On the 7th of May we met up with Christian, bought some mountain food in Baños and began a drive up to the start point of Tungurahua, our first official acclimatization hike. Tungurahua is right above Baños and often shrouded in clouds but occasionally we had caught a glimpse of her smoldering peak from Montano Hostel’s hammocks. She's an ominous looking lump of ashy darkness but we were all psyched whilst driving our pathetic SUV up the dirt track to the start point. Needless to say there were maximum revs going through our little Chevy as I challenged her engine and everyone but me had to get out at a few points to get over the ruts and holes in the "road".
Next, we hiked our heavy packs up the first 4km to base camp, raising 1123meters. Base camp was as you'd expect it; A two-story climbing hut, wooded floors and furniture with various climbers’ flags and stickers hanging around, giving it a well-used and homely feel. The two dogs and man who spent their time up there were well hardened to the lifestyle. He was fit and weathered, and they were shaggy and obviously interested in our rations.
That night we had a beautiful sunset looking right out to the coast over the haze above Baños. Then out from the clouds to our Northwest a jagged peak started to appear, the neighbour of Chimborazo, Carihuairazo. And then, as if keeping an eye on us and showing us his might, the mighty Chimborazo blew off his blanket of clouds and stood proud in the night sky, haloed by Orion twinkling and ever watching above.
We were in awe of the first glimpse of our mountain, the majesty of the entire panoramic! A constant lighting storm flashed miles out to sea beneath a dark wall cloud, surrounded by the golden/red sun set. This natural light was complimented by the orange street lights of Baños peeking through the low lying white clouds that blanketed the darkening foothills. We took it in for longer than Christian thought normal, then had dinner and slept upstairs until 0100 before setting off with lightened packs.
The hike up was equally as magnificent as it was challenging. All those lights and night-time colours beneath us, a constant reminder of our altitude and distance from safety on the increasingly sheer mountainside. Tungurahua was not happy with our presence, and we were assailed by 60mph coastal winds whipping volcanic ash into our eyes the entire ascent. Two ridge traverses were very exposed. Looking down into the night it was plain to see that one slip on the fine, loose, ashy surface would have turned into a fatal fall, carefully we continued.
I was in my kilt and the freezing wind to the bare legs was just about tolerable, I was glad of my decision in the climbing hut whilst getting ready, not to dress completely traditionally. It was a huge effort from the boys, 1 hour walking and then 10 minutes resting. To be honest the rests were inconvenient, causing the cold wind to bite deeper and then starting again was more difficult. I'd have preferred to just keep moving once we got into a steady rhythm. As we approached the top (even though we knew Tungurahua was active) we were all surprised to see hot steam vents billowing from black crevasses. We enjoyed the warmth for a few minutes before making the final push, now completely submerged in the clouds. The summit continued to elude us with expected false summit after unexpected false summit materialising through the icy clouds. Eventually appearing from the grey haze in form of a tiny iron cross on top of an ashy frost-bitten mound, was the summit of Tungurahua.
I'm not sure how long the ascent took but it was well after first light by the time we topped, and we'd left base camp at 0200. We enjoyed a quick hi-5 and descended, the icy wind being intolerable. Again once we dropped under the cloud we were treated with beautiful views of the surrounding land. We descended as fast as possible to base camp, all of us slightly overwhelmed by the altitude.
We had successfully summited Tungurahua 5023m as a team and this was the first time we had been this high. In the marines, Yan and I had carried at least triple the weight, at least triple the distance, but doing it at this height was a serious shock to the system. We packed the rest of our gear at base camp and descended the rest of the 4km hike down to the car. It was tough and there were the beginnings of mutterings from behind, I knew we were all tired. I laughed as I remembered I had almost shouted insults at the wind on the way up, I usually like the wind. It was a great day, and it took a big effort from us all. We slept well in Montano Hostel that night.