Cotopaxi Volcano was the site of Ecuador’s first-ever public AIARE avalanche courses. Cotopaxi’s glaciers are full of dangerous seracs and overhead avalanche risks for climbers and ski mountaineers. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
“This was the first series of public avalanche events ever run in Ecuador,” reported BCA ambassador Diego Allolio of Aprendica. The impetus for the AIARE course started with Juliana García, the first IFMGA certified female guide in South America. In a male-dominated country and sport (mountaineering and climbing), Juliana has become respected for her tenacity to pursue change in ingrained Andean cultures that historically have low recognition and training in avalanche safety practices. The Ecuadorian volcano of Cotopaxi is one such location where recognition of avalanche-related hazards is needed and thus was selected as the site for the AIARE course.
Juliana Garcia is the president of the Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides (ASEGUIM) and passionate about avalanche safety in her home country of Ecuador. Diego Allolio of Aprendica was the ideal person to lead the AIARE avalanche courses, as his company Aprendica has extensive experience spearheading standardized avalanche safety training courses and making North American concepts palatable to fellow South Americans. Aprendica has hosted AIARE courses across the Andes in Argentina and Chile for years.
Diego Allolio, as the course leader, and Juliana Garcia, as the course instructor, presented two AIARE courses: a 2-hour interactive Avalanche Awareness event in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and a three-day AIARE level 1 course in Quito and Cotopaxi National Park. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
Ecuador’s first-ever public AIARE avalanche courses kicked off with an ‘avy rally’ in Quito at Tatoo Adventure Gear flagship store in Quito. Tatoo Adventure Gear is an Ecuadorian REI type of shop, really sleek, with a proper conference room. The Aprendica team leaders held two days of classroom sessions at Tatoo for both the Avalanche Awareness event and AIARE Level 1 course.
The avalanche awareness event introduced avalanche terrain avoidance concepts, a case study review from Bariloche called the Ventana Accident, and a final self-assessment to prompt personal growth for 50 event participants.
AIARE course participants studied avalanche safety and backcountry basics with views of the snow-capped peak, which rises to 5,897 meters (an altitude of 19,397 feet). Photography by Esteban Barrera.
The three-day AIARE Level 1 course began at Tatoo with an afternoon theory session. Diego and Juliana then gathered the group and headed up for an evening classroom session and overnight at Tambopaxi Cotopaxi Lodge. At 3,720 meters (12,303 feet) above sea level, Tambopaxi Lodge is the only hotel inside the Cotopaxi National Park.
AIARE Level 1 Ecuador course participants learn theory and how to use their AIARE field books during classroom session at Tambopaxi Lodge. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
Photography by Esteban Barrera.
The next day, the AIARE course participants left at 6 am to hike across the “sub-páramo” grasslands and right up to the “superpáramo” just below the snow line for ‘dryland’ beacon training field session. They drove and hiked up for four hours until around 10 am and gained 4,500 vertical feet to reach the glacier snowfield at 5,300 meters elevation. Surrounded by seracs from these receding glaciers, they discussed how this fact poses new overhead avalanche hazards to the growing numbers of South Americans entering the mountaineering realm.
Condors soaring above the seracs of Cotopaxi and Ecuadorean native hummingbirds delighted AIARE course participants. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
Ski mountaineering has been growing in popularity with new clubs in Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and even Patagonia, aided by better economics and access. Ecuador’s glaciers are shrinking fast and contributing to higher avalanche risks for climbers and skiers. Glaciers are always moving toward the sea over a thin layer of water just above the underlying bedrock, and Cotopaxi glaciers are some of the many shrinking in size with climate change.
Diego led the AIARE course participants in an avalanche beacon search in the “páramo” grasses, as it was hard to find a suitably flat snowy field with no connection to avalanche terrain. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
Cotopaxi Volcano is located on the Eastern Cordillera of the Ecuadorian Andes, 60 km south of Quito and 35 km northeast of Latacunga. Cotopaxi is one of Ecuador’s most well-known and active volcanoes. It is one of the world’s highest active volcanoes. The cone is almost perfectly symmetrical and covered in snow. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
Diego Allolio demonstrated how to use a snow saw, avalanche shovel and probe in a snow pit study exercise. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
They then moved up to a low-exposure field to dig pits, while staying clear of using glacier gear–so they could focus on snow rather than glacier travel. Everyone was required to wear crampons and were fascinated by the unpredictable changes of the volcanic glacier.
Diego Allolio uses the inclinometer in his compass to measure slope angle. Photography by Esteban Barrera.
Every avalanche educator around the globe is hoping to have the mountains speak for themselves when it comes to avalanches. The last day the group spotted a fresh, natural D2 soft slab avalanche peeking through the thick tropical clouds, which run at the same elevation the group went digging, so the students were able to make the connection from what they were actually looking at in their snowpits with what happened.
Ten students took part in the two-day field sessions at Ecuador’s first-ever AIARE level 1 avalanche course. Photography by Esteban Barrera.