Flckr Photo by Julia
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 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.
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
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.
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,
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
Want to brush up on your Spanish before going to Ecuador?
Use this link: Free
Internet Spanish Lessons
10 Cheap Vacations