Volcán Chimborazo

December 25-26, 2022


Ambato, Ecuador

Volcán Chimborazo is the highest peak in Ecuador and the “highest” peak on Earth if measured from the Earth’s center instead of the sea level. With over 4000 m prominence this is also the 17th most prominent peak in the world. Chimborazo is considered as one of the easier 6000 m objectives on Earth due to the lack of technical difficulty and the fact one could drive to as high as 4800 m. The high camp is well established and the peak is (legally required) to be climbed with a guide. The guides in Ecuador are legit as each of them has climbed this peak hundreds of times, so there isn’t much left for us foreign mountaineers to do beside simply putting one foot in front of another. The success rate on Chimborazo is rather low because the peak is often not in condition due to the fickle weather and the avalanche hazards on the upper route. The guiding companies in Ecuador require one to fix a particular date for a particular summit months ahead with no flexibility whatsoever, so the success on this peak is rather a gambling game. On a good day it sure is one of the easiest 6000 m peaks on Earth, but who knows if that can line up nicely to your day on the pre-planned calendar. Nonetheless Adam and I fixed our day to be on the 26th of December several months ahead.

Earlier in this trip we had climbed a bunch of peaks including Volcán Cayambe so we were acclimatized. Our plan was to climb Chimborazo in two days return from Quito and the company informed us that the pick-up time would be at 7 am in the morning. The guide didn’t come to Quito as he’s based in Riobamba and we were told later that the guide would meet us at the park’s entrance. Our driver, Marquito turned out to be also our private driver for the 3 days after Chimborazo’s climb so we got to spend some time with him. Marquito speaks very minimal English so this was a good oppourtunity for us to practice some Spanish. We made one mistake to not bring our own lunch as this was on Navidad day (Christmas) and most of the restaurants were closed. After driving back and forth past Ambato we had to settle on some street food that might or might not be safe. The weather forecast for our summit day was rather shitty so I honestly thought we’d be failing anyway, so I didn’t mind to take that extra bits of risks with the street food. Marquito then drove us around the NW and W sides of Chimborazo to the entrance gate on the south side, over 5 hours after leaving Quito. The weather was a complete white-out. The guide, Raul showed up about 20 minutes later and informed us to drive separately to the trail-head Refugio at 4800 m. We then spent the next hour packing and repacking. Adam and I decided to pay 70 extra dollars for the one-way porter service to lighten our loads on the approach day. The porter was capable to carry 60 lb of equipment so we didn’t need to carry much beside the very basic stuffs.

A cat at the street food place. Too many restaurants were closed
Volcán Chimborazo standard route. GPX DL

The gearing-up process was done entirely inside the Refugio but the comfort couldn’t last forever. As soon as we stepped out of the Refugio we noticed the light drizzle in the air. Thankfully the weather never actually collapsed on us and the precipitation stayed in the very light form. Raul, Adam and I decided to take our time. It was Adam who actually went ahead to set the pace and I was happy to follow behind, as I’m not usually good at pacing this kind of approach hikes. This trail on this mountain was in some good shapes and the entire setting felt more “civilized” than on Cayambe or Iliniza. This is understandable as Chimborazo sees a lot more visitors. We encountered snow on the final stretch leading to the high camp at 5300 m but crampons and ice axe weren’t needed. We actually gave those gears to the porter to carry. By the time we unloaded our shits into the gigantic dome-shaped tent we realized that we were actually the first group of clients here. I thought 1:30 pm was already a “late start” but it seemed like everyone else opted to start even later. Over the next few hours a few more groups arrived and we together had a luxurious dinner and then went to bed. Just like on the other Ecuadorian mountains there’s a chef at the high camp to cook for us and there’s definitely more than enough meal for everybody. Digesting food at this altitude was actually quite difficult so I didn’t force in as much as I normally would. To sleep at this altitude was also difficult, if not impossible. It’s been a few days since our previous 5000 m peak climb so I did think we had already started losing some of the acclimatization. Raul informed us to get up at 11 pm to be ready to start climbing at midnight, so I just laid several hours on bed.

Adam slowly packing up inside the almost-empty Refugio
Adam leading the way on the approach trail. Slowly but steadily
Raul ascending the final snow-covered slope under the high camp
Me coming out of the dorm tent to stretch out the legs
The clouds parted and we could see something.
The route where we came up from was visible for a brief moment
The upper route was also visible. It looked to be in prime shape.
The awesome dinner we had at high camp, though digesting was difficult…

I thought the midnight departure time was too ridiculously early for faster climbers like us and I was absolutely correct. Unfortunately this was our first climb with Raul so he wouldn’t know our ability. Adam and I were also very efficient in the transitions so we turned out to be the first group heading up even though several groups all “woke up” at around the same time. The lower route on Chimborazo was rather unpleasant. Raul made us to don crampons and rope up from the high camp but the first hour would be entirely on rock (class 2+) with hardly any patch of snow to traverse across. Wearing crampons and being short-roped on such terrain felt definitely weird, but I couldn’t care much about how we chose to climb this mountain as long as we could make the summit, so whatever. Having Raul leading in front did eliminate the route-finding for us and that’s definitely beneficial. For a long time we were traversing under some vertical or overhanging cliffs on narrow trails. There’s also one or two interesting scrambling steps with one being particularly technical (class 4). We also encountered a chute of ice and opted to front-point straight up the middle and that needed a couple ice-climbing moves. On the descent we learnt it’s possible to bypass this chute completely.

Adam strapping the crampons on at midnight.
We were about to leave the high camp
The next group caught up to us just under that icy chute section
Raul checking his phone probably to check where exactly we were…

The transition from rock to glacier wasn’t obvious in the dark but I did notice that we gradually ascended onto some never-ending snow fields which indicated we might have already ascended onto the glacier. Raul led us bypassing a particularly steep portion of the glacier by ascending climber’s left side into a bowl. The steepness of our route still reached 40 degrees and we had one or two crevasses to step-across. At some point we picked up a fainter set of diagonal trail and traversed back to the “main track”. The rest of the ascent onto the false summit from this point onward was an extremely foreshortened grunt at sustained 35+ degrees. I could totally see why this peak shouldn’t be climbed if there’s a shit ton of recent snowfall as the entire glacier is on avalanche terrain. The condition for us was however, excellent and the weather was completely opposite as forecasted. Instead of having a blizzard with 10-20 cm of snow we had pleasant temperatures and starry skies. This trip proved once again that the weather models us North American climbers use are nothing but garbage for the peaks in this country. If I want to have an accurate forecast on the next trip (if I ever end up coming back to Ecuador) I would prefer to hire a professional meteorologist.

While slogging up the never-ending switchbacks on the upper slopes I estimated that we would be summitting at 3:30 am and 3 hours before sunrise on the current pace and would be descending most, if not the entire glacier in the dark. I thought that’s rather dumb so on-purposely dragged the team behind acting as if I was exhausted. In fact I could have sped up even faster but I chose to climb at half of my maximum possible pace. I was overall still hoping to see something from the tallest peak in Ecuador. After a while Raul realized what I was trying to do so he’s also slowing down quite a bit, to the point that the next teams were slowly catching up from behind. The winds unfortunately picked up drastically as we ascended into the 6000 m range, that even with all layers on we were still shivering. This meant we had to pick up the speed again in order to prioritize summitting. While traversing across the flats between the false and the true summits the next team (Marshall and Alex from California and their guide) passed us and meanwhile I donned balaclava and ski goggles. Nobody else had brought those gears so they suffered even more. Our guide, Raul was so cold that Adam had to lend him one extra layer of jacket. To reach the true summit we still had over 50 m of elevation gain but at this point all we needed was a bit more perseverance. The 5 of us reached the summit at 4:30 am together but with 2 hours to sunrise and the cold winds we must forget about the views and descend immediately.

Raul nearing the false summit now.
The next group starting the final 50 m grunt onto the true summit
Adam and I reached the summit of Volcán Chimborazo at 4:30 am…
Our group shot on the summit of Volcán Chimborazo

The plod back across the flats and the elevation regain back to the false summit was definitely frustrating and tiring but after that we had no more uphill to content with. Descending the glacier still required lots of careful footwork as slipping on such steep slopes would be difficult, if not impossible to arrest. There wasn’t much in the way of soft or fresh snow for us to plunge-step so we had to carefully walk down the uptrack, step by step. Lower down around that particularly steep zone with several crevasses we caught up to the Californian team and passed them below the snow-to-rock transition. The descent of the snow-free portion of this route still with crampons and rope was unpleasant, but whatever…

Already at least 100 m down from the false summit now
Marshall and Alex’s group way down there descending
Marshall and Alex taking a short break
Our guide, Raul
The monotonous glacial descent…
This is the spot where we went for Raul’s way to bypass a steep portion
The other route goes up the opposite side of this serac zone
The other group continuing their descent past the crevasses in foreground
Looking back at the seracs that we bypassed
The only view we had on Chimborazo was from the descent
Note the high clouds rolling in and the low clouds creeping up…
The other team down-climbing that crux 4th class step
Adam finishing the 4th class down-climb
The seracs on the lower part of Chimborazo’s glacier were impressive
Picking up the trails
A review shot of the west ridge of Volcán Chimborazo
We would descend a trail traversing underneath the cliffs all the way down
Almost back to the high camp now

The first thing after getting back to the high camp was to show up in the kitchen and have a massive breakfast. I hadn’t eaten much at all during the climb and I was very hungry. I ended up eating two people’s worth of food and I was still hungry. We then went back into the dorm tent and packed the shits together. The porter had unfortunately left the duffle bag inside the tent but I volunteered to carry that down as it could only fit inside my monstrous 105 L backpack. The pack weight was actually not that ridiculous as we had little food nor water to carry. The descent would only take at most 1 hour and we planned to shoot straight down to the Refugio without stopping. Indeed, our next break was inside the Refugio. Raul told us that Marquito would come to pick us up but the waiting time turned out to be over 2 hours. Even the Californian team ended up departing earlier than us. I think Marquito wasn’t expecting us to finish the climb and the descent that early but whatever. At least the waiting game was inside the Refugio so it wasn’t unpleasant. Raul opted to ride with us back to Quito area as his next group of clients would start somewhere from there. En route we decided to have a massive cuy (guinea pig) lunch in Ambato to celebrate the success. The cuy was awesome, but a bit too expensive for our like so that turned out to be the only cuy meal we had in this trip. That afternoon the weather had completely collapsed and the Quito area got a significant dump of precipitation.

More teams coming down. Pretty much all parties summitted on this day.
Back to the kitchen to eat as much food as we humanly could…
Adam starting the descent under the high camp now
A glimpse of view of Chimborazo through the mist
Almost back to the Refugio now
The fantastic but expensive Cuy lunch in Ambato
Fresh made coco water!