The Dream Team - A New Record on the Pichincha Traverse
On April 29, 2021, Chaski CEO/Founder, Tyler Andrews, set a new record for the Fastest Known Time on the Pichincha Traverse in Quito, Ecuador (accompanied by friend and professional trail runner Joaquin Lopez). This was his 4th FKT of 2021 as part of his #Los10FKT project to set 10 records in the Andes and raise money for the Chaski Foundation.
The Pichinchas were the first real mountains that he explored as a teen 13 years ago. They are where he discovered his love for tails (including his first big FKT); they are where he went to clear his head when his life fell apart and nearly lost himself shortly after that; their outline is the inspiration for Chaski's logo and name; and they're even tattooed on his skin.
When I’d gone to bed last night, I really didn’t expect to be here today, traipsing up the Polichasqui Trail for the umpteenth time, getting absolutely soaked from the morning dew that clings to the thick brush. It’s not yet 7:00am, and Joaquin and I are already nearly 1000m above Quito, the city we both called home.
We’ve set off during what appears to be a lull in a week of stormy weather. This is our third attempt on the route, having planned to go for the Pichincha Traverse FKT (“Fastest Known Time”) back in March and then again just yesterday, I was just about resigned that it wasn’t going to happen on this trip. I’d thought about the track workout I’d do instead, and had gone to bed with my alarm set for 04:00am, mostly just out of curiosity.
Thus, I’m taken aback to see the entire outline of the Pichinchas from my bedroom window, once I put on my glasses. The dark silhouette of the mountains stands out against the even darker night sky, the stars and the bright lights of the towers on top of the northern flank overlapping spectacularly. I quickly text Joaquin.
“We’ve got a day!”
I hadn’t even packed my bag the night before, and so now I hurriedly throw a handful of gels, my poles, helmet, and rain-coat into my ultraspire pack as the coffee brews in the kitchen. I’m still sipping it as I walk downstairs and meet Joaquin and we drive across town to the Bosque Miraflores, where the route starts.
The Pichincha Traverse holds a special place in my heart; there’s a reason I have it tattooed on my body.
The route leaves from the edge of Quito (literally on the side of a major highway cloverleaf) and climbs nearly 2000 vertical meters to the top of Rucu Pichincha (the craggy peak visible from almost anywhere in the city and whose outline is the inspiration for the Chaski logo).
The trail then drops down the less frequented west face of Rucu through a steep saddle and undulates over the summits of two more peaks, Ladrillos and Padre Encantado, before climbing an extremely steep final stretch to the highest point at the summit of Guagua Pichincha. From there, it’s a technical scramble along a razor-thin rocky ridge to the refugio before finishing with 15km (9.3 miles) down a dirt road to the tiny mountain town of Lloa.
But beyond being a cool route, the Pichinchas and I have a history. I really fell in love with climbing on the slopes of Rucu as a teenager. And since then, I’ve tagged the summit dozens of times, each one memorable. I remember a terrifying summit with my brother and his partner (nearly a decade ago) as thunderstorms were rolling through. I remember a perfect day solo in early 2020, when my life felt like it was falling apart and I found solace on the empty trails. And just a few months before that, my good friend and fellow HOKA athlete Anna Mae Flynn and I had established an FKT of 6 hours and 9 minutes on this exact route.
Since then, Oscar Basantes (one of the best trail runners in Ecuador), had broken our record. That’s part of why I’m here. I would never claim ownership of a mountain or a trail, but this particular route holds so much significance for me that I feel like it’s worth it to come back out here and give it another swing.
So, here we are, climbing up through the pre-dawn light on a trail with which I’m now painfully familiar. Less than 5km and 1100 meters of climbing. Through the forest, up the pasture-side hill, and then things really start to get steep. Two kilometers with more than 350m of climbing (35%+ grade). We switch between “running” (tiny little steps) and power hiking, and sometimes Joaquin’s hiking and my little jogging steps are the same speed. “The Car Wash,” a miserably narrow and steep section of trail is unbelievably muddy and wet and Joaquin and I both arrive at Cruz Loma filthy and soaked to the bones.
But luckily, the morning is still clear. The sun shines, the nearby snow-caps gleam, and, speaking of snow-caps, it’s now that we get our first view of what’s to come: A white wilderness of high-country lies ahead of us. Usually, the Pichinchas are rocky but just below the equatorial snow-line; but, apparently, all that rain we’ve gotten this week has dumped fresh powder on the higher sections of the routes. It’s beautiful, but I know it’s going to be a problem.
We don’t say anything but both let out an audible “Wow!” as we continue on one of my favorite stretches between the top of the Teleferiqo Cable Car and the summit of Rucu. The trail is buffed and not too steep, despite being quite high, so makes for a runnable ascent.
Before we know it, we’re on the traverse around the back, up the sandy face, and we’re approaching the summit ridge. I’ve made this final pitch of fun rock-scramble plenty of times but never in conditions like this. Our clear skies have turned to a near white-out and the loose rock is covered in a thick coating of snow, which has frozen to ice in a few steeper sections.
For the first time all day, we stop. Evaluating the route, we take the less frequented direct line up from the saddle, requiring a few gentle 5.7 rock moves, and then we’re hopping up onto the summit. There’s no view but we’ve both been here before so we immediately head down.
I know the next stretch will be the most hair-raising of the day. I never quite seem to find the right line off of Rucu’s summit and with everything white and indistinguishable, it’s even harder than usual. I follow Joaquin and we nearly walk off the saddle before cutting back to the right and finding an easier line to down-climb. The rock is steep and slick, “como jabón” (like soap). I’m not too proud to descend a few slabs on my ass.
Finally, we’re back at the saddle and begin the short but extremely steep descent down the back side of Rucu. We stop just before heading down, staring at a bright red Andean fox. I’ve never seen one up here and we take it as a good omen.
Down, down, down, carefully, but without issue. Before we know it, we hit the smooth runnable trail and cut over to Ladrillos, following beautiful single-track (under the snowline now), and cut around the back side of the ridge and then up to the summit. One or two moves of 5.8-9 rock, spotting each other, and then we’re on the second summit amidst a sea of cairns.
Down again on great trail and with smooth sailing up towards Padre Encantado, peak number three. We’re up and down in 17 minutes and now looking ahead to the last and highest peak of the day, Guagua Pichincha. The true summit towers ahead and to our right, bathed in white, a giant sandy slope between us.
We run to the base of the climb and then hike the steep, sandy, scree-field towards the summit. It’s miserable and slow-going and the snow makes the sand even more of a challenge, but finally we arrive at the rocky ridge-line and find our line towards the true summit.
We come to the crux, a few moves of 5.8-9 rock, normally not an issue, but given how snowy and icy the rock is today, and how exposed a fall would be, I’m not confident. I seriously consider just waiting 10m below the summit, but navigate around to the inside and find a steppier line and two minutes later, we’re both on the summit, fist-bumping, and then heading down.
There’s about 15 minutes of very technical ridge down-climbing before we reach a second scree-field that leads down to the refugio and the start of the access road. We stop briefly, our clock at about 4h25 minutes, and prepare for the fast, runnable descent, packing up poles and taking off layers -- it’ll only get warmer as we descend the 1400m to Lloa.
“Ahora creo que voy a sufrir,” Joaquin says. “Now, I think I’m going to suffer.”
I agree and we take off together. My legs are already tired and the road is not what it was last time I was here. Now, it’s a mud-pie, occasionally a stream-bed. Each switchback requires skiing maneuvers to avoid flying off the side of the mountain.
There’s not much else to say. I feel significantly more worked than I had expected on this descent. I’ve run out of fuel (the snow had slowed us down so much that I finished my gels an hour earlier); I’m bonking. I let Joaquin run 100m in front of me. I feel very sorry for myself for a few kilometers. Luckily, we can’t see Lloa until we’re fairly close, thanks to the clouds, and as we finally approach the last long straightaway, I surge to catch back up and we run together through the arch down the final hill, onto the cobblestones, up that brutal last climb, and then through the familiar streets, right to the town square, and left to the fountain.
We both click our watches at 5 hours, 14 minutes, 55 seconds.
The Pichinchas have seen me at my best and at my worst. I’ve stood on their summits and gazed up at them from thousands of feet below on urban rooftops. There’ve been times where I’ve feared they might kill me and times where I’ve felt they saved me.
This was neither my best or worst day. I -- and some others -- can still complete this route faster, without a doubt. But today was a celebration 13 years in the making. And though it’s the fastest time I -- or anyone -- has ever run this route, I know I’ll be back.
— Tyler Andrews
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