Sleeping at high altitude is difficult and can certainly be a challenge for mountaineers. I felt strong when we finally arrived at the high camp of Chimborazo at around 5,300 meters above sea level or about 17,388 ft. While dinner was being prepared by the person in charge of the high camp and his 7+ year old soon, Brittany and I were getting our equipment ready for the summit attempt. After dinner, we tried (as always) to get some sleep but at this altitude, it’s almost impossible to get proper rest. The constant headache didn’t go away, which is normal, but after a few hours in the tent I started to feel nauseous. A common sign of altitude sickness. For the first time I felt this way and I tried to concentrate so that it could pass. I told Brittany that I was not well and needed to get out of the tent. Just when I was getting out I almost puked and I knew that Chimborazo was going to be harder than any mountain that I had ever climbed.
I’m writing this post as Ecuador and the world is going through quarantine as we all try to prevent COVID-19 from spreading in our communities. I can only hope that the world recovers soon so that we can all go back to our normal lives and to the mountains.
As the great writer Charles Bukowski said in one of his books; “If you are going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start.” At 6,263 m (20,549 ft) , Chimborazo is Ecuador’s highest mountain and the closest place to the sun when measured from the center of the earth. The only mountain in this country that is over 6000 meters. It’s been a dream for many years and the chance to climb it, finally arrived.
For this climb, Brittany and I went with Pedro (Pepo’s brother, who we climb Cotopaxi with in February of 2019). Chimborazo is located about 3.5 hours south of Quito so we left on Saturday, February 15th early in the morning. There are different options to choose from when attempting this climb, one of them is to start at Refugio Carrel (4,850m) or Refugio Whymper (5,050m). We decided to start from the relatively new high camp at about 5,300m.
The nauseousness didn’t go away for a while but I knew that I had to try. I was breathing deeply and concentrating. I’ve been waiting for this moment for many years and training for 5 weeks and I was not going to give up easily. Years ago, the glacier would have been right where our high camp was but global warming has decreased the glacier of Chimborazo at an alarming rate. We started the hike at 12:20am and it wasn’t until about 2 hours later that we put on our crampons!
The first section of El Castillo, which started a few minutes after we left high camp, is quite dangerous as there are loose rocks. Brittany struggled here so Pedro decided to rope up with her. After 2 hours it was time to use our crampons. This section of the glacier was particularly challenging as it was a mixture of black ice with rocks so we had to be careful in every step. Many people who had climbed Chimborazo, told me not to look up as there are many ramps along the way that appear to be false summits. I couldn’t help but look up only to see the next ramp and knowing that we were closer and closer.
Four plus hours passed and in between very short breaks with some water and manicho chocolate bars. Although it was hard to take breaks as there was no flat ground. I was focusing on my breathing and taking it two steps at a time. Deep breath, two steps, deep breath, two steps. I peeked at the altitude and we were at about 5,900m or the height of Cotopaxi and that was a reliefI. Half an hour later and we’ve reached the 6000m mark, the highest I’ve been in my life. I was exhausted but the weather was in our favor. I knew we were going to summit on this day.
“How long until we reached the first summit?” I asked Pedro. “We are about half an hour away, he replies.” These were the longest 30 minutes of my life. There was another “cordada” or group of climbers who were at our pace for most of the climb. Sunrise was just starting when we were finally reaching the first summit of Chimborazo, Veintimilla at 6,230m. Most climbers end up here and turn back, mainly due to exhaustion of bad weather conditions. I couldn’t help to look at the other group members who started puking as soon as he reached this first summit. No celebration for us yet, as our goal was to reach the main summit.
I could see it from where we were standing, it looked so close yet so far away. These 30 plus meters seem to be eternal as the altitude combined with tiredness makes this part quite difficult. Then it hit me, I was minutes away from achieving a long time dream and I started bursting into tears of happiness and joy. How lucky I am to experience this I thought. I could see the other groups celebrating, I was so close. I looked back and I could see the other cordada coming towards us.
On February 16th, 2020 at 6:14am, I was standing at the highest point in Ecuador, Whymper summit at 6,263 m (20,549 ft). I high fived Pedro and gave Brittany a big hug. It was emotional. We did this together. All the hard work paid off. What a moment. It’s hard to describe in words how you feel in moments like this. You just have to experience it yourself. All the pain and suffering goes away when you have the joy and pleasure to see this. I could see the clouds below us, the sun closer to us than ever before. Gracias Taita Chimborazo!