6310m Chimborazo is a massive inactive volcano, and Ecuador’s highest mountain. Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge Chimborazo’s high-point is the spot located farthest from the Earth’s center, further than the much higher Himalayan peaks due to their more northerly latitude. Given the right time this also makes Chimborazo’s summit the point on earth closest to the sun.
Along with the much lower Illiniza Sur, Chimborazo was one of my primary climbing goals while visiting Ecuador. I came to Chimborazo thoroughly acclimatized, having spent almost two weeks climbing several of Ecuador’s other 5000+m volcanoes – my detailed climbing itinerary can be seen here. I had enjoyed great snow conditions and reasonable weather at the beginning of my trip, successfully climbing the Illinizas, Cayambe, and Cotopaxi before travelling to Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest.
Antisana had chased me off with a lightning storm, fog, and abnormally warm air temperatures, leaving me well aware of Ecuador’s potential for rapidly changing weather. I was nervous about Chimborazo – while the standard route’s technical grade is low, in recent years Chimborazo has gained notoriety for being out of condition. I had read accounts of a dry route covered in ice, with high objective hazard presented by rockfall. There was good news however; other climbers and Ecuadorian guides whom I had met at my hostel and on other mountains had informed me that Chimborazo had recently seen snowfall. Fresh snow once consolidated would prevent rockfall, and also hopefully make for decent climbing conditions.
Day 1: My climbing partner, Ecuadorian mountain guide Pato, and I were camping at the base of Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest mountain. We had arrived at Antisana the day before, with the intent of climbing it overnight. Unfortunately the weather had conspired against us, and I had made the decision to bail. With no sign of the weather improving we figured that it wasn’t worth sticking around and waiting for one more day, and I decided that instead of taking a day for rest, we may as well head straight to Chimborazo.
From the Reserva Ecologica Antisana we drove for almost six hours to the Reserva de Produccion Faunista Chimborazo, the nature reserve which contains Chimborazo. Along the way we stopped in Ambato, Pato’s hometown, where we enjoyed a small feast at a local steakhouse. After a fast check-in at the Chimborazo park gate we arrived at the ~4800m parking area near the base of the mountain, where everything was shrouded in thick afternoon fog. Most of Ecuador’s more popular mountains are climbed from cabins, or refuges, but both of Chimborazo’s were closed at the time of my visit, so I pitched camp behind a makeshift cabin being used by the construction workers. The lower Carrel refuge stood close to my campsite, while the higher Whymper refuge was some ~200m up the mountain.
I was feeling uncertain of the weather due to the amount of fog, but knew that we had a spare day if we needed it. I ate a light dinner, filled my water bottles with hot water from the workers’ cabin, and went to sleep early.
Day 2: Awake around 10 p.m., I ate some snacks and began preparing my gear. The fog had cleared overnight, and the sky shone with thousands of stars. My stomach was feeling uncomfortable. I suspect that this was due to the water which I had taken from the workers’ cabin. This water had been boiled, but was sitting in a very large communal pot. Not knowing how long the water had been boiled for, or how recently, or whether the water in the pot had ever been changed out, or whether it was clean from numerous groups using it, or even how long it had been sitting, I shouldn’t have taken any. I had even brought my own water, a 6L bottle bought in the city! These stomach issues, and by extension a lack of good nutrition prior to beginning, would later contribute to the climb’s difficulty.
We began hiking up the gentle slopes of the lower mountain at 11:00 p.m. We passed the Whymper refuge around 30 minutes later and soon reached snow.
The lower section of Chimborazo’s standard route is known for rockfall hazard. This area is only moderately steep, but climbs directly below numerous cliffs of loose rock, among them el Castillo, ‘the castle’, a large cliff / rock formation along the ridge above which frequently sheds boulders down the mountain. There is only one clear way up past the cliffs, leading some to refer to this section as ‘the corridor’.
It was a clear but cold and windy night. The low air temperature was likely to our benefit however, and we experienced no rockfall below el Castillo. When everything is frozen solid, otherwise loose rocks tend to be stable. I was soon climbing in my down parka, utilizing my full layering system to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and between my ski goggles and neck buff had my face completely covered.
With no difficulties in route finding we quickly reached the ridgeline which connects el Castillo and Chimborazo’s Veintimilla summit. We gained the ridge to the climber’s right of el Castillo, an obvious spot given the steeper terrain on either side of it. Heading up the ridge we soon discovered that the snow on the ridge was soft and loose, impeding each step upwards with a half-step slide back down. Several crevasses posed minor obstacles, but they were mostly off-route, easy to see and avoid. Stretches of the ridge were moderately steep, around 45 degrees at steepest. The loose snow made climbing physically strenuous, but as wind howled past us we continued upwards, one step at a time, focused. In darkness and biting wind the soft snow of the ridge seemed to stretch on for an eternity, with Pato and I moving at what felt like a snail’s pace within the tiny spheres of light provided by our headlamps.