Acclimatisation at El Altar

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
Trip End Apr 16, 2011

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Flag of Ecuador  , Chimborazo,
Thursday, June 9, 2011

Our next destination, our most southerly point in our little side trip to the highlands of Ecuador before looping back north, was the town Riobamba. We had chosen this place for a very specific reason; Chimborazo volcano.

Ever since summiting Huayna Potosi in Bolivia we had had an itch to attempt another big mountain and Chimborazo was The One. Its 6,310m height made it impressive sounding enough to climb but then we also read that, due to the ecuatorial bulge, the summit is actually the point on the world furthest away from the centre of the Earth, some 2km more than Everest and the closest point on the Earth's surface to the sun. A slightly eccentric measure we grant you but hey, it just had to be done.

We arrived in town in thick clouds that hid the mountain from us and got quite a check when we stepped out an hour later to find the volcano looming up over town looking snowy, beautiful and high. Really, really high.  Slightly daunted but not to be put off we snapped a few shots and went about the business of sorting out how to climb it.

Finding a guide was fairly easy in the end but we also needed to worry about acclimatisation. Unfortunately, unlike in Bolivia where we had necessarily spent several days at or around 4,000m with La Paz being so high and didn’t really need to do much, the towns in Ecuador were all significantly lower (only around 2500m) and any attempt to climb without better acclimisation was likely doomed to failure. At the same time, we didn’t just want to go to the base camp for 3 days and wander around on the slopes of the same volcano we would be climbing a couple of days later.

The compromise plan we came up with was to stay in town for one more night and do a mountain bike tour where they take you right up to the Chimborazo base camp at 4,800m and then hand you a mountain bike to bounce yourself over 2000m back down the slopes of the volcano, practically back into town. As well as being quite fun, this would enable us to do a bit of a reccie on the base camp and the mountain ready for our return in a few days time. After the biking, we would then head out the next day to another volcano called El Altar with a refuge at around 3,800m where we could spend a couple of nights acclimatising.

Originally, the plan had been that Gordon would do the mountain biking whilst Sarah would follow in the support car and take photos. However, the man at "ProBici" was such a good salesman that he even had Sarah convinced to do the trip by the end of his 45 minute pitch. Knowing, as you may do, the lengths Sarah normally goes to to avoid biking of any kind you can appreciate how good he salesman he must have been.  The trip itself was fanstastic. Even Sarah, who has long since declared the bicycle her arch-enemy, was caught smiling several times on the way down. The fact that the only 2 uphill sections were optional and we were able to shove the bikes on the trailer and hop in the 4x4 definitely helped. We were also treated to a beautiful clear day and were able to get some great shots of the volcano - gaping up for minutes at a time asking ourselves if we were really going to attempt to climb the thing! In fact the view of the mountain was so beautiful that it was dangerously tempting glance over your shoulder at the view whilst barrelling down a bouncy one lane track with lots of rock on a bike. Not a good idea.

It took most of the day to get down, weaving between canyons and gorges and winding down the valleys that run off the volcano. We even stopped for lunch in a lovely clearing that had an 'Inca ruin’ in it. Well, at least it used to but as our guide explained to us the local people have been raiding it for building materials so there is now little more than an outline (compared to the waist high walls that were there when they first started doing the trip 20 years ago!)

Having made it down safely on bikes the next day we picked up some thick sleeping bags and headed off to El Altar. The trip started badly when it turned out that the buses were not as frequent as we had been led to believe. In fact there weren’t any at all. Helpful. Thankfully, we found a taxi driver who was willing to take us. We are not entirely sure he knew where he was going though as his first act once we left town was to phone a mate and ask where it was. An hour and a half later, much of it along a bouncy one lane road we arrived at the hacienda at the base of the trail. We felt a bit bad for the taxi driver who quite clearly had not been anticipating a 3 hour round trip including so much wear and tear on his cab when he quoted us $10. Much to his credit he didn’t try to ask for any more money and kept a smiley demeanour through mile after bumpy mile and even chuckled each time he stopped for directions and was waved on up increasingly narrow road. In many places we had been recently the cabbies would have got in a strop and made up a new price with some thin excuse or refused to go any further so we gave him a healthy tip which hopefully made him feel a bit better about his morning’s work on the drive back to civilisation.

It was at the hacienda we encountered our second piece of bad news. We had been anticipating hiring a horse to take our big packs up while we walked up behind in order to get used to climbing and walking at altitude but not kill ourselves ahead of the mountain. To this end, we had packed a bunch of stuff we probably wouldn’t have bothered with otherwise and had quite heavy packs (tins of tuna, mayonnaise, a jar of olives and a bottle of wine wouldn’t normally be on our shopping list for a hiking trip!). However, on arrival we were informed that there weren’t any horses available. Damn.

In the end, the climb was not actually that bad and whilst a little hot and sweaty we got to the top without too much trouble and even enjoyed the route up the side of a hill and along a fantastically deep and green Ecuadorian Andes valley. We spent a lot of time marvelling at how incredibly well cultivated every last strip of land was here. The summit of mountains, near vertical slopes and big rock faces do not seem to deter the local farmers here.

The main obstacle on the path itself were the narrow sections where the traffic of people and horses has turned the trail into a really deep mud bath. Thankfully, we had been warned of the condition of the trail and had been told to hike in Wellington boots; a novel experience but one we were very grateful for by the third time we sank to our knees in mud.

Having found most of the path not too hard going we were dreading the final section as the guy at the bottom had said to us that the final part was very steep and we found ourselves nervously scanning the tops of the surrounding hills looking for the refuge.  At one point Gordon thought he’d spotted it right on the top of a huge bluff and was all set to take a beeline that way when we happily bumped into two park rangers.  Not only were they incredibly nice (and kept apologising for having to charge us a whole $2 entrance fee) but they also assured us the refuge was only 5 minutes round the corner – with no climbing involved.  It turns out the guy at the bottom had meant the last section on the way down was steep.  Phew!

We also weren’t expecting much of the refuge (we were picturing long-drop toilets outside la Bolivia) so were pleasantly surprised to find a nice looking refuge situated in a massive U-shaped valley flanked by snow and glaciers.  We were even more surprised when we walked in to find a private room (with a bathroom and solar-heated hot water no less) waiting for us along with a well equipped kitchen. There were a couple of other groups at the refuge which made for an entertaining evening comparing camp food, with our “Camp Rissotto” a clear winner (ok, yes, it’s rice and tuna), and trying to light a fire to sit around. Our visions of a cosy camp fire were scuppered though as the chimney was blocked and so we only succeeded in filling the entire refuge with smoke and found ourselves having to flee the sitting room to our sleeping bags.

The next morning we got with some of the others up at stupid o’clock in the dark to continue up the trail to the beautiful crater lake and mirador of El Altar for first light as we had heard that was the time we would be most likely to get some clear views. Unfortunately there was some low cloud covering the top half of the rearing peaks but we could see the lake pretty well and it was an entertaining scramble in wellies up the steep, grassy-rocky slopes to get there. The trip down was even more fun, particularly when a passing cloud lowered visibility to close to zero on a particularly steep section.  The wellies may have kept our feet dry in the mud but they have zero grip and slipping and sliding down the hill was not our most elegant moment.

Everyone else at the refuge were people living and working in Ecuador and, it being Sunday morning, they needed to head back down the mountain and home fairly soon. Thus it was that we found ourselves at 11am with the entire massive refuge to ourselves and nothing to do for the entire afternoon. We had been planning on maybe doing another walk somewhere but the weather had taken a turn for the worse and a deep fog and rain had descended. If you had walked into the refuge at 3pm that day you would have found us in the kitchen with all the hobs on dancing around the table like loons to Shakira in an effort to keep warm. Finally, the next morning came and we were able to head back down the mountain for the bus back to Riobamba where we treated ourselves to some of the awesome local roast pig and crackling at the market, before being ourselves treated to a parade through town by what seemed to be the entire student population of the place in various dance troupes. We still don’t know quite what it was in aid of but it was quite an event for the little town we think.

With our acclimatisation almost completed with no ill effects other than the pins & needles that the Diamox gives we went to our (thankfully warm) hotel bed that night a little tired and a little nervous; next stop Chimborazo summit.
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