Sea to summit on Chimborazo, part 2: Carihuairazo and the circumnavigation

This is part 2 in a series of posts about our Chimborazo sea to summit adventure. See here for part 1 and part 3.

Note: If you’re expecting this to be a deeply personal post about an operation to a tender part of my anatomy then please read the title more carefully.*

(*) Circumnavigation, not circumcision.

When I left you a couple of weeks ago, we had just finished the bike ride, from Guayaquil on the coast to Urbina on the western side of 6310m Chimborazo, Ecuador’s highest mountain. I still had the shits, but my nausea was improving. This is the follow up to that post, documenting the second part of our sea to summit.

We had already cycled around the south side of Chimborazo (or Edita had – I cheated by getting into the support vehicle for part of that journey). The next stage was to complete the full circuit of Chimborazo by trekking around the northern side to Carrel Hut on the west side, the launchpad for climbs of Chimborazo. Just for good measure, we planned to pop up an extra peak, 5020m Carihuairazo, on the way.

We planned to pop up this peak, Carihuairazo (5020m)
We planned to pop up this peak, Carihuairazo (5020m)

After Pablo left us at Urbina, we had 24 hours to relax and recover from our exertions.

We could hardly have been left at a more characterful place. The Posada la Estacion is a rustic lodge opposite the old railway station at Urbina. The rooms are named after mountains (ours was Antisana) and the walls are hung with old prints by Edward Whymper, who came to Ecuador in 1880 and made first ascents of many of its mountains.

If the lodge had plenty of character, so did its owner, 61-year-old Rodrigo Donoso, who would also be our guide for the circumnavigation. He still held the record for a Chimborazo circuit of his own: a ridiculous 14 hours. I never found out how recently he set this record, but it was partially explained when he revealed that he was a cousin of Karl Egloff, the Swiss-Ecuadorian speed climber, who holds a number of speed records, including running up and down Kilimanjaro in 6 hours 42 minutes. Rodrigo still seemed to have the energy of a 20-year-old, both in speech and activity. If I have half that energy when I reach his age I will be a happy man.

There was an unexpected bonus the following day, when Javier Herrera arrived in our support vehicle for the trek, bringing an extra guide, Marco Castillo, with him. Javier, owner of the company Andeanface, arranged all the logistics for our sea to summit journey. Our request to circle the mountain and climb Carihuairazo on the way was somewhat exploratory. Javier felt it could also be sold as a commercial trip, so he brought Marco with him. Marco, a UIAGM-certified mountain guide, would be leading the trips and needed to learn the route from Rodrigo.

I was a little alarmed when Rodrigo started walking along the railway line
I was a little alarmed when Rodrigo started walking along the railway line

Our party of four left after lunch on our second day in Urbina, with Javier supporting in the vehicle. I was slightly alarmed when Rodrigo started the hike by mounting an embankment and turning left along the train tracks.

‘Er… You’ve checked the timetable,’ I asked.

‘There are about two trains a week.’

Thankfully neither of them trundled past during the next twenty minutes, but I was relieved when we stepped off the tracks and joined a dirt road through farm land. We encountered more traffic on this section, but at least it was traffic better equipped to avoid us than a train.

It was a beautiful afternoon, and the scene was idyllic as the western sun shone like a searchlight over the summit dome of Chimborazo. Ahead of us, Carihuairazo was a more complex mountain of three summits joined by ridges. I was expecting it to be a rocky scramble, but there was snow all over its southern aspect. The left-hand summit that we were intending to climb even had a small glacier.

After an hour or so of dusty farm track we rose above the farmland into the páramo, the high-altitude grasslands of the Andes. It was a peaceful setting, an emerald landscape made all the more pleasant by the occasional pond shining like a mirror against the clear sky.

Urkuhuasi was a thatched cottage on a small hill underneath the east side of Chimborazo
Urkuhuasi was a thatched cottage on a small hill underneath the east side of Chimborazo

Our accommodation that evening was Urkuhuasi, Rodrigo’s second home, a thatched cottage sitting on the top of a small hill. There wasn’t another house for miles and there can’t be many places that command such a 360° panorama. Chimborazo and Carihuairazo were right there in front of us to the west and north, respectively. To the east the smoking volcanoes of Tungurahua and Sangay provided some mid-ground before the world dropped away to the Amazon rainforest.

We left at 9 o’clock the following morning. The next six hours were the best day’s trekking I had ever experienced in Ecuador, across the wide open grasslands of the páramo as we circled Chimborazo anticlockwise. The mountain changed shape as we walked. At one point there were as many as four summits visible (Martinez, Politecnica, Norte and Veintimilla), but by the end there were just two (Whymper and Veintimilla).

Rodrigo and Edita talked incessantly. Rodrigo’s conversation included indigenous people, plants, animal behaviour, vicuña excrement, and other stories from his 28 years of working in the mountains. It was fascinating stuff, and there was lots of interesting information, but it was all too much for me. At one point I calculated that they talked without a break for 2 hours 40 minutes. It was starting to make Karl Egloff’s records seem mundane. I had to drop back to enjoy the landscape in solitude, but they misunderstood the reason and kept stopping to wait for me.

Rodrigo and Edita quite like talking
Rodrigo and Edita quite like talking

We stopped frequently beside peaceful lakes, and generally took things easy. We passed through pastures where llamas were grazing, crested a rise and turned away from Carihuairazo, which had been our constant companion all day. We followed a dusty dirt track and reached Mechahuasca Hut, on the north side of Chimborazo, at 3.30.

Mechahuasca was the most basic of the huts we had stayed in, with six stone rooms, each containing one or two bunk beds, and a shared kitchen-cum-dining room. If you’ve read this blog before then you may know that I have a profound dislike of early starts. At dinner we had a robust discussion about our start time to climb Carihuairazo, which Marco inevitably won as our UIAGM guide. Then we went to bed early so that we could get up again at stupid o’clock.

My alarm woke me at 2am. I didn’t sleep much, but I’m used to these early starts now. You just get up and get on with it.

‘How are you feeling?’ Javier asked me at breakfast.

‘Tired and grumpy,’ I replied. ‘But don’t worry, that’s normal.’

Arriving at Mechahuasca Hut, on the north side of Chimborazo
Arriving at Mechahuasca Hut, on the north side of Chimborazo

Despite trying hard to look miserable, in the forlorn hope of making our guides feel guilty about the early start, I was actually feeling much better, and had no trouble getting down coffee and granola. I had been struggling with my appetite ever since eating a dodgy pizza in Guaranda five days earlier. Had I finally recovered? I very much hoped so.

To reach the foot of Carihuairazo, we had to return up the dusty road we walked down the previous afternoon. Javier and Marco decided to take the jeep up the first section, but unlike me Edita hadn’t been in a vehicle since we left Guayaquil. She wanted to walk up, and I agreed to join her.

We set off with Rodrigo at 3am and walked briskly for 45 minutes, until we reached the place where Javier and Marco had parked the vehicle. To the right the land dropped away in the direction we came from yesterday, while to the left it sloped gently upwards towards Carihuairazo. At least that’s what it did when we passed that way the day before. This morning we could see nothing.

It took us ten minutes to sort out our climbing gear and put on our mountaineering boots, and at 4am Marco led us into the páramo. Quite why he was leading was unclear. We could see nothing in the darkness, and Marco was there to learn the route from Rodrigo, who was the one who knew it best. Ours was not to question but to follow, so I said nothing, trusting that our guides knew best.

Crossing a bleak plateau beneath Carihuairazo, with Pointless Peak behind
Crossing a bleak plateau beneath Carihuairazo, with Pointless Peak behind

But as we passed through beds of tufted grass and loricaria, following no clear trail, Edita was not so sure. She had her phone out and was checking the GPS. After a few minutes she called a halt.

‘Hey Marco, do you know about the app?’

The guides gathered round as she gave them a demonstration of some free mapping software she had downloaded in Quito. The map was very basic, but we knew from experience that the trails were accurate. The app showed that we were walking between two trails that eventually met. The one on the left was closest, so Marco agreed to angle towards it. But we all assumed that as long as we stayed in the middle, we would eventually meet one or other of the trails.

More fool us. For the next hour Marco led onwards, stopping from time to time to consult Edita’s app. At 5am we started climbing more steeply, until we found ourselves traversing along the side of a very steep ridge. The trail must have been somewhere far below us, and I couldn’t help thinking that we were lost. We stopped, and Marco scrambled along the ridge to see if he could find a way down. The rest of us waited, and to help maintain morale I made jovial comments to Javier about things being easier when it’s light.

Edita among the snow and mist of Carihuairazo
Edita among the snow and mist of Carihuairazo

Marco returned, and we decided to climb directly downwards. About 50m below us there was a clear trail, and all was well. Daylight was breaking, and suddenly Rodrigo recognised where we were. I reckoned that we had only lost half an hour, and there was no harm done, except perhaps a few bruised egos for our guides. This was mainly because I kept winding them up about it.

I composed some jokes and shouted them out as we walked along.

‘And then at first light, just as we had abandoned all hope, our three guides find the trail with the help of Edita’s app.’

Much to my surprise, nobody laughed.

It was only much later in the day that we discovered that a mini peak stands in front of Carihuairazo. There was absolutely no point in climbing it, and obviously the two trails on Edita’s app went either side of it. By going straight up the middle we were actually taking the worst possible route.

Anyway, the sun rose quickly and we continued to a col. We walked across a barren, rocky plateau. The face of Carihuairazo rose forbiddingly into mist above us, black rock laced with snow. We reached the snowline and began climbing. It gradually became steeper. We reached a patch of rocky moraine, and Marco decided it was time to put on crampons and rope up. Edita and I joined his rope, while Javier and Rodrigo climbed behind us on a second one.

Marco beneath the summit ice cauliflowers
Marco beneath the summit ice cauliflowers

Now that we were on snow and actually climbing, Marco came into his own as the guide. This was what he’s good at. We were a little quicker than Javier and Rodrigo, and moved quickly in zigzags. I seemed to have completely recovered from my illness. Either that or I found climbing much easier than riding a bike.

Marco headed up a gully with a rock tower to our right. It was much steeper, but at the top we turned right above the rock tower and reached the projecting spur of a ridge. I looked to the left and there appeared to be nothing above the high point on the ridge, about 50m to our left.

‘Is that the summit?’

Marco nodded. It was 8am and it seemed to have taken us next to no time to get there.

But there was a catch. The summit was laced with weird ice formations in the shape of cauliflowers. As we walked along a rocky ridge towards it we realised there was a gap in the ridge that had been filled with the same funny cauliflowers. The ice was soft and delicate, and fell away easily to the touch.

Marco climbed down into the gap to see if there was a way across. There was if we were careful, but the last 5m onto the summit would be very hazardous. Marco estimated that it would take time, perhaps as long as an hour, for him to clean it by knocking away the soft ice formations. We didn’t have time. The sun was rising and soon the ice would start melting. Despite my joking about the start time, it had been a good call to leave early because we had climbed a face rather than a ridge. When the ice started melting there would be a risk of rockfall. We would have to leave those last five metres for another time.

Javier, Marco, Edita and Rodrigo beneath the summit of Carihuairazo, with Chimborazo floating above the clouds
Javier, Marco, Edita and Rodrigo beneath the summit of Carihuairazo, with Chimborazo floating above the clouds

We stepped down onto a small snow basin just below the summit to eat snacks. At that moment a tiny gap appeared in the cloud, and four summits of Chimborazo were right there, just 1000m above us and framed in grey. We were there at precisely the right time. We took photos, the clouds closed, and soon we could see bugger all again.

We descended quickly. Marco set up a sling to protect us as we climbed down the steep gully one by one, but after that things were straightforward.

Back on the páramo, the day took a bizarre turn as we tried to locate our vehicle. What seemed like straightforward terrain from a distance, was in fact a series of gentle hillsides teeming with all the plants of the páramo – thick paja grass, cojines cushion plants, chuquiragua, and the juniper-like loricaria, known as the palm of the páramo. Somewhere among those gentle folds of green our vehicle nestled, but we hadn’t taken a waypoint to mark it, and we couldn’t get high enough to see where it was.

We zigzagged from left to right, up and over hillsides, but still we couldn’t see it. It was as if the car were parked in the centre of a vortex, and we were being tossed in spirals around it without getting any closer. I kept expecting to crest a rise and stumble upon the Tardis.

We split up, and when I eventually found the car, Rodrigo and Marco were already there and lying on the grass. Edita and Javier weren’t far behind me. We had a dusty walk back to Mechahuasca Hut and arrived around midday. I was pleased to discover that my appetite had finally returned after five days, as I wolfed down a big lunch.

Edita gazes up at Chimborazo during the traverse between Mechahuasca and Carrel Huts
Edita gazes up at Chimborazo during the traverse between Mechahuasca and Carrel Huts

Javier and Marco kept suggesting that we should leave at 6am for our trek the following day. I assumed they were trying to wind me up after yesterday’s discussion about start time. But they were serious. We had another seven hour trek ahead of us, and then they had to drive back to Quito. They were keen to get the walk over as early as possible. We agreed to their demands, and slept the rest of the afternoon before taking an early dinner.

The final part of our circumnavigation was spoiled by Reinhold Messner, though he didn’t know it. We got up in the dark at 5am. At breakfast Rodrigo mentioned that Messner held the record for the walk from Mechahuasca Hut to Carrel Hut, clocking in at 4½ hours. He knew this because Messner stayed at his place in Urbina while he was conducting research into the Ice Man of Chimborazo, who harvests ice from a glacier on the south side of the mountain and sells it in Riobamba.

We started walking at 6.30, contouring round the mountain on a grassy four-wheel drive track. We knew the others had far to go today, so Edita and I started briskly. At some point during the morning – I don’t know when – it became clear that Rodrigo decided that we should have a crack at Messner’s record.

He turned up a narrow trail to the left and took over the lead up a dusty hillside through thickets of paja grass. He pulled away as we crossed ridge after ridge. We followed his footprints in the sand, gradually ascending. He glided up the slopes like a vicuña. Nobody could keep up with him, and he paused only briefly at the top of each ridge until we saw him, then he glided on.

Rodrigo glided across the slopes like the vicuñas on the hillside behind him, and I didn't have a hope of keeping up with him (Photo: Edita Nichols)
Rodrigo glided across the slopes like the vicuñas on the hillside behind him, and I didn’t have a hope of keeping up with him (Photo: Edita Nichols)

The land became increasingly barren. The paja grass thinned out, but the desert sands remained fertile with waist-high loricaria bushes extending their tentacles into the air. Eventually the land became completely dry, just desert and rocks, and the occasional chuquiragua bush with its flame-orange flowers.

I started to drop behind Edita too, and struggled to see either her or Rodrigo as I crossed each ridge. But I started to recognise the topography of the mountain, so wasn’t concerned about getting lost. I was keen to follow the quickest route, though. Only Rodrigo knew this, and as the end became closer he showed no intention of stopping to wait.

I recognised the ridge that we came down after our ascent two years ago. I knew that beyond the ridge it was only a short walk across a plain to Carrel Hut. I had no wish to hurry, and plodded along at my own slow pace. They were all in an ungodly rush to reach the hut and beat Messner’s record (I think they equalled it), but I had a different agenda. It was a rest day for me, and I didn’t want to overexert. I’m not here very often, and I wanted to enjoy the experience of being in the mountains.

I hadn’t a hope of keeping up with them, so I stopped trying. I took off my pack and sat down on a rock as I watched all three of them turn a corner and disappear behind a ridge. It was a lovely spot, and I decided to have my lunch. Time seemed to stand still, and all of life’s troubles were forgotten. By the time I had finished eating and relaxed my mind as I soaked up the experience, 45 minutes had passed.

Cycling up to Chimborazo from sea level and circumnavigating it was too easy for Edita, so she ran back down to the park gate as well (Photo: Edita Nichols)
Cycling up to Chimborazo from sea level and circumnavigating it was too easy for Edita, so she ran back down to the park gate as well (Photo: Edita Nichols)

I walked slowly up a gully and across a couple of stony platforms. The route was easy to follow. Soon I saw Marco coming the other way. He had been sent back to find me. As soon as he saw me, a smile of relief (or was it amusement) crossed his face. They were worried about me, but I was in no danger.

The others were waiting in the main car park for Carrel Hut. Edita and Rodrigo were preparing to run down to the park gate. For Edita it was a chance to complete the circle by returning to the gate she cycled past six days ago. I could understand, but to run it seemed a little gratuitous to me. Why not walk? Our challenge was hard enough without a run at 4800m along a dusty road.

I had my last sandwich and discussed summit routes with Javier. He said the mountain was much drier than it had been two weeks ago, and the Whymper Route, which we were hoping to climb, was going to be harder. But I wasn’t concerned. We had another rest day to come, and five more days to climb the mountain. We had been there before and reached the summit, and I was feeling much better now.

With the bike ride and circumnavigation done, it was time for the climb. It felt like things were going to be fine.

Don’t miss part 3 of this report, the climb.

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