Which mountain is on the equator but is covered in permanent ice?
Which mountain is 2.5 km lower than Everest but is 2 km further than the center of the Earth than Everest?
After the few unforgettable days horseback riding in the green mountains of Vilcabamba it’s time for a more serious, much colder and much more extreme hike. Next on our adventure list is Chimborazo. In the ancient indigenous language of the people who inhabited these lands, Chimborazo means ‘The Mountain of Ice’ or ‘The Icethrone of God’.
Chimborazo, standing at 6,263m above sea level is an ice-capped inactive stratovolcano covered with glaciers within the Cordillera Occidental range of the Andes, in Ecuador. It’s 150km south of Quito and 30 km northwest of the town of Riobamba, at the end of the Ecuadorian Volcanic Arc known as the ‘Avenue of Volcanoes’.
It’s location- only one degree south of the equator on the equatorial bulge where the Earth’s diameter is greater than at the latitude of Everest, makes it 2 km taller than Everest, if you measure the distance from the two peaks to the center of the planet! For the same reason, Chimborazo is also the closest point on Earth to the Sun.
In the past, it was believed that Chimorazo is in fact the tallest mountain on Earth, even from sea level, and this reputation led to many failed attempts on its summit during the 17th and 18th centuries. It wasn’t until 4 of January 1880, when the English climber Edward Whymper became the first man to reach the summit of Chimborazo.
Even today climbing Chimborazo is not an easy business. It’s dangerous due to glaciers, risk of avalanches, and severe weather conditions. Climbers usually start at night in order to reach the summit before sunrise when the snow melts increasing the chance of avalanche and rockfall. The easiest most popular route is El Castillo form December to February and June to September on the west side of the volcano, starting at Whymper hut. The climb itself demands skill and is often on black ice.
Our intentions are to visit Chimborazo, not to climb the summit, for which we are not prepared at all. Getting to the second base- the Whymper hut, is relatively easy and doesn’t require skill or preparation. The serious climb begins there, but for us it will be the end of the road. We take the bus from Riobamba to the village near the park’s entrance and the driver drops us off right at the door. The best thing about Ecuador, besides its friendly people, is that ALL National Parks are free for locals and tourists alike. So going to Chimborazo doesn’t cost us much more than the bus tickets in one direction (we hitchhike on the way back). The park’s entrance is at 4,386 meters and it’s already extremely cold. We have trouble breathing at this altitude. We are not used to altitude and cold anymore, after three years in the tropics, at sea-level…We have our hats, pants, NorthFace jackets and all our warm clothes on, but I am freezing. So I go to the park’s public toilets and wrap my legs with toilet paper. This should act as isolation keeping the heat between my body and my pants. Works great. Not the first time I am doing this.
Fog, clouds and cold. The mountain is damp, lifeless and hostile- red soil and rocks, few low shrubs. Yet we spot life. A herd of about 20 small gentle wild vicuñas (a type of Andean lama) live in the protected ecosystem of the National Park. Shy, they keep a distance when we try to approach them.
We start walking slowly up a wide rocky road. We have 8 kilometers to go. It’s not a steep or difficult hike, but it’s harder than it looks just because of the cold and the altitude. We walk slowly. A car is heading up to the first refuge, and it stops right away to pick us up. Did I mention that people of Ecuador are the best? We have been hitchhiking 99% of the time and it never takes long for someone to pull over. And they never asked us for money. We met quite a lot of great Ecuadorians thanks to hitchhiking and we are forever grateful to all of them! The two young guys who took us all the way up to the first refuge saved us at least 3 hours of painful walking.
From the first refuge at 4,850m, there is no road accessible by vehicles anymore. A path leads up to the second refuge. Here we already see snow. We are excited. It has been a long time without snow and we are happy to step in it, touch it, make snowballs, and play. Nothing like good old snow! Don’t forget, we are Canadians too!
Any young healthy person can hike to the second refuge- Whymper Hut, but for people with heart problems, elderly or out of shape, it is not recommended. If you are suffering from altitude sickness, even if you are young and healthy, you will have to turn back, unfortunately.
We are not feeling too good, but we keep going very slowly, one step at a time. It’s getting colder and colder and for a view we have damp red rocky mountains hidden in grey clouds. A small Andean wolf is roaming about and comes incredibly close to us, shivering.
As we reach the Whymper hut, I am done. I barely breathe. We rest inside and soon Ivo and Maya are ready to go even higher. There is a crater lagoon at 5,100m not too far from the hut, but for me this is too much. I pass. Thus, the highest point I have ever reached remains 5,000 meters. Maya went to 5,100m, and Ivo- jumped to 5,100 meters and 75 cm!
In August 1976, SAETA Flight 232 carrying 55 passengers and four crew members aboard a Vickers Viscount from Quito to Cuenca disappeared en route. In February 2003, after 27 years, the aircraft was found with the bodies of its 59 occupants at 5,400 meters elevation on Chimborazo by Ecuadorian climbers on the rarely used eastern route Integral.
On November 10, 1993 three parties of climbers, one ascending and two descending, were caught in an avalanche on the steep slopes below the Veintimilla summit. The avalanche buried ten climbers: six French, two Ecuadorans, one Swiss, and one Chilean, in a crevasse at 5,700 m. It took twenty people and ten days to find their bodies- the worst climbing accident in Ecuador to date.
Watch our short YouTube video- Two Months in the Andes With Maya