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Stage 1 - The Highest Source of The Amazon

Updated: Mar 19

On day two at Chakana the plan was to look for the source of the Rio Chimborazo, it was the 11th of May. From my maps I decided that of the many gullies below Chimborazo glacier, a gully above Templo Machay would be our source. We hiked up on a misty morning, up along a grassy, shrubby slope with the local skinny white and beige llamas grazing off to our left in the haze. We were all still feeling the altitude. Unfortunately Yan had developed a cough since Tungurahua, perhaps due to breathing in all the ash, or maybe due to altitude, or both. He was managing though and we were in no rush. The shrubs turned into rocky slopes, beautiful blue, yellow and red flowered bushes dotted the landscape at random, and they attracted small birds, reminiscent of British garden birds but slightly faster. I don't think the hummingbirds we saw on the forested slopes of El Altar made it this high. There were big patches of bright green moss dotted on the slopes too. From a distance they looked like comfortable places to lay down and rest your weary body but as I got closer, I realized that they were wild llama latrines. These clean mountain animals choose to do their business in the same place and the nutrients from their innards enable thick bouncy moss to thrive. The smell around them was quite intense.

Eventually we leave the mosses and hardy shrubs behind and it's just us and the boulders. Lichen clings on to survival but other than that it's volcanic rock and stone. We reach Templo Machay, a massive cave on the side of the mountain and for the first time in my life I bypass a cave. We had a job to do and that was to find the source. We scramble above the cave onto a natural rocky podium giving us a view of the top of our gully. It's an amphitheatre, the glacier above and all the boulders are the excited crowd, looking down on the show. What is the show? It is of course a tiny carved ravine, only 6 feet deep, a catchment for mist, avalanche debris, sleet, snow, and rain. It is the highest source of the Amazon. What a moment. We hurriedly climb up into it, we stand in it and imagine the 5128km journey to the mouth that water will take as it leaves this place. We are at 4893 meters, and I drop a pin in on my watch.

As we stand there, magic happens. It begins to rain. Pachamama (the native goddess of the Earth) wants to show us exactly how this place works. We watch as drips run off the rocks, then small slips of water pick up ash and run into other tiny brown streams. The stream grows and we descend with it, through the rocks down the gully, back into the scrubland. At some points we can hear fast running water beneath us in the porous ground, but we can't see it. Then it appears as a bigger stream, it’s easy to imagine why there are so many land slips and avalanches here. As we follow the flow, more streams join. We descend to sandy ground and the water cuts through the land at a depth. The shrubs are joined by grasses then small trees, the vibrant high-altitude flowers are replaced by more and more shades of green. Eventually our stream is joined by others from close by gullies and the Rio Chimborazo is born. We follow it back to the canyon beneath Chakana and head to the accommodation to contemplate the amazing day.

That walk was a big win, we were potentially the first people in history to appreciate the highest source of the Amazon in action, if we were to summit Chimborazo and complete the journey, we'd certainly be the first team ever to travel down the Amazon from its highest source. The privilege of what I just experienced, with the expectations of what was to come had a deep effect on me.

Although the rainfall had had such a profound and positive affect on us, our kit was now extremely wet. We spent hours to eventually get a fire going with wet wood. We needed dry boots for Chimborazo. Our Scarpa Mescalito boots were chosen because they are a good hybrid boot. We didn't have the space to take two pairs each so high-altitude boots were cut from the initial kit list. But we knew we couldn't attempt an ascent with damp boots, our feet would freeze. So we attempted to dry them and unfortunately Liam and I left our boots too close to the fire and the seals burst on them. It was a real kick in the teeth but we did our best to superglue them back together with glue that Yan had brought in the boat repair kit. I also rubbed a load of beeswax over the suede for extra waterproofing.

The following day, Liam, Ben and I followed the canyon for a few miles downstream and take in the beauty of the gorge. We spoke with a couple of Spanish climbers who had been waiting a week to climb Chimborazo. Due to weather, no one had summitted in a long time, I think over 2 weeks. Unfortunately for the Spanish lads they missed their window and wished us luck a few days later from a beach somewhere on the west coast.

We spent the final day at Chakana as a full rest day. In fact we drove to Riobamba to do some laundry and find someone to fix the boots. The guy we dropped them to said he'd have them fixed by 1700. By pick up time he hadn’t even looked at them, very frustrating. At least we got another Pizza!


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