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.
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).
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.
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.
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.