This article originally appeared on Outside
In the words of the Ecuadorian Association of Mountain Guides – known as ASEGUIM – this past Saturday August 13 was a “black day for mountaineering”. Three climbers died and a dozen were injured after unrelated accidents on three different volcanoes: Carihuairazo (16,463ft), Illiniza Sur (17,267ft) and Cayambe (18,996ft).
The three deaths all occurred on Carihuairazo, a rocky sub-summit of the country’s tallest mountain, the 20,548ft Chimborazo. Like many Ecuadorian volcanoes, Carihuairazo has been impacted by climate change. The mountain’s glacier was the first in Ecuador to be officially declared “extinct”, and the final section of the climb has since changed from ice to a technical scramble over rocks. Depending on snow and ice cover, which will dictate the route taken, the 30ft summit boulder is reached either by a fourth class chimney or a steep face with a 5.7 grade.
The disaster began when a rope team of seven, led by an informal guide, descended a steep snow slope from the notch below this summit block. One climber slipped and fell, and the other six were unable to arrest the fall. The seven climbers descended the steep snow slope together. They eventually crashed into a three-person team below, consisting of ASEGUIM guide Edgar Vaca, his wife and a friend, knocking them off the mountain as well. In total, the seven climbers fell between 500 and 650 feet, Vaca said. Outside.
Vaca, a seasoned guide with more than 20 years’ experience, said he “shouted at the climbers ‘Stop with your ice axe!’ as they fell towards us, but due to lack of experience they didn’t know how to react properly.”
Vaca didn’t know any of the climbers on the team of seven, and he said he could tell they were inexperienced. “From what I saw, whoever guided them was not very professional. [He had] seven people roped together at a very short distance, perhaps only [4 or 5 feet] apart,” Vaca said.
Three climbers from the original seven-person rope team were killed in the fall – two died at the scene and a third died in a hospital. The other four climbers on the team – as well as the three climbers they hit – were all injured, some seriously. Vaca said he was only “quite battered, with bruises and broken knees”, and his wife suffered several broken bones.
Sixty miles to the north, on Illiniza Sur, another roped party suffered a similar disaster. The team of three climbers slid out of the saddle between the main peak of the mountain and a lower sub-peak called “Ambato”. Unable to stop, they slid about 500 feet down the steep face of a glacier, reaching high speeds before lodging in a wide, shallow crevasse at an elevation of 16,700 feet. “It’s a miracle they didn’t get past that point,” said a former Ecuadorian guide, who asked to remain anonymous. Outside. “If you do, you’re dead. You’re talking 75 or 80 degree ice after there. There’s no way you’re going to stop. A lot of groups have been killed there in the past.”
Miraculously, none of the three climbers died, although all were injured and one suffered several serious fractures. “It was a delicate and very [well] executed taking into account the characteristics of this imposing area”, declared the ASEGUIM in a facebook update.
Meanwhile, on another nearby peak, Cayambe, two climbers slipped while climbing a steep rocky slope leading to the summit’s main glacier, and both suffered broken legs.
All three incidents follow a deadly year at Ecuador’s famous volcanoes. The country’s worst mountaineering accident in three decades happened in November, when six mountaineers died in an avalanche on the Chimborazo. Last month, two Canadian climbers were hit by an avalanche at the summit, killing one and injuring the other.
Several factors likely contributed to the disasters. The peaks of Ecuador have grown in popularity, both for domestic and international climbers. Despite the country’s high altitude – Ecuador is home to ten mountains over 5,000 meters/16,400 feet – many of the country’s highest peaks are of relatively low technical difficulty, with many requiring no more than a snowy climb to reach the summit. As such, the mountains attract large numbers of novice mountaineers and are considered a viable training ground for more distant peaks.
An effort to accommodate this rise in popularity has led to a second factor: corner cutting in the guiding industry. There are now unlicensed guides operating in the mountains, who take clients to the peaks, although they have no formal training or accreditation. But the way licensed outfitters organize climbing trips can also present dangers. Some outfitters lock expeditions into narrow 36 or 48 hour windows, despite the need for acclimatization hikes and the need to monitor weather and avalanche danger. Tight deadlines reduce costs.
“Take [the accident on] Illiniza Sur,” said the guide, who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s such a dangerous mountain right now because of glacier depletion. It is not a mountain that you have to guide every week. People should be spending more time in the mountains, assessing the conditions and making smarter decisions.”
Climbing Cayambe alone earlier this year, I saw a guide leading his group of five off-road climbers up a steep ice-covered face. I tried to convince them to turn back and follow the right path, but they ignored me. The party returned to the base area nearly three hours after all other parties returned safely, amid a snowstorm. One of the climbers in the group seemed close to hypothermia. And earlier in my climbing career, I documented my expedition to the Ecuadorian peak, Tungurahua (16,480ft) here.
Climate change is also a factor on these mountains. Warming temperatures are changing the usual conditions and standard routes on Ecuadorian volcanoes, such as Carihuairazo. Glaciers are retreating, bringing an increased threat of rockfalls and shifting crevices, among other hazards. This can make traditional, time-tested routes safer or doable. Seasonal weather conditions are also increasingly difficult to predict. This year, for example, the Ecuadorian rainy season lasted nearly two months longer than normal, with heavy rains continuing across much of the country until the end of June.
With so many factors in play, it’s obvious that no one solution will eliminate the threat of accidents on the Equator’s peaks, and mountaineering has always (and always) involved some degree of risk. What is also clear, however, is that although the peaks of the Equator are not as technically challenging as those of ranges like the Alps and the Himalayas, climbing them is still a serious and dangerous undertaking. These summits demand respect from all potential climbers, guided or not, especially since they are changing with the climate change of our planet.
“We stand in solidarity with the families and friends of the mountaineers who lost their lives in the Carihuairazo,” said ASEGUIM, “and hope for a speedy recovery [for] the injured person.”
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