The road to the sun lies somewhere just south of the equator, at the base of a great mountain. It is the road to God and I hear that if you deign to take it you can get really close.
Close enough to scratch at his eyes.
Somewhere between New York and the Arctic was developed an everlasting obsession with earth’s sun, a definite resultant of the incessant rains that were to plague that cruel summer of 2011 and the exodus from the East. We remember well those early days spent inside the helmet, thoughts and doubts bouncing around inside as rain droplets pelted the outside. Cold nights in the tent, wet and alone. 2 months of rain. Stinky boots all the way to the North. Rains that just wouldn’t stop. There were times when the sun might come out to play, if just for a little while, and all was well with the world. Beautiful. Resplendent. Warm. Symbolic of everything that could be. I would prostrate myself before a million suns if I could, burning alive.
I’ve been getting my hike on in Ecuador. Mucho. The landscape, the paramo, the volcanoes, everything, is the stuff of things I have never ever seen before. Amazing. The Andes man, they have it. Fuya Fuya, Volcan Imbabura, Iliniza Norte; incredible mountains all serving to whet the appetite and inch one closer to the sun.
At 20697 feet Chimborazo is the tallest thing in Ecuador by at least a thousand feet, dominating all , magnificent and magnanimous. It is taller than anything to the north, even Mt. McKinley, although it bears some sort of resemblance to it’s little brother of the barren lands, looking again for all the world like a dollop of ice cream plunked out on the paramo and reaching lazily towards the heavens. But whatever, that’s all well and good.
A really big mountain.
The attraction of Volcan Chimborazo lies in it’s proximity to the equator and that unique bulge that makes this particular extinct volcano the farthest point from the center of the earth and the closest point on earth to the sun. Sure, you can get closer in a plane but cmon, that’s cheating.
Some prep work was in order to prepare for the majesty of Chimborazo and all of its 6000+ meters. You’ll need to prepare for this kind of altitude with some lesser peaks. Acclimatization. A body needs to adjust itself to the lack of oxygen available in higher climes. If you don’t acclimatize, you will feel like absolute garbage. Terrible headache. Nausea. You might even die. Si, es verdad.
Ecuador is rife with opportunities for scaling its mountains, hills, and volcanoes. Although there are lots of National Parks, there is little infrastructure in the way of fees, annoying rules, nerdy park rangers, etc. Most of the parks in Ecuador are supposed to charge around $10 for entry but there’s never anybody around to collect fees, just deserted guard shacks. There are no R.V.s here man. A lot of climbing opportunities exist outside of the “parks” too and you don’t always need a “guide” for everything. You can go climb a 16,000+ foot mountain by yourself and no one cares. I would be up and down Fuya Fuya, Imbabura, and Iliniza Norte with my Tupac bag and shitty boots without seeing another soul. My sherpa and I would be the only ones to summit Chimborazo that day.
Volcan Imbabura: At just over 15,000 feet Imbabura is a perfect means to acclimatize for higher peaks and is a satisfying slog in its own right. The trailhead is reached from the village of La Esperanza, which lies uphill from the bustling city of Ibarra along a steep cobblystone road. Set up shop in La Esperanza and then set out in the morning dew on another incredibly steep cobblystone road that leads to the base of the mountain and the start of the trail. The road will eventually peter out into mud. And from there you must dismount your vintage motorcycle and walk to the end of the mud where you will end up at someone’s concrete shack/house, ask directions, and hope you’re going the right way. From there on, more or less, the guidebooks are right in saying that the trail to the summit is easy to follow. Just keep going up and up and don’t get lost in the paramo. Cold, wet, and windy, an incredible fog would blanket Imbabura that day. It was near the summit, coming down, that I would slip with both feet going up in the air and soles pointing towards the sky, lower back and all my weight landing squarely on a pyramid shaped volcanic rock.
Iliniza Norte: This is probably the highest point in Ecuador that a body can scale without mountaineering equipment, although the owner of the hostel where I stayed prior to summiting was kind enough to rent me a helmet and mountaineering boots which I didn’t need at all, although having crampons would have been helpful. Mountaineering boots are like wearing rollerblades without the wheels: big awkward plastic boots that are stiff, heavy, and uncomfortable. Choose wisely from the only two places to stay the night in El Chaupi, village to the stars and to the Iliniza park. If you stay at La Llovizna lodge you can practice your spanish with the aging manservant there, but just try not to get lost in his irritated bloodshot eyes. Go to sleep man! To get to the trailhead a body will need to employ the services of a 4wd camioneta, which trundles along an abyssmal road to the parking area some 3000 feet below the concrete refuge and the route to the summit. A relatively simple jaunt to the 17000 foot summit then follows. On the way is the disconcertingly named Pass of Death which runs along a thin rocky ridge. Although Norte is a “dry” climb, there was a lot of snow when i summited, making for some treachery. Slipping will deposit you down a snow and rock chute, leaving you for dead somewhere thousands of feet down. Word. Be careful Richie. An incredible climb indeed with literally awe-inspiring views of Cotopaxi punching through the clouds. Utterly surreal and amazing. The Ilinizas are composed of two peaks: Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur. Both are the remnants of the same extinct exploded volcano and from the peak of Iliniza Norte one can gleam a partial semblance of the massive eruption that blasted the middle out of an entire mountain. On the way down to El Chaupi, near the parking lot, I ran into a couple of Germans with lime green mountaineering boots and fancy walking sticks trundling up to the refuge slowly but deliberately, like camionetas, without passion or spirit.
Note: Click on pic and scan the horizon for the mighty Cotopaxi.
I hadn’t planned on climbing Chimborazo. I was going to go for Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s second highest peak and an active volcano, and see how I felt. But, whatever, I was in the area and just wound up hiring a sherpa. I would have to rely on my shoddy prep work climbing Iliniza Norte and an iron will to touch the sun. More weirdness and one last round of acclimatization would lead a body to Casa Condor, a “lodge” where it was suggested I spend another night acclimatizing at around 3800 meters. Casa Condor is a community owned eco-tourism venture that some paleface helped put together for the locals in a little town on the road to Chimborazo. Seemingly, it was built years ago, almost finished, and then never touched again. Totally empty, creepy, and cold. Exposed wiring abounds and none of the lights work. Spoiled food in the fridge. Many of the indigenous locals are inbred and not to be trusted. They want to “guide” me everywhere, for kopeks of course. Everything’s either rotten or dried out. Weird. I’ve seen this type of thing before and it seems like these community venture things never work; well thought out plans that always wind up falling to pieces.
The mighty Chimborazo as seen from Casa Condor.
Eh, I’d probably go there again. It was quiet and no one bothered me. I completed my prep work by finishing watching Mean Streets and cooking up some pasta. I was eating only simple foods, mostly breads and the like, along with bananas and papayas to quell my stomach, which was host to parasitic amoebas less than a quarter moon ago. I didn’t want to repeat the agony of Tajamulco and discovered that a diet of mostly carbohydrates, along with a little fruit, and just a tiny bit of protein yields the most favorable mix for tackling rugged Andean peaks.
Incidently, although I was totally fine and gassing it up no more than usual this time, it appears that the increased incidence of gaseousness at altitude is not only common, but expected. It is more human than human. Article here.
There are two refuges on the slopes of Chimborazo. One at 16,400 feet and another at a little under 16,000 feet. You can drive a family sedan to the first one and the second is about a half hour walk from there. We would eat lunch, hydrate, and then turn in to bed at sundown for a few hours of fitful sleep before striking for the summit at around midnight. Copious amounts of coca tea are consumed to help adjust to the altitute and give a body energy. Right before leaving for the climb I would double bag it and feel great for about 45 minutes, jogging up the side of the mountain. After that it was pure hell all the way to the top and then down again. Look, this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, way harder than a marathon. I wanted to stop and turn around but I never wanted to quit; for to quit would be to die a psychic death. But for an iron will was I able to make the top. My indigenous sherpa was magnificient, this being his 90th time summiting and barely breaking a sweat, but wholly uninspiring. Hands and knees man, like a nino I crawled, staring into bottomless crevasses and not really caring at all, just wanting to make it to the top and defy God. At the false summit I nearly wept, being so close and all but neigh, there was more to be done and a body needs to steel itself for the last putsch. 5:30am and beating the sun. It was ice-cold at the top and I was half-dead. But I made it man. Just another small victory over God and another chapter in a sleazy romance novel to the Sun, looking down on it as I stumbled down off the mountain.
Summiting in the cruel dark of the night. First American in history to complete the ascent without bottled oxygen. Reinhold Messner’s bottles littered the slopes.
Coming down the mountain to the emerging dawn.
Only known photo in existence of mystery Sherpa.
Mate de Coca: Cocaine tea. Illegal in the U.S.A.
Notes: It’s hard to relate the exhaustion that was felt upon finally reaching the refuge. Totally and completely spent. Failing to summit would have made this unbearable, but there would be no mental anguish this round, just a feeling of smug pride at not having quit and having summited, passing my own test. I almost peed my pants struggling to free myself from the rope harness and unfamiliar pants and then the battle was on to direct the urine stream away from my clothes and body in my weakened state, all the while balancing on wobbly legs. As noted previously, if measured from the center of the earth, the summit of Chimborazo is the tallest thing going. Everest isn’t even close and for many years, Volcan Chimborazo was considered to be the world’s tallest mountain. The climb itself was not very technical at all. There are crevasses, but nothing terrifying. The route is simple and straightforward and is basically just a slog. If you knew the route, you could probably do it in soccer cleats or golf shoes with an extra pair of socks. When compared with Cotopaxi, not a lot of people climb Chimborazo. While Cotopaxi might have 50 people or more any given weekend, there were only four of us, including Sherpas, who set out that morning. The climb starts around midnight so that one can summit and make it down to the refuge before the ice starts melting and rocks start raining down. Remember, we’re basically on the equator so if there are no clouds in the sky, the equatorial sun beats down and melts snow and ice. The ice and glaciers on Chimborazo are in a constant state of rapid flux and can open and close rapidly. Routes change and there is the potential for danger. Surprisingly, the only effect the altitude had on me this time was causing me to be horribly exhausted, or maybe I’m just out of shape from sitting on a motorcycle for 11 months. Besides that, I felt fine, maybe a little headache, although that was probably due to the dehydration. The altitude makes you all bloated too, and your fingers and toes swell up. The climb was cold, but not unbearably so and it was about 5 degrees Fahrenheit at the top, though windy. Down at the refuge, basking in the high altitude a light jacket would have been sufficient. You know, an ancient Mexican yogi once told me of people who live only on prana, universal energy, and eat, nor drink, nothing at all. There’s a movie about it or so I’m told but it’s only in French, although in searching the web, I ran across this flick about weirdos who stare at the sun to feast on its prana, the most reliable prana source of all. Strange indeed, but in descending Chimborazo, I felt little desire for food.
To Simon Bolivar, who was still sipping from the cup of eternal youth at 202 years old.