Chimborazo – Part III

Veintimilla Summit (6,225m)


Climbing to the top (almost) of Chimborazo and what I learned about the dangers of cold weather.


Tuesday Night, 22nd November 2016


It was 8PM.  I was kneeling over the toilet bowl in the shelter.  The last of the spaghetti from lunch came up in one big heave.  Watching the vomit swirling around I couldn’t help but feel that my dream of climbing Chimborazo had just also been flushed away.  I gargled out the taste of disappointment from my mouth and wearily trudged out of the bathroom.  Rafael, my Ecuadorian mountain guide, was standing outside with his arms crossed and a concerned look on his face.  Shaking my head, in my broken Spanish I said: “no siento bien. Mi estomago duele.”  Rafael looked devastated but optimistically he said that there was a chance I could get better.  So he walked me outside into the freezing cold air.  He taught me a simple breathing exercise which helps with altitude sickness.  I proceeded to gulp in as much air as I could and then hold it in for about thirty seconds, expel, and repeat again.  After about ten repetitions I did indeed feel much better.


Rafael then insisted that it was better to try to sleep in his car (in a sleeping bag on the passenger seat) for the next 2 hours rather than waiting in the shelter’s common room.  His odd recommendation actually worked.  While I didn’t fall asleep in the car, I did manage to feel well rested by 10PM when the alarm rang.  We then went back in the common room to get ready for the climb.  I was sipping on hot coca tea (from the cocaine leaf – thought to alleviate altitude effects) and munching on a cookie.  I sincerely told Rafael that I felt one hundred percent ready to go up and give it a crack.  This was the complete truth.  I had somehow miraculously acclimatized, and right on the 11th hour.


It’s 11PM. Rafael and I have all our gear on and are heading out.


Wednesday Morning, 23rd November 2016


That night there were 3 groups going up: myself and Rafael, Hans and his guide (Willy), and a Swiss lady climber with her “guide.”  Hans was a 24-year old Dutch guy doing his first glacier like me.  The 40-something Swiss lady was an experienced climber with (apparently) three 8000-ers under her belt. I refer to her guide in quotation marks as she was actually leading the way and setting the pace, not the other way around as is usual.  This was probably the case so that she could claim that she climbed it herself (the guide merely fulfilling local laws and requirements).  While Hans and I started at 11PM, she and her guide started at 12PM and overtook us around 4AM somewhere on the glacier.


That day the Swiss lady and her guide would be the only ones who reached Whymper Summit – the highest point on Chimborazo at 6,267m.  Hans and I managed to reach the second-highest peak, Veintimilla Summit (at 6,225m).  We topped it almost at the same time (7:30AM) after about 8.5 hours of climbing, with Hans and his guide getting there about 5 minutes before Rafael and myself.  I remember that around 2AM it became ridiculously cold.  Rafael said it was about -15˚ C.  My toes were freezing.  My fingers were freezing.  I don’t mean that metaphorically, but literally!  To fight off frostbite I had to continually scrunch up my toes and make fists with my hands in order to keep the blood circulating properly.  This freezing cold temperature lasted until around 6AM, when the sun’s first rays started having some sort of an effect on the air temperature.


Arrived freezing cold and shivering from head to toe to Veintimilla Summit at 7:35AM but the feeling of accomplishment and happiness won out. Hans (L), Willy, and I.


Before setting off the night before Rafael told me that after 8:00AM it is dangerous to linger and walk around on the summit for too long due to the sun melting the snow.  The glacier becomes dangerous during the day because big chunks of ice – sometimes weighing tons – can start moving around due to the loss of friction caused by higher temperatures in the day.  In addition, ice bridges (compacted snow covering crevasses) can also weaken and collapse without warning.  Not a comfortable thought.  As for avalanches, these usually occur when the weight of fresh or existing, compacted snowfall dislodges along a ridge line due to the force of gravity overcoming the friction holding it together.  This event is pretty much an insta-kill for the unfortunate mountaineer and can happen at any time – day or night.


So, back to the story.  As it would have taken Rafael and I roughly one hour (each way) to negotiate the crevasses in the small valley between Veintimilla and Whymper, we decided not to continue on to Whymper Peak.  The Swiss lady returned to Veintimilla around 7:45AM and she and her guide headed down.  Hans, Willy, Rafael and I headed back down the same way around 7:50AM as it was quite windy on Veintimilla and despite the morning sun, still brutally cold.  For added safety, all four of us were roped together on the way down.


Hans and Willy roped up behind me, with Rafael out in front leading the way down.


During the day the beauty of Chimborazo’s western slope (the main route we took) really stands out.  We shuffled past some gorgeous cliffs of glacial ice and small crevasses – which I had absolutely no clue were only a few feet away from our path during the night’s march.


Mountain slopes often appear rather flat from afar. But when you’re actually climbing it’s a completely different story.


It took us roughly 3.5 hours to get down.  I felt a lot of relief that I made it back to the shelter alive and well with my first glacial summit (well, nearly!) under my belt.  The experience that I gained on that mountain as an absolute mountaineering novice will stay with me for a long time to come.  A few weeks later, after attempting my second glacier in Ecuador, Cayambe, I realized that the equipment which I was given for Chimborazo was old and inadequate.  The boots were made of leather and outdated (new ones are plastic with better insulation).  I was only given a pair of outer gloves (it is standard to wear an inner pair).  I wore 5 layers of my own clothing which was inadequate for the cold (it is standard to wear a special mountain jacket which was not supplied to me).


The most dangerous part of the climb is here in my opinion. We had to navigate this rocky part for 2 hours in order to make it to the glacier. Rocks often fall from above and it is very easy to slip as the path is mostly rocky scree.


So what was the consequence of my encounter with the cold conditions on Chimborazo?  Well, for an entire month after the climb, the tip of one finger (on my right hand) and one toe (my left foot) were somewhat numb and insensitive.  Today, more than two months after the climb, the feeling is back to normal.  I was fortunate that the weather was “mild” when I went up otherwise it could have been something more serious such as frostnip (permanent numbness) or possibly frostbite (requiring amputation).  But I am thankful for the tough, “deep-end” experience I had because otherwise today I would not have such an immense respect and fear of the cold.  What it can do to your body if you are unprepared for it is truly devastating.  We learn the most from our mistakes after all.  Chimborazo was a brutal initiation into mountaineering but I could not have asked for more of myself as I was up to the task in the end.

Chimborazo – Part II

What I learned about altitude sickness while acclimatizing at 4,850m for my first ever glacier – Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest peak and the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.


Monday Night, 21st November 2016


A bus dropped me off at the Chimborazo park entrance (elevation 4,386m) just before midday.  The weather was sunny and warm with a light wind blowing.  The sky was completely clear of clouds, affording me an unobstructed view of the peak which was beckoning me in the distance ahead.  I remember feeling nervous excitement as I presented my permit and signed the paperwork at the ranger office.  At that moment there was no turning back.  I was about to attempt to climb my first glacier and had absolutely no idea what to expect.  With a peak height of 6,267m, Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador on top of its selling-point to international mountaineers as the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.  To boot, it also has a well-earned reputation in Ecuador as being the toughest and most dangerous – 10 climbers perished in an avalanche in 1993, the worst mountaineering accident in Ecuador’s history.


Vicuñas were a welcome sight to the barren landscape on the way up


From the park entrance it was an easy 1.5 hours of sandy hiking up to the first shelter, Refugio Carrel (elevation 4,850m), where it began to get rocky (the glacier was still much further up the mountain).  I set up my tent near the shelter building and decided to make use of the remaining 2 hours of daylight by going a little higher.  I took this decision because I was simply incredibly inexperienced.  At that time I didn’t know anything about altitude sickness – the symptoms, the severe consequences, how to manage it, or how to prevent it.  I simply wanted to go a little higher for a better view of the valley and to “acclimatize” better.  In hindsight, I can now say that I was extremely naïve.  I had started the day from an elevation of 1,815m in Baños and was now standing at 4,850 and yet I still made the decision to go even higher.  Absolute insanity.  My only excuse is that I didn’t know what elevation Baños was at (again – an incredibly vital bit of information I should have checked and known if not for my sheer degree of inexperience).


And so, oblivious to the fact that I was actually jeopardizing instead of improving my odds of acclimatizing successfully, I grabbed my jacket and headed up higher.  I hiked past a small graveyard (honouring fallen mountaineers) and shortly reached Refugio Whymper (elevation 5,050m).  Chimborazo was first ascended in 1880 by British explorer Edward Whymper.  As such, the highest peak (at 6,267m) on the mountain is also named after the man – Whymper Summit.  The second-highest peak (at 6,225m) is called Veintimilla Summit.  Because the glacier has receded significantly over the past 20 years the ascent from Refugio Whymper was no longer safe and so I pushed on past the deserted building until I reached Condor Cocha Lagoon (elevation 5,100m).


Chimborazo’s southern face was glowing during sunset


Heading back down, I reached my tent right as the sun was setting.  At this point I felt fine and was completely unaware that I was about to experience the worst night of my trip thus far.


Gorgeous sunset from the furthest point on the Earth’s surface from its centre


After snapping the last picture of the impressive sunset I headed back into my tent.  It was around 6:30PM at this time.  The temperature was already cold and dropping quickly as I brushed my teeth and spat the minty discharge outside.  By this point you’re probably wondering why I was in a tent instead of a warm bed inside the perfectly well-equipped refuge.  This was purely on the recommendation of my guide.  Because the first night was solely for acclimatization he believed that I would be better off not being awoken at 10PM by all the other mountaineers getting up for their ascent.  He couldn’t have been more wrong.  Despite wearing thermals, all of my clothes, and being inside two sleeping bags I was still cold.  But this would only be a mild discomfort compared to the altitude sickness that would come.


Now it’s time to talk math.  The recommended ascension rate to avoid altitude sickness is about 500m per day.  Let’s see now.  I had left Baños (which is at 1,815m) and only several hours later reached Condor Concha Lagoon at 5,100m.  That’s a total ascension of 3,285m in half a day.  In other words, 6.5 times the recommended amount!  To break down the 3,285m more accurately though, I had ascended 2,571m (78%) by bus and the remaining 714m (22%) on foot.  Either way you slice it, my guide Rafael (with 20+ years’ experience) should have recommended more time acclimatizing.  For example, an additional night in neighbouring town Riobamba (elevation 2,700m) prior to entering the Chimborazo Park would have almost certainly prevented or reduced the severity of altitude sickness I was about to experience.


Tuesday Morning, 22nd November 2016


Speaking of which, tossing and turning around in my sleeping bags shortly after sunset I simply could not fall asleep.  It was freezing cold.  Breathing subconsciously was absolutely impossible.  Every second breath I had to force, gasping as I could not get enough oxygen.  My heart was beating a little erratically.  This was definitely not a good sign but did not give me sufficient cause for concern to seek help.  At 11PM I heard the sounds of climbers leaving the shelter and begin their ascent to the summit.


By this time it was too cold to even pretend to sleep and I had a headache creeping on.  By midnight I made the decision to leave my freezing tent and so I grabbed my liner and sleeping bags and headed for the shelter.  Inside, I found a spot on the wooden floor beneath the stairs and close to the toilets.  The temperature inside felt infinitely warmer and I managed to warm up.  Then BAM!  I felt like I had the hangover from hell.  Head pounding and stomach heaving, I spent the remaining hours until the morning running between my sleeping bag and the bathroom.  Altitude sickness is similar to but much worse than a hangover.  Having completely emptied the contents of my stomach, I could not even keep down water.  That night I got absolutely no sleep.


This small stream is completely frozen over… brrrrrr…


For breakfast, I managed to swallow a cookie with the help of hot coco tea from the dining room in the shelter.  Besides the ranger who made my tea, there was only one other person in the room – a lady climber who had abandoned her summit attempt that morning due to altitude sickness at 5,500m.  At this point in time I told her I was seriously considering abandoning my attempt and calling it quits (that’s how bad my night was – it had me whooped!).  I was crumping big time.  She told me not to give up and suggested that I go down lower to the park entrance to try and acclimatize again.


Seeing as my guide was going to meet me at the shelter at 2PM I decided to take her advice and spend the remainder of the morning at the park entrance (at elevation of 4,386m versus 4,850m in the shelter).  This turned out be a good move as I managed to doze off for a few hours on one of the benches.  Feeling much better, really hungry, and most importantly mentally determined once again to climb Chimborazo, I hiked back up to Refugio Carrel where I met my guide, Rafael.  After a delicious lunch of pasta, and a short briefing, I was in bed by 3PM with my alarm set for 10PM.  I was really hoping I would fall asleep in order to be at my strongest for the 8-hour climb which would begin at 11PM that night.  Much to my horror and disappointment, by 6PM I had mild altitude sickness symptoms again…


Stay tuned for Part III where I will reveal what happened next and conclude the adventure.