November 28 and 29, 2001
On Wednesday, November 28, 2001, we're staying at El Estacion de Urbina. This is a century old rail station and climber's hostel run by Rodrigo who is also a climber and who is currently in charge of maintaining the Whymper hut on Chimborazo. (A great place to rest and get beta on the mountain.)
At about 1 PM we leave for Chimborazo (at 20,700 ft., it's the highest mountain in Ecuador). It is pouring rain the entire way to the mountain but we're no longer discouraged by this weather it's fairly typical. We get to the Carrel (lower) hut (15,800 ft.) at about 2:45 PM. The rain has turned to fog now. We have some tea and snacks and then hike 40 minutes (200 meters) up to the Whymper hut (16,400 ft.). We get there at 4:15 PM and find very few people in the hut. It has been very dry and Tungurahua has covered Chimborazo with ash which has created very unstable conditions (Seracs collapse with little provocation) and has either melted or turned much of the snow to ice. This has resulted in very few climbers attempting Chimborazo.
Chimborazo is normally a long fairly straightforward snow climb but is now considered "out of shape" due to the dry icy conditions. Rock fall and crevasses are now a serious factor in climbing this mountain. (No one has submitted Chimbo in the last week and a half.) Our team has one of the upstairs rooms in the hut to itself. It turns out there are only three other teams in the hut. One of the other teams are the two Germans (Helga and Dieter) that we met on Iliniza and their guide. They seem to have a somewhat less-than-top-notch guide. He told them first the weather was unacceptable for going up the mountain (and then relents after they see us going up) and later gets lost on the way to the summit. We all hit the sack about 6:30 PM (It's rather amazing to think that most of my coworkers are still in the office back home as I am going to sleep in a hut at 16,400 ft.). I actually sleep quite well this time; I think it helps that this hut is actually quiet due to the fact that our team is the only occupant of this room in the hut.
At 10 PM we wake up, get breakfast and get ready to go. We're climbing by 11:30 PM (a little later than I had hoped). I was expecting a colder climb than Cotopaxi but am surprised how warm it is, so again, I wear just a my thin Activent "windbreaker" and not my Gore-Tex parka (which comes along in my pack though). I wear my long sleeve polypro shirt and a light fleece jacket, unzipped under the jacket also unzipped. (I would have been better off with just my wind shirt rather than the fleece.) We also carry an ice tool (a hammer) in addition to our standard Alpine axe (a Black Diamond Alpamayo). We also carry crevasse rescue equipment (slings, prusiks, pulleys, and ice screws). There is significant rock and icefall danger (mostly right at the start of the glacier) so we wear our helmets. (Note, these conditions are unusual for Chimborazo.) We have planned our hike so it's with a full moon since this typically provides good, more stable weather in these mountains; tonight, in spite of an overcast, it provides enough light that we can climb by moon light on all but the more technical sections of the ascent. It takes a little over an hour to follow the trail up about 1,000 ft higher, over snow-covered rocks to the start of the glacier. Here we have a three-meter high, slightly overhanging ice wall.
Here we encounter the two Germans and their guide. After some advice from our guide, Cosme, the German's guide climbs to the top of the wall and after some more advice, rigs a belay for his clients. Cosme puts in a rope loop ladder to aid the other guide's clients. The guide then hurtles an ice hammer over the top of the glacier (!) so Helga can climb. It takes quite a while with Cosme pushing from below and the guide pulling from above to get Helga to the top of the ice wall. Dieter does much better. With his clients, finally on the glacier, the guide still requires further assistance from Cosme to get going. (We later learn he was reluctant to keep climbing and got lost on the way to summit.) We have put on our crampons and been waiting about thirty minutes while all this played out. Dianne climbed first from our group and quickly reached the top of the wall that had taken the Germans so long to climb. (The others in our group remarked that Dianne made it look very easy!).
The beginning of the route is pretty straightforward but after about another 500 to 1000 feet Cosme has to repeatedly spend some time looking for a safe path around some crevasses. This is unusual for Chimborazo but the crevasse situation is very unstable and new crevasses are opening constantly. We have to make numerous rather long deviations to avoid the larger crevasses. Above 18,000 feet we start encountering penitentes (these are snow and ice towers caused by the volcanic ash and are not normally so common on Chimborazo). By 18,500 feet these form a thick forest through which we must wind our way upward. The penitentes are beautiful but we soon grow to hate them as they impede our progress to the summit.
On about five different occasions, we think we have reached the summit ridge but are disappointed when we encounter more penitentes as we reach what we think is the top. At 8:07 AM we finally reach the Veinteimilla summit (20,561 ft., 6,267m). At this point we have mostly clear skies and can see Cotopaxi and other larger peaks. I'm pleased to find that other than being tired from the long ascent, I feel perfectly normal at the summit altitude (Dianne reports the same). (This is our first time above 20,000 feet on a mountain.) We leave the summit at 8:30 and surprisingly find it's hot; I strip down to just my thin top and climb downwards. An hour later on our descent (at about 18,800 ft.), we have to redress as we enter a strong sleet and thunder storm. Soon we are descending quickly in the sleet and fog as the storm intensifies. I become somewhat alarmed as I feel a static charge building (Dianne says she hears her ice axe beginning to hum). I am not too worried through because we are now low enough on the route that we are not in danger of becoming a local high point for a lightning strike.
We were planning to descend via the Thielmann Glacier "direct" route but due to the fog and sleet, we simply returned via the normal route (by El Castilla). At the bottom of the glacier face, we remove our crampons but we still have another 1,000 vertical feet to climb back to the Whymper hut. As we descend, we see one of the Germans being lowered headfirst (!) down the ice wall. A long hard climb! We still have to descend back down to the van at the Carrel hut but this takes only 15 minutes. As we drive out, a small pickup truck stops us and demands payment of the $10 park entrance fee. After some good natured arguing about the fact there is no sign the fee is being spent on anything, we all cough up the money. We see some vicuñas (a relative of the llama) on the way down as we did on the way up but can't take a picture because of the fog. Once we get below 14,000 feet, we are driving in the rain again.
Warm regards, Wolfgang and Dianne Stiller (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Copyright November 2001 by Wolfgang Stiller.