Chimborazo: The Highest Point on Earth

Contrary to popular belief, the world is not a perfect sphere. In fact the equator bulges out further due to the uneven shape of the planet. Therefore despite being 9000 feet higher from sea level, Mount Everest ends up being lower in total elevation to the Andean volcano Chimborazo by 2 kilometers.

I am no stranger to high elevations but Chimborazo still is a daunting 20,500 feet high meaning that if you want to climb to the summit, you need special gear and oxygen tanks. However it is possible to climb up to 16, 500 without the need of much gear. From the coastal city of Guayaquil (where I currently live) which sits at sea level to the city of Riobamba (the closest city to Chimborazo)  at 9,000 feet is a huge difference. Going up the mountain passes by bus you begin to feel the altitude difference as your ears pop and you begin to breath faster. I spent one day walking around Riobamba to become a little more accustomed to the elevation difference but it only helped slightly.

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Desolate and rocky landscape of Chimborazo

The biggest difference of course was the matter of the sun, since being so close to space inevitably means blinding sunlight and quick sunburns. Yet the high altitude also means extremely cold temperature, overall giving a weird sensation of hot and cold. Starting off the climb at the bottom of the volcano the winding path towards the first refuge takes about two hours. Along the way I met a fellow hiker in a Spanish lady that was on vacation. Throughout the desolate sandy landscape only the occasional sight of vicuñas (smaller relative of alpacas and llamas) eating the dry mountain grass kept me company on my journey ever upward. While the path was not as steep as I had anticipated, the elevation and low oxygen made me have to step every 5 to 10 minutes in order to catch my breath and rest my legs. The eerily quiet and still environment was almost alien, only occasionally could the wind be heard or an occasional passing car in the distance be seen.

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Vicuñas of the volcano

By the time I had reached the first refuge, I once again saw the Spanish lady who had taken another path and was now in front of me. Nevertheless I overtook her and took shelter in the warmth of the refuge for a few minutes. After awhile I began the final push to 16,500 feet where the second refuge was. It was here that many people could be seen as they had driven up by car to the first refuge, unlike myself. Along the much steeper path up, the gravestones of dozens of dead hikers and climbers lined the sides thereby representing certainly one of the highest cemeteries in the world.

From the first refuge to the second, it is only 900 meters yet the steepness and elevation makes the climb very slow. After 20 or 30 steps, I found myself having to stop to catch my breath and rest my legs that felt on fire by that point. Add to that a temperature of -10 Celsius and you have a slightly miserable experience but it was rewarded by a magnificent view. Even at 16,500 feet, the volcano still stretched upwards another 4,000 feet but from the height that I reached there was a fantastic landscape of distant mountains that could be seen.

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From 16,500 feet

After a well-deserved rest at the second refuge, I began the long descent to the base of the volcano. Going down is certainly much easier than going up but now the sky had become cloudy and a bone chilling wind started to blow. By the time I got all the way down, it began to rain and the weather continued to drop. I was hoping that a bus would be able to take me back quickly however I ended up waiting with a Venezuelan family and my Spanish friend for 2 hours until a bus finally came. The little group of us ended up bonding over our annoyance with buses and the fact we were all slowly freezing to death. Luckily the bus was nice and warm and I was able to rest after the long 24 kilometer hike.

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