Midnight Moon on 20,730′ Chimborazo
Running short on time and seeing a weather window we quickly grabbed a cab and took the first hostel we could find after our bus ride from Banos. With Jordan under the weather and constantly in the Bano from a meal in Banos (go figure) Ben and I pushed on heading up to the hut on Chimborazo. We found ourselves rapidly rummaging through our packs double checking our gear list before our hired cab would arrive at 2pm. Of course the very first time in the history of foreign cab rides our taxi was early, the one day we probably could have used an extra 15 minutes to get our gear in order.
The ride up the winding dusty road to the lower hut was masked in cold dark fog, leaving Ecuador’s highest peak shrouded in secrecy. At the old wooden gate a bundled up man signaled for us to get out. The wind ripped the door open as we scurried over to the little hut. Inside a single light bulb and the sound of a statickey old radio filled the room. We filled out our paperwork for climbing and paid the gentlemen the park entrance fees totally a mere $2 per person! Our cab continued to rattle along the dusty road as our incredibly knowledgable driver pointed at everything he could see through the fog. He even drew us a map of the route we should take on the back of a napkin, if that doesn’t instill a thought of confidence I don’t know what does. I mentally kept imagining Ben and I standing on a ridge at twenty-thousand feet arguing over who was holding the napkin map and which pocket we had put it in.
The dust swirled amongst the fog working itself deep into our pile of gear that had just been left in a foreign looking moonscape. We decided to spend the first night at the lower hut to give our bodies one more day of rest and acclimatization. Ben and I spent the evening sipping tea around an old fireplace chatting to a man from Switzerland who had spent some time working in Wisconsin and Minnesota for a farm equipment company. The long day of bus transfers, cabs & frantic gear sorting would have sent most people to bed early. Yet for me when you know that you are in place you may never return to and it seems so spectacular I can’t help but want to explore as much as I can. So I grabbed my camera and headed out around 11pm to head up the ridge. As the rock on the rope that weighted the door rose the moon light spilled across the old wooden floor of the hut. The sky had cleared and the moon was casting shadows across the desolate landscape. I spent several hours exploring the ridge and taking in the size of Chimborazo in the glowing moonlight knowing that the following night I would have my shadow cast upon her great ridge of volcanic red rock.
That morning we took our time gathering our gear and making our way to the upper hut, which would become our launching point later that evening. Upon arrival around lunch time we began hydrating ourselves until we ran clear. We also ramped up our calorie intake in anticipation of the climb. With our last minute gear checks complete we lounged in the warm sun inspecting what we could of our route. After awhile I began to wander from camp looking for the wildlife that was making the interesting calls we could hear from camp. With some patience and crawling behind rocks I managed to get close enough to the pack of Vicuna. They are basically a smaller alpaca that lives at altitudes as high as 17,000′ feet. These particular ones that I photographed were located on the ridge to the east of camp at about 16,500′.
Ben boiled some water and we made another bag of freeze dried food for an early dinner as we awaited nightfall. From camp we could here the rocks crashing down the section known as “El Corridor”. Neither of us actually slept that afternoon. It was more of a kindergarten nap time where no one really sleeps because as soon as you get comfortable you need to use the bathroom which in our case was outside. Then when you finally get comfortable you are all of a sudden hungry. As soon as you eat something you wake up thirsty and worry that you are getting dehydrated before the climb. Next thing you know you are standing outside using the bathroom again. This vicious cycle works its way over and over until it’s time to actually climb. For us that time was 11pm.
With the moon high above our heads we left our headlamps off chasing our shadows that the full moon cast on the eerie red volcanic rock of Chimborazo. The first mile was pretty easy following a dried creek bed to the base of the steep slopes and saddle we needed to gain. As we began lifting our legs higher we both know that we were entering the “El Corridor” section. Our boots had difficulty getting purchase on the frozen scree. Despite the cold and seemingly frozen slope, the golfball to bowling ball sized rocks kept whizzing past making a distinct zipping noise as they attempted to reach terminal velocity. At this point we decided to spread apart in the most active areas and go one at a time while the other watched the slope above. Sure enough a baseball came sailing down buzzing Ben like fighter pilot showing off his skills. Gaining the ridge at the toe of the glacier was a big relief. It was here that the only other two climbers on the mountain caught up to us as I shot some photos on the ridge.
The wind ripped across the saddle blinding our eyes with tiny bits of volcanic dust. We continued with our hand held covering our right temple to try and shelter the wind. Reaching the toe of the glacier was a huge relief for our eyes. With our harnesses already on we quickly tied a New Zealand coil between us and began to make progress up the glacier. The moonlight was reflected even brighter on the snow of the glacier. Navigating through the maze of small cracks and crevasses was a far easier task in the clear moonlight than it had been on Cotopaxi during the ice storm. We climbed for several hours taking mandatory breaks to drink, eat and swing leads. We ran into the group ahead of us again just as they were descending the first lower summit, Cumbre Veintimilla, which was their groups high point. After a brief exchange and clouds beginning to roll in we decided to make a push for the true summit, Cumbre Whympher. An additional 40 minutes of climbing led us to the final wall of the Whympher summit. Every couple of steps at nearly 21,000′ feet required a pause and breath. We felt good at this altitude with no signs of any altitude related sickness. We watched the sun rise just as we topped out on Cumbre Whympher. Unfortunately it was one of the most lack luster sun rises of the trip. Regardless the view and feeling of standing atop Ecuador’s highest peak was phenomenal and an experience I will never forget.
In fitting style the short video of me on the summit turned out blurry. Lets just say that our brains are not exactly 100% at this altitude.
After summiting the sun became intensified lending to our concerns of recrossing the “El Corridor” area any later than we absolutely had to. Despite going down hill it seemed to be nearly as much work as going up hill with our tired legs and softening snow. We swung leads increasing the our mandatory stops to 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of descending in order to ensure that we stayed hydrated and kept our stomachs happy. Even with this their is only so many clif bars and goo shots with caffeine one man can consume in a day. As we removed the rope at the toe of the glacier we could already hear the rocks hurling through “El Corridor”. In the best interest of our noggins we both agreed to neglect our stomachs for the hour as we navigated the final pitches. Watching out for one another we nearly jogged some sections of the corridor. Our boots sank deep in the reddish mud that had been solid ice only hours before. As the ground began to level we smiled and knew that we had made it, although we held off on a celebratory photo until our packs lay on the ground at the hut. Upon arrival at the hut is was high fives and congratulatory hug. We both deeply wished that Jordan could have joined us on our final peak in Ecuador. Although both Ben and I had a very similar experience when in Peru, it was in Peru in which I did not make it to bathroom in time for number 2…. something I hoped wouldn’t happen until sometime after age 80. Either way we will be back for more in this beautiful country filled with generous people whose smile was infectious.
We shouldered our packs for one more time to hike back down the trail. Thankfully our cab driver we had arranged for was sitting there waiting for us. He crammed our packs into the trunk. The engine sputtered and was soon rattling its way back down the mountain side. Back in town the three of us went out for dinner and celebrated our incredible trip over a few beers. Upon our return to our hostel we watched a fiery sunset set behind Chimborazo. It was a bitter sweet ending to our trip. South America remains my favorite place to travel and is one of the few places I could move to and spend several years exploring. Ecuador was a great country filled with some of the most generous people I have ever met.