This story begins in one go.
On the way back from Machu Picchu, I sat in the train and talked to the man next to me about tips from Ecuador. He said he and his girlfriend climbed Cotopaxi and it was the worst of all.
Then on one of the Travel talk on Twitter (#ttot) Discussions, another traveler mentioned Cotopaxi as the toughest, miserable hike. Perverse, I really wanted to climb Cotopaxi now.
In a way, I just wanted to see it for myself. There are also some nice pictures to take. Then I met Dan and Josh in Mancora, Peru, who had just come from Ecuador. Since I was involved in that twisted Cotopaxi kick, I asked if they had climbed it. They replied, no, that they were climbing Chimborazo, an even higher mountain. BUT the highest point from the center of the earth because of the equatorial bulge. 2.1 km higher than the summit of Everest!
I loved it right away, but it took me the next week to talk to them about it to really seal the deal.
I must now point out that I am in no way a mountaineer. I’m not even a huge fan of trekking.
I wanted to climb a mountain for four reasons: Achievement, badge of honor – the highest earthly person from the center of the earth, the term “equatorial bulge” and the photos.
Over Mount Chimborazo
Chimborazowith a peak of 6,300 m, is the highest mountain in Ecuador and as I mentioned earlier, because of the equatorial bulge of the earth, it is the farthest point on the earth from the center of the earth. Located one degree south of the equator, it is currently an inactive volcano (last erupted in 550 AD) located in the Cordillera Occidental Mountains of the Andes. It is considered to be 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 Gringoas I was so pleased with my Galapagos trip through them. It was a little expensive when I was climbing alone, but they included everything, all equipment and even winter clothing that I don’t have with me. I still needed socks, gloves, and a hat, so I ventured into The North Face store down the street from Happy Gringo.
This was the first time I was laughed at for trying to climb Chimborazo with no experience.
However, I got a 30% discount on my stuff, so all in all … WIN! Next, Marcelo and I went to the equipment store to try on my climbing gear. They laughed at me too and stared in disbelief when I said I would climb Chimborazo as my first mountain. They called my guide to make sure he knew he had a first timer.
The last time I was laughed at by a mountaineer (He had just climbed Cotopaxi and climbed Chimborazo later that week) who suggested I train on the Teleferico in Quito on Friday. I told him I was taking altitude medication and my workout would consist of massage, sauna, movies, and rest. Each his own, right ?!
Climbing Chimborazo: How it went
On Saturday I met my guide Hugo at Condor Trekk to pick up my equipment. From there we drove the four hours from Quito to Chimborazo, stopping for lunch on the way and filling ourselves with groceries for dinner and climbing snacks.
On the drive, my nerves had been replaced by excitement.
The kind of nervous, exhilarating energy you get right before a competition. Not that I’ve competed in any serious competition since high school unless of course we count college intramurals, flag football, or my WAKA kickball stint in six seasons (and in which case we were tacos at the Flip Cup -Table more competitive than we were in the field). The only nerves left was the altitude …the unknown factor of whether my body can climb 6,300 meters.
Oh, and those 10-12 hours of hiking that lay ahead of me. We passed Cotopaxi on our drive and my first words were shiiiiiiiiit. This is a giant! And it’s smaller (400m) and easier than Chimborazo. I started to wonder what I was getting into.
I knew Chimborazo would be difficult to climb. I’m just not sure I really understood how hard it was going to be. In the late afternoon we reached the first refuge, which is 4,800 m high. We sometimes put on our climbing equipment, repacked our suitcases and made our way to the second refuge at 5,000 m, where we would eat and “sleep” before the hike. It was a bit difficult from the first base camp to the second. It was uphill and my backpack was heavy.
Oh and “Let’s go! You can do this!”
Truly being my own cheerleader. At this point, Chimborazo was still hiding behind a layer of clouds and fog. We got to the refuge in time to watch a unique sunset with clouds, almost as if they were eating the sun.
After Hugo prepared us a delicious dinner of pasta, pumpkin and chicken, we got ready for bed, which would last from 7:30 pm to 10:30 pm. I had just brushed my teeth when Hugo asked me to come outside and look at something.
View of Mount Chimborazo
The night was completely clear and Chimborazo magically stood before me and was surrounded in all its 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 god, crap (I think … THAT I have to climb ?!). The picture I wanted to take doesn’t do it justice as it was a wonderful sight.
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 resulted in getting up and going to the bathroom three times during my sleep. As tired as I was, I just couldn’t sleep. Then at 10:30 p.m. my alarm went off.
Nothing goes here, sleep or no sleep.
We got ready, left nonessential items in the sanctuary, and had breakfast.
Come on time!
The first 30 minutes of the hike are relatively easyespecially compared to the others. We were lucky and had a perfect night for climbing, clear weather, cold but not absurdly cold and not much wind (at least not yet …). It got steeper and was filled with large and loose stones and after about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, We entered the glacier.
When we entered the glacier, we stopped to put on our crampons (which made my load a lot easier) and continued climbing through the glacier for a few hours. There is ice, it is steep, tons of stones and I am tied with a rope to my guide Hugo who does my best to put one foot in front of the other.
Our group from the refuge started out as four climbers and three guides. All other climbers outside of me had climbed Cotopaxi before, along with many other mountains.
While he was in the glacier, one of the boys turned around.
Towards the end of the rocky section of the glacier, we officially had to use our ice ax to dig into a tower (which sure felt like a tower) made of ice and pull myself up. On flat land, maybe easy, but after hours of climbing it destroyed every piece of energy I had built up from our last break.
Next came the “easy” flat, but still terribly uphill section, which we crossed sideways. After hours of climbing (not sure what time it was) we made it to the ridge. Over 5,600 m, but that’s a shear guess. My body and brain felt like mush at this point. We rested on the ridge and put on extra clothes (an extra layer of gloves, another jacket, and my face mask under my hat), ate some chocolate, and drank some moisture.
At that moment I could see the beautiful night sky around me with a crystal clear shot of the Southern Cross.
Maybe my favorite constellation if I had a favorite.
OK, now it was time to make the climb snow-covered animal.
On the ridge (which seemed annoyingly narrow) the wind (hence the extra layers) started and was pretty miserable. There was great lightning in the distance, but my guide said we were above it and protected from the storm. We kept trudging up a VERY steep mountain (I’d dare to guess a 75% incline) trying to keep one foot in front of the other.
I was listening to the playlist on my iPod of music a friend sent me and I think that might be the only thing that kept me calm. Otherwise there were a lot of four-letter words,
My guide Hugo and I were about the same level as English and 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 me moving fast as i could but my legs were wobbly and i wanted a piggyback ride. Ha! No, seriously, I asked. We climbed another rock face, which I only knew how steep it was on the way back and the steeper snow climbing.
When we reached 5,800m I asked for quiet (again … I rested LOT) and when we sat down Hugo said he didn’t think we’d get to the top for another three or four hours. He thought we should go back.
It was already 6:30 am and when we reached the summit the conditions were not good to return and he feared I would not make it.
At that point I was crying.
I cried because we would not make it to the top and my goal of being the furthest person from the center of the earth would not be achieved. I cried because I wasn’t going to get the amazing landscape photo from the peak that I had dreamed of. But mostly I cried because I knew Hugo was right. I was dead at the time. My hands were frozen. I was awake for 24 hours and my body ached.
It was weird because I never felt like I was gasping for air and when we got rest I would get up and feel like I could recharge the mountain. Ten steps later, however, I would gasp again and feel like I needed another break. We took a few photos at 5,800m and then started the ascent again.
I think this is the real son of a bitch about mountaineering. When you get up, you have to climb back down.
There is no elevator or helicopter (I asked if we could call one to pick us up) that could topple you. And while I was telling Hugo that it would be so much easier for me to go down and that I had tons more energy, it turned out that I was lying. I slid down two patches of pristine snow like a child while Hugo was behind me with the rope. This part was a lot of fun. The rest wasn’t. When we got back into the rocky glacier it was incredibly difficult to walk with the crampons, my ankles killed me and I wanted to rest, but Hugo kept yelling at me to keep going because it was dangerous.
Rock falls were possible or a loose rock could hit me in the head. One actually flew past my ear. I rolled my ankle on a rock and somersaulted down but luckily Hugo caught me after a punch and I was fine except for a couple of large bruises on my right side. Most importantly, the camera was OK in my bag (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 mountaineering, we made it back to the upper refuge. I dropped to the floor and was then taken to the caretaker’s bed to have a cup of tea. We rested, gathered energy, and made our way to the lower refuge. The fog had rolled in so I couldn’t get a clear picture of Chimborazo in all its glory during the day.
One day on the way down, visitors to the refuges asked me about my ascent and asked me to take a photo with me. I felt pretty special.
Eventually I made it back to the first refuge and died again.
The toughest eleven hours of my life.
I’m sure running out of sleep with fumes didn’t help. There were three guys training for Everest (they camped on the summit the night I hiked) and climbed back to Chimborazo the same day as me, and we had a chat. When I told them that Chimborazo was my “Primera Montaña” they all stared and asked why I chose such a hard mountain for my first attempt and not just climbed Cotopaxi. I just smiled and replied: “Because everyone climbs on Cotopaxi and I wanted to be the highest earthly person from the center of the earth.”
Go big or go home, right ?! As it turns out, this logic doesn’t apply to mountaineering.
With zero experience and zero training, I’m pretty proud that I made it to 5,800m even though I didn’t reach the summit. It was the most difficult thing, physically and mentally, that I have ever done.
Proud of me and my only attempt to climb Chimborazo!
Maybe I should try Cotopaxi now and compare the two ?!
Okay, I think I officially went insane.