You thought the peak of Everest was Earth’s highest point? Think again. Damian Hall climbs to the heavens on the dormant Ecuadoran volcano Chimborazo.
F orget Everest. The glacier-covered summit of Ecuador’s Volcán Chimborazo is the highest point on Earth.
The sleeping volcano may be 6310 metres above sea level to Everest’s 8848 metres, but, because of our planet’s equatorial bulge, the Andean peak is actually nearer to the sun than its more illustrious Himalayan rival — and any other mountain in the world.
Is Chimborazo harder to climb than Everest? Well, no. But for me, climbing Chimborazo was the most exhausting experience of my 35 years of life. Its name is still a swear word to me and it also sent me genuinely loopy for a bit.
When I arrived in Riobamba, the capital of Chimborazo province in central Ecuador, I went to a local guiding company to arrange the climb and hire equipment. I was told I should acclimatise for three days, but I wouldn’t be there long enough. Altitude sickness, which can be lethal, is a real risk anywhere above 4000m. In Riobamba, which is at 2754m, the air already felt thin and elusive. But some people adapt to altitude faster than others and I just had to hope I was one of those lucky ones. I was advised to eat pasta and drink lots of coca-leaf tea to combat any sickness. The plant is used to produce cocaine, though it’s not nearly as exciting to drink as that makes it sound.
At the appointed time I met up with my fellow climber, Pierre, a Frenchman about my age, and our guide, Juan, who looked exactly like a girl I used to work with but with thighs that would make Cadell Evans feel inadequate. I asked him how many of his clients get to the top of Chimborazo. “About half,” said Juan, avoiding eye contact.
After an hour’s drive and an hour’s upward walk through scree and loose boulders, we were at the refugio, a wooden hut that marks the point where the serious climbing starts. This is at 5000m, so we had another 1310m to go.
The plan was to climb at midnight, when the snow is firmest and safest. We waited out the afternoon and evening with card games, chat and short walks in the snow with the other climbers in the refugio. Sleep was impossible at this altitude.
With balaclavas and headlamps on, Juan, Pierre and I left the hut at 11.30pm. The temperature was -10°C and Juan had made it clear that we had to make fast progress or we’d turn back. I developed a light headache that got rapidly worse and, when we stopped to attach crampons, I alerted Juan as instructed. He gave me an aspirin and the pain subsided.
Up, up and a break
It was relentlessly steep. Every step involved bringing a knee up beyond a right angle, often near to my chest. After about two hours of climbing in the dark, an exhausted Pierre called out for a break. The only reason I hadn’t done so was because I didn’t want to be the first to show weakness. I was shattered. My thighs were burning white-hot. I’d thought I was in good shape. I’d walked from coast to coast in England a few weeks earlier. But it was soon my turn to call out for a rest. Breathing was a battle. I had saved my iPod for when I started hurting and now seemed a good time for the Rocky soundtrack. But my flaky iPod died on the spot, killed by the cold.
At around 6am it was suddenly light, as if someone had lifted the blinds. Snow-topped peaks were all around us, if mostly below, and I felt like a figurine atop an iced cake. The views gave me a much-needed boost, until I reached for my water bottle for a celebratory swig and found it had gone AWOL.
As our calls for rests became more frequent, Juan grew more impatient. He knew our window of opportunity was closing. Soon the volcano would be unsafe. I was beginning to realise we might not make it.
“Are we at 6000m yet?” Pierre asked. It was almost exactly where we were. “That’s it, I can’t go on,” he said. I was surprised — surprised that it wasn’t me who had failed the test. And secretly pleased that it was over. But Juan had other ideas.
Juan spotted another guide just in front of us, who he knew. Juan called out, they exchanged some Spanish and he said, “Damian, you can go with them.” Well yes, I could… but even though I found myself fantasising about a taking a blissful bath back in Riobamba, I knew I had to go on. There was only 300m left to climb. I scrambled to catch up the other group, then roped myself up to the guide’s American client.
My new guide, David, asked, “Listo?” — “Ready?” It was a word I would hate by the end of the climb.
From here on my memory is vague and dreamy. As the sun beat down, there seemed to be just one colour all around, a kind of hazy, ethereal white. We climbed up and up, sometimes dragged on the rope by David. At some point it got flatter and I’m pretty certain we made the summit at around 7.30am.
But like some kind of monster from Greek mythology, Chimborazo has multiple heads. I don’t remember agreeing to climb to a second, higher, summit, but we headed towards it.
Half an hour later, I flopped to the floor at the highest summit. The views were sensational — I think.
I felt limp and mangled but contented, a bit like someone who’s just finished a marathon. However, I was only halfway through this marathon. Around 80 percent of mountaineering accidents happen on the way down the mountain and I was running on empty.
The descent was harder. The hot sun, no water to drink, the increasingly dangerous slushy snow and a guide intent on hurrying us along. Most of the time I let the rope pull me along.
I remember expecting my legs to simply give up and refuse to move, and I wanted to lie down in the soft snow and go to sleep.
The American was as white-faced as I imagine I was. Occasionally, I’d offer him some encouraging inanity, but I couldn’t understand his replies. Every half hour or so, or maybe every couple of minutes, I either called for a “momentito” (a small moment) or just plonked myself down on the snow like a petulant teenager. After just 10 or 20 seconds David would say “Listo?” more as a command than a question, and we’d be off again.
At one point David himself stopped. A rest? No such luck. Helmets on, he instructed, we had to run. As I stumbled along as fast as I could, rocks the size of laptops bounced and whizzed past me.
I finally understood the haste. The volcano was warming up and, as it did, so it shook itself. That’s what was sending killer rocks spraying out.
It got even weirder after that. Once, I blacked out while walking and woke up on my knees. Another time, I awoke sliding. I put more snow under my hat and down my back, to try to stay awake. I remember laughing out loud to myself at one point. And hallucinating. I was sure some of my friends were having a picnic on a nearby mound.
I finally stumbled into the refugio about 13 hours after we’d left it. After a long drink, I discovered that of the six groups to attempt the second summit that morning, we were one of only two to make it. The guiding company later told me that only about 10 percent of their clients get to the very top.
When I fell into bed back in Riobamba I’d been awake for about 40 hours. But with adrenaline racing around me like a Scalextric car, I couldn’t sleep for another two hours.
It took me a few days to realise the guide, David, whose name I’d been cursing, was heroic. His refusal to allow me to rest for too long possibly saved my life. And I was too tired to remember to tip him. Perhaps I’ll go back and do it again, so I can give him a few dollars. Or perhaps not.
When to go
Generally, climbing and trekking in the Andes is best in the drier months between May and September. However, Chimborazo is accessible for most of the year — December to January is a good time.
Fly from Sydney or Melbourne to Santiagio for between $2100 and $2500 return, then get a flight to Quito and a bus to Riobamba.
Buses are very cheap, regular and the network is comprehensive, although some of the journeys can seem as dangerous as climbing a bloody volcano.
There are plenty of books, but the most popular among climbers seems to be Ecuador: The Bradt Climbing And Hiking Guide by Rob Rachowiecki and Mark Thurber.
Lots to choose between, including Andes Adventures (andesadventures.com), Gulliver Travel (gulliver.com.ec), RainForestur (rainforestur.com) and Julio Verne Travel (julioverne-travel.com). Expect to pay around $180-$210, which covers food, transport and kit (including boots, crampons and ice axe). And don’t forget to tip your guide generously.
Ecuador’s official currency has been US dollars since 2000. A budget hotel costs around $8 a night.
You’ll get by OK in tourist regions with a Spanish phrasebook. If you really can’t manage a word of the Spanish language, make sure you get an English-speaking mountain guide.
If you have a valid Australian passport, they’re granted on arrival.
For more on ecuador, visit ecuador.travel
Give these alternative South American adventures a go.
1. Lost City Trek — Colombia
Billed as Colombia’s Inca Trail, this six-day trek takes you through the Colombian jungle to ancient Indian ruins. It’s not as spectacular as Peru’s version (see below) but not as busy either. If you like a frisson of danger while on your adventure, this trek goes past a cocaine factory.
2. Amazon River — Brazil, Peru and Colombia
Various adventure nuts have used the world’s second-longest river for extreme escapades. People have walked the length of it, and paddled it in a kayak and raft. In 2007, Martin Strel, a 52-year-old Slovenian, swam its entire length while drinking two bottles of wine a day. You’ll probably want to stick to rafting.
3. Inca Treks — Peru
Peru’s famous Inca Trail, a four-day walk through the Andes to the mountain kingdom of Machu Picchu, is brilliant but busy. There are several excellent alternative treks, some of which still involve Machu Picchu, that offer amazing Andean scenery.
4. Mount Aconcagua — Argentina
At 6962 metres, Aconcagua is the highest peak in the Americas, the highest outside the Himalayas and one of the Seven Summits (a group of the highest peaks on every continent). It’s not a particularly technical climb and is accessible to people without mountaineering experience, although the altitude poses difficulties and a guide is strongly recommended.
5. Patagonia — Chile and Argentina
Trekking in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park will be unforgettable although, like the Inca Trail, it’s extremely popular. But Patagonia is a vast ice kingdom full of glaciers, incredible hikes, good rock climbing and classical mountaineering that’s worth the trip however you do it.