Image: Nick Stang
Image: Nick Stang
Exhausted from the nocturnal climb and with the subzero cold piercing through his clothing, Nick Stang takes in an extraordinary view that relatively few have witnessed. There’s plenty on his mind: how far he’s come and how far he must descend, but above all, that this highly treacherous ascent has been a success. Now it’s just a question of getting back to civilization.
Despite the challenges to come, though, as dawn breaks and sunlight splashes across the snowy surfaces below, an extremely weary Stang knows that he has accomplished something truly remarkable: reaching the very summit of Ecuador’s Mount Chimborazo, the highest point on Earth.
Image: Magnus von Koeller
Daredevil Stang first attempted to climb Chimborazo in 2008, but sickness kept him grounded in Riobamba, Ecuador. The feat was never very far from the adventurer’s mind, however, and he eventually returned to the Andes healthier and stronger in order to tackle this most awesome of ascents. Local guide Juan Carlos was enlisted as Stang’s companion for this 2011 expedition.
Preparation was key for Stang, who readily understood the importance of using the correct equipment and familiarizing himself with the terrain that he was about to face. He bundled himself in layers of clothing – ensuring that the outermost one was waterproof – and slid his feet into plastic climbing boots with crampons attached. Stang also made sure that an ice axe and harness came along with him for the trip.
Another of Stang’s main considerations was crucial: ensuring that his lungs could handle the lack of oxygen he and his companion would experience during the climb. Hence, before the Chimborazo ascent, he conquered Ecuador’s Illiniza Norte and Cotopaxi – two challenging but smaller peaks not far from his ultimate destination – to acclimatize his body.
Once the mountaineer had done all the necessary groundwork, it was time to start the ascent. Stang and Carlos set out at night – the safest time to climb Chimborazo, given that its upper reaches are glacier-covered: since it is colder after dark, the glacier is less likely to begin breaking up and cause an avalanche at that period.
However, the beginning of the ascent presented another problem, as Stang and his companion encountered a frozen section of gravel and small rocks, also known as moraine. Trekking over this proved difficult, since even climbers’ crampons have trouble gripping the unstable terrain.
Indeed, for what was undoubtedly the most epic climb of Stang’s life, it was necessary for him to proceed with expert precision. Fortunately, though, he wasn’t without practice. “I had done winter mountaineering in Scotland so knew how to use the equipment properly,” the adventurer tells Scribol. “I had also done glacier climbs in the French Alps, Pyrenees and Turkey… [and] had a taste of high altitude on Kilimanjaro in Africa as well.”
Once Stang and Carlos had negotiated the loose rock underfoot, the pair faced their next challenge. Where the rock ends and the glacier begins marks the hardest part of the journey, for it’s here that rock fall can occur – meaning that the adventurers had to scale the hazardous section as swiftly as possible.
However, the climbers were able to concentrate on potential perils thanks in part to the lack of scenic variation during the ascent. “Chimborazo doesn’t contain a lot of features,” Stang explains, “so once you are on the main glacier it is a long, slow climb up an endless snow slope. This goes on for seven to eight hours with little to break the monotony.”
For safety, Stang and Carlos were attached to each other via a rope for the duration of the ascent. On a mountain with a 78-mile circumference, becoming separated could have proven fatal. “I think to climb any mountain in the world you are putting yourself at some risk,” Stang says. “But for me that is part of the draw – pushing yourself both physically and mentally to get to a place that isn’t very accessible.”
And the summit of Chimborazo is far from easily accessible, as might be expected of the highest peak in the world. In terms of height above sea level, Mount Everest represents the Earth’s loftiest point. Chimborazo, though, is further away from the planet’s innermost part – a quirk arising from the fact that the Earth isn’t a perfect sphere; rather, it bulges slightly around the equator.
Chimborazo’s position just a single latitudinal degree to the south of the equator means that the distance between it and the Earth’s core measures 3,968 miles – 7,000 feet further than from the top of the Himalayas. Sized up in this way, then, Chimborazo is close to a mile and a half higher than its better-known Asian mountain counterpart.
If such a height adds to the challenge of scaling Chimborazo, then so too does the peak’s inhospitable landscape – something that Stang has so brilliantly captured in his photographs of the climb. However, after walking upward over seemingly endless quantities of snow – a process the climber describes as “not just physically draining but mentally draining as well” – he and Carlos finally reached the summit.
The fact that Chimborazo is covered in pristine white stuff somewhat belies its status as a stratovolcano – that most dangerous of lava-prone volcano types. Thankfully, though, Stang was not in imminent danger of the mountain erupting; in the past eight millennia, Chimborazo has blown its top as few as seven times.
Furthermore, Mount Chimborazo towers so magnificently over the Ecuadorian Andes that it can be seen from the city of Guayaquil, some 87 miles to the west. There is no doubt that those living in and traveling to Ecuador’s largest city look up to the volcanic peak with awe. Few, though, will have had the opportunity to peer down from it.
Of Chimborazo’s four summits, Whymper and Veintimilla are the first and second highest, respectively. And despite there being only 124 feet between them in terms of elevation, many climbers call it quits once they conquer the smaller of those two summits, presumably because that final ascent is just too much. Stang, however, was determined to make it to the very top.
And his eventual arrival at the summit coincided with the spectacular Andean daybreak, the sun’s rays sleepily seeping through the heavens onto the snow underfoot. “I was just in awe of the view looking out above the clouds,” the mountaineer recalls. “We had time to sit and appreciate the view, drink some hot coffee and take a few pictures before descending.” With the freezing temperatures starting to take their toll, it was time for the adventurers to be on their way back down the peak.
Not all climbers are as lucky as Stang and Carlos, however. In November 1993 ten trekkers from parties going up and down Chimborazo were killed when an avalanche struck. The victims were buried so deeply that it took a team of more than 20 mountain guides well over a week to find their bodies.
Chimborazo has also played a part in at least one other tragedy. In 1976 a Vickers Viscount airplane with four crew and 55 passengers on board suddenly vanished from the sky. Nobody knew what had happened to SAETA Flight 232 until it was discovered by climbers on Chimborazo over a quarter of a century later.
Luckily, Stang and Carlos both made the climb and subsequent descent of Mount Chimborazo safely. “At the time it was the highest I had ever been, which made it very special,” Stang says. The adventurer has since gone on to tackle challenges across Russia, various parts of Asia, Australia and Central and South America, and he no doubt plans to continue climbing as much – and as high – as he can.