At 6268m, Volcán Chimborazo is the highest peak in Ecuador. A giant of a volcano thought to have last erupted some 10,000 years ago, its base spans approximately 20km and its upper elevations are permanently covered in snow and ice. The summit was once imagined to be the highest in the world and still enjoys the distinction of being the furthest point from the centre of the earth and the closest to the sun – thanks to the bulge around the equator.
Facing Chimborazo to the northeast, Carihuairazo (5020m), a jagged trio of craggy spires that contrasts with the snowy bulk of its more famous neighbour, is a very respectable mountain in its own right and a popular preparation climb for a later attempt on Chimborazo.
Both mountains form the topographical centrepieces of the 58,560-hectare Reserva Faunística Chimborazo ($10 entrance fee, irregularly collected from the guard post on the road up to Chimborazo’s refuges), created in 1987 as a haven for alpacas, llamas and especially wild vicuñas, which disappeared from Ecuador around the time of the Conquest. Following a very successful reintroduction programme, there are now more than 2500 vicuñas eking life from the thin air and marginal terrain high up around Chimborazo.
Carihuairazo (5020m) can be approached on a rough track 14km northeast of the crossroads known as the Cruce del Arenal on the Ambato–Guaranda road. The track passes through Mechahuasca, the area used for rearing vicuñas as part of the reintroduction programme. From here it is about four hours’ walk to good camping areas below the rocky slopes beneath the glacier; other scenic camping spots (at around 4300m) can be approached from La Urbina in the south, after a beautiful day’s walk up the Mocha valley. Climbers typically leave around 3am and take about seven hours to get up and down. There’s some ice climbing with a messy, mixed terrain scramble towards the top; crampons, ice axe and rope are essential. The true summit, a seemingly inaccessible tower of rock at the end of a precarious ridge, will be out of reach to all but the most experienced climbers. Hiring a guide is strongly recommended and most of the climbing outfits listed offer trips to Carihuairazo.
Although not Ecuador’s most technically difficult ascent, the climb to the summit of Chimborazo from the Whymper refuge requires large reserves of strength and stamina, previous climbing experience and confidence with full mountaineering equipment. Full acclimatization is essential, and climbing several other peaks in advance, such as Iliniza Norte, Carihuairazo and even Cotopaxi, is common preparation.
There are several routes to the summit, though following rapid deglaciation, the one known as the Normal Route is currently considered the safest and is the most commonly used. Fast-changing conditions and the vagaries of the local climate make it imperative to go with a guide who knows the mountain well. Most climbers set off around midnight or earlier, taking seven to ten hours to reach the summit from the Whymper refuge and about three to four to descend. The way up is relentlessly steep, and a long, hard slog, first over unstable rocky terrain, where route-finding is difficult, and then on snow and ice. Along with all the standard mountaineering equipment, you should wear a helmet because of the risk of rock fall in a section known as El Corredor (the corridor). The route tops out at the Veintimilla summit (6267m), from where it is a leg-sapping haul across a bowl of snow to the main Whymper summit (6268m), which can take anything from twenty minutes to an hour each way, depending on snow depth. The mountain has three other summits – trying to conquer them all in one go (called La Integral) is a rarely achieved feat of bravura carried off by only the most accomplished mountaineers. The best months for climbing Chimborazo are January and December; between June and October it can be windy, but it can be climbed, weather permitting, year-round.