Tuesday, July 31, 2012

2012, 9th – 22nd July: Riobamba for Volcán Chimborazo & Quito Again - Ecuador

Chimborazo is a great hunk of a mountain (well an extinct volcano to be exact) that forms an imposing sight for many miles. The Andean plateau rises from its typical 2500 metres up to around 3800 metres closer to the mountain, with the mighty volcán rising a further 2.5 km (1.6 miles) up from there. It is therefore not surprising that the mountain has legendary status in the region – in fact, the nearest city of Riobamba is the capital of the Ecuadorian province name after the volcán. Even though Riobamba is 40 km or so from the mountain, it is clearly visible from the city and is a majestic part of the landscape.

For the full complement of photos corresponding to this blog entry, use the following link to the set of photos in my Flickr pages:

The height of the principal summit is 6310 metres (20,702 feet / 3.92 miles), and it was these statistics that got me dreaming some time back of a Chimborazo ascent - primarily because it would allow me to surpass two numerical thresholds; 6000 metres and 20,000 feet. It was with a degree of trepidation that I set out on this mission because I know that my body is not one of the best when at high altitude. Challenges are all relative, so while Chimborazo is neither super high or very technical, to make a climb to a summit where the air pressure is 450 mbar (my estimate) was a personal challenge (it is 1013 mbar at sea level).

Chimborazo is not a particularly technical mountain, requiring only crampon and ice axe use and being roped together. However, what made it a challenge for me was the altitude on top of these technical aspects. The physical and mental weakness one can feel at altitude make the technical aspects somewhat more difficult, in the sense that when you are feeling ´out of it´ in the rarefied air it is much more difficult to concentrate on the dangers present and avoid making a mess of your crampon and ice axe techniques. So the challenge was really the combination of factors present. All this is the likely reason why only 20 to 25% of those that Julio guides make it to the summit successfully (Julio is an excellent guide, it is the mountain that is tough).

The Imposing Volcán Chimborazo Beneath a Vast Sky

Volcán Chimborazo in Evening Light - Viewed from Casa Condor

Finding a Mountain Guide

I thought that I would be able to find a mountain guide in Salinas de Bolivar which is a small town located to the south west of Chimborazo. The latter part of the coach journey to there from Quito was spectacular as it traverses a high plateau to the west of the mountain. The plateau reaches a height of 4000 metres and passes close to Chimborazo – what an imposing sight! From the green plateau it rises in greys and reds – capped with the permanent glacier on its summit. It´s puncture of the rich blue sky met with the protests of some clouds that often hug it´s upper reaches.

In typical South American bus journey style, I got off at a junction and waited for collectivo jeep transport from the main road up a misty valley to Salinas de Bolivar. This pleasant small town is set amidst beautiful and green valleys. Some of the older residents show the signs of a lifetime at 3500 metres – the skin of their faces hardened and reddened by the strong sun and dry air at altitude. Their dress is more traditional, with woollen garments to ward off the cold - heavy shawls, skirts and trousers as well as the Trilby style hat at times.

I found only one guide in Salinas, but he was busy. However, he gave the number of a good guide in Riobamba. So after a phone call, off to Riobamba to meet with my guide, Julio. The journey across the plateau to the south of the mountain gave me more vistas of the spectacular Chimborazo.

Julio presented me with two alternatives for the ascent:

1) Start from the lower refuge (at 4800 metres) and ascend during the day via the Castillo ridge to summit at sunset and return during the night. This route is longer (by around 1.5 hours) and has slightly more height gain.

2) Start from the upper refuge (at 5000 metres) and ascend during the night via the more common direct route to summit at sunrise.

First Summit Attempt

To assist with my acclimatisation I spent some time the day before making an easy walk from the first refuge, past the second and up to the Agujas de Wymper rock feature at a height of around 5300 metres. I then spend a night in some accommodation (Casa Condor) which is at 3600 metres (around 1100 metres higher than Riobamba). Julio, correctly, said that it is difficult to sleep at around 5000 metres and a night at 3600 metres gives the body the chance to produce more red blood cells while still getting a reasonable rest before the climb – a compromise of acclimatisation and resting properly.

For my first summit attempt, I elected to climb via the Castillo ridge.  In the early stages of the climb I felt fine, but this soon changed. There was one section along the ridge that was a little tricky. We traversed an extended section of rock and ice a little below the top of the ridge. During this period of the climb, even though the height was only around 5400 metres, I started to feel the altitude, with the symptoms of weakness, dizziness and nausea. Like much of the climbing on Chimborazo, I had to think clearly during this section because navigating the rock and ice in crampons necessitated definite placing of feet. The problem was that with the weakness and dizziness from the altitude I was not thinking entirely clearly about how carefully I was placing my crampons and I fell on more than one occasion – cutting my nose, arm and knee.

Traverse of Rock & Ice Section on Castillo Ridge

My pace started to slow more significantly, but I could not help to alleviate this by eating and drinking to gain energy because the nausea meant that I could barely swallow anything. Julio and I continued and started the ascent of the glacier, however, by this time I started to worry about my condition and I had an ominous feeling at the back of my mind that this was not a good day as my condition was poor. I felt that if I continued too much further something bad was going to happen. We reached a height of around 5700 metres where my dizzy state made me fall again. This was enough for me, I think that the mountain had given me a sufficient number of warnings and I decided that I should turn back. On reflection, the mountains I have ascended in my life before the Andes were not so difficult (not technical and without high altitude). As such, I had previously not experienced failed summit attempts. This occasion made two (along with Ritacumba Blanca in El Coycuy National Park in Colombia). Indeed, perhaps one can say that if you have not experienced a failed summit attempt, perhaps you have never tried to climb a difficult mountain.

Tim During Descent from Failed Summit Attempt (Exhausted & Ill with Altitude Sickness)

In South America there exists the philosophy of ´Pachamamá´ (Mother Earth) which describes the deep connection (spiritual) one can feel with the life-giving earth on which we stand. In this philosophy, one has respect for the earth and takes time on occasion to pause and give thanks. During my various Andean climbs to-date I have felt the calm that comes from this way of thinking and feeling. When I am in the midst of such huge mountains and vast landscapes I often feel that I am a visitor to a land governed by entities much older, wiser and larger than me, feeling that in a way I am in that land ´with their permission´. This reverence brings the beauty of the landscape within me, but also mentally ´keeps my feet on the ground´ and helps me to know when it is safe to continue and when things are not right and to turn back. So while I was disappointed to have not made the summit, I was not angry.

Even if one does not subscribe to the Pachamama philosophy, there is value in being, at times, in a reflective state of mind when in the mountains as it is this that helps you to know when to turn back – at those times when pushing on regardless might mean that you never make it back. On the approach to the refuge I had stars in my vision on occasion – a sign that I was not in a good way and had I still been high up the mountain on that glacier – who knows what could have happened.

Second Summit Attempt

After my failed first summit I was clearly disappointed. The next day, at first I put it down to experience, but during the course of the day I reflected that I do not know if or when I will get the opportunity to spend so much time in the Andes again, and that these high altitude climbs do necessitate an extended period of time for acclimatisation (and possible failed summit attempts). By the end of the day I had convinced myself to make another go of it.

For further acclimatisation I spent some time at the lower refuge. From there I walked solo up the Castillo ridge, along its highest section as far as the large square Castillo rock feature. During this climb I did not feel the effects of the altitude which was reassuring. Much of the walking was made in snow clouds which did clear briefly for some beautiful partial views of some sections of the mountain. Because of the poor visibility I took compass bearings during the route up to ensure that I could retrace my steps to the refuge safely.

The Castillo Ridge During a Brief Break in the Snow Clouds
(During Acclimatisation Walking)

This time at altitude I was able to eat and drink normally. I spent a night at the lower refuge (4800 metres). The altitude did affect my sleep to a degree, with little breathing events occurring where one´s breath seems to interrupt for a moment, causing one to take a deep breath – interrupting sleep somewhat. The fact that my body was busy adapting to the altitude during the night was evident the next day because I was very tired. In the morning I made a brief bit of exercise at altitude to the upper refuge and back, before returning to Riobamba to sleep a night at more ´normal´ air pressures and give my body a chance to rest properly before another summit attempt.

The second climb was made at night, so Julio and I arrived at the upper refuge mid afternoon to relax and give our bodies some time at 5000 metres. After a few hours during which I could not sleep we got up at 10pm and prepared our gear, setting off just before 11pm. We made fairly good progress up the rock and ice sections to the ridge just below the start of the glacier, reaching there around 2am. Strangely, once again I started to feel the ´altitude wall´ being present for me at around 5500 metres with my pace slowing but fortunately I was not as ill as during the first summit attempt.

The glacier is just one long hard slog up the ice, side-stepping (to maximise the crampon contact with the ice) in pigeon steps (to conserve energy in the thin air). A low point was at around 4am, when in my exhaustion I was again not thinking clearly and was making a poor effort with my crampons - not making definitive steps. Julio rightly gave me a warning that if I did not up my game and tread more safely we would have to return. I downed some chocolate and some sugary drink (though it was half frozen) – I could not eat the peanuts as they were frozen solid (I estimate the temperature was around -10 Celsius or less)! I got my brain in gear and pushed on – this time with much more carefully placed crampons. After my first failed summit attempt I felt that it could be touch and go whether I would make it successfully the second time.  I spent the sleepless hours before the climb repeating positive thoughts and calling upon the greater powers to help me. After the low point at 4am I once again called upon these positive forces to help me.

The visual spectacles throughout the climb were beautiful. The night on the mountain was clear throughout and we walked under a tapestry of bright stars. Once on the glacier, the snow-free valleys far below were much darker than the glacier. There was enough light from the stars to define the white of the glacier, making it feel like we were walking on a white cloud high above the dark valleys.

When we were at around 100 metres in altitude below the first summit, the sun started to rise and lit the vast plane of uninterrupted clouds that sat below us to the east.  Just ten minutes later, the sun was high enough to cast a shadow of the mountain across the clouds that sat to the west- some truly spectacular views.

Sunrise Seen Near the End of the Glacier Climb

The Low Sun Just After Dawn Casting a Shadow of Chimborazo

View from the Glacier Just After Dawn

There are two summits of Chimborazo; the first to be reached is slightly lower than the main Wymper summit (6310 metres) which is another 20 minutes walk. I made it from the secondary to the principal summit – albeit in a slightly unsteady fashion as I was absolutely exhausted. In my almost delirious state I gave a heart-felt thanks to the mountain (and to Pachamama).

Tim on the Main Summit of Volcán Chimborazo

The top of the mountain is covered in powdery crystalline snow sitting atop the ice of the glacier. As one looks across the gentle summit topographies to the huge planes of clouds sitting below and to the horizon, one is mesmerised by the vast palette of white in all directions, scored by streaks of blue in the sky between the clouds below and those in the upper atmosphere. I am glad to have the photos to help me remember it, because it was difficult to fully absorb the awe-inspiring beauty when I was in such an exhausted state. I noticed when I reviewed by photos afterwards that in all of them my mouth is wide open, which for a moment I thought was strange until I realised that at the time I was permanently panting in the rarefied air.

View from the Summit
(The Dark Streak on the Horizon is a Minor Volcanic Eruption)

Chimborazo Summit View:
6310 metres (20,702 feet / 3.92 miles) in the Sky
Beautiful Crystalline Snow & Ice Between
the Clouds Below & Those in the Upper Atmosphere

Before we started the climb, Julio said that the absolutely latest time to leave the main summit was 8am. This is because later in the morning when the sun is higher, the glacier becomes more treacherous as the surface of the ice softens. Furthermore, in the ice and rock sections lower down, when the ice softens it lets go of rocks it was holding. These rock falls are dangerous – in fact earlier this year a climber from Spain was killed on Chimborazo by one such rock fall. Fortunately I just made it to the main summit in time – leaving just ten minutes or so to soak up the views before having to start the descent.

It took a lot of mental energy to summon the strength to comprehend the thought of the four to five hour descent to the refuge when my body felt like it could not walk another step. During the descent of the glacier and the rock-ice sections in the valley below I struggled at times as my energy by this time was really low and Julio had to verbally push me to keep the pace reasonable so that we may get through the dangerous sections as soon as possible. By the time we reached the refuge I was almost too tired to be able to celebrate and enjoy my achievement. Due to my reduced pace during the ascent and descent of the glacier (my pace was slowed by my low energy in the thin air), the total climb took 13 hours (apparently 10 to 11 hours is a good pace). Nevertheless, I made it to a summit that is challenging (altitude wise).

After a week of up and down at high altitude and two goes at the summit by body was truly knackered, but my mind was happy!

2012, 19th – 22nd July
A Second Visit to Quito

After my time in Riobamba, I returned to Quito for a second time to spend a long weekend with someone special who flew in from Medellín.

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