Why Climb Mountains When You Can Climb Volcanoes?
January 1, 1970
by Emily Della Fera
Don’t get me wrong, I love the great outdoors. I love going on hikes and kayaking and being out in nature. However, my idea of climbing mountains is the east-coast, Philadelphia suburbs version of climbing mountains. We’re talking the Poconos, which at its highest peak is an exaggerated 2,200 feet above sea level. So when I moved down to Otavalo, Ecuador, where just the town itself is 8,500 feet above sea level, you can imagine the struggle bus I was riding just from walking up and down the street.
Then, my fellow gringos suggested hiking to the top of the 15,000 ft volcano, Imbabura. “Come,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they said. Not wanting to be a spoil-sport, I agreed to go, not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into.
Now, I’m not unfit by any means. I’m active, I walk everywhere, and I play sports. Even so, in the weeks leading up to the hike, as I listened to my west-coast and mid-west friends talking about all the 14ers they’ve hiked back in the States, I couldn’t help feeling a bit unprepared for what was ahead of me. I sat there in silence, sipping my Pilsener, thinking maybe I shouldn’t start my adventurous, hiking career with such a big feat. But, at that point the guide was paid, the plans were made, and there was no way my friends were going to let me back out.
Time for me to suck it up and climb that volcano. As I laid in bed waiting for my alarm to go off at 4:00 am, all I thought about was how easy it would be to turn off the phone and go back to sleep. My host family’s words were running through my brain. “You can’t hike Imbabura. You’re a gringa. Gringos aren’t made for walking.” Proving them wrong and not leaving my friends hanging were the only things getting me out of bed. I pulled off the blankets and got up as quietly as possible. The last thing I needed was a last minute pep talk from my host brothers, seeing as they had done such a great job the night before. I filled my water bottle, grabbed my bag, and was on my way.
Operation Hike Taita Imbabura Phase One
A 5am meet up time in Otavalo meant a nice warm up walk down to town. Buses from the communities don’t run at 4:15 am. Neither do people, but I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. My two friends were excitedly chatting about day ahead of us, while I walked silently, overcoming my fears and the lack of coffee running through my veins. I had no idea what to expect. The only thing I was sure of was that it was going to be a very long day.
As we met up with our guide and the rest of our group, I was greeted by smiling faces and a piping hot cup of coffee. Thankful for some sort of energy boost, we piled into the back of a truck and made our way up to the town of La Esperanza, the starting place for our hike up. The hour and a half drive got on its way, and the chatter slowly died. Some people fell asleep, some fell silent, and as the road got bumpier and bumpier we all became more and more anxious to get started.
Operation Hike Taita Imbabura Phase Two
At 10,000 feet above sea-level, it was time to commence ascent. We started up the gently sloping hill, past the cow fields, and made our way up to the water tanks. “This isn’t too bad,” I thought to myself. At the water tanks we stopped for a second to prepare ourselves. I looked at the trail ahead of me and all I saw was a straight line, straight up. No switchbacks, no flat plateaus, just a straight 45 degree ascent leading through the tall grass up to a base of volcanic rock. That nice 15 minute walk to the water tanks was a cruel joke to make you think you would have a nice leisurely hike, and then you realize that Taita Imbabura doesn’t understand what the word leisurely means.
I fell in line with the “Caboose Crew,” happily advancing at a much slower pace. I pulled myself up the hill, literally using the tall grass to my advantage, and cursed my friends all the way up to our first resting point. All I could think about was how I couldn’t do this, how I wasn’t built for this, how I should just stop now and wait for them to come back down. Then, I looked up and to my left and saw the snow-capped Cayambe volcano staring at me. It didn’t look that big from Otavalo. I looked to my right and in the distance saw a volcano that our guide said was in Colombia. As we sat there, munching on trail mix and preparing for the next part of the hike, I told myself, “You can do this.” I took in the views and my new found energy and kept going until we reached the base of the volcanic rock.
Operation Hike Taita Imbabura Phase Three
We were now in the final phase: scale volcanic rock. Our guide, the funny guy that he is, told us there were two ways to get to the top: scaling volcanic rock or simply walking up the trail. It turns out there was only one way, and that meant scaling volcanic rock. You can imagine my delight. You know what they say, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” So with a little help from my friends, I put one foot in front of the other and climbed the rock, slowly but surely making my way up. It felt like a never ending wall in front of me. I climbed and climbed and climbed, and when I finally thought I was done, there was more.
Until finally, there wasn’t. I walked up over the hill and there were my friends, sitting, enjoying the snacks they brought. Our guide pulled out ham, cheese, and bread for everyone to make sandwiches. I looked to my left, and there it was: a sign. Literally, a sign was posted stating that we had made it. After 5 hours, and about 5,000 ft of ascent, we had finally made it. And thank god for the sign, because there were so many clouds, we had no idea where we were. But the lack of view didn’t matter. I did it. I climbed Taita Imbabura.
After a brief lunch, we made the three and a half hour climb down. With happy hearts and sore knees, we climbed back into the truck and made our way to Otavalo. We sat around a table outside of La Posada del Quinde, where we celebrated with Pilseners, Maggie’s famous cookies with ice cream and a clear view of Taita Imbabura.
I complained. I cursed my friends. I hated them the whole way up. But thanks to them, every clear day I look up and see the top of Imbabura, this east-coast, Philadelphia suburbs outdoorsy girl looks at the spot where she sat and had lunch.