Chimborazo 6,310 m (20,700 feet) by Andrew White
We made an early return to Quito on Saturday (1/5/02) after four nights and days on Antisana. We were glad to get back to cleaner water and comfortable beds (note to myself: Next time, bring the Thermarest pad and leave the 4 quart pot at home). And a chance to finally get our clothes washed at the cheap, but great drop-off laundromat, across from the hotel. We were also looking forward to catching up on our email, long distance phone calls and eating fresh food. But this would last only one day. We were off to "Chimbo" on Sunday, minus three crewmembers. After our letdown on Antisana, Kim R. and Steven J. decided that they had their fill of climbing in Ecuador, and made plans to return home. It would now be seven of us on the last BIG climb. Kim and Steven would try to get in a little sightseeing before they left. But then, on Saturday night, Jerry C. got a call from his employer. Things were going down with a big contract of his, and he was needed stateside immediately. Boy, what a bummer (2nd note to myself: Never give my boss the phone number for the hotel)! So, now it would only be six of us: Craig, Sherry, Al, Wayne, Greg, and me.
The ride from Quito to Ambato, to Chimborazo took about four hours. It was fairly comfortable in Alvin's cozy charter bus. I say "fairly", because Ecuador's roadways need a lot of work, especially between Ambato and Chimborazo. Access to the main huts, on the South side, requires travel through a national wildlife preserve and is currently under construction. It is very sandy, and the route - a bit confusing, especially in foggy weather. If you go this way, remember to stop and pay the park ranger, for your travel permit. Just look for two guys on a bicycle. The one in the gray camouflage fatigues, wearing a Kevlar vest and a .45 cal. revolver is the ranger.
We arrived at the lower hut by 2:00 PM, in thick fog, and hauled our gear up to the dusty loft inside. This was not easy! The effortless ride from 9,300 feet to 15,900 feet left me feeling very dizzy. The lower hut has nice bunks and dining room, and a clean smelling kitchen (with running water). However, I have seen better lavatories in remote Italy. While we only intended to spend the first night in the lower hut, a tour of the upper "Whymper" hut made us decide to stay in the quieter, less smelly lower hut for the entire climb. It would only add 500 feet and 1 hour to the total duration of the climb. There are enough beds for eight people, plus plenty of floor space. One other thing about the hut - no lighting.
The first night was restless for me. But I did get about 4 good hours of sleep in the six hours we had the next night, before getting up for the 11:00 PM start on the mountain. I WAS feeling strong. The Diamox and decongestant seemed to be working. Since Jerry left, we were not able to check our pulse/ox. My saturation level had to be at least 80%, which is good. But, my heart was still running 100-120 bpm. We ate breakfast and started slowly up the trail to the Whymper hut. The air was warm and damp. Beyond the Whymper hut, we continued slowly up frozen rock (which became loose rock later in the day). And, in 1 hour, we had already gained 1,000 feet. At 12:30 AM, we reached the famed stepladder to the snow ramp ("El Corridor"). Two 3-inch diameter poles with several 1x2's for rungs. It makes the ladder at Mesa Verde look great. Up to this point Greg was slowly becoming less sure of himself for the climb. And, when we began up the ladder onto the snow, he decided to stop and return to the hut. Like me, he had not been getting good sleep. Too bad! At the start of our "Four Mountain Excursion" I thought he was our strongest member. So now there were only five of us. Shortly after getting on the snow, we put on our climbing gear and roped up.
We could see another group quickly approaching from below. The first mile or so, through "El Corridor" and upward to the ridge (Near the rock buttress "El Castillo") was straightforward switchbacking along a preexisting path, set by the climbers the day before. The climbing angle on snow was moderate. Once on the ridge conditions became steep and icy. Not what I was expecting. The guidebook described it as a slow walk up from here. This ridge walk was technical. We even had a few crevasses to contend with. But they all had good snow bridges. One required the use of ice tools to get up and over the back wall. This was no more than 4 foot of high angle ice above 4 foot of overhang. Wayne, the expert ice climber, did it with just his mountain axe.
The second group (a guided group) finally caught up with us on the ridge, and passed us. In a rude wayacross our rope! I hate it when they do that. I made sure the rope was slack and on the ground. They were making the fast, straight-to-the-summit ascent, and we let them. We crossed through our last crevasse at ~19,000 feet, at ~7:00 AM. At this point, Al and I (both at the rear) stopped to look back down the ridge, as daylight illuminated the landscape. Since the sun was on the other side of the mountain, we got to see the giant, triangular shadow of "Chimbo" laid out across the low altitude haze, to the west. Just like the one seen in photos of Everest. At 19,500 feet I was really noticing the lack of air and physical energy. I also noticed the upcoming start of the ice seracs that we would need to climb over to get to the summit.
We took a break and Craig asked us all on how we were doing. I told him I wasn't sure. I had not been eating much during the climb, except candy and a bite of a bagel. I was drinking though. Al gave me an orange "Goo" packet, which is okay after the initial, hard swallow, and Wayne gave me a good pep talk. This climb did not seem as hard as my French guided climb up Mont Blanc (Aug. 94). But, it was getting close. Craig said we did not have much further to go, and we would HAVE to take it slow through the seracs. We all continued on.
The seracs were steep and ice. I constantly had to rely on my knees to mantle up on the big ice steps (bad habit!). Someone on our rope, ahead of me (guess that leaves Al out) was making awkward "side" steps. Hard for a "French stepper" like me to deal with. I really could have used an ice tool on this stuff. Mountain axes do not dig in well. Eventually the climbing angle became shallower and the sunlight was getting brighter. I guess we were getting near the summit. But we were still stepping up and over the 4 to 6 foot seracs. Al compared it to trying to traverse an office full of cubicles - the hard way - straight over! And then, we were on top - I think. We could not climb any higher. We could not see the horizon or surrounding landscape either. I had to get on top of a serac to see. Yep - we were on the summit! The "Veintimilla Summit" (6,260 meters = 20,500 feet).
This was good enough for me. I could see the true "Whymper Summit" at about ½ mile east. It looked bad! A lot more ice seracs, and an additional 500 feet of upward climbing. I told Craig that this was it for me. And then I sat down to try to catch my breath. We all were. This was 1,800 feet higher than I had been before. Not bad! It was warm and sunny. No headache or nausea. But, for the others, this was not good enough. They had to go on. They had to make it up for not reaching the summit of Antisana on their TWO attempts. Wayne estimated two hours out and back. I was willing to wait that long. So, I took myself off the line, anchored myself into a serac, waved good-bye, and ate my lunch. But, it was not more than 10 minutes later, that Craig and Sherry reappeared. Without Wayne and Al. The terrain ahead was too technical for them. So, they decided to turn around and head back. Wayne and Al kept going on. Craig had to split the rope (his rope, not HAMS). We had radio contact with them, which was good.
As the three of us made our way down the mountain, the clouds came in, and we were in thick fog. But, the weather was getting warmer and wetter. We were shedding our clothes right down to our base layers. I thought it was supposed to be cold at altitude! We down-climbed more cautiously than we up-climbed. Belayed on several icy sections. The 11:00 AM snow at "El Corridor" was beginning to stick to our crampons. But we soon reached the ladder and were off the slush. Now we were on loose wet rock and still in the steamy clouds. We tried three times to contact Wayne and Al, but didn't get a response. We WERE a little worried. We did get through to Greg, back at the hut. He hadn't heard from them, either. Craig, Sherry, and I got back to the hut at 1:00 PM, and sacked out in our sleeping bags. At 2:00 PM, Greg finally contacted Wayne and Al. They HAD reached the Whymper summit and made it safely off the mountain. At 3:00 PM, they were back at the hut and we all went back to sleep.
Copyright February 2002 by Andrew White.