Touching The Stars
Llama is gone but my adventures are still on-going. A few challenges were still on my to-do list as well as a few places to visit here in Ecuador. But let’s start with the challenges:
Would it be a surprise if I told you its mountain climbing or “Andenismo”? Didn’t think so. Well I wanted to conquer the top of Cotopaxi volcano once again; it’s probably the most beautiful snow capped volcano in South America (and maybe the world?) and a difficult climb. Last time I reached the summit, the weather was cloudy with low visibility and I am hoping for better luck this time. I have been training for a month and the time has come to rise up to the challenge. At 5,897 m.a.s.l. the Cotopaxi is also the perfect training to reach another very special summit: Chimborazo volcano at 6,268m.a.s.l.. Why so special? Keep reading.
I hooked up again with Rafa, the same guide I hiked Cotopaxi in the past and probably the best guide in Ecuador. At 52 year old, he’s still going strong and he’s been training Ecuadorian climbers to summit Mount Everest. He’ll be flanked by Ivan, a little guy whom you wouldn’t guess how strong he is by just looking at his small and skinny stature. As for the climb, 2 French guys: Florian and Romain will be accompanying me.
Arriving at Cotopaxi’s upper camp, the weather looked good and we all went to sleep dreaming of the summit. But when we started our midnight climb we were hit with a blizzard of freezing rain. We were the only one who dared to climb up and we faced horrific conditions: our feet were digging in the soft snow and the strong wind & ice pellets were blinding us. 5 hours later, at about 5,700m we had to call off the expedition. We couldn’t distinguish our path anymore and we were walking between crevasses, a recipe for trouble to say the least. I felt so frustrated but it was the only sensible choice.
Back in Quito, I was still adamant on climbing the Chimborazo (a.k.a. Chimbo) but I needed a break to rest and refocus. So I went hiking for 3 days around the Quilotoa caldera, a gigantic water filled crater with a rim of 3,000m in diameter.
The Chimbo was not only another tough challenge but it also hold a record with a very special meaning. On the challenge side, if you think the Cotopaxi’s ~45% summit reach success rate is low, just consider the Chimbo a <15%! Wow, why? Well, the Chimbo lies on the Andes’ western-most mountain chain immediately facing the Pacific Ocean which means most climbers often face ferocious winds rendering the climb impossible. But there an even bigger issue: the climb from Camp-2 at ~5,000m.a.s.l. to the 6,268m.a.s.l. Whymper summit is a whopping 1,300m in denivelation!. No other mountain I know off requires such physical effort at such altitude, not even Aconcagua. At above 5,000m, hiking on snowy slops, every 150m in height is an hour climb. To top it off, the last 2 hours are above 6,000m; combine altitude + strenuous effort and AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness) hits many climbers hard.
And what about that record? Well, remember your geography class and the earth’s shape? The earth is a squashed sphere bulging on the equator by ~21.5Km (radius). Well, the Chimbo lies just south of the equator and although its Whymper summit is ~2,600m lower in elevation than Mt. Everest, it is still ~2,150m FARTHER from the center of the earth than the highest mountain on earth. Chimbo’s summit is actually the farthest point on earth from its center, period. Or from a different view, on earth and once at the summit you’ll be the closest possible to the sun and stars.
As bad as the weather was during my Cotopaxi climb as good as it turned out to be during my Chimbo climb. Moderate winds, few clouds and cold enough temperatures to keep the initial snowy part solid. It was a very difficult climb though; we started at 22:00 the night before and made our way up via the northern face glacier, zigzagging between small penitentes. Midway through my climb, I felt as tired as during Aconcagua summit but I had this strong urge to keep pushing and reaching the top ASAP, fearing the wind which usually always picks up by sunrise. Result – and to the great surprise of Ivan who was repeatedly forcing me to slow down – we reached the summit at 4:00, 2 hours ahead of schedule. Problem was I wanted to see the sunrise so we had to kill 2 hours of freezing cold temperatures and winds picking up on top of a volcano. We had to constantly keep walking and doing exercises for the arms, legs, feet and hands otherwise our limbs would freeze in pain. At one point I was so tired I couldn’t move anymore: I decided to dig a small hole in the glacier and huddle in. Ivan was very concerned I would fall asleep and not wake up.
But then a stunning view began to be drawn all around us. The morning lights slowly slipped away the night’s veil uncovering the most amazing spectacle I witnessed in all my climbs. I was in awe! Not in my wildest dreams I could have imagined such a show. The cold, pain, tiredness,… all disappeared in seconds and we spend the next 1 ½ hours marveling at mother nature’s outstanding power and beauty.
Discover these moments by checking the video and pictures below.