The climb up the glaciers to the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador isn't considered highly technical. Technically, it is mountaineering, but how hard could it be, considering that I went to 20,600 feet the first time I used crampons and an ice axe? Okay, I had used them once for practice, on a sledding hill near my house. I climbed almost forty feet while people walked by with their sleds, warning their kids to stay away from me.
Driving Up Mount Chimborazo
It is easier to climb a mountain when the guide drives you to 15,000 feet. Don't get me wrong. Climbing that last 5,600 feet was one of the most difficult things I've done, but not for the skill required. The fact that the air was missing half of its oxygen is what had me quitting twenty or thirty times on the way up Chimborazo. It just gets difficult to move up there.
The little monuments near the first refuge weren't for climbers without skill. The graveyard is a testament to the unpredictability of all high places. Chimborazo is very high, it randomly drops large rocks on you, and has weather that changes by the minute. Even as we were hiking to the second refuge, we could hear the rocks and pieces of ice falling somewhere above.
El Refugio Edward Whymper is a simple, unheated hut at 16,000 feet, named after the English climber who first made it to the summit of the mountain. Okay, it isn't entirely unheated. There is a fireplace, and when somebody feels like carrying wood up to 5000 meters, the fire might raise the temperature in the hut by 3 degrees.
We had "mate de coca" a tea made of coca leaves, which are also known for another product made from them--one that is taken up the nose. Then we went hiking for a short while. That was my acclimatization. We ate, and I slept for at least an hour before starting the ascent at eleven that night.
A Little About Mount Chimborazo
Chimborazo is in Ecuador, not far from the Equator (100 miles south). The elevation in the center of the country, and the moderating effect of the Humboldt Current, which runs along the west side of South America, gives the country near perfect weather. A bit hot along the coast and lowlands, but spring--like in Quito (the capital) , with daily highs in the sixties to low seventies year--round. Wonderful weather almost everywhere--until you get high enough.
Chimborazo, at it's peak, 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, and yet still the coldest place in Ecuador.
Paco, my guide, didn't like the lightweight part of this mountain climbing adventure. He frowned when he saw my sleeping bag, which packed up smaller than a football, and weighed a pound. My frameless backpack didn't seem to impress him either (13 ounces). In any case, although it did get below freezing in the hut, just as he said it would, I stayed warm--as I said I would. No problems so far.
Unfortunately, Paco didn't speak a word of English, and I was just learning Spanish. Since our whole group consisted of him and me, we did have 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 that I was a mountain climber.
I think he was saying that he didn't like the papery rainsuit I was using as a shell, and he frowned at my homemade 1--ounce ski mask. When he saw me putting on my insulating vest, a feathery piece of poly batting with a hole cut in it for my head...well, I just pretended not to understand what he was saying.
I hadn't intended to go climb up Mount Chimborazo with such lightweight gear, but I had come to Ecuador on a courier flight, and could bring only carry-on luggage. Since I had only 12 pounds in the pack to begin with, 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 irrelevant. Paco had to coax me up that mountain.
Hiking On Glaciers
The glaciers start a short walk from the hut, and hiking soon 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 when Paco explained in Spanish), I noticed that the tiny, cheap thermometer I carried 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 mountain.
We struggled (okay, I struggled) up Mount Chimborazo, hiking, climbing, jumping over crevasses, until I finally 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 just fifty feet higher. Maybe I wanted to believe him, or maybe the lack of oxygen had scrambled my brain. In any case, I started up the ice again.
On Top Of Mount Chimborazo
We stumbled onto the summit at dawn. Well, okay, I stumbled. Paco, who seemed somewhat frail down at the refuge, was in his element at 20,600 feet. Dirtbag Joe, the nineteen-year-old kid from California with ten dollars in his pocket, borrowed equipment, and my Ramen noodles in his stomach, was waiting for us with a smile.
The sky was a stunning shade of blue that you actually can never see at lower elevations. Cotapaxi, a classic snow-covered volcano to the north, was clearly visible 70 or 80 miles away. Handshakes all around, and it was time to get off the mountain. I was told you don't want to be on Mount Chimborazo when she wakes up. She wakes up at nine a.m.
Paco kept looking at his watch and frowning. He told me to hurry, then he got further and further ahead. I thought he was going to abandon me on the mountain. When I finally caught up to him at the hut at nine a.m., I began to hear the rocks fall out of the ice above as the sun warmed it. Now I understood his concern with time. We really did need to get down to the refuge by nine. A thousand feet lower and my mountain climbing adventure ended with a photograph that mercifully doesn't show my shaking knees.
If you want to climb Mount Chimborazo, it is cheapest to wait until you get to Ecuador to make arrangements. Talk to almost any hotel owner or manager in Riobamba, and he or she will find a guide for you. It will be cheaper if you are part of a group, of course.
For more information and stories about Ecuador, you can visit the pages, "Information On Ecuador," and "Banos Ecuador" on the website http://www.EverythingAboutTravel.com
Steve Gillman first hit the road on his own when at sixteen, and traveled alone across the United States and Mexico at 17. Now 40, he continues to travel and backpack with his wife Ana, whom he met in Ecuador. Many of his stories, plus tips and information on travel and lightweight backpacking, can be found on his websites, http://www.EverythingAboutTravel.com, and http://www.TheUltralightBackpackingSite.com