On Top of the World (Technically)

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

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Flag of Ecuador  , Bolívar,
Wednesday, June 15, 2011

So after just one night back in Riobamba with all the creature comforts it was time to head out on perhaps our most ambitious adventure yet; climbing to the point on the world furthest away from the centre of the Earth.

In Riobamba we also managed to catch up with H our Australian friend with whom we had done the Roraima trek a month or so ago. We had been trying to talk him into accompanying us on the climb by e-mail for a few weeks and were delighted when we arrived at our hotel to find him there all set and ready to go. We spent a manic evening at the agency sorting out all the equipment we needed (including a magnificient 80's set of trousers and fleece for Sarah) before taking ourselves for a fortifying steak and much mountain chat.

The plan was to have one final night’s acclimatisation by spending a night at the base camp hut at 4,800m and doing some hiking higher up, before meeting our guides the next day and then going up to the high camp at 5,000m for a couple of hours’ sleep before starting the climb at around 10pm.

When we arrived at the base camp we discovered a group of dispirited looking would-be climbers waiting for a lift back into town. To our horror we discovered that they had tried to set out at 11pm the night before only to be driven back after just 15 minutes by a howling gale which meant they could not even stand up straight, never mind pick their way up a steep slope across snow, ice and rock.

Crap. The idea of having gone to all this trouble and spent a fair bit of money only to get no more than 15 minutes into the climb was not a nice one to contemplate. The weather outside didn’t seem to have improved much either. Though relatively clear at times the wind was still pretty ferocious and cold. When the clouds parted enough that you could see the summit it looked particularly malevolent. High winds were whipping snow, ice and clouds across the top at what looked like gale force speeds. It looked and felt completely different from how it had on the sunny day when we did our bike ride. We started to get more nervous.

The howling wind didn’t abate, but the weather was clear enough that we decided to go for a bit of a walk that afternoon anyway to get used to walking at this altitude but also for something to do. Climbing mountains, we have discovered involves a lot of waiting around and usually in very cold places that have very little to do. The 2 camps on Chimborazo were no different! Still, that is the price you play and why we had brought the cards to play with.

We went up to the higher hut and then set out to go a bit higher towards a rock pinnacle at 5,300m that lay in the other direction to the path we would be taking the next day. The walk up wasn’t too bad and all three of us started to feel pretty good about the next day: although a little short of breath our legs felt good, we had no headaches or other symptoms and the brisk, windy air was invigorating.  After about an hour we hit the snowline but it looked like quite decent footing and we had our ice-axes so we carried on up. The last section we had to traverse across a bit of icy scree to get to our target rock. Suddenly it seemed that we had come out of the small sheltered section of slope and the wind hit us full blast. Helpfully this coincided with the footing suddenly becoming unsteady and the slope particularly steep. We literally crawled across the face to the lee of the rock where there was some shelter, digging our ice axes deep into the scree for purchase. With a confidence about the next days climb having taken a bit of a hit, we decided it was time to head back down for more cards, dinner and an evening sitting by the fire of the refuge.

Also staying in the refuge that night were a couple of Canadians who were getting up at 11pm that very night to make their attempt on the summit. Once again we were quite disappointed to have them return to the refuge only 4 or 5 hours later looking completely shattered. The weather, they reported, was fine but the first sections of the climb quite tough and technical and the guide had suggested they go no further because, although they might well have made it to the top, one of the group would have been so tired that the trip down would be dangerous. Crap crap. This climb was sounding harder by the minute.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, given how high we were, we awoke the next morning to find the weather still foggy and we had a whole morning to kill before the guides arrived to make us lunch. There really is a lot of waiting around when it comes to climbing mountains but if you cut out these waiting times you are more likely to get sick so we stopped grumbling and played some more cards. After what felt like an age, our guides Manuel and Rafael arrived, made a huge lunch and we packed our stuff up and made for the high camp where we would do the last of our waiting. Our group had now swelled to 4 tourists and 3 guides as we had met another very nice German guy, Christoph, who had arrived with a separate agency. Despite the huge lunch, just a few hours later at 5pm the guides gave us an enormous dinner which we did our best to cram in despite still being full and then tried to get a few of hours sleep. We were, to say the least, a little nervous. Although we had been to 6,000m before it felt different this time. The route sounded steeper and harder and the success rate of recent groups had been very low and the weather looked pretty bad as climbed into our sleeping bags.

When the alarm went off at 10pm we quickly got our things together, crammed in a 3rd decent sized meal in the space of 8 hours and stepped outside. We could not believe our luck. The wind had completely gone, the clouds had sunk below our level leaving the whole of the top of the mountain clear and a huge full moon shone down on the slope ahead. It was so bright that we could walk in the light easily without headtorches. It was even quite warm and we had to quickly shed a couple of layers for the climb. A couple more photos of Sarah’s outrageous climbing kit (just couldn’t resist) and we were off.

The first couple of hours we just walked in our ice boots across the valley and up towards the base of the snow and ice. The going was fairly uneven and bumpy but not too bad and not too steep either as the path wound up the slope rather than taking a beeline. The guides seemed to be happy with the pace we were setting and so we started to relax, the song "It was acceptable in the 80’s" spinning around uncontrollably in all of our heads in honour of Sarah’s outfit. Then we hit the bottom of a rock fall where an extremely steep slope started. We donned our crampons and started gingerly up the steep slope. It was vicious. Walking on the snow was fine but often it would give way to slippery scree or icy rocks or (worst of all) patches of invisible and steep black ice. It was tough, really tough and the thought of having negotiate it on the way down in about 10 hours time once we were exhausted was quite terrifying.

Eventually we scrambled up of the rocky, icy stuff and onto deeper snow and the shelf that led (eventually) up to the summit. The initial relief at being on the softer stuff that actually worked quite well with the crampons quickly evaporated as we started up the massive snow shelf. It was unrelentingly steep, uneven and seemingly endless. The slope hadn’t been less than 45 degrees since we put on crampons on hours ago.  To our horror (we shouldn’t have asked) we discovered we were only at about 5,600m at the base of it and there would no change in the pitch or slope until we hit the first and lower summit at 6,200m. To say it was tiring would be a serious understatement. As we went up we had to breathe more and more heavily, the air was getting colder and colder making it harder to breathe and we all started to develop the alititude cough (that would stay with us for a week after), slight nausea and headaches that we knew had to come at some point. We had a few short stops for warm, sugary coca tea from our thermoses trying in vain to get our breath but the guides were in quite a hurry to keep going and gave us very little leeway. The views in the moonlight of the slope and the valley below shrouded in cloud were incredible and other-worldy.

After literally 7 hours of absolute agony and effort the slope of the snow shelf started to level out. But tantalisingly and infuriatingly slowly. Occasionally it would level out a bit, getting our hopes up that we were nearly there only to then get even steeper again. Finally, we lumbered over the top and onto the lower, south summit and rested briefly to celebrate reaching 20,000 feet of altitude. Unfortunately the mountain had developed a little thin cloud cap whilst we had been climbing so we couldn’t see much from the top. It was bitterly cold up there as the wind had picked up so we couldn’t stop for long but, having got this far, we insisted that we pushed on for the summit itself. H had decided that 20,000feet was sufficient for his first big mountain climb so we left him and his guide having a cup of slightly frozen coca tea and carried on toward the summit proper.  This involved, to our utter digust, a short downhill section giving away precious meters in height, followed by a flat section we had to slog across. On the way across the wispy cloud surrounding us parted very briefly as the wind blew across opening brief windows of the stunning views and other volcanoes around us, including Cotopaxi with the sunrise behind it. Up ahead we could see a final, fairly shallow but lung-busting climb to the summit proper. Determined now though to make it we hauled ourselves up the final meters, crawling a bit on the really steep sections, and almost 8 hours after we set off stumbled on to the flat (but foggy) expanse of the summit - 6,310m high and the furthest point in the world from the centre of the Earth.

Earlier on our trip we had listened to a harrowing audiobook by John Krakauer about an expedition to climb Everest that had gone very wrong. We had been astonished to hear him describe how, after his months long enterprise to get there, he had spent no more than 2 minutes at the summit, checking out the view dazedly, exchanging quick congratulations, snapping a few photos and then turning back and starting the descent down. We could not understand why you would not enjoy the moment a bit more. Although we do not claim that this climb is even in the same ballpark, we understand what he said a bit better now. We were so exhausted, had such powerful headaches and pains all over the body and were so mindful of just how long, tough and demanding the climb down was going to be that we literally spent about a minute and a half up on the summit and took two photos before turning and starting back.

Fairly soon after starting our descent we came out of the thin, wispy clouds and were greeted by incredible vistas of the snowfields around us and the valleys below us. Unfortunately, we were not able to stop and take many photos as our guide was now in a serious hurry to get down and was driving us down the mountain relentlessly. He was worried about the icy, rocky scree slope lower down as apparently after about 10am the sun higher up begins to melt things a little bit and loosen rocks which then tumble down the mountain. We were literally and figuratively running out of juice (we had no liquid left to drink as everything we had, including the thermoses, had frozen solid!) and stumbled down as fast as we could as the idea of negotiating that slope whilst trying to dodge tumbling debris was pretty scary. We were only taking photos when one of us needed to stop for a rest, although admittedly that was pretty often. The snowfield felt, if anything, more massive and unending than it had been on the way up and we’d totally underestimated just how tiring it would be getting down it with it being so steep.  Finally we stumbled over the end of the snow onto the rocky and icy section beneath. If the snowfield had been tiring this section was excruciating. We had to pick our way carefully but also quickly down the slopes, placing our crampons carefully and trying not to either slip or dislodge a single rock to slide down and hit the people climbing below us. Meanwhile, the sun was now out in force and it was getting really hot in our full cold weather gear, exacerbating the pains.

Eventually we stumbled down of the last section of icy black stuff and flopped down on some rocks to take our crampons off. Our guide was chivvying us along to get them off and get moving as we could see and hear the rocks tinkling down the mountain past us, but we were just too tired and had to sit and rest for a few minutes leaving him to go ahead.  Having recovered our breath we finally stumbled on and down the path to the high refuge, saying to each other over again “We did it!”  We got back to the refuge around 11am, 12 full hours after leaving, to a round of applause from H who was waiting with hot drinks for us and collapsed on the floor outside the hut. We can safely say we have never been so tired; we were spent. 100% fully spent. This was without a doubt the hardest thing we have ever done.

We headed straightaway that afternoon with H to the touristy stronghold of Banos a couple of hours away where we had promised ourselves a nice room in a nice hostel and a trip or two to the hot springs after which the town is named to ease our aches and pains. After a pizza, very long hot showers and a nap we headed up to the hostel’s lovely terrace surrounding by mountains and volcanoes where the 3 of us polished off 2 bottles of congratulatory wine and relaxed and reflected on the climb.

It had been an incredible experience. We enjoyed it in a masochistic sort of way and while it was similar in some ways to what we had experienced on Huayana Potosi it was also different in many ways we hadn’t expected.  We certainly hadn’t appreciated how much tougher the terrain and extra 250m height would make it nor how different it feels above 6,000m when the sun is not shining and you are in wind and cloud. H, who had not done a big mountain before but is a seriously fit guy and has done extreme, endurance sports and run marathons, reflected that it was the hardest thing he had ever done. That put it into perspective a little for us. 

It had been such hard work and we’d been so tired that what we’d achieved really hadn’t sunk in. Because of the fog at the very top the climb had also lacked the spectacular final summit bid of Huayana Potosi that gave us such an immediate sense of achievement there, and even getting down to the refuges to have the staff and guides congratulate us (some looking unflatteringly surprised), then the same at the agency back in town we’d just been too tired to take it in.

The euphoria that had been missing a bit at the top of the mountain hit us hard then. Or maybe it was just the wine on our tired and battered bodies. We realised we were pretty proud of having summited such a monster mountain and having climbed to the point on the Earth furthest away from the centre. We can safely say that the mountain climbing itch has been well and truly scratched for the moment.  But maybe once the bruises fade we’ll forget the pain again...for now though it’s time for some R&R!!
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