It seems that everyone and her ex half-sister comes to Ecuador and attempts to climb Mount Cotopaxi. And for good reason. It’s a lovely volcano that stares you down as you walk the colonial plazas of Quito. But it also looks like every other big volcano I’ve climbed in the Americas. Volcan Chimborazo, on the other hand, is a bigger, uglier beast, and has a nice geographical story, one that I use to share with my Earth Science classes.
Due to its rotation, the Earth is not a sphere but instead, an oblate spheroid; it flattens at the poles and bulges at the equator. Although some 2600 meters shorter than Mount Everest relative to sea level, its proximity to the equator makes Chimborazo stand out farther from the Earth’s center than any other mountain in the world. Standing on its summit at noon, you can be closer to the sun than other location on Earth (well, that is if you are there during an equinox). I thought these facts were pretty cool, and certainly worthy of a climbing attempt, if not pictures for a future powerpoint.
With no acclimatization nor route description of any kind, I set out for Chimborazo quite ill-prepared. What I did have was some worn out rented climbing gear, a dollar-fifty bus ticket, and a driver who promised he would drop me off somewhere near the access road by 6 pm. Rather than hiking up to the horrifyingly high refuge (5000 meters), I planned to sleep in the forest without a tent. But my plans once again proved faulty and I arrived to an open windy landscape, a perfect recipe for a long miserable bivouac.
Once I arrived to the access road a friendly indigenous man came to greet me. His job was to collect the $10 park entrance, but for some reason he only asked me for five. I loved him already. When I told him of my plans, he offered me shelter for the night in a tiny refuge with his wife. I happily accepted and we cooked together and shared stories until they retired for their 7:30 pm bedtime, and I huffed and puffed through the night, trying my best to sleep at 14,000 feet. Although my lungs didn’t like the idea, the next day I trekked up the dirt road to sleep at the high refuge, and to scout out the climb.
As I took in the view at the 16,500 feet high refuge, I tried to think of other structures in the world that stood this high. None came to mind. Thus it felt like quite a reward when the caretaker left me to spend the entire evening by myself up there. After a route reconnaissance on the glacier, I came down to see the most beautiful sunset of my life, even more impressive than the one in Bucaramanga, Colombia. There were numerous thin layers of clouds just above the horizon, so I was treated to a 40-minute sunset show that repeated itself each time the sun dipped below another stratum. And as the sun finally descended below the horizon, it shined an orange heavenly glow on the clouds above for another 15 minutes. If Johnny Cash were here, he would certainly have a song to write about it.
I arose from my bed at midnight to climb Chimborazo, and for my first time in 8 months of travel I was hit with a stomach bug. What timing! Perhaps the altitude magnified its effects, but whatever the cause, I was not going to be climbing high that day. After just 800 feet of climbing, I couldn’t stand up. I rolled on the volcanic rocks, gripping my poor belly. After I finalized my decision to turn back, my body woke itself up, and cruised down to the outhouse below. I lay in bed for the next eight hours, contemplating another shot at Chimbo for the next day, while asking myself why I had been drinking water from the tap throughout my travels. My stomach was not liking the idea of another summit attempt, and thoughts of the Galapagos Islands were dancing in my head. Chimborazo will be here another day, I thought, and I soon packed my bags for the 3000 foot descent to the highway.
Amid a gusty hailstorm, I giggled as I pranced my way down the trail. If I had been in this situation three years ago, I would have been stressing about my failed summit bid. In fact I probably would have been stubbornly sitting at the high camp, waiting out as long as it took to recover, and missing out on other Ecuadorian adventures for the sake of my climbing resume. I giggled because that was the old me.
When I arrived at the dirt access road, I met up with a Special Forces troop of the Ecuadorian army. They agreed to not only drive me back to the highway, but also let me hitch a ride in the back of their truck for the two hours to Riobamba. As I sat in the back, taking in the hail and carbon dioxide, I listened to the soldiers’ stories. They were on the mountain that day to honor their friend and colleague who had died on Chimborazo the week prior. Descending a technical route of the glacier, he was struck by a refrigerator-sized boulder, tumbling down the mountain. He was an experienced mountaineering instructor, but was caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our conversation dwindled in the second hour of our return home, and I thought about altitude sickness, stomach pains, and the recent death on a mountain that was supposed to be quite straight-forward. Just getting a glimpse of the planet’s highest would be good enough for me that day.