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Was It Ultralight Hiking or Mountaineering?


It was just hiking at first, scrambling around at 16,000 feet. In the morning it would become mountaineering. The climb up the glaciers to the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador isn't considered highly technical. How hard could it be, considering I went to 20,600 feet the first time I used crampons and an ice axe?

Actually, I had used them once, for practice, on a sledding hill near my house, climbing almost 40 feet while people walked past me dragging their sleds, and telling their kids to stay away from me. In any case, here is my mountain hiking/mountaineering story.

First of all, it is much easier to climb a mountain when the guide drives you to 15,000 feet. Don't get me wrong. Hiking and climbing that last 5,600 feet was one of the most difficult things I've done in my life, but not for the skill required. The fact that the air was missing half of its oxygen is what had me quitting twenty or thirty times on the way up. It just gets difficult to move up there.

The Graveyard

The headstones near the first refuge weren't for climbers without skill. The graveyard is a testament to the unpredictability of high places. Chimborazo is very high, randomly drops large rocks on you, and has weather that changes by the minute. Even as we were hiking up the mountain to the second refuge, we could hear the rocks and pieces of ice falling above.

El Refugio Edward Whymper an unheated hut at 16,000 feet. It is named after the English climber who first made it to the summit of the mountain. After "mate de coca" a tea made of coca leaves, we went hiking for a short while. That was my acclimatization. Then, we ate. I slept for at least an hour before starting the ascent at eleven that night.

Ultralight Mountain Hiking

My guide, Paco, didn't like the ultralight part of this mountain hiking adventure. He frowned when he saw my 17-ounce sleeping bag packed smaller than a football. My 13-ounce frame less backpack didn't impress him either. In any case, although it did get below freezing in the hut, as he said it would, I stayed warm, as I said I would. No problems so far.

Paco, unfortunately, didn't speak a word of English, and I was just learning Spanish. Since our whole group consisted of him and me, we had some communication problems. I thought, for example, that the $11 fee for the hut was included in the $130 guide fee. He thought that I was a mountain climber. I think he was saying that he didn't like my papery rain suit I was using as a shell. He frowned at my homemade 1-ounce ski mask. When he saw me putting on my insulating vest, a 4-ounce piece of poly batting with a hole cut in it for my head...well, I pretended not to understand what he was saying.

I hadn't intended to go ultralight mountain hiking or mountaineering, but I came to Ecuador on a courier flight which allowed me only carry-on luggage. I had only 12 pounds in the pack to begin with, so by the time I put on all the clothes that night, the weight on my back was irrelevant. The weight of my body, however, wasn't. Paco had to coax me up that mountain.

Hiking on Glaciers

The glaciers start a short distance from the hut, and hiking soon became climbing. I put on crampons for the second time in my life (there was that sledding hill). During one of my many breaks (too many, which I pretended not to understand when Paco explained in Spanish), I noticed that my cheap thermometer had bottomed out at 5 degrees Fahrenheit. I wasn't cold, but I was exhausted, at least when I moved. When I sat still I felt like I could run right up that hill.

We struggled (okay, I struggled) up the mountain, hiking, climbing, jumping over crevasses, until I quit at 20,000 feet. Of course I had quit at 19,000 feet too. Quitting had become my routine. Lying had become Paco's, so he told me the summit was just fifty feet higher.

The sky was a stunning shade of blue that you never can see at lower elevations. We arrived at the summit at dawn. Cotapaxi, a classic snow-covered volcano, was clearly visible 70 or 80 miles away. Dirtbag Joe, a nineteen-year-old kid from California with ten dollars in his pocket and borrowed equipment, was waiting for us with a smile. Handshakes all around, and it was time to get off the mountain.

Paco kept looking at his watch and frowning. He got further and further ahead of me. I caught up to him at the hut at nine a.m., and I began to hear the rocks fall out of the ice above as the sun warmed it. Now I understood his concern with the time. We really did need to get down to the refuge by nine a.m. A thousand feet lower and my mountain hiking adventure ended with a photograph that doesn't show my shaking knees.

Notes: The sleeping bag was a Western Mountaineering Highlite, and the backpack was a GoLite Breeze. I recommend both if you want to travel light. The rain suit, which weighs only 7 ounces per piece, and is waterproof and breathable, is from Frogg Toggs.

Also Recommended: Free Spanish Lessons (My wife, who is from Ecuador, runs this site.)

If, like myself, you particularly like hiking and backpacking in the mountains, be sure to check out The Mountain Hiking Site.


The Ultralight Backpacking Site | Ultralight Mountain Hiking or Mountaineering?