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Chimbo Hero

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.

Chimbo 2
Chimbo 1
Chimbo 3

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.