The experience of solo hiking in the Caja’s range of the Andes has cost more than one adventurer their lives. Several months ago, according to CuencaHighLife and local newspapers, an experienced hiker in his mid-sixties went missing while hiking there. The man was a native of Ecuador and had hiked for many years in the mountains. After numerous searches, attempts to recover the man’s remains were unsuccessful and further efforts were abandoned. And, that wasn’t the first time this has happened. It certainly will not be the last.
Why do they go up alone? What’s the risk/reward? Is this dangerous?
One of my most memorable and significant experiences since I have lived in Ecuador was the opportunity for me to show, via my photography and an Exposition in the City Museum, the beauty but also the remoteness of the area of the Southern Cajas. Many of the people who viewed my photographs expressed to me that they had no idea that any of these vistas even existed. Naturally, many of the viewers then wished to see them for themselves. Let’s look at why some people wish to see these same sights, what the dangers are that might exist in such an endeavor, and what precautions and preparations might be taken to make the trip one filled with great memories rather than regrets.
I rarely see humans in the places I hike into and for me, that’s part of the point of going exploring. Solitude in vast spaces has multiple benefits. One I suggest you receive is a physical and mental concept of space and the lack of your overall importance as a person in the realm of it all. My repeating column here is called “Photographs and Perspectives.” There’s lens perspective and then there’s life perspective, I embrace and write of both. One of the benefits which I receive from exploring this area alone is the opportunity to better understand how to use my camera equipment and photographic skills to accurately represent the grandeur of these mountains and the personal perspective of my true importance and significance in the grand scheme of things.
For me, and I suspect for many of my fellow photographers and explorers of life and the world around them, these two benefits are very rewarding. They are rewarding enough to pursue even though there is risk attached. Although the risk cannot be eliminated, it can be reduced with realistic acknowledgement of the risk involved and some careful planning. A good starting place is to tell someone the area that you will be exploring or, even better, email them a Google Earth map of your intended trek.
See those mists in my photograph? See how steep it is where they are emanating from? If you see those forming you have two choices. You can make a fast track for the road if there’s one within range. You can stay put and wait for them to clear before you move out. That could be that night or the next day so those energy bars or boiled eggs you stashed in your rain jacket will be coming in handy. Keep in mind that most of the areas worth exploring are areas with zero cell phone coverage. You are on your own up here. It IS dangerous hiking high up and alone if you allow emotions to override common hiking sensibilities. Use GPS if you can get service and if not get out your compass if you need directions in low visibility conditions. However, be mindful that the compass can only show direction and not the way you’ve come as GPS can do. Your truck may be 143 degrees SE but that doesn’t mean that the straight shot you’re lining up isn’t going to require you to scale a 50 foot tall rock wall and cross two deep streams before you get there! The best safety takeaway I can provide is right here…if you are really lost, STAY PUT! That is probably the most popular suggestion I read from people who have greater experience than me.
Let me tell you about one of my experiences hiking and photographing in the Cajas which illustrates these points. I travelled into this specific area with my composition already in mind. In my accompanying photograph, the huge pickup truck sized boulders shown on the mid-ridge remind me of stone dominos strewn about by some giant of a Paleolithic child. I arranged my photograph to show you the vastness of the place by including eight planes of depth; Lichens, stones and grasses open the scene and the last plane is a sliver of blue sky in the upper left quadrant of the work. I was nestled in a small crevasse, out of the wind, when I created this piece. The light was bright but diffuse; it’s about noon and as you can see there are no tell-tale shadows. I had been waiting for the mists for an hour when they finally appeared. It was about my sixth time to hike in there and try for this composition. Within five minutes of making the photograph, the sun was gone and I had abandoned my crevasse for the steep slopes of the paramo. With pending inclement weather, my selection had been the “fast track for the road,” a sliver of rock and dirt about a mile and a half east of my location on the front range of the Andes.
I spent the last six hundred yards of the hike in the paramo experiencing pelting rain with dime sized hail. Visibility was about twenty feet. I finally reached the road but about a quarter mile from where I was parked. Thirty minutes later, the sun shone again as El Fantasma and I bounced happily toward Cuenca, twenty-five miles away. I kind of chuckled to myself. Maybe if I used a hiking staff, like my friend Jeff Schinsky makes, I would have notched it in a nod to an American old west tradition. But, it really wasn’t a death defier of an escape, so probably not. However, I sure am glad I’m writing this story for the papers and they’re not writing it about missing photographers who were making compelling compositions of the “Dominos of the Mists.”