Humboldt and Boussingault on Chimborazo: how high did they climb?

Work on my book about Chimborazo (and our cycling and climbing adventures in Ecuador) continues apace. I have now received all my feedback from beta readers and am working on the 4th draft, which involves more cuts and changes as I make edits to the flow and tone of voice.

Writing a book involves a lot of butchery. With Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest I wrote 180,000 words initially, then ruthlessly chopped it down to 117,000 for the final version. My first draft of Chimborazo had 140,000 words. The current version has only 105,000.

What to do about all those words I spent so much time lovingly crafting? Some of it was crap, and deserves to vanish for all time. Some, such as the historical stuff, isn’t quite right for the book, but is still worth keeping.

Luckily I have the blog. The following passage, about two famous early attempts to climb Chimborazo, is too wordy and earnest for a humorous travelogue about a journey across Ecuador. But it still contains interesting mountain history that some of you might appreciate. I don’t want to throw it away completely, so here it is. I hope you enjoy it, and don’t forget to keep an eye out for the book when I publish it later this year.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland at the Foot of Volcan Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland at the Foot of Volcan Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

When he made the first proper attempt to climb Chimborazo in 1802, the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt may have thought he was climbing the highest mountain on Earth. It was certainly the highest mountain that had been measured to a reasonable degree of accuracy.

In his lifetime, Humboldt was one of the most famous explorers in the world – the Sir Ranulph Fiennes of his time, if you like, only (and I mean no disrespect to Sir Ran) Humboldt was a little bit cleverer. He was also one of the most celebrated scientists of his time. His reputation as an explorer was almost entirely due to one great expedition to Latin America, which embraced five years of his life from 1799 to 1804. His reputation as a scientist, however, spanned a lifetime.

By the time he made his attempt on Chimborazo, Humboldt had already climbed several volcanoes. He climbed the first, 3,718m Pico del Teide on Tenerife, during the voyage out to South America. In Ecuador, he made a fairly lame attempt on Cotopaxi, but he climbed Pichincha three times in April and May 1802. Guagua Pichincha, the highest of Pichincha’s three summits, was still bubbling away then, although there hadn’t been a major eruption since 1660. Humboldt lay on a rock and peered over the edge of the crater, where he saw bluish flames and nearly choked on the sulphur fumes. His description evoked scenes from the underworld.

‘No imagination would be able to conjure up something as sinister, mournful and deathly as we saw there,’ he wrote.

Clearly he had never been to Scotland when he wrote this, or he would have known about bagpipes.

How high Humboldt and his two companions Aimé Bonpland and Carlos Montúfar climbed on Chimborazo has been the subject of much debate. The account that Humboldt published many years later is confusing and contradictory. It’s fairly certain that they didn’t climb to 5,878m, as Humboldt claimed. If they did, then they would have been surrounded by glaciers, and would have been climbing one for quite some distance.

He described ascending a knife-edge ridge in fog. It was composed of weathered, crumbly rock, and was eight to ten inches wide in places. To the left was a 30º snow slope, and to the right was a 300m abyss. There were some short sections of scrambling where they needed to use their hands.

Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

The ridge became less steep, the fog cleared and suddenly they could see the dome-shaped summit of Chimborazo. It looked very close, and the sight of it spurred them on. The ridge was sandy and ‘only spotted with a thin layer of snow here and there’.

They arrived at a 120m ravine that proved an insurmountable barrier. It was one o’clock in the afternoon. Humboldt described the place as a ‘sad wasteland’ that soon became wrapped in fog once again. They took their measurements and headed back down.

According to Humboldt, they were back at the place where they had left their mules (at an altitude of 4,100m) barely an hour later. Had they reached 5,878m, as Humboldt claimed, then it was a descent that any swooping peregrine falcon might have been proud of.

Although he almost certainly got some measurements wrong, for many years his account remained unchallenged. His errors included unpacking a barometer on a glacier-free ridge and measuring an altitude of 5,273m. Their route has since been identified as a ridge on the southern side where, even today, after two more centuries of erosion, the glacier is known to extend down to 4,800m.

His description of altitude symptoms is also puzzling. Dizziness and ‘the urge to vomit’ are perfectly common altitude symptoms, but fewer mountaineers will have shared the bleeding from the lips, gums and eyes that he described, unless they’ve been in a high-altitude fist fight.

The next two people to make an attempt to climb Chimborazo were Jean-Baptiste Boussingault and Colonel Hall in 1831. Boussingault claimed to reach 6,004m. His account contained a little more detail than Humboldt’s, and his description is even vaguely recognisable, but still some claims seem far-fetched.

Edward Whymper's engraving of the west side of Chimborazo. Whymper was baffled by Humboldt's and Boussingault's descriptions of their climbs. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)
Edward Whymper’s engraving of the west side of Chimborazo. Whymper was baffled by Humboldt’s and Boussingault’s descriptions of their climbs. (Picture: Wikimedia Commons)

Starting from a farm on the east side, they traversed to the south side, looking for the same route that Humboldt had used. They crossed the snowline and were able to go all the way up to 4,945m on mule back. At 10.45, they got off and started climbing.

They crossed a rocky gully to gain a ridge. They were having difficulty breathing, and could only advance six to eight steps at a time, yet they used these rest stops to ‘collect geological specimens’ (i.e. pick up rocks and carry them).

At 11.45 they started cutting steps up a dangerous ice field. By 12.45 they had reached 5,680m and arrived at a wall of rock several hundred metres in height. The next part of the climb was a tricky one, and Boussingault had to send his ‘negro’ up first to ‘try the state of the snow’ (did I mention that he had a negro?) The snow was three or four inches deep with a hard surface of ice. To the right was a rock face, and to the the left ‘the declivity was frightful’ (which is another way of saying there was quite a steep drop).

They were now having to stop for a breather every two or three steps, sometimes lying down. Despite this, they made good time. At 1.45 they reached their high point, on an outcrop of rock among snow. According to Boussingault ‘on all sides we were surrounded by precipices’. This traditionally means you are standing on a summit, but clearly they weren’t.

He claimed they were at 6,004m and described the terrain above them as ‘a prism of trachyte, whose top covered with a cupola of snow, forms the summit of Chimborazo’.

They left the summit at three o’clock. The sky had been clear while they took observations at their high point, but a storm overtook them on the way down. They heard thunder beneath them. First sleet, then hailstones fell. Night overtook them, but they managed to find their way back to the farm by eight o’clock, after a thirteen-hour day.

Impressive stuff. Too impressive, as it turns out.

When he made the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880, Edward Whymper was baffled by Humboldt and Boussingault’s descriptions of their climbs. Among many puzzled questions, he had this to say.

There were matters in their relations that I did not understand; particularly, the divine speed with which they descended.
Edward Whymper, Travels Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator

He didn’t believe them, but when he first read their accounts he assumed that they had simply misread the time. It wasn’t until he visited Chimborazo himself that he realised that both of them must have made some monumental cock-ups with their altitude readings.

Whymper expressed dismay that Humboldt, a scientist, had provided no course or bearings to identify his location, and that it was impossible to tell where he actually went. In Boussingault’s case he observed drily that ‘Boussingault says the descent was wearisome. It seems, however, to have been lively.’

Whymper went on to calculate their various climb rates in feet per minute, which he goes on to describe as ‘a divine rate for men encumbered with mercurial barometers, and laden with geological collections’.

We will never know for sure how high Humboldt and Boussingault climbed, but Whymper analysed their climbs in detail after visiting the south side of Chimborazo. He concluded that both men reached roughly the same height, at the ‘foot of the Southern Walls’ at around 5,600m.

In Boussingault’s case, he deduced that he must have followed the same valley as he and the Carrels by the fact that it was the only valley where it would have been possible to take mules to 4,935m. The ridge that he climbed was therefore the south-west ridge. This is consistent with Boussingault’s description of a traverse with cliffs to the right and a precipice to the left. It would also match his description of a cupola of snow, which is what the summit looks like from that side, crowning the Southern Walls.

But it’s likely that Humboldt didn’t get so high. Unlike Boussingault, he did not describe walking up ice for so long, and there is nowhere on the south-west ridge that matches the 120m gap that caused him to turn back. It’s now believed that he took a more southerly route.

However high they climbed, there is no longer any disputing that the first person to reach the true summit of Chimborazo was Whymper himself, with Jean-Antoine and Louis Carrel, on the 4 January, 1880.

Sources

Boussingault, Jean-Baptiste. Ascent of Chimborazo in Thomson, Robert. Records of General Science. Vol. II, London: John Taylor, 1835.

Humboldt, Alexander von. Translated by Vera M. Kutzinski. About an attempt to climb to the top of Chimborazo. Atlantic Studies: Global Currents, Vol. 7:2, 191-211, 2010.

Whymper, Edward. Scrambles Amongst the Great Andes of the Equator. London: John Murray, 1892.

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