We reached the campsite at about 2pm, a flattish expanse of gravel and boulders at about 5,100m (16,732ft) where we put up the tents. I managed to force down some instant noodles, gazing up at the summit, panting slightly from the exertion of eating. All I had to do was climb the equivalent of Ben Nevis, I told myself – though admittedly after it had been relocated to the top of Mont Blanc. I lay down in my tent, wearing all my clothes inside the sleeping bag, shivering. Outside it began to snow. I drifted into a half-sleep, disturbed only by having to make several dashes outside: my stomach was nervous too.
I’m not sure where the challenge of climbing the world’s highest mountain came from. When I was a boy I’d read about Alexander von Humboldt, that most inspiring of explorers, who in 1802 had narrowly failed to reach the summit of an Andean peak called Chimborazo. In those days, my book had informed me, Humboldt believed it to be the highest mountain on Earth. There was more than a hint of condescension in that wording, a sense of “we know better now, don’t we?”
But we don’t. Chimborazo is still the highest mountain on Earth, at least when measured from the Earth’s centre rather than sea level. Since our planet is a squashed sphere not a round one, and peaks close to the Equator get an extra few kilometres, Ecuador’s tallest peak emerges supreme, the point on Earth closest to outer space. With this method the “top 10” of mountains is rewritten: Kilimanjaro (5,895m) leaps up to seventh from well outside the top 150 highest above sea level; Cayambe, Chimborazo’s near-neighbour, comes in eighth; Everest and the rest of the Himalayas are nowhere; and I am lying in a tent in the Andes, not Nepal.
My calculations do not end there: at 6,268m Chimborazo is, I reckon, just within reach of normal human beings, both physically and financially, whereas Everest, at 8,848m, is not. It is Chimborazo that ought to be famous, its praises sung far and wide as the greatest possible challenge for that unsung hero of modern times: the amateur.
The altitude, of course, remains a problem. I had done what preparation I could at home, but more importantly spent a week acclimatising in Ecuador. I checked into the Alta Guajan homestay in a hamlet just west of Cotacachi, two hours’ drive north of Quito, and began exercising.
The early signs were not good. Eager to prove to myself that altitude was not going to be an issue, I set out at 3,000m, walking briskly to the rim of Cuicocha volcanic crater. I had just spotted two Andean condors soaring when my head started spinning and I blacked out.
Only for a minute, and I subsequently ambled around the lake without further problems, but my confidence had taken a big knock. Back at the homestay later that day, I rubbed the lump on my head and pondered: if I fainted at 3,000m, what chance for 6,000m? I found online reports of oxygen-depleted climbers being rushed down mountains and of headaches so severe that sufferers vomited uncontrollably. I was searching for excuses – and discovering that altitude provides them in abundance.
Next day I free-wheeled a bicycle down from 3,600m into the Intag Valley, passing through gorgeous cloud forests. After a visit to a coffee plantation at 1,500m, I was filled with oxygen and caffeine, enough to cycle slowly back up. A little self-confidence was restored.
Each day I went a little higher and further, climbing to El Voladero lakes and then Fuya-Fuya, a 4,250m mountain. Every evening I dined magnificently on my hosts’ sturdy cuisine: thick soups served with popcorn, myriad fruit juices, and tortillas made with plantain. I had everything out of their garden except the fatted guinea pigs: they were saving them for a festival day. I did everything slowly and slept a lot, but the week flew past.
When it was over, I went to Quito and met my climbing guide, a highly experienced mountaineer called Estalin. I was kitted out with rental boots, ice axe and crampons. A few adventurous souls do reach the summits without ice axe experience, Estalin told me, but most have done some training beforehand.
We drove north-east from Quito, our first objective being Cayambe at 5,750m. “Then we’ll decide if you should try Chimborazo,” said Estalin ominously. Both mountains have well-run French-style huts at high altitude, accessible by 4WD vehicles. Cayambe’s is spectacularly perched on a ridge below the tongue of the glacier. “The only reason Cayambe keeps so much ice,” Estalin told me, “is all the cloud coming up from the jungle.” In fact the highest point on the entire equator is on the southern slopes of Cayambe.
I did not sleep much that night. Groups of hikers were setting out at midnight and the dormitory was noisy. At dawn I got up and spotted an Andean wolf trotting past a stunning panorama of distant snowy volcanoes. Cayambe itself, however, was shrouded in cloud. A few hours later the first successful climbers were back from the summit where they had seen nothing. There were other groups too, not so jubilant. Estalin reckoned that only half of those who’d set out succeed.
I had a slight headache by then. Was this too ambitious for me? I remembered Robert Browning’s words: “…a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Was I far beyond both my reach and grasp?
By 10am Estalin and I were roped together on the glacier, zig-zagging our way upwards at a gentle plod. Most Cayambe climbs are done at night to avoid rock falls, but Estalin had noticed that the normal pattern of clear dawns and cloudy sunsets had been reversed for the past few days. We were prepared to push on, and after a couple of hours, started heading for the top. Then we hit the crevasses.
I had not expected this. Savage blue gashes disappearing down into blackness that we had to jump or negotiate via snow bridges. This is when you want to know your guide has done crevasse rescue training. “That is the toughest part of the exam,” said Estalin as I shaped up to leap a four-foot gap and land on a rather sketchy-looking ledge of ice. “They dangle someone down a crevasse and you have to get them out inside 20 minutes, or fail.”
“You passed first time?”
I jumped. My ice axe whacked into the slope and stuck fast. I hauled myself up. Estalin followed. We moved slowly up a crumbly ridge and then skirted a massive crevasse. Now the slope steepened to 60 degrees and I got a sniff of the summit, speeding up a little. Almost immediately I began to flounder in the soft ice and snow. “You’ve got summit fever,” Estalin shouted. “Slow down!”
Thirty minutes later we made it, soon followed by another guide and his client, a Californian climber. We were the only ones. All below was white cloud, all above was blue. Since Cayambe is the eighth nearest point to space, it seemed likely we were higher than anyone else on the planet at that moment – an exhilarating thought.
Four hours later we were back at the hut, drinking herbal tea in celebration. The entire climb had taken about 12 hours and I was already wondering if I could lift myself to the greater effort required for Chimborazo. Estalin, however, had decided that I could. “We must ascend at night because of rockfall, but we could camp at Stübel glacier. That way you’ll get a bit closer to the peak in daylight.”
So it was that, two days later, we were there, having paid a few dollars for a porter to lug tents up from the Carrel refuge.
The stars that night were fantastic. A meteorite shower scratched icy claw marks across the sky. By 11pm we were moving in a slow deliberate plod. “Chimborazo is like meditation,” said Estalin. “Don’t think about altitude. Don’t think about the summit. Don’t think about anything except your breath. Step, breath, step, breath.”
We climbed the glacier, then made a traverse across to the main path on the ridge. I could see the head torches of other climbers coming up from below. The slope was relentless and the ice extremely hard and, as the hours passed, all those head torches turned back. We kept going. I was fully occupied with a new meditation: how to cope with a bout of Montezuma’s Revenge on a near-vertical ice rink? As dawn approached, the clouds closed in, but suddenly the slope relented and we were on top.
“This summit is called Veintimilla,” said Estalin, “It’s 6,230 metres. The highest point is over there – another 38 metres.”
I squatted down – stomach churning and head spinning. I saw a green rabbit dodge behind an ice wall. I’d hoped to think wonderful thoughts of our proximity to space, instead I was hallucinating rodents. “I need 10 minutes,” I said, standing up. Only a few metres more after so many thousands.
“There’s no time,” declared Estalin, as heavy snow started to fall. “This weather is dangerous. We need to descend.”
I did try: stumbling pitifully through a maddening field of crumbling rutted ice. But on starting that last climb, I had nothing left. “If I had a decent rest…”
But Estalin was adamant we should descend. I tried to calculate what 38 metres was in feet, but my brain refused to work. Another green rabbit distracted me.
The descent was extremely long and cold. We reached the hut – a copy of the one on Cayambe – after 14 hours. An eager young couple from Slovenia fired questions at me about the climb. My advice was somewhat limited. “Take a big hot flask of sweet tea. Don’t think about anything.”
Estalin told me about a mountain in Peru called Cayesh. He showed me a photo on his phone: a terrifying vertical wall of rock and ice, soaring to a needlepoint summit. A year before he had got within a whisker of the summit, only to be driven back by exhaustion and bad weather. Next year he would try again.
I looked at that rock face and knew I could never attempt such a monster. Paradoxically you must know your limits when setting yourself challenges. It has to be somewhere in that space between your grasp and your reach. Frustratingly, however, you can only gauge that distance through pushing yourself to the limit. And now, after Chimborazo, I had successfully measured the distance very precisely, for me at least. It is 38 metres and two green rabbits.
• The trip was provided by Sumak Travel (020-3642 4246, sumak-travel.org). A private 13-day tour of Quito, the Andean region and the Pacific coast, including guides, activities, most meals, but excluding international flights, costs £1,520pp. Return Heathrow-Quito flights from £531pp with KLM, and can also be arranged by Sumak. The Cayambe volcano climb (three days, £395pp) and the Chimborazo summit excursion (four days, £540pp) can be added. Travellers are accompanied by English-speaking, certified local guides throughout. It is essential to have a good guide and some mountaineering experience before tackling high peaks in Ecuador. The Ecuadorian Guides Association has a list of accredited guides – including the first female guide, Juliana Garcia
GOING UP: TOP FIVE MOUNTAINS FOR AMATEUR CLIMBERS
Peaking at 917m, Tryfan, in Snowdonia, is less well known than Snowdon, but it’s a great place to start if you want to move up from simple hiking or walking, and it takes about four hours to the top. A scrambler’s paradise, the North Ridge offers countless opportunities for climbing – challenging and pleasing in the summer, more difficult in the winter.
Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
The highest mountain in Africa at 5,895m, Mount Kilimanjaro is also the tallest free-standing mountain in the world. It is renowned for the views from its top, and the easiest technical climb of the Seven Summits (the highest mountains of each continents). I would recommend an amateur climber do the eight-day Lemosho route, which is 44 miles point to point. Allow time to acclimatise – failing to cope with the altitude is the most common reason for not making it to the summit.
Mount Fuji, Japan
Japan’s highest volcano is also its highest peak (3,776m), offering overnight walkers spectacular views at sunrise. The Subashiri Trail, starting from the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, is the easiest route to access, and will take a fit hiker 5-7 hours to ascend and 3-5 hours to descend.
Mont Blanc, France
The highest mountain in the Alps, Mont Blanc (4,810m) is a rewarding climb in stunning surroundings. The fantastic Gouter route includes a two-day climb. It’s not technically difficult, but there is some tricky scrambling, particularly in bad weather, so a good level of fitness is essential.
Situated near the Argentina-Chile border, Aconcagua (6,961m) is the highest mountain above sea level outside Asia, and thus offers climbers a view from the roof of the southern hemisphere. For an amateur climber, I recommend the Northwest route: various companies organise a 21-day trip (which includes time to acclimatise). It’s a non-technical ascent, but a high level of fitness is required, and the altitude can be a problem if you are not properly acclimatised.
Rupert is attempting to become the first Briton to climb Everest twice in one trip – consecutively, on two different routes, to raise funds for Chestnut Tree House (everest2k16.com)