Trekking Through Middle Earth: First Ascent at 13,000 Feet

While in Ecuador, I’m climbing to raise money for Heifer International, a global non profit that applies the “teach a man to fish” philosophy by helping bring sustainable agriculture to impoverished communities. We’ll be visiting two rural villages in Ecuador where Heifer supports local projects – one involving llamas and alpacas and the other regarding soil enrichment. To join Lead Now in supporting Heifer, donate online at Donate $27 or more and you’ll be entered into a monthly raffle to win a Marmot tent!

Claassen Ecuador--2

Ecuador. The Equator. The middle of the earth.

Middle Earth. Land of the Shire, Rohan, Rivendell, and Fangorn Forest. Home to Orcs, Hobbits, Ents, and Elves.

Somewhere within these two realms, geographically and fancifully, we find ourselves in Cajas National Park. Home to llamas, paper trees, and too many unblemished cliff bands to count.

Elevation: 4,000 m (13,100 ft)

Average Temperature: 13° C (55° F)

Annual Precipitation: 1072 cm (422 in)

Visible Snow: None


[Margarita Cardoso working Middle Earth (5.13+/8b), Jon Glassberg (LT11) photo]

Jon and I spent the last few days in Cajas trying a project bolted by local developer Mickey Verduga. Local climbers Gustavo Lucero and Rafael Caceres bolted a rappel station atop the Yellow Wall in 2003 and Mickey sunk the bolts in 2013.  Due to the nature of volcanic rock and the humid climate, the rock required a fair bit of cleaning, but underneath lies an obstacle course of unique formations. An opening slab of razor sharp credit card crimps leads to a no hands slab rest, followed by a sustained overhang of rubik’s cubes, golf balls, basketballs, textureless bricks, and secret huecos.  The line spans 30 meters of andesite (an extrusive igneous, volcanic rock of intermediate composition with aphanitic to porphyritic texture. That’s for you, Dad!), speckled with orange lichen and volcanic ash. Probably the result of a Mount Doom eruption.


 [The view from the cliff. Jon Glassberg (LT11) Photo]

photo (1)

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 8.26.25 PM
 [Geological explanation of Middle Earth, from
Reynolds, R. C. (1974) The geomorphology of Middle-Earth, The Swansea Geographer,11, 67-71]

Time spent in Cajas feels almost mythical. It can’t be real. Wisps of mist float down the valley and in and out of hills. Beautiful grass plumes litter the hillsides. Each turn plops you at the bottom of a different rock face – blank and slabby, steep and rippled, cracks, features, single or multi pitch. The approach to some cliffs requires a horse. Maybe you can catch a ride with Aragorn son of Arathorn as he sprints over the hill.



[First Ascent of Middle Earth (5.13+/8b), Photos by Jon Glassberg (LT11)]

Our friend Daniel led us on the long and breathtaking hike of 10 minutes up to the project. Over three days, we cleaned the route and discovered our own sequences. Although there is a defined technical crux in the middle, the route is generally quite sustained, with cruxes throughout. Leaving the ground is perplexing, the textureless bricks are perilous, passing Shelob’s lair is taxing, unlocking the Rubik’s cube is a mite painful, navigating the Dead Marshes is a bit frightful, and the heel hook guarding the chains is delicate.  But when you reach the top, you have successfully trekked through all of Middle Earth. Shadowfax gave a little whinney below as I clipped the chains on the first ascent. The rains of Helms Deep broke forth as Jon claimed the second.

It was a magical day. Mickey even decided we should keep the name Middle Earth, preferring that to his original name of High Blood Pressure (also a side effect of fighting Orcs at 13,000 feet), of which we weren’t initially aware.

Claassen Ecuador--3

It’s quite difficult to grade a route when the oxygen is a bit thin and you’ve just conquered food poisoning hours ago. Middle Earth felt comparable to other 5.13ds (8bs) we’ve done around the world, however I just can’t believe this would withstand against equal grades on The Diamond. In the end, the pump builds ceaselessly and 5.13+ or lower end 8b seems fair.

And with that, it’s time for second breakfast and a new project!

2 thoughts on “Trekking Through Middle Earth: First Ascent at 13,000 Feet

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