2008 proved to be a great year for me in the mountains. Memorable trips included Rainier, Mexico's Pico de Orizaba and Iztaccihuatl, and numerous local peaks and climbs, including finishing the Colorado 14ers with my dad in July. I figured there couldn't be a better way to end the year than with a trip to South America (and from there Jamaica for a week). Craig (Cheeseburglar) and I had a limited amount of time (only 8 days), and our main goal was Chimborazo (20,700 ft., 6310m), so we trained hard and attempted to get our bodies used to being at high altitude as much as possible before we left. Initially in the planning stages, we didn't consider using a guide. But we contacted Freddy from Sierra Nevada about 4x4 transportation to the mountains, and the price of one of his mountain guides (and cook) was only a little bit more than the transportation itself. We had never used a guide for a climb before, so we were apprehensive, but decided since we had such little time and didn't have much margin for error in our schedule, we'd hire the local guide to ensure our trip went smoothly.
Travel from Denver to Quito. Arrived late at night and took a taxi to Freddy's Hotel Sierra Nevada (highly recommended): http://www.hotelsierranevada.com/
Today would be day 1 of acclimating. We hired a taxi to the Teleferico (cable car) on the edge of Quito, and took it up to 13,000 feet. We then hiked to the summit of Rucu Pichincha (15,400 ft.) along gentle grassy slopes.
Towards the top there were some minor scrambling moves, but it was very easy. It took less than 2 hours to arrive at the summit, which was completely socked in by clouds. We sat up there for more than an hour in an attempt to acclimate. I took a nap because there was nothing to see and it was rather boring. After a while a large group of Germans made there way up so we headed down. Back in Quito we discussed the week's plans with Freddy, and he seemed quite skeptical of our ambitious plan. We told him we live at higher elevations and we'd be ok, and he said "its your trip, do what you like". I really liked how flexible and open they were. We had all afternoon to kill, so we explored the local pubs. Unfortunately Kareoke is very popular in South America. We stumbled into some awful places before we found a great sports bar with futbol. We then had the best Ecuadoren meal of the trip at a local place called Quito Tiempo.
We slept in and woke up a bit groggy from the previous nights adventures. After a big breakfast, we took a taxi to the bus station (well in Quito it was just a round-about where buses parked), and took the hour long busride to Machachi. In Machachi I asked a cop where I could find 4x4 transportation to Illiniza Norte (16,818 ft.). He introduced us to his friend who took us up to La Virgen (parking area) of Illiniza (for $20 each way). The views of the Andean countyside on the ride up were incredible. Along the way we picked up 5 or 6 school girls and let them ride in the back of the truck. It was quite amusing to hear them scream as every farm dog we passed had to chase and bark viciously at them for at least a half a mile. At La Virgen at 10:30am, our driver said he would be back at 5.
We really had no idea if we could make it up and down Illiniza Norte in that time, so we just started hiking to see what we could see. After an hour we arrived at the Refugio (15,000 feet) and chatted about conditions with some Peruvian climbers who had just climed Illiniza Sur. We continued up the rocky slopes of Illiniza Norte and got off-route a few times. There were some exposed class 3 or 4 moves along a knife edge that we made before we got back on trail. At 1:30 we arrived at the summit and we both felt surprisingly good for being at almost 17,000 feet on day 2. After 15 minutes we started our descent and took a shortcut to head straight back to La Virgen. At about 15,500 feet we realized we would be back at La Virgen way too soon, so we just sat on the side of the mountain and relaxed for an hour or so. Illiniza Sur would peak out of the clouds from time to time.
We knew that we would get into trouble if we stayed in Quito for too long, so on day 3 we pushed our schedule up a day and drove to Cotopaxi (19,347 ft.), along the way meeting our guide in Machachi. In Machachi, our guide Jaime was no where to be found, so we relaxed and enjoyed some cervesas.
After a few hours, he showed up, and he joined us for more cervesas as we discussed the plans before we headed up to Cotopaxi. By mid-afternoon we arrived at the parking area of Cotopaxi (15,000 ft.) We hiked up to the glacier and practiced glacier climbing techniques for an hour or so at 17,000 feet. Back in the states I had practiced crevassse rescue skills extensively, and I told Jaime I was ready to drag him out of a crevasse if he fell in one. He found it quite comical to think of the guide falling in a crevasse. We felt pretty good and decided we would climb Cotopaxi that night. Instead of sleeping at the refugio (15,500 ft.), we decided to stay at the lower, more comfortable Tambopaxi lodge (12,000 ft.). After a huge dinner and some wine to encourage sleep, we were in bed by 7pm. I didn't sleep a single minute, and the alarm went off at 10:30pm, and after breakfast (it was very strange for me to eat "breakfast" at 11pm), we drove up to Cotopaxi.
We started off at 12:30am at a dismally slow pace. It was very hard for me to hike like this, but Jaime kept saying we needed to conserve our energy. I respect his opinion, but I prefer to cover as much easy ground as possible in the least amount of time, and this was quite foreign to me. We stomped on up Cotopaxi and roped up when we hit the glacier. There were several parties ahead of us and we could see their headlights bobbing in the stary night. Cotopaxi's relentless slopes average about 45 degrees in steepness, and I was primarily using the French technique, as this conserved more energy than the aggressive front pointing I use on steep couloirs in Colorado. At about 18,000 feet both Craig and I started feeling a bit sluggish. I was eating GUs every 30 minutes in an attempt to keep my energy level up. I had a slight headache, but nothing too bad. Right before sunrise I became very cold, and decided to put on my big down parka. This was a poor choice, because half an hour later, feeling even more slugglish, I became overheated as the sun came out. The sunrise was spectacular...all the crevasses that were around us came into clear view. The last 700 feet of Cotopaxi were challenging for us...much more challenging than Chimborazo a few days later (we were fully acclimated by then). We had to dig down for this one. But a little bit after 6am, we arrived at the summit. The weather was perfect.
After 10 minutes of relaxing and taking in the views I felt better immidiately. Craig wasn't faring so well. On our trip to Mexico, it was me who slowed down progress with Montezuma's revenge. In Ecuador it was Craig, so he mossied off towards the crater and did his thing. He came back looking a bit weary, and after some more pictures we headed down. We used a running ice axe belay at the crux of the route right below the summit.
It took us 5.5 hours to climb Cotopaxi from the parking lot, but only 1.5 to descend. Back at the truck, we packed up and headed off to the warm thick jungle air of the town of Banos. Along the way, we stopped at Jaime's favorite restaurant for lunch. The fried bananas and cow tongue were interesting, but I can't say I'm too impressed with Ecuadorian cuisine. In Banos Craig was still having stomach problems, so I went and explored the town on my own. I tried to find the Englshman I met on Cotopaxi's summit for a beer, but he must have been sleeping too. I had probably the worst cheeseburger I have ever had for dinner. I went to bed exhausted.
After a long nights sleep we felt refreshed. We had breakfast with some Swiss girls who were also staying at the hostel, and we all decided to go check out the hot springs. It was a very relaxing morning. Jaime picked us up at the hostel in the afternoon and we were off to our final and ultimate goal, Chimborazo.
It took about 3 hours to get to Chimborazo, and on the rough windy road right before the first refugio, we came upon a pickup truck that was flipped over on its side. We got out and 6 of us lifted the truck upright, but the driver failed to put the emergency brake on, so after it was upright it went shooting down the road into a ditch. We then pulled the truck out of the ditch.
At the refugio we had dinner, repacked our climbing gear, and enjoyed a few glasses of Scotch with Jaime and his nephew while we practiced tying various knots. The first refugio is at 15,700 feet, and I didn't sleep very well that night. Everytime I was almost asleep, I would suddenly awake because my body wasn't used to the abnormal breathing patterns that high altitude produces. I did however manage to get a few hours of sleep after the guy in the bunk next to me left on his solo bid of Chimborazo.
We slept in and after breakfast walked up with our gear to the Whymper refugio at 16,400 feet. That afternoon we hiked up to the Whymper Pinacles at 17,500 feet and did some scrambling. We then glissaded back down to the refugio and relaxed the rest of the afternoon. After another fantastic meal cooked by Jaime, we went to bed, eager for the adventure that would take place that night. Jaime recommended that I try to sleep sitting more upright to alleviate the breathing problems at altitude, so I put my pack and gear at the head of my bed and slept kind of upright. This did wonders for me and I was able to get a good 4 hours of sleep. I could have probably slept more if it wasn't for the thunderously loud group of Germans that arrived that night smashing their boots up and down the stairs and talking so loud. Up at 11pm, we had breakfast, and were out the door at 11:30pm.
Hiking up Chimborazo under the stary night was very quiet and peaceful. We were climbing the Castillo route. Below the Castillo, we roped up and put our helmets on. We made quick progress and passed several seracs illuminated by the moonlight. The Castillo has the most objective danger of the route, due to all the rockfall. It is also a place that gets very icy some seasons, and some parties use ice screws to protect this part of the route. The climbing conditions were perfect so we cruised through it. Halfway through the Castillo I developed a pounding headache. I was surprised and frustrated, because I felt fully acclimated. Once through the Castillo, I realized my headache could be from the crappy helmut that for some reason I foolishly never replace. After I took it off, my headache disappeared, and onwards we went. The higher slopes of Chimborazo consist of several thousand vertical feet of 45 degree snow (or ice) slopes. From the ridge above the Castillo, we persistently plunged our way up, stopping for a quick water/GU break every hour or so. After 4 hours of climbing on the upper slopes, we began to see a glimmer of light pierce the horizon below us. The slope mellowed out, and I realized we were right below the first false summit called the Veintimilla.
As we topped out on Veintimilla, the sun rose and turned the glacier pink. Volcanoes were puffing away in the distance. None of the pictures I took do this special moment justice. It was amazing. We took a quick break on the Veintimilla, and then headed off towards the highest summit of Chimborazo, called the Whymper summit. I felt great climbing above 20,000 feet, but the last section to the true summit was quite challenging. We could only take a few steps before we would stop for 10 seconds to catch our breaths. A little bit after 6am on Christmas morning, we were standing at 20,700 feet, the point furthest from the center of the earth (due to the Earth's equatorial bulge, Chimborazo is closer to the sun than Mt. Everest).
I shared the Christmas cookies my girlfriend baked for me before the trip with Craig and Jaime. They were delicious and we ate the whole bag. This was a Christmas I'll never forget. It was cold up top, so we only stayed for 10 or 15 minutes. We descended the mountain without any problems, and were back at the Whymper refugio by 8:30am. At the lower refugio, we met a class of high school Ecuadorians on a field trip. They were extremely impressed that we climbed the mountain, and they all wanted to shake our hands and get photos with the gringos from America. Along the lower slopes of Chimborazo we saw several Vicunas. Jaime said people eat them in Peru.
We were back in Quito by mid afternoon, and had a $4 all you can eat buffet for Christmas Dinner. The food sucked very badly, but at least the bottle of Chilean red was good. I went to bed satisfied.
We decided we should explore more of Quito on our last day, so we walked around the city and did some shopping and saw the sites. That night we celebrated the succesful trip at our favorite futbol bar in Quito. It was a great place to practice Spanish, and we received a lot of attention because the South Americans were eager to practice their English with us. We were persuaded to hit the Discoteque, and received fine instruction from some Chilean Latinas in dancing, although I'm sure we looked pretty foolish to everyone there.
Jamaica. Nothing beats relaxing on a tropical beach after a long climbing trip. Even better was the fact I could do it with my girlfriend and family. All in all a trip of a lifetime.