On Monday, August 1st I have left Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco after almost 3 weeks of staying there. It did not go without a heartfelt goodbye and once I was again turning the pedals I felt a bit heavy-hearted. In 3 weeks the people around here sort of grow under your skin.
Direction was well-known – due South towards the volcanoes. There is an abundance of those around here in Ecuador but I have selected the two most recognizable – Cotopaxi which with its almost perfect cone shaped and snow-capped reigns over the surrounding landscape and Chimborazo, 6.310 metres high giant, the highest peak in Ecuador. But there is one more thing about Chimborazo. Due to its position almost at the Equator and given the fact that the Earth is flatter at the poles and has a subsequent bulge at the Equator its peak is actually 2.000 metres further from the centre of the Earth than the top of Mt. Everest. It is the point where a man can be closest to the Sun while still standing on the Earth.
The first days after a 3 weeks break were though. Not only that the body has somewhat forgotten how to function on a bicycle, also the route I have chosen was not what one might call ideal.
I have entered Cotopaxi National Park via a less accessible and hence less used northern entrance. Leading to there is a road where asphalt is soon replaced by rocks. The road itself is paved with rocks the size of a bowling ball. Riding your bicycle on it is almost like a mission impossible. On the climbs, which do represent the majority of the route, I have soon learned that it is actually more effective to walk beside my bicycle. So I have walked. This has continued also when the rocks gave way to gravel covered with a layer of fine volcanic sand. Here I have often sunk into this sand. So, dismount from the bicycle, walk a while, mount the bicycle again, pedal for maybe a kilometre and here we go again. 60 kilometres through Cotopaxi took me more than 2 days. But in return I got the chance to experience all the pristine beauty, the wind, the sun, the empty plains, the road and me and Lou. Incredible! When, on my descend back to civilization, I have encountered a brand new, beautiful asphalt road already before exiting the Park, it sort of did not fell right. Nevertheless I was happy with this unexpected gift!
This tranquillity was then followed by three days of more or less busy Panamericana towards Riobamaba. A short stop and organizing the Chimborazo “expedition”. After a short tour of the agencies in town that offer a climb to the top, I ended up at John’s home. He is a Canadian, owner of Andean Adventures and is at the same time running both of the refugios on the mountain (the one situated higher is currently closed). After a short conversation I was determined to climb the mountain. Together we made a plan and the next day I started my expedition. First cycling for more than 40 km to the Park entrance at 4.300 metres. The last 10 km were hard and exhausted I made it to the entrance just before the nightfall. There was no time to stop and just admire the beautiful, empty landscape. The wind was cold and the half an hour of sunlight that was left I used to change into dry clothing (several layers) and quickly set up my tent in the shelter of the entrance to the souvenir shop. The wind was brutal and I could listen to its howl all night long.
The next day I have parked Lou into the cafeteria which is also run by John. I have grabbed the equipment and sat into John’s car. But only for a kilometre or so, just enough to escape the windy area. Here John has “kicked” me out and I continued on foot towards the refugio that lays at 4.850 meters. To acclimatize.
After more than an hour I have entered the refugio and there was John. Waiting for me at the bar and offering a coca tea. “Helps to acclimatize!” Not sure if this is true but who am I to question the advice of an expert.
Then I headed further, higher. To Condor Cocha lagoon at 5.100 metres. Again to acclimatize. John has suggested to me that I stay here for as long as I can and just breathe. So I have looked for a suitable, sheltered spot, managed to get almost cosy in between the rocks, closed my eyes and listened to the wind up there on the mountain. I was alone and the world around me has disappeared. And when I was just about to fall asleep, the clouds started to roll in, the wind got stronger, it got colder and sleet started to gently fall.
I made it back to the refugio just in time for dinner and then to bed (there was no electricity while I was there). The dormitory was full and around 22h I was awaken by the noise of those getting up for the climb to the top. The next day I learn that most of them did not made it, but they all managed to get back safely. The remainder of the night is peaceful for me.
On the third morning I wake up with slight anxiety. Today is the day of my attempt to summit the mountain. Just the time until the evening has to somehow past. Then dinner, a short nap and the moment will come.
During the day I did not do much. Again I hike to the lagoon, today faster and much easier than yesterday. I return to the refugio for lunch and then just relaxing. I will need the energy later on.
At 18h I’m in bed. Little too early to just fall asleep and the uncertainty of what awaits helps to keeps me awake for a while. Then, little before the agreed upon waking up at 22h, I open my eyes not entirely sure I really want to get up and start dressing up. Bu then the whole room starts to get up and I’m left with no other option but to join the band. I put on all the clothes I manage to find and head downstairs. Manuel, my guide is already waiting there for me. He provides me with all the gear that I’m lacking. Ice axe and crampons is not something I would be caring with me.
At 23h we head out. There is 6 groups of us and we silently head it into the night. The moonlight is strong enough so that I do not have to use my headlamp. We walk in silence, Manuel and I more at the back. The night is almost totally clear, no wind. The conditions are ideal.
We start the climb in a compact formation, slowly making progress. After about an hour the first stops and still together we make our first break. Then the line starts to stretch and first groups start to turn around.
Soon we stop again. We need to put on the crampons and Manuel and I we tie a rope to ourselves. There is an icy part ahead. I start to put more and more focus to my actions. I’m entering a world I do not know.
All of a sudden, Manuel and I are the first group. All the others are behind us. The path keeps on going up. I do not see much, just what the beam of my headlamp illuminates. That and a beautiful Moon saying goodbye for the night and there is also a shooting star or two.
I’m getting more and more tired. My walking is interrupted by moments when I stop. At one point Manuel encourages me: “Come on, it’s just 30 metres to the snow!” So I make it and at the edge of snow we sit down. I’m tired. And then Manuel shocks me when he announces there is at least 4 hours more walking to the summit.
It’s 4 o’clock. This means we have been already walking for 5h. Nope, I’m not making it. I feel I have energy for another hour, hour and a half. But then I need to get back down safely!
Considering the above, I call it off. The goal of every climb of a mountain is to get back down. Going further I would be jeopardize this.
We sit for a while longer looking down at the lights of others whom all but one group (a German couple and their guide) have already turned around. I’m soaking up the peace and quietness and then at 5.700 metres we also turn around. Back to refugio.
The descend takes at least two and a half hours. At the end I’m so tired that my legs keep on getting tangled up. On the plain leading to the refugio I have troubles walking in a straight line.
Once I make it to the refugio I take off all the gear with some difficulty and very slowly before I head for bed.
Chimborazo was a wonderful experience which has once again proved to me that there are no shortcuts. If you want to accomplish a task you have to prepare for it properly. And I haven’t!
Acclimatization I have done properly but I haven’t paid enough attention to physical fitness. However strange it might sound from somebody that has spent a good portion of the last year and a bit pedalling all days, I just was not fit enough for the whole climb. Turning the pedals and climbing a mountain require different sets of muscles.
Tomorrow I’m getting back on a bicycle and together with Lou we are heading onwards on the route of Dreams. There are more than 600 km separating us from Peru (and to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia there is …).
With a Smile on my face, until next time!