MARK: For a few awful seconds I thought “Oh my God, I’ve lost Sarah.” It was a surreal moment.
Doubtless you’ve heard the expression, “it was just like watching in slow motion”. It’s the hackneyed phrase often reported when someone witnesses a road accident or some other terrible event. And for me, it was just like that!
I was following Sarah, a few steps behind her green and white Osprey day pack down a steep ledge on the side of a dormant volcano. It was Maundy Thursday and we were both high in the Ecuadorian Andes close to the Colombian Border, when suddenly she slipped….
It was all so different the day before, when we had arrived at our wonderful homestay to be greeted by our hosts Teresa and Luis. The backdrop to their rustic house in San Clemente was the formidable Imbabura Mountain which loomed ominously behind, like a watchful giant. I was glad to hear its last eruption had been some 500 years before as I didn’t particularly like the thought of a Vesuvian style destruction of Pompeii on my doorstep.
It was clear from the start that this was going to be nothing like our “disappointing” homestay visit in Laos:
This was the real thing! Ecuadorian hospitality first hand.
Our group was split into three, Sarah and I, together with our travelling companions Rita and Cheryl were the guests of the Tuquerres Family. We “bagged” the back bedroom which was accessed by the dining room and began to explore our fascinating surroundings. Outside the front door, chickens chased, turkeys gobbled, pigs snorted, dogs yapped and I got my shoes covered in what looked like duck poo. It was quite a menagerie.
All around the house, which can be best described as a small holding, crops including corn and beans grew, whilst elsewhere, delicious blackberries were ready for picking and limes hung with droplets of water on their bright green skin. The only thing missing was the bottle of Gordon’s.
The house itself was a strange mix of buildings which had been added to over a period of a few years. The extreme right of the house, featured a joiners workshop, with a decidedly dodgy roof. Through the courtyard, you came in to a semi-closed off area in the shape of an L. At one end was a wood fire which doubled sometimes as a stove. Because we were on the Equator, the temperature at night only fluctuates from 12-15C throughout the year. However, it was the coldest we had been since leaving the UK and we were glad of the heat. A “westernised” kitchen looked really out of place, particularly when you saw micro-waves and blenders which were at odds with the simply furnished bedrooms, dining room and “washing” area – the latter looking more like something from the Middle-Ages than anything out of the 21st Century. They did however have to our surprise an inside toilet and indeed a shower. But it was home and we were made to feel so very welcome.
Though none of us spoke each other’s respective language, we managed to have great fun at meal times through a mixture of sign language, experimenting with French and German to see if their vocabulary was vaguely similar to our Spanish friends and occasionally using Google Translate when the wifi decided to work.
Our Group of 14 came together for various joint activities and it was during one of these sessions that Nathalie our Guide offered the wider group the opportunity to climb the forbidding peak Imbabura!
There was some interest, but most people sensibly decided to opt for ploughing the fields with Oxen or cooking dinner with their respective hosts. But Sarah and I had different ideas. This would be the perfect test of our fitness. More than that, we would be climbing at high altitude with only two days of acclimatisation since our stay at sea level in the “olde-worlde” Pacific resort of Puerto Lopez. Not the smartest of ideas perhaps, but hey, if we were going to show signs of altitude sickness, then this would be it. If we survived this then the Inca Trail should be a doddle!
Nathalie gave more information. Our homestay was 2,700m (8,900 ft). At 0500 we would be taken by 4WD truck to the base of Mount Imbabura at 3,100m (10,170ft) with a Guide. The ascent would start at 0530 and last for four/five hours until we reached the summit of 4,600m (15,100ft).
We said yes. And as the sun went down, we both kept looking at the mountain mesmorised by its size and height and wondering what the hell we had let ourselves in for the next day….
We then had one of those nights sleep which is fitful to say the least. The night you barely sleep, glancing every 15 minutes at the alarm clock to see if it was time to get up. At 0430 it was, the alarm never went off. We’d both been awake since 0300.
We packed our bags with all we needed. Phone for emergencies. Three litres of water for me, two for Sarah. Thinking we would have to skip breakfast, we were thrilled and delighted to see the sight of Teresa cooking “bread cakes” over the dying embers of the fire as we came out of our bedroom, the cock crowing just outside our window. How’s that for hospitality!
The warm bread was packed in our day packs, together with bananas and a coffee flask. We were ready.
It was not long before we picked up our guide, Tupac who we were relieved to hear spoke English. I’m sure he was thinking that these two old farts wouldn’t make it… But before I had chance to speak, two bright shining eyes stared directly at me as I sat in the front of the 4WD. It was a Honey Bear, who soon ran away at the throbbing sound of the 3.5 litre Chevrolet engine. Fifteen minutes and what felt like hundred jolts later, the road petered out into a rough track and the base of the Mountain began to appear into view like the unveiling of a black cape. Dawn was breaking. It was time for the start of our morning stroll….
It wasn’t long before we were both breathing heavily, the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere making us pant for air. Heart rates rose. We’d walked less than half a mile of the seven mile return trip. God it was hard! But bit by bit and with regular stops at around 100m of elevation we made our way slowly up the side of what was mainly scrub grass with occasional rocks. Marvellous views kept us going and after about two hours we were sort of into a rhythm. Advice given has always been to go at your own pace when climbing mountains and we did just that, stopping to take photos of beautiful scenery and wonderfully small Alpine type plants.
Just as we were getting the hang of this high walking lark, the weather changed. Within five minutes we were enveloped in mist. We had got to 3,600m, the next 1,000m we realised would be walking in a permanent drizzle, with visibility down to a 100m. Suddenly the wind got up, the temperature dropped. We could have been on the Yorkshire Moors, it looked the same. North Face coats on, we trudged higher, the pathway now rocks and steep terrain which rose at an angle of close to 60 degrees. This was not what we had signed up for.
And then we hit the 4000m mark. “Come on, we can do this” I shouted to Sarah, who looked quite forlorn with her little hood up.
We carried on, but by this time the weather had closed right in, we could see 10m ahead and it was raining. It was also blowing a gale as we rounded a corner, the wind whistling over the ridge. The path was narrow rocks, there were steep drops. Bang! Vertigo set in. I inched myself over a large rock that ordinarily I would have climbed with ease. But with a drop of 500m and stories of the death of a German guy at the same point ringing in my ears, I decided enough was enough. We were at 4,300m, there was no way I was going any higher, with even greater drops. We could see nothing, I bottled it. Sarah meanwhile, was happy to continue, but in true team spirit decided to support her old man and come back down. I was not ashamed or disappointed because we had got to over 4,300m and this was higher than any point on the Inca-trail. I might have got vertigo, but at least I had no altitude sickness and we had climbed over 1300m straight up with no ill effects.
We trudged down, much quicker, but mindful of the extremely slippery rocks, mud and grass. We both soon realised that going down was going to be arguably even harder, but this time in a different way.
And then it happened. Sarah slipped and somersaulted twice over the edge of the narrow track. The angle of the slope here was 70 degrees, the fall down the mountain on rocks and scree some 500 metres.
The slow motion video in my mind kicked in as I saw the whole episode play out in front of me. There was nothing I could do. In what seemed an age, but was no more than four or five seconds, Sarah managed to break her fall in what appeared to be a Gorse type bush, some three metres across. To the left, a horrifying drop.
There was no sound, but I quickly realised she was alive and kicking as we managed to pull her out!
Her knee hurt – it had twisted – but apart from that, she was ok!!!!!!!!!!!!
We continued our descent in a watchful way. Each step we took gingerly. I fell twice. But Tupac our guide fell three times. Ha, even professionals can get caught out. In two hours we were down, safe and sound.
That afternoon and evening we shared our experience with the rest of the group as we danced the night away with the friends from the village community. But I had to do a double take as guess who was the Leader of the Band? Tupac. From guide one minute to impresario the next.
The next morning, after a good night’s sleep we got out of bed, only for Sarah to realise that her knee was still causing quite severe pain. But trooper that she is, she got moving and found that if she walked a bit, ironically the pain eased.
But the smell of breakfast raised our spirits and even Teresa let me make a “Marco,” her name for my cheese and banana deep fried empanada. Lovely coffee, a blackberry drink, and a bowl of strawberries, mangos and kiwi fruit completed the offering. What a way to finish our homestay and what a way to end our trip to Ecuador.
We have sadly left our lovely group – 2 nights early, as we have to fly to Lima to start our 45 day marathon across South America with our next tour group. Unfortunately, the departure dates did not work in our favour and hence we had to cut short our Ecuadorian experience.
But we leave with many memories. Our jungle experience, two amazing adrenalin filled days in the Andes, visiting the coast and the “Poor Man’s” Galapagos – another blog in itself, our fantastic homestay and last but not least our superb travelling companions – you know who you are…!
Ecuador – we can both recommend this fascinating country. Just don’t attempt walks up/down volcanoes!