Climbing Mount Chimborazo (December 2002)
My headlamp created a small circle of dull light ahead of me illuminating the rope that I was unconsciously following. I could see that
it lay across a three-foot wide slopping snow bridge that was actually comprised of rock hard ice. The snow bridge spanned an 8-foot
wide crevasse whose depth my headlight could not reach. I checked that the rope was still tied to my waist harness, vaguely realizing
that it was entirely illogical to think it had come undone since I last checked it just prior to my previous step. I felt the rope pull tight
and my mind told me it was time to take another step. I took two gulps of air and my body reluctantly picked up my right foot
extracting the 10 metal points of my crampon from the icy glacier we were climbing. I willed my foot to move maybe 4" up and 12"
forward. I then replanted the crampon points into the top icy layer of the snow bridge making sure they seemed secure. I wasn't
worried about the bridge collapsing, I was simply too tired to be nervous, it was all mechanical now. After two more gulps of air I
knew I would have to repeat the process with my left foot.
It was early in the morning of Dec. 7th, (Pearl Harbor day) maybe 2 a.m., and I was at about the 17,000-foot level. I had just moved
4" closer to my goal of climbing Mount Chimborazo, in Ecuador, whose peak is over 20,600 feet high. Due to the earth's "equatorial
bulge" this peak represents the furthest point from the center of the earth. (Although this also meant the altitude effect is even more
pronounced). Until around 1820 western civilization had thought this was the highest mountain in the world. It is still higher then
anything other then the Himalayas and a handful of peaks in the southern Andes. When the great geographer Alexander Von Humbolt
in 1802 climbed up its slopes to 18,096 feet he thought he had gone higher than any other human. The peak was first summated in
1880 by the conqueror of the Matterhorn - Edward Whymper. It was now the goal of my friend Chris Auman and I to also reach the
But my trip had started very badly as the airport in Quito, Ecuador went on a wildcat strike only 2 hours before my planned midnight
arrival. So my scheduled stop in Bogota, Columbia became an overnight stay as we were shuttled to the local Sheridan Hotel. We
were told to be in the lobby at 4:30 a.m. for a possible flight continuation. This would have given me four hours of sleep if I had had
any confidence that the Colombian hotel operator understood my request for a 4 a.m. wake up call. Instead I basically lay there
watching the clock, hoping I would get to Quito in time to start our expedition. At 5 a.m. I took the fact that busses were there to take
us back to he airport as a positive sign. Unable to understand anything I tagged along behind other passengers and after much
confusion and misdirection we found our gate with the waiting plane. This all seemed encouraging as the Continental Airlines
spokesperson got up to give instructions - in Spanish. As the crowd started to yell and scream my positive feelings rapidly dissipated.
After a half an hour of pandemonium I worked my way to the front of the pack and asked for a brief English summary of the previous
1/2 hour's "discussion". I got "Oh sorry, you must take your bags, go through customs and back to the Hotel - Follow him". I did as
instructed but as virtually everyone else was staying there arguing in Spanish and I knew I was missing something.
I spent all day trapped in the hotel room awaiting further instructions. At 6:30 p.m. it was back to the airport. Half the plane seemed to
have argued their way onto earlier flights, and only 7 of us made the mistake of following instructions and taking our luggage to the
hotel. This meant we 7 had to wait and go through all the security again. More confusion ensued till we were told there was no room
for us on the flight, then more yelling and screaming till they agreed to put the 7 of us on an Avianca flight, but without our luggage.
Just as this seemed settled that night's Continental flight was canceled and those passengers were transferred to Avianca bumping us.
More hollering and pushing till I found an English-speaking agent who added me to some mysterious list to get me on the flight. But
then everyone was given a ticket but me. Finally they recounted found one last seat and I became the very last person seated out of
Bogota that night.
Quito, Ecuador must have been just as confusing. My guide - who was to meet me at the airport - waited for many hours with
hundreds of other till 2 a.m. the previous night before being able to find out the airport he was at was on total strike. So when I landed
the next night (with no guide and no luggage) I just grabbed a taxi. But once the door was closed he quadrupled our agreed on $5 fee.
The next taxi was the right price but could not find the hotel. About 1 a.m. he finally located it but rather then get out of the taxi (he
was apparently too afraid to do this) he blared his horn for ten minutes until the armed hotel guard un-barricaded the front entrance
and, along with his attack dog, escorted me safely inside.
In the morning our guide Marco explained that calling anyone about my missing luggage was impossible. If I ever wanted to see it
again I would have to go to the airport and wait for every plane from Bogota and watch for my luggage myself. Fortunately it showed
up at noon. Despite having missed my "rest" day and two nights of sleep we would now head straight for the mountains for a 1/2 day
On most big mountains one acclimatizes by going partially up the mountain and then part way back down, working ones way toward
higher elevations, following the basic adage to "climb high and sleep low". In Ecuador, with many high plateaus with mountain roads,
one can do this same process on multiple mountains. Marco drove us to a mountain behind Quito named Guagua Pichincha that
topped out at 15,728 feet, far higher then I had ever gone. We started hiking at about 13,000 feet with the first 1/4 mile going up a
40-degree slope. It took only minutes at that height and angle for me to feel totally exhausted. Chris with a two-day head start on the
process was doing much better. This was meant to be a test to see if I would throw in the towel. I almost failed, but by slowing the
pace, and as the angle decreased, I regained some strength and against the strong smell of sulfur gases we climbed our first volcano.
Our second all day acclimatization hike started in the town of Imbabura. We stayed in a very rustic ($2 a night) hotel that supposedly
Bob Dylan and Joan Baez had frequented decades ago in search of "magic mushrooms". On coming down from the peak we found
that our car was broken into. Marco had forgotten to hire someone to protect the car; resulting in my losing various extra hiking cloths
and spare boots. As they also stole our pad lock key from the hotel we were afraid they might have gotten all of our possessions -
fortunately that was not the case - but crime throughout Ecuador was obviously rampant. In our Quito hotel one couple we had dinner
with were robbed twice in one day (only the first time successfully). Another young German girl was taken in by the "ketchup" scam.
This is where the first person sprays you with ketchup and then three people who help clean you up rob you. She had lost her
knapsack, tickets and passport. Even going to a restaurant three blocks away the hotel insisted we take a taxi for safety.
Our final acclimatization hike was to be a two-day climb up Illniza Norte at 16,818 feet. The climb to a small rustic hut at 15,250 feet
took place in a driving hailstorm. We both reached the hut tired but Chris was also soaked through. The tiny hut was jammed with 16
climbers and not enough bunk beds, which were stacked 4 high. Although lucky to get the last beds, sleep was impossible for both of
us. In the morning Marco was hesitant to let Chris continue, but we delayed our start and Chris recovered.
The hike up Illniza Norte was an amazing experience. Your strength is drained not only from the elevation but also from the normal
loss of appetite at altitude as well as the almost total the lack of sleep (I only had one full night of sleep so far in the trip). The air did
not seem so much thin as heavy. I could run in my hiking boots for 40 minutes in New Rochelle but here, taking more then a half
dozen consecutive steps a steep section was impossible. When hiking over what would be a trivial rock pitch in the White Mountains
up here the mind seemed to slow down, and I needed to focus where each step was going. When I took my gloves off I had to
consciously remind myself to put them back on. Chris's pre-trip acclimatization/conditioning program of three hikes a week in the
Rockies - at altitude (including Pikes Peak the week before) was obviously much better then mine of running up and down the streets
in New Rochelle. He was consistently going at a faster pace. Never the less, roped together, over rocky and snowy sections, we both
made the top in what Marco considered good time. We were told we were both ready for Chimborazo.
Unfortunately the weather turned bad and it looked like there would be new snow high on Chimborazo. The lower slopes would have
long steep ice sections that we would have to navigate. Another guide we ran into on the road to Chimborazo told us his, and all other
parties, had to turn back due to avalanche danger and deep snow on the route. Chimborazo had a reputation as a accessible mountain
to amateur climbers but in reality the "easy" route had become unstable over the last 5 years and only "technical" routes were now
considered safe. We decided to proceed anyway and hope for the best.
Unlike most other large mountains that are part of a chain, the volcanic Chimborazo stands alone. Even with only partial visibility it's
overall volume and mass is immense. Marco warned us numerous times not to be overwhelmed by its sheer bulk. With heavy packs
we hiked up to the "Whymper Hut" at 16,400 feet and arrived in early afternoon. For the first time we got to practice our crampon
climbing and ice ax technique on a scree (rock) slope near the hut. Neither Chris nor I had any real experience in this area and this
practice hardly seemed adequate. . We had an early dinner and bunked down at 5:30 p.m. Even without the other 25 noisy climber,
sleep would have been impossible since after ever four breaths through my nose I would jerk up and have to take two gulps of air
through the mouth. We lay there grasping and still wondering if we would even be making an attempt that night. Marco "woke" us at
10:30 p.m. The mountain has to be climbed at night when the colder air and lack of sun make the snow pack more stable and when
for similar reasons there are fewer rock slides. You want to reach the summit by day break and be back in the hut by late morning.
But this night Marco felt the mountain was two warm, he could hear the snow pack melting and was very concerned. He seemed
skeptical on our chances but decided we would make an attempt anyway.
We started off on a moonless dark night with threatening weather to add one more problem to the warmth and recent new snow.
Marco with some 300 attempts on the mountain picked his way among the rocks in the dark. It took about an hour to reach the base
of the glacier which covered the upper part of the mountain. We put on our crampons and helmets and roped up. The slope
proceeded at 20 to 30 degrees and Marco set a pace he thought we needed to keep to have a chance for the summit. The snow
sections were manageable but the icy sections were very difficult. Neither Chris nor I had any experience navigating this type of terrain
with crampons and an ice ax. Learning this in the dark, moving at a fast pace, with no sleep, at 17,000 feet, was simply not working.
Especially since we could not even see what Marco was doing. It was about at this point that some combination of altitude, lack of
sleep, the entire weeks exertions, the struggle with the ice turned me from begin tired to drained and then to utterly exhausted. I could
no longer maintain Marcos pace and was beginning to burn out. Every few steps my body just stopped.
Things seemed to be going in slow motion. When I saw Chris transfer a camera from his pack to Marcos I thought we should take a
photo, but by the time I could formulate this thought the camera had already been packed away. After crossing the snow bridges the
slope became even steeper. My mind was determined to continue but my body was simply not responding. One could see the head
lights from the other groups from the hut, and one by one they seemed, for there own reasons, to be turning back. We slowly
continued up toward a ridge. Time seemed irrelevant. Chris, last on the rope, and doing much better then me, shouted encouragement.
I was saying the same things to myself but the body was not reacting. I was determined to continue but had to stop every few steps.
A very long hour or two later, as we neared the top of the ridge we were hit with a howling wind and the light snow began to turn
heavy. We were approaching still steeper sections and longer pitches of ice climbing. At this point Marco made the decision to turn
around. It was a combination of the weather turning bad, both our difficulty on the ice sections, his concern about our descending
safely, our pace was too slow to make the top in the required time, his serious anxiety about the snow slab stability, the fact that most
other groups had turned around, and not least my obvious exhaustion. At about 18,200 feet we started our decent. Although I wanted
to continue, and Chris was able to, Marco undoubtedly made the right decision at that point. As he made clear that decision was his
Of the 25 international climber's that day (and to my knowledge that week) none made the summit of Chimborazo. Two climbers (a
Swiss and Bolivian) got higher then us reaching a lower summit of Chimborazo, but were unable to traverse in heavy snow to the true
summit. All the others turned back below us.
The odds of getting to the top were always remote. One needs a combination of factors to all coalesce at the same time. The snow
surface must be climbable for someone with our skill set -top to bottom, there must be limited ice or ash, the snow pack must be
stable, the weather clear, the temperature cold, the acclimatization process must have worked, the conditioning training successful, you
must avoid sickness on the climbing day (we were both sick on other days), you must avoid injuries or strains and then on the day of
the climb it simply must be your day.
Although we did not reach the summit, the experience was exhilarating, and I for one am glad to have had the opportunity to try.
Postscript on Risk
The question I was most often asked was why would I take this risk. I came to the conclusion that my safest time in Ecuador was
while climbing in the mountains. Crime was one risk but the driving there was truly insane. Cars overtaking buses would be overtaken
by trucks forcing cars in the opposite direction to veer off the road. This happened continually as the entire driving populace seemed to
be playing a giant game of "chicken". With a population of 10 million and relatively few cars per capita they have over 5,000 auto
fatalities a year. A rate vastly higher then the US's. Despite many climbers there are only 3-5 mountaineering fatalities a year, and as
Marco proudly told us, in the last 5 years none with a certified guide. He was even more proud that the 10 guides who are part of his
company have never lost a client. Although I fully understand this is not a risk free activity Marco was simply not going to put us at
significant risk. Our objective was climbing Chimborazo, his seemed to be preserving the guiding communities' safety record. I am glad
to say at least he achieved his objective.
Martin Friedrichs December 2002 see photo from each hike below RETURN TO HOME PAGE
putting on crampons before the glacier