The Life of a Mountain Dog: El Altar

Standing in the middle of the desolate mountain road, on one of the endless yellow center stripes, with huge grassy mountains on either side, a longing face stared at me in the side view mirror of the dump truck. My heart sank watching the face fade into the distance. My feet were relieved to be off of the steep decline, and my sweat cooled as we pulled off and the wind blew onto my forehead.

“Where are you from?” The driver asked.
While staring in the mirror I said “The United States. Can you believe that dog hiked the mountain with me and stayed with me for days?”
“Buen Perro.” Was his only response.”

My alarm sounded at 5:00AM, but I couldn’t get moving into the dark, cool, pre-sun air. After contemplating why I was waking up so early and dozing into light dreams, I was packed and out the door at 7:45AM. Down the driveway with a herd of dogs in tail, I told them to stay, opened the padlocked driveway gate, took the keys Napo had entrusted me with and began walking up a paved mountain road. The temperature was cool, my poncho was warm, and my backpack was heavy. A crumbling stone rock face was on my left and to my right the river ran strong. A couple of miles and a couple thousand vertical feet into the walk to the trailhead, a cool sweat doused my undershirt. I began evaluating my decision to have a 20 mile day with thousands more feet of elevation change and over 50 pounds on my back. At first I was hesitant, but as a milk truck approached I hitched a ride. The driver, wearing a shiny woven cowboy hat and a thick black mustache, greeted me at the back of the open bed truck. I climbed in, the door shut behind me, and I continued to stand the remainder of the 12 miles along the beautiful road. I laughed and got goosebumps as I thought about what getting that unexpected free ride reminded me of. The feeling was of non-rejection. The similar feeling received when asking someone on a date and them saying yes. The ride was beautiful, and we flew along the road for 30 minutes to a point near the trailhead.

When we stopped, I watched the driver run around the side of the truck to let me out. There was a sign up to the right that said hacienda de leche (Milk ranch). The driver told me, as predicted, “just walk straight.” As I walked passed the ranger station to the left, a young brown dog was whining, barking,wagging her tail, and jumping into the fence. In Spanish I asked if she wanted to come with, and with a pat on the leg and a “vamos!” she came running. The winding road up the mountain lasted a couple of miles through farms, and dump trucks were consistently passing every few minutes. It wasn’t the most pleasant start to a hike, but I kept walking. My new friend walked cautiously behind me and cowered closer every time one of the massive trucks roared passed. When we reached the end of the road, I understood what all the dump trucks were for: the road was being extended and the dirt hauled out. I yelled to a construction worker asking which way, and he pointed up a muddy track on a grassy hillside. With my energetic dog walking under my feet, except when she would sprint ahead and bark at me to hurry up, I trekked up into the mud and sun.

The ascent lasted for hours as I avoided sinking into shin deep mud and tripping over the endless rotting branches. I wasn’t always successful, and the weight of my pack started to take hold. There was no view, my toes hurt, and the trail was a consistent slog for hours. After a quick water break, I turned a corner while traversing a series of mountains to see El Altar in the distance. It was beautiful, and I shouted “there it finally is!” With my goal in sight, and a more gradual up and down trail, the energy of the hike completely changed. Streams, higher altitude plants, and rock joined the still majority mud trail. When I thought I had everything managed, the sky darkened and a quick high mountain rainstorm began to make things more interesting.




Traversing all the way around another series of mountains, a huge valley opened up around a final turn before making a descent down to a refuge. Wild horses ran on the other side of the valley walls, and multiple white structures of the refuge were straight ahead, above the valley, but far below the base of the volcanic peaks. With the size and condition of the refuge, I was surprised to find no one there. I sat on the ground in front of one of the buildings as the sun came back out, split a Larabar with my dog, and we both fell asleep. I don’t know who was more tired, the dog or me. For the second time in two days I fell asleep in the grass. This one was a quick thirty minute nap. The first part of the trek zapped my energy, but I knew that another two and a half to three hours hiking would lead me to an amazing view of the lake.

My phone read 2:45pm and to avoid hiking at night we had to get moving. The hiking post refuge was what I had expected out of the whole trail and was pleasant, but there were challenging sections. The map seemed to show several different routes, and I decide to stay to the left of a river running down the valley to avoid crossing it. At first, I tried to keep high ground since the lake was close to another thousand feet up, but the ground was soaked. Moving up and down and from rock to rock to try and find solid footing, I ran into a heard of wild horses with massively overgrown hooves. After a zig-zagging wet route, I found a route that led up a rock face towards the lake.






My hiking angle kept increasing, and the sun beat down strongly. When I took a break, the dog immediately laid down and went to sleep. I knew if my mountain dog was tired I was pushing it. I kept walking up until the trail disappeared into bare rock. At about a 70 degree angle, but with plenty of hand holds, I climbed what I knew was the final ascent with my pack. When I reached the top it felt amazing to walk and not climb. Through a Kenwood forest (some of the highest growing trees in the world), the last of the days sun lit the crater lake an emerald green. It was one of the prettiest places I have seen. The snow capped peaks surrounded the lake on three sides, and a waterfall from a melting glacier on the far side filled the air with a calm steady rush of water. To my back, a giant valley with rivers and streams opened up into mountains as far as the eye could see.

Although the views were incredible, there was something lacking. I was having a hard time finding any flat non-rocky ground to set up my tent. A tired search led me to a spot that was the best it would get. I quickly set everything up and started cooking quinoa before settling into my magnificent site. With no people, my sleeping dog, and grandiose mountains, I sat watching the sun and clouds change in the sky from day, to dusk, to night. Dinner was a can of tuna, tomato paste, and quinoa. The dog ate more than I did, and I quickly found my way into the tent as the temperatures plummeted at close to 14,500 feet. The moon was huge in the sky, this was the night before the super moon in February, but I had to seal everything up to stay warm. I thought about bringing the dog in, but figured a flea infestation in my gear was a high cost. The dog seemed plenty comfortable and happy sleeping where she was, and I consistently checked on her through the night. It felt like a while since I fell asleep to the sounds of nature, and tonight I slowly drifted off as the winds picked up and my tent flapped in the wind.






Before the sun rose, I peaked out of my tent door at the sky and lake which were clearly lit by the massive moon. Everything was frozen. I opened the other tent door to check on my dog. She went wild when I opened the rainfly, but laid back down while I watched the moon disappear and the sun rise over the next 45 minutes. Before beginning to pack, I let the sun completely come over the mountains and thaw everything. After the dog and I split a banana and another Larabar, we began the hike down in perfect weather. I was sad to leave, but didn’t want to push my luck on the weather having had a perfect day. The hike down was beautiful as the valley floor and rivers came closer. Right when I hit the valley floor and lifted my head, I came face to face with a massive buck. The dog went wild chasing it away, but I managed to catch a picture of him in full stride gliding easily up the mountain side that took me hours to ascend the previous day.





We stopped back at the Refugio where I made some pasta and tomato sauce. Of course I gave most of it to the dog. While eating, a French man hiked up and we chatted for a while. He was the only person I had seen, or would see, for two days. We were on the same traveling track and exchanged numbers to do some future Ecuadorian hikes together. Hiking alone is exhilarating and a great way to reflect, but having a partner is always preferred for safety and company.

Navigating back was easier than the route out, and for a brief period of time Chimborazo Volcano, the highest peak in Ecuador, showed her massive form in front of me. I hadn’t seen it the day before, but this morning she stood commandingly above everything around.



The hike back took about five hours in total to the trailhead, and the dog stayed with me the whole way. Relieved to be finishing the hike, I wasn’t ready for the goodbye I’d have to make. She put her head in my lap and I said, “If I wasn’t going by bus, and knew where I was headed, I’d take you with. I’ll miss you pup.” A loud roar came to a halt with the screech of brakes. One of the Mack Dump Trucks pulled over right as I finished talking to offer me a ride. With one final pat I climbed up and took a seat.


Standing in the middle of the desolate mountain road, on one of the endless yellow center stripes, with huge grassy mountains on either side a longing face stared at me in the side view mirror of the dump truck. My heart sank watching the face fade into the distance. My feet were relieved to be off of the steep decline, and my sweat cooled as we pulled off and the wind blew onto my forehead.

“Where are you from?” The driver asked.
While staring in the mirror I said “The United States. Can you believe that dog hiked the mountain with me and stayed with me for days?”
“Buen Perro.” Was his only response.”

The ride back to town was quick, and when I got back I went straight to the Merced market to get a traditional meal of potato patties, chorizo, egg, salad, and avocado. Back at Napos we went through pictures from the hike, talked, and I told him that I started the hike alone, but made a friend. I had a dream about my dog that night. In the dream she was sitting at the trailhead looking left and right with her ears up listening. She was listening for a pair of boots and heavy breathing coming up the road. A mountain dog waiting to meet a new friend and embark on her next adventure.


Comments

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

1 Month in Peru

Still at it in Peru- the jungle, mountain top lakes, Lima, and the North

The Towers of Patagonia: Torres del Paine