I looked over at Raul, the snow blasting my face, and saw him shifting his jacket to better protect his eyes. He was constantly shifting, looking down the mountain at the train of headlamps below us piercing the bitter darkness. The snow and spindrift split through seams between my jackets and pants. It bombarded my neck and ripped at my exposed cheeks. But I wanted this summit. I’d never summited a mountain over 14,500 feet and here we were at 18,500 feet, just 2,000 feet shy of the summit. We could roll and be back down before dawn at the pace we were hitting. The snow would let up and I’d hope for a moment, and then it would return and crush any prospect of continuing up the mountain. We needed to go down. And we needed to make that decision while we still had time.
The idea for climbing Chimborazo, the highest volcano in Ecuador, and the furthest peak from the center of the Earth on the planet, a full 2km further than Everest, came a couple months earlier while I was studying for my first board exam. I have a habit of crazy summer adventures, amplified often by obligations in the spring which give me itchy feet and an insatiable craving for outdoor playtime. The longer I am required to sit still, the crazier the adventures end up being. The summer before it was more tame, with a skirt around Iceland for a couple weeks and miscellaneous adventures in the area. Two years before I was on the Appalachian Trail ignoring every ache and pain in my body that was telling me 35+ mile days of hiking day after day after day was killing me. And the year before that I was living in my car road tripping out west.
The plan would go like this: I would take my 8 hour board exam at the end of May, after which I’d be free from academic obligations until the end of June. Let’s do something dumb. My mom and I would fly down to Ecuador to have a fun trip to the jungle and elsewhere, doing safe things like canoeing frighteningly close to Cayman alligators and swimming with pink river dolphins. TIIIIGHT. Then we would drive back to the airport where she would return home, leaving me to do the dangerous stuff. I would spend the night in Riobamba, an awesome city, and then drive on up to Chimborazo the next day, spending all day at the entrance station at over 14k feet and then spending the night even higher at the Refugio at 15,800 feet, all with a heavy dose of acetazolamide.
“Do you all have any rooms for the night?” I asked the Refugio manager for the day in horrible broken Spanish that I won’t try to repeat here.
“Ahhh nooo,” he looks back at me with an apologetic frown.
Cool. So things didn’t go exactly according to plan but hey that’s the mountains. But hey, I’m at the highest elevation I’ve ever been outside of a pressurized cabin and I’m not puking my guts out so that’s a perk. And that’s no small perk. You remember me mentioning that road trip out west three years ago? Yeah that one nearly killed me, with my first 14k foot mountain putting me in the hospital for a night.
But I digress. I’m alive and well at nearly 16k feet with no shelter besides a Chevy Spark that I rented in Quito. Many of you might not know the Chevy Spark because it’s not a common car amongst our monster SUVs and lifted trucks in the good old U.S. of A. But let’s just say it’s a little bigger than a go cart, comparable to maybe a big refrigerator, but with wheels of course. The engine sits practically on top of your shins and my hair, and I’m no giant, hell I’d be small for a hobbit, skims the roof. So now I’m challenged with the prospect of sleeping in this large refrigerator at 16k feet where I can hardly breathe, and I smell like an ogre’s buttcrack (to put it mildly). I cracked the window to vent the toxic fumes and snuggled up for the night. Not one of my better nights.
I woke up often with the benefit of getting to see the other climbers work their way up the mountain throughout the night. To safely summit Chimbo, it’s recommended to start around 10pm to get up and back down before the midday sun makes the snow slick and prone to sliding. I got a few hours of very uncomfortable sleep but I got it done and the next morning felt infinitely better without the dull headache and consistent gasping for air that comes with a race to high altitude from 10k feet to 15,800 in one day like I had done.
My goals for the day were to secure a guide, climb up to 17k or above, and get to bed early to hopefully get some better rest.
Within an hour I had secured a guide and talked with some of the climbers who had not had the fortune of standing on the summit and enjoyed a breakfast which I had absolutely no appetite for. Something about altitude makes me have a total aversion for ingesting anything besides candy and gatorade (candy water). So the eggs and toast and granola would’ve been extremely appealing at sea level but here it might as well have looked like a plate of thick cow dung.
Kids who had brought up here by the parents sat at the dining room tables with their hands in their heads wondering what this atrocity in their brains could be, not knowing their blood was boiling basic like someone had transfused bleach into their bloodstream. Other would run to the bathroom and stumble out wiping the vomit from their cheeks. It was gruesome sight. But those mild discomforts paled in comparison to the graveyard sitting just uphill from the refugio, a necessary and disheartening warning to the climbers of the dozens of mountaineers prior who did not make it back down to tell their families of their accomplishment.
In the afternoon I made my way up to the next altitude record for me, at just over 17k feet, to spend the afternoon. But a couple hours into just sitting there my head began to let me know it was there and still had the power to ruin my day. So it followed through with that plan and I headed back down after getting that acclimatization. Down at the refugio I ordered dinner at 4pm and ate approximately 4 bites of it and gave well wishes to the climbers who were heading up to summit that night. It was very disorienting to me to see the goodbyes the climbers and guides would all give to each other. The guides would hug goodbye as my moronic self is sitting there thinking these guys are mighty affectionate. After using my throbbing noggin for a quick second I realized why they said such somber and serious goodbyes and well wishes. If I know I’ll see my parents in a week I peel out and wave goodbye. If I’m gonna see them the next day I don’t even tell them I’m leaving. But these guys all knew what was at stake and the very real possibility of not seeing each other again. Yikesamundo. Yikesamundo is right.
So now that I’ve seen the graveyard and everyone acting like these climbers are going off to war I’m sufficiently freaking out. Add on top of that I’m jittery from the 1.5liters of Coca cola I’ve drank and I’m a second away from a full blown panic attack. My head hurts, I have eaten maybe 1500 calories in the last 48 hours, I’m hyperventilating from the altitude, wired from caffeine, and now faced with the realization that Chimbo is a hell of a lot scarier than it looked on google images.
Why do you do this stuff Grayson?? Whyyyyy??? Go home and enjoy some time on the beach with your girlfriend you weirdo. It’s summer and you chose the coldest place you could afford to go. What is wrong with you? Seriously?
Once I got my self-deprecation out of the way I passed out. A couple ibuprofen, another acetazolamide, I was snoozing like a baby, like a baby at 16,000 feet that is.