Monday, October 3rd, 2011
Chimborazo – A long night on Ecuador’s highest mountain and some amazing skiing close to the equator
“Bjarne, dont fall asleep!”
“Ehh, no, I wont!”
15 minutes later:
“Andreas, are you sleeping?”
These are extracts from my and Bjarne’s conversations last night. And its not from a normal flatmate discussion, but from a scene where we are both leaning on our ice axes on a mountain side with our faces in the snow somewhere between wake and slumber.
Chimborazo, some say it’s the biggest thing you’ll ever see…
We are on our first stop on our South America adventure – Ecuador’s 6310 m high Chimborazo, also famous for being the point furthest away from the center of the earth (thanks to the ovality of the planet around the equator).
During the last week, most of our concentration and time have gone to this mountain. There are different game rules here in Ecuador from what we are used to back in Europe. The mountains are higher and you can take a taxi to their doorstep. Weather service is by no means exact and the bacterial flora in the food is often much more hardcore than we are used to. It also have to be added that the climbing season on this mountain is December-January and June-August, leaving us on the mountain alone with the worst weather pattern of the year.
We came here with good self confidence but with the second thought in mind that many of our good mountain friends been slapped in the face by the Andean mountains. This was kind of our warmup and acclimatization object of the trip so maybe we where taking it a bit to lightly.
We started in Quito one and a half week ago by going up to the volcano Pichincha at 4800 m twice. Then we took the 2,5 h bus ride down south to Riobamba and right away from there a taxi up to the Carrel hut at the foot of Chimborazo at 4850 m. From here we walked up to about 5300 m just to keep on breathing the thin air. The following days promised excellent weather so we thought we go for it the next day in a on day push with an really early taxi from Riobamba. This was almost a good idea, but just almost. We got up to 5400 m when the sun hit the face on an exposed section and the only sober thing to do was to turn back down before the rocks strated raining. It was a petty though as we where feeling our strongest so far on this trip. Had we taken the taxi one hour earlier in the morning I think we would have made our way to the summit. We thought we make another try the following night, but we where both (me more than Bjarne) feeling really bad from the altitude so we hitched back down to town first thing in the morning. We where totally exhausted from this little adventure and needed three days of rest before we could even think about another try. But three days later the weather in the night looked ok and we thought out another fresh strategy.
We took the taxi at six o’clock PM from Riobamba and arrived at the park entrance gate at seven thirty. The rock n roll park service didn’t at first want to let us through, mainly I think because we didn’t hire one of their local guides, but after some negotiating and showing of Bjarne’s business card we finally was let through. We went straight in to the hut and made us some dinner and two hour later, at about ten PM we took of aiming for the summit of Chimborazo.
Ten o’clock is really early to take of on this mountain. The guides with clients usually starts at around midnight, but we started from the lower hut at 4850 m (most people start from the Whymper hut at 5000 m) and we didn’t feel really well acclimatized for the almost 1600-1700 m climb up to 6310 m, which is more than 100 m higher than Denali. And do I need to add, we wanted it badly this time, optimizing everything we could.
So we where walking through the night (yes, lets call it a walk. I counted three or four climbing moves during the whole walk up and down). Everything went smooth, but pretty slow. Its said that it take a week at altitude before the body even starts making more red blod cells, that are one of the more important factors in long-term acclimatization. 1,5 weeks after coming from sea level and living at 3000 m and climbing above 6000 m is hardly enough for any kind of performance. But then again, time on altitude is what we have lots of for the remaining part of this adventure.
It was a clear night with almost no wind and we where steadily gaining altitude. I was in front and Bjarne followed. The pace was set on such a slow pace that we would be able to get enough oxygen thorough the body while still taking that step upwards. But each 15 minutes, when we took a brief break to drink, we fell down on our knees resting on our ice axe, and on the later part of the night, almost fell asleep.
We had to dig deep within ourselves to get anywhere and at around 5700 meters four o’clock in the morning Bjarne had had enough. He was feeling really sick from the altitude, and we agreed that he was going down. I was feeling worried leaving him by him self in the darkness, but we had our radios on and we where on snow which meant i would be able to ski down to him in a matters of minutes.
I kept on upwards having one of the toughest fights in my life with myself. I had to gather all the concentration i had to just gain a few steps and in between I was lying on my ice axe trying to breath. But slowly, slowly I got higher and soon i felt like I was on the top of the first snow dome, the lower Ventemilla summit. I told Bjarne I was almost there, almost on the summit, but it would take another hour before i stood on the top. But I was not done yet. I still had to ski down about 50 vertical meters and then climb up on the true, Whymper summit. This was the physiologically most demanding thing on the whole
undertaking – to, in a very beaten condition at altitude, put myself in a position where I couldn’t immediately ski down if i started to feel too sick.
But I kept at it, and in the end i stood at the top just after dawn, alone on a volcano a little bit south of the equator, after one of the most mentally demanding things i have done in my life. Its by no means, on the paper, close to one of the hardest things I have done in the mountains. However, combining the physical condition I was in (worn out), the timing and degree of acclimatization I must say I was extremely relived standing on the summit and also breaking my personal altitude record (It has to be added that Bjarne broke his own altitude record for every step he took above 5300 meters).
After skiing down from the Whymper summit and working my way back onto the Ventemilla summit I once again clicked in to my bindings and buckled up my boots. I hadn’t been skiing since I was on Mt Byron in the coastal range in Alaska together with Greg Collins, Magnus Kastengren and Heidi Adamson in june. And it was with a tired but happy smile i took of down the west face in big turns.
Far below my ski tips I had the clouds and desert like lowland of Ecuador. Even though seven in the morning the sun was heating up my face and I was really enjoying the warmth when I now and then had to lie down to catch my breath.
Further down the snow got harder and I had to take it a bit easier, but still enjoying every turn I felt i had earned. Bjarne stood waiting for me at the snowline and all in all i got over 700 vertical meters of skiing in the falline and a great experience from a beautiful mountain.
I got one sad surprise though, when coming below the snow line. My climbing boots that we had hidden under a rock was gone, like everything else we have left unattended on this trip. I guess I shouldn’t blame anyone but myself leaving a pair of boots worth a months wage (for someone with a good job) out on the mountain.
Maybe it was the hardest earned 700 meters of skiing in my life. But the skiing, this time, came as a bonus. The real reward was the secrets I found within myself in the calm and painful darkness. More on that later. Now we are back down at Hostal Oasis in Riobamba and we are looking forward to I night out celebrating in town tonight before we hop on a bus tomorrow – direction south towards Guayaquil and then Peru!
This would be hippie if back home…
And this would not be legal
And these would be exotic
Chimborazo in normal late september weather
Bjarne making early morning porridge
Our happy taxi driver. Bjarne cant get over that he stole our chips!
Protection in the hut
Waiting time in the hut on our first attempt
Sun set in the Ecuadorian mountains
Late drive to the mountains. Now I know enough Spanish to bargain – we got this one for half the price!
Bjarne eating dinner in the dark
Chimborazo @ night
Bjarne @ night
The Whymper summit, the highest summit on Chimborazo, and of course in Ecuador
View from the top
View from under my skis
A tired Andreas
Bjarne walking down in the clouds
The big reward!