FROM: La Paz, Bolivia

Sua and Mompiche, Ecuador

I headed west from Quito to try out the Ecuadoran coast. My two stops were Sua and Mompiche, a pair of sleepy little beach towns in the Esmereldas canton. Sua is located about 10 km south of the popular tourist town Atacames and isn’t really much other than a small beach. Mompiche is a popular surf spot that is home to one of the best waves in Ecuador. The two towns provided a great chance to lay low for a couple days, do some work, and get a taste of the local culture.

The Sua nightlife

The Sua nightlife

The only real excitement happened my first night Sua. I heard a band playing in the town square from my hotel and decided to check out the local tunes. Immediately after reaching the square, I was pulled from my spot on the fringe up to the third row of seats by an aggressively friendly local. I was confused at first by his very insistent demeanor but soon had the explanation as I realized that the “concert” was in fact a church service.

Not quite the concert I was looking for

Not exactly the concert I was looking for

After only a single song, I was stuck listening to a parade of speakers passionately exhort the congregation to ever more enthusiastic praise for “Señor Jesus Cristo” (for some reason, I found the “Señor” hilarious. “Mister” Jesus Christ?). At least there was some music scattered throughout the service, so it wasn’t a total loss beyond the 50 cents I felt obliged to drop into the offering basket.

I have to admit that I probably tolerated the experience significantly more easily in Spanish than I would have in English. Not understanding a word made the religious fervor far more palatable.

Riobamba and Mt. Chimborazo, Ecuador

I decided to add a little fun to the mix after the laid back beach towns. I travelled to Riobamba in the central mountain region to take a stab at Mt. Chimborazo. Chimborazo has a few claims to fame despite not being the most famous of peaks.

First, it is the highest peak in Ecuador at 6,268m/20,500ft. Second, due to the earth’s bulge at the equator, it is actually the highest point on earth. The summit reaches over 2,200 meters closer to the sun than Mt. Everest.

Happy to be on solid ground.

Crampons, ice axe, helmet. Let’s do it!

I arranged my trip with one of the two major guide agencies in town. The agency had gotten good reviews and seemed to be the most professional of the two. The agency owner assured me that the mountain had plenty of snow, which meant the climb would not involve significant amounts of technical ice climbing.

After two days of acclimatization hikes, the guide picked me up at 10pm (over an hour late) and took me to the base camp. We hit the trail at 11:15pm at 4,800 meters and made good time to about 5,150m. That’s when we hit the first ice patch and I discovered just how wrong the owner was. I found myself inching across a string of ice walls (near-vertical rock faces with a thin veneer of ice over the surface) with massive drops below.

Mt. Chimborazo with vicuna in the foreground

Mt. Chimborazo with a pair of vicuna in the foreground

Although I was roped to a guide who said he’d climbed the mountain 80 times, his seeming unfamiliarity with the mountain left me seriously doubtful. It didn’t help that the guide didn’t speak English so we were communicating with my feeble Spanish.

I decided that enough was enough as I made attempt after attempt to sink my axe into the ice only to have it carom wildly of the rock face just underneath. I pulled the plug on the climb despite still feeling strong as we hit the glacier at 5,600m/18,375ft. I wasn’t ready to risk tiring myself out reaching the summit and then have nothing left to tackle the ice on the way down.

Sunrise below Mt. Chimborazo

A frosty sunrise below Mt. Chimborazo

We took a different route going down to avoid the ice patches. That was another major failure as we crossed an even bigger ice wall. The highlight was the guide muttering, “No seguridad” and “Oh, Dios mio, oh Dios mio” as he climbed down to were I clung precariously to the ice below.

That seemed about right. Obviously (given the existence of this post), we ultimately made it down to the trailhead. I was happy to have made it off the mountain and totally unhappy with the guide. His route planning and knowledge of the mountain conditions seemed to be substantially lacking and were well below what I had been assured.

The agency owner later told me that two excessively warm days had turned a lot of snow to ice, but I’m still not comfortable with how things worked out. I can’t shake the impression that they just shuttle tourist climbers up the mountain regardless of the conditions, while knowing that most won’t make it to the top.

Getting ripped off is one thing, but being put in danger in the process is a whole different ball game.

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