Updated: Sep 19
Chimborazo North Route
It's game day. Do or die. The expedition start date is upon us. We have our final breakfast at Chakana, say goodbye to our friend, the caterer leaving him a healthy tip and I buy some coca plant sweets and tea which is apparently good for altitude sickness.
Spirits are high and Liam puts on Eye of the Tiger to get us up for the impending challenge. We drive round to the North side of the mountain on the road of car killing potholes with Liam managing to dodge half of them.
To be fair to our Chevvy, she's holding her own, she's had a fair amount of abuse both inside and out. We leave the main road and meet Christian and Pablo Loco (Colombian mountain guide) and follow them down a rough dirt track to the start point where we meet a local man named Luiz and his pack horses. We get out of the cars and begin to divide some kit between the horses. Only for the 5 minutes that the bags are open does the rain come down in a brief torrent. Then, as we close the bags and put our waterproofs on, it dries up. Typical Andes. Apprehensive yet excited we set off, immediately into a wall of mist. It's impossible to know what the conditions are like up top. I can't help the feeling of dread, if we can't climb this mountain due to weather, the expedition has failed. I hadn't really contemplated not achieving the summit. In my head, over the last two years, it was a foregone conclusion. Summits are what I've grown up doing, OK nothing like this, but Scottish summits can be tricky too.
As we ascend though, we pass out of the mist and the summit appears before us. The climb gets steeper but the sight of Chimborazo in all his bright beauty gives us an extra lift. We hike the heavy bags for around 4km, along flat ground and then up a steep incline to the side of a mossy gully. We reach our base camp around 1400 and set up the tents. Christian and Pablo give us a quick teach on glacier walking and how to use the equipment (harnesses, ice axe arrest, etc).
Embarrassingly for me, being a rope access technician who regularly wears harnesses, Pablo picks me up for having a twist in mine. Ben won't let me forget that, I think! By the time they have finished the lesson the clouds have come in and Chimborazo is no longer in sight. In fact, we can barely see 20 meters. After a quick dinner of Adventure Nutrition, Mexican chili con carne, we bed down for the night and listen to the rain and gusts slapping against the tent. Those noises would usually send me into a peaceful slumber, from the comfort and safety of a warm sleeping bag, but in this case, all of our hearts sink and none of us sleep much, we know what this weather means.
In the morning it's no better and Christian explains what we already know. He suggests that we can head back down, or we can continue but the chances of summitting are extremely small. I'm somewhat irritated by how quickly everyone else decides the best thing to do is descend. I'm not a quick thinker as it is and need time to consider but everyone else's minds are made up so I go with the common consensus. The whole way down I feel like we've shot ourselves in the foot. You should always at least attempt, shouldn't you?
The thinking was; we have the guides for 4 days and going down early gives us 2 more days to attempt the Western Ridge without having to fork out on guides again. This painful departure from the mountain meant that we had 1 chance left to summit as soon as we got a weather window. Failure next time would make things very complicated and very expensive. I knew the lads were right, but the situation weighed heavy on my mind for the entire descent. Liam was admirably content (at least outwardly) considering he'd accepted the fact that because of this initial failure, he'd not get to summit. He was due to fly out in 4 days' time.
We decided to drive back to Baños and lick our wounds and walk some of the route around there to save us time later on in the journey. On the way back we stopped off to get some salted sweetcorn from an elderly Quechua farmer at the side of the road. I wish I'd taken a picture of her in her traditional attire, her long patchwork coat and hat was a nice dose of tradition for us. It was delicious but we all suffered with stomach problems for the next few days.
We re-joined Fabrizio at Montano, having come back via a forgettable town called Ambato, he sympathized and bought us some snacks. Next day we set off in search of the beautiful waterfalls around Baños, I felt like getting a fun abseil done would be a good way to boost moral. We hiked down to one fall that was deep in the high sided, forested gorge that carries the Pastaza River to the Amazon.
We conducted a short practice abseil and went back up to the road. I wasn't in a good place mentally, I felt we were under achieving. We went to another waterfall with a beautiful place to swim and the boys all enjoyed a dip. I stood on a rock, staring down judgmentally. Why are they happy?? We've just wrapped on Chimborazo and now they're wallowing in a river like it's forgotten about it. I haven't worked my ass off for two years for...
At this point Ben approached me and in his brotherly style, delicately gave me some advice. "You can't dwell on this, you've got to enjoy the moment." We chatted for a while and I expressed my concerns over failure. Just a short chat like that helped and I began to relax into the day. Cheers bro!
We finished the action packed day of activities with with a lesson and tree climb led by Ben in what felt like 40 degrees Celsius. Satisfied that we'd achieved about as much as we could, we headed home.
On the way back to Baños I had to run back down to the first waterfall to grab the drone camera guard that had been left. The stairs back up were demanding, probably 50x Rocky's stairs with the added altitude. It was a good, sweaty 30 minutes of phys and thankfully I found the guard. As we all know, exercise always helps to improve ones mood and on top of that, our drone was now fully intact again. This expedition's survival is about equipment and personal longevity, and it felt good to have taken care of both on that short run. That night we got on WiFi in our favourite vegan, Rastafarian restaurant and guess what, Jose announced the weather window was open again.
Chimborazo Western Ridge
We had to be at the Western Ridge base camp by 1200 noon, 16th May. Much to our annoyance, the guides wanted a further $200 to come back. We thought we'd paid for 4 days but they'd retreated to Quito and wanted fuel money. To be honest, we needed their expertise but also we needed them to legally ascend and so had to begrudgingly agree.
The night before, having made plans, Yan came to my door with a concerned but steadfast look on his face. The illness hadn't shifted since Tungurahua, and he had really struggled in making it up to base camp on the first attempt of Chimborazo. He'd made the decision to give this attempt a miss, it'd only be three of us. We were all gutted for him, but it was the right decision and a huge sacrifice made, due to his strong desire for overall expedition success. If he'd had to turn around halfway, at least one of us would have had to return with him, possibly the whole group.
This time my stress levels were higher. On the drive there I imagined the consequences if we should fail for a second time. They weren't good. It'd be extremely expensive. Between the boats (almost) $4000 and the mountaineering (almost) $6000, we were almost out of funds. We couldn't afford to fail. As we approached Chimborazo in the faithful Chevvy, he was sitting proudly in the sun. The sky was quite clear, but a few clouds hung around his summit. The night before, two climbers had attempted and reached the lower summit but had had to return due to illness. No-one had summitted for weeks, since this tun of bad weather, would it be us? I dared not guess. We said goodbye to Yan at Base Camp and then Ben, Liam, Christian, Pablo and I began the hike to High Camp at 5352meters. The weather and views were spectacular. We made it in around 2 hours (I think) and began setting up the tents in the snow. Ben and Liam shared a two man tent and I slept in the single man that Tiso had supplied. It's a great wee tent and survived what was to be a wild night.
It was blustery whilst setting up but once you put the pegs down horizontally and pack the snow on top, it holds pretty well. Once the snow is packed, it freezes to ice in about 30 minutes at -10 degrees Celsius, after that the guy lines and pegs are very secure. Then you pile snow around the tent to stop any gusts blowing from underneath. It was about 1700 by the time we'd eaten and were chilling. I got up to watch the sun set at 1800 and it was breath-taking.
Clouds had raced in and were being blown in every direction as the winds above Chimborazo bounced off each other and the heat of the day withdrew. Weather fronts clashed which made for intense beauty. As much as I enjoyed the sight, it filled me with dread once more. I retreated to my tent as the gusts began to strengthen.
We were due to wake up at 2230 and leave at 2330 to make the summit by sunrise. By 2000 it was gale-force outside, suddenly quiet then suddenly a hail of snow and ice would smash against the tent wall. I was telling myself it always sounds worse against the tent but inside I was resigned to that fact that Chimborazo wasn't in the mood for us to ascend that night.
Let me tell you a story about Chimborazo and Tungurahua. According to the Quechua mountain people, Chimborazo and Tungurahua are lovers. Long ago, Chimborazo's neighbour Carihuairazo was the big man and he wanted Tungurahua, the smouldering beauty. Chimborazo fought him and smashed him, reducing him to a collection of jagged peaks and meaning that Chimborazo was the new undisputed, biggest mountain in Ecuador.
When we had ascended Tungurahua, she had tried to blow us off the ridge we were on. In my head, Chimborazo took this as an assault on his missus and he was out to get us. We hadn't asked her permission, we'd just trapsed up there. I'd asked Chimborazo and Pachamama for permission to climb Chimborazo before the northern attempt and he'd said no! As I lay in my tent beneath the Western Ridge, I thought "he obviously hasn't changed his mind this time."
I apologized to Chimborazo and Tungurahua from inside my tent and asked permission one last time. The weather continued with gusts from every direction and at about 22:20, I think I drifted off. I awoke 10 minutes later and was surprised by the silence. The wind had died.
The guides were up, "let's get ready". "We're going?" I could hear the surprise in Ben's voice. We eagerly kitted up. I geared up and was ready in what seemed like a flash, this was it! Liam had suffered through the night and was struggling with the altitude, making tying his boot laces quite a task. Despite this, we got ourselves together and set off. I was roped to Christian, Ben and Liam were with Pablo.
The first section took us above some major death slides to our right. We were walking across a narrow icy edge just underneath a rocky wall to our left. We dared not look down the slope. It was too dark to see the bottom anyway. The wind picked up immediately as we rounded the rock wall and we struggled into it for the rest of the climb as it froze the right-hand side of our faces. We laboured up, one crampon in front of the other.
After two hours we reached a section that had to be climbed. It was permafrost ash from what I could tell. One at a time we made the ascent, ice axe in one hand, one hand free, and crampons finding their mark in the hardened dirt. It was exposed but it was an easy climb.
Above the climb was the glacier.
This was avalanche territory. Every step forward was a step into the death zone should the snow choose to shift. 6 climbers were killed on this slope in 2019 and in the back of my mind I went through the horrendous situation of explaining to my folks and Jo if Ben was to die on the mountain.
I prayed if it had to be anyone, it was to be Liam. JOKING of course!! I prayed it was to be me. The packed ice and snow beneath our feet felt great though, hard and crispy. The conditions underfoot were perfect, now if only this freezing wind would just f*** off. In these situations, you need to let the odd swear word out (mum). It was a real nuisance, and I was beginning to become aware that my right eye vision was badly reduced.
Step by step... My numb hands found a thicker set of gloves I'd purchased in Riobamba, they were a godsend. The Berghaus ones were great but like the boots, I hadn't chosen high altitude equipment in order to save space. That wasn't the case with our Berghaus, down and windproof jackets and mountain trousers which are the best pieces of kit for mountain tops I've ever owned. We were bright red and warm at our cores, the hoods big enough to engulf our heads and Grivel helmets.
My right foot which was tucked inside a thick set of Bridgedale socks but the Mescalito boot felt frozen solid. That was the boot that I'd left too close to the fire. My left was fine, but the wind and the damage was on the right side and I knew about it. I'd never had cold fingers and toes quite like it. The wind chill had frozen my beard and moustache solid, and my eye was still deteriorating.
Step by step... I looked at my watch and we only had 100meters altitude to go. 2 hours later I wish I hadn't looked. Of course, I had forgotten to calibrate the altitude at high camp so I couldn't make an accurate estimate. I could barely think to be honest, just trudge on. The look on Ben and Liam's faces told me they were in similar condition. The guides made avalanche checks in the snow and each time I winced, believing that they would opt to turn around. Each time we kept going.
Finally, it began to flatten off, had we done it? Nope, control yourself John, this is just the first summit, Pico Veintimilla. But I remembered the route description, "if you've made it to here, you've basically done it!" The worry now was how would the snow be on the other side of Vientimilla? Would the conditions be kind? We made a snow hole each at the top and ditched our heavy bags. Unfortunately, in my Deuter Rucksack was the Garmin Mini InReach 2. It was broadcasting our location to friends and family around the world who anxiously watched our GPS point blip its way up the mountain. We continued, the GPS did not.
We strode down the back side of Pico Veintemilla then began to ascend the final slope, it was gradual and with every step through the knee-deep snow I began to believe a little more. Step by step, upward... then the steps were horizontal, I looked around, there was no more up to go. The clouds beneath us were brilliant white and the sun peeped above them on the horizon. We had made it onto the main summit of Chimborazo 6256meters, bang on time for sunrise and what a sight it was.
To the east the sun was rising creating a golden glow on the clouds and to the west, in the direction we had come from, we could see the shadow of Chimborazo, a perfect pyramid on the hazy sky. We smiled through our exhaustion, I could barely speak, Liam could barely open his eyes.
Ben and I were both blind in our right eyes, seeing only blurred colours. We all shook hands and I managed to pull myself together enough to take an Insta360 recording, one of the promises I'd made to them in exchange for sponsorship. A sun rise from the place on Earth closest to the sun is about as unique as it gets, I'd say.
Ben popped a hip flask out and my initial reaction was no way! I couldn't stomach it, but then my Scottish blood took over and I realized that a whisky up here was a great idea. Especially out of a TrewScot kilty hip flask. We shared round the Jura, and it tasted wonderful, I felt the fire go all the way to my stomach. The wind still blew, and we were all freezing and so we took in one last look at the beautiful 360 panorama and then began to return from whence we came. Liam had smashed some meds and was put up front on the way back to the first peak. He quickly began to improve.
I was very glad I was recording the hike on my watch because at this point, I realized the GPS hadn't come to the summit with me. The watch was proof enough, but I'd have to explain to disappointed friends as soon as possible when we got down that we did actually make it. Their support throughout had been so great and I thought at that moment, everyone would be gutted for us, seeing the GPS turn round at the first, lower summit.
On the walk back between the two peaks we were all separated by about 50meters in case of avalanche. The slow trudge, the warmth of the sun and the moment of being alone caught up with me and I let out some emotion. I think I must have sobbed on and off for about 20 minutes. It was happiness and it was sadness as I reflected over the last two years. I didn't have a choice about it, it just happened.
As we approached the sheer glacier at the edge of Veintimilla I hardened up again. The descent is extremely dangerous, it's easier to miss your footing on the way down and none of us were exactly professionals at an ice axe arrest. The anxiety about one of us dying began to return. The further down we got, celebration started to creep into my mind, then I'd banish the thought and curse myself for jinxing anything. The most dangerous slopes were right before high camp, a guide had died falling there the year before. "Let's all keep composure right to the end!" It was good to see that Ben and Liam both had more energetic looks on their faces, the drop in altitude and the light of day was helping us all.
We passed the exposed climb, incident free and kept going. Liam even found his walking pole that he had dropped on the way up. Meter by meter we descended. "One more death slide to the left, oh no one more", round another corner, "ah one more... are the lads across? Good"... then finally the tents appeared in front.
We trudged down the last slope dropped the bags and congratulated each other again, we could finally relax fully, the danger was behind us. We had done it in about 9 hours, a decent effort considering we had been running on about 60% due to the dodgy sweetcorn we'd eaten two days before.
It took us about two hours to pack up camp, a job that normally would have taken 30 minutes. Then we painfully hiked back to basecamp dropping another 1000meters or so to where Yan was eagerly waiting to hear the news. He was delighted to hear that the mission was a success. We were now ready to follow the waterways and surely nothing could stand in our way! After all, we're watermen.
Yan had booked us a hotel in Riobamba whilst we were on the mountain and drove us straight there so we could relax and update the socials. The exhaustion had subsided as we realized how important the achievement had been. With the uncertainty beforehand, it had been an emotional roller coaster and the elation of having achieved our goal and having the expedition ahead of us was worthy of a beer. We had a few in town with a burger, listened to a brilliant karaoke singer with about 5 octaves to his vocal chords, then crashed out hard.
The Source to Rio Chimborazo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGshCOgr5B4
Source Walk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F51nGh-29o8&t=85s