An adventurer’s journey to Ecuador provides reflection on risk in the time of the pandemic
It’s the heart of wintertime in western Wyoming, and the latest storm from the Pacific has brought with it cold, dry powder under light winds. The ski conditions in the nearby Tetons are the sort that drive me to continuously refresh my social media feeds, all the while gazing wistfully out through the window of my motel room in Jackson Hole. My skis, my roommates and the house where I normally live are just a couple minutes’ drive across town.
I’ve been in quarantine before; confined to a small room for a couple of weeks is nothing new these days. In the past, I’ve even felt that the isolation offered a welcome reprieve from the unyielding stress of the pandemic. That’s still true. By staying in this room and eliminating all contact with others, I’m allowed a break from worrying over whether I might catch or spread the ubiquitous disease. The difference this time, however, is that I’m locked in this room not due to known exposure or an abundance of caution, but because I’ve actually contracted COVID-19.
Incongruously, six weeks prior, I was thousands of miles from home, climbing and skiing giant, glaciated volcanoes along the Pacific Ring of Fire. After boarding a plane in the blowing snow and near zero-degree temperatures of December in Jackson Hole, some 15 hours later I was greeted by wet and warm, 65-degree weather upon disembarking in the high Andean foothills of Quito. Local Ecuadorian and IFMGA-certified mountain guide Gaspar Navarrete picked me up from the airport in his well-traveled Land Cruiser, and with masks on, we set out to a nearby hotel. I would stay in a private room until we could make our way into the mountains for a more desirable sort of social distancing.
Admittedly, the towering peaks of Ecuador were not my first choice of objectives for 2020. In truth, Ecuador was not even the second or third place I considered after the first pandemic-induced trip cancellation. After all, countries that lie directly on the equator are rarely chosen as ski destinations. But after expeditions to Alaska in spring and Nepal in autumn were scrapped due to COVID, I began to widen my search. Ecuador had both of the necessary components for a feasible, yet challenging, ski mountaineering adventure in modern times: high altitude glaciers and no quarantine on arrival, as long as I could supply a recent negative test result.
And oh, what an adventure it was. A stinging December sunburn on the first day’s short acclimatization hike from the front door of the hotel served as a quick reminder of how far from home I had come. At over 9,000 feet above sea level in Quito, the combination of altitude and the direct sunlight of the tropics left my forearms peeling until it was almost time to return home two weeks later. As if that wasn’t cue enough, the sprawling city blanketing the lush green forests and rolling hills was unlike anything I had seen before, a manmade organism growing endlessly out over the highlands. And looming above it all, punctuating the intermittent blue sky and gathering afternoon rain clouds, rose the occasional proud, snow-capped volcano. These distant behemoths dominated the surrounding landscape.
I quickly began to learn that Ecuador should have been higher on my never-ending list of travel destinations — the stunning scenery alone would have warranted a visit in safer times. But for all the beauty of the foothills, I had come in pursuit of thinner air and less forgiving terrain. After acclimatization hikes that took us up above 15,000 feet on lesser volcanoes Guagua Pichincha and Fuya Fuya, the latter affording stunning views of the Mojanda volcanic complex near Otavalo, we traded the highways of civilization for rocky roads that challenged even the reliable four-wheel drive of the Land Cruiser. On my sixth day in Ecuador, we set off beneath a starry sky through the bitter pre-dawn cold for the summit of Cayambe, which at 18,996 feet holds the only glaciers on Earth lying directly on the equator.
That morning was the beginning of a series of stellar summit day conditions that would persist for the duration of the trip. Alpenglow painted the landscape far below, as our small team took step after step up the glacier on Cayambe, the hulking mass of Antisana and conical symmetry of Cotopaxi illuminated in stark relief by the rising sun. Gazing back at the snow, ice and rock for thousands of feet beneath us, I reveled in the long, arduous process to reach such an incredible place — made all the more unattainable by the perils of the pandemic. I had spent months on end planning and training for expeditions that had ceased to exist just as quickly as the virus had swept the globe. As the sun grew ever higher in a clear blue sky devoid of wind, we skied directly off the summit, making careful turns above gaping crevasses. At long last, persistence had paid off.
The adventure continued, in much the same way that it had begun. Gaspar and I moved on to Antisana, and with no other tents in sight at the base of the mountain, we assailed the heavily crevassed West Face with only each other’s company and a rope between us. Never before had I skied snow bridges over such gaping chasms of ice and darkness, nor been greeted on a summit by such thunderheads, like roiling skyscrapers on the horizon, closing in from the direction of the Amazon jungle to the east. After racing to stay just out of reach of the wind, snow and rain on our ski descent, another day’s drive saw us to the foothills of Chimborazo, the country’s highest and perhaps most formidable peak.
The adventure continued, and underlying it all was a tight feeling in my gut that I simply could never shake off. Reaching the summit of Chimborazo with my skis was a dream come true; for an entire year I had pursued skiing from above 20,000 feet more passionately than any other goal I had set for myself. After racing across the short saddle to tag the true summit, we skied from the western summit at over 20,400 feet before the sun had any chance to destabilize the snowpack. Making turns in variable conditions on a 40-plus degree slope above no-fall exposure at extreme altitude, I was grinning from ear to ear. I had finally done what I’d set out to do so many months ago.
And yet, that feeling of internal tension remained, as it had since long before I set foot on the plane in Jackson Hole. Every time I put on my mask, got in a vehicle, entered an enclosed room or building with others or would so much as sneeze, I could feel the knots forming in my neck and shoulders from the stress that I could have prevented, but could no longer alleviate. Those of us who spend time in nature all experience moments in which we are graced with the serenity that so easily evades us amidst the pressing concerns of a modern life. This time, however, by traveling to a faraway place I had created the very demons I sought to escape in the remote wilderness of the mountains.
In truth, I felt that the risk of catching COVID once I had actually arrived in Ecuador was relatively low. I was impressed by the health screening at the international airport. We waited in a separate room on arrival while medical staff in full scrubs, masks and face shields took our temperatures. They asked us questions and checked dates on the negative test results we had brought. I continually marveled at the 100% rate of mask wearing in the streets, something I had never seen in the U.S., until Navarrete explained to me that the penalty for being caught mask-less was a $100 fine and that such measures were actually being enforced. On top of all that, I had come to spend my time out in the mountains, deliberately staying as far away from large groups of people as possible.
As my mother had pointed out when I called her to voice my self-inflicted anxiety, it wasn’t as though I was headed down there to go bar-hopping — something that actually goes on regularly in the tourism-fueled ski town where I live. And yet, none of my precautions or good intentions could completely eliminate the risk that I had brought COVID with me, undetected on my two pre-flight tests due to the incubation period. Neither my obsessive hand-washing nor myriad of other germaphobic tendencies could completely eliminate the risk that I would pick it up somewhere along the way, whether on the plane or on a rope team. Rationally, I knew before leaving that there was a chance I would spend the entire trip locked alone in a room in a foreign country, worrying over whether I had put anyone else’s life or livelihood at risk.
But it seemed plausible, even probable, that I could see this adventure through safely. And so I chose to follow through on the countless hours and the hard-earned dollars that I had invested in my personal goals, despite deep-seated reservations. And so, I returned to an internal dilemma that most adventurers become all too familiar with over the years: whether I could be successful at taking extreme care while doing an inherently high-risk activity. Only somehow, in this new reality, my focus on safely climbing and skiing huge avalanche slopes on high altitude, glaciated peaks had been overshadowed by the decision of whether or not to even go out the door.
A friend of mine pointed out recently that most of us can admit we’ve taken on additional risk from time to time during the pandemic in the name of our truest passions, our foremost priorities, our most committing pursuits. However, the case numbers clearly show that in the aggregate, those personal choices are extending the problem as a whole. As I languish in my motel room so close to home, I reflect on the fact that catching the virus was always a very real possibility, regardless of the care I took during my travels. I live and breathe for adventure skiing, and I’ll cherish my memories from Ecuador for a lifetime — but I cannot deny that each decision on the way to those summits was tainted by guilt and permeated by doubt.
I tested negative twice in the 10 days before departing for Ecuador, and three times in the week after I returned. I never had or spread COVID while I was there. Everyone I smiled at through my mask was exceedingly kind and friendly, and most seemed more enthusiastic about business in the tough times of the pandemic than they were concerned about my decision to travel. But the ends cannot so easily justify the means. As with an avalanche lurking in the backcountry, I can hold tightly to the story that I mitigated the problem with micromanagement. In reality, I was fortunate to skirt the dire consequences of all-time but ill-advised skiing.
IAIN KUO is a ski mountaineer and professional photographer based in Jackson Hole. He has climbed, skied, and photographed expeditions in places such as Patagonia, Nepal, Kyrgyzstan, and the Wind River Range of Wyoming. When not traveling or working behind the lens, Iain can be found exploring the wild landscape of the Teton Range and planning for the next adventure.