So I did it. Last week, on Tuesday to be precise. I emailed Mountain Madness, our trekking company, and just said yes to the Chimborazo extension. Now I recognize that some of you were pushing for the Galopagos Islands, but I simply couldn’t escape the fact that there will be no other point at which husband J and I stand a better chance of actually climbing a 20,000 foot mountain. I think I can manage the Galopagos in future years.
As I continue the grueling process of forcing myself to run at ever faster paces and climb stairs with increasing amounts of weight – and of finding the time to do so – it occurs to me that I have not really described the two mountains that are engendering such passion (or foolhardiness). I’ve referred to them by name, but without much explanation.
Here’s what is inspiring me.
Both mountains are part of Ecuador’s Avenue of Volcanoes, named by 19th century German scientist Alexander Van Humboldt. Due to a location just above and below the equator, the scenery is supposed to be reminiscent of the Scottish highlands or the Arctic tundra, at least according to our trekking company. Both were first summited (at least by westerners) in 1882 by Edward Whymper, for whom some of the passes are named.
Cotopaxi last erupted in 1940 and some consider it the world’s highest active volcano. It stands at 19,347 feet (5897 meters) and is located near Quito, which at 9400 feet is itself one of the world’s highest cities. Cotopaxi has been worshipped as a sacred mountain, a bringer of rain and fertility.
We will acclimatize for the altitude first with a climb up Guagua Pichincha (just outside Quito, standing at 15,696 feet, last eruption 2004) and then what is described as an “enjoyable rock scramble” up Illiniza Norte (16,818 feet), with trekking, camping and stays at haciendas in between. Mules are supposed to help at certain points as we travel between and up the various mountains. Once we are at Cotopaxi, summit day (summit night is a more accurate description) begins at 15,749 feet, where we will have been staying at the Jose Ribas Hut. The glacier starts at about 17,000 feet, and according to Mountain Madness, we will be crossing snow bridges, avoiding large crevasses, and climbing “short, steep sections.” Once at the summit of Cotopaxi, we should be able to peer into a perfectly round caldera, the origin of the steam you apparently can sometimes see boiling up.
I have found a lot less written about Chimborazo. It is famous for being the point closest to the sun, due to the bulge of the earth at the equator. As I mentioned before, I hope our attempt to climb it is not too Icarus like. It is currently inactive, with a last eruption in 550 A.D. or so. It reaches a whopping 20,564 feet (6268 meters) and is the highest mountain in Ecuador. Chimborazo can sometimes be in very bad condition – with unstable snow, big crevasses and high risk of rock fall. The itinerary states that if Chimborazo is not climable, we are to attempt Antisana. It’s only 18,714 feet high, but from what I’ve read is even more technically challenging, as it is completely covered by glaciers, and is not climbed very frequently.
Despite all this, you may still be left wondering – but “why?” Well, a summit goal, for me at least, gives me something to focus on, look forward to, and lifts me out of the drab tension of the day to day working world. And the other reason is simply a variation of the “because it’s there” phrase – because there is something about standing on a summit that gives a high that doesn’t come from anything else.