Chimborazo – January 2014

Chimborazo.

Chimborazo, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi.

6310m Chimborazo is a massive inactive volcano, and Ecuador’s highest mountain. Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge Chimborazo’s high-point is the spot located farthest from the Earth’s center, further than the much higher Himalayan peaks due to their more northerly latitude. Given the right time this also makes Chimborazo’s summit the point on earth closest to the sun.

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Chimborazo in the clouds, from the drive to the base of the mountain.

Along with the much lower Illiniza Sur, Chimborazo was one of my primary climbing goals while visiting Ecuador.  I came to Chimborazo thoroughly acclimatized, having spent almost two weeks climbing several of Ecuador’s other 5000+m volcanoes – my detailed climbing itinerary can be seen here.  I had enjoyed great snow conditions and reasonable weather at the beginning of my trip, successfully climbing the Illinizas, Cayambe, and Cotopaxi before travelling to Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest.

Antisana had chased me off with a lightning storm, fog, and abnormally warm air temperatures, leaving me well aware of Ecuador’s potential for rapidly changing weather.   I was nervous about Chimborazo – while the standard route’s technical grade is low, in recent years Chimborazo has gained notoriety for being out of condition.  I had read accounts of a dry route covered in ice, with high objective hazard presented by rockfall.  There was good news however; other climbers and Ecuadorian guides whom I had met at my hostel and on other mountains had informed me that Chimborazo had recently seen snowfall.  Fresh snow once consolidated would prevent rockfall, and also hopefully make for decent climbing conditions.

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My campsite near the parking area.

Day 1:  My climbing partner, Ecuadorian mountain guide Pato, and I were camping at the base of Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest mountain.  We had arrived at Antisana the day before, with the intent of climbing it overnight.  Unfortunately the weather had conspired against us, and I had made the decision to bail.  With no sign of the weather improving we figured that it wasn’t worth sticking around and waiting for one more day, and I decided that instead of taking a day for rest, we may as well head straight to Chimborazo.

From the Reserva Ecologica Antisana we drove for almost six hours to the Reserva de Produccion Faunista Chimborazo, the nature reserve which contains Chimborazo.  Along the way we stopped in Ambato, Pato’s hometown, where we enjoyed a small feast at a local steakhouse.  After a fast check-in at the Chimborazo park gate we arrived at the ~4800m parking area near the base of the mountain, where everything was shrouded in thick afternoon fog.  Most of Ecuador’s more popular mountains are climbed from cabins, or refuges, but both of Chimborazo’s were closed at the time of my visit, so I pitched camp behind a makeshift cabin being used by the construction workers.  The lower Carrel refuge stood close to my campsite, while the higher Whymper refuge was some ~200m up the mountain.

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The incomplete Carrel refuge near my campsite.

I was feeling uncertain of the weather due to the amount of fog, but knew that we had a spare day if we needed it.  I ate a light dinner, filled my water bottles with hot water from the workers’ cabin, and went to sleep early.

Day 2: Awake around 10 p.m., I ate some snacks and began preparing my gear.  The fog had cleared overnight, and the sky shone with thousands of stars.  My stomach was feeling uncomfortable.  I suspect that this was due to the water which I had taken from the workers’ cabin.  This water had been boiled, but was sitting in a very large communal pot.  Not knowing how long the water had been boiled for, or how recently, or whether the water in the pot had ever been changed out, or whether it was clean from numerous groups using it, or even how long it had been sitting, I shouldn’t have taken any.  I had even brought my own water, a 6L bottle bought in the city!  These stomach issues, and by extension a lack of good nutrition prior to beginning, would later contribute to the climb’s difficulty.

We began hiking up the gentle slopes of the lower mountain at 11:00 p.m.  We passed the Whymper refuge around 30 minutes later and soon reached snow.

Below el Castillo, the Veintimilla summit ahead.

Below el Castillo, the Veintimilla summit above.

The lower section of Chimborazo’s standard route is known for rockfall hazard.  This area is only moderately steep, but climbs directly below numerous cliffs of loose rock, among them el Castillo, ‘the castle’, a large cliff / rock formation along the ridge above which frequently sheds boulders down the mountain.  There is only one clear way up past the cliffs, leading some to refer to this section as ‘the corridor’.

Chimborazo106

The slopes below el Castillo.

It was a clear but cold and windy night.  The low air temperature was likely to our benefit however, and we experienced no rockfall below el Castillo.  When everything is frozen solid, otherwise loose rocks tend to be stable.  I was soon climbing in my down parka, utilizing my full layering system to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and between my ski goggles and neck buff had my face completely covered.

Looking down at el Castillo from the ridge above.

Looking down at el Castillo from the ridge above.

With no difficulties in route finding we quickly reached the ridgeline which connects el Castillo and Chimborazo’s Veintimilla summit.  We gained the ridge to the climber’s right of el Castillo, an obvious spot given the steeper terrain on either side of it.  Heading up the ridge we soon discovered that the snow on the ridge was soft and loose, impeding each step upwards with a half-step slide back down.  Several crevasses posed minor obstacles, but they were mostly off-route, easy to see and avoid.  Stretches of the ridge were moderately steep, around 45 degrees at steepest.  The loose snow made climbing physically strenuous, but as wind howled past us we continued upwards, one step at a time, focused.  In darkness and biting wind the soft snow of the ridge seemed to stretch on for an eternity, with Pato and I moving at what felt like a snail’s pace within the tiny spheres of light provided by our headlamps.

Moving up the ridge, the refuge far below.

Higher up the ridge, the refuges far below.

Looking down the ridge.

Looking down the ridge.

Around 5:30 a.m. we finally reached the Veintimilla summit, the first morning light just beginning to glow on the horizon.  Chimborazo has several summits, of which Veintimilla is the second highest.  Chimborazo’s true high-point, the Whymper summit, lies several hundred meters to the east of Veintimilla across a large, flat plateau.  Many climbers reach Veintimilla and stop, without enough time or energy to cross the plateau and attain the true summit just tens of meters higher.  I was well aware of this, and before even coming to Ecuador had been firm in my intent to make a full ascent of Chimborazo and stand upon the Whymper.

As we reached the end of the ridge and level terrain lay in front of us, I was amazed to see an enormous field of penitentes stretching across the summit plateau.  Penitentes are a high altitude snow formation found throughout the Andes, and while I knew that they were a common occurrence on Chimborazo it was a shock to see them in person.  Each around a meter high, they resembled the waves of a stormy ocean and looked daunting to cross.

Looking back across the penitentes towards the Whymper summit.

Penitentes above 6000m.

Standing in pre-dawn glow on the Veintimilla at some ~6270m, physically tired, this new obstacle sprawling before us looked imposing.  My thoughts were racing.  I had prepared hard for this trip.  Months spent training, days upon days climbing stairs, cycling, all of my research, carefully saving money, all for the dream of attaining this summit.  My goal was now visible just a few hundred meters away from me.

Pato, looking across the plateau, said “It’s complicated, it will be tiring.”  We looked at each other, and I started to say “We should give it a shot, let’s wait for the sun to rise.”  Maybe he saw it in my face, or perhaps he knew from climbing with me for the past two weeks; I was certain that I still had the endurance and the willpower to reach Whymper and descend safely.  Before I had finished speaking he said “O.K., let’s go!”

A sea of clouds below fields of penitentes.

A sea of clouds below fields of penitentes.

We started off over the plateau, first slightly downhill and then straight across.  The penitentes were covered in several inches of fresh snow, making them messy to navigate.  The troughs between penitentes made for anything but level terrain, and the crossing was an exhausting follow-up to the loose snow ridge we had ascended earlier.

Looking back at the Veintimilla summit from the Whymper summit.

Looking back at the Veintimilla summit from the Whymper summit.

In spite of the terrain I was feeling fine with the altitude.  Clear headed if physically tired, my thorough acclimatization was paying off.  After some 45 long minutes we had finally crossed the plateau.  At 6:20 a.m. we found ourselves at the Whymper summit, marked with a small wooden sign and a Swedish flag left by other climbers.

The penitente-covered plateau between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits.

The penitente-covered plateau between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits.

The Whymper summit.

The Whymper summit.

Far below us the sun rose behind Carihuairazo.  At 5018m Carihuairazo looked tiny in the distance.

Pato in the Penitentes on the summit.

Pato in the Penitentes on the summit.

Sunrise over Cairhuairazo from the summit.

Sunrise over Carihuairazo from the summit.

We stayed on the summit for about twenty minutes, just enough time to hydrate and take some photographs.  It was early, but still important for us to descend quickly before the sun warmed the mountain and softened the snow.

Tired and happy on the summit.

Tired and happy on the Whymper summit.

I had drunk about a liter of my water on the summit, and as we walked back across the plateau my stomach began to churn.  Alone throughout the entire climb thus far, as we regained the Veintimilla we met two other climbing teams still ascending the mountain.  Both would stop at Veintimilla, it being too late in the day to continue across and still safely descend on firm snow.

Looking back at the Whymper summit from Veintimilla.

Looking back at the Whymper summit from Veintimilla.

Another team approaching the Veintimilla summit.

Another team approaching the Veintimilla summit.

Below Veintimilla we reached the top of the ridge and began to climb down carefully, cautious of the loose snow underfoot.  By now my stomach was boiling, and I stopped to vomit.  This stomach discomfort persisting all the way back to basecamp and throughout the rest of the day.  I cannot be certain what caused my stomach issues, but I strongly suspect that the water I had taken was the culprit.  I considered whether I was suffering altitude sickness, but found it unlikely given my otherwise good condition.  I have experienced nearly debilitating altitude sickness in the past, but have never encountered nausea as a standalone symptom.  In my experience an onset of mountain sickness for me is always characterized first by ataxia, and then by headache – neither of which were present.

Clouds and penitentes.

Clouds and penitentes.

After being sick I immediately felt much better, but dehydrated.  Drinking more water, my stomach almost immediately began to complain again – it seemed that the descent would be an uncomfortable one.

Looking back up the ridge towards the Veintimilla summit on descent.  Zoomed in, the other team can be seen descending near the middle of the ridge.

On descent, looking back up the ridge towards the Veintimilla summit. Zoomed in, another team can be seen descending near the middle of the ridge.

The sun warmed us up and the air temperature rose quickly.  Partway down the ridge I removed all of my warmth layers and continued in only a base layer and a fleece.  Far below us the two refuges and the workers’ cabin could be seen at the base of the mountain, my tent a tiny speck.

The workers' hut and my campsite are top right, near the cars.  The two refuges are center and left.

The workers’ hut and my campsite are top right, near the cars. The two refuges are center and left.

As we reached the bottom of the ridge we decided to descend via a longer variation, following the ridge below the base of el Castillo all the way down.  This would make the descent around 45 minutes longer, but much safer due to the softening snow and potential for rockfall on the slopes below el Castillo.  The ridge past el Castillo is very gently sloped, which also made this variation easier on the knees, and generally more comfortable after our tiring ascent.

Following the ridge down, passing underneath el Castillo.

Following the ridge down, passing underneath el Castillo.

We returned to camp at 10:30 a.m., where I drank a litre of my bottled water, ate some bread, and took a 20 minute nap before packing up for the drive back to Machachi.  Chimborazo was a physically challenging climb, more than I had expected it to be. In particular the loose, soft snow on the ridgeline and the fields of penitentes on the summit plateau presented tests of endurance on less than ideal conditions.  With both refuges closed the climb was long, covering more than 1500m of gain.  At the end the challenge added to the reward; my preparation, training, and planning had been sufficient.  I was delighted to have realized my goal of reaching the Whymper summit, and very pleased to finish my climbing trip with a successful ascent of Ecuador’s highest.

Driving towards Chimborazo.

Driving towards Chimborazo.

Accessibility

Chimborazo, aside from its variable conditions and high altitude, is one of Ecuador’s more accessible mountains.  Good nearby road infrastructure makes accessing the park and mountain relatively straightforward. The refuges, if open, would make overnighting at the base of the mountain relatively comfortable. Climbing Chimborazo involves glacier travel at high altitude, and good acclimatization is essential to a safe and successful climb.  The conditions on the normal route are known to be variable, and the potential for rockfall is definitely there.  Recent snowfall made the mountain safer during my ascent, but also contributed to the difficulty of the ridge and penitente fields.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas. The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. I experienced cold, strong winds on Chimborazo.  The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but even windier. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had managed to get past the park gate and onto the mountain, but this is strongly discouraged, and the national parks strictly enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers whom they catch.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

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