Climbing toward the sun

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Climbing toward the sun
November 25, 1996

Chimborazo, the point on earth closest to
the sun
Even though it doesn't claim the highest peaks in the world, Ecuador is still a land of mountain superlatives. Within Ecuador you have Cayambe, at 19,000 the highest point on the equator; then there's Cotopaxi, at 19,400 the highest active volcano in the world. The highest mountain in Ecuador, however, is Chimborazo, which at over 20,000 feet — and with a little help from our planet's equatorial bulge — has claim to the point on earth closest to the sun.

Stan and I had talked for a week of climbing Chimborazo, but we wanted to try a route other than the so-called Normal Route used by most climbers. We decided on the Theilman Glacier Direct, which from the accounts I had heard was either a great climb, extremely dangerous, or both. Nan thought it best to sit this one out.

We left Riobamba and traveled by taxi up the steep flanks of the mountain to the first refuge. Many climbers spend a night here as the second, "Whymper" refuge is higher on the mountain at 16,400 feet. Short on time, we continued on foot to the higher refuge, hoping our previous weeks in the mountains and in Quito would help us acclimatize sooner.

Stan (left) and Bill atop the "Whymper Summit"
The skies stayed clear throughout the day and Stan and I repeatedly scoped the route with binoculars trying to access the difficulty and searching for hidden obstacles. The weather of the previous weeks had been extremely dry and the route looked clear but icy. After talking with Antonio, the refuge guardian, we decided chances were good that we wouldn't be avalanched from the seracs hanging high above the route. Nan doubted our assurance, but let us proceed in our folly.

That evening we awoke at 10:45 and fixed a quick bowl of oatmeal and coffee. Outside, clouds had obscured the upper reaches of the mountain, but we decided to continue with our plan in hopes that it would clear.

The entrance onto the glacier was steeper than expected and immediately we were on hard ice of 40 degrees.

Check in with local guiding companies for the latest information on route conditions.

We moved up, placing ice screws along the way for security, and eventually we made our way onto a lesser-angled ramp on penitentes, or ice stalagmites. After this section we reached the first difficult section of the route — an 85-degree ice wall blocking access to our exit ramp above. I hadn't climbed ice since February of 1996 in Ouray, Colorado, but I decided to give it a go, and for the next half-hour bashed my way up the ice wall bombarding Stan below with flying ice.

Once atop, we hurried across the ramp and out of range from the seracs above. Another long steep section of 50- to 70-degree ice led us out of harm's way and onto the ridge of the "Whymper Route," the mountain's original line of ascent.

The Theilman Glacier
Direct route
Not wanting to make things too easy we chose a more difficult variation and continued straight up and through another serac wall to the plateau beneath the Ventamilla summit — the mountain's second highest point. The hour was late, but the weather had continued to be great and looked stable. We chose to go on.

An hour and half later of plodding, we stood atop the "Whymper Summit," the highest point on the mountain. It was 9:30 and an early-morning haze obscured what should have been an amazing view. The summit itself was a huge flat plateau as big as a football field. A single pole like a broomstick marked the summit. Taken by itself, it wasn't a particularly scenic spot, but we felt proud of our accomplishment. We snapped a few photos, then aware of the late hour began heading down. As we turned to begin the descent I paused for a moment. With Stan leading away down the slope in front of me I had the delicious sensation that the top of my head was closer to the sun than anything else on Earth.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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