Day 3 – Páramo, the Level of Hell Dante Forgot

May 27th, 2014

It’s Day 3 and the group will be exploring the alpine tundra forest ecosystem of Ecuador, or as it would be called to the native owners of this environment: “páramo”. For those of you that do not know, the páramo occurs at elevations of about 3,000 to 5,000 meters and have temperature ranging from 0°C to 10°C depending primarily on the amount of solar radiation present that day and lack thereof at night. Rainfall in the area is frequent, average levels being about 171cm largely due to the geographic mountain range features and the resulting orographic lift and adiabatic cooling rate of the moisture hungry air. Plants and animals have developed key adaptations for survival in these harsher conditions of the tropics. I have not. I thought I would be spending summer in warm tropical weather exploring the tropical rainforest or frequenting the beach for weekend celebrations as a hard earned break from the rigor of field biology, not in constant rainfall and sub-freezing temperatures of mountainous regions of Ecuador. Now I know exactly how Princess Anna felt… . But all good things come in time. It is only the first of all our experiences. I must earn the tropical beach time.

Quito, Ecuador sits at about 9,000 feet above sea level. If you compare that to Madison, WI at about 500ft, you can see how difficult it was to breathe while doing anything strenuous in the thin alpine air. Now consider the fact that I climbed to heights between 12,000 and 14,000 feet and I may have won your sympathy. I completed this journey and I was rewarded with an extremely challenging, but uniquely beautiful experience. Last summer I had been mountain hiking on trails in Seattle, Washington but that pales in comparison to the páramo in both difficulty and self-realization.

There were many species I had never seen before on this hike. Part of the reason is that we were dual-tasking a lab field activity with diversity plot sampling between different soil moisture contents with the initiation hike to the Ceiba summer program.

Ceiba Summer Participants of 2014, in our ignorant bliss of the horrors of the páramo. *Photo Credit: Joe L’Huillier From Left to Right. Top Row: Luis Gonzalez, Santiago Charry, Tim Connelly, Lucas Rapisardia, Abe Lenoch Bottom Row: Laura Aprill, Joe L’Huillier, Brian Brito, Samantha Knudson, Samantha Lewis
Ceiba Summer Participants of 2014, in our unpreparedness for the páramo. From Left to Right. Top Row: Luis Gonzalez, Santiago Charry, Tim Connelly, Lucas Rapisardia, Abe Lenoch Bottom Row: Laura Aprill, Joe L’Huillier, Brian Brito, Samantha Knudson, Samantha Lewis

The first part of our journey was spent in 4°C weather, in which I did not possess much feeling in any of my bodily appendages. You would think that since I have lived in Wisconsin for almost 6 years now I would be prepared for the climatic challenges of the cold, but this was a different beast entirely. Part of the reason I was in such physical distress was because I had not properly prepared for the temperature range present in the páramo, lacking cold weather gear due to my incorrect assumptions about the range of ecosystems in the tropics. The other reason was because of the joint forces of wind and rain weather factors combining forces to make my life miserable that day.

Thanks to Joe, who braved the circles to obtain this picture.

After the first sample plots we took, we moved on to better weather and improved plant life (Those fair weather plants… Whatever, I could only look at so much moss anyways) of the middle páramo. It was there that I saw the ancient polylepis forest in all its pre-historic glory.

Photo Credit: Samantha “Chestnut” Knudson

It’s a miracle it’s still standing after all of these years of deforestation in the tropics. Then came the stunning shades of purple and yellow. But in all honesty, I did not find the flora of the alpine forest to be all that beautiful.

More Photo Credit to “Chestnut” of said non-beautiful flowers

Look at said shaded flowers and the tree that looks amazingly like it´s on fire!
Look at said shaded flowers and the tree that looks amazingly like it´s on fire!

It did surprise me to observe such vibrant floral hues present in such terrible living conditions among the all-to-common bunchgrass species characteristically dominant of the middle páramo, but I did not find it to be particularly beautiful. Everyone kept commenting on the beauty they saw that day, focusing their attention on their first introduction to the flora of this unique ecosystem. For a time, I wondered if I was missing something. If they saw something I did not. Perhaps I am going against the grain, but for me the most beautiful part was the fact that I was experiencing something that I had never experienced before. Something that could only be done in Ecuador. But it only lasted so long. At the time it seemed like forever (6 hours people), but looking back on that experience I realize now that this was a major life event. The beauty was in the ephemeralness of the situation. As much as I hate to say it, I would do it all over again. I feel like I really experienced LIFE. Hardship to add to my collection.

To wrap it all up, Ceiba instructor Joe Meisel treated us to a well-deserved evening at Papallacta hot spring baths. Even though I don’t particularly enjoy the use of hot tubs (the rest of the group found that out quickly), I still found it refreshing to be out of the traction-less trails of the muddy hillsides in the páramo. It was a morale booster for everyone else though. Hard earned rest and relaxation. They know how to keep us going.

And Back to Joe for the Creds

That’s all folks.

NOTE: Both the red heads of the program took the pictures here (minus the last one). Coincidence? I think not!!!




1 thought on “Day 3 – Páramo, the Level of Hell Dante Forgot”

  1. Good stuff Brian! Love to see that you’re going through some major globetrotting/Biologist/life milestones and enjoying the journey! Keep up the good work buddy!

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