Climbing Tungurahua and entering the throat of fire

The resort town of Baños lies at 1,800m in a deep gorge cutting through the Andes from Ecuador’s central highlands in the west to the Amazon jungle in the east.

As some of you will know, the word baños can often be found written on toilet doors in bars and restaurants across the Spanish speaking world. You may wonder why the town is named after the Spanish word for toilets, until you realise that ‘baños’ is also the word for baths, and the town is actually named after the hot springs that make it a resort town in the first place.

Dotted on street corners throughout Baños are these alarming signs.

When you're escaping from an erupting volcano, it helps to know which way to run
When you’re escaping from an erupting volcano, it helps to know which way to run

You may wonder why that chap is running so quickly from his tent in the direction of the police college. But that’s not a tent he’s running from, but a volcano, and the signs are pointing to the assembly area, where citizens are supposed to gather in the event of a large eruption, in the much the same way as office workers mill around during a fire drill.

Where there are hot springs, there is volcanic activity, and sure enough, rising 3,200m above Baños is Tungurahua, a 5,023m volcano that emerged from its slumber in 1995 and was one of the most active volcanoes in South America for the next twenty years. In the local Quechua language, its name, appropriately, means ‘Throat of Fire’.

The toilet is often considered a place of refuge – the room to head for in the event of an emergency – but in the case of Baños it worked the other way round. The town’s citizens were evacuated in 1995, and have always been ready to do so again should it prove necessary.

Pablo and Edita in a deep holloway during the ascent up to Tungurahua hut
Pablo and Edita in a deep holloway during the ascent up to Tungurahua hut

The mountain went back to sleep again in 2016, and had just been re-opened for climbing when we were last in Ecuador in 2017. It was therefore an obvious objective when we were planning our Ecuador trip this year, especially since it just squeaks into the list of 10 peaks in Ecuador over 5,000m.

Edita, our guide Pablo and I had an early lunch in Baños and left at midday, knowing that we had a 1,000m ascent that day to reach the mountain hut at 3,800m, from where we would be making our summit attempt. Tungurahua was new to Pablo as well as ourselves. We would be climbing at night, when route-finding was more difficult, so we agreed to hire the warden of the hut, a man called Gonzalo who knew the route well, to climb with us the following day.

We had a short drive on a winding road up the hill behind Baños, which was in fact the base of Tungurahua. The road ended at the top of farmland in the place where the forest started at 2,800m. There was a little hut where we had to register and pay a permit fee. From 4,000m upwards Tungurahua is in Sangay National Park, but the land below is private.

The outline of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo from the hut on Tungurahua
The outline of Chimborazo and Carihuairazo from the hut on Tungurahua

Three other hikers were setting out as we arrived, a German called Frank and a Spanish/Portuguese couple called Angel and Claudia. We set off slowly from the checkpoint shortly after 1pm. Under normal circumstances I would consider this ascent to be straightforward, but my collapse in the Llanganates Mountains a few days earlier had me wondering about my fitness.

I need not have worried. The sign at the bottom of the track read 4km and 4 hours to the hut, but we were much quicker than this. The entire ascent to the hut was in forest. Much of it was through deep holloways where the branches of the trees reached over to form tunnels. The trunk of one ancient tree even formed an archway over the path.

We made good time and stopped only twice for water breaks upon each hour. Gradually the trees became smaller, to be replaced by flowering shrubs. The higher reaches were exceedingly colourful. The purple lupins stood out, which in this part of the Andes grow on bushes, but there were also many reds, blues and yellows.

Just short of the refuge there were a few light spots of rain and we heard the sound of thunder somewhere close by, but the storm never reached us.

Derelict section of Tungurahua hut, with a view of the mountain up to a large wedge of rock
Derelict section of Tungurahua hut, with a view of the mountain up to a large wedge of rock

We arrived at Tungurahua Refuge at 3.45, just 2 hours and 40 minutes after setting out. I was dripping with sweat, but I was carrying a complete change of clothes to keep warm. I did not have high expectations, but the hut was a pleasant surprise. It was dark inside, with a table and a small kitchen area. A ladder led up to the attic space which was also the main sleeping area. It was a cosy place with many soft mattresses to sleep on. With 20 people it would perhaps be cramped and uncomfortable, but today it looked like there would only be seven of us in total.

What made the refuge special was the setting, looking out over Baños’s valley towards Ambato. The Llanganates Mountains, the scene of our ill-fated foray a few days earlier, rose on the opposite side. The dome of Chimborazo (6,310m) dominated the view to the left, and to its right the jagged outline of Carihuairazo (5,020m)  petered away into the plains. The sun eased gently through a film of clouds to provide a surprising amount of warmth.

Intermittently we were able to see the mountain above us all the way up to a large wedge of rock. From where we stood there was a progression from páramo grasslands to scree up to the rock, the base of which Gonzalo the warden told us was at 4,500m. Above the rock was the crater at 4,850m. Gonzalo said that we needed to pass the crater to reach the summit beyond it.

Gonzalo and Edita plod slowly up Tungurahua with Chimborazo and Carihuairazo on the horizon
Gonzalo and Edita plod slowly up Tungurahua with Chimborazo and Carihuairazo on the horizon

We had dinner by candlelight in the hut that evening. Much of the conversation was in Spanish. Gonzalo spoke only Spanish, and Edita and I were the only ones who didn’t. Frank’s English was faltering, but everyone else spoke it well. Edita and I did our best to follow the conversation, and Pablo translated where necessary.

Somewhat alarmingly, half of the hut was derelict and appeared to have been gutted by a large fire of the sort that might conceivably occur during a volcanic eruption. But Gonzalo explained that despite the alarming signs, both the refuge and Baños were theoretically safe in the event of an eruption because they lie on or beneath a ridge, while two canyons took any debris from an eruption either side. The forest that we walked through seemed relatively old and must certainly have survived the major eruption in 2005.

How this theory worked in practice was another question. The hut was on the north side of Tungurahua, and most of the debris from the last eruption went west into the area above the road between Riobamba and Baños – a road we had driven along two years ago.

We turned in for sleep at around 8pm, and I slept well until my alarm pipped me awake at 3am. I started getting ready as quietly as I could, but soon all seven of us were awake and there was no need for quiet.

The jagged silhouette of Cerro Hermoso from Tungurahua
The jagged silhouette of Cerro Hermoso from Tungurahua

At breakfast, Frank said that he wasn’t intending to head up the mountain. We overtook him during our ascent the previous day when he was sitting down and resting. He looked exhausted and he had probably made the right decision. I wondered why he decided to get up at all. Angel and Claudia were intending to give it a go, but they were still having breakfast when the rest of us left at 4am.

An entry in the hut’s visitor book from two days earlier had described the route as fairly easy for 90% of the way, with a ‘sketchy’ section just below the crater. Sketchy could mean any number of things, but I took it to mean that there was some fairly exposed scrambling.

I hoped it didn’t mean icy. The advice we’d been given was that, although there was a little snow on top when we’d glimpsed Tungurahua across fields last week, boots and crampons weren’t necessary.

Gonzalo expressed surprise at the approach shoes I was wearing, however. He said that Karl Egloff was the only person he’d seen climb Tungurahua in footwear like mine. I shrugged and took this as a compliment. Although I can’t climb quite as quickly as Karl (any more than I can fly like Superman) I had been to 6,000m on Cerro Vicuñas in the same approach shoes last year, so unless it turned out to be slippery or there was so much snow that the shoes became sodden, I wasn’t concerned.

Rumiñahui, Cotopaxi and Quilindaña from Tungurahua
Rumiñahui, Cotopaxi and Quilindaña from Tungurahua

Gonzalo slowly zigzagged on a trail that became less distinct as we left the vegetation behind. As the sun gently lifted the veil of darkness, it gradually became clear that we were climbing on one of the best days of the year. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and Gonzalo said it was usually roaring like an angry bear.

We had a completely new aspect on all the volcanoes we knew so well. The peaks were deceptive. As we plodded up the hill, Pablo and I engaged in robust discussion before we could agree on what some of them were. He said that a mountain with two peaks to the left of Cotopaxi was Rumiñahui, not Iliniza (he was right – for snow-capped Iliniza was in profile and we could only see one of its peaks). Meanwhile, I told him that a flat-topped peak to the right of Cotopaxi was Quilindaña, not Imbabura (this time I was right because Imbabura was much further away).

Chimborazo was so close and enormous to be unmistakable. But the mountain we were all most thrilled to see was the jagged form of Cerro Hermoso (4,576m) in the centre of the Llanganates. It was the first time I had ever seen this most secret of peaks, a black crown showing in outline before a rising sun. There was another volcano-like cone rising above the Amazon to the east. I wondered if it was the jungle-peak Sumaco but Gonzalo said it was just the most prominent peak of a smaller range.

Approaching the crater rim on slopes loaded with loose rock
Approaching the crater rim on slopes loaded with loose rock

It was well and truly light by the time we reached the base of the rock wedge. We put on our helmets and discovered what ‘sketchy’ actually meant. The slope above us was loaded with loose rock. Small pebbles were rolling down the slope as though they had been dislodged by climbers above us. But we knew we were the only people here. We could see the lights of Angel and Claudia, but they were still far below. Nobody was above us.

We needed to move quickly through the danger area, but the scree was soft, and hard work to climb. We glanced up nervously and slid backwards with every step. Luckily no large boulders rained down on us.

Eventually the terrain became safer, with the occasional ridge. The surface was no longer as loose, but it was still very steep.

A little beneath the crater, we came across a remarkable phenomenon. We reached a band of rocks with a great many fumaroles puncturing its surface. Standing near the rocks, it felt like a sauna. I took off my gloves and held out my hands to warm them, but from time to time the heat became so intense that I had to withdraw them.

Warming my hands in Tungurahua's volcanic vents
Warming my hands in Tungurahua’s volcanic vents

We arrived on the crater five minutes later. It reminded me of the top of Ojos del Salado, which Edita and I had climbed just nine months earlier. We were standing in a bowl with the crater just off to the right. On the far side of the bowl a ridge curled around to two summits at the far end. The broader one on the left was slightly higher than the more pointed, snow-streaked one on the right.

We stopped for snacks and water, and I was able to warm my feet in a volcanic crack that ran down the middle of the bowl emitting wisps of gas.

We left our bags here to ascend the final 150m to the summit. We had to cross extended patches of hard snow, the only snow we encountered on the ascent. It was snow that may well once have been a glacier, but there is a point when a dying glacier can no longer be called such because it is no longer moving. I feared that this snow had already reached this point.

On the crater rim of Tungurahua, with the main summit on the left and a secondary summit on the right
On the crater rim of Tungurahua, with the main summit on the left and a secondary summit on the right

Gonzalo hadn’t been to the summit for a month and he started to approach it from the right, but Edita and I could see footprints crossing a snow field to the left. After a short discussion we changed direction and went that way instead. In fact, we were able to avoid these footprints, and instead go most of the way to the top without crossing snow.

A few metres short of the summit, with the summit cross in full view, for some reason Gonzalo and Edita decided to start a race. All of a sudden they both began sprinting. But Edita tripped over her trekking pole and fell on her face. I let out a groan, but she was OK.

We reached the summit at 9am. It was compact with a small sheet of ice forming an apron on one side. Chimborazo had been our principal companion all the way up, but on the summit two new mountains made their presence felt. The many summitted crown of El Altar (5,320m) was just a stone’s throw away to the south. It is unusual among Ecuadorian mountains in that it resembles an alpine peak with many snow-capped summits. But in reality the snow spires we could see from Tungurahua were one side of a collapsed crater. It was an inspiring sight, a mountain that has been off our radar until now.

El Altar from the summit of Tungurahua
El Altar from the summit of Tungurahua

The other mountain I had expected to get my first clear view of from the summit of Tungurahua was Sangay (5,230m), one of South America’s most active and dangerous peaks. Alas, however, Ecuador’s three big southern peaks form a line rather than a triangle. Sangay lay directly behind El Altar, but it was still making its presence felt. It erupted several times while we stood on the summit, making it appear that El Altar’s spines were exploding.

We spent only twenty minutes on the summit. After a few snacks and selfies we descended for a more thorough examination of the crater. We stood on its rim and looked down. I’m not very good at estimating distances but I guessed it was no more than 100m across, making it considerably smaller than Cotopaxi’s.

We could see right into its depths though. A 45º scree slope fell to a depth of only about 50m. Its mouth was choked with boulders that will be shot out in the event of another eruption. Pablo rolled big boulders down the slope. I don’t know what he was expecting to happen when they reached the bottom, but fortunately the answer was nothing.

Edita and me on the summit of Tungurahua, with Chimborazo on the horizon, and the secondary summit and crater below
Edita and me on the summit of Tungurahua, with Chimborazo on the horizon, and the secondary summit and crater below

We left the crater at 10am for a painstaking descent. I expected the soft scree to be fun and quick to run down, but it had morphed into loose scree of the worst sort: solid rock with a thin sheen of small pebbles like marbles. It was treacherous and we had to take extreme care.

When we did reach a proper scree slope of the sort you could ski down, our two guides decided to play silly buggers. Pablo ran alongside so that all four of us ended up descending in a ruck. Then Gonzalo started weaving all over the place so that he was impossible to follow. Instead of sticking to the soft parts he crossed harder ground and I ended up falling over.

Only when I became annoyed with them and started making my own way down in the wrong direction did Gonzalo relent and take a more normal, straighter course in the direction of the hut.

Looking down into the crater of Tungurahua
Looking down into the crater of Tungurahua

Back at the vegetation line we found ourselves in thick mist. We arrived at the hut at midday, at the same time as Angel and Claudia, who set off later and climbed to 4,500m, where Claudia decided it was too difficult to continue. Frank was nowhere to be seen.

Despite the mist, it was surprisingly warm as the sun tried to penetrate. I had recovered my temper and bought beers for Gonzalo and Pablo as we rested and recovered outside in the warmth. The beer went down like nectar.

We packed up our things and left at 12.30 for the last 1,000m down to the car. I had expected to be exhausted, but the terrain was much easier and we pretty much ran down, whizzing through the forest and reaching the car shortly after 1.30. Rarely can I have descended 1,000m so quickly. The whole round trip had taken us almost exactly 24 hours.

It had been an enjoyable experience, providing a different aspect to the mountains of Ecuador. The bars and restaurants of Baños beckoned.

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One thought on “Climbing Tungurahua and entering the throat of fire

  • October 8, 2020 at 9:18 pm

    In regards to the snow near the summit that might once have been part of Tungurahua’s glacier, I have read elsewhere that the glacier was melted in the eruptions around 2016. This sounds plausible to me having seen amazing photos of the top of the mountain glowing with hot rocks.

    Thanks for your lovely blog posts, I hope to visit some of these mountains next year.

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