Climbing costs $250, includes guide, dinner, accommodations
he north face of Chimborazo with vicunas running in the foreground. At 6,268 metres, it is the highest mountain in Ecuador and higher than any mountain in North America, Europe or Africa.
Photograph by: Rodrigo Donoso
I first learned of Chimborazo when I passed under its shadow on a cycling trip through Latin America. Its veil of clouds prevented a clear view of its triangular bulk, but a candlelit dining room photograph of its glaciated peak dominating the surrounding landscape haunted me for months afterward. That and the assurance of a local guide it can be climbed easily by a mountaineering wannabe - like me. In the past two decades, guided tours up Everest have made it accessible to non-professionals, however the $65,000 price tag ensures only affluent amateurs get a chance. The cost of climbing Chimborazo is roughly $250 and that includes a guide, dinner and accommodations on the mountain, and a convenient taxi ride three-quarters of the way up.
When I returned to Ecuador to attempt to climb Chimborazo, I was cautiously optimistic about my chances of reaching the summit. Success depends on two things that cannot be predicted: the weather and my ability to acclimatize to high altitudes in a short time. I flew into Quito, which, at 2,800 metres, is second in altitude among the world's capital cities. Only La Paz, in Bolivia, is higher. Quito is a busy city of three million with green mountains looming overhead . And its well-preserved colonial centre provides enough sights and sounds to occupy a wannabe mountain climber for a few days before moving on to higher altitudes.
My next stop was the Urbina train station near the base of the Chimborazo massif. The 100-year-old station house, which hasn't hosted a train in 20 years, has eight guest rooms tucked underneath its pitched ceiling. For four days, I explored the lower slopes of Chimborazo, walking on an ancient stone highway through tiny villages . Gaining altitude, the villages give way to sparse farmsteads where sheep and cattle graze on sloped pastures. The road eventually transitions into a footpath winding up alpine meadows decorated with glacial creeks and flocks of domesticated alpacas and wild vicunas.
When I felt ready to make an attempt on Chimborazo, I recruited one of Ecuador's finest guides, Paco, from the nearby city of Riobamba. Wanting a guide with experience, I was delighted when the 33-year-old Paco told me he had stopped counting his trips up Chimborazo after 200. Neither of us spoke the other's language so our communication relied heavily on gestures and grunts. Nevertheless, I was able to learn that Paco had climbed Chimborazo with a French couple the night before, and that he had not slept before our expedition, which started with a 3 p.m. taxi ride to 4,800 metres and the first of Chimborazo's two high-altitude shelters.
Between yawns he replied: "avalancha," and resumed cooking.
Because of avalanche danger, the usual strategy for Chimborazo involves climbing through the night so the peak can be reached and the retreat off the glacier completed before the sun has time to warm the ice and reduce its stability.
After a meal of lentil stew, we hiked to a second shelter at 5,000 metres, arriving as daylight faded. I closed my eyes for a few hours of sleep before Paco knocked on my door at 11 p.m. With our headlamps glowing, we stepped out into the frosty darkness.
We clambered up snow-covered rocks for an hour until we reached an icy ridge, where we paused to attach crampons to our boots and a rope to our climbing harnesses. A full moon emerged above the clouds and our headlamps were no longer required. The weather was cold and calm, but to the south dark clouds and flashes of light indicated a storm was nearby. As I watched the clouds stack vertically and the frequency of lightning increase, I meekly voiced my concerns to Paco.
He said a few sentences in Spanish while pointing around, which I interpreted as: "The sky near the summit is calm and we are high above the storm clouds, so the weather is not a concern."
No longer fearing the storm, for the next few hours I affectionately gazed down on billowing clouds and bursts of static electricity; fortunate that from this perspective I was beyond reach of its power and fury, but still privy to its symphonic beauty.
The moon eventually fell below the horizon and our headlamps were pressed back into service. We spent most of the climb trudging up a glacier while skirting steep pitches and crevasses. The only skill required was to follow Paco up the icy slope in a zigzag pattern. My oxygen-deprived brain shut down much of its normal activity and I robotically moved my legs at the same slow pace as Paco.
We climbed higher and as we approached the rim of the summit crater we were blasted by frozen gusts of wind and howling clouds. We were stopping every few minutes but despite ferocious panting, I was never able to fully catch my breath. The fog was too thick to see the topography of the volcano's caldera, but Paco knew the way to the summit. It wasn't until he held out his hand to congratulate me that I realized we had made it. Obviously, he deserved the "fe-licidades" much more than I since it was his second trip to the summit in 24 hours.
Our descent was quick and soon we were back where we started. The doubt and anxiety I harboured for weeks about reaching the summit had vanished, replaced by overpowering fatigue. If I wasn't so tired I might have felt proud for having stood closer to outer space than anywhere else on Earth - but, alas, all I could muster was a modicum of relief that I went up a hill and made it back down.
IF YOU GO
The weather in Ecuador is pleasant year-round and Chimborazo can be climbed in any season. The official currency in Ecuador is the U.S. dollar.
WHERE TO STAY
Accommodations in Ecuador are cheap. In Quito, I have paid less than $10 for a private room with a shared bath at the Auberge Inn, www.aubergeinn-hostal.com. There are numerous hotels in and around the centrally located Mariscal district with clean rooms and private baths for less than $25. Rooms at a top-notch hotel like the Royal Quito Radisson cost between $100 and $140 per night. At the Urbina train station, guest rooms start at $14; home-cooked meals are $5 for breakfast and $8 for dinner. If you request the local delicacy, guinea pig, you can hand pick it from the farm across the road. The train station is managed by the tour operator, Alta Montana, www.altamontana.net, and all arrangements for climbing Chimborazo can be made through them.
HOW TO GET THERE
Air Canada does not fly to Ecuador, but several U.S. carriers do. Delta Air Lines is among the cheapest and a flight from Montreal to Quito connecting through their hub in Atlanta costs between $900 and $1,300. The Urbina train station is a 20-minute taxi ride from Riobamba ($15), which is a four-hour bus ride south from Quito ($8). You can get to Urbina directly on the Quito-Riobamba bus by asking the driver to stop at the Urbina turnoff. The train station is a one-kilometre walk along a dirt road from the highway. Do not attempt this walk if you are wary of dogs because there are always a few patrolling the area.