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#Chimborazo2015 Expedition Post 11: Sara’s Blog - SUMMIT!!!

Published on October, 22nd 2015
By Greg Wells

In my last post, I discussed how we had acclimatized well and how we were as prepared as we could be for climbing Chimborazo. If only I could warn my past self for what was to come. To say that reaching the summit of Chimborazo was hard is a gross understatement. Despite our weeklong acclimatization and training, we were extremely unprepared for the difficulty of this expedition. I swam competitively for 14 years, during which time I trained 8 times per week and completed numerous intense training camps, and nothing can even come close to how hard that mountain climb was.

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We started the ascent at 11pm and other than small breaks we didn’t stop until we finished our descent at 12:15pm the next day. Over those 13 hours we climbed from 4800m to 6300m above sea level – the farthest point from the centre of the earth – and back down again. My oxygen saturation was around 65% even from the beginning of the climb, the lowest it was all week. To put that into perspective, at sea level, 99% is normal, and at the top of Everest, 50% saturation is common without supplemental oxygen. Let’s just say I didn’t feel good. For 12 of the 13 hours, I felt like throwing up (two hours into the climb as I’m curled in a ball, Gill wasn’t sure if I was even going to make it up halfway). To top it off, the terrain was rough, steep, and got more challenging the higher we went.

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The first few hours consisted of climbing up a rocky, narrow path, right beside a steep drop off the side of the mountain. All of this was accomplished in the dark, so everyone was using their headlamps to follow the person in front of them, hoping they weren’t going to make any wrong steps. That was the “easy” part. The second portion of the climb (from about 5700m to the summit) was on ice. Gill and I were in one rope team, attached to our guide Paul as he led the way up the glacier. The first hour or so went okay as we practiced our ice climbing techniques we learned a few days earlier. However, as we climbed higher, the terrain became steeper and more inconsistent. Due to the dry season, and ash blowing over from a nearby volcano, the glacier developed giant stalagmite-type structures called penitentes. This added to the difficulty, as we had to wind our way around these 1-2 metre high formations. Finding good footholds was almost impossible as we zigzagged back and forth around these structures. Once we finally made it through a rough area, the next section was even steeper (at around 6000m the slope was at a 50 degree incline). This process went on for four hours.

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At a certain point, Gill and I ditched all of our ice climbing training and reverted to the army crawl along the snow and ice (with Paul yanking on my rope like a leash trying to get me to stand back up). We were using everything we possibly could to get up that mountain – hands, ice pick, knees, feet, and elbows. We took two-minute breaks every 15 minutes to try and recover, but the breaks were more mental than anything. We were going at such a snail’s pace that it wasn’t our burning muscles (my lactate was only 1.5), but rather our drive to keep going that was the problem. To make one more step seemed like an impossible task. The only thing I could chant in my head was “left, right, left right…”. Finally, somehow or another, after 9 hours of climbing, we made it to the top.

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There is something to be said for putting your body in that amount of pain and not giving up. I can thank years of competitive swimming for that mental strength. However, not making it to the top was never even an option. Maybe it was because of the lack of oxygen (causing me to be completely delirious), but even when I was so tired I could barely lift my legs and the rest of our group had bailed, I didn’t even consider not making it to the summit. I kept thinking “I didn’t climb for 8 hours just to stop at 6000m. I don’t care that the last 300m takes us two hours, we’re going to make it”. It was only after the fact that Gill and I learned that the success rate is only 30-40% in good conditions – and the conditions that day were less than ideal. Nobody could believe that we made it to the summit. In fact, in addition to being the only ones from our group to make it up, we were also the only ones who made it out of all of the people who attempted the climb that week. Apparently this was a much harder mountain than we thought going into it! Who knows, maybe if we had known how hard a climb it was we would have been more mentally prepared, or maybe it would have psyched us out.

For about 10 minutes, Gill and I were the furthest humans from the centre of the earth (in other words the closest people to the stars!). While I didn’t feel this ecstatic feeling at the time (due to my severe dehydration and fatigue), I sure felt happy about it a few hours later. This raw measure of success is something you can’t compare to anything else. Maybe that’s the reason why despite all of the pain during those 13 hours, I can’t wait to do another mountain.

Farewell Ecuador, it’s been a blast! Until our next expedition.

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