When the clouds pass, I can see one of the tallest mountains in Ecuador from my front porch. Volcán Cayambe reaches 5790 meters (almost 19,000 feet) above sea level, and is the highest place crossed by the equator. I noticed it on my third or forth day here, walking down the driveway from the Panamericano highway in the evening, just as the sun started painting the glaciers rosey. To the south lies a wide hill creased with arroyos and fincas, reminscent of the oak-dotted rolling hills of Southern Oregon, and beyond hides Quito and a heaven of thunderheads. If I step past the cob oven and flag poles (New Zealand and Germany fly proudly, for now), I can look north to the Cerro Negro and Mount Fuya Fuya and imagine the famous lagunas at their base. My first week at the Fundacion Brethren y Unida (please read about it here!), I accompanied the visiting school group and several volunteers up to the Laguna Mojanda, the largest of the three alpine lakes that sit above Tabacundo. We rode in the back of a large camión, fit to haul horses or cows to market, with about forty high school students, up the 8 km to the lake. Along the way, I noticed the vast hills of paja grass were broken only by lines of trees I recognized from the tree nursery at the finca: the Fundación has been reforesting this area, devastated by years of household cutting and the spread of agriculture, for about 15 years, and it shows. The bumpy dirt road is flanked by acacias and cedros, and the hills are gradually giving way to new plantings. As part of the group that morning, each person planted 10 saplings near the lake shore, digging wide deep holes with Ecuadorian, giant hoes called azadones.
After the planting, the other volunteers and I split. We cut up across the paja grass, out of the valley formed by the lake, to the road at the base of Cerro Negro. The hike back up the road took a half hour, and as we approached the base of the actual hike to the top of this wall of black peaks, I very nearly plopped down to wait for the camión to pass by. The initial climb was practically vertical through thick clumps of grass, and as we began I started feeling dizzy. Upward and onward, step by step and breath by breath through the thinnest air I have ever inhaled, my dizziness quickly gave way to vertigo and awe. I stopped every few steps for fear that I would faint and start spinning wildly down the mountain. Wisps of fog rolled quickly over the hills opposite the lake, and soon they threatened to veil us, too. Once past the first climb (about a quarter mile in a half hour), the grass turned into a startling diversity of páramo shrubs and mosses, clinging to the jagged rocks and backdropped by the lagunas on one side and Tabacundo valley on the other. I was more winded than I´ve been in years, which made for a magnificent, literally breathtaking ascent.