At the Outer Limits

Climbing Ecuador's Mount Chimborazo
By Andrew Means
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From High to Low in Ecuador

Climbing thrills and rainforest riches in South America's equatorial zone.

When you're ready turn away from the heights and look down to Ecuador's rainforest lowlands, you'll find a lot more than you ever dreamed. Ecuador's Galapagos Islands are world famous as a case study for evolutionary diversity. But don't overlook the ecological richness of Ecuador's rainforest region, called El Oriente, or the east.

Ecuador's mainland is divided into roughly three vertical strips: a tropical Pacific coastline still largely untrodden by foreign tourists; a central chain of Andean mountains renowned for climbing opportunities, colonial towns and indigenous markets; and, to the east, a slice of Amazon jungle which is fast losing its frontier flavor as oil companies and eco-tourism lay claim on what was relatively unknown territory a few years ago.

The town of Riobamba makes a good basecamp for exploring both the heights of Chimborazo and the rainforest lowlands of Ecuador. It lies in the middle of the paved road between Quito and Cuenca, two beautiful towns that should be on the itinerary of any traveller to Ecuador's interior. Riobamba offers a good range of hotels, hostels and guide services. Recreational pursuits in the region include climbing, hiking, volcano watching and hang gliding, and the trainride down to the coastal port of Guayaquil is renowned for its scenery.

In his article Elusive Riches, Andrew Means journeys into Ecuador's eastern rainforest for a engaging glimpse at the region's environment and culture.


In July and August, the views from Riobamba can be deceptively tame.

The central Ecuadorian city is flanked by so many peaks the region is known as the Avenue of the Volcanoes. Yet clouds can mask the snowy outlines of the Andes for days at a time.

Then comes a break in the weather, and the mountains are embossed upon a dazzling alpine sky. The imposing domes of Chimborazo and El Carihuairazo on one side; the jagged point of Altar on another; the still-active cone of Sangay enmeshed in clouds drifting up from the jungle.

Though known to climbers since British mountaineer Edward Whymper made the first recorded ascent in 1880, Chimborazo is not the household name that Everest is. And yet the 20,561 foot mountain has its own impressive claim to fame. Because the planet is at its widest circumference at the equator, Chimborazo's summit is the furthest point from the center of the Earth. Apparently that's two miles further than the top of Everest."Consequently," as Ecuadorian tour guide Antonio Torres put it during a recent trip to the area, "on top of Mount Chimborazo is where you're going to be orbiting faster than anywhere else—and where you're going to weigh less than anywhere else on the planet."

Whymper was already a veteran of the slopes, with a renowned 1865 ascent of Switzerland's Matterhorn to his credit, when he climbed Chimborazo. Unlike the Matterhorn, Chimborazo claimed no lives from the Whymper party. But more recent expeditions have not been so fortunate.

Twenty two people have died on Chimborazo since 1960, says Maria Donoso, whose father's company, Alta Montaqa, administers two shelters, or refuges, on the main approach route and also organizes climbing expeditions.

Plaques and memorials commemorating the dead are an antidote for lightheadedness as the trail starts to wind up from the first of the refuges. But the risks apparently add to the attraction. About 600 people attempt the climb annually, Donoso says, with about 100 making it to the top. To her knowledge, the oldest to achieve the summit was 69 and the youngest 15.

This is a trek for the experienced mountaineer, whatever the age. Those who attempt the eight-hour ascent need to begin with a few days at high altitude to grow accustomed to the thin air.

Reaching the lower of the two refuges, at 16,150 feet, requires no more exertion than booking a taxi in Riobamba however. Expect the ride to the refuge to take a little longer than the hour optimistically estimated in some tourist information. Hotels can arrange a group trip. The Zeus Hotel, for instance, charges about $10 per person (based on a group of four or five) and includes a packed lunch.

As the approach road turns to dirt, there is a benignity about the distant Chimborazo that contrasts with the intimidating thrust of Altar. The road threads through multiple shades of green. The afternoon sun lends a Tiffany glow to fields precariously woven into the steep slopes. Small settlements and farms nestle into the earth, with red and purple ponchos and dark felt hats revealing their indigenous inhabitants.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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