Romancing the Avenue of the Volcanoes


How I learned to stop worrying and love diacritics


“Kevin, it is NOT pronounced “anos” it is “años!”  Our Spanish tutor, let’s call him Freddy, barked this at me during one of our lessons.  He seemed, well, a bit panicky.  My wife, however, was simply amused.  We were in the midst of spending a month in Ecuador and were trying to improve our Spanish.  In an effort to keep things simple, I decided on my own to ignore those little squiggly things that other languages like to throw on top of their words.  Officially, these squiggles are referred to as “diacritics”.  Freddy did not like my approach.  Apparently, when I had said in Spanish to Freddy, quite innocently I might add, “Tengo 62 anos”, instead of saying that I was 62 years old, I had indicated that I possessed some rather unique anatomical characteristics.  Since this is primarily a family oriented blog, I will not provide a translation.

This all started with the desire to escape a northern Wisconsin winter, at least for a little while.  We had heard many good things about Ecuador, so it seemed like a reasonable destination.  Loyal readers of this blog, knowing of my difficulties with foreign languages, might think differently.  Of course I had an ulterior motive for agreeing to an extended visit to Ecuador and that was volcanoes – Ecuador has a lot of them and I desperately wanted to try climbing some.  The Pan American highway, which goes down the spine of Ecuador’s high Sierras, passes directly through what is called the “Avenue of the Volcanos”.  I gently raised the possibility with my wife of taking some days on my own to go climb.  I don’t know why, but she said yes.  Truth be told, she is used to these sorts of maneuvers on my part.  For example, a few years ago we went to Spain for our 25th wedding anniversary and I proposed a side trip to the Spanish Sierra Nevadas to climb Mulhacen – the high point on the Iberian Peninsula.  She agreed, god bless her.  Some of you might wonder what is wrong with her (or me).  But, I assert that I am capable of exercising restraint.  For example, on our honeymoon in Mexico I did not suggest that I take a few days off to climb Orizaba (I waited a few years before proposing that).

Anyway, Ecuador is a fantastic country. The weather in Cuenca, where we based ourselves, is great.  The city’s architecture is gorgeous, it is safe and the food is wonderful and inexpensive.    My main problem was that Cuenca is about an 8 hour bus ride on the Pan American highway from Machachi where I’d be based for my climbs and my wife said that she was going to stay and enjoy the sights in Cuenca and not come along as my babysitter, err, I mean, interpreter.  Hence, my interest in Spanish lessons.

I was sent on my way one Friday morning shortly after the above “fun with diacritics” lesson.  My wife stated that she was very confident in my ability to survive the trip.  I think she was delusional.  But, other than needing to hold my bladder for an extraordinarily long time, I managed to make it to Machachi without creating any language-based international incidents.  My seatmate was a very nice Latina who, I think, was concerned about me – I was the only gringo on the bus and my Spanish was clearly very limited.  She politely asked me some questions, probably to assess how much help I needed to avoid getting completely lost. But, honestly, I had no frikkin’ idea what these questions were.  So, I relied on advice that my graduate student adviser had given me many years ago before I made my first scientific presentation – “If someone asks you a question to which you don’t have the answer, just provide the correct answer to a different question”.  So, I rolled out a few of my canned Spanish conversational items and it seemed to quiet her, although I suspect that it probably increased her anxiety about my welfare.

Anyway, I made it to my B&B in Machachi.  The next morning I came down for breakfast, which included scrambled eggs, but there was no pepper on the table.  I saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate my command of Spanish.  Again, loyal readers of this blog will wonder, not for the first time, what is wrong with me.  Nevertheless, in my most authentic accent, I spat out “Habla pimienta?”  She paused with a perplexed look on her face and then after a moment said simply “no”.  I was surprised – I thought that most households in Ecuador would have pepper.  When I got back to my room I had one of those moments which, if this wasn’t a family oriented blog, I would describe as an “oh shit” moment.  I realized that I had asked her if she “spoke pepper”.  Thoroughly mortified, I thanked the lord for having secured the services of a bilingual guide for the actual climbs.

The next day we headed for our first climbing objective – a volcano called Rumiñaui (15,500 ft).  A major claim to fame is that at the summit, you are supposed to have spectacular views of some of its sister volcanoes including Corizòn, Illiniza Norte, Illiniza Sud, and Cotopaxi.  It was a fun climb.  About 100 ft below the top, the scree slope ends and you have a boulder scramble to the actual summit.  Unfortunately, the summit photo shows me in complete white-out conditions.  One has no idea that I’m standing in the middle of Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes.

Undeterred, the next day we headed out to our second objective – Illiniza Norte.  At 16,800 ft, the summit of Illiniza Norte is a bit higher than Rumiñaui’s and it is a more difficult climb with about 4,000 vertical feet of elevation gain to the summit.

(If you are my wife, please skip to the following paragraph).  Illiniza Norte is also a little more treacherous.  Apparently, a few unprepared climbers have perished in the past several years while attempting the summit.  Ecuador’s government, thinking this might be bad publicity, now requires all climbers to use guides.  Even though this was described as a Class 3 scramble, I was asked to wear a helmet and use a climbing harness.  I was very curious what the top was like to warrant this additional gear.  For the last 800 ft or so, the climb transformed into an extended series of scrambles as we followed the ridge line to the summit . Close to the top, the “exposure” got a little more extreme.  In mountaineering terms this means that if you don’t like heights, this might loosen your bowels.  In addition, there is a final feature that someone named the “Paso de la Muerte” – a traverse with more than a bit of exposure while on a path about a foot wide.  Now, I ask you, why would you want to name part of any climbing route the “Step of Death”?  In any case, I made it to the summit.  Again, spectacular views of Illiniza Norte’s cousin volcanos were promised.  Again, the summit photo shows me sitting on the summit with a very nice white background extending in every direction.

The next morning I got up, had breakfast and then went back through town to catch the bus to Cuenca.  The whole time I was in Machachi I thought that calling this area the “Avenue of the Volcanos” was pretty much blatant false advertising.  But that morning the sky was crystal clear and I could see that Machachi was literally surrounded by volcanos – the Illinizas, El Corazòn, Cotopaxi and others – truly spectacular.

Not to worry, soon after I got on the bus, the clouds moved in and I spent the next 8 hours in the mist as we returned to Cuenca.  Oh, and did I mention that I didn’t ask for pepper on my scrambled eggs again while in Ecuador?


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