Andean Mountaineering Nightmare

By Max Olson

“I think sometime soon I will hike Chimborazo.” My fellow volunteer at the hostel in Quito, Ecuador had mentioned this “Chimborazo,”. In Ecuador, young backpackers and thrill seekers challenge themselves by climbing one of the country’s two tallest peaks. The most common is Cotopaxi, boasting an impressive 5,897 meters of altitude and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Local tour companies sell the expedition as something within the capabilities of a five year and plenty of tourists are happy to bite the bait. While not technical, the ascent is an eight-hour journey through freezing cold temperatures on steep terrain. However, for those seeking an even greater challenge and even larger social media bragging rights, Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest peak, stands as the ultimate test. A ten-hour ascent up extremely steep slopes to a summit of 6,263 meters, Chimborazo is no joke. Due to a bulge in the world at the equator, the summit of Chimborazo is the farthest point from the center of the earth and the closest to outer space. It was during that conversation with my fellow hostel volunteer that I made up my mind. I was going to summit Chimborazo. There was only one small problem. I had absolutely no mountaineering experience.

Riobamba- A town with no Rio and little Bamba

For those looking to tackle Chimborazo, the small mountain of Riobamba in Central Ecuador serves as the jumping off point. Whoever named Riobamba apparently never stepped foot in the town in his life. There was absolutely no river that I could see and “bamba” is not exactly what I would consider a great word for the town’s vibe. Brick buildings, industrial warehouses, and abandoned railroad tracks were the town’s defining features. When I arrived in Riobamba, I checked into a hostel and began searching for tour agencies that provided guides for the Chimborazo summit. Due to several fatalities on the country’s mountains, Ecuadorian law mandates that all summit attempts be accompanied by a certified guide. After approximately 45 minutes of wandering around the town’s central district, attempting to use my broken Spanish to find an agency, I stumbled upon one neatly tucked away on a side street. The employee gave me the usual story that those who have summited mountains in Ecuador are so familiar with. “Anybody could do it.” “You’ll be fine!” “No refunds if you need to go back though.” The usual. The employee recommended that I go to Chimborazo National Park on my own the next day and try to spend the night at the high-altitude camp. The hike would take about eight hours but if all went well then, I could return to Riobamba and prepare for the summit. The first challenge of this test would be figuring out how to get to Chimborazo.

Llamas in the Wild

Getting to the entrance to Chimborazo National Park is far more complicated than it has any right to be. Technically, there isn’t even a bus or transportation system that goes to the park. There is one bus route that makes a very brief stop at the park entrance on its way from Riobamba to a nearby town. I was up bright and early to hitch my ride to Ecuador’s highest peak. The bus wound its way through green hills and Andean farmland as it steadily gained altitude. Eventually, the vegetation and crops gave way to volcanic shale and barren rock. Chimborazo loomed over this wasteland like a frozen lighthouse. The bus made its rapid stop at the park entrance, and I hopped out, ready to undertake my first mountaineering test. Almost the second I stepped off the bus, something caught my attention. Immediately, it was clear that Chimborazo was far less tourist friendly than Cotopaxi. The entrance to Cotopaxi had been filled with venders selling their wares, tourists trying on their new llama-wool beanies, and vans waiting to shuffle hikers back to Quito. Chimborazo had none of this. I was the only tourist in site and other than a man selling Ritz Crackers no vendors were to be found. I shrugged off the sense of isolation and began the first part of my journey. The agency employee had told me that reaching the lower base camp would take about four hours. I set off down the trail and that’s when it caught my eye. On Chimborazo’s lower slopes is one of the only places in Ecuador where one can find herds of wild llamas. Resembling a type of Gazelle, the thin creatures ran along the volcanic shale and grazed on the sparse vegetation. The vicunas, as they’re called in Spanish, were easily one of the highlights of my time at Chimborazo. Unfortunately, as I worked my way up the trail, the vicunas began to disappear, and the desolation of the landscape became my sole companion.

The Ecuadorian Overlook Hotel

After about an hour and 45 minutes of following the upward-winding trail I caught sight of two small buildings in the distance. One looked to be about a twenty-minute walk away on flat trail while the other was perched higher on the mountain, maybe an hour’s walk. I saw a sign posted next to the trail that made it clear that I had reached the lower base camp. I was beyond confused. By no means was I a great hiker and the agency employee had told me that it would take me at least four hours to reach the first base camp. I decided to press on to see if the sign was indeed correct. The first of the two buildings resembled a mix between a New England home and a World War 2 bunker. My mind kept going thinking of the Overlook Hotel from The Shining every time I looked its way. Apparently, this indeed was the lower base camp, Refugio Hermanos Carrel, located at 4850 meters. My end goal was to reach the high-altitude camp at around 5,200 meters but I decided to stop in and see if this base camp offered the same hot chocolate and snack services as Cotopaxi’s base camp. After spending under five minutes in the Refugio it was clear to me that it saw far less traffic than Cotopaxi’s. I was the only tourist there, the two Ecuadorians in charge of the place did not speak a lick of English, and it was cold enough inside to make an icebox blush. Here is where the real nightmare started. In hindsight, I believe it was a simple matter of poor communication and language barriers. Here is exactly what occurred. I was told by the two Ecuadorians that this was the higher base camp, and the building up above was not a base camp. I was told that you could not stay at the high altitude camp overnight and the Refugio Carrell was the only option for lodging overnight on the mountain. Seeing as it was already getting late and any buses headed in the direction of Riobamba would be long gone by now, I coughed up the fifteen dollars and decided to stay. Bad decision. However, I still wanted to see if I could at least hike up to the high-altitude camp. Bad decision number 2.

“Sin Guia Esta Bien”

The employee at the tour agency had told me that the route from the basecamp to the high-altitude camp was somewhat dangerous and required a guide. My two new Ecuadorian friends in the Refugio swore this was not the case. “Sin guia esta bien.” Without a guide is okay. They claimed it should only take 45 minutes and off I headed up the barely seeable trail that they pointed out along the mountain’s slope. The volcanic shale had almost completely covered the trail as it wound up and the steepness meant that swift altitude gain was inevitable. After about an hour and a half of rock scrambling, with not an ounce of certainty that I had even been following a trail, a thick fog began to roll in. Small flecks of snow turned into little daggers by the wind began to fall and I realized I was completely lost. The sun was beginning to set, and I figured that I was either going to have work my way back to the Refugio or end up in a potentially serious spot of trouble. I was luckily able to pick up the trail again and work my way towards the Refugio. That’s when I noticed another sign. As I looked over the poorly drawn map of Chimborazo Park, a sense of frustration began to build in me. The men in the Refugio had lied, I thought to myself. The building perched on the cliff was indeed the higher base camp and I had been fibbed to so they could make 15 bucks off an idiot tourist. I went back into the Refugio and confronted the Ecuadorian who seemed to be in charge. He claimed that he had never said this was the higher camp and once again stated there was nowhere else to stay anyway. By this time twilight was turning to dark and I realized that like it or not I was stuck here for the night. In an Ecuadorian icebox.

Ecuadorian Icebox

I walked up to my room and discovered about 20 bunk-style beds with only a thin quilt on each one. My hands had gone numb from walking through the snow, and I grabbed about six of the quilts for myself as not a single other soul was staying at the Refugio. I buried my hands inside my beanie and tried to keep as warm as I could. The hours dragged on and sleep was nearly impossible. Hot water did not exist, and I took to holding my hands under the bathroom’s air powered hand drier to keep them warm. The two Ecuadorians had decided to hold a late night woodworking session and power-tools/screaming continued until about 3 AM. The one diamond in the rough through this whole night was when I would go outside for a smoke and see Chimborazo under the stars. One of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen in my life almost made up for the misery provided by my lodging. I noticed a small monument with various stones arranged around it behind the Refugio. In the dark, it was hard to make out what I was looking at but a quick shine of my phone’s light revealed a makeshift cemetery dedicated to those who had perished on the mountain. An eerie reminder of the summit’s risks to say the least. Eventually, I managed to doze off over the sounds of table saws and drills. I woke first thing in the morning and just about sprinted down the trail towards the entrance never had I been so happy to be running towards a bus in my life. After returning to Riobamba, I left the agency employee know that I was indeed still interested in tackling the summit and had managed to get some high-altitude sleep. He asked for photos of my passport and said the permits had been obtained for the coming weekend. A light finally seemed to be at the end of the tunnel. That evening, I laid in my warm hotel bed in Riobamba, thinking about my experience. Every adventure has a rougher part, I thought to myself. In two days, I would be having the time of my life summiting Ecuador’s highest peak. The Ecuadorian Overlook had at least made that possible. Suddenly my phone rang. I answered. The agency employee explained to me how the snowstorm I had walked through indicated potential weather dangers. The agency was cancelling the summit attempt. The Ecuadorian Overlook was the closest I would ever get to Chimborazo’s Summit. Apparently, the “rougher part” had been the whole adventure.