Volcan Chimborazo downhill adventure

13 Jan

The Central Highlands in Ecuador is an area of fire and ice containing eight of the country’s ten highest peaks and volcanos. Extinct but picturesque Volcan Chimborazo is the biggest of them all – lording over the landscape at a gigantic 6,310 metres. Chimborazo sits only several hundred kilometres away from the Equator and due to the Earth’s natural ‘bulge’ at this point, this volcano’s most amazing fact is that it’s summit is the furthest point on the planet away from the Earth’s core! Take that Everest baggers!

Not content with enjoying the panoramas of the volcano from the surrounding countryside, we wanted to get up close – to walk on it, to hear it breathing and to feel its power – and what better way to do it than to mountain bike down it from the climber’s refuge situated at 4,800 metres!

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We based ourselves in the traditional and orderly city of Riobamba which was only an hours drive away from Chimborazo and we organised our tour through the professional, safety conscious and English-speaking tour agency Pro Bici. We sped around the roof of the agency’s building testing out our double suspension, multi-gear bikes and tried our hardest not to become distracted by the ring of volcanos we could see around us!

We were collected from our hotel (friendly, clean and spacious Hotel Tren Dorado) at 8.00am and set off on another hair-brained adventure. Once we’d cleared the city, beautiful rural views started to fill the windscreen. We passed through traditional indigenous villages where women walked goats and llamas to pasture, lively markets were underway in central squares and locals crammed into the back of pick-up trucks to get around.

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Unfortunately, the early morning weather wasn’t favourable and swirling clouds threatened to start raining on us. Our guide explained that locals respect Chimborazo like it were a living creature and if the mighty mountain was to offer us a glimpse of its awesome beauty and grace us with good weather perhaps we would have to start ‘chatting him up’. So, feeling a little foolish but willing to give anything a go, we spoke out loud to the mountain telling him we’d heard he was handsome and rugged and thrilling and if he could just give us some clear weather to see his beauty and enjoy a safe bike ride we’d be eternally grateful. Blowing our scepticism out of the water, our charm offensive started to work its magic almost instantly as the clouds began to slowly shift and by the end of the day the views were unbroken.

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Our guide drove us to the first climber’s refuge at 4,800 metres and from there we walked a further 200 metres uphill to a second refuge, where we were afforded some memorable views as the wind chased the clouds through the sky and exposed the summit.

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The altitude charged the air and our breath was short as we embraced our surroundings. The exposed rocks were rough and ragged and glowed burnt red when the sun’s rays bounced off them.

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The top of the volcano was covered in glacial ice and crevasses and nearing the summit we could see four tiny figures, no bigger than ants, making the final push to the top. Our guide explained that because it was summer and there was less snow and ice this time of year, the climb was technically more challenging and dangerous and we all wished the climbers well.

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We retraced our steps and indulged in hot chocolates at the first refuge to warm us up and charge us with energy for our initial few hours on the bikes.

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Fitted out with knee and elbow pads, gloves and crash helmets, we felt invincible as we set off down the long, gravely switchbacks.

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It took a good amount of concentration to hold the bikes steady whilst turning corners or maneuvering through sandy patches but the bikes were very responsive.

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The sun was now penetrating down to the valley below and the blanket of green and brown fields glowed with life. I stopped over and over to take pictures (and catch my breath) whilst Dan raced down the track, daring himself to push the bike to its limits. The urge to look all around us rather than at the road in front was overwhelming.

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At the bottom of the switchbacks the trail continued off-road. The trail was smooth but narrow and we skirted shrubby plants and boulders. We passed over small mounds that were great for doing little jumps and which felt like we were soaring way above the ground but in reality we probably looked like tiny grasshoppers. Over our left shoulder Chimborazo seemed even larger than before and continued to thrill us with each new perspective.

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We hit the main road for a small section before crossing back to another off-road dirt track. The wind on this exposed section of road was so strong that we had to pedal at full pelt whilst going downhill just to keep moving. If we’d allowed it to, the wind would have blown us back all the way to the refuge. We imagined that we looked very comical – something like the dogs who love to hang their heads out of moving car windows with our faces flapping in the breeze!

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The next section of the track was wide smooth mud which had been washed down from the mountain and baked in the sun – it felt like we were biking down a giant slide. We passed several small farms and fields with grazing cows. I could tell that Dan was getting confident as he moved the bike from side to side like he was riding a half-pipe whereas it was all I could do to keep the bike moving in a straight line. To test our nerves dogs would occasionally bark as we passed but thankfully they were far too lazy to give chase. Locals faces were a picture of surprise and delight as two Gringos padded up like crash test dummies flew past and we heard their shouts of “Hola – bueno suerte” (Hello – good luck!) as we sped away.

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We paused for breath at the edge of a deep canyon and took some pictures. The only way we could peer from the edge was to crawl forward on our stomachs in a rather undignified manner but the views of a waterfall and the valley below were worth the humiliation!

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Our guide then offered us some instructions as to where we’d be heading on the bikes next. He pointed up a steep hill which disappeared out of sight over a brow and we questioned if he’d got the correct route. We thought we’d signed up for downhill biking? With his reassurance and some tinkering with our gears, we set off at break neck speed on the last downhill section hoping to give us enough momentum to propel us half way up at least. A couple of lousy metres was all we could muster and then the hard work commenced. The gears were incredible and without too much strain or burn our frantic circular pedalling movement started to take us up the hill. The Tour de France it was not but we huffed and puffed all the way to the top in around 25 minutes and then collapsed in a scenic spot where we indulged in chicken, cheese and salad rolls we’d bought earlier that morning in Riobamba.

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There’s nothing quite like the feeling of really deserving your food and having already worked the calories off before you eat! We sat for a while soaking in the views and waiting for our jelly like legs to return to normal and after around 30 minutes we set off again.

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A 20 minute downhill ride wound us through tall yellow grass where hardworking donkeys enjoyed a few minutes rest feeling the sun on their long faces.

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Our guide took us to a group of Inca ruins which stood beside a natural water spring. The site had been left to fall into disrepair but by climbing onto the rocks above it we could see the outline of the buildings which must have formed an impressive structure at one stage.

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Our guide explained that sites like this were used as ‘hotels’ or resting places by runners who passed through the area – sometimes running whole days at a time – to deliver messages in an age before any electronic forms of communication. At one time a network of sites such as this would have appeared all over the Inca Empire in locations that were positioned between two main centres, in sheltered spots and near fresh water.

The final section of the trail was on a wide but rocky road. We had to stand up slightly in our seats to take some of the bumps but in places we were able to get up a good speed and let loose. We passed through tiny villages where ladies in colourful layered outfits brightened up the predominantly brown and beige countryside.

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The houses we passed were basic constructions made from cement and corrugated tin roofs where chimneys pumped out smoke from the fire inside which would hopefully keep out the evening chill. At one stage we had to pull our bikes over to one side of the road and wait until a traffic jam of noisy goats and fuzzy faced llamas passed us by. The female herders were tough and shouted commands at the sometimes disobedient animals which also seemed to make us stand us straighter too!

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Chimborazo was at our backs now and every once in a while we’d pause for a final look around. We felt like we’d got to know the mountain’s grooves and bumps in our biking experience and by offering our respect to the mountain and mother earth we were rewarded with a safe passage – albeit with a few aching muscles now – and a thoroughly enjoyable day.

One Response to “Volcan Chimborazo downhill adventure”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Finding refuge on Cotopaxi | latin chattin' - February 11, 2014

    […] would be waiting with our bikes. After surviving our previous mountain bike adventure down volcano Chimborazo we couldn’t believe we were about to turn our knuckles white again so soon, but before we […]

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