| Tres Nevados, No Cumbres Nevado Dos - Chimborazo (attempt, to Veintimilla Summit at 20,562‘)
Ecuador 2009 - Tres Nevados, No Cumbres
Nevado Dos - Chimborazo (attempt, to Veintimilla Summit at 20,562')
June 13th - Hotel Cuello de Luna (10,237') to Lasso (9,999')
Rest day at Cuello de Luna meant an opportunity to stretch our legs, with a slow, 5-hour loop up and down the Pan-American Highway.
Cuello de Luna
We started out in the cold and rain, enjoying the wonderful sights and smells of the Lasso countryside and - farm animals! Goats, pigs, llamas, dogs, cats, chickens, horses... that highway has it all.
More farm animals
And more farm animals
And yet, more farm animals
Did I mention farm animals?
We (Doug) stopped at each gas station along the way, making good use of the clean restrooms, and hydrating with fresh water from the Cotopaxi glacier, at just 50 cents a bottle!
Water fresh from glaciers of Volcan Cotopaxi!
Eventually the sun came out, and we were reminded that Ecuador lies on the equator. It's close to the sun. It's hot. One could get a sunburn, should one leave the hotel in the cold and rain and forget to apply one's sunblock.
At noon we stopped at a roadside tent where a young man was stirring some big black pots. Pollo? I asked. "Si," he responded. Fanta? Why yes, he had cold bottles of orange soda on hand as well. Doug and I were seated in plastic chairs at a plastic table and presented with full plates of steaming chicken and rice, and icy bottles of Fanta. It was delicious, and the silverware - real silverware - was clean. I tried to pay with a twenty, but he couldn't break it. Doug gave him a five and he brought back change, which Doug told him to keep, along with an additional Sacagawea dollar (by the way, if you ever wondered where all the Sacagaweas went, they are in Ecuador). The young man grabbed Doug's hand and shook it vigorously, and we headed off down the highway. "Wow, what a nice guy!" Yeah, I told him, that meal was three dollars and sixty cents. You nearly gave him a 100% tip! Not that it wasn't worth it... Doug noted that it was, even at twice the price. It was.
Best meal we have ever eaten in a tent.
Finally, we stopped at a large hut full of ceramics. I got a sugar bowl for four bucks, and Doug got a teapot shaped like a turtle. It was dark in the hut, and I didn't get a good look at it until I was home and had unwrapped it from the newspaper. The glaze is exquisite - it's a much nicer piece than anything I bought at the artisan's markets in Quito, and now, looking at it, I wish I had bought more - maybe some cereal bowls. I like bowls a lot, because I can eat anything out of them without actually sitting at a table, and not spill.
Back at Cuello de Luna, we asked ourselves "What kind of idiots get sunburns the day before going to Chimborazo, the closest point on Earth to the sun?"
June 14th - Hotel Cuello de Luna (10,237') to Carrel refuge (15,750') to Whymper refuge (16,400')
Franklin picked us up at 10 AM, and we were off, us and our very own gear. Another trip on the Pan-American Highway, further south now, through valley after valley of small towns surrounded by huge mountains, each site famous for its own "specialty": this one was where you came to buy cars, this, for the best "cuy" (guinea pig), and this one, for its many "heladerias," or ice cream parlors.
Best little heladeria in Ecuador.
We stopped and enjoyed some cold treats, continued on. Driving in Ecuador is a unique experience. Unlike Mexico, they do stop at stop signs here ("Pare" v. "Alto"); however, passing is a whole other issue. A two lane highway - one lane in each direction - may accommodate two, three, or even four vehicles, depending on how many are passing at any moment. Parts of the highway have a lane in the middle that may be used by cars driving in either direction. It's a bit terrifying.
After a few more stops - for lunch, groceries - we arrived at the Carrel refuge at around 4 PM, and decided to prepare dinner there: fried tilapia, rice, tea.
At the Carrel refuge, Eloy puts on the tea.
Carrel refuge living room.
Carrel refuge dining room.
A large group of children showed up and Franklin explained that the refuge was a common destination for city kids - it never snows in the valleys, and this was their only opportunity to get a glimpse of the white stuff, up close.
They left for a hike up to the Whymper hut, and Ismael showed up with his family. Once they departed, it struck me that Doug, Franklin, Eloy - who took care of the hut and its patrons - and me, were the only people there. Where is everyone? I asked. Franklin told me that he had learned from Eloy that no one had climbed Chimbo since Wednesday - four days ago - because of all the new snow. It seemed that every peak in Ecuador had been blanketed in several feet of snow just prior to our arrival. I recalled Ismael's words that first day in the hotel: "There's a lot of snow everywhere. This never happens. It just doesn't do this in June and July."
We thanked Eloy for the hot tea and hospitality, split the rest of the groceries between our packs, and departed for the higher refuge.
Whymper hut and Chimborazo ahead.
We heard a loud slide coming down the face, and noticed some climbers off to the right. They came down okay.
Doug says, "I think I found Susan's replacement."
We hiked up past the many headstones of fallen climbers - Franklin told us that somebody dies on Chimbo every year - to the Whymper hut, and found the place desolate. Doug and I had the whole upstairs to ourselves, while Franklin visited with the keeper of the hut downstairs in the kitchen. The only benefit to this was a very peaceful night - and no waiting for the bathroom. At Cotopaxi I had had to wait outside in the cold and snow each time to use the restrooms, lined up with all the other faceless climbers. The toilets were bucket-flushed, and it reminded me of growing up in Connecticut, with five other women, and plumbing that never worked. The heating system never worked either, or the hot water heater. We slept on foam pads on the floor in our school clothes, so we wouldn't have to undress in the cold in the morning, and I would get up extra early to boil water, to wash my hair each day. In the winter, if the pipes froze, I would go outside and scoop snow into saucepans, and melt that on the stove. This wasn't so different, I thought. High school had prepared me for life in an Ecuadorian hut.
At 8 we slept. The alarm sounded at 11.
June 15th - Whymper refuge (16,400') to Veintimilla summit (20,562') to Quito (9,250')
No wind, no falling snow, and a gentle trail – El Castillo route began pleasantly enough. The ground snow began low and with no bootpack, we were in crampons and on rope within 30 minutes. At about 5200 meters we hit a ramp angling off to the right – El Corredor - and I recalled reading somewhere that it was important to be off this area by 1 PM, due to rockfall. Ah, here it is:
"Chimborazo is climbable year-round however, the best climbing months are June and July..." -"vertx," SummitPost Mountain/Rock Chimborazo main page (http://www.summitpost.org/mountain/rock/150349/chimborazo.html)
No wait, that's not it - here we are:
"Make sure you start around midnight so you'll be back before 1300 hours, for two reasons. First, rock fall hazard. The part of the route along The Castle, a large rock wall about one hour from the Refugio Whymper (5000m), gets dangerous around that time. Lots of small and large rocks start to fall down then from this high wall due to warming temperatures. Passing this area later in the afternoon is really running between falling rocks. Secondly, clouds will most often roll in early in the afternoon, making route finding very difficult. As there are big areas of crevasses on both sides of the normal route, losing track can be very dangerous." -"vertx," SummitPost
Good advice, for sure, at least in regard to the rockfall. As for the advice on best months to climb, well, anyone who's spent any time in the mountains knows that even in the worst months you will have perfect climbing days, and conversely, in the best months, some of the worst.
From El Corredor the slope climbed steeply toward El Castillo (The Castle) and then to the right, where we gained a ridge at 5400 meters. From there, a short walk across the pass, up a steep icy section, and then the glacier: 3,000 feet of unrelenting 30-45 degree snow that - in ideal conditions - would have been a killer, but satisfying, snowclimb.
The postholing began immediately. It was something that Doug and I had plenty of experience managing, but not roped up, not on crevassed terrain, and certainly not above 17,000 feet. Franklin, thin and compact - typically-sized for an Ecuadorian man - cut neat steps in the snow; Doug followed and the snow not only collapsed under his big feet and heavy stature, it slid, and he foundered, struggling for forward motion. Behind him, I attempted to follow in the deep soft trough - one step up, two steps back, it seemed. Determined, we pushed on - for hours. At one point two headlamps appeared behind us in the dark, from the other side of the pass. Franklin surmised that they had camped high to take advantage of the night; after a while one passed us close by, but the other gave up, turned around. The man who passed close by left perfect steps and I crossed to them, still on rope, but he quickly passed us up and Franklin took advantage of the steps, and I was back in the trough.
It probably would have made sense, at this point, for Doug and me to switch places on the rope. Even though he's much stronger, I'm lighter, and can often set or - in this case - improve steps, so they're more compacted and able to hold his weight. I yelled something to this effect at one point, but my words were lost, up there in the ether. He yelled something back. We trudged on. The sun came up and Franklin reminded us to keep to the track - crevasses were not the issue now, but a huge flake to the left of us looked "ready to go" he said.
At 8 AM we crested the Veintimilla summit at 20,562'. It had taken us eight hours to climb about 4,150 feet. We stopped here, and Franklin grabbed my hand, shook it: "Congratulations," he said, "on the summit." My hand went limp. This is not the summit, I said. "We can't go any further," he responded. This is not the freaking summit, I repeated. I turned to Doug. He held out his hand, "Congratulations," he said. I turned my back on him. Was this some kind of bad joke? I pointed to the east and an obvious, higher summit - the Whymper summit. THAT'S the freaking summit, I said. "Doug has no energy," said Franklin. I turned back to Doug. "I'm done," he said, "if you guys want to run over there, go for it; I'll wait here." I had underestimated what all that postholing had done to my friend. Roped between me and Franklin, Doug had been yanked up and down, back and forth, for hours, fighting for purchase in the steep, deep, snow. I turned back to Franklin. "No," he said. "The snow is bad. It will be worse going down. We need to go now."
Doug on Veintimilla summit (20,562').
Whymper summit (20,703').
He was right and I knew it, but I didn't want to face it. The snow coming up had been a couple of feet deep and covered with a hard shell that was now baking in the sun. It was the perfect angle for a slide. The basin from the Veintimilla to Whymper summits was filled with snow - it would be waist deep, and take us two or three hours to get over there and back. Another climb, another missed summit, I thought.
I'd like to think that I accept defeat graciously, but I don't, and I didn't. I was furious - not at Franklin, or Doug, or even myself - but at the situation. We took a few pictures and headed down. I moved quickly, partly in an effort to get us off the dangerous slope, partly because I was very angry, needed to do something with that anger - something productive. At one point I slipped, my foot caught in the crust; it tipped up, a huge slab of ice balanced on several feet of soft mush. Holy crap, I thought. I got to my feet, kept moving.
Three thousand feet we dropped, to the steep part just above the ridge. We stopped, drank, snacked on candy. I got up to move again and my legs gave out - literally gave out. I sat. In a split second Franklin was there, "Don't move," he said, leaning over to clip into my harness. On belay, I crept down the slope - crampon, crampon, axe. At the bottom, Doug and I swapped positions on the rope and he led us to just below El Castillo, where we stopped again to strip down.
OK, I told Franklin. I guess it was a good idea to come down. That snow did a job on me. I would have had problems... "I told you," he said, slapping my helmet, "I told you."
It was hot as hell now, the sun, the snow, the sweat. "Quickly," said Franklin, "the rocks are beginning to fall."
He was right. I was seated with my back to the slope, and he and Doug faced me. As we pulled off layers, gear, guzzled water, Franklin's eyes never left the slope behind me. "Rock," he would say, his gaze following the path of a falling remnant from the Castle; "rock," he repeated, over and over, noting each tumbling missile as it approached, passed. "Last year a man left his wife here for a moment while he went to the bathroom. A big rock fell and hit her in the head. She died." We were off again in minutes.
Below El Castillo.
Weather moves in.
Whymper hut, to Carrel hut and comfortable shoes - down booties, in fact. I sat in the refugio and sipped hot tea with Doug, while Franklin spoke with Eloy, told him about our experience on the mountain. We drove - Doug laid out in the back seat, dozed. A few hours later a cop emerged from a crowd of policemen on the side of the road - he waived us over, searched the truck. "He wants to see your passport," said Franklin. I don't have my passport - it's at the hotel. "Do you have a copy?" No, I said, I gave my only copy to Ismael, so he could pick up my luggage at the airport.
Franklin came around to the side of the truck, "This is a problem," he said, "he wants to take you to prison for one day, while I go to the hotel and get your passport."
Doug sat up in the back seat. "What's going on?" He asked. Nothing, I said, we're going to prison.
I leaned back, closed my eyes, pulled my sweaty ballcap down to my nose. I was exhausted. I had only slept a couple of hours at the Whymper hut, then postholed to 20,500-something, hadn't eaten in sixteen hours... I was filthy, and hungry, and too tired to care. I thought about prison for a moment, had never been there myself. Twice, in high school, the cops had come to take me and my mom had invited them in for tea; explained the situation, gotten me a reprieve. She had gone herself once, for two weeks, when I was a little kid. I had asked her about it: It was nice, she told me, relaxing. A hot shower every morning and three good meals. No kids. There was TV, and a library; she had read three books.
Mmm, I whispered, prison.
The door to the Land Cruiser slammed shut. "You're not going," said Franklin. "He took Doug's five dollars and is going to go buy some cold Cokes for his friends to enjoy. We need to go now."
Can we eat? I asked.
Half an hour later we pulled up in front of Gus - the Ecuadorian equivalent of KFC, except that the mashed potatoes aren't mashed, they're tiny and whole. Doug ate a big pile of them. I had cole slaw. We made pigs of ourselves with the greasy chicken and washed it all down with bottles of Fanta, and a nun expressed unusual interest in my down booties. I think she wanted me to give them to her, but I can't say for sure: she spoke only Spanish, I, English, and so the entire conversation meant nothing to either of us. All I know for sure is that she was enthusiastic about the booties. They are black and white and they matched her outfit perfectly. She was still talking about them when we walked out.
Stop and load duffels at Cuello de Luna - night in Quito. I slept, that night, the sleep of the dead.
R.I.P. fallen climbers of Chimborazo.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):