Chimborazo: Motorcycling to the Highest Point from Center Earth
While working my way towards 20,548 feet, I was blessed with weather that was screaming “turn back!” This was affecting my normal riding style where I typically keep my visor up and sunglasses on. Today, however, I was enjoying freezing rain on my visor while cutting my way through thick cloud coverage. Flipping from high-beam to low-beam trying to decide if it was better that I see the road or someone could see me. Between flipping the light switch, I was also flipping my visor up and down as the freezing rain would smear across it - up to get the fog off, down to let my frozen tears thaw, over and over again….
Luckily, no matter what the weather, my GPS could watch the route and I could watch it. As I could make out nothing on the road, I felt more like a navigating pilot than a biker. Then, just before my main highway route turned to the final bit of two lane track towards the national park entrance, I could make out a faint swirling of red lights. Out of the fog, like an action movie set, abruptly sat several parked cars on the highway, then a smattering of police and ambulances. I crept to the front of the line to investigate the turmoil before veering off. It seemed I was not the only one having trouble seeing, as a large bus from the volcano road had not seen another large bus coming from the main road and Bammm!, out of the fog one T-boned the other. I snap a quick photo, check the road for ice, then send a quick request to the heavens for safe passage before continuing up the road.
Freezing rain and freezing fingers, is this really worth it?
Some miles later I still couldn’t make out anything outside of what was right in front of my wheel, the GPS finally insisted I turn left. However, I saw no sign of a road and continued on eventually stopping to consult another mapping application. Sure enough, I had somehow missed what would normally have been a very obvious gravel entrance marked with a large sign “Bienvenidos/Welcome Chimborazo.”
I had only been wearing my rain-jacket and not the rain-pants. As a result, by the time I rolled in my gloves and pants were soaked to the skin, not what one wants when the temperature is hovering just above freezing. I felt it was too cold too stop and had skipped the entrance sign-in hoping to find a faster route to a hot drink. Instead, I was greeted by one of the park rangers who shivered the words in Spanish for me to please come back and sign in and that I not go any further with the motorcycle, they were not allowed to drive to the base of the summit. Apparently, they felt it was unsafe to try and ride a motorcycle up a snow-covered peak across an icy route. I would need to explain to them I was from Canada and this was how we normally got around!
All formalities aside I found the hot chocolate seller and let him give me a quick chocolate fix. While searching for the hot chocolate I noticed the only shot I had for putting my tent out of the wind or snow was either half covered at the entrance to the bathrooms or entirely covered at the entrance to the museum. Entirely covered was looking better than the bathrooms so I asked the indigenous woman selling caps and mitts at the museum entrance if I could camp there. She seemed to like the idea but suggested I ask the park ranger. After a brief chat no one seemed to think it to out of place that a gringo on a motorbike wanted a night at the museum. So, I set up in the museum entrance right in front in the ambience of a giant photo with of the volcano and an alpaca hanging on the wall.
I hoped I might find some other tourists headed to the base of the summit and hitch a ride, however, the park would be closing shortly and no more vehicles were allowed in. This was all starting to look like a bit of a let down as it was so foggy I couldn’t see my feet, let alone the ice-capped peak, and I wouldn’t be allowed to go any further with the bike for a closer look. Then slowly, one by one the last of the vehicles trickled out of the park, a man selling cheese and the lady selling mitts packed up, a new night guard rolled in, and I was alone in the foggy silence freezing and a bit miffed.
Great ideas and bad ideas seem to share a fine line
Like all great ideas I’ve had just before being asked to leave someplace or having the police called, it dawned on me that I might have a little heart to heart with the new night watchmen and see if we can get around this “no motorcycles” rule. As I marched up to his door, I could hear him chuckle at the television and thought that if nothing else his mood would be right.
I knocked and was greeted with a pleasant “Buenas noches.” I replied with some Spanish pleasantries and then got straight to business. First confirming that it was only the two of us on the mountain right now, he confirmed I was correct. Then followed by asking for a small favor, that favor being that I could take my motorcycle up to the top and no one would know. He looked at me, smiled, then all he asked is how long I was going to be? It was 5:30 p.m. and would be dark in thirty minutes when I would likely be more of a going concern. I explained I would be no more then twenty to thirty minutes, he nodded and waved me in the direction of the top.
Chimborazo, Ecuador, is actually the tallest peak on earth. Being on the equator, it’s measured from the earth’s core as opposed to sea level, which is how they justify Everest being the highest. The peak sits at 20,548 feet. The highest point one can drive is 15,912 feet. Too excited to consider the side effects for myself or the bike at such a height, I put the heated grips on high, dropped into first gear and up we went.
Rewarded by an icy hello
The track up was lined with skittish alpacas who added nicely to the danger by bolting in front of me as the engine rumbled closer. Aside from a visibility of about ten feet the road was surprisingly easy at first. Then, as I rounded the last part of the route, I found the snow and ice that were the reason behind the “No Motorcycles” Posting. I knew going up was going to be easier than going down, so I resolved to just deal with that later. Slowly, I reached the base of the summit and the view from there was no better than the view from below, still completely encased in clouds.
While looking around, the weather suddenly began to change, and as if the volcano knew that I’d put in the effort to see her, she put her best effort into being seen. A little wind picked up and like the parting of the Red Sea, clouds quickly wept to each side opening up a beautiful snow-capped volcano being kissed by the sunset. I’m not sure if it was the lack of oxygen, a shot of adrenalin, or shear luck, but I was suddenly bouncing about like a sugary six-year-old snapping photos from all angles. Then, like the waters rising back up, in just a few minutes it was all over, and the volcano was again shielded by a blanket of clouds.
I soon realized that running around in fifty-pounds of biker gear at 15,000 feet had made me quite dizzy and that I’d best settle before heading back down. Having taken longer to ascend then I had anticipated, I’d be navigating a light snowfall with even less visibility in the dark for the route back. With my alpaca friends thankfully sticking to the roadside this time, I reached the bottom, started my little pocket stove at the museum and served up a classic biker pasta dinner in front of the alpaca picture.
Finishing up the day with the stove pushing out some heat in the port of my tent, I was bundled up in every piece of clothing I could fit on. After a sleepless night of thin air and chattering teeth, I was all to happy to get up and packing by 5:30 a.m. and headed back down to warmer weather.
One of the rarest photos on earth? For me it sure is. A KLR 650 at 15,000 feet sitting in the base of the Chimborazo Volcano, I’m happy to share it with the world.
Kix Marshall is a Canadian-born speaker, travel writer, and entrepreneur. His first love is travel and when it seemed he wouldn’t be able to finance a plane he settled for the next best thing, a 2009 Kawasaki KLR 650. Now he has a second love, adventure motorcycling. TravelSchooL101.com | KixMarshall.com