Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Route Profile: El Altar, Ecuador

The hardest high altitude technical climbing in Ecuador is found on the flanks of El Altar–a breathtaking massif in the Eastern Cordillera located 170 km south of Quito. The massif consists of nine 5,000 meter peaks, which form a 3 km wide semicircular ridge around the basin lake at their center, known as Laguna Amarilla. Spanish explorers looking up at the peaks saw religious figures standing around an altar–the large hanging glacier below–from which the formation takes its name.

The full cirque of El Altar seen from the valley below.  David Torres Costales.

Inca legends tell us that the mountain, which is known as Kapak Urku (sublime mountain) in Quechuan, collapsed in 1460 but once stood higher than Chimborazo. Today, the mountain’s highest peak is Obispo, at 5,320 m (17,451 ft), which stands at the Southern end of the crater and makes it the fifth highest in Ecuador. Proceeding counterclockwise around the cirque from Obispo, the peaks are: Monja Grande (5,160 m/16,929 ft), Monja Chica (5,080 m/16,667 ft), Tabernácula (5,180 m/16,995 ft), Fraile Oriental (5,060 m/16,601 ft), Fraile Beato (5,050 m/16,568 ft), Fraile Central (5,070 m/16,634 ft), Fraile Grande (5,180 m/16,995 ft), and Canónigo (5,260 m/17,257 ft).

Cerro Canónigo, Fraile Grande, Fraile Central and Fraile Beato sit high over Laguna Amarillo.
Marvin Hirth. 
El Obispo is the most popular of the peaks, both because it is the highest and the most accessible; it is our main objective on expeditions to El Altar. The first portion of our expedition is spent acclimatizing while exploring the colonial city of Quito and visiting a major regional market. The active climbing begins with a scramble Guagua Pichincha (4,791 m/15,720 ft), followed by a classic glacial route on Illiniza Sur (5,251 m/17,227 ft). After a day’s rest at a nearby hacienda, we travel south and begin the approach to the mountain.

A local lady sells yarn and softgoods at the Otavalo market.
Dylan Taylor

The colonial Hacienda Guachalá sits an hour from Quito.
Dylan Taylor
On our way to El Altar, we will pass through the city of Riobamba to the village of Cubijies, from whence we will travel by truck to Vaqueria Inguisay. Using pack animals, we then will move up the Rio Paila Caja and Rio Tiaco Chico to the base of the mountain before climbing onto the Cordillera de Mandur, and follow this ridge which leads us to the base of the massive walls and hanging glaciers of the inner cirque. Having established our base camp at 4600 m, we will climb out of the basin to the glaciers at its perimeter, and there choose our climbing objectives according to the condition of the routes and ambitions of the climbers.

A climbing team works their way up a slope on their way to the summit.
Richard Riquelme.

A climber on 60 degree ice, heading for the summit ridge.
Mike Powers.
An ascent of Obispo will be our main objective on this climb. The regular (“Italian”) route provides excellent high angle rock and ice climbing when in condition. This route involves gaining and crossing the lower glacier before ascending a steep ice gully to the summit ridge, where climbers will encounter 5th class rock on the way to the summit. If the lower portion of this route is out of shape, two other routes may afford us a good shot at the summit. Even if El Obispo is not climbable at the time of the expedition, some of the other peaks have seen only a handful of summit attempts, and possibilities exist for first ascents and the establishment of new routes.

Cerro Obispo sits high and proud at the end of the cirque.  Marvin Hirth.
Taken as a whole, El Altar is a challenging and spectacular climbing objective as well as one of the most ‘exotic’ spots in the Andes.  If the idea of a trip like this interests you, contact us to learn more or to join an expedition!

Casey O'Brien
American Southwest and Foreign Programs Coordinator

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