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Climbing the Sangay : whatís the point ?

Sangay is a furious, highly active volcano that lays hidden in the middle of the Sangay National Park, about 200 km south of Quito, Ecuador. In this park live an incredible amount of different species of animals and many various types of plants. The symbol of the park is the famous tapir. There are three volcanoes in the park: Tungurahua (5016 m) in the north, El Altar (5319 m) in the west and Sangay (5230 m) a little more to the south.

Tungurahua is probably the most famous volcano. It is close to Baños, a little town that increasingly attracts more tourists. A lot of Adventure Agencies can organize the Tungurahua ascent for you. Itís a good first introduction to the sport of climbing volcanoes: by doing this I learned how enjoyable it can be. That means I can handle the fact that you take one step forward and two steps backward ! It also revealed to me that this kind of activity is not technical at all. We started the walk in Baños and arrived at the top the morning after, without any special material like ice-picks or crampons. We just had a walking-stick and running shoes, that was it! Climbing and then descending 3200 m in only two days can be a very good test if you plan to go to the Sangay...

Los Altares is another ancient volcano you can admire from the top of Tungurahua. A lot of ice remains at the top. Thatís why this volcano figures in a more difficult category. Without good mountaineering experience, it would be better to avoid such a challenge as a beginner.

Sangay is in fact a good compromise. Yes, it is physically demanding because the volcano is located in a remote area and you must endure a long walk before reaching its base. No, itís not technically difficult because the Sangay is like a big cone made of ash. Its shape will remind you of Cotopaxi, with less ice, or Tungurahua, but less steep. I nearly forgot to tell you that the Sangay has much impressive volcanic activity. When we went there, its activity was at a low. Despite not being very dangerous, it was still pretty scary I can tell you !

Thatís one of the reasons I wanted to write this report : the volcanic activity has quieted down for the last five years now. We read reports written in 1992 describing a permanent high activity at that time. Sangay was spitting rocks as big as cars. Weird advice such as "Donít go there without a crash-helmet and shield" were given. Most of the Indiana Jones types that tried to climb the volcano at that time gave up just a few hundred meters from the top, fearing for their own safety.

This phase seems to have come to an end. In December 1997, when we went there, the Sangay was just farting - I am not bad at this sport myself but I found someone better than me ! - about every hour. That was impressive because a huge white smoke cloud regularly exploded from the crater with incredible noise. If you were really close to the top it would make your heart beat very fast indeed !

I would be a liar if I told you that you would surely make it to the top. Volcanic activity is in the domain of events that can not be predicted. Maybe the Sangay will be as calm as the Tungurahua or maybe it will be as crazy as it used to be in the past. Thatís part of the adventure! I would say that if the volcano is in a very active period, it would be an unique experience to watch this from the base camp. This is far enough from the crater to be safe. If the Sangay is only belching intermittently,

- you can go to the top if you are not too afraid! In my opinion, the worst would be if the volcano was dormant. If it decided to wake up with you on its back, it could be the most frightening experience of your entire life.

Basically the Sangay is like shooting craps in a casino - what a beautiful metaphor, is it not ! - except that you donít play with dice but with your life! Be optimistic, have faith and everything will be just fine! By the way, the problem of the volcanic activity of Sangay is not such a big deal in comparison to the difficulties encountered on the path to the base camp called "La Playa". This is the purpose of this report : to explain to you how to reach the base camp and thus to have optimal chances of reaching the summit.

To put it shortly : if you like the sweat of effort and the thrills of danger, Sangay is for you !

 

When is the best period ?

You probably already know that itís difficult to go to the Sangay because there is no road leading there. This is true and Iím afraid that this will never change. If you are not wealthy enough to rent a helicopter, walking is the only way to go. The area has a unique feature : the bloody wet trail. Due to the special climate, all paths are continuously muddy. Letís say that if you choose the June-July-August period, this will be difficult because these are the wetter months of the year. For example, it shouldnít be a surprise if then you never see the volcano. On the other hand, the December-January period is the best time. We did this trail at the very beginning of December and it was still humid enough to help us imagine how awful it must be the rest of the year. Once again itís a question of probability and luck. My advice would be : do it at Christmas rather than in the (European) summer time. However, in the end, itís all up to you!

 

How to get there ?

From Quito, the capital, you can go to Riobamba by bus. The road is good and goes through Ambato and Baños. It takes about 4 hours to get from Quito to Baños at an average price of US$ 2.20. Most buses can take you from Baños to Riobamba in about one hour and for US$ 0.80.

Arriving in Riobamba is no big deal. The adventure starts here. I mean that because nothing is officially organized to take you in the direction of Licto-Alao. If you have no financial constraints, you can ask a cab to drive you there. Itís only two hours and costs more or less US$ 20. For everyone else, the meeting point is "Parque Libertad" on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday between 11am and noon. A regular bus service is organized on those days only. The journey will take about 4 hours. Do know that the bus leaves when it is full - Ecuadorians will teach you another meaning of the word "full" !!! The last solution is to catch the hypothetical milk truck, which I am not even sure really exists, between 4 and 5 am in front of the University.

Alao is so small that there is no hotel. Just ask the guys of the INEFAN office - this is the name of the organization responsible for managing the park - if you can sleep there. Normally if you agree to pay about US$ 1.20 itís all right. Since they donít work on the week-end, itís better to arrive on Saturday. You wonít disturb them by using the kitchen or having a shower.

Even if your religion forbids you to work on Sunday, you had better spend the day checking around to find the right guide. Luckily there is an association of guides able to show you the way to Sangay. The president, Roberto Caz Quillay, is the best guide of Alao. He climbed the volcano for the 39th time of his life with us. But he has been to La Playa about a hundred times ! He and his two nephews, Carlos Caz Quillay and Agostino Baño, are apparently the only ones able to take you right to the top. If Roberto is available, you should go for him due to his great experience and great personality. His memory is full of good stories - the stories about the stupidity of tourists is the longest and funniest ! - and anecdotes about all the expeditions he has led in the past. If there is nothing urgent - like the harvest - Roberto can be ready to go the next day. Well organized, he will make you sign a contract stipulating the terms of the deal : US$ 10 a day whatever the size of your team, minimum six days, his food at your charge, no hunting is allowed in the park, and so forth.

 

What equipment is necessary ?

Here is a list of all the things you had better take with you. I have listed them in a decreasing order of necessity :

A good pair of rubber boots are certainly the most important thing you have to bring with you. This is due to the state of the trail : muddy, very muddy. Walking for so long with this type of footwear is not exactly the most enjoyable sensation but you have no choice. Otherwise, you could come back home "boot-less" !

A large poncho against the rain is also indispensable. Make sure you purchase one made of good waterproof fabric and big enough to cover your backpack.

Iím sure that by now you feel that this will be a wet experience : you are definitely right. This characteristic of the weather will be your biggest discovery! Thatís why you should take extra clothes with you. Synthetic fabrics are better than natural fabrics like cotton because they dry faster. Also take some warm sweaters that you will use for the cool nights. Finally, put all your clothes into separate plastic bags. Itís the best way to keep away the humidity.

As you have to cook at least twice a day for more than a week, you should bring an efficient stove like XGK-II model from MSR . Bring enough fuel too - 4 liters of fuel for 5 people was more than fine - and a large pot. There are many reasons to take enough fuel : because of the altitude the consumption is high and using fuel is often the only way to make a fire because wood is wet most of the time !

As many chosas - traditional house made of dry grass - have been built on the way to Sangay, a tent is not really essential. But if you want to progress from chosa to chosa - thes are located in Culebrillas, Plaza Pamba and La Playa - you must be able to endure a very long walk on the second day : no less than 10 hours. Going directly from Culebrillas to La Playa is so long that the guide will charge two days. This military tactic is reserved for top fit athletes. For everyone else, since you can probably not avoid spending a night in Yanayacu, you must take a tent with you. Roberto has two or three tents, but they are in such a miserable state that you would be better off bringing your own. On the morning you leave Yanayacu, you can leave the tents there and collect them on the way back.

A pair of gloves can be helpful to protect you from the sharp grass that hamburgers your hands. The perfect glove is one that is solid and warm at the same time. Remember that you'll walk on snow above 5000 m!

The only thing we forgot was a pair of sunglasses. The price we had to pay for that oversight was high : a painful ophtalmy affected some members of the team. It was impossible for those so afflicted to leave the chosa the day after we climbed the volcano.

 

Description of the route

There are two main trails leading to La Playa. The Eten-Plaza Pampa-Yanayacu-La Playa itinerary is a southern, less direct and drier solution. The main advantage is that you can ride animals like horses or donkeys if you choose this option. I've been told that you can normally rent these animals in Eten, a little village you can reach with a 4x4 vehicle from Alao. A certain Manuel Abarca, living in Eten, is mentioned as a guy able to organize such a transport for you. But I donít know much about this. Keep in mind that by doing this some of the donkeys or horses might be injured. Also you will damage the already marginal trail.

If your rear-end is allergic to horseback-riding and if you are not afraid to sweat, Iím sure youíll prefer the journey along the Alao-Pampa Culebrillas-Yanayacu-La Playa path. Let me describe in detail this purgatory.

The outward journey

Day 1 : Alao-Pampa Culebrillas, 8 hours - average time including reasonable rest breaks - 16 km - equivalent to what a direct path would be -- + 860 m / - 740 m - the cumulative ascent and descent. For one hour you walk on a big road along the Río Alao. Then it turns to the right. Itís not a road anymore but a steep muddy path instead. This uphill section takes about 3 hours. The first difficulty is to reach the 4050 m pass. Donít expect to walk very fast on this portion because you have to deal with the bloody heavy bag plus the damned slope plus the f@#?£ing muddy pot holes. The only events that will relax you will be the comical scenes of your friends slipping and sliding in the mud ! Walking in the mud is an art you had better learn quickly if you donít want to be the expedition jester for an entire week. From the pass to the first camp itís just a big downhill of about 700 m. This first day is a trying one because you are probably not accustomed to the boots and the 20 kilo bag ! But when all the skin on your calves is gone, you wonít feel the boots anymore and if you eat well, the bag will be light very soon ! I hope youíll be as lucky as we were : at the end of this first day, Sangay began to appear in a high quality Cinemascope image - finally the haze disappeared - and powerful Dolby stereo surround sound.This comes with every volcanic manifestation and it's very impressive. Strangely, all our pains disappeared!

Day 2 : Pampa Culebrillas-Yanayacu, 5 hours, 6 km, + 420 m / - 280 m. The second day has been described as a living nightmare in the reports we read : 14 rivers had to be crossed. Sorry for any Vietnam War nostalgics out there but this time is over. There is a new path that climbs a big hill on the right of Pampa Culebrillas. At an altitude of 3740 m, youíll reach the top of the ridge. Itís time to descend following a vicious little stream all the way down that reserves, especially for you, countless tricky traps. The bad conditions of this section will force you to stop in Yanayacu. It is also better to keep strength for the final assault. Remember that you need tents to sleep in Yanayacu.

Day 3 : Yanayacu-La Playa, 4 Ĺ hours, 7 km, + 500 m / - 400 m. The walk starts by following an endless ridge called "Filo El Motilon" and this for two and a half hours. When the 3750 m altitude is reached, the trail turns to the left. The last two hours are a succession of ridges you have to cross. If you want to see how this looks, check out the snapshots under "The trap". To have a guide is indispensable if you donít want to fail so close to La Playa. This means a plateau stacked between two rivers at 3600 m. A luxurious chosa has been built there. It is big enough for about ten people.

The come back

Day 7 : La Playa-Pampa Culebrillas, 8 Ĺ hours, + 680 m / - 920 m. Due to the comparatively long descent and the increasingly light bag, itís possible to go straight from La Playa to Culebrillas. It is easier to achieve this if you have had a day off before setting off. Anyway, you should be motivated enough to quickly leave this wet area after climbing the volcano.

Day 8 : Pampa Culebrillas-Alao, 6 hours 45 minutes, + 740 m / - 860 m. In comparison to the first day the last stage is very easy. You wonít feel the bag anymore and youíll literally fly in the descent of the pass. You will realize that the call of women and cervezas is something more powerful than you ever thought possible!

 

The Food Problem

The amount of food is relative to the time youíll need to achieve the loop. Letís count : three days to go, one day resting, one day climbing and two days returning home. Seven days would be a normal schedule without any hitches due to bad weather for example. It is wiser to reckon with nine days. In fact you should take enough food for this long of a period. As I'll explain later, it's just a question of weather conditions.This way you can stay for a while in La Playa, waiting for the best moment. Provide huge portions as you will eat like ogres. It is very important to manage this element of the expedition well because the quality of the meals and the quantity of food is directly connected to the morale of the team. Here are some tricks in this strategic domain :

 

Our tactic was the following : wake-up early at 6 am, heavy breakfast, start at 8 am, little picnic at 11 am, arrival at the camp in beginning of the afternoon, rehydration and finally a huge and heavy meal. Usually, the beginning of digestion was fatal : we just fell into an early and deep sleep.

 

The Volcano Ascent

The goal of the ascent is to arrive as close as possible to the active crater with a clear view. The biggest difficulty is to choose the right moment to leave the base camp. As soon as you arrive in Alao, you must observe the sky and try to understand what are the climatic rules in the area - or if it is just a chaotic system and thus just a question of luck.

In my opinion, there are some rules about the weather. With habit - and the help of God, you can guess the weather of the following day. Usually, the general scheme is : only the first few hours of the day are clear, then a fantastic evaporation from the forest fills the atmosphere of vapor and fog appears, and finally, in the afternoon, it starts to rain.

During our journey, this cycle was perturbed. The slow evaporation started in the night then was accelerated by the presence of the sun. The first showers took place already at the end of the morning. Heavy rains came in the beginning of the afternoon. Then, from 3 pm to the end of the day around 6 pm, the sky was incredibly clear. In such a climatic regime, the best solution is to start the ascent around 9 am then to fight against the elements - rain, snow, wind and fog - and finally arrive at the top around 3 pm to savour the incredible view. This is more risky because if the clouds donít disappear, your are f@#!$d !

The ideal situation is when a huge storm happens in the middle of the night. Then the relative humidity is falling down and since it is still night time, it takes several hours to reach a critical level of humidity again. The best schedule is to leave La Playa right after a storm around 1 am. In this case you have a maximum chance to reach the top around 7 am with an impressive view on the park or Los Altares.

Choosing the best moment to attack the Sangay is for sure the most difficult thing. The experience of several days spent in the Park should help you. I must admit that itís even less difficult to understand women rather than the weather in the Sangay National Park! With observation and luck it should however be possible to select the ideal hour.

Once you are on the way to the Sangay and the weather is good, the hardest step is behind you. As I already mentioned before, itís technically easy. The slope is very gradual, 30į to 35į, never more. In comparison to an alpine slope, itís not much. You probably meet snow around 4500 m. This is an advantage because by walking on snow, you can easily make steps ! The main difficulty is the perverse effect of altitude. Everybody reacts differently. You had better know yourself. Climbing the Tungurahua is a clever idea if youíve never been up to 5000 m. If you are subject to the terrible Soroche - this is the spanish word for "altitude sickness" - it would very good to have a day off before the ascent. Do also remember that drinking a lot and eating carbohydrates prevents that kind of misadventure.

Several people gave us the advice to take some technical utensils with us such as crampons, ice picks and so on. The same advice had already been given for the Tunghurahua, a volcano we climbed on our own and this without mountaineering shoes, crampons or whatever. That was fine, we had cold feet and we were really concentrated at the summit. If you are accustomed to be in the vicinity of drops or cliffs, itís no big deal. We all found Sangay technically less difficult than Tunghurahua because of the gradient of the slope. On the other hand, 200 meters higher make a big difference at such an altitude.

The Sangay is a living creature. Like a riding a Peruvian bus, it will push your adrenaline level to a point never reached. The closer you are to the top the more impressive is the show. This is due to the sound that is just deafening. Never mind, this is even a help. We were all curious to check how far we dared to go. Challenging such a giant is a great feeling, I can tell you.

There are 3 craters at the top. The first youíll see on the south-west side is a huge one of 100 meters diameter but extinct. The one on the east is the only one that remains very active. All the smoke and noise was coming from there. Because of the dense fog it was impossible to check out the third one further to the north. The one we found most interesting - and the most active Ė was the second volcano.

An advantage of volcanoes is the ground heat system : there is no snow or ice at the top. It is then comfortable to wait for the next eruption, something far more impressive than riding a roller coaster. The ground shakes as fast as your heartbeat!

 

Donít go without a guide

I insist on this point for three main reasons : your own security, to become better acquainted with the culture, and to aid in the development of the regionís economy.

A guide is indispensable for your security. Otherwise, chances may be that you get lost already on the second day. From Pampa Culebrillas to La Playa, the actual distance is only a few kilometers. The difficulty of the terrain, including dense vegetation, however, requires you to spend more time than expected, and if unaccompanied there are many possibilities of getting lost or having an accident. To complicate things even more, the thick fog leads you to lose your orientation at once. The indigenous guides, on the other hand, seem immune to this problem, as if they have a sixth sense. In my opinion, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than reaching the Sangay without a guide. This is especially the case if the weather decides to turn ugly and triple the depth of the rivers which you need to cross.

Being accompanied by a guide also gives you the opportunity to learn about the authentic culture of the region. They are also knowledgeable sources to learn about the flora and fauna of the park. In addition, you will find that the guides are always ready to lighten the journey by telling humorous anecdotes of other inexperienced hikers.

Finally, by paying the guide a few dollars a day for his services, you are simultaneously contributing to the economic development of the region. For instance, $10 a day is not much to you, but it is a substantial amount for a peasant in Ecuador. Do avoid, however, paying the guide too much. This can be destabilizing for the local economy and also lead to inflation for future tourists.

 

How much does it cost?

During our trip the exchange rate was US$ 1 = 4200 sucres. Two weeks later it was 4360 sucres! Here is the summary of the main expenses (for a group of 4 people):

This total of 920,000 sucres is equivalent to about US$ 220. Divide by four people and 7 days and that comes to only US$ 7 per day.

Other minor expenses:

Baños is the ideal city to buy and re-sell these items. We calculated at the end of our trip that the total expenses amounted to US$ 70 per person for eight days. For the same price you couldnít even afford a two-day tour of the Ecuadorian jungle.

 

Some useful addresses

In Quito, The South American Explorerís Club - Jorge Washington 311 y Leonidas Plaza - can not be forgotten. This association is practical for gathering lots of information and meeting other people who might like to join your team.

If you like maps, líInstituto Geográphico Militar (IGM) of Quito, situated on a hill at east end of the park El Ejido is the place to go. In order to admire the full scope of your proposed journey, you will need two maps at a scale of 1:50,000. The first is entitled ĎLlactapamba de Alaoí and the other is called ĎVolcán Sangayí. You will find these helpful, but they cannot replace the guide.

If you wish to stay a few days in Baños, either to train for the Tungurahua or to experience the thermal baths, I strongly recommend the pension Angely - Alfaro 553 y Ambato. It is comfortable and clean and costs only 7000 sucres a night. In addition, the owners are very friendly and hospitable.

If you are interested in finding a serious and competent guide to give you information on the current conditions of the Sangay or to accompany you on a climb of a different more challenging volcano like El Altar or le Chimborazo, Marcelo Puruncajas - Colůn 22-25 y 10 de Agosto, tel: 940-964 - from Riobamba is your man. He also has the proper mountain climbing materials that are available for rent.

Finally, I am always at your service to answer any questions you may still have about the Sangay. My email address is Franschi@rocketmail.com. I am also interested to hear any comments, critiques or news you may have in connection with the volcano at the following address: François Panchard, Rue de la Blantzette 8, 1967 Bramois, Valais, Switzerland, Europe.

 

Conclusion

There are many ways of going about your hike of the Sangay. This report has the goal of giving you the necessary practical and technical information for your adventure. On this note, some final statistics: going to Sangay takes between 6-9 days of serious effort, you travel more than 60 km, and it takes 24 hours to hike to the summit and 18 hours to return. This will enable any potential hardships to be avoided and give you the liberty to free your soul among the hills and streams of this exceptional region where only few tourists before you have dared to venture.

After your adventure, you will be a member of the small club of people that have managed to climb this unpredictable volcano and thus share the incredible feeling of accomplishment. Solid motivation, a good atmosphere within your team, and following the advice of this report will be your best guarantees for success.

Good luck !

François Panchard

A big thanks to Sarita "gigi" Sehgal who helped me to translate the text into English !