According to the Urban Dictionary, the word ‘Fuya’ is a portmanteau whose meaning equates to the popular phrase ‘Fuck, yeah!’
If this is true, then the volcano Fuya Fuya, a short distance north-east of Quito, was clearly going to be one of the most exciting climbs in Ecuador.
I had never heard of it before, but our expedition outfitter, Javier Herrera of Andeanface, suggested that we climb it as a warm-up on our second day in Ecuador. He gave every indication that it would be an easy walk up.
This impression was reinforced by our guide Pablo when he picked us up from our hotel Quito. If you’ve read my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, you will remember Pablo as the good-natured cyclist and bike mechanic who acted as our support driver for our sea-to-summit bike ride – a man who was as integral to our success as the actual bikes themselves.
Pablo is also a trekking guide, and he was in talkative mood as we left Quito on a route I’d never been along before. We drove down a long hill on a three-lane highway. Mountains rose up in the hazy clouds ahead of us.
‘What is this mountain?’ I asked. I couldn’t quite make out its shape but Pablo noticed.
‘Why look, it has two summits. It must be Fuya Fuya, the mountain we will be climbing today.’
‘It looks big.’
‘It’s OK, it’s about 4,200m, but you can drive most of the way up.’
Fuya Fuya is actually part of a larger massif called Mojanda, a range of peaks formed from the collapse and extinction of two adjacent volcanoes. Mojanda forms the third of a triangle of peaks rising above the northern part of Ecuador, the other two being Cotacachi, which we tried to climb a couple of years ago and Imbabura, which we would attempt the following day.
Of Mojanda’s two volcanoes, one of them has left behind a picturesque crater lake, Laguna Mojanda, at an altitude 3,700m, flanked by the rocky peak of Cerro Negro (4,260m), the second-highest peak in the Mojanda massif (also known as Yanaurcu, which means Cerro Negro or Black Peak in Quechua).
The other volcano is Fuya Fuya, whose collapsed crater has left behind twin summits joined by a narrow ridge. The highest of these summits reaches 4,263m, currently just pipping Cerro Negro to the title of highest point on Mojanda. I say ‘currently’ because what often happens in these situations is that somebody discovers some obscure data which they claim is more accurate, and they change Fuya Fuya’s Wikipedia entry to make it slightly lower. This then becomes the mountain’s ‘official’ height. I don’t have much time for these people.
Just beyond the town of Otavalo, we turned left and drove up a cobbled track into the heart of the Mojanda massif. We continued up the cobbled track for about another 12km until we reached Laguna Mojanda, a hidden sanctuary surrounded by a ring of peaks.
I was expecting it to be quiet at the roadhead, but in fact it was very busy. A wooden shelter opposite was fully occupied with a tent and somebody else’s equipment all laid out. A few metres away a big group of about 20 local Ecuadoreans were having a group workout session on the lake shore. It was a bit like a scene from Carry on Camping, except they were wearing more clothing.
At an outdoor clothing store in Quito the previous day we had seen guided day trips to Fuya Fuya advertised for $49. This peak seemed to be a popular day out for locals.
Pablo said that it was only 2 to 3 hours to the summit and I expected an easy, gentle walk. I was in for a nasty shock.
We set off up a gentle slope through páramo grasslands with the somewhat rocky lower summit of Fuya Fuya rising above. We left at roughly the same time as the big group of 20, and as we were still not acclimatised and needed to take it slowly, I asked Pablo if we could drop behind them.
He let me lead, and I plodded slowly up a grassy slope that became gradually steeper as we traversed beneath the lower summit. The large group turned up towards the first peak, but we skirted beneath it. We met them again at the col between the two peaks. They were coming down from the first summit but we managed to get ahead of them by taking our shortcut.
There was a very nice ridge section curving round to the main summit, which rose steeply to a pointed summit. But I wasn’t prepared for what came next. A narrow rock stuck up like a shark’s fin, and there was going to be some tricky scrambling to get around it on either side.
The vanguard of the big group, a guide and two quicker clients, opted for the left side, but we spied a narrow chimney on the right and chose that way instead. It wasn’t the easiest scrambling. The handholds were small and some smearing moves were required that relied on friction alone. But we were soon up the chimney and skirted the rock fin on a grassy balcony.
The three from the big group made it round before us on the left side. I was thinking the worst was behind us, but the next part did not look fun – a narrow ridge and another short scramble up steep rocks. It was quite exposed, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for scrambling of this nature – both Javier and Pablo had implied that the ascent would be a piece of piss.
Then, at the most exposed section of all, I got my foot stuck in a narrow crack between rocks. The only way I could release myself was to take my foot out of the shoe, hop around on one leg as I pulled the shoe free, then put the shoe back on again. This manoeuvre did nothing to improve my confidence.
A few metres beyond this was a smooth rock sloped at 45 degrees. Beneath the rock was a long drop into nothingness (or so it felt). I would have to trust to friction over a drop would almost certainly mean a nasty injury in the event of a fall, if not death. All of the others were across, but I refused point blank to do it. I had not intended this degree of dangerous scrambling on our first day, and I was in no mood for it. I told them to go on to the summit while I waited here.
‘Is this peak really called Fuya Fuya or Fuka Fuka?’ I shouted across the gap. I had discovered that the two Fuck, yeahs in the mountain’s name referred to these two exposed sections, and the sound you made after crossing them.
Pablo and Edita were disappointed, but they continued onwards while I headed back to find an airy seat to rest on. The three Ecuadoreans stayed where they were while they waited for the rest of their group. One of them was a feisty young woman who clearly had no problem with the exposure.
The guide went back to look after the rest of his clients. He carried no rope, and he was clearly not a qualified guide. This is no disrespect to him; he seemed competent enough and it doesn’t require a UIAGM-certified climbing guide to get you up Fuya Fuya (Ecuador has some of the best climbing guides in South America).
The exposed section is short and relatively straightforward, but the consequences of a slip could be fatal. If people are going to guide large inexperienced groups of hikers without ropes, then a short section of via ferrata cable here, like in the Alps, would help prevent what looks like an accident waiting to happen.
Anyway, as I rested, I stared at the rock and decided that it no longer looked so hard. I left my pack where I sat and went back for another look. The rock was smooth and it was going to require two big steps. If the first produced a slip then I was gone. I didn’t like it one bit. But I tried a small step to test the grip on my boot. It didn’t slip, and that gave me confidence. I tiptoed up to a crack in the smooth rock and from there it was easy to haul myself up and over.
There was some low-grade scrambling beyond that, then an easy path up to the summit. The woman from the group of three decided to follow me up to the summit. When we arrived together, Edita didn’t recognise me to begin with. But when she realises it was me rather than one of the Ecuadoreans her face burst into a smile.
‘Did you help him?’ she said to the young woman.
‘Noooooooo! I did it on my own,’ I protested, my pride wounded.
It had been somewhat cloudy during the ascent, but the sun came out while we were on the summit. It was an interesting view. Cotacachi was in cloud, as it had always been. We were yet to see its summit in two visits, but Imbabura was now visible in full. We could see that its western side was streaked in ice, which might make tomorrow’s climb a little tricky. Pablo was happy to see the three lakes of Cuicocha, San Pablo and Mojanda in one view.
We descended quickly. With Pablo’s help we descended backwards down the smooth slab. It was just two steps, but two steps which required confidence in where you were putting your feet. The chimney was a little trickier. Usually I am able to descend these things with more confidence facing out. This time it was really a little steep for that, but I managed it somehow, with the others waiting at the bottom to catch my feet should I fall.
We crossed the lower summit on the way down. It was heaving with people, being the easier of the two, but we took altitude readings on both summits and discovered the tricky one was 15m higher.
The descent was slightly annoying. I slipped twice descending steep mud sections, but it wasn’t dangerous. It was very busy at the lake shore when we arrived at 2.30, with groups of local Ecuadoreans who have driven up for the day. It had taken us four hours up and down, a good day out and an excellent choice of peak to acclimatise on if you can handle the exposure.
Further trip reports from Ecuador to follow. If you enjoy them then you might be interested in my book Feet and Wheels to Chimborazo, about a unique cycling and climbing challenge in Ecuador.