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With ski season wrapped up and the sun shining in Lake Tahoe, it was hard to imagine packing my bags to go climb volcanoes in Ecuador. I started off with a meticulous packing list and got to work getting gear in order, doctors visits, and a list of things that I might need like Diamox. What is Diamox? I had never heard of this drug, probably because I have never been to altitude. My ski career, up until this point, has been shaped around finding the perfect snow conditions to ski aesthetic lines in big mountains, but not quite as big of mountains as we would be stepping foot on South of the equator in Ecuador.

As my career has evolved, my passion for the mountains has too. From racing to competing in the X Games to filming for the likes of Matchstick Productions and Warren Miller, all of my experience in the mountains has culminated into a new found passion for hiking up and skiing down. While I’ve loved the occasional heli bump to the top, getting their on my own two feet has always made me appreciate that run more. If I’m not out filming, you’ll likely find me hiking in the mountains with my friends. A means to stay fit and to continue to gain essential experience in the mountains, hiking has quickly become my favorite way to access terrain.

When I was approached about this opportunity to hike and ski volcanoes at altitude I wanted in, no questions asked. With an open mind ready and eager to learn, I checked my luggage in at the Reno Tahoe International Airport, and off we went.

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We landed in Quito, the world’s highest capital city, and started acclimatizing upon stepping off the plane. We explored the city, got a solid taste of culture, and hiked a couple of nearby peaks. Our first acclimatization peak, Rucu Pichincha, sits above the city of Quito with expansive views. It’s elevation is 15,400 ft. The summit of Rucu Pichincha became a new high point for me. Which I celebrated by eating a butter biscuit Ritter Sport. From this time on, every time I hit a new high point, I was rewarded with a Ritter Sport. Ritter Sports have been a traditional reward after doing something awesome and because high points are awesome, Ritter Sports were the reward.

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After hiking in the high country, we had one night in this remarkable hotel that had been built 400 years ago. Complete with a traditional Ecuadorian band and horseback riding, this trip was starting to feel like the best vacation I have ever had. In the morning, we organized gear and set off to the hut at the base of Cayambe. Cayambe is the third highest mountain in Ecuador at 18,996 ft. Our goal was to use Cayambe as a warm up peak for Cotopaxi. It would give us an opportunity to dial in our gear and work on technique. Driving up to Cayambe presented us with our first challenge. After rain poured over the mountains, the road was covered in deep mud. Our caravan of trucks loaded with gear battled upward and onward to reach the hut.

The rain and the wind continued as we settled in. It wasn’t looking likely that we would make it to the summit, let alone step outside much farther than within eyesight of the hut, but we took advantage of our down time practicing crevasse rescue and rope skills which you really can never practice enough. After a day spent inside, it was time to get out in the elements and see for ourselves what we were up against. 100 kilometer winds had us backing down relatively quickly. It was good to get a taste of climbing at altitude and for me, totally necessary to start to get used to the gear.

After a windy stint at the hut, we ventured back down to lower elevations with high hopes for better weather in the upcoming days. We spent a day at some hot springs and explored the surrounding rainforest environment while drying out our gear in preparation for another summit attempt.

Heading back to Cayambe the second time we were greeted by patches of sun shining through the clouds and a small glimpse of what might have been the summit. Once we made it to the hut the wind started to pick up once again, but it didn’t deter us. We slept for a few hours and geared up for our summit attempt. Walking out the door just past midnight, the winds seemed manageable. We roped up and set out under the stars. We crested the first ridge and the winds hit. After climbing for a couple more hours, I hit a new high point at 17,300 ft, which would later be celebrated by eating a delicious butter biscuit Ritter Sport.

For a moment, the sun started to shine through the dense cloud layer and the winds calmed. It was a nice break from the chaotic noise, but it didn’t last long. We were engulfed in clouds as we approached the end of the glacier and the wind, that damned wind, was back with fury. Our team regrouped in the white out and ultimately decided that the combination of the weather and the low visibility were not in our favor. With terrible snow conditions, it seemed almost silly to click into our skis, but it also seemed totally awesome at the same time. So after the glaciated terrain mellowed out, we saddled up and skied the rest of the way down. It was icy, windy, and rocky, yet I had the biggest smile on my face just to be skiing. I’ve never regretted a day of skiing and I was beyond fired up to be cruising down this massive mountain on skis!

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We had a backup plan if we didn’t reach the summit and that quickly came into action. Without a wasted moment, we packed up and hopped in the trucks heading straight to Cotopaxi. A few hours later, we arrived at a beautiful hostel with massive picture windows that begged you to gape at Cotopaxi. There she stood with a magnificent rainbow in all her glory taunting us to come climb. Again though, the mountain only showed herself for a brief moment and we went to bed early with another alpine start ahead of us. Gear barely dry, we pulled ourselves out of bed at midnight once again, this time to climb Cotopaxi.

There was much debate regarding the decision to bring skis or not to bring skis. At first thought, I was convinced that the skiing wouldn’t be great and that we would be better off climbing without wind sails attached to our backpacks on the way up. On second thought, I said, what the heck, might as well take ‘em up there. I was feeling the double alpine star, but started to feel it once we hit snow. We climbed with great conditions for the first three quarters of the climb until, yep, the wind started to howl. As we got closer and closer to the top, it continued to pick up. Gusts would knock you over if you didn’t have your balance and the rime started to form all over our bodies. We were within 100 meters of the summit and on all fours, every muscle in our bodies flexed, just clawing our way up the mountain when we ultimately had to make the decision whether to continue or spin.

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Personally, I had never been in wind so strong in the mountains. It was powerful and humbling. We decided to spin, as a group, all five of us. A team of three and a team of two, nearly within eyesight of the summit, decided to turn around and head down back through the wind tunnel, back down the mountain to where we had come from. It was a quick decision and we made it as a team. Ultimately, it was a totally rad experience to make that decision and stick with it no qualms or regrets amongst us. Purely an attitude of stoke and gratefulness for how far we had come together and the epic adventure ahead of us to get off the mountain. Oh yeah, and we had hit 19,000 ft, a new high point, so a Ritter Sport awaited me!

We turned around, covered in 25 extra pounds of ice, white hair from frost, and steady legs. At least I was thinking at the time to have steady legs. Stay balanced and keep moving was my mantra. I had a moment on the walk down of pushing through. It was a moment of clarity and one of those times when you push through after a little personal pep talk. For those minutes in the wind up high on Cotopaxi we were experiencing Type 2 Fun, but it only lasted a moment before we were back on track with Type 1 Fun. We reached the dirt and sat down for a quick snack before descending all the way. I rejoiced with my chocolate treat, drank some water, and we continued on laughing once again and joking about us not summiting…anything.

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I went to Ecuador with no expectations and left Ecuador with some incredible new friends bonded by the common thread of a love for the mountains, for suffering, and for good times. I learned a ton, I experience high altitude climbing, just a taste of it, for the first time, and I am home now dreaming about going back to Cayambe and Cotopaxi once again. Dreaming about climbing mountains and making it to the top to click into my bindings and rip down. Until next time, Ecuador. I’ll be back. Not to conquer your mountains, but to enjoy the most amazing country that I have ever been to. I’ll climb and play on your volcanoes and hopefully see more mountains than clouds and hear more silence than wind.

-words and photos by Michelle Parker