsite.  Meeting up with a wide path seemingly carved out of the bedrock by centuries of use, we continued south with the dizzying chasm now on our left, more curious and perky-eared horses on our right, and adventure of the unknown on our minds.   Shortly the terrain flattened out a bit.  Among the strange plants adapted to survive in the harsh arid conditions the path braided and wound among the stone outcroppings and barely perceptible remains of stone walls and barriers.   Coming to an intersection in the trail, we turned left to explore for a campsite and found one after dipping down and then up to a small ridge running parallel to the void.   On top nearly out of sight of the main trail was a flat spot with a view back across all of the terrain we'd covered that day.  Cerro de Arcos was just one blemish on a huge canvas of sweeping vistas and precipitous slopes falling away along green ridges into clouds.   Cerro Chivaturco's green forested turtle shell looked positively miniscule in the distance across the valley when the clouds far below parted long enough to offer a view.   My camera got a workout attempting to capture some of the grandeur of the locale, but the sun-bleached horse skull that turned up seemed to be telling us not to even try.  The sun set quickly after the tent was erected and we choked and grimaced at the taste of local moonshine with our macaroni and cheese dinner while colors faded and stars came out from hiding.   A howling wind whipped tirelessly from the north all through the night but we were spared any rain, good news since the ground was too rocky to get stakes into.

 

August 10-      We awoke to blinding sun and the freedom to make our own day.   Consulting the map showed that we had covered more than a third of our total projected distance and that if we wanted to, we could probably push for a very long day and make the descent into Huertas by that night.   However, we were at 11,500 feet on a beautiful and nearly uninhabited cordillera and had enough food for two more days, so there was no rush to head down and risk missing anything.   After breaking camp we had a spot of breakfast while watching two people making their way along the ancient path in the distance leading or riding their horses, dogs loyally following along.   Did they see our footprints?  Could they hear us talking before we saw them?  What would they think to encounter two Americans camped out in this range barely frequented by the locals?   There was no way to tell, and we stayed hidden until they passed, making plans to explore farther along the Cordillera de los Corredores (Range of the Runners), possibly take a look at Cerro Hueco Obscuro, and seek camp near another water source if we could.

            The day brought with it a roasting hot sun and a steady dry wind that could have chapped the lips of a rhinoceros.   Following along the main path indicated by the map we crossed several trickles of moisture evidently sufficient to allow for short grass to sustain the small number of surprised-looking cattle we hiked past.   The nights sure were cold, but those animals had no idea how good they had it up there gazing down upon some of the most beautiful landscape on the continent, eating and drinking and lazing about under the open sky instead of the searing metal roof of a cramped stable somewhere.   These spoiled cows would have hated being confined to a stable just as we two travelers would have hated being confined to an office cubicle.  Forget about casual dress Fridays and how well stocked the vending machines are, give me the real world and I'll be as content and carefree as the bovines of the altiplano orense.  

            Cresting a low rise in the trail we spied in the distance a rock formation jutting out from the wider ridge top that resembled nothing more closely than "Pride Rock" from The Lion King.   There was a main monolithic stone with several smaller (house and bus-sized) boulders around it, one of which was stretching out and forming a hanging platform pointing towards the ever-widening and deepening valley to our left.   No question, we had to get closer and investigate.  In an hour or so we were approaching the formation and it looked even more impressive from up close.   By then the ridge had narrowed so that we were able to look down to the valleys on both sides, the very bottoms obscured by the haze of distance and the dropping away of the mountain.   "Pride Rock," as we called it, was now right above us and we stashed our packs in a jumble of boulders and thick scrub to make a lightweight trip up for a look around.   Food, water, and jackets at the ready, we climbed up to check out the fantastic rocks, edged out onto the overhang in the screaming wind, and made another bagel lunch before scrambling to the summit, marked (marred) by a concrete survey marker.   Making our way to the northern edge of the main rock the wind must have hit 50 or 60 miles per hour as it scoured along the ridge top and was forced upward by the mass of Pride Rock and we took turns leaning out over the drop as the invisible force held us upright.   When the cold became too much we descended to our bags and made plans to look around for a campsite.  A search on the way up had revealed a small cave directly underneath the boulder forming the overhanging "platform" and so we investigated it a bit more but concluded that it would make for quite a cold night as there was no way to seal off the airflow and trap warmth.   I was getting anxious about finding more water, as the last place we'd seen any was an hour back along the trail before hitting Pride Rock and we weren't sure what the situation would be further along the trail, so we agreed to explore around the formation and look for possibilities.   Fifteen minutes down the trail we could see the further narrowing of the ridge and a trail that was possibly the one we would take down the next day, but no water.   The thought of having to make my two remaining liters last the rest of the day, the night, and possibly the majority of the long descent the following day was not encouraging, but having seen some cattle and two horses in the area it seemed that we couldn't be terribly far from H2O, so we went in search of it.   Scouring a wash of large shrubs only produced the bones of long dead livestock and rusty signs of inconsiderate former human visitors, but no liquid.   Descending the slope we turned left and traversed the side of the ridge to see if any of the mini valleys held more promise and in a few minutes our efforts paid off.  First we spotted an unusually large and lush tree brimming with a weird fruit.   Below it the ground had soft grass growing and the soil felt more cushiony underfoot.  We could pretty much smell the moisture.   Softer soil turned to what looked like dried mud, and shortly we were hearing the trickles of water from four feet down in a natural trench overgrown with weeds and shrubs.  A bit of acrobatics on the part of my Chuffmate and we had our bottled filled and I felt renewed excitement over the prospect of making camp here (now with the promise of an evening coffee and hot jambalaya for dinner!) below Pride Rock.   A few hours later the tent was up in blessedly soft ground sheltered from the constant wind behind some low trees and we had coffee on our breath.  The day's final adventure was to hoof it up to the ridge crest to catch one of the wildest and remotest-feeling sunsets of my time in Ecuador.  The sun was a radioactive orb sinking into a distant sea of blazing yellow clouds, the ridges below silhouetted in black while the wind stirred the mood and crept into every weakness and seam of our clothes.   It would have been a lonely and tragically beautiful moment in time if I wasn't able to share it with my hiking partner.  Together with her there, it was simply beautiful.   On the way back to camp we sat in the grass above the site where the tent waited and watched the last of the colors in the sky fade while far far below the lights of a thousand houses invisible in the daylight and distance twinkled on.   It was nearly the same view one gets approaching a settled area in an airplane at night, only we'd gotten there under our own power.  When we settled into our sleeping bags, both of us knew that the next day we'd be coming back down under our own power as well.

 

August 11-      It was yet windier and there was an intermittent drizzle blowing in sideways the next morning.   Once we were committed to getting up, camp chores were done with a certain degree of urgency.  After pouring some coffee into our bellies (sadly, Zaruma doesn't offer its fantastic café in a simple teabag style package so we used Folgers…) we revisited the channel to top off our water bottles with the cold and clear stuff running down among hoofprints and cow turds.   That's what iodine tablets are for, eh?  Minutes later we were racing away from Pride Rock with a cold sheet of rain clouds at our backs and a 7,000 foot descent ahead of us.   The trail became rockier and less stable as it threaded along the ever-narrower crest of the ridge.  Hundreds of years of human and animal traffic had worn a channel into the surface so deep in places that we couldn't see out of it.   Chilled by the wind and light rain, we kept checking and reaffirming our position on the map, not wanting to take a turn in error and end up thousands of feet below and miles down the wrong trail.   Steadily the decent advanced and as if to signal that we were going about the day correctly, a brilliant rainbow emerged in the valley ahead of us, making an arc that framed the verdant rippling hills below and a sea of mountain-pierced clouds far to the southeast. Undeterred by the cold or the dizzying amount of downhill still to come, we picked our way along the ridge admiring the changing shape of the surrounding peaks and folds of the earth.   Eventually the stony path began to head down the southern flank of the cordillera, taking us with it on its perilous drop.   Countless switchbacks carried us through ever-deepening channels with high steep walls crumbling with clay and plant life.  As we dropped in altitude the weather improved, beaming sun down on us from a line of blue sky showing between the walls of the channel above us.   Each step down slammed the full weight of our packs onto our knees and ankles and the unstable and unpredictable surfaces of the "stairway" the trail now resembled made the process exhausting and dangerous, any moment possibly the one when we'd lose footing and sprain an ankle or shatter a tibia on a rock (or perhaps worse, smash our remaining hardboiled eggs)!   Keeping us mentally busy was the discussion of future hiking plans and the admiration of ever-increasing varieties of plants ranging from flowering bromeliads to the reappearance of creeping bushes and majestic vines, fern trees, and elephant ears.   For hours we carefully picked our way down the mountainside and as we left the hard surface of the ridge the trail sank deeper and deeper into the softer soils of the lower slopes.   It appeared that some of the trail had once been expertly paved with hewn stones, long since displaced and fallen into ruin with irresponsible use (heavy introduced cattle's hooves do much more damage to a path than native human runners could ever do).   Still, the sense of walking along a section of trail where ancient peoples had passed bringing news and supplies between the highlands and the lower valleys held a certain exotic thrill, especially since tourism in this part of El Oro is absolutely unheard of.  

            We followed the forest-shaded and sometimes stove-paved trail past swarms of butterflies, a giant tarantula, and below soaring Andean birds until it emerged at a small green meadow saddle – the ideal place to rest our battered feet and grab some lunch.   In the sun we traced with amazement our path on the map and determined which way to head now, as two trail choices existed in the saddle.  Throwing our packs back on, tired but simultaneously energized by accomplishment, step by step we rose up the correct trail and worked the ridge top to the west, noticing the remote farmhouses now speckling the slopes beneath our perch.   Some of them had power lines and TV antennas emerging from their thatched or clay tile roofs.  Reentering the frontiers of civilization was inevitable, but there was no rule saying we had to like it.   The path still showed signs of having once been well-surfaced with carved stone but now the overuse had almost completely destroyed it so that all which remained was a red clay scar dragged across the green hill with a sad jumble of forgotten masonry sprinkled among the mud and roots.   There was beauty and sadness in witnessing this link to the past so near to the modern world of deforested hills and their lazy dairy cows chewing out-of-place grass, red SUVs grumbling down gravel roads and stopping while their occupants got out and fuss with the gates made of welded rebar, power lines and light posts and cylindrical metal transformers transforming a magical place into one where "Los Simpson" flicker at night while outside the moon and the Milky Way still beg for attention from limitless human curiosity.

            To our right, north of us, we began to catch glimpses of the famed Cascada Huayquichuma. Basically translating to "drunken waterfall," the name is an apt description of the attraction since its blocky stone foundation causes the water to bounce and leap in all directions.   While it would have been refreshing to take a dip in the falls, they were out of our way and we were already losing light in the afternoon.  Not wanting to jeopardize our return to Zaruma that evening, we pressed on as the pain in our feet and knees grew as abundant as the sweat pouring from our foreheads in the lower altitude warmth and humidity.   Nearly a vertical mile below where we'd woken up that morning, the trail kept descending mercilessly.  Eventually, impossibly, at long last the view of clay walls and dangling roots opened up and we emerged onto a dirt road.   The map showed that we needed to take a left, then a right, then a left to reach the road where we could get transport back to Zaruma.  Fair enough, so we set off to find the first turn.   It never appeared.  Instead of descending gently, the road was climbing.  Not good.   After a half hour of sweating and thinking and trudging uphill to gain some perspective, we reasoned that the trail must have emerged onto a road that didn't exist when the map was made.   We turned around and went back down, where not five minutes from the spot the trail had dumped us out we caught up with the correct road, hit familiar territory, and began the agonizing last hour or so to reach Huertas and the main road between Paccha and Zaruma.   Barely a word was exchanged as we both simply pounded out the final few miles.  The tread on my right boot was falling off and was continually catching on stones and other obstacles on the road.   Sweating, smelling, but smiling we finally hit the paved road we'd been seeing for hours and knew that it was only a matter of time before a bus heading for Zaruma passed by.   As it turned out, my local friend Romel Romero ran into us just after we sat down exhausted near Huertas' mildly manicured park and knew that the next bus came by about forty minutes later.   He also knew that we were some badass mountain masters and could use a cold drink and maybe a homemade ice cream, which he took no delay in offering us along with his congratulations.   That Romel is a good guy to know, and his appearance in the right place at the right time after a mind-expanding three days in the Ecuadorian Andes was just the perfect way to wrap up our adventure.   It seemed that before we even hopped the bus "La leyenda de los gringos" was starting to spread.  "Surely enough," we were told by the woman who served us our drinks, "some of us Ecuadorians aren't good for any walking at all, we only go in cars."   Well I certainly know some who are up for a good walk in the campo, and one can only hope that a little blood remains in the people today from the ancestors who constructed the paths and routes that lie now in partial rot and ruin.

 

Now to get my boot fixed.  Happy trails to all of you out there!

-Mountainjedi


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