Ecuador Mountaineering - January 2007

Chimborazo - 20,561 ft

Trip theme: "Why the heck did we climb that route" or "The final bitter taste of defeat"


A statue of a lady with no underwear under her skirt. Not gonna see this in America... Today we got up and did our yoga and I felt much better. I had a minor case of the bed sweats during the night but that may have had more to do with the heavy wool blankets than anything else as I easily got past it. A huge breakfast was in store for us again this morning. I haven't touched on this yet, but it seems like all we did on this trip was eat big meals. This morning's breakfast was a perfect example. It wasn't enough to eat the meal that came with the room, we had to order additional food. In fact, I had to order additional food just so the others could eat my extra share too. It was all very glutinous. I was entirely tired of eating so much food by the time we got done with the trip. So this morning we were to be picked up by whoever was going to be guiding us on Chimbo. Of course we had no idea who this would be. Somewhat late our familiar Land Cruiser pulled up into the circle in front of the hotel. We had been having a problem with gasoline leaking out of the truck so I think I could smell it coming before I could see it. I noticed that now someone had taken a plastic bag and shoved it under the gas cap. Oh yea, I'm sure that's the problem and not the gaping hole in the fuel tank. It turns out that the man picking us up was not our guide but rather was a driver from Quito. We were to pick our guides up along the way. So we hop in and off we go south along the Pan American highway. After an hour or so we pull into another town and stop alongside one of the squares. In the square was the strangest statue I may have ever seen. It was a statue of a lady wearing a see through skirt and she wasn't wearing any underwear. I can't imagine what this was suppose to represent. Perhaps the town was founded by a whore? In any event, this was where we were suppose to meet out guides. Only there is no one in sight. We milled about for awhile when I spy this slightly overweight laborer looking fellow running towards us. Turns out this was our guide Miguel. My first impression was that I didn't like him and that this guy was not a climber. I've met a bunch of climbers and they generally all have a similar build and temperament. This guy didn't fit either one of my personal stereotypes. He at least was able to fill us in on the rest of the details. His backpack was still at the Refugio (he had climbed two days ago) and we were to pick up our second guide, Raul (who had climbed yesterday), at the entrance to the mountain. Well at least we had two guides and a plan. The drive to Chimbo was quite interesting relative to the other two mountains. We were on a paved highway almost the entire time and the scenery was changing dramatically the further south we drove. Chimbo is one of those mountains that blocks the weather. The north side of the mountain is lush farm country while the south side of the mountain is high desert with no vegetation at all. It's a pretty dramatic shift as you drive around from one side of the mountain to the other. At the entrance to the park we picked up Raul. Raul was definitely a local, but I got a better vibe from him than Miguel. Similar to Cotopaxi, the Refugio is situated higher than the parking lot so we had to climb up to get to it. Different though is that Chimbo has a lower and an upper Refugio with the lower one being at the parking lot. The climb up to the Refugio at 16,400 ft was uneventful and I felt good and strong again. There was a little inident with the caretaker of the Refugio when we got there. Seems he didn't like the choice of bunks we had taken (on the bottom). He claimed that he had a big group coming in and that for them to sleep together we needed to sleep on the top bunks on the other side. Well the last thing I wanted to do was sleep on the top bunk so I pressed the issue. In my best english/spanish combination I learned that the group was so big it wouldn't even fit on the one side at all. I explained to the caretaker that even if we moved, the group would have to split up so what was the point in us moving in the first place. I was feeling frisky and not in a mood to give in, so I didn't. He on the hand did give in. (Note: The big group never even showed up. So there!) We played a bunch of cards that afternoon and I was feeling great. We taught Miguel how to play Bullshit and played a few games of that. Somehow the hypoxia made Ed clairvoyant and he won every single game of Bullshit that we played. It was amazing. So I asked him what his strategy was. As he explained it to me I realized that he was totally calculating the cards wrong, his strategy was garbage. Yet he won every game any way. Go figure. Once again it was like pulling teeth to get our guides to fix dinner early. Having already gone through this twice I was on Miguel like white on rice to hurry up and cook dinner. We got to bed at a decent time tonight.

After 10 days I must finally have been really acclimatizing to the higher altitude. I have never had such a peaceful, relaxed, and sleep filled night at altitude (much less 16,400 ft) before an alpine start in my life. Now of course sleep is all relative, but I must have gotten 3 or more hours in which is very good for me. I don't know why but I felt extremely confident and comfortable about the climb to come that night. My main goal for the trip had been Cotopaxi. Having failed on the first two mountains, Chimbo was my last chance for glory on this trip. I was bound and determined that I was going to give this mountain my all. My goal for Chimbo was always primarily to get to 20,000 ft and then if possible summit. But realistically I was willing to settle for 20,000 ft. Lying there that night I was confident that things were going to finally go my way. Jim on the other hand was not having the best night of his life. He did not feel well and had a pounding altitude headache. I gave him some of my Advil (apparently the first he had taken the whole trip) but it didn't seem to help. By the time it was time to leave, Jim was unable to go. I've been whining about my failures on the other two mountains but at least I would make serious attempt on Chimbo. Poor Jim, whose main objective was Chimbo, would not make a serious attempt on any of the three mountains. I felt bad for him.

Chimbo was just like the other two mountains in that you have to start off on rock before you get to the snow/glacier. It was unlike the other two mountains in that Chimbo was down right dangerous in places as we were to find out. I was climbing alone with Raul while Ed and Greg climbed with Miguel. As we climbed I noticed that none of the other groups were taking the route we were on, which was El Castillo (the main route). They were all climbing on the Whymper route instead. I had gotten some beta before we left that Chimbo was very icy due to the eruptions and subsequent ash deposits from another nearby volcano. Miguel assured me that the route was in great shape and those people who were climbing the other route didn't know what they were doing because they did not have local guides who knew the mountain. We stopped after awhile to rope up. Raul handed me the rope to clip in and I just sat there staring at it. This rope was thinner than you usually climb with. As I was staring at it trying to think, Raul asked me if there was a problem. The only thing I could think of to say was that I wanted to have a stopper knot tied to the loose end of the rope after the figure eight knot. I was a little dumbfounded. This rope was clearly thinner than I had seen before but I'm quite sure it was the only one he had. So I decided to just go with it and hope for the best. After getting home I read in Freedom of the Hills that 9mm rope is acceptable for glacier travel instead of standard 11 mm rope. Perhaps this is what he had, or at least I hope so. We clipped together and went a little further. The guides said we needed to move quickly because this area was dangerous for rock fall. At one point we had just stopped and I heard what sounded like Ed's pack sliding down the mountain. Only it quickly got louder and louder. Holy crap it was a rock/ice slide. It was very a strange combination of sounds but one thing was obvious, it was very close to us and it had just obliterated the path we had been on only moments before. We couldn't see any of it in the dark which was probably all the better for our psyche. I think my exact comment was "Well that's a little scary". The reason we had stopped was we had come upon a slightly sloped sheet of ice. The plan was for us to climb up and over it. I looked at the ice (it was hard and slippery) and then looked at the run out (it was over a cliff). I then announced to Miguel that I was "scared" about this section (I kept using the word scared because I figured it would make an impression on them, highly concerned would be more accurate). I wanted them to put in protection before we continued. This was where we started to see the real Miguel come to life. Instead of just complying with my request he began to belittle me. He called me a pussy, he called me weak, he said I didn't belong on the mountain. He also suggested I should just turn around. I actually briefly considered turning around but the rock slide, Greg's cheering me on, and my desire to give it my all was motivation to stand my ground. You know what, I don't care what you think Mr. Local Ecuadorian guide. I think what we are about to do is dangerous and I want protection before we continue. Raul then proceeded to climb about halfway up the ice and put in an ice screw, clipped in the rope, and then climbed up to the top of the ice. Miguel then said that I should climb up to the ice screw, remove it, and then Raul would belay me up to his position. It's probably just as well that I couldn't really see how Raul was belaying me as I found out in a few minutes. I hesitated a little, but Ed and Greg cheered me on, so up I went. It was actually quite easy to climb it and I felt pretty secure except for when I was trying in vain to get out the ice screw. I tugged on it and banged it with my ice axe but I couldn't get it to budge without compromising my balance. So I left it there and climbed up to Raul who it turns out was belaying me by merely holding on to the rope. Doh! Raul then wanted me to belay him as he was going to go back and retrieve the screw. He initially tried to set up a boot axe belay and I told him it wasn't going to work because we couldn't get the axe more than halfway down into the snow/ice. To prove my point I tugged on the rope and the axe pulled right out. So then he wanted me to give him a seated belay. I searched my memory for how to do this as I have never done it before. I recalled that I should sit down, make a firm platform for my feet, and then wrap the rope behind my back to provide friction (Note: I got home and read the book which said I was correct). Raul though did not want me to put the rope behind me but rather just hold it like he had. I wasn't 100% sure that I remembered the seated belay right but I was also 100% sure that this wasn't right either. Nevertheless Raul took off down the ice before I could argue the point anymore. Hope he doesn't fall. Meanwhile Miguel had found an alternate route around the ice for Ed and Greg. I'll never know if I was being overly conservative here. I figure that being cautious is probably always the best strategy for coming home alive, even though perhaps this jeopardizes the summit with the extra time taken to put in the protection.

From here it was more rock and ice until we finally gained the ridge. We were told from here that there would be some steep sections before things eased up again. They left out the critical details of the ice cliffs. It was all snow from here on and the slope definitely increased. The details for me over the next couple of hours get a little sketchy but here is what I remember. We climbed for a ways and I was beginning to tire. It was hard going up the steeper slope even though the snow was nice and firm. At some point we came to a vertical ice cliff that we had to climb up. Thank god we had coincidently practiced this back at Cayambe or we would have been doing it stone cold in the dark for the first time. I couldn't get my ice axe into the ice at all so I was relying totally on the front points of my crampons to hold me firm to the ice. I'm really not sure how tall the ice cliffs were. I recall looking up the ice and seeing headlamps in the dark maybe 30 feet above me but its hard to say. It sure wasn't any less than that. As I'm climbing the cliff I'm thinking that this is really stupid as we were totally unprotected and it seemed to me like we were climbing almost on top of one another. If someone had slipped they may have taken out the guy below them, but more importantly the rope team was going for a ride down a steep slope and an unfortunate ending. I managed to get up over the first cliff and I think we took a break. I distinctly remember Miguel belittling either Ed or Greg about something and I made some snide comments back to him hoping he would just shut up. Up some more steep snow and we get to the 2nd ice cliff. I was really tiring by now and was moving much more slowly than earlier. Then it happened halfway up the 2nd ice cliff. I bonked. I was hanging off the cliff by only the front points on my crampons and was out of gas. It felt like I was in my own little world hanging there and I had a conversation with myself that went something like this; "You know if you don't get moving you're going to die out here", "How could I die out here I'm in my own little world and its all good", "No you idiot you're hanging off a cliff at 18,000 ft and if you don't summon up some energy to get moving you're in trouble", "Oh, OK". So up and over the top of the cliff I went. I told Raul that I had bonked and that there was no way I could make the summit. He then asked me if I wanted to go down to which I replied "Yea, but not down the way we just came up!". He said that's good because we can't go down that way any way, we have to climb up another 1,000 ft so we can traverse over to another route that will lead us down. Oh great. The next 1,000 ft was all about willpower. If you had seen me you would have sworn I was at 28,000 ft and not 18,000 ft. I was climbing in a cane position and took probably 10 breaths for each step forward I took. Not helping is I was a little wigged out and totally forgot to pressure breathe. For what seemed like an hour or more I trudged up the slope one step and 10 breaths at a time. As we neared what I hoped was the top of the steep section I could feel myself starting to feel sleepy. I knew from 18,000 ft on Kilimanjaro that this was a sign that I was running on reserve energy only. Fortunately I crested the top of the steep section and was able to sit down. This 1,000 ft section of climb was physically one of the hardest things I've done in the mountains and I wanted nothing more at the time to head down. In retrospect, the weather was great and we had lots of time to play with. If I had rested there for awhile I may have recovered enough energy to attain my goal of 20,000 feet. With the good weather my random thoughts of death were likely too melodramatic, but may have had a certain element of truth to them. Raul was just as happy to go down rather than let me go higher and our communication gap probably strengthened his thoughts for me to go down. I saw that Ed and Greg were surprisingly only about 50 yards higher than me up the mountain. I'm amazed as I figured they would be long gone. I guess it was pretty hard climbing for them too. Frankly I wanted nothing more right now than to go down so that's what we did.

I was not entirely sure where we were suppose to go at this point. Raul pointed to a dicey looking slope to our left and said we would be traversing across the mountain onto the Whymper route which would take us safely back down to the Refugio. The traverse was probably 75 feet wide and now that the sun was coming up I could see that it had a horrendous exposure if you fell. I told Raul I was "scared" and that it was his job to get us down alive (half jokingly). He seemed confused as to what my problem was. Well we had to traverse the slope one way or another so I decided it would be prudent not to fall. The snow was really in perfect condition here as my crampons bit solidly with each step. There was little chance I was going to slip but I was still wigged out. I focused solely on making sure I always had two points of contact with the snow and that each step was solid before I committed to it. As we were making the traverse I made myself a promise that I would never let myself get in a position like this again. I have since taken that to mean that I won't let myself climb again with guides/people that I don't trust and I won't climb this kind of mountain again until I have learned to control my fears of the unknown. Once we completed the traverse it was all easy from there. In fact my energy level was returning as we got lower. Damn, maybe I should have just taken a longer break before giving up. I'll know better the next time. As we climbed down the Whymper route I was starting to become a little annoyed. This route was far less steep and dangerous than the way we went up. Maybe that's why everyone else in the Refugio had started up this way. On the other hand we saw no one else on the route, so everyone else who had attempted coming up this way had already given up. Supposedly the danger on this route is rock fall and the traverse. But for my money the relative ease of the slopes would more than have made up for this. Besides we had major rock fall on the normal route! I feel like our guides really let us down on the route selection and that we would have had a much better chance had we taken the Whymper route up. Now that the sun was up and we were out of any real danger the climb down was very enjoyable. The weather was perfect and the views of the mountain and the surrounding area were stunning. I looked back for Ed & Greg but they were nowhere in site. Raul and I laughed and joked the rest of the way down to the Refugio and found Jim there waiting for us. Awhile later Ed & Greg came down with quite a story to tell. They had continued on after I turned around and climbed up to 6,050 m (Sorry Ed, that's only 19,850 ft!) before stopping. Greg's vision in one eye had then became blurry and he thought he had a detached retina. I can't imagine the climb down only being able to see out of one eye, but like me they really had little choice. Miguel continued to belittle them on the climb down telling them that they didn't belong on the mountain. Worse still he made Greg lead on the way down even though he could only see out of one eye. What was the matter with this guy?

We quickly packed up our stuff and headed back down to the lower Refugio and our ride back to Quito. I tipped Raul for "getting me down alive" but I made it clear that I felt that the others should not tip Miguel at all. There is just no excuse for the way he treated us on the mountain. We are not veterans but we're not inexperienced either. I would say we were just climbing slightly out of our comfort zone. I said my peace about the tipping and left it at that. I think Ed felt guilty about not giving him anything and gave him something. The ride back to Quito took about 4 hours. You just can't get anywhere fast in Ecuador. We discovered another reason why Miguel was not particularly motivated to encourage us to the summit. Not only did he have to drive us back to Quito, but then he had to catch a bus to take him all the way back to the town with the lady in the skirt with no underwear. He was more interested in getting home at a decent time than summiting. The rest of our day was uneventful. Greg worked with the people in the hotel to find him an Ecuadorian doctor he could see about his eye. Since Jim & Greg were to continue on to the Galapagos it was critical for Greg to properly diagnose his problem so he would know whether he had to immediately return to the US or not. As it turns out, Greg only had an infection in his eye and the Ecuadorian doctor fixed him up with antibiotics. Whew!

The final bitter taste of defeat didn't really sink in until I got home. Failing on all three mountains just sucked. On the flip side we had a great trip and I certainly gained a lot of knowledge and experience for future climbs. Here is my list of things learned from this trip:

1. If you want to summit, it just might be worth it to sign up with an American company to ensure you get good guides. Our guides weren't bad (except Miguel) but they didn't have the kind of knowledge and temperament I have come to expect. They also didn't pump us up and encourage us to continue because I don't think they cared one way or the other if we summited (kinda like Shasta)

2. Don't quit when its still dark outside. Everything always seems better once the sun comes up. I briefly thought about quitting on Rainier in the dark but the guide never gave me the chance. Had our guides either been more encouraging, or had I just controlled my fears, I would have probably climbed higher on Cayambe and Chimbo than I did. I absolutely have to control my fear of the unknown in the dark so that I can have more fun and climb with confidence.

3. I need to take an intermediate climbing level school to help me control those fears. Everyone I've talked to tells me that the only way to get over the fear is to keep doing hard stuff and to have success doing it. To that end I want to take an intermediate class that will have me climbing some more difficult routes. That way when its cold, dark and scary I can draw on those experiences and know that I can do it and just have confidence in my own abilities.

4. Don't forget to pressure breathe, and also don't pressure breathe so hard. The first couple of days I was pressure breathing so hard that I gave myself a sore muscle in my ribs that effected me later in the trip. Then on Chimbo I totally forgot to pressure breathe after I bonked. Maybe if I would have remembered I might have faired better.

5. Diamox works. The tingling in the hands and feet were irritating but I felt far better at higher altitudes than I did on Kilimanjaro. Despite Miguel's further belittling me for taking it, I'm sold on taking it at 125 mg twice a day.

6. Good climbing buddies make the climb easier. I was good to go while Ed & Greg were cheering me on. But once they pulled ahead and I was on my own I lost my encouragement. Guess I'll need to train harder so I can keep up with old Iron Lung Ed at 19,000 ft.
Ed stopped in to get some pointers
Mark at our first look at Chimborazo
Man, this is just postcard beautiful
Mark on the desert side of Chimborazo
The gang and our "guide" Miguel at the entrance to Chimborazo. Does he look built like a guide to you?
This is a memorial to everyone who has died on the mountain
El Castillo route with areas of interest in the story pointed out
Hiking up from the lower Refugio to the upper one
Looking back towards the lower Refugio
The upper Chimborazo Refugio at 16,400 ft
Can we play cards? Can we? Huh? Huh?
The Chimbo team is ready to go
My high point at about 19,000 ft. I was exhausted and "scared" but still smiling. We accidentally shot some video of me which is here.
Looking back at the way up. It's not a cliff, but just a steep slope over the edge
Chimbo's shadow
The rest of the way up to the summit that I choose not to try. You can see Greg and Ed's tracks on the left
The traverse around and down to the Whymper route. It did drop off a cliff to the right around the corner
Pay close attention to this one. Ed actually looks tired at almost 20,000 ft. I may frame this!
Ed and Greg's high point at 19,850 ft (6,050 m)
Looking out towards Cotopaxi
My guide Raul celebrates that we've made it through the hard parts alive
I whole heartedly concur!
El Castillo coming into the sun. This was another reason why we couldn't go down that way
Coming down the Whymper route
Oops, we've out of snow. Hang a right
Raul said he was going to climb that steep icy stuff in the middle the next day just for fun
A view of most of the Whymper route
The entire route up and down. We started on the left and traversed around to the right
How come everything is blurry?
I've only got one eye. Why the heck are you making me lead?
Ed's toe after the climb was our other injury on the mountain
Well at least we didn't need to use that memorial
Group shot marked the end of our journey on the mountains
Apartment living in Quito
Once again Ed and I are relegated to the "best" room in the house
With a fine view of the dumpsters


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