My road to Chimborazo: Ecuador’s highest peak and the furthest point on the surface of the Earth from the centre of the Earth.
Saturday Night, 19th November 2016
It was around 8PM and the public hot springs in the touristic Ecuadorian town of Baños were bustling with locals and foreigners alike, all enjoying themselves in one of the several pools. Half-submerged, head leaning back, eyes closed, with each arm perched on the rim of the pool, I was in a state of utter and complete relaxation. I had arrived earlier that day by bus from Quito with two fellow travellers (an American and a Chilean) and we passed the afternoon by hiking up to the popular Casa del Arbol – a giant tree swing on a field up in the mountains.
It only cost $1 entry to re-live childhood memories on an adult-sized swing
Unfortunately, on that particular afternoon there were thick clouds obstructing my potential swing-boosted view of the 5,016m-high and recently active Tungurahua Volcano, which looms above the Baños valley and which the locals vehemently dissuaded me from climbing due to it being muy peligroso. The swing was certainly a fun reward at the end of the three-hour hike with several encounters with irate farm dogs (always carry a stick with you, or be prepared to throw rocks at or kick the little yappers if they get too close).
The hike combined with partying in Quito the night before resulted in one pretty exhausted little Aussie backpacker by the time I got to the hot springs. Speaking of which, at night they are impossible to miss as there is a 50m-high waterfall right next to them, lit up an alien green colour and visible from nearly every corner of Baños. The water in the first pool was hot, murky and a dirty brown colour. People of all ages and walks of life packed the pool full, literally to the brim. The unappealing brown colour was likely from the scrubbed-off dead skin cells floating around (is that why the place is called Baños?) but to be honest at that point I didn’t really care. My aching muscles were slowly being soothed and the $3 USD entry was a fair price to pay for the unique experience with the massive waterfall above me.
At that point I was reminiscing about my journey so far as I was nearly at the 6 month mark. This is a kind of badge of honour for backpackers: you’ve survived some sketchy situations, seen some cool places, and had awesome experiences with new friends – and… – there is plenty more to come! For me, the need to re-acquaint myself with my motivation and reason to keep travelling was very important. While my original motivation for leaving Perth 6 months prior had not changed markedly, it had morphed with new flavours and dreams over the months.
Significant milestones (including 6 months of travel!) in one’s life require a requisite level of celebration. It’s important as it makes the milestone or achievement official, whether just to yourself or also within your social circles. The only thing is that my particular definition of ‘celebration’ might be a little bit different to most other people. I moved on to the second pool which was much hotter, really shallow, and perhaps a bit cleaner than the first. Lying fully horizontally in the shallows with ears beneath the surface and my nose above, I was quietly considering whether I should throw caution out the window and just go for Chimborazo. I had the time to do it. I had the desire. After being told upon arrival to Ecuador that Cotopaxi (my original plan) was closed due to activity, I had to set my sights on another mountain. Of course, I wasn’t going to choose the 3rd highest, so naturally I went with Chimborazo. But did I have the experience? That was my only doubt. But sometimes in life you just need to say screw it, which is exactly what I thought as I slid my ass fully into the boiling-hot water of the third and final pool.
It must have also boiled my brain because the next day I booked a tour to Chimborazo.
Monday Morning, 21st November 2016
Fast forward two days later and I have just entered the Chimborazo National Park, beginning my hike up to the first shelter. At this point I should probably add some factual information to my story. First of all, Chimborazo is an inactive stratovolcano with a claimed peak of 6,310m* above sea level. It is also the highest peak in Ecuador; the second-highest being the more popular Cotopaxi at 5,897m. But more impressively than that, Chimborazo’s summit is the furthest point on the surface of the earth from the centre of the earth. In fact, it is approximately 2km further from the centre than the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest (8,848m). This interesting fact is due to planet Earth not being a perfect sphere, rather an oblate spheroid which is thicker around the equator.
*I really enjoyed reading Mark Horrell’s blog of his Chimborazo climb here where he measured the peak’s highest point at only 6,284m (26m lower than the official number – perhaps due to the glacier melting?)
The barren plains of Chimborazo are absolutely devoid of greenery and any distinguishing features. Small rocks and boulders are the only things which thrive here, overlooked from above and afar by their glacier-capped overlord. So what made me come to this uninviting place to ‘celebrate’ my personal milestone? Well, the short story is that I wanted to mark my 6 months of travelling with a truly high note (pun intended!). The long story is that I had climbed dozens of volcanoes and mountains up to this point in my travels (the highest of which was just shy of 5,000m) and I felt that it was time to step it up to the next level. Crampons and ice picks have always been out of reach to me in Australia and so my curiosity was massive. On the 25th of November I would be flying to the Galapagos Islands and so I didn’t feel like I had enough time to do the popular Quilotoa Loop (usually takes 3 to 4 days). As such, the 2 night / 3 day Chimborazo experience would fit perfectly into my schedule.
The experience would prove to be a brutal introduction to mountaineering and a baptism in the nasty effects on the human body of high altitude and sub-zero temperatures.
Stay tuned for Part II where I will very openly go into more details of my personal experience on the climb and what lessons I took away from it.