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Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador

Flckr Photo by Julia Rubinic

The Glaciers of Mount Chimborazo

The climb up the glaciers to the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador isn't considered a big challenge for most experienced climbers. Technically, it is mountaineering, but how hard could it be, considering that I went to the 20,600-foot summit the first time I used crampons and an ice axe? Actually, I had used these mountaineering tools once before, for practice, on a sledding hill near home, when I lived in Michigan. I climbed almost 40 feet while people walked past me dragging their sleds, and telling their kids to stay away from the strange man. In any case, here is the rest of the story.

It is easier to climb a mountain this big when the guide drives you to 15,000 feet to start. Don't get me wrong. Climbing that last 5,600 feet was one of the most difficult things I've done, although not for the skill required. The fact that the air is missing half of its oxygen at that altitude is what had me quitting twenty or thirty times on the way up the mountain. It just gets difficult to move up there.

The Graveyard

The little tombstones and monuments near the first refuge weren't for climbers without skill. The graveyard is a testament to the unpredictability of all high places. Chimborazo is very high, and it randomly drops large rocks on you. It has weather that changes by the minute. Even as we were hiking to the second refuge from the parking area at the first, we could hear the rocks and pieces of ice falling somewhere above us.

El Refugio Edward Whymper is a simple, unheated hut at 16,000 feet. There is a fireplace, and when somebody feels like carrying wood up to 5,000 meters, the fire might raise the temperature 5 degrees higher than the air outside. The refuge is named after the English climber who first made it to the summit of the mountain. We had "mate de coca" a tea made of coca leaves, which are also known for another product made from them -- one that is often taken up the nose. Then we went hiking for a short while. That was all of my acclimatization. We ate, and I slept for at least an hour before starting the ascent at eleven that night.

Ecuador and Chimborazo

Due to the elevation in the center of the country, as well as the moderating effect of the Humboldt Current, which runs up along the west side of South America, the country has near perfect weather. It is a little hot along the coast at times, but it's spring-like in the capital, Quito, with daily highs in the sixties and seventies year-round. You'll fin wonderful weather almost everywhere... until you get high enough.

Chimborazo is about 100 miles south of the Equator, and it's peak is the furthest point out from the center of the Earth. Because of the way the Earth bulges at the equator, it is even further out there than Everest, or closer to the sun if you want to look at it that way. This makes it very cold. I'll have more to say about that in a moment.

Glaciers

Paco, my guide, didn't like my lightweight gear, but I'm a fan of going light when backpacking or hiking or climbing. He frowned when he saw my 17-ounce down sleeping bag, which packed up smaller than a football. My 13-ounce frame-less backpack didn't impress him either. But in any case, although it did get below freezing in the hut during our short sleep, just as he said it would, I stayed warm, as I said I would. No problems so far.

Unfortunately, Paco didn't speak a word of English, and I was just learning Spanish. Since our whole group consisted of him and me, we did have some communication problems. I thought, for example, that the $11 fee for the "night" (a few hours) in the hut was included in the $130 guide fee. He thought that I was a mountain climber. I think he commented on the papery rain suit I was using as a shell, and he shook his head at my homemade 1-ounce ski mask. When he saw me putting on my insulating vest, a 4-ounce piece of polyester batting with a hole cut in it for my head... well, I just pretended not to understand what he was saying.

I hadn't intended to go climb quite that light, but I had come to Ecuador on a courier flight, and could bring only carry-on luggage. Since I had only 12 pounds in the pack to begin with, by the time I put on all my clothes that night, the weight on my back was irrelevant. The weight of my body, however, wasn't irrelevant in the thin air. Paco had to coax me up that mountain step-by-step.

The glaciers start a short distance from the hut, so hiking soon became mountaineering. I put on crampons for the second time in my life (there was that sledding hill). During one of my many, many breaks ("Demasiado" - too many, which I pretended not to understand when Paco explained in Spanish), I noticed that the tiny, cheap thermometer I carried had bottomed out at 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm not sure how much colder it got as we went higher. I wasn't ever cold, but I was exhausted at times. Those would be the times when I moved. When I sat still for a minute I felt like I could run right up that mountain.

We struggled (well I struggled) up Mount Chimborazo, hiking, climbing, and jumping over crevasses (trying not to look down into them too much), until I finally quit at 20,000 feet. Of course I had quit at 19,000 feet, and at 18,500 feet, and at 18,000 feet. Quitting had become my routine. Lying had become Paco's, so he told me straight-faced that the summit was just a little bit higher. Maybe I wanted to believe him, or maybe the lack of oxygen had scrambled my brain. In any case, I started up the ice again.

We stumbled onto the summit right at dawn (okay, I stumbled). The sky was a stunning shade of blue that you actually can never see at lower elevations. It has something to do with the fact that there is less atmosphere up there.

Cotapaxi, a classic snow-covered volcano to the north, was clearly visible 70 or 80 miles away. Dirtbag Joe, a nineteen-year-old kid from California with ten dollars in his pocket, borrowed equipment, and my Ramen noodles in his stomach, was waiting for us with a smile. There were handshakes all around, and two minutes later it was time to get off the mountain. I was told you don't want to be on Mount Chimborazo when she wakes up. She wakes up at nine a.m.

Paco kept looking at his watch and frowning. He told me to hurry, and then he got further and further ahead. I thought he might plan to abandon me on the mountain. When I finally caught up to him at the hut at almost exactly nine a.m., I began to hear the rocks fall out of the ice above as the sun warmed it. Now I understood his concern with time. We really did need to get down to the refuge by nine. A thousand feet lower my mountain hiking adventure ended with a photograph that doesn't show my shaking knees. I don't know who has the photo though -- I didn't bring a camera with me to Ecuador. Maybe I'll have to go climb the mountain again to get some photos.

NOTES

If you want to climb Mount Chimborazo, it is cheapest to wait until you get to Ecuador to make arrangements. Talk to almost any hotel owner or manager in Riobamba, and he or she will find a guide for you. It will be cheaper if you are part of a group, of course.

For more information and stories about Ecuador, you can visit the pages, "Information On Ecuador," and "Banos Ecuador." There are is also a story about getting robbed on a bus in Ecuador on the page, "Travel Money Belts."

Want to brush up on your Spanish before going to Ecuador? Use this link: Free Internet Spanish Lessons


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