National Geographic : 1950 Jan
El Sangay, Fire-breathing Giant of the Andes Leaving volcano-ringed Riobamba, our road lay first up the Rio Chambo. It led across the lower slopes of El Tulabug, a small extinct volcano, and through the town of Licto (page 120). Some years before, while living with Dr. Haro in Punin, to the northwest, we had studied the geology of this volcano and its surroundings. Thus far, therefore, we were on familiar ground. From Licto onward all was new. Down steep, rocky cliffs, across the bridge over the boiling Rio Chambo, and up the east wall of its canyon our drivers jockeyed the jeeps. Passing the village of Pungala, the twisting track followed the Chambo to the mouth of the Rio de Alao. Swinging eastward up the Alao, we came face to face with a magnificent sight. The valley of Alao had been gouged deep by glaciers of the Ice Age. We swept out of the bleak inter-Andean trough to enter lush alpine meadows (page 132). It was like plunging out of Navajo country into Switzer land. Far ahead, at the top of the valley, the gleaming snow and ice on the heights of the Cordillera Oriental beckoned us. That was the skyscraping divide we had to cross. Halfway between the Rio Chambo and the divide, Hacienda Santa Rosa flashed into view. We drove in to a warm welcome. The genial hacendado, Don Alfonso Merino, greeted us. His home, his possessions, and his services were ours for the asking, he said. We learned this was no flowery gesture; his hospitality was prodigal. The Merino family had helped Commander Dyott years before, and favored us in kind. The major-domo was sent to arrange for peons, horses, and mules. We stood on the threshold of another adven ture. A flurry of excitement attended our de parture. Some of the hacienda's livestock had strayed across the divide. A troop of cowboys and Don Roberto Merino came along to round up any animals they might find (page 129). Snow cloaked the mountains to within a few hundred feet above the hacienda. The air was chill and damp, with the promise of rain and more snow from the lowering clouds. As the cavalcade climbed higher and higher, boggy meadows gave way to a dripping belt of forest. Our animals slipped and slithered through deep mud, fallen logs, and lush vege tation. Still the way led up and up. Above 13,000 feet we entered bunch grass and bog terrain. Landslides cut the trail at intervals. End less rains had left the sodden ground in ter- rible condition for travel. The few level spots were nothing but quagmires. In places our sturdy mountain steeds could not carry us. Foundered in the muck, they had to be lifted and hauled across by the straining cowboys (page 136). Upward through rain and sleet plodded man and beast to a dreary lunch of cold K rations and wet grass on the crest of the divide. We could see scarcely 50 feet ahead through the thick clouds. Had the weather broken, there must have been a fine view of El Sangay. Nature Builds an Obstacle Course Starting off anew, the dripping caravan worked down the eastern slopes until, at long last, several mountain torrents joined to form the Rio Culebrillas. This name, which means "Little Snakes River," is an apt choice, for the stream twists and turns continuously. Landslides have repeatedly poured into the valley and swept across its floor to smash against the far walls. Forced by these avalanches of rock and mud to find new channels, the river worms its way through a jumbled mass of rocks, tree trunks, grass, and mud, almost impassable going for horses or pack animals. At last we reached the shelter of Culebrillas Tambo (tambo means resthouse in the Andes). Beyond this point it was easier to walk than to try forcing the animals through the natural obstacle course. Now in sad disrepair, this hut was used by Commander Dyott. Only Carniceria Tambo intervened between us and Dyott's farthest camp on El Sangay. Cold rain had drenched us without letup since leaving Hacienda Santa Rosa. But fires soon were blazing. Our benumbed stiffness was speedily thawed out. Don Alfonso Merino's son, Roberto, set out shortly with the cowboys to round up the choicer wild cattle. These fierce beasts were unbelievably agile and pugnacious. The caravan had started up several along the trail. They stood their ground and came to bay, but the dogs worried them and kept them busy while we slipped past. One fine bull turned the tables on a dog and chased him to a cutback. Driving him over the brink into the river, 15 feet below, he dived in after the dog and gored his luck less victim in the water! Game was abundant, and the next day we feasted on fresh venison. Our Indian peons painstakingly removed the bladder from the carcass and tied it off to save the contents. They told us it was "good medicine for belly pains."