Ecuador - Land of Volcanoes

Ascent of Cayambe, 5790m - 21-22 Jul 2015


All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2017. Not to be copied, duplicated or used for any purpose without permission.


Cayambe is the third highest mountain in Ecuador at 5790m. It lies just north of the equator, such that the equator crosses the southern slopes of the mountain. These slopes of Cayambe are the highest points on the equator anywhere on the surface of the Earth. This peak was the last peak on my "Seven Summits of Ecuador" trip in 2015. Like many of the other summits, the weather on top was appalling. My guide and I were alone on this mountain. Although we got very close to the summit, we could not make the final steep ascent in the conditions that faced us. While we were on the mountain the weather worsened and snow fell to low elevations by equatorial standards, and the result was that the drive off the mountain was challenging and adventurous.




Trip Report

Cayambe was my 7th Ecuadorian mountain on my "7 summits of Ecuador" trip in 2015. Two days before attempting Cayambe I had climbed to the Veintimilla summit of Chimborazo, and after that a day of relative rest was definitely in order. I spent the day of 20 July in Quito exploring the old town, and running around and around the city park in preparation for Racing The Planet Ecuador 2015.

On the 21st of July my guide, Abraham, picked me up from my hotel in his 4WD. We drove to the village of Cayambe, crossing the equator in the process. In Cayambe we had lunch and bought supplies and food for our overnight trip on the mountain. The town of Cayambe is famous for its light cheese flavoured pastries and this constituted our lunch.

The drive from the village of Cayambe to the refugio high on the mountain was a beautiful journey up a steep cobbled farm road that became a rough bush track. Here was one of the loveliest subalpine environments I had seen so far in Ecuador. After climbing steeply in low range four wheel drive we reached alpine ground and the vehicle had to plough, slide and slew its way across snowdrifts to eventually reach the refugio perched on a ridgetop at 4650m. This was the most spectacularly situated refugio that I stayed in any of my seven summits of Ecuador. The weather was passable but cloudy and the mountain was not visible. The refugio was very homely and comfortable, and apart from the warden, we were the only occupants. Alarms were set for midnight.

At midnight we got up and had a light breakfast, then at 01:10 we stepped outside. The conditions were bleak, snowing in whiteout with a wind blowing. We climbed on mixed ground until we reached the main glacier where we put on crampons. Fresh snow was everywhere and it was still snowing. We climbed, changing direction at times, Abraham seemed to know where he was going in the dark. After a long time climbing in the poor weather we reached a serac at 5700m. The snow was very deep and the weather was terrible so to complete the last steep 100m to the summit was not an option. We turned back here, satisfied that given the conditions we had done very well to get this far.

We turned back, and Abraham had placed flags at essential waypoints on the way up so we didn't get lost on the way down. The weather worsened and the last stage of the descent on the mixed ground was diabolical in atrocious weather that was very difficult to move in. The snow was falling to lower elevations now, down to around 4200m. We reached the refugio and it took some time to remove clothing and gear because it was so iced up.

We packed up and had a snack of scrambled eggs. The car was completely snowed in and there was a very real risk that if we didn't leave now, we would not be able to leave at all. We dug the car out of the snow with ice axes until eventually Abraham was able to drive it forward. With the help of me pushing, the vehicle suddenly began to slide down the mountain until it got bogged again a little further down. We dug it out again and gave it another shove, until it slid down the deep snowy slope some more. It was hard to tell whether we were actually on the road or not. In this way we very adventurously got ourselves and the 4WD down the mountain. At one point we couldn't help bypassing a hairpin bend completely, and the car slid and bounced down an alarmingly steep slope with Abraham wrestling with the steering wheel. Eventually snow gave way to cold mud and I could get in the car instead of chasing it down the hill with an ice axe.

We eventually reached Cayambe village, changed into more comfortable and drier clothes, and then drove back to Quito. My "seven summits of Ecuador" adventure was now complete, and now I had a couple of rest days in Quito before the next challenge, Racing The Planet Ecuador 2015, a 7 day 250km race from the slopes of Cotopaxi to the jungle near the Pacific coast.


View of Cayambe as we approach by road.
The Cayambe refugio at 4650m.
Inside the refuge is very livable.

Views of Cayambe from near the refugio.

Myself on the eve of the climb.
This is the highest point we reached on Cayambe. The weather and conditions were too poor to climb past this serac.
Back at the refuge we had to spend time getting the ice off our clothing.
The drive out was along the road covered in snow.
In places the snow was much deeper than this!
Here you can barely see the road.
And here you can just make out the road sidling this cliff. We drove along here!



All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2016. Not to be copied, duplicated or used for any purpose without permission.

Page created 7 Jan 2017, last updated 8 Jan 2017.