The Choss Pile: Guided Nonsense on Tungurahua
A series of brainless miscalculations on Tungurahua, a 16,480-foot volcano in Ecuador.
“You big, strong American, yes?!” Ramon was shrieking over one shoulder, trying to outshout the wind. He jerked on the rope between us.
“You big, strong American! You not go back!”
I tried to think of the last time anyone had called me “big and strong.” I decided it must’ve been my grandmother after I finished a bowl of peas at dinner when I was seven.
I turned to where Diego, behind me, was struggling to chop steps in the snow with a wooden stake, scrabbling for purchase with his cramponless boots. Pitbull’s banal lyricism was blasting from a portable speaker in Diego’s backpack.
“Pitbull music good for energy,” he had emphatically explained earlier.
We were above 15,000 feet, it was 1:00 am, snowing ferociously, and I was wearing Five Ten approach shoes, fingerless gloves, a 100-year-old jacket, and climbing using a bamboo pole.
“We go! Vámonos!” Ramon yelled.
The lunatic jerked on the rope again. Behind me, Diego was struggling to keep up with us, pulling the rope in the other direction. We were traversing a steep slope, close to 50 degrees, perhaps more. To the left, the icy face hurtled down into the gloom. A thousand or so feet above, the summit of Tungurahua waited.
[Also Read Broken Neck Nik]
Diego slipped, and I dove into the snow with the bamboo pole, barely catching us in time for the Ecuadorian to regain his footing.
“Esto es loco!” I yelled to him. “We need to turn around!” Even from this distance, I could see the fear in his eyes. He knew I was right.
“Ramon!” he called. “Ramon, we go…”
Before he could finish, he slipped again. The rope jerked me off my feet. I dug in as hard as I could with the bamboo pole. It snapped.
Ramon, the only one of us with an axe (he was carrying twin ice tools, even though this was just a glacier climb) made no attempt to self-arrest. “Aiioooooooo!” he screamed, cartwheeling down on top of me and slashing my face and arms with his crampons.
This was several years ago. I was in Ecuador. I was mostly just wandering around, trying to avoid having to go back to finish my senior year of college, but I also wanted to summit some peaks. I didn’t know much about mountaineering, except for scrambling around on some fourteeners, and I hadn’t brought any cold-weather gear, since I would be backpacking around for a month.
So I called a friend of a friend, whose ex-boyfriend was roommates with a guy named Carlos. This guy met me on a street corner in Banos, wearing flip flops and a t-shirt with an edited picture of Miley Cyrus topless on it. Carlos told me he knew a local guide named Diego who had gear and would take me up Tungurahua, a nearby volcano.
“Nice,” I thought. “I’m getting the inside scoop here.”
I paid Diego $50 to take me up during the middle of the night, because that would be cheaper than doing a two-day jaunt. When I arrived at his house, however, he had no gear. I questioned him in broken Spanish (he spoke no English), and he explained that we wouldn’t need gear. There was no snow or ice on Tungurahua, we could just hike it. I was unsure, a German I’d met had gone up a week prior and showed me pictures of a snow-covered summit, but hell…. this guy was the expert, right?
Now we were around 15,000 feet, I had no crampons or axe, and neither did Diego. We’d met a party of five Ecuadorians, all fully-equipped. They’d all turned back under the brutal wind save for the youngest, a guy named Ramon, who looked about seventeen and clearly thought he was the next Ueli Steck.
We catapulted down the slope through the gloom, banging into rocks and tangling up with each other. The back of my head cracked into a boulder (luckily the sole piece of gear Diego had given me was a helmet), and my headlamp slipped off.
Ahead, I could barely make out a sharp drop off, marking the edge of a cliff band. I’m going to die here. I’m going to die here with two morons. I’m as much a moron as these two, really, I realized. It was a humbling epiphany.
Right before the rock band, the ice thinned, the slope lessened, and we slid across a patch of rock, which ground us to a halt (and ripped off my jacket and the skin from my forearms).
Everyone was very quiet. The rocky patch was still quite slippery and icy. It wasn’t horizontal either, but angled downward toward the edge. No one moved. Despite the howl of the wind, life seemed on pause.
Then Ramon began screaming again. “No caen! No caen! Don’t fall!” I’d have assumed this was rather obvious advice. The rope was tangled around me and frozen solid, I was trussed up like a goose. I tried to gingerly pick at it, but my fingertips were bloody messes, my gloves long shredded away.
“Don’t move,” Diego hissed at us. We were all still tied together, any mishap by any one of us would be our last.
Ramon suddenly whipped out a large switchblade and sliced the rope free from around his waist. Without a word to Diego or me, he crawled off along the slope into the darkness. Diego’s right leg was slashed open from hip to the bend of his knee, through his tattered pants he had the appearance of a man with three buttocks. We gingerly picked our way along the edge of the cliff band to an area where the slope lessened and were able to free ourselves from the frozen rope.
The walk out from Tungurahua was horrendous. We came across Ramon again further down, carrying one boot in his hands and moaning about his leg being broken (it clearly wasn’t, since he was walking on it).
At a lower elevation, the snow turned to pouring rain, and the trail down through the jungle was a mudslide. We left Ramon at a shelter where the rest of his group was waiting, and Diego and I trudged down, sinking up to our knees in thick, brown muck with each step. The skin on my arms was completely gone, shredded by the rock, as was much of the skin on my hands, and my bloody arms were caked with mud. When we got to the road, we both stripped down to our underwear and waited for the pickup car to arrive.
Back in front of Diego’s house, I demanded my $50 back. He made some ludicrous excuse about already spending some of it, which led to us grappling in the street, in the rain, in our underwear, while a group of children stopped their soccer game to watch.
I eventually managed to convince him to give me my $50 back and walked back to my hostel covered in mud and blood.
Every piece of gear in my backpack had broken or been otherwise destroyed except, miraculously, my summit beer, which I drank while squatting in a gutter.
My hands were covered in frostbite blisters, and one of my fingers was completely blue and had no feeling. There were more than thirty tiny pebbles embedded deep in my ripped open fingertips, which a gruff Ecuadorian nurse at the local clinic spent an hour and a half digging out with a scalpel.
When I got back to my hostel, I discovered a stray cat had pissed on my luggage.
The moral of this week’s Choss Pile? Don’t trust anyone who listens to Pitbull.
The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.
He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.
“Something stung my neck, and I smacked a bee and crushed it. I looked down to see a cloud of black-and-yellow bees spewing out of the flake, as if the cliff face was vomiting a horde of tiny daggers at me.”read more