Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Mountain Closest to the Sun

Hi All,
Everyone knows that Mt. Everest is the highest mountain in the world but did you know that it's summit is not the farthest point from the Earth's center?  That distinction goes to Chimborazo Volcano, the highest point in Ecuador and our next climbing objective.  After recuperating in Quito from our climb up Cayambe Volcano we headed south toward Riobamba.  Cotopaxi was revealing itself to the southeast.

Erupting Cotopaxi Volcano

We were suppose to climb this volcano but due to recent eruptions in August and October, Cotapaxi National Park is closed and the volcano is off limits to climbers.  Cotopaxi had been dormant for over 70 years but decided to reawaken the year we planned to climb it!  We turned off the Pan-American Highway and took a detour to Quilotoa Volcano.  It's not much of a climbing challenge since you can drive almost to the rim.

Quilotoa Crater Lake

We descended about 1200 feet to the crater lake and made the climb back up.  Other tourists not as acclimated as us opted to ride horses or mules to the top.

Hitching a Ride up Quilotoa

We returned to the main highway and continued south to the large city of Riobamba where we would spend the next 3 nights.  The following morning we awoke to rain but made the trip to Chimborazo Reserve anyway to do an acclimatization hike.  The road to the Carrel Refuge was shrouded in clouds and we could barely see 20 feet in front of us.

Entrance to Chimborazo Reserve

When we arrived at the refuge a climbing team sponsored by Solomon was already there.  We first ran into them as we were leaving the Oleas-Ruales-Berge Refuge on Cayambe Volcano and they spent last night at the same hotel as us in Riobamba.  Now they were here at Chimborazo - who was following who?

We geared up for our hike.  We didn't need climbing gear as we weren't going very high but Goretex was a necessity!  We climbed on a nice trail with switchbacks to the Edward Whymper Hut about 700 feet above.  The hut is now closed and is named after English climber Edward Whimper, the first person to scale Chimborazo back in 1886.  Edward Whymper and his Italian guides Louis Carrel, and Jean-Antoine Carrel were the first Europeans to summit a mountain higher than 20,000 feet.  

Our Group at the Edward Whymper Hut

As we climbed higher it began to snow and the wind picked up.  We reached the top of a small ridge and stopped for a break.  Given the weather conditions Diego, our trip leader, decided to turn back. We had hoped to climb higher but only made it to 17,200 feet.

Our Turnaround Point

On the drive back to Riobamba we saw several groups of Vicuñas along the road.  Vicuñas are one of the two wild camelid species, the other being the guanaco found in southern South America.  In 1988 about 300 animals were introduced into Ecuador from Chile, Peru and Bolivia.  Today the Vicuñas are protected in the Chimborazo Fauna Production Reserve and their numbers have grown to nearly 6000!


The next day we headed to the resort town of Banos.  Along the way Tungurahua Volcano loomed above us.  We couldn't see the volcano as it was hidden in clouds but could hear it roaring like a jet engine and see the ash spewed from it active crater.

Ash from Tungurahua Volcano

As we neared Banos we had to stop for a volcano evacuation drill being conducted by the local school.

Volcano Evacuation Drill Halts Traffic

It seemed odd to be visiting a tourist town at 5000 feet the day before we intended to climb Ecuador's highest peak but here we were.  We stopped to admire some waterfalls dropping into the Pastaza River Canyon that ran along the road.  Diego suggested we take a cable car across the canyon to get a closer look.  It was an exciting ride.

Cable car Across the Canyon

We continued down canyon in our bus to the tiny town of Rio Verde where we hiked down to the Pailon del Diablo Waterfall (Devil's Cauldron).  A trail took us alongside and then we crawled through a rock tunnel to reach a point under the 100-foot high thundering cascade!

Marc under the Waterfall

Looking Down the Devil's Cauldron

On the way back to Riobamba the clouds had dissipated and we could now see Tungurahua Volcano.  Every time we got a view we'd shout "The volcano is out, the volcano is out!" and we'd stop the bus for yet another photo.

Peggy in front of Tungurahua Volcano

The big day finally arrived.  We headed back to Chimborazo around 10:30 in the morning.  We stopped at the Mountain Lodge Estrella del Chimborazo (Chimborazo Hill Star) for lunch.  We watched a herd of Alpacas grazing as we enjoyed a tasty lasagna meal.  


After lunch we drove to the Carrel Refuge.  Chimborazo finally revealed itself.  It's glacier-clad slopes looked steep and daunting!  Time to get serious.

Chimborazo Volcano

Our group settled into the larger of two bunk rooms.  I grabbed the bunk on the end furthest from the door - not that I expected to get much sleep.

Our Bunk Room in the Carrel Refuge

After settling in we walked back up to the Edward Whymper Hut and sat for awhile contemplating the climb ahead.  

Our Group at Edward Whymper Hut

We returned to the Carrel Hut to prepare our climbing gear: plastic double boots, crampons, ice ax, climbing harness, helmet, headlamp and several layers of clothes.  As with Cayambe we had an early dinner then tried to get some sleep.  I was too anxious about the climb so could not fall asleep.  Our alarm went off at 10:00 PM, time to get up, have "breakfast" and gear-up for the climb.  The weather was clear and the wind calm as we set off around 11:05 PM.  We climbed steadily to the Edward Whymper Hut where we diverged from the Whymper Route and headed straight up the ridge.  A hour later we stopped to put on our crampons and get roped up.  This time we were paired with mountain guide Robin.  We soon lost the first 3 rope teams as I fiddled with the rope and my ice ax.  I had to keep reminding myself "ice ax on the uphill side and rope on the downhill side". Every time we turned at a switchback we'd have to switch the rope and ice ax which took me a considerable amount of time.

The conditions underfoot were tricky with frozen scree and ice interspersed with rotten snow.  I was not sure my crampons would hold.  We climbed steeply, around 45 degrees toward the main ridge. "When we get to the ridge it will get easier" I kept telling myself.  I could see the headlamps of the 3 rope teams ahead and pressed on.  Finally we crested the ridge around 2:30 AM.  It didn't get any easier!  The ridge narrowed, was bare and icy and was just as steep.  I struggled upward, not confident that I could go on and concerned about getting back down.  Robin asked "If you go higher will you be able to come back down?"  "No" was my immediate response.  So after climbing about 2300 feet (not quite halfway elevation-wise) and reaching 18,100 feet we decided to turn back.  It was not the outcome I had hoped for but I know my limits.  We picked our way down carefully meeting up with Lisa who had also decided to turn back.  Four hearty souls in our group made the summit or came very close to reaching it.  We stopped to watch meteors from the Leonidas Meteor Shower shoot across the sky.  Maybe we hadn't reached the point the farthest from the center of the earth but we had come closer than most!
We hope all is well back home,
Peggy and Marc

Note: We didn't take any photos during our attempt to climb Chimborazo.  It was dark and quite frankly I had my hands full!  Here is our GPS track overlaid on a photo of Chimborazo taken the day before.  It will give you an idea of our route up the volcano.  

Our Route on Chimborazo

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