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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.