Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+ Sign up for Outside+ today.
Saturday, August 13 was a “black day for mountaineering,” per the Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides (ASEGUIM). Three climbers died and a dozen were injured after three unrelated accidents on three Ecuadorian volcanoes: Carihuairazo (16,463 feet), Illiniza Sur (17,267 feet), and Cayambe (18,996 feet).
The three deaths all occurred on Carihuairazo, a rocky subpeak of the country’s highest mountain, Chimborazo (20,548 feet). Like many of Ecuador’s volcanoes, Carihuairazo has been especially hard hit by climate change. The mountain’s glacier was the first in Ecuador to officially be declared “extinct,” and the climb’s final section has since changed from a glacier climb to a technical rock scramble. Depending on snow and ice coverage, which will dictate the route taken, the 30-foot summit block is reached either via a fourth-class chimney or a 5.7 face.
A seven-person rope team, led by an informal “guide,” was descending a steep snow slope from the notch below this summit block when one climber slipped and fell. None of the team members managed to arrest the fall, and the seven climbers tumbled down the steep snow slope together. They ultimately crashed into a three-person team below, which consisted of ASEGUIM guide Edgar Vaca, his wife, and a friend, knocking them off the mountain as well. In total, the climbers fell somewhere between 500 and 650 feet, Vaca told Climbing.
Vaca, a veteran guide with more than 20 years of experience under his belt, said he “shouted up to the climbers ‘Arrest with your piolet!’ as they fell down towards us, but due to lack of experience they did not know how to properly react.”
He noted that he did not know any of the climbers in the team of seven, but it was obvious they didn’t know what they were doing. “From what I saw, the one who acted as their ‘guide’ was not very professional. [He had] seven people roped all together at a very short distance, maybe only [4 or 5 feet] apart.”
Three of the climbers from the original rope team were killed in the accident (two dead on the scene, with one later dying in the hospital), and all seven of the other climbers were injured, some critically. Vaca said he was only “pretty beat up, with bruises and busted knees,” but his wife has several broken bones.
The same day on Illiniza Sur, only 60 miles to the north, another roped team of three climbers slipped off the saddle between the mountain’s main summit and a slightly lower subpeak known as Ambato. Unable to arrest, they slid for approximately 500 feet down the increasingly steep face of the glacier, reaching high speeds before becoming lodged in a wide, shallow crevasse at an altitude of 16,700 feet. “It’s a miracle they didn’t slide past that point,” a former Ecuadorian guide, who asked to remain anonymous, told Climbing. “If you do, you’re dead. You’re talking 75 or 80-degree ice after there. There’s no way you’re arresting. A lot of parties have been killed there in the past.”
Miraculously, none of the three climbers died, though one had several severe fractures and all were banged up. “It was a delicate rescue and very [well] executed given the characteristics of this imposing area,” said the ASEGUIM in a Facebook update.
Meanwhile, on another nearby peak, Cayambe, two climbers slipped while scrambling up a steep rock slope leading to the peak’s main glacier, and both suffered broken legs.
Unfortunately, these three incidents aren’t uncommon. Ecuador’s deadliest mountaineering accident in three decades occurred only last November, when six climbers died in an avalanche on Chimborazo. Last month, two Canadian climbers were struck by another avalanche on the peak, leaving one dead and the other injured.
Many of the recent accidents on Ecuadorian volcanoes can perhaps be explained by several factors. One is the increasing popularity of Ecuador’s peaks, both for domestic and international climbers. Despite their high elevation (the country is home to 10 mountains higher than 5,000 meters/16,400 feet), most of Ecuador’s highest summits are of relatively low technical difficulty, with many requiring no more than a snow climb to reach the summit. As such, they attract a high number of novice mountaineers and are considered a viable training ground for peaks further afield.
An effort to accommodate this surge in popularity has led to a second factor: corner-cutting in the guiding industry. This can come in the form of an increase in informal, unlicensed “guides” hoping to make a quick buck guiding folks to the summit of a mountain they’ve climbed once or twice, but it also appears in the way in which licensed outfitters structure climbing trips. Many attempts on these high-altitude summits, which arguably should be made over several days to give time for acclimatization, monitoring weather and avalanche conditions, and so on, are instead jammed into a 36 or 48-hour window (sometimes even less) so that outfitters can offer rock-bottom prices.
“Take [the accident on] Illiniza Sur,” said the aforementioned anonymous guide. “It’s such a dangerous mountain right now because of glacier depletion. It’s not a mountain that should be guided every week. People should take more time on the mountain, assess the conditions, and make smarter decisions.”
While climbing alone on Cayambe earlier this year, this author witnessed a “guide” lead his party of five off-route down a steep ice-covered face while descending. (In my defense, I did attempt to convince them to turn back and follow the correct route, but they ignored me). The group returned to the refuge nearly three hours after all other parties had made it safely back, amid a snowstorm of heinous proportions, at which point one of the “guided” climbers was nearly hypothermic. An account of an epic that younger me had at the hands of an Ecuadorian “guide” on another peak, Tungurahua (16,480 feet), is linked HERE.
A third factor is climate change, which is rapidly altering usual conditions and standard routes on Ecuador’s volcanoes, such as Carihuairazo. Glaciers are receding, leading to an increased threat of rockfall and changing crevasses, among other hazards. This can make time-tested traditional routes no longer safe or feasible. Seasonal weather patterns are also increasingly harder to predict. This year, for example, the Ecuadorian rainy season lasted nearly two months longer than normal, with heavy rains continuing in much of the country through the end of June.
With so many factors at play, it’s obvious that no one fix will eliminate the threat of accidents on Ecuador’s peaks, and mountaineering always has (and always will) involve some risk. What is also clear, however, is that although Ecuador’s peaks may not be as technically difficult as those in ranges like the Alps and Himalaya, climbing them is still a serious, dangerous endeavor. These peaks demand respect from any would-be climbers, guided or not, particularly as they transform with our planet’s changing climate.
“We stand in solidarity with the families and friends of the mountaineers who lost their lives in the Carihuairazo,” said the ASEGUIM, “and hope for a speedy recovery [for] the injured.”