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Vulcaneering: lava nut summits Ecuador’s liveliest peak

The Lonely Planet guide warns that climbing to the destroyed climber’s refuge half way up Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano would be “suicidal”. This is proving to be something of a red rag to a bull for gringo volcano lovers, who are increasingly finding their way to these forsaken, ash-covered buildings on one of the world’s largest and most dangerous volcanoes. While this hike in itself offers plenty for the amateur volcano enthusiast, it is possible to continue on upwards for an unforgettable primordial experience.

Would-be amateur volcanologists should be warned that this is a very different experience to other Latin American volcanoes such as Guatemala’s Pacaya. Whereas the latter is a case of peering into the lion’s cage, this is more like putting your hand through the bars and hoping it doesn’t bite. There are no organized tours – this is definitely one undertaken at your own risk.

Getting up to date information from locals and the internet is highly advisable – and if the volcano is a little too frisky there is plenty of other activities on offer n the surrounding area from mountain biking to hot thermal baths.

Trips to the previously glacier-topped summit of Tungurahua used to be run out of the spa town of Baños, which sits rather precariously in the shadow of the 5,016 meter high volcano. That was before the volcano roared back to life in 1999, leading to an evacuation of the entire town for many months. Things continued to bubble away until a particulalry violent eruption in August 2006 wiped out a number of nearby hamlets, killing at least four people. This was when the refuge huts where destroyed.

I had seen Tungurahua and its huge ash plume from the summit of another volcano, Cotopaxi (some 100 miles to the north) where a fellow climber first told me about the hike to the refuge.  Although it towers over the town, you cannot actually see Tungurahua from Baños itself – the volcano’s foothills get in the way. My first proper sight of the “Black Giant”, as the volcano is also known, was on the road to thermal baths on the edge of town. It had probably been in view for some time, but it is only when I happened to glance up that I saw the give-away conical peak around 3km above me. The towering plume acted as a giant marker in the otherwise blue sky, dispelling any doubts that this was indeed it.

After seeing that view I was absolutely certain I was going to make it up to the refuge, but I had no idea how to get there. Fortunately I had a fellow new-found volcano fan in my hostel dormitory, a Dutch ski instructor called Mervin who was cycling around Ecuador and had also heard about the hike to the refuge.

Mervin wanted to go one step further though – to or close to the summit. I hadn’t heard of anyone doing this, and my immediate response, thinking back to the Lonely Planet, was wouldn’t that be suicidal?  “No, I asked at the tourist office and they said it was possible to get close to the summit, but you need a good pair of shoes as the ground can be hot,” was Mervin’s response.

My new Dutch friend also knew which web site to check for the current status of the volcano (the Global Volcanism Program) which suggested that it had been “stable” for the last couple of months – essentially meaning there had been no dramatic increase in activity. This is no guarantee however – volcanoes are unpredictable beasts – but there seemed to be no signs of a buildup in activity.

We rechecked the website again in the morning, attracting the interest of an Australian girl, Tori, who like most Australian girls traveling in South America seemed more than game for a challenge and asked if she could join us.

We set off around 9am – in hindsight far too late – vaguely heading in the direction of the volcano. Soon Tungurahua reared into view and I think all three of us immediately had doubts that we could get anywhere near the top and back in a day. The volcano’s summit is higher than Mt Blanc, and although we were all reasonably acclimatized, we quickly decided that we really needed to start out climb from the trailhead at around 3,000m.

At this point there was a taxi in the road, which we found out belonged to the husband of a woman running a small convenience store next to it. After some determined bargaining from hardened traveler Mervin, who tried unsuccessfully to strike a deal that included both the taxi and provisions from the store (the taxi driver politely explained that his wife insists the two businesses are kept separate ) we set of on the winding  road up the trailhead.  Even by car this took half an hour – so the taxi proved to be a wise move.

As it turned out, we needed all our energy. The trail to the refuge, which is almost entirely through thick cloud forest, is not only steep but also unmaintained, and heavy rain has turned it over time into a narrow gulley in many places. These factors are not uncommon on South American trails, but there were two things that set this one apart. One was that the grey hue that appeared to be a feature of the vegetation but was in fact volcanic ash, and the thundering boom every few minutes that somehow reminded me of a jumbo jet taking off.

Soon we had another sign of the humbling power emanating from our destination.  To our right lay a river of solidified lava around 200metres wide, heading down into the valley to the north of Baños. The cloud forest through which it passed had simply ceased to exist.

After three hours or so of pretty much constant climbing the first of the huts came into view. It looked like the volcano world’s answer to the Mary Celeste, with cooking utensils, foam mattresses and old newspapers scattered around. There were clear signs of fire and the roof had all but disappeared. We drew our names with our fingers on the table and stools outside which, like everything else were covered in ash.

There is a similar hut around 100m above the first refuge, complete with the remains of an outdoor lavatory. If you got stuck, you could feasibly spend the night here, although it would be cold and wet if it rained.

Now things where starting to get interesting. As we headed beyond the higher refuge towards the source of the booms that were by now vibrating the ground we were walking on, the path rapidly started to disappear – as indeed did the vegetation. The gradient became steeper to the point where we were soon scrambling rather than climbing over black volcanic debris. The recent destructive power of the volcano was now plain to see, although equally impressive was the speed with which nature seemed to be reclaiming what it had lost. There were numerous small plants scattered amongst the loose volcanic debris – signs of a cyclical battle that must have been going on for thousands of years.
This battle became increasingly tilted in the volcanoes favour as we continued to scramble up what was becoming an increasingly vertical lunar landscape.

Suddenly the conical peak came into view over a ridge, accompanied by a well timed volcanic rumble. A truly exhilarating moment – the volcano is impressive enough from afar, but up this close it feels like you are stepping back many millions of years in time.

With the vegetation behind us, Tungurahua now resembled a child’s drawing of a volcano – a black pointed triangle topped by a billowing plume. Somehow the closer you got the larger the volcano seemed to get. It certainly was becoming steeper – although you only fully realized how steep when you looked below. The lava field appeared like a motorway, plunging away to join the Baños-Ambato road in the valley around 3km below us.

We continued to clamber up like three little hobbits heading tentatively towards Mordor – stopped dead in our tracks every few minutes when the volcano issued one of its periodic ominous roars, closely followed by a spiraling cloud of gases.

“I don’t feel that safe here,” Mervin said at one point with a nervous laugh, followed in the next breath by, “we should go further up.” There is something about seeing the raw power of a volcano up close that seems to make human life appear insignificant and, combined with pure adrenalin, put any thoughts of the dangers that were clearly present to the back of your mind.

Soon after this Tori decided to wait while Mervin and I continued what was becoming an increasingly vertical and breathless clamber across loose volcanic debris – an experience not dissimilar to wading across fine sand. It was getting to the point where a slip could pose far more dangers than the volcano itself.

A sudden explosion, clearly a step up from the previous rumbles, was a rapid reminder that the latter was not to be discounted either. The altitude, increasingly cliff-like gradient and difficult conditions underfoot made for slow going and the volcanoes decision to step things up a notch or two was enough to convince us that we had got close enough – around 200 meters from the summit. 

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