A powerful stroke of thunder punched the air and I knew it was my cue to leave. Fast.
I scaled down the snaggy formation of the Pichincha Volcano summit to the thick, sandy bluff just below and I began to run. My feet slipped deep into the sand and, with every wide step I skated another two feet further downhill with the loose ground.
Thick pellets of ice were thrown from the sky and I turned down my head to deflect them. Running faster and faster down the unsteady bank, I kicked up huge portions of loose dirt and sand into my socks and boots. I didn’t even care.
The thunder and hail indicated that my situation was getting dire and that descending the volcano was going to be a race against the storm. I was well on my way to losing.
With my head tucked, hefty shots of hail continued to strike the top of my head. Dense blobs of water clobbered the ground and soaked the heavy dirt, turning it into a thick mud. I slipped and slid on the thin trail, trying to maintain my balance atop the grassy ruts that had been eroded into the side of the volcano.
It was impossible to stay on two feet in these conditions and I had already slipped and fallen and was covered in mud.
A colossal streak of lightning cracked through the sky, bringing with it a massive reverberation of thunder. The lightning illuminated a set of power lines in front of me and I realized that, in my descent, and in the middle of this tremendous lightning storm, I was going to have to cross underneath them.
Rain soaked through my jacket and water poured down my forehead and into my eyes. I squinted through the rain, drew a wet breath into my lungs and high-tailed it under the power lines. I thought about what the headlines would read: “American Tourist Struck by Lightning During Massive Hailstorm on the Side of a Volcano in Ecuador.”
Not a bad way for it to end, quite honestly. I wouldn't mind that headline. Mom wouldn’t be happy, but it would be a hell of a way to go.
Climbing the Pichincha Volcano
I’m not going to lie—I had a feeling it was going to happen like this. When I arrived at the base of the volcano I was greeted by a thick fog and I could barely see 20 feet in front of me. I considered not going any further as I had heard stories of people getting lost in the haze, but when else would I get the chance to summit a 15,000-foot volcano in Ecuador?
So, on I marched.
Though the sign at the bottom of the Pichincha Volcano read: “Difficulty: Demanding,” the start of the hike was innocuous enough. Long yellow fields bounded in the distance, barely visible through the fog. Rushing streams of water had left large, corroded ruts in the ground, but in the dry ascent to the top, they were nothing more than interwoven dirt pathways.
I walked in the only direction that made sense—up. Considering I couldn’t see much through the fog that was rolling in, I trodded blindly forward into the vast meadow in front of me.
Reaching the first plateau, I stopped to survey my surroundings. I was already high above the city at 12,943 ft, and I looked back to see what I had left behind me. Having already trekked through and above the clouds, I turned around just in time to watch a thick blanket of cotton billow through the valleys in one brisk, sweeping motion. The fog enveloped the surrounding mountains, including the one I was standing on. Swarming around me, it engulfed my entire body.
I stood and watched, and allowed the light moisture of the mist to sink into my skin.
Trekking to the Summit
It was 1 pm and the sky was dark. Inside the clouds, at 13,000 feet it didn't feel like the sun had even risen yet. I crossed paths with two solo travelers and then a group of three–everyone else that I had seen at the base gave up hours ago.
The air filled with denser layers of humidity and I trekked on, watching the ground turn from grass, moss, and mud to sand and stone. I sunk my feet deep into the escarpment, burying my shoes, and I pushed onwards and upwards.
Large, jagged rock formations were juxtaposed across the upper layer of the volcano and my trail changed once again, but this time into an extremely steep rock climb. At this altitude, and with a complete lack of visibility, I didn't even know where I was supposed to go–there was no trail, only volcanic rock formations which, if climbed, would bring me blindly farther up.
So up I went.
Reaching a vertical rock wall I stopped and hesitated. With two plumb drops on either side of me, I questioned my sanity and whether ascending even farther was actually the smartest of choices. Having made it this far, there was no way I was going to give up now. I was all-in from the second I started the hike, and turning back would have been the worst decision someone could make.
Because who climbs a volcano just to turn around when they're almost at the summit?
So I climbed, one hand after the other, step-by-step until I could just barely make out the signpost in front of me. It read: “¡Bienvenidos! Cumbre Rucu Pichincha. Altitude: 4,696 m.s.n.m.”
But still, with a thick cloud hanging over the summit of the mountain, I could barely see 20 feet in front of me.
I perched myself on the highest and farthest rock on the summit, and stared into the distance through the fog, at nothing in particular. There was nothing to see, but I didn't care–in this moment of glory, a stance to represent it was required. It wasn't about the view, but rather the journey of getting there.
Five minutes later, and almost as if on cue, the fog began to billow through the valleys, revealing the splendor of the mountains below. At that very moment, watching this magnificent act of nature unfold before me, I shed a tear.
And that's when the thunder began.
About the Pichincha Volcano in Quito
The Pichincha Stratovolcano is located just west of Quito, Ecuador. The two highest peaks are Guagua and Rucu, which are 15,696ft (4,784m) and 15,407ft (4,696m) respectively. Though Guagua has the only active caldera on the mountain, both are excellent acclimatization hikes, and are less technical than the popular Cotopaxi which is located about 50km south.
To give you an idea of its height, the Northern Everest Base Camp in Tibet is located at 16,900ft (5,151m).
The Rucu peak is now extinct, however, the Guagua side does exhibit phreatic volcanic activity every few years. With three major Plinian eruptions taking place in the past 2000 years, the most recent one occurred in 1999, covering Quito, a city of two million, with inches of ash. Given that the previous eruptions occurred in 1553 and in 1660, a larger, Plinian eruption is not expected to happen within our lifetimes. However, as is the case with volcanic activity, anything could happen.
How to Climb the Pichincha Volcano
Name: The Pichincha Volcano in Quito, Ecuador
Cost: Approximately $13
Notes: From Quito, take a taxi to the Teleférico, the cable car that takes you to the start of the trail. It should only cost $4-5 USD from La Mariscal. Board the Teleférico for $8.50. Allow five solid hours to do this hike, and start early in the morning (8-9am) so you don't get caught in a storm like I did. Weather does not cooperate here in the afternoon.
This is a very demanding hike. Bring sturdy shoes, layer your clothes, and pack rain gear. Take plenty of water and bring snacks for energy. This is an acclimatization hike–it is very high and oxygen is thin. If high altitudes bother you, please take appropriate precautions.