Cotopaxi and Chimborazo

Over the last week in June Jill and I were exploring the Ecuadorian mountains. (See also my Cotopaxi and Chimborazo photo library.) After an initial sight-seeing day in Quito we undertook a first acclimatization hike on Pasochoa (4200m). It was a nice 6 hr hike starting at some private farms across grassy meadows up to an old volcanic crater. Unfortunately the mountain was mostly covered in clouds all day and the last two hours the drizzle turned to light rain. We were happy to get to the Hostel that evening and fired up a wooden stove to heat the cold rooms.

The next morning (Sunday, Jun-20) we drove to the Cotopaxi National Park and stayed at the Tambopaxi lodge (3700m). From here we did a second acclimatization hike on Ruminahui (4700m), an old volcano next to Cotopaxi. While we started considerably higher, this ended up to be a long, 8.5 hr hike with some rain and ending in the dark. Again we were very happy to get back to the lodge and enjoyed great dinner and a good night’s sleep.

Then we had a lovely rest day with some horseback riding and lots of food and sleep. We were hoping for the weather to improve, and at least we got to see the beautiful cone of Cotopaxi in all its splendor from the lodge.

On Tuesday, June 22 we drove up to the Refugio Ribas (4810m) at the base of the mountain. Some crampons and ice practice on a nearby glacier and then some food and early rest in the bunk beds. Not much sleep that evening – this is as high as Mont Blanc in the Alps! – and at midnight on Wednesday, June 23 we started our ascent on Cotopaxi. Conditions were passable initially, with a great view of the city of Quito illuminated at night far below. It was a long and tiring ascent through the dark hours until daybreak up the scree slope and then up the glacier.

Unfortunately the wind increased more and more until we could no longer walk into the wind; we literally had to crawl on all four to make any forward / upward progress. The ferocious winds blew ice crystals in our faces and it was impossible to talk to each other or the guide 3 m away. We had to shout at each other from close range. We had reached 5640m – as high as Mexico’s Pico Orizaba – with only 260m to go. But these conditions were crazy, it got fairly cold and the winds were likely even stronger up the remaining steep section; so we decided to turn around after all.

We were both very tired when reaching the Refugio after some 11 hours in the cold wind and crawled into our sleeping bags for some rest. Unfortunately Jill had suffered a pressure injury from her wrist watch, which had been missing the inside metal cover for the battery compartment and the resulting sharp edges had pressed against her skin under the jacket and mittens. This left a nasty burn wound on the skin of her left arm, which she would have to treat with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and skin cream over the next 2 weeks!

We drove to Banos for two nights and a full day of rest at much lower altitude (~2000m). There we enjoyed a leisure visit of several nearby waterfalls and viewpoints. Overall this provided a very good way to relax after Cotopaxi.

Then on Friday (Jun-25) we drove up via Ambato to the Chimborazo National Park. It’s amazing how far the road leads up – we ended up driving up nearly 3000m to the end of the park road around 4850m. From there we hiked the remaining 150m to the Refugio Whymper (5000m). From here we wanted to climb Chimborazo the next morning.

The winds howled all night with even some snow being blown through some cracks in the roof into the refugio’s bunk beds! At 11pm we briefly got up but decided to wait a bit mroe due to the extreme wind. At 12:30am just after midnight Jose and I decided to go for it, despite the still strong winds. We were dressed with pretty much all our gear, and thus it was comfortably warm.

The ascent via “The Castle” leads up some steep rock bands, all covered in hard ice this night, so not a place to make a mistake. After about 3 hrs we reached the ridge and the glacier; the only other party out that night had turned around before us due to the high winds. But I stubbornly refused to turn around: I had the best acclimatization of my life, was wearing very warm clothing and good equipment, and just wanted this summit really bad to finalize my Panamerican Peaks project. We drudged up that featureless slope for a full 5 hrs! Nothing to mark progress except the altimeter on my wrist watch. I slowed down due to the high altitude, but after some 8 hrs we finally reached the (Ventemilla) summit at 6270m. The weather was atrocious, about the worst I had had on any of my Panamerican Peaks. Here is a little video clip from the summit:

We didn’t attempt reaching the slightly higher Whymper summit (6310m) due to the zero visibility and very poor weather. Everything was getting caked with an icy layer, so photos and videos were very poor. My ski-goggles iced up and I had trouble de-icing them enough to see anything for the descent. Also, the going near the top was very tough due to very uneven ice, no path and us breaking through the ice into hip-deep snow. Even the descent was very tiring in these conditions.

While it wasn’t the glorious finale to my project that I had envisioned (with unlimited visibility and little wind just like on Aconcagua) I was still content to have reached the summit of Chimborazo – the furthest point from the center of the Earth! It was my 12.th summit on 15 peaks, an 80% success rate in the mountains. I didn’t reach the summit on Denali, Ojos de Salado and Sajama, but had a respectable attempt and made it to within less than 1000m of the summit on all of them. My South-American summits – Aconcagua, Huascaran and Chimborazo – they all posed very special challenges and will probably remain the three highest mountains of my life!

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