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8, 2003 |
Fred and T.J. on top of the
Well, the climb was a success. And it takes
a little while to explain.
When we got to the tour agency for the transportation to the bottom
refuge (4,860 meters) we were told we had an additional climbing partner
and thus an additional guide. The climber was from Germany and named
Stephan. The guide was Eloi’s brother Paco. Eloi got me to the
top of Cotopaxi in January and guided Sam and I to the top of Carihairazo.
So, it was nice to have this guy along because he had some experience
(he has climbed Mt. Blanc among others) and because an extra guide
gives us the luxury of having one or two people turn around without
scrubbing the entire ascent. Stephan didn’t communicate very
well with English and his Spanish was even worse, but Sam and I don’t
speak German so we were stuck with English.
We got to the bottom refuge and then it is 30-to-40-minute hike up
to the next refuge. This is the Whymper refuge at 5,000 meters. Edward
Whymper was the first person to summit Chimborazo. Simon Bolivar tried
but had to turn around at snow level (about 5,100 meters).
Carrying heavy packs and water up to the second refuge was tough,
but minimal compared to the mountain itself so you just shut up and
start walking, trying not to act winded.
I had heard it took eight hours to get to the summit. You always want to be off a glacier with as little daytime sun as possible and in Ecuador it is generally best to be off the glacier by 10 a.m., noon at the latest. Also, thanks to global warming (or whatever has caused average temperatures to rise), in the past few years on Chimborazo there has been a very hazardous rock fall that covers a 20-minute section of the climb near the bottom. With the rock fall aspect it is best to summit before 7 a.m. and then hopefully be past the rocks by 10 a.m. Knowing all of this, and that Eloi never leaves on time, Sam and I decided it would be better to leave before 11 p.m. Here we ran into our first problem.
Guides don’t like to be on the mountain for any longer than necessary. After all, the climbing is the toughest part of their job and they like to minimize it. Eloi had already decided we would leave at 11p.m. Convincing a guide to do something different than what he thinks is also another difficult cause. After all, guides are the type of people that are never wrong (and people like that can be very difficult to deal with). Anyway, I decided I was going to try to get us to leave by 10 p.m. So I started talking to Eloi and Paco. I buttered them up with a bribe of Gatorade mix I had brought from the States then started talking to them. At first Eloi was very insistent that we weren’t going to leave before 11. However, I kept talking
and went way back into the conjugation tables I had learned in Spanish
classes to use the correct verb forms. Eventually it worked and I
got him down to 10:30. I had already decided not to even try for 10.
You try to go to sleep after dinner at 2 p.m. However, I felt like
a kid the day before Christmas so sleeping was not a possibility.
Stephan said he didn’t ever fall asleep and Sam didn’t
doze off until around 8:30. We “awoke” at 9:30 anxious
to get started.
A quick pre-game meal of yogurt and cereal complemented with some
Coca leaf tea and then we were off. We left at 10:40, not bad at all,
as it takes a while to get all geared up.
Paco was in the lead and Eloi was in the rear. At first, Paco’s
pace was awesome. It was a slow walk at best. I kept thinking to myself,
“this is going to be a breeze if we do this the entire way.
We passed the rock field, which was kind of tough because it had snowed
earlier that day. This meant the rocks were coated with a thin layer
of ice, but we managed nonetheless. An hour later we arrived at the
glacier. We tightened our harnesses, got our ice axes out of our packs,
and strapped our crampons onto our plastic boots. Sam and I were on
one rope with Eloi in front and me in the rear, and Stephan was on
the other rope with Paco.
Getting on the glacier was a shock. Not because we were unfamiliar
with walking on a glacier, rather because Paco started going about
twice as fast as he had been going earlier. From this point on the
entire climb was extremely difficult.
We had three-fourths of a full moon so our headlamps were not necessary
at this time. We kept heading up and up and up. Rests were minimal
and water breaks were almost nonexistent. At about 1:30 a.m. we got
a water break. Sam said he would need to go slower and suggested I
change ropes. I kinda liked the prospect of going slower though so
I stayed on the same rope. Stephan and Paco didn’t go that much
faster than us. At 2 a.m. though Sam started to feel the effects of
the altitude. It was best that I change ropes. It took us five minutes
to catch a stationary Stephan and Paco.
I switched ropes and I was put in the middle. You want your strongest
climber (aside from the guide) in the rear. Stephan was taller, skinnier,
and had more experience so it was an easy choice. We took off, this
time going even faster as if it were some challenge to see how far
ahead we could get from Eloi and Sam. It wasn’t 15 minutes before
we heard Eloi yelling for us to stop. He had unhooked from Sam and
was practically jogging to catch up to us. I was excited for the break
but a little worried. Eloi caught us and said that Sam was getting
altitude sickness and that they were going down. He told me that Sam
had thrown up. This was a lie and I’m still not sure why Eloi
said it—guess I’ll never know.
Eloi assured Stephan and I that we should continue. Don’t worry
about Sam, he said, the only thing you can do is drop elevation and
he could do this alone. I felt bad and contemplated turning around
but from previous experience I’d learned that the sick turn
back and the rest keep heading up. So, I continued going up all the
while worrying about Sam and just how bad a case of altitude sickness
he had. This was at 5,500 meters.
We kept going. We were being chased by a group of three Czech climbers
who had climbed Cotopaxi three days earlier. The two Spaniards and
their guide I had met earlier in the refuge were nowhere to be seen.
I later found out that they turned back at about 5,400 meters. Sam
and Eloi caught them on their descent and they had a pleasant return
watching the moon and getting photographs above the clouds.
Chimborazo is an extremely steep mountain as far as glacier climbing
is concerned. I kept waiting for that tall-tale where you could catch
your breath while you keep moving but there never was one. Of course
we traversed, but the traverses were not near as gradual as I had
previously experienced so to me it felt like I was going straight
up. The other thing about Chimborazo is, that unlike less steep mountains,
it’s almost impossible to lose yourself in thoughts, songs,
and other ways to occupy your mind. You seem to have to put all of
your concentration on the next step.
A thing about oxygen, thin air, and altitude: Contrary to what some
people say, there is not less oxygen in the air as you gain altitude.
Oxygen always comprises the same amount (about 20 percent) of the
air you breathe. What there is less of is air. The term “thin
air” simply refers to the fact that there is less air per square
foot. This happens because of a lack of air pressure. With less air
pressure the air doesn’t stay as compressed and hence there
is less air in each breath. Somewhere along the way to the top of
Chimborazo you cross the 50-percent barrier. I think it is around
5,900 meters. Anyway, this 50-percent barrier alludes to the fact
that there is 50 percent less air than at sea level. At the top of
Everest there is 65 percent less air.
Needless to say, breathing is tough and the physical activity is even
tougher. You pretty much have to make deals with your body. Twenty-five
steps and then a rest. The rests aren’t really that great though
because the entire time the guide is pulling on the rope and saying,
“vamos, hombre, continua.”
Eventually our moon became less effective and it was time for headlamps.
This was fine for a while until my batteries died (because of the
cold zapping them quickly) and I had to change them. The cold had
frozen the battery cover shut and my cold fingers weren’t doing
much good. Finally, I took hold of the cover with my teeth and ripped
it off. I broke it in the process but not so bad that it wouldn’t
function. With the coldest hands I’ve ever had in my life I
continued up. I thought that with some physical activity they would
warm back up but they didn’t. I started to worry that I had
minor frostbite because I had very little sensation in my fingers.
At the next rest I told the guide my hands were very cold. He told
me to slap them together very hard for 20 seconds. I did this and
it worked. I knew the circulation and feeling was back because for
the next 10 minutes my hands were in extreme pain. This was comforting
though compared to the prospect of frostbite.
At 6:30 in the morning we made it to the Ventimilla Summit. This is
6,260 meters tall. Like many mountains, Chimborazo has more than one
summit. The other one, Whymper, is at 6,310. However, because of the
added 1.5 kilometers and the icy conditions between the two summits
it’s often not possible to get to the Whymper summit. Paco advised
us that though it might be possible, it was not a good idea to try
to get to Whymper. Yes! Finally some information from a guide that
I wanted to hear.
At 6,260 meters (or 20,532 feet), Chimborazo is taller than any mountain
north of it on either continents. Alaska’s Mt. Denali/McKinley
is North America’s tallest at 20,310 feet. South America’s
tallest is in Argentina called Aconcagua (another 650 or so meters
taller than Chimborazo, I think).
So, we snapped a few pictures from the top and tried to soak up a
little warmth from the sun. I may have told you already, but because
of the equatorial bulge, Chimborazo is the furthest point from the
center of the Earth. I think more than 2,000 meters further than
Everest. Now, I will check with Dr. Preston Miles at Homecoming to
be absolutely positive, but I believe that this also means that during
the majority of the year it’s also the closest point to the
sun (the Earth’s tilt on axis withholding). That being said,
it’s still way too cold for tanning. Sun-burned nose yes, anything
short of wearing all the clothes in your pack, no.
Up to this point I had only eaten one chocolate bar, a liter of Gatorade
(cut in half of course), a cup of tea and a liter of water. All of
this for eights hours of uphill climbing. Stupid! Stupidity and a
loss of balance were the main side effects I noticed from the altitude.
I also developed a heck of a smoker’s cough but it’s gone
today. Yesterday, I barely had the energy to walk up the stairs in
the hotel. My lungs were on fire. Take the way you feel after exercising
in the cold and then multiply that by about 10.
The descent took almost four hours when it should have taken three.
I was so tired I couldn’t go any faster. The clouds came in
around 8 a.m. so we didn’t have to fight the sun’s reflection
off the glacier and the rock fall was not activated by the heat of
the sun. The warming temperature did two things though. First of all,
every time you hear the glacier crack under you your heart skips a
beat. I don’t know if I will ever get used to it. Also, by about
9 a.m. I had full sensation back in my hands and feet. That was nice.
I’m not sure I can say the climb was fun. It was a rewarding
and challenging endeavor. I can say I enjoyed it and am glad I accomplished
my goal. Right now it is too early to say which, if any, big mountain
is next in my sights. Give me a week though and I’m sure that
answer will have changed.
I hauled Dead Fred all the way to the top. He was quite a bit more
photogenic than I thought he’d be. But that’s good as
someone had to look good for the camera!
Sam had a good climb. He wasn’t overly disappointed about not
making the summit. With climbing, sometimes you have good days and
bad days and he knew this. Also, 5,500 is a pretty big accomplishment
We are in Baños now, named for its hot springs heated by the
daily active volcano Tungurahua. It’s forbidden to climb though.
I checked. More good news, I don’t want to have to climb another
mountain just because it’s there. We did some mountain biking,
some of which I never would’ve done in the States without a
helmet but here it seemed perfectly normal, and we saw some waterfalls.
We’re heading to the beach next as it is time for some well
We come home on Tuesday. There will be no consumption of potatoes
for quite a while. Rice, as well, will be kept to a minimum. Some
Tex-mex and hamburgers sound pretty good though.
T.J. ’03 and Fred
P.S. — I forgot in my last e-mail to include a little bit about
private transportation in Peru. During the kayaking trip we camped
by some hot springs. This was good because we could learn the Eskimo
roll in lukewarm water as opposed to the icy waters of the Apurimac.
Anyway, it seemed to be quite the place to hang out and people were
there all night long making sleep a little difficult. When we woke
up, the Englishman and I were amusing on how loud it was for 6:45
a.m. We then noticed only two cars and wondered why it was so loud.
A few minutes later a station wagon pulled up and we decided to count
and see how many people were in the car. There were two seats up front
and a “three-seater” bench in the middle with no seats
in the back. We counted 16 people getting out of the car! Three adults
and 13 kids. I’ve never seen anything like it and I live in
Texas! Quite an experience.
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