Irene Caselli is a multimedia journalist based in Buenos Aires. She previously worked as a correspondent for the BBC in Venezuela and Ecuador. She reports from Latin America for media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian.
Fabián Zurita started hiking in 1950. Sixty-five years later, he’s still introducing city kids to Ecuador’s natural beauty and encouraging them to test their limits.
Think of a summer camp where young city dwellers have no TV, video games, candy, or soda. Instead, they spend three weeks hiking in the mountains, going back to basics.
“Children who live in cities are cut off from nature. Technology has closed their eyes and their imagination,” says Zurita. “Here, they see certain animals for the first time; they observe a sunrise, discover the moon.”
Still an active mountaineer at 81, Zurita set up these camps because he believed in the educational potential of mountaineering.
“Mountains build character, imagination, camaraderie. When they go hiking, children discover their own flaws and qualities; they learn how to fight when they face difficulties,” he says.
Aire Libre, or “Open Air,” Zurita’s organization, keeps things very rustic. Campers bunk down in sleeping bags on mats, and stay in cabanas with no electricity. They wake up at sunrise and go to bed at sunset. They wash their own clothes, help prepare meals, and spend many hours walking uphill in mountains so high they often feel out of breath.
For some (kids six and up can participate), the shock is undeniable.
“I didn’t think I would make it,” says Estefanía Durán, now 25, who first went to Zurita’s summer camp when she was 13. “There were no comforts, not even proper bathrooms. But then I learned that things are not as bad as they seem, and it’s all a matter of adapting to what we’re not used to.”
Aire Libre’s motto is “true happiness only emerges from effort,” and campers are taught from the first day that complaining doesn’t help them reach the top of a mountain.
“The first days are painful,” Zurita acknowledges. “But after an initial crisis, they adapt, and they come out happy, after having discovered a new world: silence, solitude, nature, all the things that don’t exist in cities.”
Ecuador is famous for its snow-capped volcanoes that emerge along a 280-mile stretch of the Andes. Quito, the capital city, sits in the middle of them. Yet these mountains usually attract more foreigners than Ecuadoreans, who don’t think about them much until volcanic activity increases. (Recently, Cotopaxi, a 19,347-foot volcano about 30 miles south of Quito, started spewing ashes and gas, worrying locals.)
Zurita’s own life experience serves as a motivation. He has hiked since 1950, when he was 16, back when there was no special equipment available. He made his first sleeping bag himself by sewing hen feathers inside a blanket. He continues to live very simply in a small house outside of Quito and bikes and walks everywhere, despite suffering from knee pain.
Two generations of Ecuadoreans have learned more about their country through Zurita’s tough love.
Doris Arroba, 55, an educator and editor, sent her three children to Aire Libre’s camps. She believes in the importance of intergenerational exchange: “The contact between children and the elderly is very enriching for both generations. Even more so in the case of Fabián. He is an exceptional human being, physically and emotionally, and as an educator.”
Lizeth Vásconez first joined Aire Libre at seven because her father had gone to the camp. Now 26, she is writing her thesis for a master’s degree in sustainable resource management in Munich, Germany. She says she often thinks of Zurita’s teachings when she hits a wall: “Understanding what it means to make an effort to make it to the mountaintop has left a mark on me.”
Zurita is the last of his generation of mountaineers in Ecuador who still practices. He never tried to hike the world’s highest peaks, but he believes his work getting Ecuadoreans to discover their mountains has been much more valuable.
Over almost half a century, he has introduced some 25,000 people to the mountains, including Iván Vallejo, the only Ecuadorean to reach the summits of all 14 of the world’s mountains above 26,247 feet (or 8,000 meters, hence their nickname, the eight-thousanders), without the use of supplemental oxygen.
With his daughters, Sol and Sofía, helping to organize the camps, Zurita has no interest in retiring. “Leading thousands of people up mountains ... has been my Everest,” he says.