RIOBAMBA, ECUADOR — I arrive in Riobamba to find ash on the ground from the recent eruption of nearby Volcán Tungurahua. Every time a gust of wind comes along it kicks up clouds of ash, which subsequently become grit between your teeth, turns your eyes red, and generally makes things unpleasant. Many storefronts have heavy sheets of plastic across their entrances in an effort to keep the ash at bay, but it's insidious stuff that somehow manages to get everywhere. I had arranged to meet my friend Juliette in here; Juliette is from Switzerland and we met in Quito. We found each other at the Hostel Oasis and shared travel stories over an improvised dinner of pasta, tomato paste, and canned tuna. Hey, you make due with what you can find.
The following morning we left at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to the day's destination - Chimborazo, the highest volcano in the world at 6310m (20,700 ft). Owing to the bulge in the earth around the equator, Chimborazo's summit is farther from the center of the world than any other point on the planet, even Mt. Everest. Climbing it is a serious undertaking even for experienced mountaineers, and though I would love to climb it someday, that wasn't our goal. We wanted to hike to the higher of the two climbing refuges used by climbers on their way to the summit, el Refugio Whymper, at 5000m.
Standing, we bounced along in the bus for close to an hour before the sun broke across the horizon, revealing that we had ascended and were now crossing the arenal, a high desert plateau almost completely devoid of plant life. The entire scene looked remarkably similar to photographs sent back to Earth by Martian spacecraft. Upon reaching the park entrance the driver slowed for us to exit, though in true Ecuadorian fashion he never actually stopped, and we jumped from the moving bus. When it disappeared over a distant rise we found ourselves alone in the arenal, literally standing by the side of a lonely road in the middle of nowhere.
A lone truck crosses the barren arenal.
If Chimborazo were in North America or Europe it would be supported by some serious infrastructure - paved roads, visitor centers, souvenir shops, motels, restaurants - but not so in South America. Looking across the highway, a lone sign next to a dirt track announced the entrance to the Chimborazo Wildlife Preserve, behind it the massive peak of Chimborazo itself, framed by intense blue sky.
We would need to follow that dirt track for approximately 8km, after which we could climb to the refuge. Commencing our hike I felt the altitude for the first time since arriving in Ecuador. At more than 4000m we are already quite high, and had another 1000m to go. Ascending the dirt track the terrain dropped away around us, leaving behind arenal in exchange for the foothills of the volcano. Occasionally we had close encounters with vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama, making their way across the barren landscape, no doubt wondering what these strange two-legged creatures were doing in their home. Upon reaching the First Refugio at 4800m we took a short break, then continued on to the Refugio Whymper at 5000m.
Taking a break at the Refugio Whymper.
Juliette and I were both feeling great at 5000m. Grinning at one another we decide to go higher. I almost felt as if I could reach out and touch the icefall coming off the summit; in reality it would take several hours to travel that far. Somewhere beyond 5200m (17,000 ft.) we finally turned around - not because we were tired, but because we needed to get back to Riobamba at a reasonable hour. Pausing to take a couple of self-portraits, we descended back to the refuge where the caretaker prepared cups of hot tea to go with our lunches.
At the park entrance we again found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, along the lonely highway crossing the arenal. One of the great things about Ecuador is that it has frequent buses traversing almost ever corner of the country, and we waited less than 30 minutes before flagging down a passing bus for the ride back to Riobamba, arriving just in time to buy the last remaining tickets for our next day's adventure - the train down the Nariz del Diablo.