| 4 of 4, CHIMBORAZO
After our first three climbs, we spent a couple much-needed days of rest in the resort town of Baños (or "Baths," referring to the local natural springs). In hindsight, it probably wasn't such a good idea because the town is only at about 8,500 feet in elevation. It's still relatively high, sure, but much lower than the elevations we had been soaking in.
Our next goal was Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador. Here's a photo I took of a postcard:
The drive from Baños to the first hut on Chimborazo catapulted us up about 8,000 feet, and it was quite a shock to the system, even though we were already acclimatized for the most part.
Here's a typical scene in one of the many villages we passed through:
As soon as we walked into the first hut, our guide learned that a couple people were missing on the mountain. Cosme and Franklin quickly threw together their packs and prepared to go looking for them. We quickly assembled our gear as well, but before we had our packs ready we heard cheers as the two missing girls walked into the room (they weren't climbing; they were just trying to walk to the upper hut).
With everyone accounted for, the hut visitors, in their hypoxic states of euphoria, turned their attention to us. Some of them stared at us like we were rockstars. One of the girls tried on Javier's backpack and almost fell backward. Laughter ensued. Then everyone had to try on his backpack, and each time someone put it on, everyone laughed.
The funniest part was when people started posing for photos with Jen.
With our full packs weighing us down, we started a slow walk to the upper hut through a thick and eerie fog.
Not far up the volcanic scree, we passed the makeshift graveyard. Countless tombstones and rocks were etched and painted with names of people that died while trying to climb Chimborazo. It was a bad omen, and it's really not something you want to see when you're about to attempt this monster.
When I arrived at the hut, a few park attendants greeted me with smiles and laughter. I've never met such friendly people. Perhaps they were just happy to see someone – anyone – because the hut was completely empty.
Whymper hut at 16,400 feet:
Inside the hut we encountered a second bad omen. It was a woman with photos of her dead son, who had recently died from a fall on Chimborazo while performing some sort of military training. She had a strong suspicion that he was pushed to his death because of questionable evidence – like the ice axe impalement in the back of his head. She spent at least an hour telling her story and asking our guides questions. I glanced at the wrong time and caught a glimpse of his mangled body and it was very disturbing.
In talking with the hut attendant, we learned that no one had summitted the mountain in many days. The last team to attempt the mountain, just a day or so before us, was caught in a rock slide and a couple people sustained injuries.
Just as the sun was setting, the clouds briefly cleared and everyone rushed to take photos. Here is a five-photo pan I took, and believe me, this pan doesn't even come close to doing it justice:
The upper mountain, which was a gnarly mess of precarious boulders, icy glaciers, frozen waterfalls, steep scree slopes and huge cliff bands, was unbelievably massive and intimidating.
This painting by Colombian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin (photo of a print from one of our hotel rooms) summed up my feelings:
As we sipped tea by candlelight and watched the occasional mouse scamper across the floor, the wind began to howl outside. Cosme warned that it wouldn't be safe to climb the mountain in wind as strong as this because it can cause rocks to fall – not to mention blow you off an exposed ridge. Everyone agreed that if it was still windy at our wake-up time of 11 p.m., that we would scrap the climb.
Just before we went to bed, another Ecuadorian mountain guide and his Irish client named Kieran stumbled in. I think they were also surprised by how few people were in the hut.
While we finished our tea and got ready for bed, Cosme made a run to the ridge to check things out. His report wasn't good, as he mentioned a lot of black ice on the rocks.
Sleeping at 16,400 feet – the highest I've ever slept before – was almost impossible. I had no problems on Cotopaxi's hut, which was just about a thousand feet lower, but I didn't drive up 8,000 feet within a few hours and then go straight to bed on Cotopaxi.
Every time my breathing went on autopilot and I started to drift into a slumber, I would gasp from the lack of oxygen. At times, I had to consciously take deep breaths. But as soon as I relaxed, my autopilot breathing wouldn't inhale enough, and then I'd gasp again. This process repeated for hours, and I think I got less than an hour of sleep the whole evening, in total.
At 11 p.m., the wind was still shaking the hut so I figured our climb was done. But the thing that made our decision to scrap the climb an easy one, was that Tungurahua, a nearby active volcano, was erupting and dumping ash all over Chimborazo. When I walked outside to the bathroom, my eyes immediately started to burn.
Here is a photo of a postcard of Tungurahua erupting lava:
Here are a couple photos (taken a couple days earlier) of Tungurahua eruptions:
And here is a photo of the volcanic ash collecting in the Whymper hut's bathroom:
After a few more hours of not sleeping in my bunk, we packed up our things and hiked down to the lower hut wearing dust masks and goggles. If volcanic ash, which is basically asbestos-like glass, gets in your lungs it can do some real damage, so we weren't messing around.
By 4 a.m. we were back on the foggy road to Quito, with the new plan of doing some rock climbing at a local crag.
The rock climbing was a lot of fun and it was a great way to salvage our day.
On our drive back to Quito, Cosme pointed out a ridge where some of the rich people live:
Broken glass cemented to the tops of walls and fences was a common sight in town:
The area of town where we stayed was fairly safe and it had a lot of restaurants and bars:
Our hotel for the last two nights was The Magic Bean:
After taking this trip, I'm finally coming to terms with the huge role luck plays in climbing high and challenging mountains. Jen and I do our best to prepare as much as we can (i.e., conditioning, acclimatization, gear, skills, etc.), but I guess some things are just beyond our control. Like weather … and pesky volcanic eruptions.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):