Volcanoes of Ecuador: Chimborazo
By Mallorie Estenson / Ecuador Volcanoes Expedition Dec., 2019
At 20,564’, Chimborazo is the tallest volcano in Ecuador. Its summit is higher than Denali (20,308’) and technically further from the center of the Earth than the summit of Mount Everest because of its position near the equator. On our volcanoes trip, we climb Chimborazo last to allow for as much acclimatization and preparation as possible.
As we approached the mountain, Juliana described the “Chimborazo effect” to me in which climbers stagger and balk on their summit ambitions upon viewing the sheer mass of the volcano. It’s a lot to take in. Fortunately, we break our climb into pieces and make our ascent from a high camp to ease the Chimborazo effect and maximize our chances of success. If your jaw literally drops upon seeing the volcano, you wouldn’t be the first and you certainly won’t be the last.
The approach from Quito has us drive from the north and wrap around the west side of the mountain. A special and rare breed of llama resides at the base of this massive mountain called a vicuña, which Juliana jokingly refers to as a “fancy llama” since their wool is sold for much more than typical alpaca or llama wool. They’re beautiful and distinctive; they’re also the only animals that I see in the rocky, arid highlands surrounding Chimborazo.
We park in a dusty lot at roughly 16,000’ and prepare to climb to our camp at 17,500’. There are a few people on the trail, but not many. Several of them hug the guides as we slowly but surely make our way up. The climbing culture in Ecuador is friendly, welcoming and endlessly encouraging. Our guides are the epitome of these characteristics.
When we arrive at camp, we’re welcomed into roomy dome tents with space to spread out and make ourselves comfortable. Unlike Cayambe and Chimborazo, we do not climb from a hut for this objective. Unfortunately, due to climate change, the glaciers have receded considerably and what was once the “normal route” up the Thielman Glacier is no longer a reliable means to the summit. Instead, we pursue the steep but safer El Castillo route, which features memorable stretches of 60-degree snow. To be clear, there are climbers’ huts on the mountains, however, climbing from a high camp gives us the advantage of a shorter climbing day after sleeping higher on the mountain and allowing our bodies more time to acclimatize. At high camp we spend time together in the cook tent drinking tea and snacking intermittently. We rest and allow our bodies time to adjust to this higher, harsher climate. Before you know it, it’s go time.
A trail winds through the darkness and brings us slowly but surely to the glacier. Departing camp above 17,000’ is simultaneously advantageous and challenging for the team. Each hard-earned step counts and you absolutely feel it. Eventually, we negotiate a rocky step that deposits us at the toe of the glacier. Here, we introduce crampons and begin to ascend the long, steep snow climb that takes us to Cumbre Veintimilla, the broad summit plateau before the true summit, Cumbre Maxima.
In total, the climb from our camp to the summit takes approximately eight hours, with some teams summiting earlier. We cover 3,000 vertical feet, which is pretty standard for a summit day. But when your day begins at 17,000’, this isn’t your standard, run-of-the-mill summit day. This is one to remember.