Iliniza Norte and Iliniza Sur Climbs
November 21st and 22nd, 2001
At 5 AM, we leave the hostel at San Jose de El Chaupi. There is fog and a drenching rain. We drive with 4WD Land Rover to La Virgen parking area on Iliniza. (High clearance two-wheel drive would be OK also.) We have breakfast and at 7 AM we start hiking. (We have arranged for someone to take our sleeping bags and technical gear up to the hut from the parking area via a horse.) The rain has now let up and we have some nice views as we head for Iliniza Norte. The trail is well marked and has occasional trail markers consisting of a sign with a green square perimeter and a white disk in the center. Rather than going by the hut (El refugio) first, we take a shortcut that takes us up the east side of Norte and intersects with the "normal" hut route on the north side of the peak. (There's no marked trail on this route until about 15,000 feet in elevation.) We pass some bulls (trained for bull fighting) on the path above 14,000 feet. Unfortunately, as we get higher, we enter the clouds and never get any further views from Norte.
The route is fairly well marked once you get close to the summit and although one guidebook says there is class 5.3 scrambling on the normal route, we see nothing harder than class three moves (more like about class 2+). We both found Iliniza Norte easier than El Corazon. We reach the summit (16,818 ft.) at 11:30 and take pictures next to the summit cross but the fog is very thick so there's nothing else visible. At 12:30 we leave the summit and reach the hut by 2:30 PM. The descent is fast and fairly fun by plunge stepping through deep volcanic sand. It's foggy and snowy outside but occasionally we get a few glimpses of the surrounding mountains.
By about 4 PM the hut is full. There are other groups (mostly from Safari) that will be attempting Norte in the morning (leaving at 6 AM). We already know most of the arriving climbers. It turns out that almost half of the climbers in the hut speak German so we have a nice ongoing Deutsch corner of the hut where only German is spoken. A number of the climbers including Barbara have altitude sickness. (Barbara is one of the Germans having been born in Berlin). The hut has a wonderful atmosphere of conviviality since everyone knows each other and has shared experiences and values. Dianne is still having problems with her stomach and gets advice from Dieter (a German doctor) and Barbara an RN. We get fed some pretty good potato soup and some greasy pink colored pasta. (I just can't eat much of the pink pasta so I munch a protein bar to finish off my supper.
We will have two guides in the morning (Mauricio joins Reni) since there are three clients (Beat, a Swiss fellow that we already know, joins Dianne and myself). The plan is to get up at 2 AM (the guides will fix breakfast at 2:30 AM) and depart by 3 AM to climb Iliniza Sur. (Unlike Norte, Sur is a snow covered glaciated peak and is regarded as one of the most technical of the major Ecuadorian peaks). 7 AM will be our turn around time because of the risk of the sun softening the snow and increasing rock fall and crevasse danger. Two climbers that attempted Sur yesterday (and failed) reported significant rock fall. We will have two rope teams (Reni, Dianne and myself on one team). Our team is the only team that is attempting Sur (the other climbers will all leave at 6 AM to climb Norte). The cooking inside the hut has really steamed things up so several of us conspire to keep the door open to air things out prior to hitting the sack. By 8:30 PM everyone is in bed and all is quiet.
(Nov. 22) We get up at 2 AM (I'm not sure how much, if any, sleep I managed to get). I have some coffee but ignore the rest of the breakfast in favor of some nutrition bars. We start climbing at 3:05 AM (not bad!). The fog is incredibly thick and I can barely see the person in front of me so I'm very glad to be climbing with someone that knows this mountain very well. The first 50 minutes is up an easy rocky trail to the glacier. The start of glacier is rocky and icy. (There are places it's very difficult to get a good ice-axe placement.) Fortunately, by the time we are climbing on the glacier about an hour later, we now have clear sky. Sur has gotten some snow overnight which has improved the conditions. We were originally facing a 45 degree ice slope on the start of the glacier but the glacier now has only a few icy stretches. We're all climbing roped with crampons, helmets, and alpine ice axes. Reni, Dianne, and I are also carrying ice tools but it turns out we won't need them on this climb.
After the first hour above the glacier entrance, we see there is no clear route on Sur. Still working in the dark with occasional foggy patches, Reni does an expert job route finding. This would be difficult even if there were no fog. At several points Reni spends five to ten minutes probing crevasses and finding safe crossings. This mountain should be approached very carefully since these difficult slopes must be climbed in the dark. By 6 AM, the sun is up and we are high on Sur. The views are fabulous but it's hard to take time for photos since the climbing is very steep and we have to be very careful and also keep moving to beat the sun. We reach the summit (17,200 ft.) at 6:35 AM and lounge until almost 7 AM. I lead on the way down and am amazed that on several stretches I can see no sign of our tracks (erased by the wind).
We encounter a lot of rocks (but not a single one falls during our entire climb) and crevasses but because of our early start none of these posed a hazard. (A prior team had reported significant rock-fall danger but they started climbing relatively late at 5 AM.) The most intimidating part of the climb was the start of the glacier at the bottom. Because of the dry year the start is very rocky and icy. (It's steep and no good snow or thick ice for placements). We're back in the hut by 9 AM. We hurriedly organize our gear to load the duffel so the horse can take it back to the Land Rover parked at La Virgen (13,000 ft). There is no sign of the climbers on Norte but we hear a report that at least two are having problems because of the altitude. (Note, that Norte while not technical should be approached with cautionthere is a Czech climber that went missing six weeks earlier after leaving the summit.) We leave the hut about 11 AM and zoom down to the parking area at La Virgen. From there we stop at the place that provides the horses and settle up with them (Dianne and I are charged $22). While we are there a man on bicycle rides up and charges us $5 each for admission to the national park. (If we hadn't stopped to pay for the horses I don't see how we could have been charged the park fee.)
Warm regards, Wolfgang and Dianne Stiller (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
Copyright November 2001 by Wolfgang Stiller.