Climbing the glaciers to the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador isn't highly technical. It is mountaineering, but how hard can it be, considering I went to 20,600 feet the first time I used crampons and an ice axe? Okay, I used them once for practice, on a sledding hill near my house. I climbed forty feet while people walked by with their sleds, telling their kids to stay away from me.
It's also easier to climb when the guide drives you to 15,000 feet. Don't get me wrong. Climbing the last 5,600 feet was incredibly difficult, but not for the skill required. The air missing half of its oxygen is what had me quitting twenty times on the way up. It just gets difficult to move up there.
The Chimborazo Graveyard
The monuments near the first refuge weren't for climbers without skill. The graveyard is a warning of the unpredictability of all high places. Chimborazo is very high, it randomly shruggs off large rocks, and has weather that changes by the minute. While hiking to the second refuge, we could hear the rocks and pieces of ice falling somewhere above.
El Refugio Edward Whymper is an unheated hut at 16,000 feet, named after the English climber who first summitted the mountain. Okay, it isn't entirely unheated. There's a fireplace, and if somebody feels like carrying wood up to 5000 meters, the fire may raise the temperature in the hut by 3 degrees.
We had hot mugs of "mate de coca" a tea of coca leaves, which are also used to make another product - one that's taken up the nose. We went hiking for twenty minutes - my acclimatization. We ate, and I slept for an hour before starting the ascent at eleven that night.
About Mount Chimborazo
Chimborazo is in Ecuador, near the Equator (100 miles south). The elevation in the center of the country, and the moderating effect of the Humboldt Current along the coast, gives the country near perfect weather. A bit hot in the lowlands, but spring-like in Quito (the capital) , with highs in the sixties to low seventies every day of the year. Great weather almost everywhere--until you get high enough.
The summit of Chimborazo is the furthest point from the center of the Earth. Our planet bulges at the equator, making Mount Chimborazo even futher out there than Everest. It has the distinction of being the closest point to the sun on the planet. Unfortunately, it's also the coldest place in Ecuador.
Paco, my guide, didn't care for the lightweight part of my mountain climbing adventure. He frowned at my sleeping bag, which packed up smaller than a football, and weighed a pound. My 13-ounce frameless backpack didn't impress him either. It did get below freezing in the hut, just as he said it would, but I stayed warm - as I said I would. No problems so far.
Unfortunately, Paco didn't speak any English, and I was just learning Spanish. Since our whole group consisted of him and me, we had 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 I was a mountain climber.
I think he said he didn't like the papery rainsuit I was using, and he frowned at my homemade ski mask. When he saw my insulating vest, a feathery piece of poly batting with a hole cut in it for my head, I just pretended not to understand what he was saying.
I hadn't intended to go climb Chimborazo with such lightweight gear, but I'd come to Ecuador on a courier flight, and could bring only carry-on luggage. I had12 pounds in my pack to begin with, so 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. Paco had to coax me up that mountain.
Hiking On Glaciers
The glaciers start near the hut, and hiking became mountaineering. I put on crampons for the second time in my life (there was that sledding hill). During one of my many breaks ("Demasiado" - too many, which I pretended not to understand), I noticed my tiny, cheap thermometer had bottomed out at 5 degrees fahrenheit. I wasn't cold, but I was exhausted at times - the times when I moved. When I sat still I felt like I could run right up that hill.
We struggled (okay, I struggled) up Mount Chimborazo, hiking, climbing, jumping crevasses, until I quit at 20,000 feet. Of course I had quit at 19,000 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 only fifty feet higher. I wanted to believe him, or the lack of oxygen had scrambled my brain. I started up the ice again.
The Summit of Mount Chimborazo
We stumbled onto the summit at dawn. Well, okay, I stumbled. Paco, who seemed slow and tired down at the refuge, was energetic at 20,600 feet. Dirtbag Joe, a nineteen-year-old kid from California with ten bucks in his pocket, borrowed equipment, and my Ramen noodles in his stomach, was waiting for us, smiling.
The sky was a stunning shade of blue you can never see at lower elevations. Cotapaxi, a classic snow-covered volcano, was clearly visible 70 miles away. We enjoyed the view for a few minutes.
Handshakes all around, and it was time to head down. I was told you don't want to be on Chimborazo when she wakes up. She wakes up at nine a.m.
Paco kept looking at his watch and frowning. He got further and further ahead, like he planned to abandon me on the mountain. When I finally caught up, at the hut at nine a.m., I heard the rocks falling out of the ice above as the sun warmed it. Now I understood - we really did need to get down by nine. A thousand feet lower my mountain climbing adventure ended with a photograph that mercifully can't show my shaking knees.
To climb Mount Chimborazo, it's cheapest to wait until you get to Ecuador to make arrangements. Talk to almost any hotel manager in Riobamba, and he or she will find a guide for you. It's also cheaper if you're part of a group.
Steve Gillman is a long-time backpacker, and advocate of ultralight backpacking. His advice and stories can be found at http://www.TheBackpackingSite.com