Relaxation therapy: The 2023 Yeti International gathering hits Ecuador.
Words and photos by Dan Milner
“Yeah, there are pumas here,” smiles Alejandro, one of our local bike guides, with the kind of relaxed, carefree manner that suggests he hasn’t seen the remains of a puma’s meal scattered among the brush at my feet. I stare at the shin bones —bleached white by high altitude sun and probably left from an antelope-like vicuna— and wonder how he can remain so calm when riding through a known apex predator’s home turf. But maybe that’s just the Ecuadorian way: keep it relaxed and easy going. Maybe in a country where day length remains constant no matter the month, and where seasons are almost non-existent, perhaps such constants and predictability lend themselves to just rolling with it.
Whatever the reason, I’m keen to get moving. Maybe that’s my up-tight Brit way, or maybe it’s because there’s nowhere to hide here, be it from a puma’s hungry gaze, or the chilly wind that’s cutting across this vast, open, wild volcanic landscape and drilling through my jersey. It’s time to move.
We pedal out across an undulating plateau towards a freeride drop into a lumpy sea of bedrock —a geological pumptrack offering a million line choices but only a handful of clean exits: the kind of consequential terrain that makes you thankful to be tailing a local. Jose, the other half of the local guide duo, leads the charge, and behind him wiggles train of Yeti riders threading between the boulders like an enormous colourful snake slithering across a desert slab. When our wheels roll from bedrock to dirt the start-gun is fired and we’re left sprinting away from the Moab-like outcrop to carve fast silty turns along a long serpentine singletrack. “It’s called the ice merchant trail,” explains Alejandro pulling up to mercifully allow the rest of us to catch our breath, about the 15-mile long singletrack descent we’re railing on the flanks of Ecuador’s highest peak, the 20,547 ft Chimborazo volcano “They used to carry ice from the glacier high on the volcano down to the village, to make ice cream,” he explains about the source of trail name. “Actually there is one guy from the village that still does that.”
"They used to carry ice from the glacier high on the volcano down to the village, to make ice cream, Actually there is one guy from the village that still does that.”
It's a heck of a trek to reach the glacier and while I marvel at this show of resourcefulness in the face of adversity, I’m left wondering how badly anyone can want gelato? A lot it seems. After all we’ve dropped in at over 13,500 feet elevation, and despite being way below the hieleros’ ice-pick wielding antics merely the act of breathing is hard work, as I’m reminded by the short, punchy climbs that dot this 2600 ft descent. As I wheeze my way up them, it dawns on me that rarely has a descent felt so hard-earned.
We continue onwards through a Yosemite landscape framed by tormented trees, and across a canvas of green pastures that plunge impossibly steeply into seemingly bottomless valleys. By the time we spiral down the ice merchant’s final twists and turns, we’re chased by rumbling thunder that injects a sense of urgency to the group’s pace. The dust has long gone and the grippy, black dirt under-tire soon disappears too as we’re doused by a heavy downpour. The torrent of muddy water that floods down the last mile or so of narrow singletrack adds a little extra spice to its steep, tight switchbacks, but despite the trail slop and the chafe of wet knee pads, when we’re spat out on to the fireroad below I see only wide, mud-splattered grins around me: it’s the kind of shared moment that makes the gatherings so special. “I actually kinda prefer riding in the wet,” says Frank, a seasoned Yeti gathering veteran, as we freewheel down the road, unaware of what will greet us before the trip is done.
The five-mile undulating road grind that caps the day dilutes the grins, but the cooler of beers waiting on our hotel courtyard re-ignites them. With nothing left in my tank despite today’s ride being mostly descent, the cooler can’t come soon enough. Supping on a cold one, I gaze at eighteen mud-licked Yetis and randomly shed muddy clothes that now adorn the courtyard, each trickling and dripping a little of Chimborazo’s flavors into the dirt below while their owners swig beers though grimy smiles. I note that no-one asks for gelato.
“The bus isn’t 4-wheel drive, but Victor is!”
“The bus isn’t 4-wheel drive, but Victor is!” laughs Jose next morning about the apparent off-road ambitions of our bus driver, as I’m almost bounced out of my seat. The bus has already proven its ability, hauling its increasingly grubby but happy occupants first north of Quito to carve a couple of days of remote descents through dense, verdant cloud forest and traverse lunar-like, cactus spiked desert landscapes, before circling south to deliver us to the foot of the ice-shrouded 19,347 ft high behemoth that is the Cotopaxi volcano. Now, the same bus is lurching up a steep, rutted dirt road towards the volcano’s climbing refuge. In truth our success in reaching the turning circle below the hut is more down to Victor’s skill at the wheel than unbridled ambition but still I watch him fix each obstacle in the track ahead with a determined stare beamed out from below his wide brimmed hat, before manoeuvring the wildly pitching bus, topped as always by a rack of bikes and filled with banter, around, over and occasionally through countless improbable-looking challenges.
Whatever Victor’s driving skills, I’m always glad when it’s time to exit the bus and grab my SB135; to swap trust in another’s throttle-control for self-determination. Here I do so at over 15,000 ft on a wind-swept, barren slope among swirling mist. Occasionally glimpses of Cotopaxi’s vast, towering walls of ash-blanketed ice punch through the cloud, while an ominous lick of smoke trails up from Cotopaxi’s crater high above —a reminder that the live volcano’s latest angry growl began only a month earlier. “This way,” says Jorge, pointing to a dark line etched into the grey volcanic dirt that seems to dive right off the mountainside. The blind roll-over hurls us into a steep, loose scree slope. It’s a surface that demands to be ridden weight forward and no front brake, along with a side-to-side swaying of booty to carve the rear wheel into the grit; a cross between powder skiing and twerking that could land a million Tik-Tok likes. Far below us, just beyond our helmet visors, a vast volcanic wash spreads across the plateau and spills towards the horizon, splotched with color like a rumpled tablecloth after a kid’s birthday party.
With Victor on hand, we lap another trail that winds between vast pyroclastic boulders the size of cars, before threading through a slot canyon. Back on the fireroad the group splits into those hungry for one more lap, and those seizing on the excuse to don sheepskin chaps under the guise of a horseback ride through this magical landscape. We’re all reunited post rides at El Porvenir —a 1000-acre working hacienda worked by rough, tough Ecuadorian cowboys or chagras. Located on the fringe of the Cotopaxi National Park, the farmstead is our base for three nights and aside from its convenient access to Cotopaxi’s trails El Porvenir is billed as offering ‘a taste of Chagra life’; though if returning to your room to find a wood stove already ablaze and hot water bottles warming your bed are part of the Ecuadorian cowboy lifestyle, then hand me a lasso.
I start the next day as has now become custom; by emptying volcanic grit from my bike shoes, before jumping aboard our bus for a jaunt down the Pan-American highway past countless roadside grills, welding shops and fields of green broccoli, before turning west towards Quilotoa, a spectacular crater lake. The long drive is quickly forgotten as we flow along an undulating singletrack that threads along the crater rim and my focus is torn between the demands of the narrow, often exposed trail ahead and soaking up the view across the 2-mile-wide emerald lake, lapping some 1000 feet below. Swirling mist adds to the exoticism, and when a rider’s mechanical halts the group the mist luckily parts long enough to reveal a small, thatched tea shop just ahead. At over ten thousand feet elevation we need little encouragement to seek shelter and just a couple of minutes later we’re sitting around a wood fire supping coca tea served piping hot by the smiling Maria. She hikes up from her village an hour away to sell tea to passing trekkers I learn.
Our daily rides aren’t long by anyone’s standards, but the sensory overload that tunnels them from all sides adds to their intensity. We roll through banana and sugar cane plantations, past herders leading ribbon-decorated llamas, marvel at hummingbirds and monkeys above our heads, to plunge post-ride in cool rivers or hot pools. And each climb, invariably thrown at us at lung-crushing elevations, makes every descent feel well-earned. It's a week that seems to build momentum towards a grand finale of rewards: the Mama Rumi trail: 3500 vertical feet of singletrack descent that demands hardly a pedal stroke along the way.
But Frank should have been careful what he wished for.
On our last day of riding, we unload bikes onto an open mountainside radiating equatorial warmth and enthusiastically chase Jose into a 20 ft deep, narrow slot of dirt that lies like a crease in the hillside. Within moments we realise the storm that soaked us towards the end of the ice-merchant descent a day earlier laid siege to this trail too, and shaded by thick jungle overhead has rendered anticipated hero dirt into anti-grip. Front tyres slip and slide as we tumble down the slick red clay and try in vain to retain any sense of control.
We’re unaware that further down the trail —perhaps four or so miles in— the jungle overhead will thin to allow the sun to penetrate, and the dirt to become tacky. Then we’ll recover composure and find glory and flow, and when we ride out the trail exit we’ll brandish smiles along with an equal sense of achievement and survival, begging for another lap. But until then we have a slick monster to tame. Finally, here on an Ecuador mountainside lost in the chaos of a slippery gorge, I finally find a place to apply a little of Alejandro’s Ecuadorian relaxed, easy-going attitude: just go with it, I say to myself, and let go of my front brake.
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