Climbing Chimborazo: A Non-Mountain Climber’s Tale and The HARDEST Eleven Hours of my Life
This story begins on a train.
Sitting on the train on the way back from Machu Picchu, I got to chatting with the guy next to me about Ecuador tips. He said he & his girlfriend climbed Cotopaxi and it was the most miserable thing ever.
Then, on one of the Travel Talk on Twitter (#ttot) discussions, another traveler mentioned Cotopaxi as the hardest, most miserable trek. Perversely, I was kinda keen on climbing Cotopaxi now.
In some ways, I guess I just wanted to see for myself. Plus, there are some pretty pictures to be taken. Then, in Mancora, Peru, I met Dan and Josh who had just come from Ecuador. Since I was on this twisted Cotopaxi kick, I asked if they climbed it. They replied, no that they climbed Chimborazo, an even higher mountain. BUT, the highest point from the center of the earth because of the equatorial bulge. 2.1km higher than the summit of Everest!
I was hooked immediately, but it took the next week of hanging out and talking to them more about it to really seal the deal.
I must point out now, that I am in no way, shape or form, a mountain climber. I’m not even all that huge a fan of trekking.
I was going to climb a mountain for four reasons: achievement, the badge of honor – highest terrestrial human from the center of the Earth, the term ‘equatorial bulge,’ and the photos.
About Mount Chimborazo
Chimborazo, with a peak of 6,300m, is the highest mountain in Ecuador and like I noted before, due to the Earth’s equatorial bulge, it is the furthest terrestrial point from the center of the Earth. Located one degree south of the equator, it is a currently an inactive volcano (last eruption in 550AD) located in the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes. She is considered one of the most difficult mountains to climb in Ecuador.
Climbing Chimborazo as a first-time climber
I booked my tour to Chimborazo with Marcelo at Happy Gringo, since I had been so pleased with my Galapagos trip through them. It was slightly pricey, as I was climbing by myself, but they included everything, all the gear and even winter clothes, which I don’t have with me. I still needed to get socks, gloves and a hat, so I ventured to The North Face store down the street from Happy Gringo.
This was the first case of me being laughed at for wanting to climb Chimborazo with zero experience.
I did however get a 30% discount on my stuff, so all in all…WIN! Next Marcelo and I headed to the gear shop to try on my things for the climb. They too laughed at me and stared in disbelief when I said I was climbing Chimborazo as my first mountain. They called my guide to make sure he knew he had a first timer.
Lastly, I was laughed at by a ‘fellow’ mountaineer (he had just climbed Cotopaxi and was climbing Chimborazo later in the week) who suggested I train by hiking up Teleferico in Quito on Friday. I told him I was taking altitude medication and my training would consist of a massage, sauna, movies and rest. To each his own, right?!
Climbing Chimborazo: How it went
On Saturday, I met my guide, Hugo at Condor Trekk to pick up my gear. From there, we drove the four-ish hours from Quito to Chimborazo, stopping along the way for lunch and stocking up on groceries for dinner and climbing snacks.
On the drive, my nerves had been replaced with excitement.
The kind of nervous, exciting energy you get right before a competition. Not that I’ve been in any serious competition since high school, unless of course we count college intramurals, flag football, or my six-season WAKA kickball stint (and in that case, us Tacos were more competitive at the flip cup table than we were on the field). The only nerves that remained were the ones concerning altitude…the unknown factor of if my body can handle 6300 meters.
Oh, and that 10-12 hours of hiking that laid ahead of me. We passed Cotopaxi on our drive and my first words were shiiiiiiiiit. That is a giant! And it’s smaller (400m) and ‘easier’ than Chimborazo. I began to question what I’d gotten myself into.
I knew climbing Chimborazo would be hard, I’m just not sure I actually fully grasped how hard it would be. We reached the first refuge, which is 4,800m, late in the afternoon. We partially changed into our climbing gear and repacked our bags and set off for the second refuge at 5,000m, where we’d be eating and ‘sleeping’ before the hike. From the first base camp to the second was a bit tough. It was uphill and my pack was heavy.
Oh, and “Let’s go! You can do this!”
Really being my own cheerleader. At this point, Chimborazo was still hiding behind a layer of clouds and fog. We did get up to the refuge in time to watch a very unique sunset with clouds rolling over it, almost like they were eating the sun.
After Hugo fixed us a delicious pasta, squash, and chicken dinner, we began getting ready for bed, which would last from 7:30-10:30pm. I had just finished brushing my teeth when Hugo called for me to come outside and look at something.
Viewing Mount Chimborazo
The night was completely clear and Chimborazo stood in front of me looking magical, surrounded in all her glory by a clear sky filled with hundreds of stars.
It was a breathtakingly beautiful sight. The first words out of my mouth were, oh my gosh, crap (thinking…THAT’S what I have to climb?!). The picture I tried to take doesn’t do it justice, as it was a wondrous sight to view.
I tried to sleep for a few hours, but made the rookie mistake of having green tea with dinner because I was cold, which in turn caused me to have to get up and go to the bathroom three times during my sleep period. As tired as I was, sleep just wasn’t coming. Then, at 10:30pm, my alarm went off.
Here goes nothing, sleep or no sleep.
We got ready, leaving non-essential items at the refuge, and had breakfast.
The first 30 minutes or so of the hike is relatively easy, especially when compared to the rest. We got lucky and had a perfect night for climbing, clear weather, cold, but not absurdly cold and not a whole lot of wind (at least not yet…). It started to get steeper and was filled with big and loose rocks and after around an hour, maybe hour and a half, we entered the glacier.
Upon entering the glacier, we stopped to put on our crampons (which lightened my load considerably) and continued climbing through the glacier for a few hours. There’s ice, it’s steep, tons of rocks and I’m tied to my guide Hugo with a rope making my best effort to put one foot in front of another.
Our group from the refuge started out as four climbers and three guides. All of the other climbers outside of me had previously climbed Cotopaxi, along with a lot of other mountains.
While in the glacier, one of the guys turned back.
Towards the end of the rocky glacier section, we had to officially use our ice picks to dig into a tower (it sure felt like a tower) of ice and hoist myself over. On flat land, maybe simple, but after hours of climbing uphill, it destroyed every shred of energy I had built up from our last rest.
Next was the “easy” flat-ish, but still horribly, uphill section that we traversed across sideways. After hours (I’m not sure what time it was) of climbing, we made it to the ridge. About 5,600m. But that is a shear guess. My body, and brain, felt like mush at this point. We rested on the ridge and put on additional clothing (an extra glove layer, another jacket and my facemask for under my hat), ate some chocolate and hydrated.
Sitting at this moment, I was able to take in the beautiful night sky around me, with a crystal clear shot of the Southern Cross.
Perhaps, my favorite constellation, if I were to have a favorite.
Okay, now it was time to tackle the uphill, snowy beast.
On the ridge (which seemed disturbingly narrow), the wind started (hence, the extra layers) and was pretty miserable. There was huge lightening in the distance, but my guide said we were above it and were protected from the storm. We kept trudging along up a VERY steep mountain (I’d venture to guess about a 75% incline), trying to keep one foot in front of the other.
I was listening to playlist on my iPod from music a friend sent me and I think that might be the only thing that was keeping me calm. Otherwise, it was a lot of four-letter words,
My guide Hugo and I were on about the same level of English to Spanish, and sometimes he didn’t think I had confidence that he was telling me the truth from experience, and sometimes I didn’t think he understood that I was moving as fast as I could, but my legs were jello and that I wanted a piggyback ride. Ha! No, seriously, I asked. We scaled another rock wall, which I didn’t fully realize how steep it was until the way back down, and more steep, snow climbing.
When we reached 5,800m (19,000ft), I asked to rest (again…I rested A LOT), and when we sat down, Hugo said, he didn’t think we’d reach the summit for another three-four hours and he thought we should go back.
It was already 6:30am and once we got to the summit, the conditions for getting back down wouldn’t be good and he was afraid I wouldn’t make it.
At this point, I cried.
I cried because we weren’t going to make it to the summit and my goal of being the furthest terrestrial human from the center of the Earth wouldn’t be reached. I cried because I wouldn’t get the amazing landscape photo from the summit I had been dreaming about. But mostly, I cried because I knew Hugo was correct. I was dead at that point. My hands were frozen. I’d been awake for 24-hours straight and my body ached.
It was weird, because I never felt like I was gasping for breath and when we would rest, I’d get up and feel like I could CHARGE the mountain. Ten steps later, however, I’d be back to panting and feeling like I needed another rest. We took a bunch of pictures at 5,800m and then started our climb back down.
I think that’s the real son of a bitch about mountain climbing, once you get up, you have to climb back down.
There’s no elevator or helicopter (I did ask if we could call one to come get us) that can bring you down. And while I told Hugo that going down would be so much easier for me and that I’d have tons more energy, it turns out I lied. I slid down two patches of untracked snow like a kid, while Hugo was behind me with the rope. That part was lots of fun. The rest wasn’t. Once we got back into the rocky glacier area, it was incredibly hard to walk with the crampons, my ankles were killing me and I wanted to rest, but Hugo kept yelling at me to keep going because it was dangerous.
Rockslides were possible or a loose rock could hit me in the head. One actually did fly by my ear. I rolled my ankle on a rock and did a somersault down, but thankfully, Hugo caught me after one flip, and I was fine, save for some large bruises on my right side. Most importantly, the camera in my bag was fine (I didn’t want to have to make a THIRD trip to a Nikon store on this RTW adventure).
After ten and a half SOLID hours of mountain climbing, we made it back to the upper refuge. I collapsed on the floor and was then moved to the caretaker’s bed for a cup of tea. We rested, gathered energy and started off for the lower refuge. The fog had rolled in, so I couldn’t get a clear daytime shot of Chimborazo in all her splendor.
On the way down, some day visitors to the refuges asked me about my climb and asked to take a picture with me. Made me feel pretty special.
Finally, I made it back to the first refuge and died again.
The HARDEST eleven hours of my life.
I’m sure it didn’t help that I was running on fumes from no sleep. There were three guys training for Everest (they camped at the summit the night I hiked), climbing back down Chimborazo the same day as me and we chatted a bit. When I told them Chimborazo was my ‘primera montaña’ they all stared and asked why I’d picked such a hard mountain for my first try and not just climbed Cotopaxi. I just smiled and replied, “because everyone climbs Cotopaxi and I wanted to be the highest terrestrial human from the center of the Earth.”
Go big, or go home, right?! As it turns out, that logic doesn’t apply to mountain climbing.
With zero experience and zero training, I’m pretty freaking proud that I made it to 5,800m, despite not reaching the summit. It was the most physically and mentally challenging thing I’ve ever done.
Proud of myself and my one shot at climbing Chimborazo!
Now, perhaps, I should try Cotopaxi and compare the two?!
Okay, I think I’ve officially gone crazy.