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Early in the morning on Sunday October 23, 12 Ecuadorian climbers were hit by a D3/R4 avalanche—this classifies the slide as very large and destructive—while ascending the Standard Route on the west face of Chimborazo (20,549 feet), a volcanic summit and the nation’s tallest peak.
Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides (ASEGUIM) Director Francisco Arroba told Climbing that the first of the four rope teams triggered the avalanche, which killed half of the dozen climbers in its path. Three of the six dead climbers were recovered on October 25, at an elevation of 18,370 feet, while the remaining three bodies are still on the mountain.
According to Arroba, the accident marks the deadliest accident on an Ecuadorian peak since November 1993, when ten climbers were killed on Chimborazo by another avalanche in almost exactly the same spot.
Chimborazo received 2.6 feet of snow in the three days leading up to the accident and has led the government to suspend all mountaineering above 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) in the country for the next two weeks. Bolívar Cáceres, a meteorologist and the head of Ecuador’s Glacier Program, says the temporary ban will allow Chimborazo’s fickle snowpack to stabilize without putting any more climbers at risk.
Arroba confirmed that none of the climbers involved in the accident were registered, licensed guides. And while the ASEGUIM has not yet confirmed if any of the climbers were acting as “guides,” Arroba noted that Ecuador has seen an influx of illegal, unlicensed guides taking clients up the country’s mountains for very cheap prices in recent years. “It was probably something like that [in this case],” he speculated, “but I am not sure.”
This problem of illegal guiding has been exacerbated by the pandemic. “Due to the COVID situation, everyone is out of work,” Arroba said. “People here are all looking for work, and sometimes they think that if they climb the mountain once or twice, then they have enough knowledge to guide. We have a lot of these uncertified companies that offer this type of trip for very, very cheap rates, but that’s what happens when you hire someone cheap and amateur.”
In response to these accidents, and the growing numbers of inexperienced climbers attempting peaks unguided or with illegal guides, Arroba said the ASEGUIM plans to release a free bi-weekly report about snowpack and overall conditions on Ecuador’s mountains so that the members of the community can better plan their expeditions.
Ecuador has ten mountains over 5,000 meters (16,400 feet), and many of them, like Chimborazo and Cotopaxi (19,347 feet), the two tallest, are extremely accessible and require little to no technical climbing by their standard routes, despite their high elevation.
“Our mountains are very easy to climb in terms of logistics,” said Arroba. “You can drive with an SUV to the parking lot of Chimborazo and you are already at 17,000 feet. We have experienced mountain people, but we have lots of beginners for sure, from our country and foreigners. Just remember, if you are going to climb with a guide in another country, it’s very important for you to ask for the certifications they have.”
Felipe Proaño, a prominent Ecuadorian professional climber, told Climbing that he feels there is a push among Ecuadorian guiding agencies, even officially licensed ones, to fast-track climbs on high-altitude peaks like Chimborazo and Cotopaxi to reduce costs. This results in corner-cutting to dangerous proportions. “They want to make Chimborazo a two-day climb,” he said. “I mean, it’s Chimborazo. It’s the Titan of the Andes. It’s a freaking 6,000-meter peak. That’s a climb that should be done in three days, at least, if not more.”
Proaño shared advertisements for one illegal outfitter with Climbing, as an example. The group priced guided two-day ascents of both Chimborazo and Cotopaxi at only $70 USD. Ascents of Tungurahua (16,480 feet), another prominent volcanic summit, were listed by the outfitter for a mere $42. This is rock-bottom compared to what professional guides charge. For example, IMFGA-certified ASEGUIM mountain guide Jaime Vargas, who is based in the town of Baños directly below the mountain, charges $250 per person to take clients up Tungurahua, and that’s for a minimum of four guided clients. Prices are even higher for smaller groups.
“Myself and the entire Ecuadorian outdoor industry want to express condolences to the friends and family of the victims, first and foremost,” said Proaño. “But we have a serious problem with demand here. The ASEGUIM has done a great job of trying to train aspiring guides about topics like avalanche conditions, but Ecuador’s climbing scene is growing and growing, both from Ecuadorian climbers and foreign ones. The refugios can’t accommodate the demand. I was personally rescued by hand with no support or helicopter when I was 16 years old, and those things have not improved. It’s been almost 20 years since then, and we still do not have high altitude helicopters operating here, nor an on-call emergency group, public or private, designed to operate in alpine conditions.”
Chimborazo’s rapidly shrinking glacier has led to an increase in rockfall (which killed an official guide on the mountain last year). The peak’s normal route, which is the easiest, fastest, and sees the most traffic, is no longer its safest. This is particularly true for commercial expeditions, says Proaño.
“All of us who know about avalanche and snow conditions know that they are climbing Chimbo through maybe the fastest part of the mountain, but definitely not the safest part,” he said. I always try to promote climbing from the eastern side, not the traditional west face route.” A high camp has been created on the route to limit use of the refugio, which is now threatened by rockfall, but the route overall is still much more dangerous than alternate routes on the east face, due both to the growing moraine below the shrinking glacier and the avalanche-prone slopes it crosses.
“We’ve seen this mountain mutate due to climate change in recent years,” Proaño said, “and instead of trying to rotate the commercial climbing on Chimborazo to a safer face, a safer route, everyone gets sucked into this tunnel vision of saving cost, saving time. It’s tragic.”
Owen Clarke is a freelance writer living on the road. In addition to spending time in the mountains, he enjoys motorcycles, heavy metal, video games, and key lime pie.
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