Summiting Chimborazo – Fulfilling a Dream
My first attempt at summiting Chimborazo failed at 5700m in altitude. I had been meticulous in my planning, from acclimatization to training hard in the prior months. So you could say I was well prepared. But on summit night, the weather had not played along. The heavy snow fall in the evening had weighed on my partner’s mind and in his own words “getting buried in an avalanche is not worth the risk”. So shortly after midnight, he turned his back on the summit and stomped back down the mountain. I followed suit. I was rather pissed off, but as the saying goes ‘the mountain will always be there’ and two years later I would eventually make my way back to Chimborazo to fulfill a dream.
First attempt at summiting Chimborazo in January 2017
In December 2016, I had come to Ecuador in an attempt at summiting Chimborazo in the Cordillera Occidental. It is the highest mountain in Ecuador, and stands boldly at 6268m. I realized quickly that climbing Chimborazo would be a mammoth task. Base camp or the Carrel refuge is situated at 4800m and is the main point from which climbers depart for the main (or Whymper) summit. This is done in a single push so on summit day one has to ascend 1500 vertical meters. It is not surprising that I have met many folk who have failed to make it. I estimate the summit success rate on Chimborazo to be around 50-60%. Other than pure fatigue, weather plays a big factor in failures on Chimborazo. High winds and heavy snow fall being the main culprits.
Second attempt in January 2019
So when I returned to Ecuador to start my adventure company, I got wind that a group of climbers from Quito were going to climb Chimborazo in late January 2019. They were going to hike to 5300m and camp on the Southwest ridge. Then make a push to the summit the following morning. This I thought may be a good option as you split the peak up into two sizable chunks. Energized by the thought of finally fulfilling a dream, I started to train with some urgency. This included hiking up Rucu Pichincha (4690m) with a 15 kg backpack twice per week in January as part of the training.
Good acclimatization is EVERYTHING!
The climbing group that I was joining were leaving Quito on a Saturday and summiting Chimborazo the following morning (Sunday). They had climbed Cotopaxi (5890m) the previous weekend and were using Chimborazo as a training peak for Aconcagua (6950m). I reckoned it would be a bit severe for me go from 2800 to 6268m in two days. So I decided to make my own acclimatization arrangements.
I left Quito on the Wednesday and made my way to Riobamba where I spent the night at Casa Condor (3800m). The next day I caught a bus to Chimborazo main entrance at 4400m. From here it is possible to get a jeep to the Carrel Refuge. I prefer to ascend slowly, so I decided to walk base camp which took about two hours. It is quite desolate, with many vincunas roaming across the altiplano. The weather was perfect and I prayed that it would hold. I spent two nights at the Carrel refuge (one night probably would have been fine) and acclimatized on Thursday afternoon by hiking to 5000m and on Friday morning to 5400m.
On Saturday afternoon I met the group at Carrel refuge and together we hiked towards high camp. I was feeling strong and the weather seemed to be holding, so I was positive that I would be summiting Chimborazo this time. Two hours later we reached high camp which was situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the valleys to the south. The views up there are special and the sunset in the south of Ecuador that Saturday will forever be in my mind. It was spectacular.
An alpine start
After a four hour rest (and not much sleep) in our tents, I got up at 12h30. The weather was perfect. I felt the psyche building and I was still feeling strong. By 1 am I was ready to head out with my guide, Paul. The first part of the route is along a narrow path that sort of clings to the side of a cliff face. It is rather loose and with the potential of rock fall from above. It was a bit unnerving. Every now and then I would scan the depths below me with my headlamp and the light would get lost in the murky darkness.
About an hour later we topped out onto a col and were confronted with the most technical part of the climb – a short steep rock face covered in ice. It is not difficult to surpass, but the few seconds of ice climbing at 5600m left me gasping for air. After composing myself, I confronted the business end of summiting Chimborazo, the ascent of a glacier on the south west ridge that that leads to the lower or Veintimilla summit at 6227m. Its not technical at grade PD, but it is unrelenting with angles up to 60 degrees in places. Paul and I made our way up slowly carving many switchbacks. The snow conditions were just perfect – soft enough to get a good bite with my crampons, but not too soft that you sank through.
As we made our way up, I could admire the lights of small towns in the far distance. However the South face of Chimborazo lurked to the right below us, so I needed to be careful in making good crampon placements. There were two climbers ahead of us. Every now and again the light from their headlamps would disappear and I would think “yeah, they have reached the first summit!” and then a few minutes later I would see some lights above and be like “Damn, false summit”. There were many of these moments and they started to play with my mind.
The going was slow, passing 100 vertical meters every 30 minutes or so. I didn’t eat or drink much – which was not a good strategy. Actually my drinking water had frozen and had become like slushy ice. Not far below the first summit, I stopped to put on my down jacket. I now had four layers of clothing on me. It was cold and my pace had slowed considerably. Every step was tiring and I was getting lethargic. But we had to keep moving. Mountaineering is a battle in one’s own mind.
Eventually Whymper summit
Eventually we broke the 6000m mark and then reached the Veintimilla summit. What was elation, soon turned into despair as I saw how much farther it was to the main summit! We had to traverse a few football fields into a dip and then climb another 100m higher. Damn, I still had work to do. However summit fever had kicked and not too long after, I was standing on the true summit of Chimborazo, the closest point on Earth to the Sun! The sunrise that greeted us was incredible with many snow capped volcanoes poking through the cloud cover. It was probably one of the most beautiful views I have ever experienced. I could see as far as Cayambe in the North and even Antisana was visible. After celebrations and mandatory photos, we were ready to go down. Conditions were good, but you never know on Chimborazo.
All in all it was an eight hour day to the summit and back. Everyone in our group had made it. I believe this was due to the group’s prior ascent of Cotopaxi the previous weekend and making our camp at 5300m instead of 4800m. Summiting Chimborazo is certainly a serious endeavor. It is not technical difficult, which makes it great for high altitude beginners. But don’t underestimate the level of determination you will need to reach the summit and return back down safely. It is extremely strenuous. Saying this, it is certainly a climb that you will remember for the rest of your life.