Chimborazo, the highest mountain in the world.
Oscar Wilde once said "Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson after." Chimborazo was one of those experiences for me.
Every since the first time I saw it back in 2018 it became in my mind the representation of challenge, adventure, adversity, humility but also love, hope and faith. Chimborazo scares me, inspires me, makes me want to clamber up it and equally run away from it. It’s brilliant, it’s beautiful, it’s brave, it’s strong, it’s sacred, it’s spiritual, it’s quite simply the Chimborazo...
But before we look at the Chimborazo and what it taught me I’d first like to clarify a couple of things related to this post's title for those of you that are confused! Did you maybe think Mount Everest was the highest mountain in the world? Don’t worry, most people do! I’m hoping I might just be able to persuade you otherwise...
Chimborazo is the highest mountain in Ecuador with a peak elevation of 6268m but depending on how you look at it Chimborazo is also a candidate for the highest mountain in the world.
Of course Mount Everest (8848m) wins hands down the title for highest altitude in the world (altitude = difference between sea level to summit) but there are two other candidates for the ‘highest mountain’: Mauna Kea (Hawaii) and Chimborazo (Ecuador).
Indeed, Mauna Kea is the highest mountain in the world when you measure from base (in this case the sea bed) to peak (10 210m). However Mauna Kea only has an altitude of 4207m as more than 6000m of the mountain is below sea level. Interesting huh? But wait, it gets better !
Chimborazo’s claim to fame is being the furthest point from the centre of the Earth or in other terms the closest mountain to the sun. How does that work I hear you ask? Well, as our precious Earth isn’t a perfect sphere, it’s equatorial bulge (the fact that the Earth is slightly fatter around the Equator compared to the other poles) means that any mountain on the Equator is further from the centre of the earth. Therefore, Chimborazo (6268m altitude) is a whole 2072m further from the centre of the earth or closer to the sun than Mount Everest!
Why this obsession with the highest mountain?
Well, I first discovered Chimborazo two years ago during our 6-month trip across South America with Marie (my long-time friend and travel companion). On the morning of the 2nd of January 2018, to be precise, still recovering from our New Year’s Eve party, we cycled down more than three thousand vertical meters from the Chimborazo refuge (4800m) to the city of Riobamba (2754m) below. The sun was shining, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, something we’d later learn is quite rare, and we were able to enjoy Chimborazo’s impressive slopes from every angle as we crossed it’s different ecosystems cycling over snow, sand, moor, grass, etc. We learnt a little about the history of the mountain and it’s locally renowned spiritual aurora enough for Marie, who was so enchanted by our experience, to say to me “one day I’ll come back and climb this mountain”. Little did I know that almost two years to the day I’d back with her, attempting to climb to the point on earth closest to the sun!
In preparation of our return, Marie and I trained for months both physically and mentally. I was putting in 60 to 90 minute gym sessions 5 days a week, climbing ridiculous amounts of steps, going out of my way to get any kind of elevation gain training I could. One weekend I went to the French Alps with my in-laws and whilst they enjoyed skiing down the slopes I hitch hiked back down to the base of the mountain before hiking all the way back up, over 1000m elevation gain, through the pine forests with snowshoes! Mentally I upped my daily meditation practice, starting to build my intention, imagining myself at the summit and the feeling of elation I imagined success would bring.
And so, on the 6th of January 2020, Marie and I entered the new decade in style flying to Quito as ready as we would ever be to tackle such a challenge.
Going from sea level straight to over six thousand meters isn’t advised. It takes time for your body to adjust to the lack of oxygen and to the effects of high altitude, a process of acclimatisation is indeed recommended. Over ten days Marie and I enjoyed some beautiful hikes and climbs in Quito, Cotopaxi National Park & El Altar, progressively climbing higher and higher, becoming accustomed to the decrease in oxygen levels that you really start to feel as get above 4500m.
Even though we were “only” away for two weeks it felt like we were back traveling again. As free as birds, content as could be with nothing more than our backpacks on our backs, our walking boots on our feet, a simple avocado and tomato sandwich in our stomachs and an infinite amount of beautiful nature surrounding us for all our senses to soak in.
When we arrived at the Chimborazo Refuge, our base camp for our climb, I felt a mixture of fear and excitement telling me that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. We spent two days & nights in and around the Refuge at 4800m making our final preparations. Just to give you some perspective that’s like stopping over on the summit of the Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, for 48 hours with around 50% less oxygen in the air compared to sea level!
On the day of the climb, the weather conditions weren’t looking great. No-one had reached the summit the night before due to strong winds making certain passages too dangerous. We stretched our legs with a short walk up to 5100m in the morning then spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun and the mountains’ beauty, journaling, building cairns and playing silly card games.
At 5pm we had supper, by 6pm we were in bed and at 9pm we were up again and “having breakfast”. At 10pm we were kitted up, ready to head out into the night with Fabian our lovely local guide. The sky was clear and the stars were absolutely amazing and the first few steps in the cold night air were sheer joy! After two hours of putting one foot in front of the other I sensed that Marie was struggling. We took a short break and she confirmed my fears. She was feeling sick, a common sign of altitude sickness. We pushed on aiming to take a longer break at 5600m before a particularly technical stretch. Before stopping again we crossed four groups coming back down the mountain proclaiming the wind was too strong further up and that they were giving up and heading back down. It wasn’t great for moral but we kept our heads down and focused carefully on where we put our feet as a meter left or right at times would have meant a long fall.
When we stopped again Marie told me that she couldn’t go on, she offered to join another rope team going back down and suggested I continued alone with our guide. I won’t lie, I was tempted. Part of me wanted to see how far I could push myself because other than the extreme cold I felt physically fine and the altitude wasn’t affecting me. But on the other hand my friend was there bent over double in pain suggesting she could go back down with a group of strangers. In the end there was no decision to make; we’d come as a team, we’d go back down as a team. Given Marie’s physical state on the descent I was so glad of my decision, to be there and able to support her was more important than anything else and going on without her just wouldn’t have been the same.
At first Marie seemed disappointed, frustrated, sad and even a little guilty. Strangely, I felt calm. Earlier that night I’d heard another guide explaining to his group “the summit isn’t when you get to the top, it’s when you get back safely here to the Refuge”. It’s true that 80% of accidents happen on the way back down mountains. The weather conditions were such that even if I’d pushed on the chances of me reaching the summit were very slim. I had no regrets whatsoever getting back safely as a team.
So if I come back to Oscar Wilde’s quote from the start what I learnt was that in the end it wasn’t getting to the top that was important, it was having tried, having understood new things about myself and having created a deeper level of awareness of my limits . Being humbled by the great Chimborazo was an honour, accepting defeat, sharing pain and embracing grief were all part of the experience. Indeed I lost my Nanna whilst we were away and one of Marie’s main drivers for the climb was to be closer to her father that she’d lost 7 years earlier. The three days on the mountain gave us that spiritual space to be with those that were no longer with us. Simply sitting in silence admiring the beauty of the mountain, meditating, writing a prayer for my Nanna and Marie for her father and leaving them under a cairn at 4800m, closer to the stars than if you were on the summit of Everst, felt so freeing, so right, it’s making my eyes water just thinking back to it now.
We didn’t make the summit this time but I have no doubt that there will be other attempts at this mountain or others. What was supposed to be a “climb” turned out to be so much more. By taking time to enjoy the simple things, to live in the present moment, to enjoy the company of strangers I reconnected with myself and with what’s important to me. That’s worth any summit in my opinion!
And if I come back to the initial debate about which mountain is highest I guess that all that is important in my eyes is that everyone finds their own Chimborazo. Whether it’s a mountain or another challenge it doesn’t matter, the idea is simply to find something that takes you out of your comfort zone, teaches you, humbles you, helps you grow and contributes to making you a better person. Our current world crisis with this contagious virus might be just that challenge for you? How to keep you head held high and move forward with positivity, love and gratitude for example?
Before moving onto my next challenge, I simply wanted to acknowledge my experience with the Chimborazo and share my gratitude for having learnt so much about humility, bravery, love, friendship, faith and adventure to name just a few.