TOO CLOSE TO THE SUN
Skiing Chimborazo’s Glacier Before It’s Too Late
Words: Ham Mehlman
Photos: Steve Marolt and Jesse Durrance
Standing on our Atomic Descender skis we peered down the snow covered slope from atop the farthest point from the center of the earth.
No, we were not on Everest. The unlikely physical location for this quirky distinction is the summit of Chimborazo, the highest peak in Ecuador. Apparently planet earth is not exactly round. Technically it is an “ablate spheroid”: it’s fat at its equator and Chimborazo just about sits on the equator. (Somebody will surely blame global warming for this condition.) Sea level at the equator is some 22 kilometers further from the center of the earth than sea level at the North Pole. Stated another way, when standing on top of Chimborazo you are closer to the sun than anyplace else on the planet, including Everest. (Bring your tanning lotion!)
For a time, until the first measurements of Dhaulagiri in Nepal in 1808, Europeans anointed Chimborazo as the tallest mountain in the world. Despite these previous accolades Chimborazo peaks out at a mere 6,267m (20,561 ft). Edward Whymper and guides Louis and Jean-Antoine Carrel were the first Westerners to stand on top of Chimborazo, climbing it in 1880.
At that time the glacial cap probably extended down the cone of this inactive volcano to well below the 5,000m (16,000 ft) level where the cone rises from the surrounding plateau. The glacial cap has receded substantially since then, accelerated in recent times both by the increased El Nino effect since 1980 that has decreased rainfall in the area and the 1999 eruptions of Ecuador’s two active volcanos Tungurahua and Guaga Pichincha. The eruptions coated Chimborazo’s glaciers with dark ash. Various scientific studies have shown that the ash absorbs heat from the intense sun and substantially adds to the rate of surface melt. As we soon discovered for ourselves, these eruptions continue today, eroding the cap from the surface down. Chimborazo’s glaciers today provide about 640 vertical meters (2,100 ft.) of skiable terrain.
Records of ski descents on Chimborazo are spotty at best. Extreme Adventurist Kasha Rigby skied from the summit in the late 90’s. But it is clear that very few take their skis to Chimborazo. The caretaker of the Carrel hut at the base of the Normal route said he had never seen anybody pack skis before. At the rate the glacier is receding, noticeable even since our 2005 trip to Chimborazo, this ski-mountaineering opportunity may be a footnote for history in the next several decades. Photos from the 2005 trip clearly show a skiable ramp below the saddle where now there is only pumice impregnated ice and scree.
On January 8, our group convened in Quito, capital of Ecuador. Quito sits at about 2,800m (9,000 feet) on the Andean plateau. Mike and Steve Marolt (45) and Jesse Durrance (25) came in from Aspen. Jim Gile (47) flew from Denver and Ham Mehlman (50) started in Big Sky, MT. For Ham the initial travel day was marked by an 87degree temperature improvement from a frosty -28 F in Big Sky to 59 F degrees on landing in Quito.
Our plan was to ascend via the Normal route. The Normal route rises about 1,430m (4,700 ft.) from the Carrel hut passing by the Whymper hut then ascending left under a buttress (called el Castillo or Castle) to the west ridge and a saddle. From there the route follows the edge of the glacier to the Ventimilla summit at 6,225m and then crosses the old crater field to the Whymper summit at 6,267m.
On January 11 we hauled skis and assorted climbing gear about 460 vertical meters (1,500 ft.) before caching it on the rocks below the saddle area. The first 365m (1,200 ft) are fairly well marked but the route through the scree fields below the Castle buttress seems to depend on weather conditions.
On January 13, per protocol for a summit bid, the group left Carrel Hut at 12:35 am, anticipating a 7-8 hour climb to the summit. The goal was to be off the mountain by 1:00 pm when the mountain starts purging stones and boulders at unsuspecting climbers as it warms in the sun. If ever there was a mountain appropriate for a climbing helmet, Chimborazo is it. Above the gear cache we were negotiating 30-40 degree slopes of pumice imbedded in ice. The pumice made the ice exceedingly hard. Crampons barely gripped and our lightweight axes and tools had little impact on the dense surface. We negotiated a series of ice “cliffs” where the terrain rolled steeper and left us feeling a bit exposed. Ice screws were useless here as the pumice would have either stripped the threads or made them impossible to sink. Guidebooks, generally written in the ‘70’s, often describe the Normal route on Chimborazo as a fairly easy grade II “non-technical” climb. However, the climb now is likely far more tiring and hazardous with the recession of the glacier. You slip back on nearly every step plowing up the scree and pumiced sand.
We climbed a line pretty much straight up to the sandy knife ridge bypassing the saddle. In hindsight we think the better route may have been a bit to the left of our line. After attaining the ridge our route was all glacier climbing to the summit. Snowmelt frozen into very hard “waterfall” ice imbedded with rock kept us alert on the first 300m (1,000 ft.) of the glacier. We passed though three sections totaling about 75m (250 ft) where the route steepened up to 45 degrees. Once on glacier we roped up on a single line. We used the first of two ice screws on a steep pitch at about 5,940m (19,500 ft.). From there we climbed the ridge and edge of glacier to the Ventimilla summit at 6,225m.
The weather could not have been better. The sun rose shortly before reaching the Ventimilla. The conical peak cast a spectacular pyramidal shadow on the Andean plateau below to the west. All the big peaks – Cotopaxi, Cayumbe, and Antisana among others – were visible in the distance. To our surprise Tungarahua and Guagua Pichincha were venting ash in the distant sky. Initially we thought the dark ash cloud might be a storm brewing before realizing that we were watching an eruption. Temperatures began in the 20’s before warming some with the sun.
From the Ventimillla, Mike and Jesse made a pair of 11’s down the gradual slope before hoofing for a half hour across the crater field and up the Whymper summit at 6267m. For 30 min we could claim to be closer to the sun than any of the other 6.7 billion earthlings, whether they stood on terra firma like sensible people or large ice domes like a few crazies. Only those in airplanes, space stations, dirigibles or other manmade contraptions of flight were bathing in stronger UV radiation.
The best turns were on the pitch off the summit. With Mike filming, the others carved up the 6 inch deep surface snow, something of a hoar frost on top of sugary graupel. From the Ventimilla peak, we chose a route skiers’ right of our climb and made tracks for about 2,100 vertical feet to the first sizeable crevasse. Jesse coined the term “Powder Eights on a rope” to describe the ski descent. While we belayed over this first slot still on skis, the surface had changed to hard ice by this point and we shed the skis in favor of crampons. On 35 plus degree ice, the maneuver took about 45 minutes, a bit slow for the taste of some in the group.
The downside of the beautiful day was that the rocks imbedded in the ice melt quickly heated. On the lower part of the glacier these rock ice fields were steaming on our descent. To avoid the cascade of rocks spitting off the ice fields we traversed below the El Castillo outcropping and along the ridge before slithering down some scree fields.
Roundtrip our summit trek was 12 hours and 35 minutes on trail. Steve’s GPS recorded climbing 4,822 vertical feet. We caught 140-mile views from the top of the furthest point from the center of the earth and carved turns down 640m (2,100 ft.) on a gorgeous day in Ecuador.
We left the Refugio by private bus around 2:00 pm heading back to the quaint Hotel San Francisco in Quito. Although a climbing watering hole of sorts, our ski gear attracted plenty of astonished looks at the hotel. But we were a reminder to all that that there is still opportunity to carve these wondrous peaks and also perhaps a messenger that the opportunity is not permanent and melts by the day. We reveled in our opportunity to touch the sun and experience the white cone of Chimborazo before its surfaces melts to a pile of pumice and scree, something it seems destined to do in the not too distant future.
(Ham Mehlman is writing a book on ski mountaineering in the Himalaya and has accompanied the Marolts on trips to Noijing Kangsang in Tibet and the present trip to Chimborazo in Ecuador)