Climbing Mount Chimborazo
The Highest Point on Earthstart
Forget Everest. Ecuador's Mount Chimborazo volcano is the highest point on Earth. And as you'd expect, it's not easy to get to.
The glacier and snow-covered summit of Ecuador’s Volcán Mount Chimborazo is the highest point on Earth. That is, if you take the planet’s equatorial bulge into account.
While the sleeping volcano is just 20,702 feet above sea level, compared to Everest’s 29,029 ft, because of the imperfect shape of the Earth, the Andean behemoth is actually nearer to the sun than its more illustrious Himalayan rival – and any other mountain, which gives it the technical distinction of being the highest point on earth.
Mount Chimborazo is an intimidating peak, on paper and in person. On a clear day the snow-plated colossus can be seen 87 miles away in Guayaquil. And like some kind of monster from Greek mythology, it has five heads – or summits.
There are two refugio huts on the peak, Carrel hut at 15,748 ft and Whymper hut at 16,404 ft. The highest summit is a 6-9 hour climb with slopes up to 60 degrees. Those climbing Mount Chimborazo usually start out around midnight, attempting to return to one of the huts before noon, to avoid rock fall danger caused by sun hitting the glacier entrance known as El Corredor.
- Climb: 4954ft
I’m known among my friends as the guy who falls asleep halfway through films. I’ve dozed in cinemas. I’ve snored during live comedy gigs. I don’t really know why. And it often happens, frustratingly, when I’m really enjoying the entertainment.
However those are all stationary, sitting-down in warm comfortable place activities (if that’s even the right word?). So falling asleep as I tried to climb back down a snow-covered volcano in Ecuador, at about 18,000 feet, was a new one. This time, rather than feet up with a box of popcorn, I was cold, uncomfortable and very, very tired. And I think I’d gone a bit mad.
I was traveling in Ecuador when I heard of Mount Chimborazo’s notoriety and my inner alpha male just had to take it on. In Riobamba, a guiding company said I should acclimatize for three days, but I didn’t have time. Altitude sickness – which can quickly become lethal – is a real risk upwards of 13,123 ft. I was advised to eat pasta and drink lots of coca leaf tea – which is used to produce cocaine, though it’s not nearly as exciting to drink as that makes it sound.
My guide, Juan, had the largest thighs I’d ever seen and said he climbed every mountain in Ecuador. A French man, Pierre, about my age, joined us. After an hour’s walk up through scree and loose boulders, we reached the Whymper refugio, a wooden hut at 16,404 ft. The air was uncomfortably thin. We waited out the afternoon and evening with card games, chats and short walks in the snow. Sleep is an excellent idea, but at that altitude it was impossible for me.
With balaclavas and headlamps on, we left the hut at 11.30pm, knowing we had to make fast progress. It was 10˚C. A light headache was getting rapidly worse and as we stopped to attach crampons, Juan gave me an Aspirin.
Up and up we climbed. Every step involved bringing a knee up beyond a right angle, often near my chest. After two hours, an exasperated Pierre called out for a break. I was shattered too. My thighs were burning white hot. Juan roped us up.
It was soon my turn to call out for a rest. Breathing was a battle and I felt like I was turning asthmatic. The cycle repeated – incessant climbing until one of us pled for a breather, with Juan clearly concerned about our slow progress. I was starting to wish I’d taken the time to acclimatize a bit and do more high-altitude training before the trip.
At around 6 a.m., as if someone had flicked a switch, it was suddenly light. Snow-topped peaks were all around, if mostly below, us and I felt like a figurine atop an iced cake.
Our calls for rests became more frequent as Juan grew more impatient – he knew our window of opportunity was closing. Soon climbing the Mount Chimborazo volcano would be unsafe.
“Are we at 6,000 meters (19,685 ft) yet?” called out Pierre. It was almost exactly where we were. “That’s it. I can’t go on,” he said. He was pleased to have gotten so far, the highest he’d ever been. I was quietly pleased the trial was over and that it wasn’t me who’d failed it. I fantasized about beers and a bath.
However, just in front of us there was another guide and client. Juan called and exchanged some Spanish with him then said, “Damian, you can go with them.” Gadzooks! They called my bluff I wanted to give up, but I couldn’t now. I scrambled to catch up. “Listo?” (ready) said my new guide, David, as I roped up. It was a word I grew to loathe on that trip.
From there climbing Mount Chimborazo was one big Hunter S. Thompson-esque, hilarious nightmare. As the sun beat down, we climbed up and up. There seemed to be just one color all around, a kind of hazy white. At some point it got flatter and we made the summit at around 7.30am. Only to be told it was not the real summit. There was a higher one.
Half an hour later, I flopped to the floor at the higher summit – the highest point on Earth, in fact. The views were sensational. I think. I couldn’t really take it all in. Whether was the altitude or a surprising lack of fitness (though I’d been travelling for many months, I’d not been hiking and running regularly), or both, I felt destroyed – and also very happy. But I was only halfway through the ordeal. We still had to get back down, quickly, and I was out of gas.
The descent of Mount Chimborazo is harder than the ascent. On our trip, the hot hot sun, the increasingly dangerous Slush Puppie snow, and a guide intent on rushing us along made it more difficult.
I was like some kind of harmless zombie, just following the rope in front of me, letting it pull me along. I often thought my jellied legs would just refuse to move. I wanted desperately to lie down in the soft comfy snow, under the lovely warm sun, and sleep.
Every half hour or so I would either call for “un momentito” (a small moment), or just plonk myself down on the snow, like a petulant teenager. Invariably, after just 10 or 20 seconds David said, “listo,” more as a command than a request, and we were off again.
At one point David stopped ahead. A rest? No such luck. Helmets on, he explained, we have to run. As I stumbled along, rocks the size of suitcases bounced past me from the bottom of a glacier on a steep slope nearby, and I finally understand his haste. As the volcano warmed up it seemed to shake itself like a wet dog, sending killer rocks spraying out.
Not long after that, I blacked out while walking and woke up on my knees. I then woke up on my backside, sliding. I had lost my water bottle long ago and was now dehydrated. I ate some snow. I put more snow under my hat and down my back, to try and stay awake.
For the last hour, on less-steep ground and with the avalanche threat mostly subsided, we unroped and walked at our own pace. Oddly, I remember being well ahead of the other two. I laughed out loud to myself, talked to myself, and hallucinated. I felt sure some of my friends were having a picnic on a nearby mound. I felt really quite annoyed with them when they vanished without so much as a word. Just a quick “hello” would have been nice!
I finally stumbled into the refugio about 13 hours after I’d left it. Out of six who attempted it, we were one of only two groups to make the second summit of Mount Chimborazo.
When I got into bed back in Riobamba I’d been awake for about 40 hours. I was more tired than I’d ever been. And yet, ironically considering my knack of falling asleep when I don’t want to, when I desperately wanted to press snooze, couldn’t.
After an hour or so I realized what to do: I turned on the TV, found a film I wanted to watch, and… zzzzz…
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