Was It Ultralight Hiking or Mountaineering?
By Steve Gillman
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
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 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
Also Recommended: Free
Spanish Lessons (My wife, who is from Ecuador, runs this
If, like myself, you particularly like hiking and backpacking
in the mountains, be sure to check out The
Mountain Hiking Site.