Chimborazo and the Illinizas

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January 6, 2014

Chimborazo: at 6,268 meters (20,564 feet), Ecuador's tallest mountain and, due to the equatorial bulge, the point farthest from the center of the Earth. Starting from around 4,800 meters (~15,750 feet), it's also quite a long climb.

We woke up around 9:30 PM to a clear, calm starry night. Leaving the ranger lodge we were staying in around 10:30 PM, we took a short drive to our starting point. The four of us (Alejo, Alex, Pauloco and myself) started our climb along with several other groups, slowly pushing towards the summit under the beautiful night sky.

After several hours climbing up hill, often along quite steep scree slopes, the wind began. Not just any wind, either--this wind had gusts strong enough to knock you off your feet while simultaneously blinding you with volcanic sand. Others turned back but, with hopes of improving conditions and confident in our strength, we pushed on.

After ascending a couple hundred more meters through the wind, things appeared to be calming when the snow started. Sadly, with the snow, footholds near us were becoming slick while avalanche risks on the glacier above us were quickly increasing--summit chances had become minimal while dangers were rapidly multiplying and so we decided to turn back just over 5,500 meters (~18,000 feet). Good thing too, as static buildup soon also provided high lightning risks on the ridge we'd just avoided.

As we descended, the snowfall increased to the point that visibility was only a few meters. Luckily, Alejo and Pauloco know the mountain well and had some backup from Alex's GPS. We slowly pushed our way back down the mountain, with the snow switching to ice, sleet and finally rain, until we made it back to the car, wet but safe. This still left the low-visibility ride down to the lodge but Alejo made it look easy.

Back at the lodge, we took a few hours nap before reconsidering our plans for the next night--in theory, we still had a second day to attempt the mountain. Sadly, on waking it was still clear that Chimborazo would not be safe to climb that night. Instead, we decided to drive a few hours to El Chaupi and see if the Illinizas would be possible.

While our drive quickly convinced us that the weather system was enveloping the whole country and not just Chimborazo, the lack of a glacier and relatively low height of Illiniza Norte (5,126 meters, 16,818 feet) gave us some hope as long as the weather cleared before we began our ascent. Sadly, waking up at 5 AM, this was clearly another miss. The weather was firmly entrenched, continuing even as we returned to Quito that afternoon.

While disappointed that we missed these peaks, Chimborazo was still quite the adventure and a clear reminder of Alejo's adage from Cayambe: there is a reason it's called mountaineering and not summiteering. Hopefully the weather improves when my dad joins me for a visit to the Galapagos.