On Monday I reached my first summit, Volcano Corazón, 15,708 ft! It was a truly amazing experience and definitely the highlight of my time here in Ecuador. I made arrangements with an adventure tour company to have a guide accompany me on the hike. The company (Gulliver Tours) has a base camp surrounded by 7 volcanoes (only 2 are active, not including Corazón), where travelers stay and adjust to the elevation before their climb. I checked in around 8AM and was fitted with boots, a harness, helmet, and two liters of water to stay hydrated during the six hour hike.
Our ride to the base of the volcano was bumpy to say the least. There’s not really a road, just tracks in the dirt from farming tractors. Despite my safety belt, I was tossed around the back seat, we got stuck twice and the truck stalled out, but eventually we made it. During the first 2.5 hours of the hike we climbed the slopes. The landscape was beautiful; tall grasses, soft “cushion” plants, short trees and shrubs. Very quiet, and peaceful. We passed long channels cut in the mountainside by farmers to collect rainwater and snowmelt from greater elevations. The higher we climbed the greener the vegetation until we reached the rocky summit.
At the base of the summit I changed into my boots, and strapped on my helmet and harness. A rope attached me to my guide in case I slipped during the climb. The remainder of the ascent took one hour, we trudged up steep slopes of loose rock and climbed vertical walls until reaching the summit. The top of the mountain had an eerie feel. When we started that morning it was warm and sunny, around 70°F. At the summit we were engulfed by clouds, there was a light snow falling, temperatures <40°F; the brown rock and lack of sunlight gave the place and other worldly feel.
The descent took about 2.5 hours, much easier climbing down but I could feel the soreness in my legs begin before we even reached our ride. Climbing Volcano Corazón was a huge accomplishment for me. I’ll admit, I felt nervous that morning when I checked in and my adventure plans became real, I was scared at the base of the summit when I strapped on my harness and gazed up at the rock ahead of me. But I made it to the top, one foot in front of the other. Being afraid is just a part of life. You can choose to let fear define you, or you can climb mountains and let those types of experiences make you who you are.
Volcano Corazón during the ascent.
Cushion plants! These plants are common in the Andes and are known for holding a lot of water. They also feel wonderful to walk on after a long hike.
Taking a break during the ascent with a curious hawk in the background.
At the summit!
My guide Louis during the descent.
The base of Volcano Corazón is around 9,800 ft ascending to over 15,000 ft (for reference, the elevation in Ohio ranges from 500-1,500 ft). Throughout the trip I was lucky not to suffer from altitude sickness which can cause headache, dizziness, and nausea. Altitude sickness can occur when the body does not have enough time to adjust to changing oxygen saturation. Though I didn’t feel ill, my body was certainly affected by lack of oxygen. Climbing up a gradual slope at a slow pace felt like running a marathon! Towards the top of the summit I had to stop about every ten steps and take a deep breath before pushing forward.
At sea level (0 ft), all the air thousands of meters above pushes down creating pressure. At higher altitudes, there is less air pushing down, so less pressure. This pressure difference means that at low altitudes, one liter of air contains more molecules than the same volume of air at higher altitudes (Boyle’s law). Think of it this way, if you’re packing an overflowing suitcase you might sit on top to make it close – you’re using pressure to fit more clothes into your bag. If you don’t sit on that same suitcase, you will have to take some clothes out – without the added pressure you can’t fit as much into the same amount of space.
No matter the altitude, the proportion of different molecules in the air is the same; 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, and 1% argon and other gases. So, the proportion of oxygen molecules in one liter of air will be 21% at any altitude, but if you have less air molecules, as you do at higher altitudes, you will have less oxygen. At sea level, where atmospheric pressure is the greatest, oxygen saturation is close to 100%. At higher altitudes as pressure decreases, oxygen saturation decreases. In Ohio (500-1,500 ft), for example, oxygen saturation is >95%. At the base of Volcano Corazón (9,800 ft) oxygen saturation is 71% and at the summit (15,708 ft) only 57%.