Ecology

Sangay is the closest active volcano to Cuenca; It’s also one of Ecuador’s, and the world’s, most mysterious

Editor’s note: Only 75 miles northeast of Cuenca, the Sangay volcano is the least accessible and least studied volcano in Ecuador. Even its name is shrouded in mystery. In 2016, University of Wyoming of Geology professor Kennith Sims led a team of scientists to Sangay earlier this year to map the mountain and to collect soil samples. This is part of his report on the expedition.

By Kenneth W.  Sims

At 5,230 meters, or 17,150 feet, above sea-level Sangay, is one of the highest active volcanoes in the world and one of Ecuador’s most active. However, unlike many volcanoes in Ecuador, and around the globe, which are easily approached by road, Sangay is remote and dauntingly inaccessible. Getting to its base, in fact, requires a three-day trek.

The Sangay volcano.

Approaching the summit is also dangerous because of frequent and unpredictable strombolian eruptions. The goal of our expedition was to map and collect volcanic rock samples of different ages from Sangay.

Sangay volcano is located in Sangay National Park, which is one of two natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Ecuador (the other is the Galapagos Islands) that hosts unique and pristine biological communities which cross a wide range of ecosystems, from high-alpine to sub-tropical and tropical rainforest.

In prehistoric history, the volcano experienced several massive eruptions, including at least one that resulted in significant global cooling due to the high volume of volcanic material ejected into the atmosphere. The mountain was entirely destroyed in two eruptions and has since been rebuilt.

While, many websites sites and books indicate that the name Sangay is Quecha for “frightener,” according to Marco Crux this is a misnomer. The indigenous people of the area are not Quecha, but Shuar, best known to the outside world for their head shrinking talents. In the Shuar language, Crux points out that Sangay, or Sangai, means “The Giver.”

As a result of its remoteness, the area around Sangay hosts a remarkable diverse biological community with fauna such as the mountain tapir, giant otter, Andean cock-of-the-rock and king vulture. Since 1983, its ecological community has been protected as part of the Sangay National Park. Although climbing the mountain is hampered by its remoteness, poor weather conditions, river flooding, and the danger of falling volcanic rocks, the volcano is regularly climbed, a feat first achieved by Robert T. Moore in 1929.