Chimborazo is an inactive strato volcano situated in the centre of Ecuador, its last eruption was approx. 550 AD. Its part of the Cordillera Occidental ranges of the Andes and stands at a peak of almost 6,300m above sea level. Mount Everest holds the highest record in terms of measured from sea level, however when measured from the centre of the earth Chimborazo holds the record. You see the earth is not a perfect sphere, it bulges at the equator. Since Chimborazo is located one degree from the equator line, its location gives it the title of the "the closest point on earth to the sun, moon and stars".
Now I have no experience in mountain climbing. After seeing some friends on facebook recently climbing mountains, my ego kicked in and decided that South America could definitely offer something. This thought came into my head before christmas and my New Zealand work mates will know all about that since I never stopped talking about it! The status of it being the highest point on earth to outer space, sparked excitement, if anything one of nervous excitement. Although in mountaineering terms it is not considered "technical", it is an unrelenting beast with an arduos long steep slope to summit. It contains mostly glacier towards the top with rockfall and avalanche a serious risk, in fact the last major accident happened in 1993 when 10 climbers were swept into a crevasse by an avalanche. It took over 20 mountain guides over 10 days to recover all bodies. The latter points dont even take into account the altitude of over 6000 m where thin air has even the most conditioned lungs gasping for every atom of life. Basically, this moutain is not recommended for anyone with no prior experience in mountaineering or at least exercising at this altitude. It only furthered the desire to climb it!
So after arriving in nearby town, Riobamba. I contacted local agency Ecuador Eco adventure about hiring a guide and gear. After talking with the owner, it was decided that I would spend two days acclimatising at different heights to slowly condition my body for the thin air. I knew from researching that altitude sickness plays a bigger role than the actual fitness. So Tuesday morning (St.Patricks day!) I headed to my first day of acclimatisation.
We left the Carrell hut at midnight. I was kitted out in my helmet, head flashlight, ice pick, thermal layers, boots and hanging ice crampons off my small puma backpack (not really suitable to be honest). The truth of the matter is I wasnt to sure of how to use any of the gear. I was focused, I had read how tough this challenge was and so I tried to keep a slow breath with a slow step. We started up the shallow path towards another hut under construction, the Whympner hut at 5000 m. I was surprised at how slow everyone started, a drawn out slow step by step, conserving energy. The night was chilly, it was quiet. We could see no more than where the headlamps pointed and that was towards my feet, focusíng hard. We arrived at the second hut to take a quick break. That was a 200 m walk within about 30min, pretty easy. I was feeling confident!
From here on it was a considerably harder climb to the next major part of the mountain, El Castillo at 5,500m. This took close to 2 hours and involved what appeared to me to be aimlessy walking up slopes of up to 40 degrees, winding through rocks and boulders and on some occasions having to physically climb on some steep sections. Many sections required focus on where your feet where going between the rocks, easily allowing yourself to slip. I now could start feeling the burn on my legs and the intensity of my breathing increasing. The snow was heavy on the ground. The odd stop for a break was necessary, and the flask of hot tea, sugar and lime really worked well in the cold temperatures. We eventually reached El Castillo, which is a narrow ridgeline leading to a rocky platform. On this ridge we changed into our foot crampons as ice was more prominent at this height. I noticed a breeze starting to pick up on this section of the mountain and once I took my glove off for a few minutes to fix my crampons, I couldnt put my gloves back on because my hand was so cold! It was so cold I couldnt feel my fingers and it stung so bad, I wanted to let out a bit of whimper to be honest, but just sucked it up. It took some desperate arm waving and at least another 15 minutes of walking before that hand warmed up (there is still numbness in my fingertips a few days after). The walk up El Castillo meant carefully threading on a narrow ridge with a steep fall either side, eh quite dangerous to be honest and lucky for me it was pitch dark, allowing to see only about 15 meters down each side, Im sure if I could of seen the drop I would have got vertigo and wobbled. The guides voiced concern of the level of snow and possible avalanche risk higher up on the steeper slopes but we kept moving "poco y poco" and assessing.
The next hour and a half was cruel. I cant really remember what kind of route we took all I know is I was looking at my guides feet and trying to match his footsteps, often sliding tiresomelessly backwards every second step, draining all energy. I was on autopilot and the slopes just seem to stretch up and up and up forever. My breathing became very heavy and breaks became more frequent. I could feel a slight sick pain entering my stomach and prayed altitude sickness would stay away. As we climbed and climbed, concerns were voiced over the snow and the different in layer densities. The two Italian climbers were a lot more experienced and were adamant that further could be reached. I could see they were a lot more composed than I was, rhythm wise and their breathing didnt seem near as heavy. I was struggling, just struggled to catch my breath, so bad at times I would fall onto all fours and scramble behind my guide using my hands. I was partially relieved when the decision was finally made to turn back (about 4 am). The guide dug a hole in the snow to illusrate the dangerous layers of snow and despite some italian resistance we all agreed that it was a good idea to turn back, It had been snowing through the whole climb and for the bones of the past 2/3 days. I was for sure disappointed but so exhausted that the idea of going back down a hill appeared too entising! The truth is the walk downhill is marginally easier than going up, it took so much leg strenght to hold your balance and mid-core intact with the constant strong urge to just aimlessy plunge down slope with big steps. My altitude sickness now started to get worse and felt like getting sick for most of the way down, at times I would just fall on the ground like a spoilt child insisting on a break "Momento". Nothing came up though.
The videos below are after the "turnaround". The first video sitting on the snow slope about 10 min after turning around. I was feeling sick here. The Italian climbers were not impressed with not reaching the summit and at the time Im sure not to impressed with my chirpy mountain dialogue! The second is about an hour from base camp, the light starting to come through. Due to the bad weather, it was the only bit of scenery we managed to capture on the overall journey.
Would I have made it to the summit had we been allowed to pass??? Honestly, I cant really answer that question. My desire to reach the summit was strong, I knew how tough it would be, but I literally had to take a recovery breath session every about 10 steps and my sickness was growing stronger at that stage. The snow was so draining. I reckon I would of reached the 6000 m mark. The summit was a good two hours still from our stopping point, which may have been just too much to reach.
If I was to do this again, which Im not to keen to tackle again any time soon!, there is a few things that I believe are necessary. Acclimatisation is very important and the extra day in those lodgings were key. I had a headache in the bed the night before at 4800 m which went away the day of the climb. Overall I had no real headache during the climb and only got mild stomach upset toward the 5800 m point. Point two is to do another hike over 5000 m before hand just to feel that lung burn at that altitude. I had done a hike in Huaraz, Peru 2 weeks prior at 4800 m, however it was on dry ground and I felt just wasnt high enough to fully condition my body. The third factor is weather conditions, weather was poor for us. In high season or dryer conditions it is much easier (so the guide said), the snow is an energy sapper physically and mentally as often your feet slide back. With these 3 factors ticked off the list, I reckon I have a very good chance of reaching the top of this ignoramus of a volcano!
A point has to be made on the Ecudorian guides and service. The guide I had was very experienced, confident and friendly, he had climbed this mountain over 2000 time he claimed with over 32 years in the mountains. However I will say two things, there appears to be little pre-coaching or briefing on how to climb properly and safely using the equipment provided. I should have been briefed before this climb, on how to use ice axe, harnessing etc instead we were ushered on sharply. The two Itialians had previously climbed Cotopaxi, another big volcano north of Ecuador with slightly lower altitude. They said relaxed atitude from the guides was also present there, a far cry from the professional standards of their homeland. Thankfully Francesco and Eros pointed out some important techniques along the way, in fact, necessary techniques to ensure my safety. I couldnt help but feel that the guides had an inclination that the weather was bad and that reaching the summit was inprobable and should of maybe been postponed. I may have still struggled I reckon and the weather was going through a bad patch during that week, however I wanted every chance to reach that summit. Keep that in mind if you intend to do this.
Overall, this was an amazing experience and Im proud of myself for realising such a challenge after talking about it for so long in a work office in New Zealand months beforehand. Maybe I will take another crack at this beast some other time in the future with a little bit more knowledge and experience under the belt. Hopefully this post may inspire others to try out this challenging and eh...very rewarding :-) sport!
A special thanks goes out to Shawn Martlocke, Andres Haro, Damien Hall, Beth Meyer, Ian Wilson for providing me with some extra information on their respective personal accounts for Chimborazo.
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