Aconcagua, Photographs – February 2015

I successfully climbed Aconcagua solo via the Normal Route from February 1st through February 14th, 2015, reaching the summit on February 11th.  Below are my photographs from the trip organized by date.

Aconcagua

January 28th-31st

The hotel at Penitentes, ~2550m, and acclimatization day hikes on the 30th and 31st.

February 1st

Entering the national park and hiking to 3390m Confluencia.

February 2nd

Hiking from 3390m Confluencia to 4300m Plaza de Mulas basecamp.

February 3rd

Day hiking 5004m Cerro Bonete from Plaza de Mulas.

February 4th – 5th

February 4th was my first gear carry and cache to 4950m Camp Canada.  On February 5th I made a full move to Camp Canada.

February 6th – 8th

February 6th was my first gear carry and cache from 4950m Camp Canada to 5450m Nido de Condores.  On February 7th I made a second carry.  On February 8th I made a full move to Nido de Condores.

February 9th – 10th

Acclimatization hike to 5900m Camp Berlin on February 9th, and to 6000m White Rocks / Camp Colera on February 10th.

February 11th

Climbed to the 6962m summit of Aconcagua from 5450m Nido de Condores taking 8.5 hours, 3 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. Descended to 4300m Plaza de Mulas to rest.

February 12th – 14th

On February 12th I reascended from 4300m Plaza de Mulas to 5450m Nido de Condores.  On the 15th I packed up camp and descended to Plaza de Mulas.  On the 14th I descended to the park gate and returned to Penitentes.

 

Aconcagua, Trip Report – February 2015

Aconcagua from near the Horcones trailhead.

Aconcagua from near the Horcones trailhead.

Aconcagua from the trail between Horcones and Confluencia.

Aconcagua from the trail between Horcones and Confluencia.

Aconcagua at sunset, from Plaza de Mulas.

Aconcagua at sunset, from Plaza de Mulas.

Aconcagua

Argentina’s 6962m Aconcagua is South America’s highest mountain, the highest peak in the western hemisphere, and indeed the highest anywhere outside of Asia. Located in the Andes near the border between Argentina and Chile, Aconcagua is generally accessed from the Argentine city of Mendoza.  Aconcagua has numerous established routes, including several word-class technical lines up the mountain’s incredible south face.  The most popular routes by far are the Normal Route and the Polish Traverse. The Normal Route is accessed through the Horcones Valley and ascends the north-west ridge. The Polish Traverse is accessed through the Vacas Valley and ascends the mountain’s eastern aspect to the Polish Glacier, where a traverse connects to the Normal Route and meets at around ~6400m.  Ascent can also be undertaken via the Polish Glacier itself, but this appears to be increasingly uncommon due to high objective risks associated with the declining condition of the glacier. Both the Normal Route and Polish Traverse are non-technical, and are essentially lengthy hikes at high altitude with a high probability of extreme weather. Despite a (well deserved) reputation for being technically simple Aconcagua sees a relatively low summit success rate, claims numerous lives every year, and represents a serious undertaking due to altitude, weather, expedition logistics, and a long summit day.

I climbed Aconcagua solo via the Normal Route from February 1st-14th, 2015, and successfully reached the summit on my 11th day in the national park.  I did not use a guide, porters, or any support whatsoever above basecamp.  I used mules to move gear to basecamp, bought some meals in Plaza de Mulas, and rented a bunk in Plaza de Mulas from my mule company after reaching the summit.  Below is a calendar of the itinerary which I followed while in Argentina, as well as a complete trip report.  I managed to keep a fairly detailed journal while on the mountain, which I have summarized below.

Route Description

A note regarding altitudes.  All of Aconcagua’s campsites are quite large, slightly sloped plateaus.  There is considerable divergence in the altitudes reported by various sources for this reason.  For example, at Nido de Condores I camped about ~50m below the rangers, and could even have camped well above them.  I have used altitudes consistent with the very rough measurements provided by my watch, relative to the altitude of known points such as the Plaza de Mulas entrance – so the altitudes which I cite are definitely not 100% accurate.

A map of the Aconcagua Provincial Park.

A map of the Aconcagua Provincial Park.

AconcaguaCOTripReport35

Aconcagua’s Normal Route, from Plaza de Mulas to the north summit, as seen from the summit of Cerro Bonete near the beginning of my climb. Text is centered above each camp location.

Horcones 2850m to Confluencia 3390m:

A gently sloped hike along the Horcones river.  Good views of the mountain waiting ahead.

Confluencia 3390m to Plaza de Mulas 4300m:

Initially gently sloped with several river crossings, about halfway the terrain transitions into rolling hills, scree fields and loose rocks.  The 16km hike feels much longer due to the monotonous terrain, deceptive distances, and ~1000m of altitude gain.

Plaza de Mulas 4300m to Camp Canada 4950m:

A scree hike on moderate slopes, following clear boot tracks.  Landmarks such as the Conway Rocks and the distinct ridge which Camp Canada lies upon make route finding easy.

Camp Canada 4950m to Nido de Condores 5450m:

A scree hike on moderate slopes.  Descent boot tracks are very direct, whereas ascent boot tracks follow gentle switchbacks.  The ranger hut at Nido de Condores is visible from the change of slope, Plaza Alaska, and onwards.  Rapid descent is possible via the Gran Acarreo.

Nido de Condores 5450m to Camp Berlin 5900m / White Rocks 6000m:

The route follows a sheltered ridge alongside the Gran Acarreo.  Route finding is fairly easy.  The route follows gentle switchbacks upwards across rocks and scree.  Berlin camp is smaller, and slightly lower than White Rocks.  White Rocks, also known as Camp Colera, is reached from Berlin via a gentle traverse, or directly via a clear variation during ascent.  Rapid descent is possible via the Gran Acarreo on the other side of the ridge.

Camp Berlin 5900m / White Rocks 6000m to Aconcagua’s North Summit 6962m:

The route first follows a moderate slope of scree above White Rocks, steadily getting steeper until reaching a ridgeline and the ruined Indepencia hut.  From Indepencia the route traverses the upper Gran Acarreo and then begins to ascend the Gran Acarreo itself, directly up a steep gulley of scree and all manner of loose rocks called the Canaleta.  At the top of the Canaleta a short traverse along the ridgeline separating the north and south summits leads to the north summit, Aconcagua’s highpoint.  With plenty of landmarks the route finding is not difficult, but could be tricky in a white-out.  From the summit descent can either retrace the route of ascent via White Rocks, or descend directly down the Gran Acarreo.

Schedule and Trip Report

AconcaguaCOTripReport34

January 28th

I arrived in Mendoza from Santiago de Chile at 4:30 p.m. and took a taxi from the airport to my hostel, Plaza Indepencia Hotel. I opted to fly to Mendoza rather than take a bus from Chile due to Chile’s strict customs regulations: all food items are confiscated.  My Taxi driver gave me advice on where to exchange dollars for pesos at a favorable rate.  I had arranged mules in advance with Inka Expeditions, a large outfitter which provides all manner of logistics and guiding services on Aconcagua. Their mule service was efficient and my bags easy to pick up once at basecamp. For an extra $10 they did all of my permit paperwork and signed off on the forms needed for a significantly discounted permit fee.  Once in Mendoza I walked to the Inka headquarters nearby the hostel, paid them the remainder which I owed for mule service and picked up the permit paperwork, which included the payment ticket. I paid for my permit at the easy pay (“Pago Facil”) in a nearby Carrefour, a total of $400 USD after currency conversion.

January 29th

Found white gas at a nearby equipment store and paid $170 pesos for 2.5L of white gas. I took my permit paperwork and easy pay receipt to the national park headquarters and picked up my ascent permit. Finished buying last minute supplies and organizing luggage for the bus ride to Penitentes. I caught the 3 p.m. bus from Mendoza to Penitentes, at ~2550m, and checked into the Hotel Ayelen at around 7 p.m.

January 30th
2550m to ~3850m. Sleep at 2550m.

I went for a long day hike in the hills behind the Penitentes ski resort. I encountered lots of steep scree and a little bit of route finding. Reached a highpoint of ~3850m where I was stopped from continuing by sheer cliffs. I spent about a half hour resting before descending. I enjoyed a great meal and very comfortable sleep in the Hotel at ~2550m. 

January 31st
2550m to ~3400m. Sleep at 2550m.

Went for a relaxed day hike up the trail towards Cerro Penitentes. Stopped at ~3400m and rested in the sun for an hour before descending. Another night in the hotel sleeping at ~2550m.

February 1st – Day one in the park
2550m to 3390m. Sleep at 3390m, Confluencia.
2 Hours hiking.

The first day of park access on my permit. I gave my duffels to Inka, whose baggage drop for mules is located in Hotel Ayelen’s garage. I gave the mules 56kg, including 16L of bottled water. My tent, food, and equipment for the approach hike and single night at Confluencia came to 17kg. The hike to Confluencia was faster than expected, and took exactly two hours from the Horcones trailhead. Arrived at Confluencia at 1 p.m. As I checked into the ranger station I met a team of four friendly Estonians, whom I would continue to see throughout the climb.

February 2nd
3390m to 4300m. Sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
6 Hours hiking.

I visited the park doctor at Confluencia to receive permission to ascend to Plaza de Mulas. Blood oxygen saturation was at 92%, more than enough to head higher. I started hiking to Plaza de Mulas at 11:00 a.m., and arrived six hours later at 5 p.m. The 16km hike felt quite long. The first half is very flat and monotonous, with several river crossings. The second section gets much steeper, with several rolling ascents and descents. It was a huge relief to arrive at Plaza de Mulas, roughly 1000m higher than Confluencia at an elevation of 4300m. I collected duffels from the mule company and carefully pitched out my tent. I met a friendly Argentine lawyer and a solo Japanese climber at Plaza de Mulas. Plenty of clean water was available in camp.

February 3rd
4300m to 5004m. Descend and sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
2:45 ascent, 1:30 descent.

Feeling strong and well acclimatized, I decided to skip a planned rest day and go for an acclimatization hike up Cerro Bonete, a nearby trekking peak. The Argentine lawyer I had met the day prior joined me for the hike, and was excellent company. I left Plaza de Mulas at 11:00 a.m., and at a leisurely pace took 2:45 to reach the summit of Bonete at 5004m. Spent about 45 minutes on the summit taking photographs and looking at the route up Aconcagua, visible in its entirety from this vantage point. A relaxed descent to Plaza de Mulas took 1:30.

February 4th
4300m to 4950m. Descend and sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
2:45 ascent, 1:00 descent.

Had a good breakfast and visited the doctor at Plaza de Mulas where I tested at a blood oxygen saturation of 92%, and then went back to sleep. Woke up at 11 a.m., ate lunch, and sorted out a heavy pack for a carry to Camp Canada at ~4950m. Started hiking at 12:45 p.m., and took 2:45 to ascend. Today was an intentionally heavy carry with ten days worth of food, crampons, down pants and parka, warm heavy baselayers, 5.5L of water, and 1.6L of white gas. At Camp Canada I met a solo German climber who had pre-acclimatized in the Cordon del Plata area. Once the equipment and supplies were cached at Camp Canada I hiked a bit higher towards a ridge of black rocks just below the “change of slope”, or Plaza Alaska. In the rocks I found a stream of moving, fresh looking water at ~5200m, and I rested for about half an hour before starting down. Descending from Camp Canada to Plaza de Mulas took 1 hour. In Plaza de Mulas I checked the weather forecast and learned that a large storm was inbound, likely to hit around Monday the 9th.

February 5th
4300m to 4950m. Sleep at 4950m, Camp Canada.
2:30 ascent.

After breakfast, a nap, and a good lunch I finished packing up my campsite and began hiking to Camp Canada, beginning at 1 p.m. The ascent only took 2:30 today, in part due to a lighter pack. I finished getting my tent and campsite organized by around 6 p.m. After anchoring my tent securely I spent 30 minutes hiking to get water. I started cooking dinner at 8 p.m., which was a bit too late due to the rapidly dropping temperature as the sun sets. I felt very lethargic and sleepy after arriving at Camp Canada, and had a very low appetite. This was the first (and only) day that I was unable to eat at least 2200 calories. At Camp Canada and above eating became a constant struggle due to the effects of altitude on my appetite, and I had to make a concentrated effort to track my caloric intake and force down enough food. I met a pair of friendly Polish climbers whom I had briefly spoken with at Plaza de Mulas. At 4950m, Camp Canada is more exposed, windier and colder than Plaza de Mulas, and I made a mental note to start my cooking earlier in the day.

February 6th
4950m to 5450m. Descend and sleep at 4950m, Camp Canada.
2:15 ascent, 0:30 descent.

After a poor night’s sleep I woke up with a moderate headache. The water I had gathered the day prior had a very bitter taste, which made eating and hydrating unpleasant. I had to choke my breakfast down, and only managed to get 500 calories in for breakfast. The solo German climber moved up to Nido de Condores, while I found myself questioning if I should even make a carry today. I rested all morning and into the early afternoon. The Estonian team arrived at around 1 p.m. and I got up to greet them. Getting up and chatting with the Estonians improved my state, so I packed a small carry for Nido de Condores: four days worth of food, crampons, my hardshell, and a full bottle of gas, only around ~8kg. I left Camp Canada at 2:15 p.m., taking 2 hours and 15 minutes to reach Nido, where I cached my gear in the rocks. At Nido I chopped two large blocks of ice out of a frozen pond, wrapped them in garbage bags, and packed them to bring back down with me. I felt awful at Nido de Condores, and descended after resting only ten minutes. Descending back to Camp Canada took just 30 minutes on the scree, and once back in my tent I found myself feeling pretty good. I melted the ice for water and discovered that it tasted much, much better than the stream water I had gathered the day before. I ate a large dinner, hydrated thoroughly, and got to bed well before 8 p.m. Talking with other climbers the word was that the storm was on schedule, and still likely to hit on Monday the 9th.

February 7th
4950m to 5450m. Descend and sleep at 4950m, Camp Canada.
1:45 ascent, 0:22 descent.

I slept very well, and woke up with an appetite. I ate a large breakfast, and then snoozed until 1 p.m., when I got up to talk with a solo Argentine climber. I left for Nido de Condores at 3 p.m. to make my final carry: food, double plastic boots, ax, altitude mitts, and some extra clothing for a total of around 10kg. As the weather wasn’t too cold, I wore my light running shoes to ascend, and took only 1:45. I felt fantastic, likely due to my returned appetite. I met the solo German descending; he had made a summit attempt the night prior and turned back at around 6300m. I cached my gear and spent about 45 minutes exploring Nido, checking out the views and route to Berlin/White Rocks behind the large, flat area which the camp lies on. I hung out with the solo Argentine I had talked to the day prior and enjoyed good conversation. I felt very strong at Nido, and descended to Camp Canada in only 22 minutes, sprinting and scree-skiing down the mountain in my runners. I cooked and managed to eat a good sized dinner, greeted the Estonian team and a pair of Argentine brothers as they arrived at Camp Canada, and went to sleep early.

February 8th
4950m to 5450m. Sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.
1:40 ascent.

I slept very well again and woke up at 8:30 a.m. I had carried all of my freeze-dried eggs up to Nido, so I had mashed potatoes with chicken and energy bars for breakfast. I felt a little bit out of sorts as I packed up my camp in preparation for the move to Nido de Condores. I took my time getting ready, and left at 12:00 p.m. There were many large guided teams hiking to Nido today, and the trail was crowded with the conga-lines of groups, making it a bit tough for me to find a rhythm for my pace. Regardless, it took only 1:40 to get to Nido, and I arrived feeling pretty good. Nido was extremely windy when I arrived, and I initially chose a very poor location for my tent pitch. I quickly rectified this when I realized I was in a natural wind tunnel, moving the tent into the relative shelter of a small wall of stones left behind by other climbers. This turned out to be a very nice spot. As I was planning on spending several nights at Nido and leaving my tent unattended, I spent several hours building up the wall to protect my tent from the south-west where the wind generally comes from. I ended up with a great wall of rocks and really bomber anchors for all six guy-lines. I took an hour long nap after finishing my work, and after waking up had some snacks and Advil before heading out to get water. I gathered water from a clear, frozen pond, and boiled a supply for drinking and cooking. I forced down a full meal, and felt great settling into my tent for the night. Nido de Condores was windy, very dry, and a lot dirtier (human waste) than the other camps I had stayed at.

February 9th
5450m to 5900m. Descend and sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.
1:30 ascent, 0:30 descent.

I slept well, a good sign given that this was my first night sleeping at ~5500m. After breakfast I visited the park ranger to test my blood oxygen saturation, and given how good I felt was very surprised to test at only 72%. The ranger advised that a storm would come in overnight, with high winds and snow continuing until the night of Tuesday the 10th. When the storm lifted, a short weather window with low winds and clear skies was forecasted for the morning of Wednesday the 11th. I subsequently took a slow, lazy day. I decided to go for an acclimatization hike to Camp Berlin at around 5900m, and I left my tent at 2:00 p.m. An hour into my hike the winds began to pick up, and a light snowfall began. The route from Nido de Condores to Berlin is quite easy to follow, and feeling strong I decided to continue heading up. I reached Berlin at 3:30 p.m., and stopped for a few minutes to take some photographs of the ruined huts and check out the terrain. By this point the winds had increased, with heavier snowfall. Exploring the ridge which separates Berlin from the Gran Acarreo, the huge screen slope which runs the height of the mountain from the summit all the way to Plaza de Mulas, I observed fierce wind blowing snow up the mountain, causing an effect resembling a white wall of turmoil: Aconcagua’s famous Viento Blanca (white wind) in person. I began descending, and made great speed on the way down, getting back to camp in just thirty minutes. The storm had really picked up by the time I finished preparing water and making dinner, and I was happy to have invested time and energy into my solid tent pitch. Eating was very, very difficult throughout the day. Despite my low appetite I felt quite strong, and given my good pace to Berlin I decided that if I still felt solid I would attempt the summit from Nido de Condores on Wednesday morning.

February 10th
5450m to 6000m. Descend and sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.
1:25 ascent, 0:30 descent.

I took a lazy day today, and after getting water and cooking breakfast I went back to sleep. Many large teams of climbers were headed up to Berlin and White Rocks this morning, likely planning to take advantage of the weather window forecasted for the next morning. I took my time resting and hydrating, eating a late lunch and beginning an acclimatization hike upwards at 3:15 p.m. It was overcast and snowy, but I made good time ascending and reached the White Rocks campsite, slightly higher than Berlin at 6000m, in 1:25. White Rocks is reached either by a short traverse from Berlin, or by a variation of the ascent route one takes to reach Berlin. White Rocks was very crowded, with around 20 tents, mostly large guided groups. I spent about half an hour at White Rocks taking photos and talking with the pair of Polish climbers, who had moved up earlier in the day. Still feeling strong back at Nido de Condores, I decided I would make my summit attempt early the next morning. I ate as much as I could and went to sleep early.

February 11th
5450m to 6962m. Descend and sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
3:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.; 8:30 ascent to summit.
~12:15 p.m. to 3 p.m., ~2:45 descent to Nido de Condores.
1:00 descent from Nido de Condores to Plaza de Mulas.

I woke up at 1 a.m. and began to prepare for my summit attempt. I took some ice from a nearby frozen pond and melted water both for the climb and for cooking breakfast. Nido de Condores was silent and still. While eating I sat with my double plastic boots in my sleeping bag, to warm up the boot shells, and then finished getting dressed. I debated whether or not to bring my down pants with me, and finally decided to take them – it would prove to be a wise decision. I prepared a light summit pack with 1L of water, a few snacks, my down pants, and crampons. I took a second 1L Nalgene of water in the pocket of my hardshell jacket, worn underneath my down parka. I opted to use two trekking poles, and left my ice ax in camp. Although I carried my crampons to the summit, it turned out that I never felt the need to use them.  The sky above was crystal clear, the stars and moon bright enough to cast distinct shadows. I left my tent at 3 a.m. and began heading towards the beginning of the route to Camp Berlin. Berlin was quiet when I reached it, and it appeared that nobody was awake yet.

I reached White Rocks at around 5:00 a.m., where the numerous tents were illuminated by the headlamps of climbers getting ready. I stopped briefly to wish the Polish pair good luck, and then began ascending upwards. I set a comfortable pace, rest-stepping and focusing on my breathing. The slope immediately above White Rocks wasn’t too steep, and fresh snow helped make the scree easier to ascend. After about half an hour up the slope above White Rocks I began to see the headlights of other climbers below me. Soon the lights passed out of view, and I found myself climbing alone in the darkness. I followed switchbacks upwards, clear to see and not particularly strenuous. It was very cold, but with almost no wind. I passed the junction, where the Polish traverse route meets the normal route, and began ascending the slope towards ‘windy ridge’ and the ruins of Indepencia hut.

The sun began to rise, and I enjoyed a lovely view down Aconcagua and across the Andes, glowing in the sunrise. Here I realized that there must be another climber ahead of me, as I would occasionally see what appeared to be fresh tracks in the snow. I would not meet him until much later. The section below Indepencia was steep, and the air temperature so cold that I absolutely needed to put my down pants on. Getting them on was a minor annoyance for the nearly euphoric warmth which they immediately provided. Comfortably warm, I reached Indepencia hut and took a fifteen minute break to drink some water and eat some energy chews. Above Indepencia I began the traverse of the Gran Acarreo, heading towards and past ‘El Dedo’, the finger, a clear landmark. The traverse was wide and level, with no real exposure or objective risk.

Above the traverse I began ascending the Canaleta, the wide final gulley of loose rock and scree which rises to the summit. I made an effort to stick to the snow, which helped provide better purchase, but still found the Canaleta to be a horribly miserable finish to the climb. Fresh snow helped somewhat, but every step dislodged rocks and caused me to slide downwards. The Canaleta is only moderately steep at about 40 degrees, but so slippery and unstable that climbing it required concentration and careful balance. The Canaleta in its entirety took the bulk of the ascent time, and felt somewhat dangerous due to the unpredictability of the loose rocks. About an hour into the Canaleta I saw a figure above me descending, and greeted him when he reached me. It was the climber who had been in front of me, a solo Argentine. He couldn’t speak English, nor I Spanish, but he communicated that he had left too early and was incredibly cold. I congratulated him on his summit, and he wished me good luck.

The upper Canaleta was difficult, largely due to altitude and the energy-wasting loose rocks. Fresh snow higher up covered the rocks, making it tough to spot good foot placements, and every step caused significant movement underneath. Despite this, I felt no need to use my crampons.  I settled into a rest-stepping pace of two full pressure breaths per step, and in this manner continued making good progress.  Near the top I observed a climber below me, making good speed. I pushed myself to maintain my pace, and at 11:30 a.m. found myself standing on the large, slightly sloped plateau of Aconcagua’s summit. The sky was clear and the winds low, but clouds were rapidly building up along the ridge between Aconcagua’s north and south summits. The climber below arrived soon after me, and his partner followed a few minutes later. Their names were Nicolas Miranda and Karl Egloff, a team of Ecuadorians training to break the Aconcagua speed record set by Kilian Jornet just weeks earlier. These two had ascended at an incredible pace and were wearing lightweight trail running equipment, making me feel quite strange in my down suit and double boots! Despite their incredible achievement their first action was to congratulate my solo ascent – very classy guys. I would later learn that Karl Egloff was successful in setting a new speed record for the entire route, Horcones trailhead to summit and back. The two were interesting to talk with, and I helped them take some photographs and video. They quickly departed due to the cold, and I had the summit to myself.

I stayed on the summit for almost an hour, taking photographs and enjoying the views before beginning to descend. As I began to descend the clouds which had been building along the Guanacos Ridge were beginning to spill over, and the wind was picking up.  The descent went much faster than the ascent, made easier by the loose rock and scree which had made the Canaleta such a hassle on the way up. On the way down I began to encounter other climbers still ascending. Some were in very poor condition, exhausted and barely making progress upwards. At the base of the Canaleta I met the Polish pair taking a rest and gave them some encouragement. I met them again later and learned that they reached the summit late in the afternoon, in terrible weather conditions. Once I reached the traverse of the Gran Acarreo I diverged from my ascent route, and cut off of the traverse headed straight down. In planning to ascend from Nido de Condores this easy line of direct descent had been a factor, in that it makes the descent far faster than returning to White Rocks / Berlin and retracing the route of ascent.

Descending the Gran Acarreo was fast but tiring as I focused on keeping my balance while scree skiing down in big, leaping steps. I managed not to fall, but came close several times as I did my best to balance speed and stability. Nido de Condores was visible below me, as were the ridges and distinctive rocks which I had noted earlier as landmarks should I need to descend in poor visibility. Descending in this manner, I reached my tent at Nido de Condores at exactly 3 p.m., 12 hours after leaving. I was feeling quite well at Nido and didn’t fancy the idea of staying, as it would entail eating more freeze dried food and spending another night in my tent. I decided to descend to Plaza de Mulas both to use the satellite internet service and to rent a bunk bed and hot meal from the mule company. I drank some of my remaining water, had a light snack, and rested for 20 minutes before changing into my running shoes, packing my sleeping bag and some extra clothing, and beginning to descend. I practically ran back to Plaza de Mulas, moving directly down the Grand Acarreo, and only took 1 hour to descend. In Plaza de Mulas I emailed my family, ate fresh meat for dinner, and went to bed early in a bunk rented from Inka.

February 12th
4300m to 5450m. Sleep at 5450m, Nido de Condores.

After sleeping eleven hours, I took my time preparing to re-ascend to Nido de Condores. I ate some snack food, repacked my bag, and after socializing with other climbers and rehydrating began heading back up the mountain at around 2 p.m. With a light pack the ascent went very quickly, and I soon found myself at Camp Canada, now quite crowded with ascending teams. Just above Camp Canada the wind began to pick up and light snow began falling. I had packed extra clothing, and despite the cold weather was quite comfortable ascending in my running shoes. Between Plaza Alaska and Nido de Condores I met a man descending very slowly, stumbling and clearly suffering from ataxia, wearing only a heavy flannel shirt and trekking pants, without gloves or a hardshell. I stopped to ask him if he was O.K., and quickly decided that indeed he was not. He told me that he had been separated from his group, and intended to descend to Plaza de Mulas. The weather was quickly turning and he appeared to be suffering severe AMS, so I persuaded him to accompany me back to Nido de Condores where there is a park ranger. I took his pack for him, and helped him back towards Nido, taking almost 40 minutes. At Nido the ranger gave him some hot tea and snacks, and got on the radio to try and figure out who and where the man’s team was. After hydrating and eating the man recovered somewhat, and was immediately quite angry that his guide and team had abandoned him high on the mountain. I departed for my tent, where I cooked some dinner and began packing up my leftover food. The Estonian team had ascended to Nido, and I spent some time visiting with them before heading to bed.

February 13th
5450m to 4300m. Sleep at 4300m, Plaza de Mulas.
3:05 descent.

Having made the summit several days earlier than planned, my initial idea was to spend this day doing some hiking on the mountains north of Nido de Condores. After breakfast I got dressed, packed a day bag, and headed across Nido to the downslope which leads to the various peaks behind Nido. I reached the top of the downslope and descended partway, then stopped and sat down to take in the scenery. Some ~200m descent on scree separated me from the nearby peaks, all of which would involve another ~200 to ~400m of scree ascent to summit. I enjoyed the view and pondered my options. I was still feeling physically tired from the summit, and mentally uninspired by the thought of slogging up yet more scree. In the end it was the prospect of more scree which put me off, and I headed back to my tent to begin packing up. Between my garbage, human waste, equipment, and almost a week’s worth of leftover food I ended up with a massive backpack which must have weighed close to 40kg. The descent back to Plaza de Mulas was slow and uncomfortable due to the weight, taking me 3 hours with frequent breaks. In Plaza de Mulas I repitched my tent, and was happy to meet the Solo Argentine I had explored Nido de Condores with several days prior. He had reached the summit the day after me, and we shared dinner to celebrate.

February 14th
4300m to 2850m. Sleep at 2550m, Hotel.
5:45 descent.

My final day on the mountain. I took my time in the morning, preparing my duffels for the mule and packing a light load to carry. I handed my trash over to the mule company, and disposed of my human waste in the receptacle provided by the park. My exit load for the mule came to only 26kg, and Inka let me save some money and only pay for the use of half a mule load. The hike out was long and monotonous, but far more pleasant than it had been on the way in. I reached Confluencia quickly, but only stopped to refill my water bottles before continuing to descend. When I reached the trailhead and starting point I realized that I wasn’t finished yet – I still had to descend another few kilometers down the access road to the Horcones park entrance. At the park entrance I checked out with the rangers, who called the mule company to come and pick me up. They drove me back to the Hotel Ayelen at Penitentes, where I celebrated my summit by enjoying a hot shower, a cold beer, an enormous meal, and good conversation with the hotel owner.

February 15th

I caught the noon bus from Penitentes back to Mendoza, and arrived at around 4 p.m. I caught a taxi from the bus station back to Plaza Indepencia Hotel, changed into lightweight clothing appropriate for summer Mendoza weather, and headed out for steak and beer.

February 16th

Spent the day relaxing in Mendoza. The Plaza Indepencia Hotel is inexpensive and in a central location, making it easy to explore the city.

February 17th

Another day relaxing in Mendoza. I was delighted to hear familiar voices in the hostel, and discover that the friendly Estonian team was also staying there and had just arrived.

February 18th

After a great grocery store lunch shared with the leader of the Estonian team, I caught my flight out of Mendoza at 5:25 p.m.

Thoughts on Aconcagua

Aconcagua was a rewarding, engaging experience for me.  In deciding to attempt the hike solo I approached Aconcagua as a test of my physical training, planning capabilities, and prior experience.  The climb went very well in every aspect, with no significant difficulties.  I remained mentally focused throughout, emotionally invested in safely succeeding, and more than adequately prepared physically.  Organizing and executing 14 days on the mountain taught me much more about trip planning, especially in regards to nutrition, scheduling, and training.

Aconcagua is not a particularly pleasant mountain to spend a lot of time on.  It is very dry, dusty, and dirty, and high winds are a constant presence.  The views can be aesthetic, but generally Aconcagua is lacking the raw beauty found on big glaciers.  The terrain on Aconcagua is predominantly loose scree, which does not make for enjoyable hiking, and the Canaleta is a thoroughly unpleasant finish to the climb.  The normal route is non-technical, and although I carried them to the summit I never saw the need to use my crampons.  My ice ax remained at Nido de Condores on summit day.  Despite all of this Aconcagua is not a mountain to be taken lightly and cannot realistically be described as “easy” – it was a worthy, highly rewarding challenge which I am glad to have undertaken.  Aconcagua is anything but safe.  At almost 7000m the altitude presents difficulties and can be dangerous. There were deaths while I was on the mountain.  A man whom I greeted as I descended from the summit later died there.  Argentina is a very friendly country, and many of the Argentine climbers I met were delightful, interesting people. Argentina has a wealth of high peaks (although many are scree slogs) and is a country I intend to revisit for more hiking, perhaps in the remote northern mountains.

Huayna Potosí – August 2014

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Huayna Potosi, from a graveyard near the Zongo Pass.

6088m Huayna Potosi is indisputedly Bolivia’s most popular climb, largely due to very easy access from nearby La Paz.  Referred to by some as the world’s ‘easiest’ 6000m peak, Huayna Potosi presents a straightforward glacier climb made worthwhile by two short yet interesting technical obstacles and excellent views from the summit.

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Huayna Potosi from the northwest, on the approach to Pequeno Alpamayo.

While climbing and camping in Bolivia’s Condoriri group of mountains I met Pedro, a mountain guide and the nephew of my 1:1 guide in the Cordillera Real.  The two of us hit it off, and together we made a plan for a lightweight attempt on Huayna Potosi.  Packing minimal glacier gear, some water and basic snack food, we intended to climb the mountain in a single push overnight.

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My equipment and supplies for the climb.

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Packed and ready to go.

Pedro and I left La Paz by car at 7 p.m. and arrived at the 4700m Zongo Pass trailhead a few hours later.  We caught a few hours of sleep in the nearby basecamp hostel, where Pedro had friends and access to mattresses for us.  Awake at midnight, we quickly drank some tea and started moving, wearing hiking boots and carrying our climbing boots over the shoulder.  From the basecamp a short hike of around one hour took us over moraine and rocky slopes to the high camp refuge, where most climbers spend a night before beginning their summit push.   At this point we were both overheated and sweating from nearly jogging the approach hike, and so stopped inside the refuge to dry off, hydrate, and change into plastic boots.  As we rested in the refuge several large groups of climbers were finishing their own preparations and leaving in waves to begin climbing towards the summit.  Pedro and I waited for the last of them to leave and started out from the refuge at around 2 a.m.

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Looking down the lower glacier.  The high camp refuge is center right, and the rocky approach hike stretches out to the road.

Quickly making the edge of the glacier, the climb started off straightforward and only moderately sloped.  Tens of headlights shone off the snow and ice, illuminating the darkness ahead.  These belonged to lines of roped climbers, big guided teams who had set out from the refuge before us.  With no fear of hidden crevasses on the well-travelled route Pedro and I moved unroped and fast.  Shortly we found ourselves climbing alone into the darkness, the lights of the others stretched out below.  We soon reached the first semi-technical obstacle of the climb, a bergschrund crossing involving a ~5m chute of 70-80 degree ice.  Using my general-purpose ax’s pick for leverage I took five or six moves to scale the wall.  The bergschrund presented only a short break to the otherwise simple climbing, but the fast moves up steep ice and our rapid pace made for a feeling of excitement. Following the glacier straight upwards and across slightly steeper terrain, to a maximum of around 45 degrees, we soon reached the base of the summit ridge and final section of climbing leading directly to the top.  We were too early for the sun’s warmth, and the freezing winds on the exposed ridge above held us off.  Pedro and I waited below the ridge for around twenty five minutes, and only as the sun began to rise on the horizon did we move onwards.

The summit ridge was very narrow and exposed to sheer drop-offs.  While not particularly steep, the level of exposure and delicate footing required complete focus.  We moved across the ridge carefully and soon found ourselves at the top, a sharp and corniced point with nowhere higher to climb.  It had been four hours since we left the high camp refuge. While we were the first ones on the summit we didn’t have it to ourselves for long, and a large group of ~10 climbers quickly arrived after us.  We decided to move off of the summit proper, nervous of the number of people now standing on the corniced overhang, and stood on the ridgeline just below taking photographs and admiring the incredible views.  Illimani and Mururata were clearly visible on the skyline, as were the lights of nearby La Paz.   The sunrise cast a glow over the mountain, and with it brought welcome warmth.  As the summit grew more and more crowded, we decided to begin descending.

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The corniced summit of Huayna Potosi and a large group of climbers.

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Looking across the ridge just below the summit, Mururata and Illimani on the horizon.

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Sunrise begins over the glacier.

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Sunrise over the cloud ocean far below.

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Mururata and Illimani.

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Illimani from near the summit of Huayna Potosi.

We put our rope to use during the first section of descent immediately below the summit, a steep downclimb of the face below the summit ridge.  Once off of this steep section we unclipped and continued descending at a brisker pace.  In sunlight the size and beauty of Huayna Potosi’s glacier became apparent.

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Looking back at the upper glacier.

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Crevasses off-route.

We crossed several deep crevasses by jumping them.

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Our descent took us across several open crevasses.

Arriving back at the high camp refuge in good time we stopped to take a rest and drink some water.  After switching back into trekking boots and packing up our axes and cold weather gear we took our time during the hike out to Zongo Pass and the car, enjoying the sunshine and views of the mountain behind us.

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Looking back at Huayna Potosi.

On the drive back to La Paz we stopped by a nearby lake to take one last look at the mountain.  It was very satisfying to admire Huayna Potosi’s aesthetics knowing that we had stood upon its summit just hours earlier.

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Huayna Potosi, from the road to La Paz near Zongo Pass.

Huayna Potosi was an enjoyable and very fun climb, largely due to our approach of tackling it in a single fast and light overnight push.  Climbing a 6000m peak overnight was exciting, and the exposure of the summit ridge made for an interesting finish.

Accessibility

Huayna Potosi is the most popular climb in Bolivia and transport, logistics, and guiding services are easy to find in La Paz.  Zongo Pass can also apparently be accessed by public bus.  There are no permit or access fees. At just over 6000m, Huayna Potosi is a high altitude climb.  Acclimatization is important.  I acclimatized by hiking and climbing in the nearby Condoriri group of mountains. For logistics and a 1:1 guide I used the services of Eduardo Mamani and his company http://www.bolivianmountainguides.com/.  During my trip I climbed with Eduardo himself, as well as with his brother Gregorio and their nephew Pedro.  All three are certified UIAGM / IFMGA guides, are exceptionally strong, professional, and personable.  When I return to Bolivia I will, without doubt, contact Eduardo again.

Pequeño Alpamayo – July 2014

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Pequeno Alpamayo, from the summit of Tarija peak.

5370m Pequeño Alpamayo is one of Bolivia’s most famous mountains, and a popular climb.  With a striking appearance and aesthetic normal route, Pequeño Alpamayo was one of my main climbing objectives in visiting Bolivia.

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Pequeno Alpamayo’s striking ridgeline seen in profile, from the summit of Piramide Blanca.

Pequeño Alpamayo is named for its larger Peruvian cousin Alpamayo, considered by many to be the most beautiful mountain in the world.  A part of the Condoriri range of mountains, the climb started with a ~2 hour drive from La Paz.  I planned to spend several days in the area, and tackle a few 5000+m peaks to acclimatize for higher climbing.

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The parking area and beginning of the hike to basecamp.

The basecamp for the Condoriri mountains is a mountain lake called Chiar Khota.  From the parking area we hired mules to haul our camping gear and food up to the lake, and set off with light packs.  The hike into basecamp took around 2 hours at a leisurely pace.

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Arriving at Chiar Khota.

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Basecamp.

The basecamp sits at ~4700m and is a lovely spot, with great views of surrounding mountains.  The main peak of the group, Cabeza de Condor, stands nearby.

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Cabeza de Condor, the highest peak of the Condoriri group, from basecamp.

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Cabeza de Condor, from the summit of Pico Austria.

Prior to my ascent of Pequeño Alpamayo I spent a day ascending a nearby trekking peak, ~5350m Pico Austria, and an easy glaciated summit, ~5350m Piramide Blanca.   This hiking, paired with several nights’ rest at basecamp, had me quite well acclimatized before beginning on Pequeño Alpamayo.  Having already enjoyed some great views of Pequeño Alpamayo from the other summits, I was excited to climb its lovely ridgeline.

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The normal route on Pequeno Alpamayo, a direct ridgeline.  On the day I climbed Piramide Blanca several teams were attempting Pequeno Alpamayo and could be seen in profile.

Awake early, my guide and climbing partner Gregorio and I started off from basecamp at 4:10 a.m., and quickly gained the glacier which leads to Tarija peak.  Pequeño Alpamayo lies behind several other mountains, and is accessed by first ascending Tarija, itself a small 5000m peak.  Gaining the top of Tarija was straightforward enough, as having ascended the same glacier the day prior while climbing Piramide Blanca Gregorio and I knew where the crevasses were.

From the top of Tarija peak we descended down the other side, a fun rock slope to downclimb in crampons and plastic boots.  I had read trip reports of this section being somewhat tricky, but with minimal ice and snow I found it to be an enjoyable scramble.

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At the base of Pequeno Alpamayo, Tarija peak behind me.

Behind Tarija peak the real climbing began.  Pequeño Alpamayo stood in front of me, absolutely gorgeous in the morning light.  The mountain looked unreal, pristine and crisp.  Having overtaken another team during the rocky descent from Tarija peak, Gregorio and I were the first two to climb the ridge, and had no other climbers on the mountain in front of us.

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Pequeno Alpamayo at sunrise.

From the base of Tarija a short flat section led to a sharp but nearly level ridge, which itself led to the base of Pequeño Alpamayo’s summit ridge.  Climbing unroped to this point, Gregorio and I decided that the snow conditions were good enough to continue climbing separately and without using protection.  Gregorio graciously offered to let me take the lead, and so the route lay open before me.

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At the base of the summit ridge, getting ready to cross one final crevasse.

Gregorio and I reached the summit at 8:10 a.m., four hours after leaving camp and the first ones on top for the day.  The snow conditions were excellent for most of the way up, with only a few short sections of ice.  Climbing unroped and leading at my own pace felt fantastic, and kept me completely focused throughout the entire climb.

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On the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo.

6088m Huayna Potosi was prominently visible from the summit, and looked much closer than it actually was.  I would head to Huayna Potosi a few days later and ascend it in a single overnight push with Gregorio’s cousin Pedro.

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Huayna Potosi, from the summit of Pequeno Alpamayo.

After spending some thirty minutes on the summit enjoying the views and resting, it was time to head down.

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Looking down the summit ridge from just below the top.

We down climbed most of the way, but used a single rappel to get past the steepest middle section of the ridge.  Our descent was fast, yet trickier than the ascent.  From the base of the summit ridge we crossed back to Tarija peak, scrambled back to the top, and began the long trudge back down the main glacier and to basecamp.

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Looking back at Pequeno Alpamayo from the base of the summit ridge.

We returned to camp by 11:30 a.m., where I cooked up some lunch and took a rest in my tent.

Pequeño Alpamayo had been a clean, aesthetically pleasing climb.  Climbing free and unroped to the summit was an incredible experience for both my confidence and focus.  Gregorio was a pleasant climbing companion, and I was delighted that he let me lead the summit ridge – being the first to the top made the climb all the more unforgettable.

Pequeño Alpamayo is a peak which I can see myself visiting again.  The Condoriri group is an ideal area to acclimatize for Bolivia’s 6000m mountains, and Pequeño Alpamayo is too lovely a summit to pass on.  While Cabeza de Condor was an objective of mine on this trip I didn’t even manage to set foot on it’s glacier, leaving me with a strong desire to return.

Accessibility

Pequeño Alpamayo is a very popular climb, and transport, logistics, or guiding services are easy to find in La Paz.  There are no permit fees, but a small fee is charged on a per-tent basis by the caretakers at Chiar Khota.

At just over 5000m Pequeño Alpamayo can be climbed fairly quickly after arrival in Bolivia.  La Paz is a high altitude city, and a few days there paired with a couple of nights in basecamp would probably be adequate acclimatization for a strong climber.   I acclimatized on nearby peaks before climbing Pequeño Alpamayo, and feel that moving slowly with acclimatization contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the climb.

For logistics and a 1:1 guide I used the services of Eduardo Mamani and his company http://www.bolivianmountainguides.com/.  I climbed with Eduardo’s brother Gregorio while in the Condoriri, and I met Eduardo’s nephew Pedro while hanging around basecamp.  I later climbed Huayna Potosi with Pedro and Illimani with Eduardo himself.  All three are certified UIAGM / IFMGA guides, and are exceptionally strong, professional, and personable.  Eduardo and Gregorio have been climbing in Bolivia for decades, and have an astonishing amount of experience and knowledge.  I highly recommend their services.  When I return to Bolivia I will, without doubt, contact them again.

Illimani – August 2014

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Illimani, from the road to Pinaya.

At 6438m Illimani stands as Bolivia’s second highest, and one of the country’s most beautiful peaks.  Seen from nearby La Paz Illimani seems small and close, but in reality is awe inspiringly massive, with five distinct summits.  Illimani’s south summit is the mountain’s high point and is accessed by the standard western climbing route.

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Mururata (left) and Illimani (right) at sunrise, from the summit of Huayna Potosi.

Illimani was one of my primary climbing goals in visiting Bolivia, and the last peak which I would attempt on my trip.  Prior to Illimani I had spent a good amount of time camping at altitudes of around ~4500m, and had climbed 6088m Huayna Potosi just a few days earlier.  Thoroughly acclimatized and having performed well physically during my other climbs, albeit not feeling perfect due to recent food poisoning, my guide Eduardo and I planned to make the climb overnight, spending just a few hours resting at a high camp.

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The valley road to Pinaya

Day 1: Eduardo met me at my Hostel in La Paz early in the morning, and after a fast breakfast we began the long drive to the village of Pinaya.  From La Paz the route took us around four hours, first across the city, and then along a dirt road through a scenic valley.  The mountain could be seen ahead of us throughout the drive, and its features slowly began to take on definition as we grew closer.

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Illimani in the distance, from the road to Pinaya.

We arrived in Pinaya before noon, and stopped in the central square nearby the schoolhouse.  Pinaya is a rural village, and very small.  In Pinaya we hired two locals to work as porters to help us carry gear to high camp.  They hopped into the truck with us, and we continued to drive upwards along a narrow and dilapidated dirt road.

I typically feel uncomfortable at the idea of using the service of porters, but our climbing plan involved a same-day summit push for which we needed to be fully energized.  This would be my first experience employing porters, and after the fact I am still unsure regarding the ethics of having other people haul gear for you.  My mentality stands that a climber should be capable of managing their own gear and climbing under their own power.  In the case of Illimani, the effort of our porters moving gear to high camp was a factor in enabling us to climb Illimani over a single night, rather than following the traditional three or four day schedule.   The locals in Pinaya greatly benefit from the arrangement, and make a high wage for a day’s work assisting climbers.

After some 45 minutes of rough driving out of Pinaya we reached Puente Roto, a large grass covered field and the base camp for Illimani.  Here we sorted out equipment, had a quick lunch in the car, and at 12:15 p.m. began hiking upwards along a path of scree.

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The lower slopes of Illimani.

The route to high camp traverses numerous scree fields and large swathes of smooth rock ground down over time by ancient glacial movement.  Several runoff streams cut across the path, and distant waterfalls can be heard along the route.  Illimani’s glacier has receded considerably, and as we hiked Eduardo shared stories of the Illimani he remembered from his youth, when the glacier covered most of the now-barren lower slopes.

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The lower slopes of Illimani.

The views grew increasingly impressive as we moved upwards, and I began to appreciate how absolutely enormous a mountain Illimani is.

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The lower glaciers of Illimani.

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View of the glacier from the high camp approach hike.

At exactly 4:00 p.m. we arrived at 5500m Nido de Condores, “The Condor’s Nest”, a small rocky outcrop and the high camp for Illimani’s normal route.  Here we quickly pitched our tents and settled in for an afternoon of rest and hydration.

We were not alone at high camp, and three other groups were also preparing for a summit attempt.  After a light dinner, I went to sleep early.

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My one-person tent at Nido de Condores.

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The south summit, not visible, lies beyond the false-summit in this photograph, to the climber’s right from Nido de Condores.

Day 2: Awake around 1 a.m., Eduardo and I began climbing upwards at 2:20 a.m.  We roped up almost immediately after leaving camp.  While Illimani’s normal route is not particularly steep or technical, with a maximum slope of around 50 degrees, it does follow several ridges exposed to sheer drop-offs where a fall would be difficult to arrest.

Starting steady and strong, passing another group within the first hour, some three hours into the climb I felt myself flagging mentally.  The snow condition was good, the wind cold but manageable.  Despite fairly unpleasant stomach issues two days earlier my breathing was steady and controlled, my legs and body mechanically driving upwards without serious fatigue, but my thoughts drifted.  When I considered the summit I felt empty.  The altitude weighed on me and I felt lethargic, completely unmotivated.  My pace slowed us down, and a group of four passed us.  I began to consciously question my purpose, the rationale behind each step upwards.  We pressed on, stopping occasionally for water breaks.

The sky above us began to take on a faint glow, as sunrise bloomed on the other side of the mountain.  Illimani is a notoriously cold climb chiefly due to its standard route taking a western approach, shaded from the sun until relatively late in the morning, and compounded by the mountain’s prominence and exposure to wind.  As the sky brightened and cast textured shadows onto the snow underfoot we crested a false summit, and ahead of us could see the team of four climbing the final ridge to the south summit and highpoint.

Eduardo and I reached the summit at 6:50 a.m., four and a half hours after leaving camp.  While a ‘normal’ time for this route is 5-7 hours, my climb felt sluggish and not particularly efficient.  I was happy to stand atop Illimani, but my mind did not register a sense of accomplishment.

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Sunrise on Illimani.

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The north and central summits of Illimani in the distance.

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Eduardo on the summit of Illimani.

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Atop Illimani’s south summit.

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Illimani’s shadow stretched out far below us.

After some twenty minutes on the summit Eduardo and I began to head back down.  The descent was fast and the route clear to follow in daylight.  We encountered another team still ascending and wished them good luck.  The fourth team on the mountain, a Mexican group who had shared camp with us, had turned around.  They would later tell me that their pace was too slow, and thus the climb too cold, perhaps too fatigued from their gear haul to high camp earlier in the day.

Nido de Condores quickly came into sight below us, my tent a tiny spot of color.

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Nido de Condores, center of the picture, at the left end of the ridge.

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Nido de Condores

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Descending the final ridge to high camp, the team of four ahead of us.

We reached camp at 9:00 a.m., having descended from the summit in under two hours.  I took an hour to nap in my tent before rising to pack up gear and prepare for our descent to Puente Roto and the truck.

The drive back to La Paz was long and uneventful, but the mountain rose behind us the entire way, tall and surreal, making it difficult to believe that we had stood upon its summit just hours earlier.

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Looking back at Illimani during the approach hike.

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Illimani above the clouds, from the valley road to Pinaya.

Illimani is an enormous and aesthetically attractive mountain.  Weather during the climbing season in Bolivia is typically very stable, and I enjoyed clear skies during the night of our ascent.  Moderate wind resulted in a cold climb, but my gear and pace were up to the conditions. While high altitude made physical output strenuous and tiring, and could perhaps be entirely to blame for my apathetic mental state, the climb did not otherwise feel particularly difficult.  Indeed, I would argue that the bergschrund and summit ridge of Huayna Potosi several days earlier posed greater challenges than anything I encountered on Illimani.  The lack of mental focus which I encountered on Illimani was a first experience for me, and in hindsight serves as a motivation for better commitment and emotional investment into future climbs.

I had an excellent experience in Bolivia, and intend to visit again.  While I ‘only’ climbed five of the country’s peaks, all popular trade routes, I was very pleased to manage two overnight 6000 meter summits and a fun unroped ascent of Pequeno Alpamayo.

Accessibility

Illimani is one of Bolivia’s more popular climbs, and numerous support agencies offer transport, logistics, and guiding services for the mountain.  The largest hurdle in accessibility is the lengthy and involved drive to basecamp, taking some ~4 hours from downtown La Paz.  Eduardo and I rode in his 4×4, but chartered vehicles for unguided climbers can also be hired from outfitting companies.  There are no permit or access fees associated with climbing Illimani.

At over 6000m, Illimani is a high altitude climb.  Adequate acclimatization is of critical importance to a safe and successful climb.  I acclimatized by spending extra time in La Paz, by hiking and climbing in the nearby Condoriri group of mountains, and through a fast overnight ascent of 6088m Huayna Potosi.  I started climbing Illimani after spending over a week at high altitudes.

For logistics and a 1:1 guide I used the services of Eduardo Mamani and his company http://www.bolivianmountainguides.com/.  During my trip I climbed with Eduardo himself, as well as with his brother Gregorio and nephew Pedro.  All three are certified UIAGM / IFMGA guides, are exceptionally strong, professional, and personable.  Eduardo and Gregorio have been climbing in Bolivia for decades, and have an astonishing amount of experience and knowledge.  I highly recommend their services.  When I return to Bolivia I will, without doubt, contact them again.

Chimborazo – January 2014

Chimborazo.

Chimborazo, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi.

6310m Chimborazo is a massive inactive volcano, and Ecuador’s highest mountain. Due to the earth’s equatorial bulge Chimborazo’s high-point is the spot located farthest from the Earth’s center, further than the much higher Himalayan peaks due to their more northerly latitude. Given the right time this also makes Chimborazo’s summit the point on earth closest to the sun.

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Chimborazo in the clouds, from the drive to the base of the mountain.

Along with the much lower Illiniza Sur, Chimborazo was one of my primary climbing goals while visiting Ecuador.  I came to Chimborazo thoroughly acclimatized, having spent almost two weeks climbing several of Ecuador’s other 5000+m volcanoes – my detailed climbing itinerary can be seen here.  I had enjoyed great snow conditions and reasonable weather at the beginning of my trip, successfully climbing the Illinizas, Cayambe, and Cotopaxi before travelling to Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest.

Antisana had chased me off with a lightning storm, fog, and abnormally warm air temperatures, leaving me well aware of Ecuador’s potential for rapidly changing weather.   I was nervous about Chimborazo – while the standard route’s technical grade is low, in recent years Chimborazo has gained notoriety for being out of condition.  I had read accounts of a dry route covered in ice, with high objective hazard presented by rockfall.  There was good news however; other climbers and Ecuadorian guides whom I had met at my hostel and on other mountains had informed me that Chimborazo had recently seen snowfall.  Fresh snow once consolidated would prevent rockfall, and also hopefully make for decent climbing conditions.

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My campsite near the parking area.

Day 1:  My climbing partner, Ecuadorian mountain guide Pato, and I were camping at the base of Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest mountain.  We had arrived at Antisana the day before, with the intent of climbing it overnight.  Unfortunately the weather had conspired against us, and I had made the decision to bail.  With no sign of the weather improving we figured that it wasn’t worth sticking around and waiting for one more day, and I decided that instead of taking a day for rest, we may as well head straight to Chimborazo.

From the Reserva Ecologica Antisana we drove for almost six hours to the Reserva de Produccion Faunista Chimborazo, the nature reserve which contains Chimborazo.  Along the way we stopped in Ambato, Pato’s hometown, where we enjoyed a small feast at a local steakhouse.  After a fast check-in at the Chimborazo park gate we arrived at the ~4800m parking area near the base of the mountain, where everything was shrouded in thick afternoon fog.  Most of Ecuador’s more popular mountains are climbed from cabins, or refuges, but both of Chimborazo’s were closed at the time of my visit, so I pitched camp behind a makeshift cabin being used by the construction workers.  The lower Carrel refuge stood close to my campsite, while the higher Whymper refuge was some ~200m up the mountain.

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The incomplete Carrel refuge near my campsite.

I was feeling uncertain of the weather due to the amount of fog, but knew that we had a spare day if we needed it.  I ate a light dinner, filled my water bottles with hot water from the workers’ cabin, and went to sleep early.

Day 2: Awake around 10 p.m., I ate some snacks and began preparing my gear.  The fog had cleared overnight, and the sky shone with thousands of stars.  My stomach was feeling uncomfortable.  I suspect that this was due to the water which I had taken from the workers’ cabin.  This water had been boiled, but was sitting in a very large communal pot.  Not knowing how long the water had been boiled for, or how recently, or whether the water in the pot had ever been changed out, or whether it was clean from numerous groups using it, or even how long it had been sitting, I shouldn’t have taken any.  I had even brought my own water, a 6L bottle bought in the city!  These stomach issues, and by extension a lack of good nutrition prior to beginning, would later contribute to the climb’s difficulty.

We began hiking up the gentle slopes of the lower mountain at 11:00 p.m.  We passed the Whymper refuge around 30 minutes later and soon reached snow.

Below el Castillo, the Veintimilla summit ahead.

Below el Castillo, the Veintimilla summit above.

The lower section of Chimborazo’s standard route is known for rockfall hazard.  This area is only moderately steep, but climbs directly below numerous cliffs of loose rock, among them el Castillo, ‘the castle’, a large cliff / rock formation along the ridge above which frequently sheds boulders down the mountain.  There is only one clear way up past the cliffs, leading some to refer to this section as ‘the corridor’.

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The slopes below el Castillo.

It was a clear but cold and windy night.  The low air temperature was likely to our benefit however, and we experienced no rockfall below el Castillo.  When everything is frozen solid, otherwise loose rocks tend to be stable.  I was soon climbing in my down parka, utilizing my full layering system to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and between my ski goggles and neck buff had my face completely covered.

Looking down at el Castillo from the ridge above.

Looking down at el Castillo from the ridge above.

With no difficulties in route finding we quickly reached the ridgeline which connects el Castillo and Chimborazo’s Veintimilla summit.  We gained the ridge to the climber’s right of el Castillo, an obvious spot given the steeper terrain on either side of it.  Heading up the ridge we soon discovered that the snow on the ridge was soft and loose, impeding each step upwards with a half-step slide back down.  Several crevasses posed minor obstacles, but they were mostly off-route, easy to see and avoid.  Stretches of the ridge were moderately steep, around 45 degrees at steepest.  The loose snow made climbing physically strenuous, but as wind howled past us we continued upwards, one step at a time, focused.  In darkness and biting wind the soft snow of the ridge seemed to stretch on for an eternity, with Pato and I moving at what felt like a snail’s pace within the tiny spheres of light provided by our headlamps.

Moving up the ridge, the refuge far below.

Higher up the ridge, the refuges far below.

Looking down the ridge.

Looking down the ridge.

Around 5:30 a.m. we finally reached the Veintimilla summit, the first morning light just beginning to glow on the horizon.  Chimborazo has several summits, of which Veintimilla is the second highest.  Chimborazo’s true high-point, the Whymper summit, lies several hundred meters to the east of Veintimilla across a large, flat plateau.  Many climbers reach Veintimilla and stop, without enough time or energy to cross the plateau and attain the true summit just tens of meters higher.  I was well aware of this, and before even coming to Ecuador had been firm in my intent to make a full ascent of Chimborazo and stand upon the Whymper.

As we reached the end of the ridge and level terrain lay in front of us, I was amazed to see an enormous field of penitentes stretching across the summit plateau.  Penitentes are a high altitude snow formation found throughout the Andes, and while I knew that they were a common occurrence on Chimborazo it was a shock to see them in person.  Each around a meter high, they resembled the waves of a stormy ocean and looked daunting to cross.

Looking back across the penitentes towards the Whymper summit.

Penitentes above 6000m.

Standing in pre-dawn glow on the Veintimilla at some ~6270m, physically tired, this new obstacle sprawling before us looked imposing.  My thoughts were racing.  I had prepared hard for this trip.  Months spent training, days upon days climbing stairs, cycling, all of my research, carefully saving money, all for the dream of attaining this summit.  My goal was now visible just a few hundred meters away from me.

Pato, looking across the plateau, said “It’s complicated, it will be tiring.”  We looked at each other, and I started to say “We should give it a shot, let’s wait for the sun to rise.”  Maybe he saw it in my face, or perhaps he knew from climbing with me for the past two weeks; I was certain that I still had the endurance and the willpower to reach Whymper and descend safely.  Before I had finished speaking he said “O.K., let’s go!”

A sea of clouds below fields of penitentes.

A sea of clouds below fields of penitentes.

We started off over the plateau, first slightly downhill and then straight across.  The penitentes were covered in several inches of fresh snow, making them messy to navigate.  The troughs between penitentes made for anything but level terrain, and the crossing was an exhausting follow-up to the loose snow ridge we had ascended earlier.

Looking back at the Veintimilla summit from the Whymper summit.

Looking back at the Veintimilla summit from the Whymper summit.

In spite of the terrain I was feeling fine with the altitude.  Clear headed if physically tired, my thorough acclimatization was paying off.  After some 45 long minutes we had finally crossed the plateau.  At 6:20 a.m. we found ourselves at the Whymper summit, marked with a small wooden sign and a Swedish flag left by other climbers.

The penitente-covered plateau between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits.

The penitente-covered plateau between the Veintimilla and Whymper summits.

The Whymper summit.

The Whymper summit.

Far below us the sun rose behind Carihuairazo.  At 5018m Carihuairazo looked tiny in the distance.

Pato in the Penitentes on the summit.

Pato in the Penitentes on the summit.

Sunrise over Cairhuairazo from the summit.

Sunrise over Carihuairazo from the summit.

We stayed on the summit for about twenty minutes, just enough time to hydrate and take some photographs.  It was early, but still important for us to descend quickly before the sun warmed the mountain and softened the snow.

Tired and happy on the summit.

Tired and happy on the Whymper summit.

I had drunk about a liter of my water on the summit, and as we walked back across the plateau my stomach began to churn.  Alone throughout the entire climb thus far, as we regained the Veintimilla we met two other climbing teams still ascending the mountain.  Both would stop at Veintimilla, it being too late in the day to continue across and still safely descend on firm snow.

Looking back at the Whymper summit from Veintimilla.

Looking back at the Whymper summit from Veintimilla.

Another team approaching the Veintimilla summit.

Another team approaching the Veintimilla summit.

Below Veintimilla we reached the top of the ridge and began to climb down carefully, cautious of the loose snow underfoot.  By now my stomach was boiling, and I stopped to vomit.  This stomach discomfort persisting all the way back to basecamp and throughout the rest of the day.  I cannot be certain what caused my stomach issues, but I strongly suspect that the water I had taken was the culprit.  I considered whether I was suffering altitude sickness, but found it unlikely given my otherwise good condition.  I have experienced nearly debilitating altitude sickness in the past, but have never encountered nausea as a standalone symptom.  In my experience an onset of mountain sickness for me is always characterized first by ataxia, and then by headache – neither of which were present.

Clouds and penitentes.

Clouds and penitentes.

After being sick I immediately felt much better, but dehydrated.  Drinking more water, my stomach almost immediately began to complain again – it seemed that the descent would be an uncomfortable one.

Looking back up the ridge towards the Veintimilla summit on descent.  Zoomed in, the other team can be seen descending near the middle of the ridge.

On descent, looking back up the ridge towards the Veintimilla summit. Zoomed in, another team can be seen descending near the middle of the ridge.

The sun warmed us up and the air temperature rose quickly.  Partway down the ridge I removed all of my warmth layers and continued in only a base layer and a fleece.  Far below us the two refuges and the workers’ cabin could be seen at the base of the mountain, my tent a tiny speck.

The workers' hut and my campsite are top right, near the cars.  The two refuges are center and left.

The workers’ hut and my campsite are top right, near the cars. The two refuges are center and left.

As we reached the bottom of the ridge we decided to descend via a longer variation, following the ridge below the base of el Castillo all the way down.  This would make the descent around 45 minutes longer, but much safer due to the softening snow and potential for rockfall on the slopes below el Castillo.  The ridge past el Castillo is very gently sloped, which also made this variation easier on the knees, and generally more comfortable after our tiring ascent.

Following the ridge down, passing underneath el Castillo.

Following the ridge down, passing underneath el Castillo.

We returned to camp at 10:30 a.m., where I drank a litre of my bottled water, ate some bread, and took a 20 minute nap before packing up for the drive back to Machachi.  Chimborazo was a physically challenging climb, more than I had expected it to be. In particular the loose, soft snow on the ridgeline and the fields of penitentes on the summit plateau presented tests of endurance on less than ideal conditions.  With both refuges closed the climb was long, covering more than 1500m of gain.  At the end the challenge added to the reward; my preparation, training, and planning had been sufficient.  I was delighted to have realized my goal of reaching the Whymper summit, and very pleased to finish my climbing trip with a successful ascent of Ecuador’s highest.

Driving towards Chimborazo.

Driving towards Chimborazo.

Accessibility

Chimborazo, aside from its variable conditions and high altitude, is one of Ecuador’s more accessible mountains.  Good nearby road infrastructure makes accessing the park and mountain relatively straightforward. The refuges, if open, would make overnighting at the base of the mountain relatively comfortable. Climbing Chimborazo involves glacier travel at high altitude, and good acclimatization is essential to a safe and successful climb.  The conditions on the normal route are known to be variable, and the potential for rockfall is definitely there.  Recent snowfall made the mountain safer during my ascent, but also contributed to the difficulty of the ridge and penitente fields.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas. The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. I experienced cold, strong winds on Chimborazo.  The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but even windier. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had managed to get past the park gate and onto the mountain, but this is strongly discouraged, and the national parks strictly enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers whom they catch.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

Ecuador Climbing Itinerary – January 2014

1/15  : Arrive in Quito (12:30 a.m.), rest, buy gas, to Machachi at ~3200m
1/16  : Buy food, Hike 4791m Corazon out of Machachi
1/17  : To Illiniza Hut at ~4700m
1/18  : Hike 5126m Illiniza Norte, rest in Illiniza Hut
1/19  : Climb 5263m Illiniza Sur, return to Machachi
1/20  : Rest Day in Machachi at ~3200m
1/21  : To Cayambe hut at ~4600m
1/22  : Climb 5790m Cayambe, return to Machachi
1/23  : To Cotopaxi parking lot at ~4600m
1/24  : Climb 5897m Cotopaxi, return to Machachi
1/25  : Rest day in Machachi at ~3200m
1/26  : To Antisana, retreat due to weather conditions
1/27  : To Chimborazo parking lot at ~4800m
1/28  : Climb 6310m Chimborazo, return to Machachi

Cotopaxi – January 2014

Cotopaxi from the road to basecamp.

Cotopaxi.

5897m Cotopaxi is an active stratovolcano and Ecuador’s second highest mountain.  Well known for its perfectly conical shape, Cotopaxi’s aesthetic appeal and ease of access contribute to making it Ecuador’s most popular climb.

Cotopaxi from near Machachi.

Cotopaxi, seen from near Machachi.

I climbed Cotopaxi on my tenth day in Ecuador, and having spent a good amount of time at altitude was thoroughly acclimatized before heading up the mountain.  Before Cotopaxi I hiked 4791m Corazon, climbed both of the 5000+m Illinizas, and climbed 5790m Cayambe.  My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here.

Driving towards the parking lot basecamp.

Driving towards Cotopaxi.

Day 1: In the early afternoon I met my climbing partner and mountain guide Pato at my hostel in the nearby city of Machachi.  Machachi is a popular area for climbers to base out of due to its proximity to both the Illiniza and Cotopaxi national parks, as well as numerous 4000+m hiking peaks.  From Machachi we drove to the Cotopaxi national park, where we followed a long dirt road to the parking area near the base of Cotopaxi at 4600m.  Cotopaxi is normally climbed from a mountain cabin ~200m higher, but during my visit the cabin was undergoing renovation and closed to visitors.

Camping at the base of Cotopaxi.

Camping at the base of Cotopaxi.

Arriving at the parking lot around 2:30, I set up a basic camp and got my gear organized for a midnight start up the mountain.  The weather was clear and cool, but windy.

The parking lot, which served as our basecamp.

The parking area, which served as our campsite.

With Pato sleeping in his 4×4 truck I had my tent to myself, and prepared to turn in and get some sleep during the afternoon.

Day 2: Awake at 11:00, we started hiking up towards the glacier in darkness at 11:40 p.m.  The trail was clear and easy to follow, and we reached the mountain refuge at 12:25.  From the refuge a further twenty minutes on dirt brought us to the first snowfields below the glacier.  After a brief stop to put on crampons we began following a boot-track upwards across the snow.

The Cotopaxi refuge under renovation.

The Cotopaxi refuge under renovation.

Cotopaxi is a very popular climb, and was somewhat crowded during my visit.  On the lower glacier Pato and I passed some seven or eight other climbing teams who had left earlier than us.  We soon found ourselves climbing alone, with only the starry night sky in front of us.  The air temperature wasn’t particularly cold, but despite clear skies a strong wind buffeted us on the exposed slope.  I was soon climbing in full layers and wearing my ski goggles to protect face and eyes from the blasting wind.  The route continuously curved around the mountain to the climber’s right, which became somewhat tedious for my left shoulder and leading leg.  The snow conditions however, were perfect, and under a night sky filled with thousands of glowing stars the climbing was enjoyable.  We stopped for a few short breaks behind large snow formations, which provided us some shelter from the relentless wind.

Snow formations like this one provided our only relief from the high winds.

Snow formations like this one provided our only relief from the high winds.

The route was easy to see and follow due to a well-trodden boot track produced by the hundreds of climbers who had ascended this way before us in the days or weeks since the last snowfall.  Unlike Cayambe two days prior there were no difficulties presented by route finding or crevasse navigation.  While numerous, enormous crevasses lurked off-route, none were open in our path.

Looking down the route, other climbers ascending.

Looking down the route during our descent, other climbers still ascending.

While the route was long, circuitous, and cold in the high wind, the climbing was not particularly strenuous or steep.  At its steepest the route got to be around 40 degrees, but for the most part was very moderate.  At 5:45 a.m. we reached the summit, roughly 6 hours after leaving the parking area.  The summit was very windy and freezing cold, so we took shelter behind a ridge in the snow to drink some hot tea and wait for sunrise.  As the sun began to climb in the distance the sky ignited with color.

Sunrise from Cotopaxi's summit.

Sunrise from Cotopaxi’s summit.

The view was absolutely perfect, with incredible visibility and almost no cloud cover.  All of Ecuador’s major peaks could be seen, from Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur nearby to Chimborazo in the far distance.  Cayambe and Antisana were free of clouds, and shone in the sunlight.

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Cayambe under a color changing sky.

Cayambe under a color-changing sky.

Cayambe under a color-changing sky.

The shadow of Cotopaxi and the two Illinizas.

The shadow of Cotopaxi falling past the two Illinizas.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right.

It felt incredible seeing these peaks so clearly and in such radiant light, knowing that I had stood upon them just days before, or would be attempting to climb them within the next week.

Antisana.

Antisana.

A landscape of volcanoes, Cayambe center, Antisana right.

A landscape of volcanoes, Cayambe center, Antisana right.

Far across the landscape 6310m Chimborazo lay upon a blanket of clouds, Ecuador’s highest mountain.

Chimborazo.

Chimborazo.

Cotopaxi’s summit is a high-point along the mountain’s volcanic crater rim, and has excellent views into the crater itself.

Cotopaxi's crater.

Cotopaxi’s crater.

During sunrise a team of four friendly Belgians arrived to join us on the summit.  We had chatted briefly on the way up, and learned that one of them was celebrating his birthday with their climb.  We helped each other take photos, enjoying the beautiful summit and sunrise.

The Belgian team taking shelter from the wind.

The Belgian team taking shelter from the wind.

On the summit of Cotopaxi.

On the summit of Cotopaxi.

On the summit with Pato.

On the summit with Pato.

After spending some thirty minutes taking in the scenery and persevering through the bitter wind, we were too cold to continue standing around and decided to begin descending.

Descending from the summit, a sea of clouds below us.

Descending from the summit with clouds far below us.

On the way down we passed numerous other teams still ascending.  In daylight the crevasse riddled off-route glacier could be seen.

As we descended we met other teams still climbing up.

As we descended we met other teams still climbing up.

The glacier was heavily crevassed off route.

The glacier, heavily crevassed off-route.

Ice walls and hidden crevasses.

Ice walls stood along the upper mountain.

We passed Yanasacha, a prominent rock band near Cotopaxi’s summit, and stopped to absorb the scale of the mountain.  Yanasacha is easily seen from a distance, and looks small atop Cotopaxi’s bulk, but up close it stood tall and massive.

Yanasacha at sunrise.

Yanasacha in the morning sun.

Looking back up the route I could see other teams ascending and the Belgian team coming down, like lines of ants in the snow.

The top and crux of the route.  This image provides a good sense of scale to the sheer size of Cotopaxi.  Yanasacha is at center left.  Zoom into this photo to see the Belgian team of four descending, and four other teams still ascending.

The top of the route. This image provides a good sense of scale as to the size of Cotopaxi. Yanasacha is at center left. When this photo is enlarged one can see the Belgian team of four descending, and another four separate teams still ascending.

Cotopaxi - Yanasacha is the prominent rock band near the summit.

Cotopaxi – Yanasacha is the  black rock band near the summit.

We made good time descending, and were off of the glacier before the morning sun began to melt and soften the snow.  Near the refuge we followed the dirt trail downwards, towards the parking area still far below us.

View from near the refuge.  The Illinizas to the left, Corazon to the right.

View from above the refuge. The Illinizas to the left, Corazon to the right.

View from above the refuge.  The parking lot center, the refuge bottom right.

View from above the refuge. The parking area center, the refuge bottom right.

We made it back to our campsite by 9:00 a.m., where we quickly ate some snacks before packing up our equipment and driving back to Machachi for a day of rest.  Cotopaxi was a straightforward climb and an enjoyable experience.  Clear skies and perfect snow made frigid winds more tolerable, and the extraordinary views from the summit were both breathtaking and rewarding.  Well acclimatized, I felt great throughout the climb, and didn’t encounter any altitude related difficulties.

Accessibility

Cotopaxi is perhaps Ecuador’s most accessible mountain, due to its proximity to Quito, good nearby road infrastructure, and enormous tourist popularity. Climbing Cotopaxi involves glacier travel – the route was simple during my visit, but I was told that it varies somewhat in difficulty as conditions on the glacier change year-by-year.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas.  The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. That said, I experienced relentlessly high winds on Cotopaxi, which made for a cold hike.  The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but even windier. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group – the four Belgians on Cotopaxi – who had managed to get past the park gate and onto the mountain, but this is strongly discouraged, and the national parks strictly enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers whom they catch.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

Cayambe – January 2014

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Cayambe, seen from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

5790m Cayambe is Ecuador’s 3rd highest mountain.  A massive extinct volcano, Cayambe is known for its active glacier and inclement, windy weather.  Interestingly, part of Cayambe is located on the earth’s equator, making it the highest point through which the equator directly passes.  The eruptions of Reventador, a nearby volcano with high activity, and the subsequent ashfall onto Cayambe’s glacier, have given Cayambe a reputation for being icy and out of condition.

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Cayambe, from near the refuge.

I climbed Cayambe on my eighth day in Ecuador.  Prior to climbing Cayambe I had hiked 4791m Corazon, climbed both of the 5000+m Illiniza volcanoes, and spent several nights sleeping at 4700m.  A week spent hiking at altitude before visiting Cayambe made for great acclimatization, no altitude-related issues, and a far more enjoyable climb.  My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here.

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Ash on the lower glacier.

Day 1: The climb began at my hostel in Machachi, where my Ecuadorian climbing partner and mountain guide Pato picked me up in his 4×4 truck.  While Machachi is not particularly close to Cayambe, I was very pleased with the hostel there and had opted to stay rather than move for one night.  Machachi’s proximity to the Illiniza and Cotopaxi national parks makes it a popular base area for visiting climbers, and its location is close enough to all of Ecuador’s major peaks for one to stay there prior to other climbs.  From Machachi we drove for roughly two hours to the town of Cayambe, stopping for food and drinks along the way.  From the town of Cayambe we drove east, towards the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve which contains the mountain.  From town the road followed rolling hills alongside deep valleys, brimming with trees and plant life.  The area near the reserve is very rural, and we passed many farms and pastures built along the valley walls.

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Driving to the base of Cayambe, through the rural area east of the town of Cayambe.

At the end of a rough road we arrived at the base of Cayambe and parked by the mountain cabin, or refuge, where we would spend the night.  At an elevation of 4600m the refuge is a convenient resting place to base a climb out of.  The main refuge building was under construction, but a smaller building to the right of it was open. It cost around $20 for the two of us to stay for the night.

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The Cayambe refuge.  The larger building to the left was being renovated, but we were able to stay inside the smaller building beside it.

The refuge was small but comfortable, with a kitchen, running water, a little gas stove and padded bunks.  Luxurious compared to camping!  A pair of Austrian climbers and their guides had descended earlier in the day, but had opted to spend another night sleeping here for acclimatization.  They shared good news, and told us that the glacier was in great condition.

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Inside the Cayambe refuge.

After cooking some food and organizing gear for the next day, we went to sleep early.

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The refuge’s kitchen.

Day 2: Awake around midnight, we began hiking in the dark at one o’clock a.m.  The sky was clear of clouds, and stars glowed brightly above us.  The standard route on Cayambe begins by following a ridge of dry rock located to the left of the refuge when facing the mountain.  This ridge leads up, around, and onto the glacier, bypassing the complicated icefall of the lower mountain.

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Descending back along the rock ridge used to reach the glacier.

From the top of the ridge the glacier was level with the rock and easily accessed.  Once we reached the lower glacier we began to navigate upwards, crossing several crevasses and avoiding others, towards a rocky outcrop called Picos Jarrin.  The lowest portion of the glacier was covered in debris, and was riddled with shallow half-meter deep cracks.

Our route past the rocky ridge, climbing to the left of Picos Jarrin to avoid crevasses.

Our route above the ridge, climbing to the left of Picos Jarrin to avoid crevasses.

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The glacier near the ridge was covered in rock debris and shallow crevasses.

Above Picos Jarrin a series of snow ramps wound past vertical ice cliffs towards the summit, keeping to the climber’s right of a large, prominent rock cliff.

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Looking up Cayambe during our descent in daylight.  The prominent rock cliff in the top left corner serves as a useful  landmark, as the route ascends just to the climber’s right of it.

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The rock cliff off route.

The climbing was physical and sustained, but enjoyable under a clear sky and on perfect snow.  Aside from two short traverses the ramps on the upper glacier were roughly 40 degrees at minimum. At its steepest the route sharpened to around 60 degrees for a few stretches of 10-15 meters, requiring front pointing and careful ax placement.  Because of the snow conditions we did not place any pickets for fall protection, although the final ramps to the summit were not without objective hazard due to the enormous ice walls hanging above them.

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Huge ice walls loomed above the upper route.

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One of two level traverses below the ice cliffs.

As we approached the top the sun began to rise.  Our timing had been perfect, and we gained the summit at exactly six o’clock a.m., five hours after leaving the refuge.  Cayambe’s summit is a large flat dome and was exposed, windy, and bitterly cold.  In the distant east an enormous thunderstorm flashed with lightning, the sun rising behind it painting the sky to create a surreal, awe-inspiring view.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Thunderclouds to the east.

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Standing on the summit of Cayambe.

Antisana, Ecuador’s fourth highest, rose above the clouds and glowed purple in the rising sun.

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Antisana, from the summit of Cayambe at sunrise.

As the sun rose above the thunderclouds the colors shifted from shades of purple, to orange, to a familiar yellow glow.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

As the sun finally broke above the clouds, soft pastel colors glowed throughout the cloud ocean stretching below us.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

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Sunrise on the summit of Cayambe.

After almost forty minutes on the summit, we began to descend.  We were lucky to enjoy perfect, firm snow, allowing us to move quickly and without difficulty.  On the way down we encountered a team of two other climbers who were still heading up.

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Looking down Cayambe.  As we descended another team was climbing upwards.

The below image depicts the crux of the route, the top section below the summit, as seen during our descent in daylight. When the photograph is enlarged the other climbing team can be seen ascending, giving a sense of scale to the terrain.

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Looking back up the route. Several massive ice walls stand above the steep ramps which lead to the summit. The other climbing team is still ascending, giving scale to the terrain when the image is enlarged.

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Looking down the glacier.

The temperature rapidly warmed up as we descended, and we stopped several times to shed layers.

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Looking across the lower glacier.

Finally we reached the base of the glacier, where we regained the rock ridge which we had hiked in the dark.  In daylight the lower glacier was particularly impressive, with layers of volcanic ash visible where the glacier had cleaved.

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The snout of the glacier, layers of ash visible in the ice.

A level area near a small lake on the top of the ridge would have made an excellent location for camping.

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A small lake on top of the ridge.

After an easy descent we reached the refuge at around nine o’clock, where we had a quick snack before packing up our equipment and driving back to Machachi.  Our plan for the next day involved driving to Cotopaxi National Park where we would begin an attempt on Cotopaxi at around midnight, so we were both eager to get some rest!

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Cayambe under a color changing sky.

Cayambe was an interesting and rewarding climb.  The terrain higher up the glacier felt steeper, physically more rigorous, and much more sustained than that of Cotopaxi a few days later.  The sunrise on the summit was a rare, unforgettably beautiful event.  Cayambe’s glacier is known for its activity and the numerous crevasses on route.  Navigating the lower glacier in the dark with my climbing partner and mountain guide Pato was good practice and a great experience.  If I were to return to Ecuador, I would absolutely make a point of revisiting Cayambe.

Accessibility

Cayambe is fairly accessible, although slightly less so than Ecuador’s more popular mountains. The town of Cayambe is only an hour’s drive from Quito, but the mountain refuge must be accessed via a rough road requiring the use of a 4×4 truck. Climbing Cayambe involves moderate glacier travel, and thus some prior experience with cramponing and ice ax self-arrest.

While in Ecuador I stayed in the city of Machachi between climbs, which provided me convenient access to Corazon, Cotopaxi, and the Illinizas.  Machachi is not really an ideal spot for access to Cayambe, as it is further south and adds an hour to the drive over Quito, but since we planned to climb Cotopaxi after Cayambe, storing extra luggage and food in Machachi made logistical sense. The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food – well worth the extra hour’s drive.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but very windy. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had snuck onto the mountain, but this is discouraged, and the national parks enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.

Illiniza Sur – January 2014

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, as seen from near the summit of Corazon.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, as seen from near the summit of Corazon.

5263m Illiniza Sur is Ecuador’s 6th highest peak, and considered one of its more technically challenging.  Illiniza Sur is so named as the southern of the two Illinizas, a pair of volcanic mountains located in the Reserva ecologica Los Ilinizas national park south-west of Quito near the city of Machachi. Unlike its northern counterpart Illiniza Norte which can be climbed via a ridge scramble, Illiniza Sur is glaciated and a technical, if relatively straightforward, climb.  For its steep and direct route Illiniza Sur was one of my two main climbing goals in Ecuador, the other being 6310m Chimborazo.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

Illiniza Sur, left, and Illiniza Norte, right, from the summit of Cotopaxi at sunrise.

I climbed Illiniza Sur on my 5th day in Ecuador after spending several days acclimatizing.  I had hiked 4791m Corazon two days prior, climbed 5126m Illiniza Norte the day before, and had spent two nights sleeping in the Illiniza mountain refuge at ~4700m before my climb.   I was fairly well acclimatized by the start of the climb, but having arrived in Ecuador from near sea level was still feeling the weight of altitude. My acclimatization and climbing itinerary can be seen here.

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The Illiniza refuge.

My climb began from the Illiniza refuge, a mountain hut located at 4700m near the saddle between Illiniza Norte and Illiniza Sur.  The refuge is reached via a straightforward and moderately sloped hike, and its presence makes accessing the Illinizas incredibly convenient.  The hut is managed by a permanent guardian who watches climber’s gear, provides hot water, and prepares hot food for a moderate fee.  Staying in the hut for three days and two nights cost my guide and I around $70 USD, including food.  The hut’s altitude and accessibility contribute to the popularity of the Illinizas as preparatory acclimatization climbs for Ecuador’s higher mountains.

My Ecuadorian climbing partner and mountain guide Pato and I left the hut and began hiking across the saddle at 4:00 a.m, each carrying two snow pickets and a pair of ice axes in addition to our light summit packs.  We were the only two climbers on the Illinizas this day.  The weather was wet and cold, lightly raining and windy.  Roughly 40 minutes after leaving the cabin, we reached the base of the steep rock gulley used to access the glacier and the normal climbing route.  The hike to the gully was cairned, and relatively worn from use, but high humidity made visibility low.  The gully itself was steep, iced over in areas, and slippery wet from the humidity.  The hike to the bottom of the gully and the gully itself represent the only real route finding on Illiniza Sur’s normal route, as the remaining climbing directly follows the line of the glacier.  As we reached the top of the gully the rain stopped, and the clouds slowly began to thin.

Past the gully we gained the glacier and the route upwards.  The normal route follows a direct series of snow ramps, the lowest of which we immediately began climbing.  The snow was in superb condition; not in the slightest bit icy, but firm, crisp, and supportive.  The lower quarter of the glacier was moderately sloped, but quickly became steep as we ascended.  As we climbed the cloud cover began to clear in patches, giving us a better look at the route ahead and the terrain around us.

After some twenty minutes of cramponing the snow became steep enough to place our first picket.  I climbed the next three pitches on Pato’s belay, a series of ramps taking us across a pair of well covered and easily avoided crevasses.  The snow quality made climbing feel secure on the steep ramps, which were never less than 45 degrees and around 65 degrees at their sharpest.  An unprotected fall higher up on Illiniza Sur would be a frightening prospect, with no terrain features to prevent a slide all the way to the glacier’s base.  Despite trying to pace carefully, the altitude and steep grade combined made the climbing feel very tiring.

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Looking down the steep ramps.

With the angle tapering off slightly near the top, Pato and I simultaneously climbed the final two pitches to the summit. Curving left around a rock outcropping, we continued to rely on snow pickets for fall protection.  We reached the summit at 6:30 a.m., two and a half hours after leaving the refuge.

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Looking back up the final, less sharply angled pitches near the summit.

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The summit of Illiniza Sur.

Happy to be at the top, we took a break to rest and rehydrate.  As the sun rose behind us, a beautiful ‘Buddha’s Halo’ rainbow circled our shadows in the clouds.

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Buddha’s Halo in the clouds.

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Pato on the summit of Illiniza Sur.

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On the summit of Illiniza Sur.

After a good fifteen minute break, and no sign of the clouds clearing to give us any real views, we began to descend.  With such fantastic snow conditions we didn’t need to face into the mountain and downclimb, allowing us to make good time.

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Crossing the second crevasse.  The two crevasses on route were well filled in with snow.

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Looking across the glacier.

My climbing partner and mountain guide Pato.

My climbing partner and mountain guide Pato.

As clouds blew past us, Illiniza Norte occasionally appeared across the saddle.

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Illiniza Norte across the saddle.

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Occasional views through the clouds.

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The first, and largest, of the crevasses on the glacier.

When we reached the rock gully I rappelled down off of an old piece of thick webbing tied around a boulder, avoiding the slippery rock.  Aside from this the descent was fast and clean on such firm snow, with no need to rappel even the steepest of the pitches on the glacier.  The hike across the saddle went quickly, and we made it back to the refuge at 8:00 a.m. We quickly ate a hot breakfast in the cabin before packing up our equipment and hiking down the trail to the parking lot.

While a short climb, Illiniza Sur felt challenging and rewarding, with steep snow at altitude posing a good physical test.  The climb was very easy to access due to the mountain cabin, and my three days spent on the Illinizas served as superb acclimatization preparation for climbing more of Ecuador’s higher altitude volcanos.

Accessibility

Illiniza Sur is very accessible, but does involve steep glacier travel requiring prior experience with technical equipment and technique.  A more thorough explanation of the route, with diagrams, can be found on Summitpost: http://www.summitpost.org/illiniza-sur-iliniza-sur/151054.

The Reserva ecologica Los Ilinizas park is within reasonable driving range from Quito, and the mountain cabin makes overnighting comfortable and simple.  Like many climbers choose to do, I stayed in Machachi between climbs, providing me convenient access to Corazon and Cotopaxi in addition to the Illinizas.  The hostel I used in Machachi, the Puerta al Corazon, was comfortable, well managed, very clean, and had great food.  They can be contacted by email at info@puertaalcorazon.com

Ecuador’s high mountains can be climbed year round, but weather is often inclement with high winds and heavy precipitation. December, January, and February are considered the most stable months for climbing due to lower winds and relatively lower chances of rain and snow. The Ecuadorian climbers I met told me that June, July, and August are also popular climbing months, drier but very windy. During my trip fog and rain were common in the afternoons, while morning and night weather was typically clear but windy.

Since late 2012 the Ecuadorian government has mandated that all climbers use the services of a local mountain guide.  This policy was put into place in response to a fatal accident on Illiniza Sur.  While in Ecuador I met one unguided group who had snuck onto the mountain, but this is discouraged, and the national parks enforce the policy by refusing entry to unguided climbers.  I hired a 1:1 mountain guide and climbed with him throughout my trip.  We accessed all of the national parks via a 4×4 truck, which my guide drove and owned.  While organizing the logistics and guide for my trip I used the services of Diego Cumbajin Parra, the owner of www.andesclimbing.com, and I would strongly recommend him for his excellent communication, attention to detail, personal presence, and reasonable pricing.  My guide Pato was strong, very familiar with all of Ecuador’s mountains, and completely focused on climbing.