Â Â Â Â With the help of a policeman at the tollbooth on the Panamericana, we were able to get on a bus headed to Rio Bamba within 10 minutes. Unfortunately, all the seats were occupied and I had to sit in the aisle suffering through the exhaustion that was catching up with me.Â Â I hadnÂ´t slept since I got up to climb Cotopaxi, and the night before that, I could count the hours of sleep I got with one hand.Â Â In Rio Bamba we got some almuerzo, then resupplied our food at a small tienda (stoked to find some tiny Nutella Packets) and hopped on a bus potentially headed to Chimborazo.
Â Â Â Â Â Â In our search to find the correct bus; the conversations we had at the terminal (including with the driver of the bus that we chose to take), left us unsure there was a bus headed to the mountain, but a short ways into our bus ride Goat pointed out the window and said, â€œI think weÂ´re on the right one.â€�Â Â Filling the window was the profile of a tremendous mountain (once thought to be the tallest in the world) and a wave of nervousness rushed through me. â€œThis mountain looks a bit more serious than Cotopaxi,â€� I thought.
Â Â Â Â Â Â We were dropped off at the entrance of the park, and unlike the last one there was nothing to greet us, not a souvenir stand, nor camioÃ±etas offering to take us up to the refugio.Â Â Â Â A desolate desert stretched from the foot of the mountain, with sparse patches of scrub brush that herds of wild vicuÃ±as (type of llama) were munching on. Only a vacant metal shipping container resting on the hill gave any sign of human presence.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â The moment we shouldered our pack and began hiking, a car pulled into the park, stopped, and popped their trunk.Â Â â€œVengan! COME!â€� they yelled back to us, offering a ride.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â The dirt road led right up to the refugio, and was filled with local tourists there to check out the snow, but with no climbers in sight. Apparently there were an Italian and an American team hoping to summit that night, but staying at another refugio further up the mountain.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â WeÂ Â were planning to camp out a night and acclimatize before making a push to the summit.Â Â Empty and only ten bucks, we decided to stay at the refugio and dry out all our gear.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â One of the more challenging things about mountaineering is the waiting.Â Â Fortunately, at the refugio there were plenty of entertaining visitors, all reduced by the effects of elevation, coming inside with a somewhat vacant look in their eyes.Â Â TheyÂ´d sit or lie down, order some coffee and hold their hands against their head, at times, it appeared that we were staying at a rehab center with a bunch of new clientele.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â At just under 15,000 feet elevation, the refugio was already situated at the highest elevation IÂ´d been at prior to Cotopaxi.Â Â As the sun set, we could look out over all the clouds filling the earth below, and watch them catch fire with the colors of the sun, before night filled in the sky, offering a view of the stars that made you believe you could reach out and touch them.
Â Â Â Â Â Â The next day, we moved up to the other refugio and continued to wait.Â Â Late in the day I asked Goat, â€œSo what do you think about the trail.â€� We looked up at the wall of snow and rocks and cliffs, trying to eye a trail winding up, but saw nothing.Â Â â€œIt would have been nice if we asked the other climbers before they left,â€� he replied.
Â Â Â Â Â Â I pulled out an itinerary I had the rental company print out for me.Â Â The only real clue it offered was that the trail would start out to the left of the Theimann glacier, after that it was a pretty straightforward route up the ridge. Fortunately, Goat had taken university course on glaciology and claimed to be able to identify it, narrowing the route to about half the mountain, so we hiked closer.Â Â Still finding no lingering trail winding up to the ridge, we started guessing.Â Â Pointing out rock formations and drawing imaginary lines up the mountain we plotted out a course we believed would get us to the ridge.Â Â â€œNow we just gotta remember that tonight, when the only light weÂ´ll have are the stars and our LED headlamps.â€� I said.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Because the snow gets soft in the daylight, making it arduous to hike through and avalanche dangers become real, the climbing has to be done at night.Â Â Dozens of gravestones for climbers who died while climbing the mountain are scattered near the refugio reminding us that the mountain can be quite serious.Â Â In 1993, 13 people were caught in an avalanche high on the mountain, resulting in 10 deaths and marking one of the worst accidents in the history of climbing in Ecuador.Â Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â A team of 6 Ecuadorians arrived just before sundown, intending to summit later that night.Â Â Goat and I both wanted to avoid a chilly pre-sunrise summit and planned to leave a few hours after the Ecuadorians, which would allow us to follow their tracks up to the ridge.
Â Â Â Â Â Â I got up to pee as the last of them were heading out, all geared up.Â Â I tried to get back to sleep, but was too excited, and just laid in my sleeping bag in semi-sleep until the hours passed.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â By the time we got on the trail, the lights of the Ecuadorians were barely visible, just at the cusp of the ridge.
Â Â Â Â Â Â I felt really good at the beginning of the climb, stoked to have spent a night acclimating.Â Â Following the tracks of the other team made the climb really clear-cut.Â Â WeÂ´d hike up to the landmarks we spotted early that day looking so tiny from afar, now cliffs of icicles towering over us.Â Â We wore our bicycle helmets after watching countless rocks tumble down through the snow during the day.Â Â Tracks of fallen rocks and icicles crisscrossed our trail, filling the void of darkness outside the range of our headlamps with danger.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â As we reached the ridge, we began on a very brief but visually satisfying knife-like snowy ridgeline, only wide enough for one hiker.Â Â We wound around the other side of the ridge, crossing a slippery craggy section, with a pretty big drop below, but eventually contoured well enough to ease any fall.Â Â Shortly after that, we reached a fairly exposed section that required us to dig in with our crampons and use our ice-axes.Â Â Just above that, we passed the Ecuadorian team at the base of what would become a steady and arduous, multi-hour push up the ridge.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â There were no landmarks to recall on this section of the climb, just a seemingly endless, 50-60 degree climb up the ridge.Â Â When the snow felt solid and easy to navigate, IÂ´d turn off my light and feel the perspective of the steep mountainside and the rest of the world.Â Â At its base, only the stars looked down on us. Perfect weather allowed us to see lights of cities in valleys far away, and kept the conditions perfect on the mountain.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Halfway up, I really had to go to the bathroom, and though IÂ´ve become accustomed to squatting in the wild after living outdoors since about 2006, I was momentarily stumped. The slope of the mountain was far too steep to merely drop my pants and go for it, so I got my ice axe and carved out a nice little throne in the mountainside.Â Â Without toilet paper, I figured IÂ´d just make some dirty snowballs, but the snow was so dry that it wouldnÂ´t stick together, like powder.Â Â Fortunately, I was able to break off a few chunks off the icy top layer that sufficed.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â After that, the consistency of the snow started to plague me; each step sliding down, dragging my efforts to reach the top.Â Â Goat was a good ways ahead of my by this time, again, somehow completely unphased by the elevation.Â Â As I watched my feet continually slide back down, doubling my efforts, I began to feel the elevation. My breathing got harder and my breaks became more frequent.Â Â The soft snow became more and more discouraging.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Twilight began to settle in, and I could see the top of the ridge, and though it appeared close, I knew better than to trust my judgment under the circumstances.Â Â It looked as if I could run up to its edge in 10 minutes, but I think it took me almost an hour.Â Â The last section got much steeper and snow even deeper, my steps postholed time again forcing me to literally crawl on all fours like a wild animal to pass through the deep snow that wrapped around me.Â Â I felt pathetic and heroic at the same moment.Â Â The elevation was doing a number on my head, giving me a terrible ringing pressure in my ears, making me dizzy and crushing my skull, telling my body to rescue itself and dive down the mountain, particularly, as I got to the top of the first summit and saw that I had to climb down a good 90 meters into a saddle between the two summits, and climb up another hill, which at the time appeared like a mountain on its own.Â Â For a moment I felt my body wouldnÂ´t allow it, but I knew that at the top of the summit was also the sunrise and the furthest point from the center of the earth, my body had no choice.
Â Â Â Â Â Â I saw Goat and another climber reaching the top of the final summit as I began climbing down the first and stumbling my way, one seemingly drunken step after another towards the very top.Â Â He later told me the guy had stopped at the base to let him pass, saying only, â€œTIRRRED.â€�
Â Â Â Â Â Â The vista I had dreamed about was realized about 20 minutes later, the rays of light flashing over the windswept dome.Â Â Ice crystals covered the surface and broke under my clumsy mountaineering boots as I turned circles trying to absorb the moment, thinking that arriving here was one of the coolest things I had ever done.Â Â Cotopaxi could be seen in the distance rising above the clouds.Â Â The beauty of such an alien environment was overwhelming and being at the closest point on earth to the sun, I had to put on some shades.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â I can happily report that at 20,564 feet that day, there wasnÂ´t a cloud in the sky, because we were high above them all.