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Last week, with the weather so cold in Calgary, I decided to write about a warmer climate and my 2007 trip to Ecuador. It’s still very cold in Calgary—at the moment minus 20, with a wind chill of minus 29. (That’s – 3 and – 20 Fahrenheit, respectively.) And so, back to Ecuador!

Cotopaxi Bike Trip

I think I’m hitting my stride and settling into Ecuador. This past weekend we did a trip with the Biking Dutchman—a business that has been running for 15 years here.
We met at 7 a.m. on Saturday outside the Magic Bean. They had two Land Rovers with bicycles loaded on top. The Americans (embassy and air force guys) were going for the day trip. We were in the truck with three young couples going for the whole weekend.
Day 1 of the trip was biking down Cotopaxi mountain. This is the beautiful snow-covered volcano we can see from Quito. Apparently, the thing has not blown up for a while, a hundred years or so. There are ways of telling when it might blow but someone said that the government does not like releasing info like that because it’s bad for the tourist business. When asked about the safety of the trail, our guide (who has a degree in ecotourism) told us that the main danger was the volcano. But hey, you might as well go out while you’re having fun. (I said that, not him.)

We are only biking down from the parking lot, not the top. The top is for mountain climbers, and you don’t go into the cone because of the fumes. Anyway, the parking lot is about 14,760 feet and I am feeling dizzy. Quito is about 9,350 feet so I have not acclimatized yet.
Our guide gives us our bikes. We’ve already got helmets. Some of the Americans have knee and elbow pads. They plan on whisking down. Our guide checks each bike, tells us how the gears work, how to hold on to the brakes, with just 2 fingers. It’s cold and windy up there. Soon the 16 of us are ready, and off we go.
Two of the girls decide against the trail right at the start because the volcanic soil is soft and slippery. I figure, we’ve travelled about three hours to get here, I might as well try.
The Americans disappear down the trail, but I take my time. And if I had known that squeezing brakes was so hard, I would have done some hand exercises before trying this. Yes, I know you are supposed to cruise down, but the ruts are quite deep, the trail is steep, and I have never done this before. My hands are soon tired and cramped, and I need to use all four fingers to brake. After about an hour and a half our guide tells me I have to ride down in the truck to the meeting point. I feel like a failure.
At the meeting point, the other driver is busy repairing bikes. One of the Americans blew a tire. Another popped a fender. Rolf broke a chain. After everything is repaired, we continue down the mountain.

Since it’s a flatter part, I try again. With one vehicle following me all the way, I make it to the lunch place. The guys cheer when I finally arrive and the two girls in the truck are proud of me. One of them says she doesn’t think her mother could have done this.
We have an excellent lunch and I figure out that food is one of the main attractions of mountain biking.


Cotopaxi as seen from the air

There are three other women on this trip, all in their twenties. Patricia (Switzerland) has been travelling about six months, is acclimatized and fit. She rides the whole way. Michelle (England) starts to ride after lunch, now that it is not so steep. But Chantal (England) decides to stay in the truck because she is having some stomach problems. Feeling more confident, I continue riding after lunch. I still have to keep stopping to flex my hands, because they’re cramping from all the braking. And then finally, I get to a part that has a hill.
I had been following Rolf and our guide, but at the hill, I need to get off and push the bike up. In Canada, I can do this—climb a steep hill, one step at a time. I know my legs are strong enough, but I’m breathing really fast. Step, step, step. By now, our guide has come back down the hill on his bike and is following me up. I tell him poco y poco (little by little) as I continue to walk the bike up, and breathe fast. I don’t want to stop. I want to get to the top. Step, step, step. I know I can do it.
But it turns out I can’t. I get to the top, stop walking, and stagger. Next thing I know, the guide is getting me to sit by the side of the road. He takes off my helmet and I flop down on my back, breathing very fast. I can’t get enough air—it feels like I’m breathing through a straw, and I’m wheezing. He makes me sit up. Then I hear Chantal’s voice.

The truck has been following me and she’s still with the truck. I hear her say ”inhaler” and I try to tell her I’m not asthmatic. A second later, I’m puffing on her inhaler, and I can actually feel the tubes in my lungs expand. Suddenly, I can breathe again. It’s a very strange sensation.

Our guide says, “altitude”. I sit there for a while and gradually my breathing gets more normal. Then I realize that I’m shaking, though I don’t feel cold.

The guide says no more biking for me today. I get in the truck, sitting in the front with the driver. The guide tells me to loosen my belt. He loosens my shoelaces. Somebody gives me something sweet and wraps me in a down jacket. My resting heart rate is 120.
I don’t remember much of the drive but a little later, the Biking Dutchman (who was on the mountain with another tour) stopped by to see how I was doing.
Finally, I stop shaking, even though I don’t remember feeling cold in the first place. I say to the driver “no necesito calor” and he turns off the heater. When we get down to the parking lot, the gung-ho Americans are packing up for the day. Rolf gives me a hug and says, “don’t worry, you’ll ride better tomorrow”. He doesn’t know I sort of fainted and I don’t have the breath to tell him.
On the drive to Quilotoa, our guide tells us they get all kinds of reactions to altitude. He keeps checking to see if I have a headache but I don’t. I’m just very tired.
And that was my bike trip down Cotopaxi.

Do you enjoy bicycling? How about mountain biking? Have you ever reacted to altitude?

snowflake from photos dot com